April 13, 2024

Tokyo Skyline with Mt. Fuji

Covering Tokyo, Kyoto, Mount Fuji, Osaka and more… (Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto)

It’s Friday night and I’m sat in the corner of a dive bar in Hiroshima sipping a local plum wine and cheering on a group of three Japanese businessmen, dressed in full suit-and-briefcase attire, battling it out playing Pac-Man on an old arcade machine next to me.

I can’t help but wonder, has my Japan trip peaked?

Travelling across five main locations, the aim of my two-and-a-half-week trip is to immerse myself in Japanese culture, cuisine and history – and learn more about what this fascinating country has to offer.

It seems my idea isn’t the most original either – what with Japan now ranking as one of the highest trending destinations for 2024, as well as recently being named the top spot for solo travellers.

For those considering a trip there soon, know that you can cram a lot into just a couple of weeks – mainly thanks to the country’s high-speed bullet trains, which whiz you from one location to the next.

For example, my 16-day holiday covered Tokyo, Mount Fuji, Kyoto, Osaka and Hiroshima – taking between 1-3 hours to jump from one location to the next. It’s also worth pointing out that now Japan Rail Pass prices have risen by 70%, it actually might be cheaper for you to pay for single journeys, depending on your route.

If the country’s bountiful offering is enough to make you feel overwhelmed, here’s a two-and-a-half-week itinerary mapped out for you…

Tokyo (1-5 days)

Lizzie with the Tokyo skyline

The view from Shibuya Sky (Picture: Lizzie Thomson)

Our trip started in Tokyo, and for Japan first timers the sheer size of the city is likely to be your main takeaway – it was the first thing that blew me away when we touched down in Haneda airport. It’s the largest city by metropolitan area in the world, with a population of 37.3 million.

The best way to soak this up is by visiting one of the city’s many viewpoints and Shibuya Sky should be top of your list for the 360-degree open-air factor. Just be sure to book in advance and sunset is widely considered one of the best times to go, so you can witness the city skyline by day and night.

While visiting Shibuya be sure to tick off the Meiji Jingu shrine and the Shibuya Crossing, which is often dubbed as ‘the busiest pedestrian intersection in the world.’

Shinjuku

Shinjuku comes alive at night (Picture: Lizzie Thomson)

One of our Tokyo highlights was the vibrant neighbourhood of Shinjuku, including the tranquil national garden (with the concrete jungle skyscrapers as the backdrop) as well as the tastiest, no-fuss (but delicious) ramen you’ll ever have at Tatsunoya, where the tonkotsu broth (pork bones and water) is simmered for 15 plus hours. Our two ramen bowls, plus a beer and two cokes, cost us just £15.

Food in Tokyo comes in two extremes, from authentic street food – like the sensational yakitori (grilled meat skewers) at Omoide Yokocho – to Michelin-starred dining, including the likes of Narisawa (which is the ultimate luxurious dining experience). Both showing the city’s offering through completely different culinary lenses.

Tokyo station

Tokyo station should be on your list (Picture: Lizzie Thomson)

Michelin-starred restaurant Est, located in Four Seasons Otemachi, was an absolute standout though – with wagyu, Hokkaido scallops and miso monkfish on the menu. This was my first time trying Japanese wine too – let alone a Japanese Chardonnay – and it was an unexpected delight.

You don’t see much Japanese wine in the UK, or even in other parts of the world for that matter. That’s because, as our sommelier tells us, the country’s produce is so good, winemakers prefer to share it with the population rather than export it en masse.

On the topic of drinks, while you’re at the Four Seasons a visit to award-winning VIRTÙ – headed up by the talented Keith Motsi – is a must. Keith’s passion for giving Japanese bars the attention they deserve shines through and his cocktail wizardry and outstanding drinks knowledge, as well as the doting bar staff, makes leaving this opulent Art Deco watering hole pretty impossible.

For a boozy night, bar-hop around Golden Gai, a network of six narrow alleys with little bars peppered throughout. 

