With fully reopened borders (and the Year of the Rabbit) promising a renewed wave of prosperity, Japan is once again one of the world’s most sought-after travel destinations. After her recent scouting trip to Tokyo and Kyoto, Senior Editor Elizabeth Harvey reports.
A melodic tinkling of chimes plays over the loudspeaker. “Departing Tokyo Station, direction Shin-Osaka. Next station, Shinagawa!” In perfect sync, the singsong tones filling my car on the Shinkansen conclude, and the train pulls out of the station, slowly at first, but rapidly gathering speed. I wiggle up in my seat to peer out the window at the edges of Tokyo fading away in the lavender light of dusk. A thrill of childish wonder tingles through me, as I feel the mounting velocity pull at my center of gravity. “How fast will we go?”
The Shinkansen moves at nearly 200 miles per hour, making it one of the swiftest trains in the world. The ride is surprisingly smooth. I will arrive in Kyoto in just two hours, after a 14.5-hour flight from New York City. Weary but gratified at having journeyed a great distance, I unpack the still-cold Sapporo I purchased on the platform. Snap. Fizz. I take a sip and marvel at these two metal-encased feats of engineering.
With its fast trains and impeccable bento boxes and cities bursting with flashing lights and color, Japan has become an object of collective obsession in the United States, one born out of the cultural collisions caused by World War II and steadily gathering force in the decades since. The iconography we’ve built up around this island nation is so vivid as to elicit gasps of joy or jealousy whenever travel plans are mentioned—and everyone is going, lately, from my own friends and colleagues to Kim Kardashian and Harry Styles. Three years’ absence, it seems, has only made our obsession stronger.
After a few days of exploring on the other side of the world, I quickly realized that many of the idealized Japanese scenes we most ardently seek are, in fact, quite true to reality—and easily found: An omakase* dinner that is closer to a religious experience than a culinary one, with hungry, hushed devotees encircling the high priest as he sharpens his knife above a gleaming, fatty salmon. A tiny wooden dive bar, packed with salarymen staving off karōshi*, which remains spotless and orderly despite the overflow of whiskey. A perfectly coiffed businesswoman in pumps, an elegant maiden perched upon wooden geta*, the silks of her kimono shimmering, and a punky teen in fishnets rising above the crowd in five-inch platform boots—all gathered around the same stoplight, patiently waiting for it to turn green, and not moving a second sooner.
In collecting these postcard moments, I also quickly realized that what makes Japan so enthralling—what draws us all so fervently to visit—is not only its reverence for specialization and tradition. It’s also the strength that’s afforded there to the social contract. There is a real sense of mutual obligation and accountability that governs the captivating dance of daily life in Japan, which imbues even the smallest mundanities with a greater beauty and dignity than we’re accustomed to at home.
But for all the things I did grasp while traveling in Japan—the moments of victory where a box was checked, a photo was snapped, a realization was made—there was so much more that eluded me. For every perfectly packaged experience and expectation that matched reality, there were so many more puzzles and paradoxes—gaps in the narrative, areas of the map that remain unmarked: A Zen monk in traditional robes who reveals himself to be somewhat of an Instagram influencer (@revtakazen) who spends half the year in Portland, Oregon, and speaks flawless English with a hint of Cali-surfer twang. A display of sake at Kyoto’s Nishiki Market featuring labels with sweet watercolor bunnies alongside others with inky, snarling skulls. A garish poster of sexualized manga in a storefront that shares a wall with a centuries-old Buddhist temple, a sacred enclave of incense and flowers within a skyrise city.
In Japan, the spaces between tend to be the most profound. It’s a guiding principle of its ancient arts, from kintsugi* to ikebana*, and it’s a useful principle for the Japan traveler. A longtime resident of Nara, writer Pico Iyer perhaps best captured the phenomenon: “I’ve been living in western Japan for more than 32 years and, to my delight, I know far less than when I arrived.” Every visit to Japan begs another. Next station, Shinagawa.
