Ever since we had a cherry blossom tree in our garden when I was a girl I loved everything about it – the first time flower buds appear, the magical time when the tree is in full bloom and the sight when the blossoms fall like snow after the flowering season. The Japanese love for this delicate and transient flower seems to be even greater than my admiration for them. The time of year that we chose to discover Japan therefore had to be during what the Japanese call ‘Hanami’ – cherry blossom viewing.
It was a rather challenging undertaking to plan our trip as it is not possible to fully predict when the cherry blossoms are in flower. There is a rough estimate but it depends on weather conditions and locations – plus the blossoms only last for about 10 days. We were indecisive as to whether we should book our flight out for the end of March or the beginning of April but eventually settled for the 25th of March. Luckily when we arrived in Tokyo the cherry blossom trees had just opened and some of the flower buds in Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden were still closed.
Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden is home to an amazing number of cherry blossom trees (about 1,500) that flower in various different shades of pink. It was initially built as an imperial garden but is now open to the public for a small entry fee. It blends different styles of landscape with manicured English lawns, a rose garden as well as a traditional Japanese garden with a large pond and tea house. The sight of the many cherry blossom trees in bloom was stunning and out of all parks that we visited during our stay in Japan this was the most beautiful.
From Shinjuku Gyoen Park we had an interesting walk to the district of Golden Gai in the pursuit of authentic Ramen. It lies within Kabukicho, Tokyo’s entertainment and red light district. The narrow alleyways and two stored houses give a taste of the old world Tokyo, away from the modern skyscrapers and crowds.
Nagi Ramen is tucked away on the second floor in one of the old wooden houses in Golden Gai. Once we reached their shop, up a narrow staircase, we were told to buy one of their Ramen tickets at a machine before being rushed back down to queue in a narrow alleyway between the houses. Once spaces freed up we were called through a tube to come back up. With only 10 counter seats the space was rather crowded which added to the unique atmosphere. The noodles were freshly prepared and carefully weighed before being entered into their signature boiling sardine broth. The ramen was excellent and the chewy texture of the noodles dangerously addictive!
We stayed at the Conrad, located in Shiodome, only a 10 to 15 minute walk to Ginza – Tokyo’s modern shopping district with countless boutiques and well dressed shop windows. The hotel offered panoramic views of Tokyo’s skyscrapers, Hamarikyo Garden and Tokyo bay. Our bay view suite was spacious with a separate living room and floor to ceiling windows. The hotel also offered two Michelin-starred restaurants and one of the best breakfast buffets that I have ever had in a hotel.
The long pool and comfortable lounge chairs in the spa area were much appreciated after long city excursions on foot.
Our aim was to try as many different traditional Japanese foods as possible during our trip. For Tempura, the Japanese version of deep fried food, we went to Ippoh. It’s sister restaurant in Kyoto holds a Michelin star and both are entirely devoted to tempura dishes. From our counter seats we watched the chef dip different fresh vegetables, mushrooms and seafood into a light batter before frying them in safflower oil. The result was not comparable to western style fried food – the batter was light, fluffy and the food inside beautifully fresh.
The restaurant was located within Ginza – conveniently within walking distance of our hotel.
After an eventful day we settled for a nightcap in front of the fire at Conrad’s Twenty Eight Bar & Lounge.
The next day we had an early start to visit the worlds largest fish market, Tsukiji Fish Market, which was a short walk from our hotel (it will be moved to a different location in the future). Very keen visitors can queue up before 5 am to witness the tuna auction from the visitor gallery. The market became a very popular tourist attraction over the years, however, tourists are only allowed to enter the main market after 9 am to not disturb the trade. We found the market to have an incredibly busy atmosphere with serious buyers and sellers around the many stalls and scooters and trucks that drove about.
After having seen the fresh fish at Tsukiji Market we were on our way to have lunch at Sushi Sora at the Mandarin Oriental hotel. This stylish small restaurant with its intimate eight-seating dining counter serves one of the finest and freshest sushi in Tokyo with stunning views over Tokyo’s skyline.
