First time in Japan
It’s sometimes bonkers, but always brilliant. Book a bullet-train pass and follow Michael Booth‘s timetable for adventure
Here’s a hypothetical holiday challenge: you can visit only one country for the rest of your life. Might I suggest Japan? It has the best food on the planet. (Ask Michelin.) It has beaches and sun, mountains and snow — but for our purposes, we’ll be sticking largely to its cities, the most compelling in the world. It’s clean, what crime there is will never bother you, and the trains run to the second.
After the excitement of Rio, attention will soon turn to Tokyo and the 2020 Olympics. You should go before the hype hits, and autumn is one of the best seasons to visit. The temperature is perfect, the maple trees are turning from green to “firework display”, and the Japanese have all returned to work.
Some things to remember: always carry some cash (taxis, and quite a few restaurants, still don’t accept plastic, so you soon learn to seek the 7-Elevens, which have foreigner-friendly ATMs). There are few litter bins, yet there’s no litter. And there is no tipping, ever.
The Japanese archipelago is almost 2,000 miles from tip to toe. We’re sticking to the main island, Honshu, but even so, if we’re going to see as much as possible in two weeks, we’re going to have to cover some ground. Thank goodness for those trains. Before you go, order a Japan Rail Pass for seven days’ unlimited travel by train throughout the country (£211; japanrailpass.com).
■ Days 1-4 Tokyo
From the airport, the Narita Express (£23) gets you to Tokyo station in less than an hour; or, for the same price, you can catch a Limousine Bus direct to most of the better hotels, including the fairly priced Asakusa View, near Sensoji (doubles from £147; viewhotels.co.jp).
With their self-opening rear doors, white-gloved drivers and lacy seat covers, Tokyo’s taxis are the four-wheeled embodiment of omotenashi, the Japanese philosophy of good service (and they are usually cheaper than the metro if there are three or four of you). Hail one to Shibuya, the busiest pedestrian crossing in the world, where you can dive straight into the most disorientating yet dazzling urban experience on the planet. Allow yourself some time just to stand and gape at the rivers of humanity.
Build up an appetite exploring this youth-orientated shopping and dining district, allowing at least an hour for the “everything under one roof” department store Tokyu Hands (tokyu-hands.co.jp). For dinner, Shomben Yokocho, in nearby Shinjuku — also known, affectionately, as Piss Alley — is a narrow, smoky corridor of six-seat izakayas (bars that serve food) and joints serving yakitori (mini grilled skewers of everything and anything, including pig rectum). By the time you’ve finished, Shinjuku should be ready to unfurl in all its big-screen, liquid-crystal glory. Feel free to invoke Blade Runner.
Your second day should start early at Tsukiji fish market, the greatest foodie destination on earth. It’s meant to be closing down soon, to be replaced by a market on Toyosu Island, in Tokyo Bay. Don’t bother with the 3am tuna auction — it’s just men in wellies shouting at frozen fish. There’s still plenty of action between 8am and 9am, both at the inner fish market and the equally fascinating outer food market. And don’t bother with the sushi places here, either. They’re nothing exceptional, and the queues of tourists are intolerable.
Instead, the venerable Bentenyama Miyako, in Asakusa, is where Jiro Ono, the 90-year-old star of the documentary film Jiro Dreams of Sushi, goes on his day off. Its whippersnapper 73-year-old chef, Tadashi Uchida, serves authentic Edomae sushi with robustly vinegared rice and rich umami flavours from expertly aged fish (meals from £42; bentenyama-miyakosushi.com).
For the afternoon, linger around the city’s most festive temple, Sensoji, or climb the nearby Tokyo Skytree, at 2,080ft the tallest tower in the world. It has a great shopping mall selling Japanese brands and crafts (tokyo-skytree.jp/en).
For day three, the Nezu Museum of Japanese pre-modern art is a Zen haven in the chic Aoyama shopping district (£10; nezumuse.or.jp). On the street corner opposite is a homely tempura place, Miyagawa Tempura, perfect for lunch (from £20).
