I don’t have much luck with mountains – millennia-old peaks have been known to sprout legs and mysteriously disappear in a swirl of smoke the second my camera and I are in the vicinity. Imagine my surprise, then, when I glance out the window from my Club World seat – direct BA flights to Tokyo and now Osaka, since you’re asking – and spy magnificent Mt. Fuji peeking back at me. At that very second, I knew this was a most auspicious omen for my time in The Land of the Rising Sun.
Japan. Mysterious, enigmatic and fabled. The only country in the world with a rail system so efficient that a train leaving 30 seconds early would prompt apologies featured on the national news. Time-honoured traditions really are put side-by-side with thrusting modern technology.
So, let’s start by dispelling some myths. In major cities and key destinations, English is widely spoken and all the signage is translated. With a public transport system second-to-none, it is also incredibly easy to navigate your way around, with achingly polite locals invariably all-too-happy to help.
The food is not all raw fish and rice; the Japanese have a wide and varied cuisine. Case in point, Miso – a kind of broth used extensively – does contain fish, but there are vegetarian options available. And, busting another myth, you are not showing your appreciation to the chef by slurping your ramen noodles. There simply is no delicate way to eat them! Don't forget, Japan produces some of the world’s finest beef – wagyu.
But what legends ring true? I’m happy to report an enthusiastic love of karaoke, with even my total annihilation of the Dolly Parton classic “Jolene” enthusiastically received. Hello Kitty? Pokémon? and cat cafés? Yes, yes and yes again – the youth of Japan are nothing if not quirky. There’s a particular love of all things anime and if cats aren’t your bag, you can enjoy your matcha green tea with goats, rabbits, owls and even hedgehogs!
I also have to mention the toilets. Impossibly high tech, they’ll play music and birdsong while heating your seat. They’ll even spritz, spray and blow-dry until you’re squeaky clean. It’s worth a visit to Japan just to use the loo!
So, without further ado, here's my report back from our Highlights of Japan itinerary, taking in city-great Tokyo, the ancient wonders of Kyoto and the national-park heritage of Hakone.Highlights of Japan itinerary
Most people, myself included, will start in Tokyo. The capital is a juxtaposition of the ultramodern and the traditional, offering unlimited shopping and entertainment alongside excellent museums, beautiful gardens and historic temples. On our tailor-made itineraries, we always recommend starting with the services of a private guide, who’ll create a tour designed to your exact interests.
There is so much to see and do. I particularly loved the Imperial Palace – the seat of the government and parliament. Much of its 17th-century gardens are open to the public, surrounded by walls and moats. Then, the Tokyo Skytree offers panoramic views of the city, river and Mt. Fuji. It is, after all, the tallest structure in Japan and was once the second-tallest in the world, when it was completed back in 2012.
If you have the opportunity, do pay a visit to Shibuya Crossing, the busiest pedestrian crossing in the world. Sit in a café and be amazed as 2,500 pedestrians cross at any one time. You may even see a party of real-life Mario Karts go by. It's a cult pastime to dress-up as your favourite character and take to the streets – only in Tokyo!
Under three hours by bullet train from Tokyo, but seemingly a whole world apart, is Kyoto – the original capital of Japan. In case you were wondering, it’s just a strange co-incidence that the two cities are anagrams of each other. Known for its Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines and bamboo forests, Kyoto is also home to the enigmatic geisha, and I was lucky enough to enjoy a private audience with a maiko – a trainee. This unique experience is a definite client favourite, and I had many questions for my faultless host.
Firstly, just how does she manage to remain so elegant as she shuffles on ridiculously uncomfortable wooden clogs, all the while performing a series of hauntingly beautiful dance and songs? I am mesmerised. I don’t have a daughter, I have sons, but what could persuade a young lady to embrace this way of life? Has she got a mobile phone? Is she in touch with her parents and school friends?
She speaks a little English, and with the help of her interpreter, I learn that she’s from a remote mountain village and has chosen to be a geisha; it’s well-respected and well-paid She does have a mobile phone, but is not on social media, and writes to her friends and parents every month. Tilting her deep, brown eyes directly at me and smiling enigmatically, she tells me that she’s happy, and I believe she is.
After spying Mt. Fuji from the air, it was time to get up-close with a trip to Hakone – a national-park sprawl of cute hamlets and shrine-dotted lakes that’s just a short train hop from Tokyo. Although the famously shy “Fuji-san” was in hiding when I arrived, there’s much more than Japan’s tallest mountain here. Hakone is famed for its geothermal onsen, and a trip on its ropeway cable car had me admiring spectacular views across both hot springs and the stunning Lake Ashi – the perfect backdrop to my traditional lunch of oh-so-slurp-able noodles.
Then, as I rounded the corner, there she is, just how I remember her from the plane. Snow-capped and perfect, Mt. Fuji has come out to play. Standing at 3,776m above sea level, she actually comprises of four mountains and, although technically dormant since 1707, geologists still like to classify her as active. A Unesco World Heritage Site, Mt. Fuji is also a sacred symbol in Japan. Surrounded by many temples and shrines, climbing her has long been a religious practice for thousands of pilgrims. I feel blessed to have seen her again.
So, with the Rugby World Cup just about to start and Japan hosting the Summer Olympics in 2020, there has never been a better excuse to visit this amazing country. Take a look at our itineraries, or get in contact today to start planning your trip.