An archer at Festival
of the Ages in Kyoto

Japan

Go now. Here's why.

BY ELIZABETH WOODSON | PHOTOGRAPHY BY JEFFREY FRIEDL

Though Japan has a land mass smaller than the state of California’s, it packs quite the mighty punch: The archipelago nation has become a poster child for immensely moving, exquisitely diverse experiences.

For travelers looking to embark on a Japanese odyssey, there has never been a better time to go. In 2009, the nation’s leaders set a goal of increasing tourism to 20 million visitors by 2020, a goal they achieved in 2016. The government has since doubled down on that figure, and now wants 40 million inbound travelers by 2020, the year Tokyo hosts the Summer Olympics.

To answer the challenge, domestic and international developers have embarked on an impressive building spree that has already brought a host of new hotels, restaurants, shops, attractions, and the like to a diverse range of destinations. Visit Japan now and you’ll be among the first to partake of the new offerings set to redefine the country’s travel experience for years to come. With so many new things to see, touch, taste, and enjoy, the Land of the Rising Sun now shines brighter than ever. Here, three perfect — and distinctively different — three-day itineraries from which to take it all in.

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TOKYO
A Culinary Adventure
To visitors, Tokyo can seem like it has multiple personality disorder. For some, it’s a sleek, futuristic metropolis; to others, it’s a bubblegum-pop playground overrun by grown-up schoolgirls. Then there’s its much-deserved reputation as a design-forward fashion capital. But to many, Tokyo’s food scene ranks as its greatest draw: Amid the city’s steel-clad buildings and hypermanic commercial districts, the world’s best chefs reign supreme.

The numbers alone paint quite the picture: Tokyo lays claim to more than 80,000 restaurants, nearly four times the number found in New York. Even better, it has more Michelin stars than any other metropolis, with 227 gastronomic paradises boasting one or more stars this year (by comparison, Paris has 92). There’s always something new to delight in, from hidden hole-in-the-wall spots to fine-dining temples — as well as food tours, culinary experiences, and even hotels that elevate the art of the room-service meal.

The Perfect Pleasure Trip

Day 1
Transcendent dining experiences aren’t limited to the upper echelons of Tokyo’s restaurant scene. Even under-the-radar neighborhood spots dish out some of the best meals. Oishii Tokyo Food Tours (oishiitokyo.com), launched a couple of years ago, guides travelers past the buzzy to those hidden heroes that locals love. Tours might encompass meals at izakayas (Japanese gastropubs) in up-and-coming districts such as Ebisu, soba noodle sojourns in Ueno, and sake tastings in hole-in-the-wall bars.

Of course, Tokyoites love much-hyped new restaurants, and the latest crop fits the bill, so you may want to opt for one of them instead of a tour. Ginza Shinohara is the first Tokyo restaurant for chef/owner Takemasa Shinohara, whose restaurant in the Shiga Prefecture is considered one of Japan’s best places for kaiseki — an elaborate, highly seasonal, formally coursed meal. So it’s little wonder that his months-old restaurant is one of the city’s hottest tables.

Another choice new option comes from Japanophile, Michelin-starred French chef Thierry Marx, who finally landed in Tokyo with last fall’s opening of Bistro Marx (bistromarx.jp) in Ginza Place, one of the city’s newest landmark buildings. Expect solidly executed French fare with a Japanese touch.

At Mixology Experience, master mixologist Shuzo Nagumo offers a decidedly distinct way to end your day with foie gras-infused vodka cocktails and umami sours topped with freshly shaved bonito flakes.

Day 2
A visit to the famed, 80-plus-year-old Tsukiji Fish Market (tsukiji-market.or.jp) is a rite of passage for Tokyo-bound foodies. Last November, the market was set to relocate to a new site in the Toyosu area, but environmental concerns put those plans on hold. The market’s original site continues to operate for the foreseeable future, which means you might have one last opportunity to pay homage to this iconic site. Start your day early at the market’s auction to see tuna go for tens of thousands of dollars (and when we say early, we mean it — you’ll have to line up about 3 a.m. to secure a spot at the auction). Post-bidding, savor a sushi breakfast at Sushi Dai (tsukijigourmet.or.jp), just outside the gates.

