Let’s face it: a hotel is a hotel wherever you go. And while some of Japan’s hotels are very nice indeed, you’re probably searching for something unique to the culture. If this is what you’re after, you’ll be pleased to learn that Japan is one of the last places in Asia where you can find truly authentic traditional accommodation: ryokan, minshuku and shukubō .Ryokan
Simply put, ryokan are traditional Japanese inns. Ryokan are where Japanese travellers stayed before they had heard the word hoteru (hotel). They are Japanese-style accommodation with tatami-mat rooms and futons instead of beds. Most serve Japanese-style breakfast and dinner, as well. However, this simple explanation doesn’t do justice to ryokan.
A high-end ryokan is the last word in relaxation. The buildings themselves set the tone: they employ traditional Japanese architecture in which the whole structure is organic, made entirely of natural materials such as wood, earth, paper, grass, bamboo and stone. Indeed, a good ryokan is an extension of the natural world. And nature comes into the ryokan in the form of the Japanese garden, which you can often see from the privacy of your room or even your bathtub.
But more than the building, the service is what sets ryokan apart from even the best hotels. At a good ryokan, you will be assigned a personal maid who sees to your every need. These ladies seem to have a sixth sense: as soon as you finish one course of your dinner, you hear a knock on the door and she brings the next course. Then, when you stroll down the hall to take a bath, she dashes into your room and lays out your futon.
It is said that there are more than 80,000 ryokan in Japan, but that number decreases each year as modern Japanese find hotels to be more convenient.
Many ryokan in Japan pride themselves on serving kaiseki ryōri (Japanese haute cuisine), which rivals that served in the best restaurants. Staying at one of these so-called ryōri ryokan (cuisine ryokan) is like staying at a three-star ‘residential restaurant’, where you sleep in your own private dining room.
Another wonderful variety is the onsen ryokan: a ryokan with its own private hot-spring bath. These places were like luxury spas long before anyone had heard the word ‘spa’. Some of the top places have rooms with private en suite onsen baths, usually built overlooking gardens. When you stay at an onsen ryokan, your day involves a gruelling cycle of bathe-nap-eat-repeat. A night at a good onsen ryokan is the perfect way to get over your jet lag when you arrive in the country or a special treat to round out the journey in Japan.
Since 11 March 2011, one cannot talk about or consider visiting Japan without the devastating earthquake and tsunami that struck northeast Japan coming up. Yet, rather than focus on the immediate horrors and lingering fears of the tragedy, one should focus on the beauty and accessibility of Japan today. One should note how the Japanese people, resilient and steadfast, behaved after the waters receded: they gathered calmly in evacuation shelters, set off bravely on rescue missions, began the task of rebuilding.
Every image from those first weeks reflects some of the culture’s highest virtues: the ability to gambaru (do their best) and to gaman (bear suffering without complaint). They also capture the famous Japanese thoroughness and civility. This spirit will allow the Japanese people to rebuild northern Japan faster than anyone expects. And it is this very same spirit that makes travelling in Japan such a joy.
Do not avoid Japan because of fear. The March 2011 disaster was of once-in-a- lifetime proportions, and even at the height of the crisis most of Japan was perfectly safe for travel. At the time of writing, only a small area of Fukushima Prefecture was off limits
apan is wide open for travel. If you have been considering your first visit to Japan or returning to re-experience the unique magic of the country, the perfect time to go – and to celebrate Japan and its people – is now.Japan Is Approachably Exotic
Japan hits the travel sweet spot. It’s unique enough to give you regular doses of ‘Wow!’ without any downside. Indeed, travelling in Japan is remarkably comfortable, even with the language barrier thrown in – but it’s never familiar. Staying in a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) is marvellously different from staying in a chain hotel. Soaking naked in an onsen (hot spring) with a bunch of strangers might be a little odd at first, but it is beyond relaxing. Sitting in a robe on tatami mats eating raw fish and mountain vegetables may not be how you dine back home, but it is unforgettably delicious.Japan Makes You Think
Perhaps more than any country on earth, Japan makes you think. It is a country that took a good, hard look at the West and said ‘We’ll take your technology, but we’re keeping our culture’. It was never extensively missionised or colonised. It practises an ancient animist/pantheist religion while pushing the boundaries of modern technology. It is a country where tens of millions of people can cram into crowded cities without ever losing their temper. And while you explore Japan, you will regularly find yourself awed by how the Japanese do things – and perhaps, just as often, wondering ‘Why don’t we do it that way back home?’
With more than 1000 temples to choose from, you’re spoiled for choice in Kyoto. Spend your time finding one that suits your taste. If you like things gaudy and grand, you’ll love the retina-burning splendour of Kinkaku-ji. If you prefer wabi-sabi to rococo, you’ll find the tranquillity of Hōnen-in or Shōren-in more to your liking. And don’t forget that temples are where you’ll find the best gardens: some of them are at Ginkaku-ji, Ryōan-ji and Tōfuku-ji.
Japan is a food lover’s paradise and the cuisine is incredibly varied, running the gamut from simple soba noodles to multi- course kaiseki banquets. In a city such as Tokyo or Kyoto, you could eat a different Japanese speciality cuisine every night for a month without repeating yourself. There’s no doubt that a food tour of Japan will be memorable, but there’s just one problem: once you try the real thing in Japan, the restaurants back home will pale in comparison. The only solution is another trip to Japan!
There’s nothing like lowering yourself into the tub at a classic Japanese onsen. You can feel your muscles relax and the ‘ahhh’ that you emit is just an easy way of saying ‘Damn, I’m glad I came to Japan!’ If you’re lucky, the tub is outside and there’s a nice stream running nearby. The Japanese have turned the simple act of bathing into a folk religion, and the country is dotted with temples and shrines to this most relaxing of faiths.Staying in a Ryokan
Eat in your bedroom. Spend the day lounging about in a robe. Soak in a bath while looking at a garden. Don’t lift a finger except to bring food to your mouth. Sounds relaxing? Then we highly recommend a night in a good ryokan. The Japanese had the whole spa thing figured out long before they ever heard the word ‘spa’. From first-class place to the most humble ryokan, they will all give you a taste of how the Japanese used to live.Hiking in the Japan Alps
Close your eyes and picture Japan. If all you see are geisha, Zen gardens, bullet trains and hyper- modern cities, you might be in for a real surprise when you get into the Japan Alps. Hike right into the heart of the high peaks here and you’ll be in awe of so much mountain splendour. You can go hut-to-hut among the peaks for a week with nothing on your back but a solid day pack.Castles
Japan’s castles have about as much in common with their European counterparts as kimonos have in common with Western dinner dresses. Their graceful contours belie the grim military realities behind their construction. Towering above the plains, they seem designed more to please the eye than to protect their lords. If you have an interest in the world of samurai, shōguns and military history, you’ll love Japan’s castles. Now that the castle at Himeji is under wraps, try the one at Matsuyama or HikoneTokyo’s Modern Architecture
Japan may be known for its traditional temples, but Tokyo’s cityscape is a veritable open-air museum of contemporary structures. The capital has come a long way from copying the Eiffel Tower – these days you’ll find dozens of inspired and original works by a pantheon of the world’s greatest designers. Fill up on such architectural eye-candy as the chic boutiques in Omote-sandō, the quirky postmodern projects on Odaiba, or even the new army of office towers in Marunouchi.