Did You Know? The jingles that became the soundtrack to my wanderings by Japanese rail were in fact arranged by (mostly) one man: Minoru Mukaiya, the former keyboardist of a high-profile jazz-fusion band, Casiopea. He created a unique melody for each station in Tokyo (there are over 100), using traditional instruments for older neighborhoods and peppier tunes for student areas. If you were to ride the Tozai Line from start to finish, you’d find that all of the melodies together form a complete song.
Contact your Indagare Trip Designer or Indagare, if you are not yet a member, to start planning a trip to Japan. Our team can match you with the accommodations, reservations and activities that are right for you.
Where to Go & What to Know
Whether you’re planning a first or fifth visit to Japan—or you’re still in dreaming mode—these are the places to have on your radar, with new developments from the post-pandemic tourism boom.
Hello, Hotels: Where to Stay
Like many other culture capitals, Tokyo and Kyoto are experiencing a hotel renaissance.
My first stop in Kyoto was The Shinmonzen, a nine-room boutique gem over 10 years in the making from Paddy McKillen, the owner of Château La Coste in Provence. The Shinmonzen offers an intimate, handcrafted experience akin to staying at the private town house of an impeccably stylish friend—with museum-grade art, sleek nods to ryokan heritage and a restaurant by Jean-Georges Vongerichten, opened this March. In the historic Gion district—the territory of the maiko and geiko, as well as antiques lovers and shoppers—and discreetly camouflaged among the neighborhood’s dark-wood machiya architecture, the hotel seamlessly combines past and present, thanks to architect Tadao Ando and interior designer Rémi Tessier. Like sister property Villa La Coste, The Shinmonzen showcases work by Louise Bourgeois, Damien Hirst, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Gerhard Richter and Charlotte Perriand—and a standout is the sequin-and-embroidery mural by Vietnamese artist Tia-Thuy Nguyen in the dining room. The canvas is a sparkling burst of hot pink, orange, yellow and red—an idealized complement to the delicate explosion of flavors one is usually experiencing while contemplating it (I am still dreaming of the melting ribbons of tuna, twirled in a nest like spaghetti, atop wasabi and radish… and the cured egg yolks, wedged between thinly sliced crispy bread and generously heaped with caviar—paired with juicy Hokkaido white wines). Other highlights include the small spa, which specializes in Reiki treatments; the option to choose between a Western-style bed or a traditional Japanese futon on tatami mats; the oversize hinoki cypress soaking tubs, which are prepped with aromatics at bedtime; the coffee menu by world-class siphon coffee master Iori Yahashi; and the private balconies suspended over the Shirakawa River, where resident cranes and ducks can be spotted taking a dip at twilight.
Next was Hotel the Mitsui, a larger but equally soulful and serene property on the western side of the Kamo River, facing the UNESCO site Nijo Castle. Originally the private home of the wealthy Mitsui family, the now 161-room property preserves details that date back as far as the 17th century (such as the 300-year-old old Kajiimiya entrance gate). Interiors by Hong Kong designer André Fu (behind The Upper House, as well as Villa La Coste) and Japanese architect Akira Kuryu create an atmosphere that is subtle and soothing, with inventive touches like a hallway of wooden arches mimicking Kyoto’s famous fire-red Fushimi Inari shrine. The hotel emphasizes Japanese wellness practices, including connecting with the seasons and the senses. There is an airy 14,000-square-foot courtyard garden (ideal for meditation classes) and dedicated spaces for a matcha tea ceremony or a maiko performance (in the Shiki-no-Ma, a reconstruction of the Mitsui family’s original private entertainment pavilion). Do not miss a meal at Toki, an innovative restaurant by chef Tetsuya Asano (who cut his teeth at the Ritz Paris) or a swim in the heated pools of the subterranean onsen spa, which draw from thermal waters discovered over 3,000 feet below the hotel. Each of the rooms and suites is also equipped with a large stone soaking tub and rainfall shower. (Thirty minutes in the thermal steam, followed by the Mitsui’s own deep moisture sheet mask—one of many thoughtful turn-down treats—will banish any signs of jet lag.) There is also the Onsen Suite, which has its own private outdoor thermal soaking pool, within a walled stone garden.
