Head for Japan in blossom time
IN THE words of a poet (actually, it was the 1980s band The Vapors) I think I’m turning Japanese. Then again the whole world will be turning Japanese as the country hosts the Rugby World Cup next year before the 2020 Olympics lands in Tokyo.
My love affair with the Land of the Rising Sun began nearly 30 years ago. I was lucky enough to travel to Tokyo as a 19-year-old model, and I even lived there a few times in my 20s but I hadn’t been back since. And so when my fiancé George said how much he’d love to visit Japan, I jumped at the chance to go back. I was intrigued to find out how much it had changed over the years.
From the moment we arrived at the capital’s Narita airport, it was immediately obvious just how different things were. There are now signs in English and the arrivals process is easier to navigate. On a previous visit, I was met by a chaperone and whisked away by coach on a two-hour journey to the centre of Tokyo. Now there is a direct train that takes less than an hour.
Buying a Japan Rail pass is a great idea, especially if you plan to move around the country and take lots of shinkansen – the famous bullet trains.
After a short walk from Tokyo Station in Otemachi, we noticed a tall building wrapped in a chic iron cladding and realised with delight that this was our hotel – the Hoshinoya Tokyo. As it was a Sunday, the area was quiet – nothing like the usual fast-paced bustle.
As soon as the 300-year-old cypress wooden doors opened to the ryokan (a traditional Japanese inn), there was a wonderful aroma of incense that blended with the natural scent of the interiors – bamboo, chestnut, cedar and cypress.
With our shoes off and stored in the boxes that line the walls like an art installation, the warm feel of the tatami mats underfoot was nothing short of blissful.
A delicious cup of matcha was served while we checked in, and as we were about to head to our room, a woman sprayed me down with anti-static. She had noticed (oh, the shame!) that my trousers were clinging to my thighs after the long flight. How’s that for customer service?
After we stepped out of the lift and walked along the hotel’s elegant corridors, sliding doors opened to reveal a ryokan within a ryokan – our spacious yet understated room. Sunlight streamed through the windows to reveal futons and tatami mats. This was my idea of heaven.
Having got settled, we popped out for a walk around the Imperial Palace and down to Ginza, a cool shopping area where we stumbled upon the most delectable sushi restaurant.
After feasting on the freshest fish, we walked back to the hotel and succumbed to our jet-lag at five in the afternoon. We woke up six hours later, ready for our next taste of Japanese cuisine.
Dressed in the comfortable, modern-day kimonos provided by the hotel, we went to explore the Ochanoma lounge – a large communal area on each floor of the hotel. It felt like having our own living room. Beautifully decorated and with soft, subtle lighting, it was quiet at that time of the night.
We snacked on noodles and radish rice crackers, as well as bite-sized ice creams from the fully stocked freezer.
The next morning, with our spa treatments booked, I was eager to see the onsen – the natural hot springs that, while common throughout Japan, are a rare find in a city centre hotel.
Still dressed in our kimonos – maybe we’d overpacked? – we set off. Men and women bathe separately in the onsen, which had an open roof, so you could watch the clouds sail by. This was followed by a shiatsu massage, by the end of which I was completely relaxed.
Our Hoshinoya experience was unforgettable. We also did a sake tasting, took part in a tea ceremony, enjoyed an eight-course tasting menu, and even tried our hand at the martial art of kendo.
Leaving Tokyo, we headed to Takayama in the Gifu prefecture – a long train ride to the centre of the country. The mountains were bursting with vibrant shades of red, orange, and purple. Bright blue skies and sunshine, stunning cloud formations, and maple trees exploding into autumn’s fiery shades made it a magical journey through the countryside.
We walked from the station to our hotel, where that night we had tempura and beef with vegetables.
Takayama is like a little Kyoto without the millions of tourists, and its perfectly preserved buildings date back to the Edo period.
It is the home of hida beef, and there are some fabulous spots to sample this dish.
We walked around and shopped, buying miso paste and matcha green tea and sipping yuzu sake – a Takayama speciality.
A visit to the Museum of History
A MAGICAL MIXTURE OF BLUE SKIES AND TREES IN FIERY SHADES