I noticed it on my first day in Tokyo while walking near the old fish market. No car horns. Relative tranquillity for a big city. A peacefulness which you don’t find in London, New York, Paris, Delhi or any number of urban sprawls around the world.
Before visiting the Japanese capital, I’d seen video clips of the famous Shibuya crossing, where, every day, thousands of workers slip past one another like tadpoles. I’d seen photos of the white-gloved oshiya men at Shinjuku, the world’s busiest railway station, pushing commuters onto their trains as if loose socks into a bursting suitcase. Tokyo, I’d assumed, was going to be hectic and demanding. I was going to have to battle to be understood, and understand, and spend my time mostly going the wrong way on the metro. But within 12 hours of landing there, I realised what nonsense this was. The city was life-restoring and it forced me – a stressed Londoner who’s always in a rush – to calm down.
I packed a good deal into my two days. Contrary to my fears about public transport, I zig-zagged easily across the city on its efficient train system. I went from Tokyo’s oldest temple (the seventh-century Senso-ji) to its tallest building, the chopstick-thin Tokyo Tree, and from there to the hushed gardens of the Imperial Palace (Japan’s Buckingham Palace, as it’s Emperor Akihito’s primary residence).
I walked along Harajuku, street of bubblegum-pink kitsch and owl cafes. I learned that most shops in Tokyo have special machines at their doors for when it rains. You slide your umbrella into the special machine and it comes back out coated with a thin plastic sheath to stop it dripping everywhere. Civilised, right? And there are umbrella vending machines dotted about Tokyo if you find you’ve forgotten your umbrella altogether. It was little details like this that made it easy to fall in love with the country.
As did the food. I ate at every given opportunity, as if a week in Japan wasn’t going to be long enough to try everything I wanted to. On my first day, I had toast and jam at my hotel for breakfast, fat chunks of salmon sashimi for a second breakfast at the fish market, tempura and miso soup for lunch shortly afterwards, and a bowl of ramen for good measure at teatime (please note that it’s polite to noisily slurp your ramen when eating the soupy noodles in Japan. It means you’re appreciative).
Japanese tea ceremony
If you’re heading there on holiday and, like me, dribbling at the thought of the food (Japan’s tourism has quadrupled in the past seven years, and many attribute that to the growing international obsession with its cuisine), I recommend reading a book by journalist Michael Booth before you land. Sushi and Beyond documents the three months Booth spent chomping his way across Japan with his two small sons and wife. Imagine a foodie Bill Bryson.
On my third day, stomach stretched, I boarded a 2.5-hour bullet train from Tokyo south-west to Osaka, which is where I really learned how seriously (and sedately) certain Japanese rituals are taken. Because it was here that I took part in a tea ceremony. You might think we take tea seriously in Britain. We fuss about milk and brand of teabag. We have our favourite mugs. But we’re amateurs when compared to the Japanese. Their ritual tea drinking started in the 12th century, when a Buddhist monk called Eisai brought matcha green tea to Japan from China. It has since developed into a ceremony held on special occasions which can take several hours and involves a dazzling number of rules.
I broke most of these during my ceremony, held in a private tea-house in Osaka, with my traveling companion, Holly, and I both dressed in kimonos. I turned my cup of matcha the wrong way after sipping from it, I forgot to bow low and offer thanks after eating a small sweet made from bean paste, I didn’t wipe my chopsticks on the napkin tucked into my kimono. Kneeling on a tatamimat, my thighs had started burning after the first five minutes. But this is not an event that is hurried. Our hosts smiled graciously as we took another turn with the matcha tea and ate another bean-paste sweet. I was grateful to stand up after an hour or so, but felt as if I’d glimpsed a small part of traditional Japan – the opposite of the Hello Kitty stores and manga cartoons that I saw schoolboys reading on the metro.
Holly and I had another marathon later that day. Kaiseki is the Japanese word for a menu of several courses, all dictated by the season. And that’s what we ate later that night at Osaka’s Ritz-Carlton hotel. Much like the tea ceremony, it also took several hours, with each of the eight courses more exquisitely beautiful than the last. There were several kind of mushroom, tofu skin and multiple types of fish – both raw and cooked. Again, nothing was to be rushed and we were to appreciate each course as if a work of art (I was only grateful that cod sperm didn’t appear on the menu after a friend who recently travelled across Japan told me that was the delicacy he struggled with).
My final three days were spent in Kyoto. Oh, Kyoto! What a place. I first heard of the city as a teenage schoolgirl when I read Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha. They still do things differently there, which I learned on my first afternoon exploring the narrow streets when I saw a geisha disappear down an alleyway. If Tokyo and Osaka felt distinct from other cities I’d travelled to before, Kyoto seemed as if it was from another world entirely. You could spend several weeks here, settling into the languorous pace of life, drifting between temples. Alas, I didn’t have that long. But you must take a taxi or bus up to the Ginkaku-ji temple (calming zen gardens, with immaculately raked gravel) and then stroll for an hour down what’s called the Philosopher’s Path to the Nanzen-ji temple. It’s a small, pebbly road that runs alongside a little river and walking along it was my favourite morning of the whole trip – punctuated by the odd foray into some of the shops that line the path. There are cafes, too, should you need a matcha and cake pick-me-up.