According to Manabu Kusui, the hotel’s charming general manager, the Mitsui is the only Japanese-owned large luxury hotel in Kyoto—a fact that will become even more of a standout as international brands set their sights on this ancient, one-of-a-kind city, which has struggled with the impact of overtourism.
In Tokyo, I paid a visit to the new Edition, which opened in 2020 with 206 rooms and suites, occupying the 31st to 36th floors of a skyscraper in the up-and-coming Toranomon neighborhood (located between luxe Marunouchi and chic Roppongi). Thanks to the artistry of architect Kengo Kuma—and Ian Schrager’s lifelong passion for Japanese aesthetics—the property has an authentic sense of place, helped by spectacular views of Tokyo Tower. Guest rooms are both peaceful and highly functional. The main draw of the hotel is the dining program, which includes a leafy, jewel-toned enclave for all-day bites and drinks (Sky Garden), a speakeasy-style cocktail lounge, Gold Bar, and The Jade Room restaurant, featuring British-Japanese tasting menus by chef Tom Aikens, of Michelin-starred London restaurants Pied à Terre and Muse.
Also generating buzz is the new Bulgari Tokyo—opened this April in the Yaesu district (in walking distance of Nihombashi and Ginza), offering 98 rooms and suites, a large spa and an eight-seat sushi restaurant by Japanese chef Kenji Gyoten (who was awarded three Michelin stars at Sushi Gyoten in Fukuoka)—and the Four Seasons Hotel Tokyo at Otemachi, across from the Imperial Palace, with Jean-Michel Gathy interiors and Est, a French-Japanese open-kitchen restaurant from chef Guillaume Bracaval. It won its first Michelin star last year. Also of note: The Park Hyatt Tokyo—the setting of Sofia Coppola’s cult classic Lost in Translation—will close in May 2024 for a full, yearlong renovation, for the hotel’s 30th anniversary. I managed a final Suntory toast to Bob and Charlotte at the New York Bar—and, for now, it remains the same haven for a traveler in an unfamiliar city, suspended in the air and suspended in time.
Omakase Meets New Nordic—and More: Where to Eat
With 72 recognized micro-seasons and a laundry list of carefully observed mores, dining out in Japan remains one of the most intimidating aspects of traveling there. It’s essential to come armed with a list of local recommendations. Two of the best I was given were Sakuragawa in Kyoto (a 10-seat, no-frills, classic kaiseki masterpiece) and The Washin in Tokyo (an immaculate multicourse tasting experience in a contemporary yet warm atmosphere). But it’s just as essential to have an open mind and a willingness to search and stumble. If you muster up the courage to poke your head behind the curtains that hang over the doors of most traditional eateries—which, maddeningly, make it difficult to assess what lies within, without making yourself known—and, once seated, surrender yourself to the experience, you might just be rewarded with the best meal of your life.
Traditional Japanese cuisine is UNESCO-protected, but the influx of international chefs who are heading east is evidence of a growing appetite for invention. In Tokyo’s Shibuya, the 2020-launched, Mexican-Japanese-themed Rubia just appointed Cesar Ávila Flores, the former sous-chef of Mexico City’s Pujol (a World’s 50 Best restaurant), to reinvent its tasting menu. Two of Kyoto’s hottest tables, Monk and Cenci, are helmed by Japanese chefs—Yoshihiro Imai and Ken Sakamoto, respectively—but serve Italian-Japanese cuisine, including wood-fired pizza (with such toppings as Kujo negi leeks, chrysanthemum and shiitake mushrooms). Also in Kyoto, the one-Michelin-starred Lurra brings the international perspective of American-Japanese chef (and Noma alum) Jacob Kear to local ingredients that are foraged, fermented and grilled. And at the Ace Hotel Kyoto—another Kengo Kuma project, opened in 2020 and ideal for digital nomads seeking a trendy home base—René Redzepi himself concluded a sold-out, 10-week Noma pop-up this spring. (Noma Copenhagen will close its doors at the end of next year.)