The sushi was served with real wasabi, traditionally ground into a fine paste on a shark skin grater. Wasabi is difficult to grow and therefore rather expensive, a common substitute consists of a mixture of horseradish, Japanese mustard and food colouring, more often served with sushi.
The individual sushi pieces were skillfully molded by the sushi master into small bits of perfection and were beautifully presented in front of us with a small description of what we were about to eat.
After lunch we continued to discover Tokyo and its many beautiful parks. Yoyogi park is free to enter and much livelier than Shinjuku Gyoen Garden. Filled with young people that meet up on blue sheets under the cherry blossom trees to enjoy their bento boxes and sake to celebrate ‘Hanami’ together.
Ueno park, a highly rated hanami hotspot, was even busier than Yoyogi park. Crowds of people walked under the canopy of pink cherry blossoms or had picnics below the trees.
We did not have the time to discover all of what Ueno Park had to offer. It houses Tokyo’s zoo, various temples, shrines and museums.
Our time in Tokyo eventually came to an end. It was exhilarating to experience the pedestrian crowds, noise and neon lights of Tokyo. Shibuya crossing captured that feel of Tokyo perfectly, surrounded by huge screens, neon lights and hundreds of people crossing Tokyo’s famous intersection.
A trip to Japan would not have been complete for me without seeing its iconic landmark – Mount Fuji. When we arrived in Kawaguchiko, only about a 2 hour train ride from Tokyo, Mount Fuji was covered in clouds and I feared that I might not see the 3,776 m high volcano after all. However, the next morning before sunrise, the sky cleared up, giving us an unobstructed view of Mount Fuji, reflected in the waters of Lake Kawaguchiko.
From Kawaguchiko we continued our journey to Kyoto – one of the most culturally rich cities in Asia. It is home to 17 UNESCO World Heritage sites and over 2,000 temples and shrines. We had to carefully compose a list of places to see with Fushimi Inari Shrine right on top of that list. The shrine is dedicated to the gods of rice and sake. A path behind the main shrine, formed of hundreds of red torii (gates) leads up Inari-yama mountain. We were one of the first visitors, enjoying the crisp, fresh morning air and the first rays of sun shining through the gates.
Next on our list was Kinkaku-ji temple also known as the Golden Pavilion. It is one of Kyoto’s most famous sights with its golden colour reflected in the pond beneath. It was originally built as a retirement villa for Ashikaga Yoshimitsu before it became a zen temple after his death.
Yoshimutu’s grandson, Ashikaga Yoshimasa, took inspiration from Kinkaku-ji to build Ginkaku-ji. The temple is also known as Silver Pavilion as Yoshimasa intended to cover the main pavilion in silver as tribute to his grandfather, which was never realised.
From Ginkaku-ji temple to the neighbourhood of Nanzenji runs the beautiful Philosopher’s Path, a canal lined with hundreds of cherry trees, named after the famous philosopher, Nishida Kitaro, who used to walk along the stone path.
In Nanzenji we visited Nanzen-ji temple which is located at the base of Higashiyama mountains. The spacious grounds on which it is build include many sub-temples as well as an aqueduct which are well worth exploring. On our way out we climbed up a flight of stairs to reach the balcony of the Sanmon Entrance Gate from where we had stunning views over Kyoto and the forested mountains.
Not too far from Nanzen-ji temple was Chion-in temple, located in Higashiyama-ku, the headquarters of the Jodo School of Buddhism. Its San-mon (Buddhist temple gate) is the largest wooden gate in Japan. Chion-in also served as film set in 2002 for the film The Last Samurai with Tom Cruise.
One of the final temples on our list was Kiyomizu-dera temple – a UNESCO World Heritage site. Located halfway up Otowa Mountain, it is best know for its large wooden platform that offers spectacular views over Kyoto and the many cherry blossom and maple trees of the hillside below. Part of the temple has been under construction with some of the buildings covered in scaffolding at the time of our visit.
The last temple we visited was Kodai-ji temple, which sits on top of a slight hill above Gion district, featuring a beautiful rock garden, tea houses and bamboo grove. On the way back down and past the bamboo grove we were able to see the statue of Kannon located at the nearby Ryozen Kannon Temple.