Spend the afternoon ambling amid the high-fashion temples of Aoyama, down the Champs-Elysées of Japan, Omotesando, and on to Harajuku, playground of the gothic Lolitas and birthplace of all those weird cultural phenomena seen on Buzzfeed. Finish the day in the nightlife district of Akasaka. Take your pick from restaurants serving just about every Japanese dining style.
For your fourth day, head to Ueno Park. It’s packed with perambulators and performers on Sundays, but there’s world-class art there every day: at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum (free; tobikan.jp/en) and the National Museum of Western Art, housed in a building by Le Corbusier (£3.20; nmwa.go.jp/en). The park is also a prime cherry-blossom destination in spring.
Beneath the Ueno train tracks is Ameyoko Market, where American servicemen would head during leave from the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam. These days, it’s packed with low-cost clothing vendors, dried-seaweed stalls, standing sushi bars and ramen joints.
In the evening, the Robot Restaurant, in Kabukicho, awaits. Words cannot convey the hilarious kaleidoscopic assault of this singularly Japanese cabaret, in which bikini-clad girls dance and giant robots battle animatronic dinosaurs, until a full-size neon tank arrives (£60; shinjuku-robot.com).
■ Days 5-8 Kyoto
You could spend two weeks in Tokyo and still leave wanting more, but you must, at some point, make tracks for Kyoto, the former capital and still the focus of the country’s traditional arts and cultural life. So, activate your Japan Rail Pass at the Tokyo station ticket office and board the Shinkansen — the bullet train — for the 3½-hour ride west, making sure to reserve a “Fuji-side” window seat, at no extra cost, for a glimpse of the perfect volcanic cone. Grab an ekiben for the ride, a jewel box-like takeaway lunch (about £8 from one of the many stores in the station).
Keep things traditional by staying at a converted machiya, or historic trading house. Nishin Isa-cho is a flat on the first floor of a still-functioning textile workshop (from £166pp a night; kyoto-machiya.com).
The number of holy sights to see in Kyoto can be bewildering. I’d tackle the Kinkaku-ji Temple first, with its oft-selfied Golden Pavilion (£3.70). Ryoanji’s serene rock garden (£3.70) and the epic Fushimi-Inari-Taisha shrine are next on the list. The beautifully preserved — albeit touristy — district of Higashiyama, at the foot of the mountains to the east of the city centre, has yet more shrines. Wander here in the evening, when the crowds have gone, to really feel the atmosphere of feudal Japan.
Kyoto’s cuisine is most often associated with the rarefied world of kaiseki — seasonal, multi-course meals served in a traditional tatami-mat room, usually with a view of a Japanese garden. Kikunoi, overseen by Yoshihiro Murata, a legend in Japanese cooking, is one of the most famous kaiseki restaurants and, unlike some, very welcoming to foreigners. It’s expensive even for Japan, but worth it (from £114; kikunoi.jp).
Assuming your shrine-seeing has been sated, spend another day strolling through the gardens of the Imperial Palace and continue into the city-centre shopping district, ending at Nishiki Market to peruse the unique and often peculiar produce and foods of Kyoto — the dried scallops are a bit of a challenge. Take lunch at Shoraian, an exquisite traditional restaurant in Arashiyama serving tofu, a Kyoto delicacy (from £29; shoraian.com).
In the afternoon, have a sip of old Kyoto at a tea ceremony in the geisha district, Gion (£15; teacermonyen.com). Loiter in Gion’s narrow streets and you’ll glimpse the kimono-clad hostesses. Then cross the Kamo River to dine in one of the many restaurants with open decks (yuka) overlooking the water. Shiki Yoshina serves a seasonal menu with distinctively Kyoto dishes such as sesame tofu (set menus from £40; yoshina.net).
■ Day 9 Osaka
We leave all notions of refinement and serenity behind us as we head for the irrepressible commercial frenzy of Osaka, 15 minutes away by Shinkansen. Stay at the Dojima hotel, a well-equipped, centrally located four-star (doubles from £165; dojima-hotel.com).