“I believe Kyoto to be the birthplace of the Western tasting menu, and it remains one of the most important cities through which to understand the fine-dining scene today. Much of my own journey and inspiration can be looked at through a handful of important moments and going to Japan and Kyoto for the first time was one of them. I knew when the pandemic hit, that this was the first place I wanted to return to.” — René Redzepi
Redzepi isn’t the only Western culinary icon whose industry-changing work was itself deeply influenced by Japan. Anthony Bourdain filmed nearly 10 episodes in the country over the course of his career, always maintaining that Japan was among his most favorite destinations. I made a pilgrimage in his honor to Osaka—Japan’s second-largest city, after Tokyo, which he explored for an episode of No Reservations in 2006. Osaka is easily reached from Kyoto by a 30-minute train ride and is a popular add-on to a typical Tokyo-Kyoto itinerary. It is known as “the nation’s kitchen,” famous for its nightlife, street food and celebration of kuidaore, or physically and financially “ruining” oneself by eating and drinking too much. (Osaka is also known as the nation’s shame, for having one of Japan’s highest crime rates—which is still laughably lower than any major city in the U.S.) Wandering alone down the neon-lit streets of the Dotonbori district, I imagined myself tracing Bourdain’s footsteps: burning my mouth on the painfully delicious street snack tacoyaki (searing-hot battered octopus balls drizzled in soy sauce, mayonnaise, green onion and bonito flakes); sizzling raw prawns and scallops, plucked right out of Osaka Bay, on my own personal grill at a make-it-yourself restaurant (a hugely popular concept in Osaka that could never work in the States, for so many reasons); and blindly ordering off a Japanese-only menu in a tiny pub (I received what I believe to be a tripe, scallion and root vegetable soup, which was insanely flavorful—and perfectly paired with an Osaka lager, on draft).
From sake to craft cocktails, these are some of the best places for a drink.
- TOKYO: Kamiya Bar, a local legend opened in the 1800s, is said to be the oldest Western-style bar in Tokyo.
- TOKYO: Gen Yamamoto offers a reservation-only, seasonal, low-ABV cocktail-tasting experience by Mr. Yamamoto.
- TOKYO: On my last night in Tokyo, I somehow managed to fall back through the rabbit hole—into a Brooklyn hipster hangout called Newport, where beretted and bespeckled DJs spun vinyls like Bruno Berle’s No Reino Dos Afetos and the soundtrack to Serpico, for their friends in neon beanies and geometric earrings, among bottles of biodynamic varietals (Japan has been on the orange and organic wine game for much longer than we have, to no one’s surprise).
- KYOTO: An exploration of “liquid cuisine,” the cocktail experience at Nokishita 711 includes multiple courses and snacks.
- KYOTO: Look for the bumblebee sign, and you’re in the right place at Bee’s Knees, a Prohibition-inspired speakeasy that’s one of Kyoto’s most popular bars.
- KYOTO: Fushimi is one of Japan’s oldest sake-brewing districts. Enjoy a tasting after exploring the history of sake at Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum (and the brewery, founded in 1637).
EATING UP NORTH
The island of Hokkaido—which is home to the luxury ski resort Niseko and capital city Sapporo, with its eponymous beer brand—is also one of Japan’s top culinary destinations. With mountains, plateaus and wetlands—and slightly cooler temperatures—this northern region forms the heart of Japan’s agricultural production, as well as its up-and-coming wine scene (one of my favorite bottles, served by the talented sommelier at The Shinmonzen, was Nostalgia 2021 by Due Punti Vineyards, a Chardonnay blend produced in the town of Yoichi). Interesting wines—including some that are aged in the sea—are also being produced in the prefectures of Miyagi, Yamanashi and Nagano, all on the main island of Honshu (where Tokyo and Kyoto are located).