Part of our culinary journey through Japanese cuisine had to be a taste of the world’s priciest beef – Japanese Wagyu beef, which we enjoyed at Hafuu Honten. The set menu that we ordered included grilled, thinly sliced briskets (first picture above) that were absolutely delicious as were the other small dishes and deserts but the real stars of the menu were the sirloin steaks. Wagyu steak is famed for its high level of fat marbling that lets the beef melt in your mouth. We do now understand the hype about this meat – it was the most juicy and flavoursome meat, grilled to perfection by Hafuu’s chefs. An unmissable experience for meat lovers!
Kyoto was a fantastic place for Hanami – the cherry blossom trees were well integrated into Kyotos cityscape. At night some of the trees were even lit up for Hanami such as the famous weeping tree in Marauama-koen.
We were very lucky with the weather in Japan with only one rainy day in Kyoto during which we stayed in our very spacious and well appointed suite with a separate Japanese style living room at the Hyatt Regency, overlooking a well groomed little garden with a pond and two cherry blossom trees.
Once the rain settled we strolled through Gion – Kyoto’s entertainment and geisha district. The old traditional houses, art galleries and ochaya’s (tea-houses) give this district its distinct character. My read during our stay was Arthur Golden’s novel ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ and naturally it would have been an absolute highlight for me to see a genuine geisha hurling through the streets. I have not been lucky enough but it was still exciting to see tourists in Geisha make up and costumes.
Not far from Gion, across Kamo river, is the district of Pontocho, an incredible charming place that is lit by countless lanterns at night when waves of people sweep through Pontoncho alley with its many bars, restaurants and tea houses.
In order to continue our culinary journey through Japanese cuisine we headed to Michelin starred restaurant Nishimura in Gion. The place had an energy and sense of humor that we have not encountered in a Michelin starred restaurant before. We had counter seats from where we could engage with the owner who loved to make his customers laugh. Eventually everyone around the counter, stranger or not, eventually became best friends for the night. The food was well appointed and delicious as well with Japanese delicacies like firefly squid and mackerel sushi.
On our last day/morning in Kyoto we visited the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, located on the outskirts of Kyoto. It was very peaceful to walk through the lush green and tall bamboos, giving a sense of tranquility and calmness.
The bamboo grove was not the only attraction of Arashiyama – the landscape behind the grove with mountain and river views was fantastic. It is also the location of Hoshinoya hotel (seen on the left side in the picture above) that can only be reached by boat.
We left Kyoto for some zen at Beniya Mukayu near Kanazawa. We found the hotel on Mr&Mrs Smith and really liked the pictures on their website. The service was outstanding with friendly staff, complimentary morning yoga as well as an introductory tea ceremony by Kazunari Nakamichi, the hotel owner himself. Once we slipped into our kimonos, that were laid out in our room for us, we were ready to unwind and enjoy the relaxing atmosphere at Beniya.
What really distinguished this hotel however was their food with incredibly fresh and seasonal produce from the region. Their menu consisted of an array of traditional Japanese delicacies from char grilled bamboo shoots to fire fly squid, sashimi, Japanese beef and other seasonal foods from the region. The meals were accompanied by their own wine which complimented the traditional Japanese courses perfectly.
I also have to mention their most delicious breakfast with fresh fruit, yoghurt, greens, jam and warm slices of white bread. After some gentle morning yoga, it was a lovely start to the day.
For our last night in Tokyo we stayed at the well located Peninsula Hotel which was incredible high-tech. From the bedside panels everything could be controlled from temperature to light and a spa button in the bathroom set the mood for a relaxing bath with calm background music and dimmed light.
For our last meal we chose Peter, one of the dining options at the Peninsula. We ordered another sirloin steak as we just had to have another taste of Wagyu beef while we were still in Japan! The restaurant itself was very stylish with big screens, light features and grandiose views over Tokyo.
We thoroughly enjoyed Japan, the different landscapes, incredibly delicious and healthy food, the extraordinary friendly people and of course the cherry blossoms that were already starting to fall the morning we left.