After a much-needed nap back at your hotel, spend the afternoon with Tokyo Food Tour (tokyofoodtour.com). Its walking tours often start with cooking demonstrations and lessons, such as soba-noodle-making workshops and classes in amezaiku, traditional Japanese pulled candy. Next, head to Tomigaya, a neighborhood adjacent to Shibuya that has emerged as a quieter, cooler alternative — call it Tokyo’s answer to Brooklyn. Wander the new shops that have opened along the streets, including See You Soon (seeyousoon.tokyo), a hip 17-month-old boutique that stocks fashion, art, and lifestyle pieces from indie Japanese and international designers. For artisanal bars and chocolate-infused shampoo, head to the bean-to-bar chocolate shop Cacao Store (theobroma.co.jp). Mingle with Tokyo’s hipster crowd at Fuglen (fuglen.com), an espresso/cocktail bar perfect for people-watching.

Day 3
Spend the morning exploring some of the city’s newest haunts, including the 2-month-old glass-and-steel Ginza Six (ginza6.tokyo), the largest commercial complex in Ginza, home to a slew of tony retailers and an inviting rooftop garden. Take a timeout from sightseeing for a tea break. Shinya Sakurai puts a modern spin on the Japanese tearoom with his just-relocated Sakurai Japanese Tea Experience (sakurai-tea.jp) in the Minato ward. Lab-coat-wearing tea masters serve perfectly whisked cups of powdered matcha and aromatic brews of hojicha leaves roasted on-site, along with tastes of sake and a selection of wagashi (traditional sweets).

Where to go for lunch or dinner? After being open just a few months, chef Masamichi Amamoto’s sushi restaurant Higashi-Azabu Amamoto in Minato racked up two Michelin stars last year. New and already uber-popular Ginza ramen shop Ginza Kazami seems a sure bet to join the Michelin ranks in next year’s guide.

STAY
With outposts from nearly every global luxury hotel brand, Tokyo isn’t lacking for posh temporary abodes. For that reason, homegrown luxury label Hoshinoya wanted to create something entirely different for its first Tokyo property. Found in the Otemachi district, the nearly year-old Hoshinoya Tokyo is a sort of urban-style ryokan (Japanese inn) that blends traditional style with modern touches. Guests remove their shoes in an entrance space (they are kept in an artistic display of boxes on the ground level) before making their way up to the hotel. Each of the hotel’s 14 guest-room floors functions as its own ryokanlike space, with a central lounge area staffed by gracious hosts who serve complimentary treats and sake as they provide Tokyo recommendations. The tatami mat floors of the 84 rooms are topped with futon mattresses and shoji screens that give way to windows wrapped in iron latticework modeled after a kimono motif.

Guests take traditional Japanese breakfasts artfully presented in a series of boxes in their rooms. Dinner can also be served en suite. Or opt to head down to the basement restaurant, where chef Noriyuki Hamada dishes out wonderfully inventive, highly seasonal creations to patrons in the clay-walled dining room. From $700. 011-81-50-3786-1144; hoshinoyatokyo.com

While the Hoshinoya steers more to the traditional, the Prince Gallery Tokyo Kioicho, the Luxury Collection’s first Tokyo hotel, unabashedly basks in a contemporary style. Located on floors 30-36 of a gleaming skyscraper in the Chiyoda district, the property blends striking flourishes — such as the abstract silver sculptures adorning the lobby’s ceiling and a kaleidoscopic glass waterfall installation by Japanese artist Mari Noguchi — with jaw-dropping views all the way to Mount Fuji, views best experienced from the floor-to-ceiling windows in many of the 250 rooms. From $400. 011-81-3-3234-1111; luxurycollection.com


MIE
Fodder for the Soul

Stretched along a peninsula that juts into the Pacific on Japan’s eastern side, the Mie Prefecture seems tailor-made to be a favorite playground for jet-setters. Its landscape — an Instagram-worthy blend of verdant, mist-shrouded hills and mountains, and nearly 700 miles of coastline characterized by craggy bays and tiny islets — is beautiful by default. Straight-out-of-the-ocean seafood and Matsusaka beef from black-haired wagyu cattle, arguably Japan’s best (Kobe just markets better, locals will tell you), anchors the top-notch local food scene. Religious and cultural sites, including Japan’s most sacred Shinto shrine, speak to visitors on a deeper level.

All this, yet most foreigners have never heard of, let alone visited, this part of Japan just two hours by train from Osaka and 90 minutes from Nagoya. But Mie’s undiscovered status is changing fast: The international spotlight shone down on the prefecture when Japan hosted the G-7 summit there last year. That light has only grown brighter thanks to new hotels and experiences laying roots along Mie’s shores.