Related: Indagare Top Tables: Tokyo
Goings On: Arts & Culture
From the ancient to the futuristic, there is an overwhelming amount of places to explore and things to do—in Tokyo and Kyoto, alone. And whatever your passion may be—from spirituality and history to technology, temples, textiles, manga, matcha, metalwork, cats, karaoke, karate (the list goes on)—you can be assured that you will be able to experience it in Japan at the highest level. Unlike in the United States, where multi-tasking, diversification and “the wearing of many hats” seem to be the rule of the day, in Japan, there is nothing more prized than specialization: the mastery of a single skill—and the lifelong, continuous, nearly manic pursuit of perfecting it. Whether they are innovating for the next generation or protecting crafts that have been passed down for centuries—or both—Japan’s creatives, engineers and artisans are building a cultural scene that is one of the world’s most profound.
In the arts, The Fukuda Art Museum recently opened in Kyoto’s Arashiyama district, with nearly 2,000 pieces from the Edo period to modernity, and a focus on Kyoto painters. The collection was created by Fukuda Yoshitaka, a self-made entrepreneur, to thank the public for his good fortune. Also in Kyoto, the historic Kyocera Museum of Art reopened after a three-year renovation by architects Jun Aoki and Tezzo Nishizawa.
In January, Tokyo’s famous teamLab Borderless digital art museum will reopen, in a new building in Azabudai Hills in Minato, just minutes from Tokyo Tower (which now offers Japan’s largest “eSports park” for virtual reality games). Azabudai is envisioned by the same group behind cool-kid Roppongi Hills and is expected to officially debut at the end of November. It will also become home to Aman Residences and the very first Janu property, Aman’s “little sister” brand. New pedestrian areas are being developed all over Tokyo, from the Mizumachi Waterfront to Miyashita Park and the Bonus Track shopping area in trendy Shimokitazawa. And while Kyoto’s traditional crafts are some of the very best treasures to hunt for (see my picks below), Tokyo’s latest retail activations in Ginza—from the new Muji Hotel to the Jun Aoki– and Peter Marino–designed Louis Vuitton flagship—do warrant a visit for snapping photos, browsing and a quick bite. And, finally, Kengo Kuma’s Japan National Stadium is now open for tours through March 2024.
FAVORITE FINDS: WHERE TO SHOP IN KYOTO
- Konjaku Nishimura, a vintage textiles shop in Gion, specializes in silk kimonos.
- Sophora is a beautifully curated blown-glass and ceramics gallery, next to the new Ritz-Carlton hotel.
- Visit Tokinoha Ceramic Studio, a pottery workshop and boutique on the eastern side of the city.
- A stunning textiles and kimono atelier founded in 1688, HOSOO now produces contemporary silk clothing, accessories and home décor, in addition to traditional pieces (which can be rented for a special occasion).
- Hakuya Noguchi Studio is the home and gallery of a quirky father-son duo practicing the ancient art of gold-leaf painting and textile weaving; custom and Japanese and international treasures are available.
- Galerie Tazawa: Antiques gallery with Japanese and international treasures on the Nijo Dori shopping street.
Kyoto has over 2,000 Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines—and although the modern-day population is not terribly religious, spiritual practices remain deeply ingrained in Japanese culture through animal iconography and superstition; rabbits, owls and cats are all considered lucky, and they are everywhere. These are three of the most important ones to know:
- Kinkakuji Temple: Famous for its shining gold-leaf exterior, Kinkakuji is at the northwestern edge of Kyoto, within a large garden.
- Kiyomizu-dera Temple: On a hillside of the Higashiyama district, this UNESCO World Heritage site also doubles as a hiking route.
- Saihō-ji (Koke-dera) Temple: This Zen Buddhist temple is well-known for its moss garden.
Related: Kyoto Insider Spotlight: Sara Aiko
Contact your Indagare Trip Designer or Indagare, if you are not yet a member, to start planning a trip to Japan. Our team can match you with the accommodations, reservations and activities that are right for you.
* Omakase: Tasting-menu-style dining concept meaning “to leave oneself in the hands of the chef”
* Karōshi: “Death by overwork”
* Kintsugi: The art of repairing broken ceramics by filling the cracks with gold leaf
* Ikebana: The art of flower arranging, in which negative space is just as considered as the objects
This article first appeared in the Spring/Summer 2023 edition of the members-only Indagare Magazine.