The Japanese visit their second largest city to eat and shop; mostly to eat, if they’re honest. Osakans have a word that encapsulates their own, special approach to food: kuidaore. It means “eating until you go bust”, in both senses.
The triumvirate of Osakan fast foods is okonomiyaki (a kind of thick, savoury pancake), takoyaki (bite-sized doughnuts with a chunk of octopus inside) and kushikatsu (breaded, deep-fried skewers of vegetables, seafood and meat) — all slathered or dipped in variations on a highly addictive brown sauce. You will find restaurants or stalls serving them all in and around Dotonbori, Osaka’s neon nightlife and dining zone.
While in Japan, try to see a live sumo bout. There are six tournaments each year, three in Tokyo — but if it’s March, you’re in luck, as they fight in Osaka (tickets from £35; buysumotickets.com).
■ Day 10 Himeji Castle
West of Osaka, 30-45 minutes by Shinkansen, is the most revered castle in Japan, the recently restored, 400-year-old Himeji, star of You Only Live Twice, Kurosawa’s Ran and, er, Shogun (£4; himejicastle.jp/en). This is an original, unlike most of the country’s castles, which are reconstructions. The queues here can be enormous, so avoid cherry-blossom season, Japanese holidays and, if you can, weekends. You can easily spend a day wandering among its cunningly spiralling whitewashed ramparts and grounds before returning to Osaka for the night.
■ Day 11 Hiroshima
Another day trip, west again, takes us to Hiroshima, 1½ hours from Osaka by Shinkansen. (Stash your suitcases in the left-luggage lockers at the station.) The Hiroshima Peace Park, commemorating the event of August 6, 1945, is, of course, an essential, sobering, experience. The A-bomb dome, a still-standing exhibition hall, is the iconic symbol of the devastation.
Just as well known in Japan is the waterbound torii gate of the Itsukushima Shrine, which rises from the sea off nearby Miyajima Island. It’s a 40-minute
train-and-ferry ride from Hiroshima station.
Catch the Shinkansen back, not to Osaka, but to Kobe, for two nights at the Hotel Okura (doubles from £150; kobe.hotelokura.co.jp).
■ Day 12 Kobe
Kobe was one of the first ports to trade with the world following the end of Japan’s “seclusion” period (1633-1866), and still has an international vibe. The Kitano district has numerous kitschy, curate’s-egg museums of European art and furniture housed in colonial buildings. Kobe is famed internationally for its beef, a special grade of the meat from a breed of cattle called Wagyu. Try it at Mouriya, a venerable teppanyaki chain (meals from £40; mouriya.co.jp).
■ Days 13-14 Tokyo
Back to Tokyo, with a final rapid ride — more than 300 miles in about three hours — on the Shinkansen. For your last nights in Japan, treat yourself to a stay at an onsen ryokan, a traditional-style hotel, which you roam around in sandals and yukata robes, dipping in and out of hot-spring baths. The city’s newest and most luxurious ryokan is the Hoshinoya (doubles from £530; hoshinoyatokyo.com).
For your final day, soak up the glitz of Ginza and Otemachi, Tokyo’s highest-rolling shopping and dining districts. The Tokyu Plaza Ginza shopping centre is the hottest new retail temple in the city (at least until the next one opens), with a range of mostly Japanese clothing, food and homeware stores. Great for last-minute souvenirs. Nice roof terrace, too.
I’ve finished my last few visits to Japan with a splurge at one of the Mandarin Oriental’s restaurants. Whether it’s Sushi Sora (£110) or Tapas Molecular Bar (£125), it will have jaw-dropping 38th-floor views of Tokyo’s scintillating nightscape (mandarinoriental.com).
■ Save for next time The best powder-snow skiing in the world in Nagano or Hokkaido; the subtropical islands of Okinawa, for beaches and diving; food, history and the opportunity to be buried in hot sand in Kyushu.
When to go: Spring or autumn, the former for cherry blossom, the latter for the balmy temperatures and lovely foliage.
Flights: The cheapest direct flights to Tokyo in November are with British Airways; from £647 return (ba.com). Turkish Airlines (turkishairlines.com) flies via Istanbul; from £513 return.