The Perfect Pleasure Trip
Day 1
Start your visit by exploring Mie’s spiritual side. A bridge bookended by two giant torii gates marks the entry to the Ise Jingu (isejingu.or.jp), a Shinto shrine dedicated to the sun goddess Amaterasu that’s considered the country’s most sacred site. Millions of Japanese make the pilgrimage here every year, passing through the gates and walking along forested paths lined with millennia-old cedar trees to pray at the main jinja (shrine). Accompany them and marvel at the structure’s build — made entirely from cypress wood and constructed without any nails.

It’s easy to spend a few hours wandering the tranquil grounds, but leave time to explore Okage Yokocho (okageyokocho.co.jp), a re-created Edo-era village just outside the shrine’s sacred grounds where traditional buildings house shops and restaurants. Nibble on mochi covered in ribbons of sweet bean paste between sips ofgreen tea on the outdoor deck at Akafuku Honten, a famed Mie confectionary that has been serving the local delicacy to pilgrims en route to the shrine for more than 300 years. Or savor a lunch of Ise udon, thick noodles eaten with a sweet and salty sauce, at Fukusuke noodle house. Take in a traditional drum show or storytelling performance in the “village square.” Also wander the shops for local handicrafts, including indigo-dyed textiles from the nearby town of Matsuzaka at Momenya Ai, pottery at Tanuki Danrantei, and artistically braided ropes at Kumihimo Hirai.

Day 2
While Ise Jingu is Mie’s big religious draw, more than 125 other shrines also dot the region. Fittingly, you’ll find many along the sea, a testament to the ocean’s importance to the locals’ daily lives. Wake up pre-dawn and head to the Futami Okitama shrine, where a pair of side-by-side rocks rising from the sea have been turned into a torii gate with a traditionally braided rope joining them. In the summer, locals and visitors alike come early to watch the sun seemingly rise between the two rocks.

Here, you might also witness Mie’s famed ama (women free divers) praying for safety and a good catch. The tradition of women diving deep beneath the ocean’s surface sans breathing equipment in search of both edible and nonedible treasures has been practiced in Mie for hundreds of years. You’ll learn more about the ama at Mikimoto Pearl Island (mikimoto-pearl-museum.co.jp) in the city of Toba. Japanese jeweler Mikimoto Ko-kichi first had success cultivating pearls in the waters off Mie. Today, some of the label’s pearls still come from these waters, and you can visit the brand’s complex to watch ama bring pearl-filled oysters to surface, before buying a strand of the local catch to bring home.

After exploring the complex, go for lunch in a tin-roofed ama diving hut. At Osatsu Kamado Mae-no-hama, dine on the season’s seafood, cooked for you by an ama on the hut’s open charcoal grill. Finally, post-lunch, indulge your sweet tooth at Minerva, a gelato shop in Toba City where you can sample a local take on the sweet Italian treat — think flavors such as a vanilla and pearl powder blend.

Day 3
Ama are not Mie’s only singular residents. In the region’s mountainous interior, the city of Iga is thought to be the birthplace of Japan’s ninja culture. During the late 16th century, the region was believed to be home to Japan’s best ninja training school (Hattori Yasunaga, one of the country’s most famous ninjas, also called the city home). Earlier this year, Iga re-branded itself as a “ninja city” in a bid to lure visitors. There’s quite a bit for travelers to discover, including the Iga-ryu Ninja Museum (iganinja.jp), inside an old house once used by the Iga ninja clan (so expect booby traps galore). See historic artifacts and, in an area adjacent to the museum, try your hand at throwing stars.

After a day channeling your inner warrior, reward yourself with Matsuzaka beef at Gyugin, one of the city’s best restaurants. The experience is holy in and of itself.

STAY

Glitterati-favored brand Aman Resorts has a penchant for taking culturally rich, undiscovered destinations and putting them on the map. One of its latest properties continues that grand tradition: Amanemu opened with 28 Kerry Hill-designed suites and villas in Mie’s Ise-Shima National Park last year. The sleek digs offer a sort of stylized take on traditional minka farmhouses. Outside, the low-slung pavilions feature darkly stained cedar walls and tiled, pitched roofs. Inside, it’s pure Japanese minimalism, from the blond woods, white textiles, and sliding shoji screen doors in bedrooms to the striking black-basalt-stone bathrooms, where you can kick back in your own private onsen, thanks to water piped in from nearby hot springs. From $808. 800-477-9180; amanemu.com

KYOTO
Mixing Old School With New School

From its geishas who glide about the streets of the well-preserved historic district of the Gion to the many temples, shrines, and palaces, Kyoto has long been a go-to for exploration of Japanese heritage. After all, the city served as the country’s imperial capital until the Meiji regime moved the royal court to Tokyo in 1869. It’s also well-known for its 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, beautiful rock gardens, and the traditional artisans who toil away in centuries-old wooden houses. But it’s not all old school in the city, as hoteliers, cultural institutions, artists, chefs, and shop owners are all bringing traditional ideas and techniques into a modern context. It’s this dichotomy between the old and the new that makes Kyoto one of Japan’s most enticing destinations to explore.

