Because I’m a somewhat sporadic publisher, I often omit huge swaths of travel experiences, only to have a friend ask, “Do you have info about that on Breweventures?”
I confess to being seriously remiss when it comes to adding to my blog in general, but especially when it comes to one of my favorite places on Earth– Japan. So, here are a few of my favorite things from past trips to a country that’s like engaging in two-way time travel– both future and past all at once. (S – this is especially for you.)
You know that part of “Blade Runner” right at the beginning, before everything looks seedy? That’s Tokyo. There are far too many cool things to do in Tokyo to list here: taking a boat ride from Hamarikyu Gardens to Asakusa, using the fortune sticks to divine your future at the temple there, eating an early morning tuna sashimi bowl at Tsukiji, and visiting weird pocket-sized bars (especially the fabulously friendly flamenco one) in the Golden Gai.
And that’s just the obvious stuff.
For me, however, Tokyo is one of my favorite places in the world to swim indoors, specifically, at the pool in the Grand Hyatt. Guests staying at the hotel can have a swim every morning, noon, and night in the hotel’s pristine pool, replete with views of Fuji. Located in Shinjuku, you’re in the middle of Tokyo’s madding crowd but far above it. (Many of the rooms also have Fuji views.) The spa, particularly if you do a treatment or two before or after a long flight, represents that uniquely Japanese luxury vibe of perfectly balanced modernity and tranquility; the shiatsu here can definitely be a beating but it’s good for the soul.
Sleep, swim & spa: Book your room or a spa visit here.
The spiritual heart of Japan, you can’t miss seeing Fuji. (Actually, you can: I visited in May once and couldn’t see it through the low clouds when I was right at the base of the mountain.) However, if you stay at the Hotel Kaneyamaen in Yamanashi, that doesn’t matter so much. This hotel has some of the most amazing Japanese gardens tucked behind its modern exterior. Even if you’re not that into gardens, you’ll be amazed. You should not miss the hotel’s wonderful onsen baths that overlook Fuji and are often mini-gardens in their own right. As if that’s not enough, on many nights, there are evening Taiko drum performances at the hotel which you can watch while wearing your yukata robe. The meals at the hotel are also fabulous, making this one place you truly don’t need or want to leave.
Get floral & float near Fuji: Visit the Kaneyamaen.
Kyoto & Nara
Going to Japan without visiting Kyoto is like eating peanut butter without jelly. In fact (no offense to Tokyo), but Kyoto, Japan’s traditional heart, is the place where you should spend most of your time if you only have a week or so.
Be sure to check out a Kyoto event calendar before you go so you don’t miss the numerous events at temples, shrines, bamboo forests, and gardens. (Also be sure to visit the temple dedicated to your lunar birth year!) Kyoto is a great place to take a class in traditional arts or to take a private guided tour based on your interests; my mom and I took an ikebana class with a private guided garden tour which was an insightful and inspiring experience.
Kyoto is THE place to indulge in a traditional ryokan experience, the traditional Japanese lodging where you get to sleep on a tatami mat and have a delicious, zillion course kaiseki meal brought to you in your private quarters. (Kyoto is also the gastronomic heart of Japan.) While there are many places to choose from, the Tamahan is a fantastic place to partake in the ryokan experience. Located in the heart of Gion (the geisha district), the Tamahan’s staff are wonderful, the chef gets ingredients from the market every day, and you can soak in your cedar tub after a hard day’s sightseeing (with a few lemons tossed in for good measure). My mom and I had a hard time leaving here after staying for almost a week
Nara, about 30 minutes by train from Kyoto, is where Buddhism started in Japan so this World Heritage location is definitely worth a look. Nara hosts some really impressive temples and giant Buddhas as well as sacred deer (who are actually cunning, dangerous little bastards – beware).
I once stayed in Nara for a few nights as I had a special tiger temple to visit for the Year of the Tiger, but unless you’re doing something like that, Nara is a bit sleepy in the evenings and much better for a day trip from Kyoto. I wouldn’t miss it, however, it’s fascinating.
Experience an amazing Kyoto ryokan: Here’s the Tamahan.
Read: The Tale of Genji (the world’s first novel, written by a woman too!) and of course, Memoirs of a Geisha
Don’t tell Tokyo, but Osaka is my favorite city in Japan. The people are much more laid back (probably because there’s a little more breathing room), there’s tons of great food and fun to be had, and most important, the city is home to the Hanshin Tigers, where I saw the best baseball game I have ever seen (keeping in mind I am a Cubs fan and consider a day game at Wrigley to be one of life’s best experiences.)
Marching band sections keep the crowd going, around 60,000 fans let off phallic ballons at the 7th inning stretch, the ballpark food is Japanese BBQ goodness, and the nice beer ladies serve pleasingly cold lager and never let you go dry. I used Japanball.com to book tickets to the game, which were delivered to our hotel. Easy peasy for a truly unforgettable and very Japanese experience. Even if you don’t like baseball, you should not miss a game if you’re there for the season.
Book some Osaka baseball: Here’s the site. (They do tickets for other teams in other cities as well as sumo tickets too.)
For all sorts of useful Japan goodness: Many Japanese websites get a little bit lost in translation. Japanican.com is really helpful for hotel descriptions and other travel info in English.