We’ve all known for awhile now that Japan is a hot destination. We’ve sent many clients to experience the culture, food and hotels but had yet to visit. Therefore, TravelStruck decided to take the trip and see for ourselves!
We learned Japan is so popular right now because it’s extremely safe and boasts many interesting cities and destinations, despite being an expensive destination. Cherry blossom and fall foliage times are the most popular, as is New Years Eve and of course summer time. Special events such as the Olympics 2020 and Rugby World Cup 2019 also make this an exciting time for Japan.
We commenced our trip in Tokyo and of course were eager to see some of the famous hotels. We stayed at the Andaz, which is a very cool and modern hotel with a great rooftop bar. We stopped by the Peninsula, Mandarin Oriental, and Shangri La with a special visit to the Aman. We were taken aback by the ultra chic, open air lobby with a sexy bar overlooking the city. We also stayed at the Palace Hotel for a night and just adored it. It’s very traditional yet current, comfortable rooms, incredible service and the perfect location between the Imperial Palace and Ginza. We do think near Ginza is the best place to stay, and found the Park Hyatt to be too far out of the way.
In Tokyo we started with a private day tour. Our guide showed us the major sites, explained local customs and helped us navigate the trains and the massive stations. It was incredibly helpful to learn about Shinto and Buddhist religions, their differences and similarities. We also took a tour of the fish market, although since the inner market (where most of the business transactions happen) moved away from the outer marker (where most tourists try to guess which fish is which) a tour didn’t feel completely necessary. We loved wandering Ginza and the Mitsukoshi food market, as well as the Shinjuku area. The Golden Gai was full of small, smoky bars crowded with tourists so we weren’t as taken with this area.
Next up, we were off to Hakone. Since we just had carry ons, we took our bags with us on the three trains. If we had larger bags or children with us, it would have been better to forward our luggage and take a smaller overnight bag to Hakone. Additionally, if taking three trains is too much, a car can easily be arranged, though more expensive.
Arriving into the small town of Gora we arrived to our Ryokan – Gora Kadan. Our room wasn’t quite ready so we did the Hakone track, which consisted of gondolas, a boat, a walk and a bus. This was extremely crowded with tourists so we only made it about hallway through when we hailed a taxi to take us back to our relaxing, peaceful environment. We enjoyed a lovely lunch at Nobu’s Brewery before heading to soak in our hot spring onsen at Gora Kadan. Our gracious host served us dinner in our room, which we of course enjoyed wearing our kimonos and toe socks, before trying our hand at karaoke, where our singing didn’t necessarily draw the crowds. In hindsight, we wish we had booked spa appointments in advance so we could have just enjoyed the Ryokan and skipped the tourist experience.
One night is definitely enough in Hakone, so the next morning we were up and ready for our three trains to Kyoto. Upon arrival, we took a cab to the Four Seasons and were immediately in love with this property. The team is incredibly kind and helpful, the lobby area is sophisticated and welcoming, and our room was comfortable (those beds!). We took a quick tour of the gardens and coy pond before wandering over to the Nishiki Maret. Here we tried different street foods while wandering the shops for some souvenirs. We wandered through quaint, highly Instagramed streets back towards our hotel.
We thoroughly enjoyed a more relaxed pace in Kyoto, and had the best tour of our trip – a Geisha nighttime walk. We learned more about the history and culture of fascinating Geishas, and how they entertain in today’s world. We even spotted a few as they headed out for their evening! We meandered around the tiny alleyways of Gion, marveling at the teahouses, small restaurants and charming shops.
We also enjoyed dinner with our wonderful partner at Windows to Japan. He took us to a local establishment for dinner where we learned more about how to navigate Japan’s countryside and culture. We loved hearing about other areas such as Nara, Kanazawa, Kobe and Niskeo. We discussed the different accommodation options in Kyoto and had to make a stop at the Ritz by the river. We adored the sense of place this hotel embodies, with touches of local artists weaved into the décor.
Of course, we were particularly excited about dining experiences during our trip. We confirmed that you do indeed need to have reservations in advance for any of the “good” restaurants. Our teppanyaki and tempura dinners were the highlight – the culinary scene itself is enough reason to extend any stay in Japan.
While we knew this was a “scratch the surface” trip, we were sad when it was our time to get back on the plane. There is so much to experience in this magical country – from baseball games to nights in a temple – that we left wanting more. Until next time! Sayonara!