Kabukiza Theatre

Kabukiza Theatre in Tokyo (Picture: Lizzie Thomson)



Tokyo checklist:

  • Shibuja Sky for views of Tokyo
  • Lunch at est (in the Four Seasons Otemachti)
  • Shibuja crossing
  • Shinjuku National garden
  • Drinks at Virtu
  • Eat yakatori at Omoide Yokocho
  • Bar hop around Golden Gai
  • Kabukiza Theatre
  • Tokyo station

Mount Fuji (2 days)

A view of Mount Fuji from a hitel window

Breakfast with a view (Picture: Lizzie Thomson)

It may be a slight detour from bullet train routes, but spending a portion of your trip in Japan’s natural beauty is a must. After all, what trip to the country would be complete without seeing the majestic Mount Fuji in all its glory? Among the Fuji Five Lakes – which are designated as a World Cultural Heritage – Lake Kawaguchiko is the easiest to access (a two-hour bus from Tokyo). 

Once you’re there, Villa Hanz Glamping is the perfect base for the rural part of your itinerary, particularly with the 3,776-metre high stratovolcano as the backdrop to this resort.

Mount Fuji near a lake

Mount Fuji looking majestic as hell (Picture: Lizzie Thomson)

This luxury glamping site (think bougie pods with heaters and mini fridges) will make you feel right at home, while the resort’s activity offering of hiking, kayaking and stargazing will ensure you make the most of rural retreat.

Kyoto (1-3 days)

The Golden Pavilion

The ‘Golden Pavilion’ speaks for itself (Picture: Lizzie Thomson)

My first impression of Kyoto was how it was the perfect example of old meets new, but the thing that stood out the most was simply how stunning it was – a respite from Tokyo’s concrete jungle. 

The former Japanese capital has historic temples and sublime gardens nestled alongside bustling new food markets and shopping districts. It’s a city with a lot of natural beauty that also somehow spotlights the area’s rich history, from the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest to the ‘Golden Pavilion’. 

Lizzie in Kyoto

Kyoto is home to so many historic sites (Picture: Lizzie Thomson)

If you tick off one attraction in Kyoto, let it be the famous Fushimi Inari-Taisha. The red shrine gates follow a pathway that wanders 4km up the mountain – which, after a whole day of sightseeing, was pretty knackering. Nevertheless, was worth it for the view at the top – even in the dark.

Kyoto is also an excellent spot to sample some of the country’s vast cuisine. Comfort food doesn’t get much better than the curry udon at Mimikou – where a Kyoto-style curry soup marries thick wheat noodles in a curry powder-thickened Japanese soup stock called ‘dashi’.

You also can’t visit Japan without trying traditional okonomiyaki (a Japanese teppanyaki, savory pancake dish made with cabbage, meat and cheese) and Kyo Chabana is the spot to sample it in Kyoto.

Fushimi Inari-Taisha

Fushimi Inari-Taisha is a must-visit (Picture: Lizzie Thomson)

A view from Fushimi Inari-Taisha

And worth the trek for this view (Picture: Lizzie Thomson)



Kyoto checklist:

  • Arashiyama Bamboo Forest
  • The ‘Golden Pavilion’
  • Fushimi Inari-Taisha
  • Curry udon at Mimikou
  • Okonomiyaki at Kyo Chabana

Hiroshima (2 days)

A man playing Pac-Man in a Hiroshima dive bar

Hiroshima has an incredible dive bar scene (Picture: Lizzie Thomson)

It might seem slightly out of the way, geographically, for a two-week Japan trip but believe me when I say this stop should definitely be on your itinerary. Plus, it’s only a tour-hour train on the trusty (literally, it’s never late) bullet train.

As someone who has always been interested in WW2 history, visiting Hiroshima felt more than just an itinerary pit spot, it felt like a necessity – and it was a sobering reminder of what took place at 8.15am on the morning of August 6 1945, and its aftermath.

The bomb obliterated nearly everything within a two kilometer radius – now the city’s re-built legacy urges one crucial message: never again.

The A-Bomb Dome, still in its original bombed-out condition with pieces of 1945 rubble on the ground, remains in tact – but really that’s it. Everything else has been rebuilt. Now there’s a well-manicured Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and a Museum – which houses belongings and artefacts, and tells the stories of the victims.