The Perfect Pleasure Trip
Day 1
Start your day with a private meditation session at the Ryosoku-in Temple, one of Kyoto’s oldest Zen Buddhist temples (some hotels will make your reservation for you). From there, see how tradition and a modern spirit peacefully coexist at the Kyoto National Museum (kyohaku.go.jp). Explore the museum’s collection of ceramics, calligraphy scrolls, historic costumes, and the like in the strikingly modernist Taniguchi Yoshio-designed Heisei Chishinkan Hall, which opened in 2014. Move next door to the original Meiji-period, red brick building erected in 1895, which currently houses special exhibitions.

While tea ceremonies are on offer across Japan, no place does it better than Kyoto. For the supertraditional, head to the nearly 300-year-old Ippodo (ippodo-tea.co.jp/en), where you can receive lessons in brewing techniques and purchase dried leaves and powders galore. Located in a preserved machiya townhouse in the Gion, the year-and-a-half-old vintage shop/design gallery Pass the Baton takes a more unconventional approach to the tea ceremony at its Tea and Sake Room by Tasuki. The tearoom also serves as a sake bar and offers delicious shaved-ice creations made in different green tea flavors, in addition to conventional brews and Kyoto sweets.

Day 2
The Windows to Japan (windowstojapan.com) tour company will take you past the standard guidebook fare and help you access truly authentic moments in Kyoto and surrounding areas. Its geisha experience, for example, involves a private dinner session with a geisha, where you can ask questions about her daily life. Plenty of ink has been given to Kyoto’s many fine-dining establishments, but Windows’ food tours will expose you to the city’s equally as delicious street foods. The outfitter even offers opportunities for you to visit with locals in their private homes.

Of course, you must savor a fine meal in Kyoto, as the age-old culinary traditions have produced restaurants as spectacular as those found in Tokyo (just check out the Michelin guides). Two good choices: the Michelin three-starred Hyotei (hyotei.co.jp), where the kaiseki courses are almost too beautiful to eat; and Giro Giro Hitoshina (guiloguilo.com), which modernizes kaiseki dining with its counter seating and less rigid coursing.

Day 3
Kyoto’s artistic traditions are just as renowned as its food, with the latest crop of artisans and designers pulling from that rich well while also creating something entirely all their own. Pick up hand-hammered copper tea caddies at Kaikado (www.kaikado.jp); lampshades, bowls, and tea strainers made using traditional hand-weaving techniques at Kanaami-Tsuji (kanaamitsuji.net); and artistic fabrics from Hosoo (www.hosoo-kyoto.com), a 1688 textile house that employs nishijin weaving in both traditional and contemporary designs.

The Kyoto Design House (kyoto-dh.com) is another must for its daily-use items (woven silk neckties, carved wooden business card holders) made by local artisans. Kira Karacho (kirakaracho.jp) employs centuries-old block-printing techniques traditionally used for fusuma sliding screens on everything from stationery to wallpaper and lampshades.

For dinner, grab one of 10 seats at the counter constructed from a 200-year-old cypress tree at the Four Seasons’ Sushi Wakon, where Michelin-starred master chef Rei Masuda serves traditional Edomae-style sushi that you’re encouraged to eat with your fingers. A dinner here will earn you plenty of bragging rights, as it was one of 2017’s most anticipated restaurants.

STAY

Travel professionals considered the 134-room Ritz-Carlton, Kyoto a game-changer when it landed along the banks of the scenic Kamogawa River in late 2014 as Kyoto’s first true luxury hotel. It’s easy to see why: Its design, which integrates stylized elements from Meiji-era houses (wooden latticework doors, traditional Shippo cloisonné patterns, washi paper artwork), is an impeccable collaboration between local artists and top-name international designers. Plus, the ambitious roster of programming — including samurai sword lessons (with participants dressed in traditional garb), sake tastings, soap-making workshops, city art tours, and bicycle excursions to area temples and shrines — makes it the archetype for a modern-day, experience-based city hotel. From $512. 800-542-8680; ritzcarlton.com

