Travelogue: Experiencing Japan, from Tokyo to Kyoto
Rachel Barbour shares the highlights of her holiday in Japan, from the tastes of Tokyo to taking tea in Kyoto.
The famous pedestrian crossing outside Shibuya Station, reputedly the world’s busiest, should be a scene of chaos – but when the little man turns green, thousands of people pass each other seamlessly. That orderliness is across the board in Japan, from the squeaky clean streets to the minute-perfect railway system. Everything runs like a casio clock.
Of course, that’s only one boon awaiting visitors to the Land of the Rising Sun. Fabulous food, futuristic cities and ancient traditions make for a combination as tempting as sashimi, soy sauce and wasabi. Here are just some of my personal highlights from my visit to this country of contrasts.
Touring Tokyo’s street food scene
Tokyo has the highest number of Michelin-starred restaurants in the world – by a country mile. But you’ll miss out if you only sample gourmet fare. The street food here is as diverse as it is delicious, and a tour around the kerb-side eateries gives a real insight into Japanese culinary culture.
During my own guided tour, we flitted between four tucked-away venues with eclectic offerings. Our first port of call was a tiny restaurant off a main street, serving up yummy yakitori. This dish of skewered meat, fish or vegetables is essentially a Japanese version of shishkabob, prepared on a grill in front of you and seasoned with salt, soy sauce and spices. At the next spot, we washed down sashimi with a range of sakés around ryokan-style tables on the floor. If there was any doubt about the freshness of the fish being served, it was dispelled at the sight of one still moving on the plate (perhaps not for the squeamish). Our penultimate stop was a concealed street with at least 10 food stations, offering everything from yakisoba (noodle stir-fry) to okonomiyaki (stuffed, savoury pancakes). This whirlwind taste tour was rounded off with a visit to a local ice cream parlour, where we could sample unusual Japanese flavours including matcha, seaweed and wasabi.
The quality of a guide can make or break a tour, which is why we were pleased to have an A&K-approved expert at the helm. She was amazing, offering insightful comments on the history and popularity of certain foods, as well as ensuring we sampled the local tipples along the way.
Discovering Kyoto by bike
17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites compete for your attention in Kyoto. Whilst Tokyo is renowned for its modernity, Japan’s former capital is a bastion of tradition, wearing its feudal-era heritage on its kimono sleeve.
Without a doubt the best way to take in the city’s picture-postcard sights is by bike. Cycle tours here can be tailored to suit your interests, with flexible routes and stops. The first stop on our cycle tour was Miyagawa-cho, a famous geisha district. Our guide’s local knowledge proved invaluable from the start; down a traditional cobblestone street, off the main tourist path, we were treated to the view of three maiko (apprentice geisha) walking delicately to school.
We spent most of our time cycling along side-roads and around gardens and parks, even winding our way through the grounds of the Imperial Palace. Afterwards, we were permitted to borrow the bikes for the remainder of the afternoon to explore the city by ourselves. If you want to experience Kyoto like a local, a cycle tour is a must.
Learning the Way of Tea
The Japanese tea ceremony (or chanoyu) is about as far away from the British teabag and kettle ritual as you can get. This is tea preparation as an art, and a tradition proudly preserved in Kyoto. The city even has schools dedicated to teaching the ancient Way of Tea.
In a beautiful, tranquil garden – an oasis from the bustle of the city – I joined a Japanese tea ceremony to see the spectacle for myself. My guide was on hand to help translate, as the host explained each part of the carefully choreographed process in Japanese. Whilst knelt on traditional bamboo mats, you’re taught how to correctly prepare matcha (powdered green tea), the way to drink it from a traditional chawan (tea bowl), and then wash the tools – all by the glow of candlelight. Afterwards, it’s your chance to put your newfound knowledge to the test, as you prepare your own matcha tea with a little help from your host.
Enjoying Japan’s luxury hotels
There’s accommodation to suit every traveller in Japan, from the utilitarian to the lavish; the traditional to the futuristic.
For an authentic, unplugged stay, you won’t find better than a ryokan. These traditional inns are typified by sliding doors, tatami flooring, futon beds and Japanese baths. Situated in the beautiful Hakone National Park, Gora Kadan is one of the best luxury ryokan around. I especially recommend the suites on the first floor, featuring huge outdoor balconies with private onsen. It’s a tranquil place to unwind after exploring Tokyo, and situated just 90 kilometres outside of the capital.
For somewhere tranquil in the city itself, I recommend Aman Tokyo. Despite its position in the heart of the financial district, I found it peaceful, with an air of exclusivity. The lead-in rooms are vast, and the floor-to-ceiling windows let natural light pour in. At this height, the views over the city and Mount Fuji beyond are stunning.
My favourite property here, however, is the Ritz-Carlton Kyoto. This luxurious hotel looks over the Kamogawa river, out to the dramatic mountain peaks on the horizon. You can make the most of the impressive view by choosing a suite with a private balcony, while the garden suites feature traditional Japanese gardens certain to instil a sense of zen during your stay.
Ritz-Carlton's fourth Japanese hotel has just opened in the cultural city of Kyoto, overlooking the Kamogawa River with views that extend to the Higashiyama Sanju-Roppo - the famous 36 mountain range
The sublime Gora Kadan is situated in the striking Hakone National Park
Aman Tokyo – the first city property from the luxury resort company Aman – is a tranquil urban escape occupying the top six floors of the 40-storey Otemachi Tower