But what caught me off-guard the most was the city’s incredible underground nightlife scene – dive bars like Mac Bar and Stevie Wonderland, in particular, where you can while away the hours listening to vinyls while sipping on local beers and traditional plum wine.



Hiroshima checklist:

  • A-Bomb Dome
  • Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and a Museum
  • Mac Bar
  • Stevie Wonderland

Osaka and Nara (3-4 days)

An hour-and-a-half away from Hiroshima and on the way back to Tokyo, neon playground Osaka is the ideal spot for your trip’s finale.

What can only be described as Japan’s equivalent to Time Square, the Dōtonbori district comes alive at nighttime with eye-catching signage and riverside shops and restaurants. 

A day trip to Nara Park will also see you get up close and personal with TikTok’s famous ‘polite’ deer, which bow to you in return for crackers.

Top tip, try to feed a solo deer, otherwise you might be subjected to a herd showdown, with multiple chasing you for your crumbs (trust me, I speak from experience here).



Osaka checklist:

  • Dōtonbori district
  • Day trip to Nara Park

Lizzie at Nara Deer Park

It’s a top TikTok spot (Picture: Lizzie Thomson)

My main takeaway from my two-week trip, however, is simply how everything is better in Japan: from self-flushing toilets and exceptional hospitality, to the highest standard of foods – beyond anything I’ve ever tasted.

It’s a country that’s stolen a piece of my heart – and has left me dreaming of those efficient bullet trains while I’m waiting 10 minutes for the dreaded Circle Line back home.



Where to stay in Japan:

From glass lifts, to hot spring baths and a swim over Tokyo, here are six hotels that made my two-week holiday to Japan…

Tokyo

Bellustar Tokyo

Bellustar Tokyo

(Picture: Supplied)

Located in the heart of Shinjuku, this lavish skyscraper hotel is an excellent base point for a Tokyo first-timer or a seasoned visitor. The 97-room hotel is spread out across three floors, which also houses the five deluxe penthouses (some of which are double-storey)

panpacific.com

Hotel Groove

Hotel Groove

(Picture: Supplied)

While Bellustar occupies the upper half of Tokyo’s 48-storey Kabukicho tower, Hotel Groove lies in the lower one – and it’s the quirky and playful younger sibling of the two – with smaller rooms, bar and dining space, JAM17 and a roof terrace.

panpacific.coml

Four Seasons Otemachi

Four Seasons Otemachi

(Picture: Supplied)

For a hotel that ticks all the boxes, look no further than the Four Seasons Otematchi. From a Michelin-star restaurant to an award-winning bar, not to mention sensational views of Tokyo.

fourseasons.com/otemachi

Mount Fuji

Villa Hanz Glamping

Villa Hanz Glamping

(Picture: Lizzie Thomson)

Villa Hanz offers rural respite from city chaos. With both glamping and villa options available, you can stay with views of the 3,776-metre high stratovolcano. The site’s Pao pods offers a camping experience with a luxury twist.

gv-hanz.com/en/

Kyoto

Roku Kyoto, LXR Hotels & Resorts

Roku Kyoto, LXR Hotels & Resorts

(Picture: Supplied)

This spot is nestled in rolling foothills of the ancient capital’s north western mountain range, offering a natural sanctuary. Guests have five different room types to choose from. A firm favourite, however, is the Garden Deluxe rooms, which come with their own small Japanese-style garden, plus a roomy bath inside supplied with hot spring onsen water.

hilton.com/en/hotels/itmolol-roku-kyoto

Hiroshima and Osaka

Hilton Hiroshima and Hilton Osaka

Hilton Hiroshima and Hilton Osaka

(Picture: Supplied)

For creatures of habit when they’re abroad, Hilton has a number of hotels across Japan, each offering something a little different.

Hilton Hiroshima for example, is one of the newest additions. The hotel is also situated in the centre of Hiroshima City, so is the ideal base point for exploring what this destination has to offer.

Hilton Osaka is another great choice, nestled amongst the city’s vibrant Umeda district and train station – so is particularly convenient if you’re planning on heading to Nara for the day.

hilton.com



Getting there:

Flights to Japan start from £460 return on Skyscanner with one stopover.

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