I loved my tour of Gion, too, the ancient district of Kyoto where geisha still reside. You may see one if you’re lucky, hurrying along, white faces down, trying to dodge tourists talking photos. If you don’t, there are always the geisha boarding houses of Gion. Wooden-fronted, you can spot them by the little plaques over the front door with Japanese writing on them which denote each geisha’s name.
My final recommendation while in Kyoto is to stay in a ryokan. These are traditional Japanese inns, where you will sleep on a futon on the tatami-mat floor. I stayed in Hiirajiya and bravely battled my way through another kaiseki menu, while dressed in cotton Japanese robes that had been laid out in my room. Afterwards, I took a deep, hot bath in a big tub made from cedar wood, filled to the brim so you sit in it with water up to your chin. Having just eaten another nine-course menu, I felt like a hippo, my eyes just above the waterline. Then to bed. Sleeping so low to the ground on my futon, in a room with walls made from sliding paper screens, would have seemed strange and unrelaxing on my first night of the trip. By the end of my trip, it felt wholly appropriate. Restful. I no longer felt stressed or harried. Japan may do that to you.
Food Tour de Force
Because I am a fantastically greedy person, I booked a three-hour food tour of Tokyo. Arigato’s Allstar Food Tour is an evening walking tour across three foodie districts of Tokyo – Yurakucho, Ginza and Shimbashi. We started in an izakaya – a small bar where Japanese workers typically meet after work for a beer or, in my case, a lime shochu. A form of Japanese alcohol made with barley or rice, it’s poured over ice with lime juice and soda. Delicious, dangerous, I could have drunk 10 of them.
Chef preparing takoyaki, Japanese fried octopus balls
From the izakaya, it was on to a series of small restaurants for deep-friend octopus balls (takoyaki), sushi, noodle pancakes (okonomiyaki), chicken yakitori and a hunk of wagyu beef marbled with thick lines of fat and from a cow which had been lovingly massaged and fed beer. In Japanese restaurants where they serve wagyu beef, they need to show the certificate of the cow it came from. Mine was a cow called Mia who’d been 213 days old when she met her maker (some may squirm but at least you know where your meat has come from). We also inspected a £350 melon (there is a big ‘gifting’ culture with fruit in Japan) and gingerly nibbled on pieces of chicken sashimi. On the whole, I think I prefer nuggets.
If you’re daunted by the Japanese food scene and don’t know where to dive in, this tour is a fabulous introduction. Just remember to come hungry. I waddled back to my hotel afterwards like a sumo wrestler.
Interview with a geisha
In the 1920s, there were an estimated 80,000 geisha in Japan. Nowadays, the number has dwindled to the hundreds. Kyoto, the old, imperial capital of the country, is where you’re most likely to see one, although it’s not that simple. It’s commonly assumed in the west that geishas are prostitutes (they’re not), but Japan does remain a patriarchal society where these highly-trained women with painted faces entertain men – dancing, singing, playing a small guitar called a shamisen – at teahouses for hundreds of dollars an evening. A meeting with a trainee geisha, a maiko, can be arranged.
During my visit, I met with a 17-year-old called Kata-Amy who’d decided to become a geisha after watching a documentary about them. For many young Japanese, geisha remain their glamorous Kardashian equivalents. Kata-Amy had a white face, scarlet lips and delicate floral decorations in her jet-black hair. She told me she’ll train for five years, sleeping in a dormitorystyle room with other maikos, before becoming a geisha herself.
I asked for her top tips. What would I need to do to become a geisha, for instance? She looked alarmed at this but told me I’d need to learn to dance and to master the art of conversation. What’s the worst bit about her training, I pressed her. Kata-Amy said she liked it all. Weren’t her clumpy wooden clogs (her okobo) uncomfy? She said she’d only fallen over once. Did she miss home? She travelled back several hours to her family three times a year. Did she miss having a mobile phone like other teenagers? She insisted she didn’t. It was another strange but fascinating glimpse into a very different society.
Recommended C&K tour: Japan’s Cultural Treasures 12 Days & 9 Nights from £4,995
Discover the cultural heritage of Japan on this exciting journey through the country’s main island of Honshu. Begin with an exploration of Tokyo and the nearby Hakone National Park, then continue to Hiroshima and the picturesque island of Miyajima. Finish with a visit to Himeji, famed for its castle and Japanese gardens.
Alternatively, if you are interested in private travel, please either call one of our Far East experts or complete our tailor-made request form and one of our experts will get back to you to help you plan an itinerary.