But the Ritz now has competition with the opening last October of the Four Seasons Kyoto in the historic Higashiyama district, a five-minute walk from the Kyoto National Museum. The hotel’s design team dressed up the 123 modern rooms in subtle shades of cream, green, blue, and lavender, and outfitted them with washi paper lamps, delicate fusuma-inspired screens, and beautiful lacquerware. The rooms’ floor-to-ceiling windows look out on the city or the hotel’s magnificent 800-year-old garden, complete with a tranquil pond. Don’t miss a tea ceremony — the Japanese tradition of welcoming guests with cups of tea and traditional pastries — in the quaint little teahouse overlooking the pond, though night owls might prefer it after dark when it transitions into an intimate sake bar. From $670. 800-819-5053; fourseasons.com/kyoto

JAPAN BY RAIL
The Japanese love affair with trains is well-documented, with bullet trains that crisscross the country, whisking riders to and fro at breakneck speeds. But the latest crop of trains takes the slower road, much to travelers’ delight. Launched in 2013, Japan Rail Kyushu’s Seven Stars in Kyushu (www.cruisetrain-sevenstars.com) channels the Orient Express, with its seven carriages outfitted with 14 suites, plus an electric-piano-equipped lounge. The ornate locomotive chugs along tracks lining Japan’s southernmost main island of Kyushu on two- to four-day itineraries.

Japan Rail East’s just-launched Train Suite Shiki-Shima (jreast.co.jp/shiki-shima) takes a futuristic approach to its journey. The 10-carriage train designed by Ken Okuyama — the design mind behind the Ferrari Enzo and Maserati Quattroporte — favors sleek lines and plenty of glass over wood. The abstractly artistic placement of windows calls to mind a spaceship more than your run-of-the-mill choo-choo. The 17 suites are done up in luxe shades of brown and offset by woven floor mats, gold-foil-accented walls, and lacquerware touches. There’s even a presidential suite with a cypress bathtub. Two- to four-day itineraries head north from Tokyo to the Hokkaido region, making stops for visits to onsen resorts and mountain towns. After a day of exploration, you return for elaborate meals designed by Katsuhiro Nakamura, the first Japanese chef to win a Michelin star for his efforts in Paris.

Next on the Tracks

From West Japan Railway Co., the Twilight Express Mizukaze will start journeying through the San’yo and San’in regions of southern Honshu this summer. twilightexpress-mizukaze.jp/en

EXPERTS’ TIPS

Japan is perhaps the most unfamiliar familiar destination. You may have some preconceived notions about the island nation before you arrive, but don’t be surprised if you spend more than a few moments lost in translation after you land. Here, two Virtuoso-affiliated travel advisers with their fingers on the pulse of Japanese travel offer tips to help ease your journey.

1. Prepare for language barriers. “You don’t want to make people feel embarrassed if they don’t speak English. It’s good to have several key phrases, your hotel’s business card, and your intended destinations all written in both English and Japanese before you leave your hotel. Your concierge will be happy to provide,” says Rob Clabbers, president of Q Cruise + Travel in Chicago.

2. Use apps. “Several great translation apps are available to help travelers get past language barriers. At the very least, download Google Translate before your trip,” recommends Georgia Schley Ritchie, an adviser with Century Travel, a Worldview Travel Co., in Atlanta.

3. Don’t tip. “Tipping isn’t part of the Japanese culture. Some Japanese may even consider it an insult, as they take great pride in doing their jobs well without expectation. Some restaurants and hotels might levy a service charge, but nothing additional is expected,” says Clabbers.

4. Cash up. “Cash is king in Japan, especially in smaller towns, so always have yen with you. Also, many Japanese ATMs don’t accept American debit cards, so be sure to withdraw enough from international-friendly ATMs at centralized points, like at the airport,” notes Clabbers.

5. Plan ahead for dining. “Top restaurants across Japan are often very small, so reservations can be difficult to come by. Before your trip, work with your well-connected travel adviser to secure your dream tables,” says Schley Ritchie. “Also, be mindful that many restaurants require a credit card when booking, and they have strict cancellation policies.”

6. Go by rail. Japan’s excellent train system is the best way to travel around the country, but until March, visitors couldn’t purchase Japan Rail Passes after their arrival — they had to buy them before their trips. To be safe, well in advance of leaving home, Schley Ritchie recommends confirming you can buy your passes after entering the country, and at what price. “Also, pack light, since trains don’t have much room for luggage; or plan on having your hotel forward your bags to your next destination,” she advises.

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