Where do you begin as a first-timer in Japan? Tokyo, naturally. The iconic capital is a jumble of soaring skyscrapers and hidden alleyways, with a palpable energy that can be overwhelming at times. But mostly, it feels terrific. And then there’s Kyoto. A slow-paced, temple-tiered city that feels a world apart from those bustling Tokyo streets. Here, ancient temples stand tall, forests replace concrete jungles and venerable traditions trump all. Further north on Japan’s Hokkaido island is Niseko, a tiny ski village known for its exceptional snow. Skiing all day, eating sashimi and drinking sake all night is pretty much the norm here, so go with an empty belly and a healthy dose of energy. Here’s how to do Japan three ways.
Travel Japan three ways with this guide
Days in the capital are mostly spent on foot, transitioning between trains and pounding pavements in search of a few of the city’s notable hidden gems. With this in mind, it’s essential that you check into a bang-up hotel where you can rest after a long day. Hoshinoya Tokyo in the city’s Otemachi economic district is modelled on a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn). It offers a slice of old-school Japan in its most modern city. Shoes are removed at the entrance and design elements include tatami mats and shoji sliding screens. There’s even an open-air ‘hot spring’ bath on the top floor, with sake tastings every afternoon.
Picking where to stay is easy; choosing where to eat… not so much. Narrow down your options by what you feel like eating. For omakase (a meal with dishes selected by the chef), try Kyubey sushi restaurant or the Michelin-starred Sushi Aoki. Want noodles? Head to the soba noodle shops Honmura An or Kanda Matsuya. For gyoza (stuffed dumplings), Anda Gyoza is your best bet. And, for ramen, we recommend Afuri izakaya (gastropub). Finally, for street snacks such as matcha ice creams and taiyaki (fish-shaped cakes filled with red bean paste), Tsukiji Outer Market has plenty on offer.
After Tokyo, Kyoto on Honshu island will feel a bit like a rural village. But the city is home to some of the country’s prettiest and most historic sites. Shrines, forests, gardens and temples should be at the top of your list here. The Arashiyama Bamboo Grove is an unmissable sight, as is the gold-leaf clad Kinkaku-ji Zen Buddhist temple and the red Fushimi Inari Shrine of the god Inari.
For lunch, enjoy delicate tempura and fresh tofu at Tempura Matsu restaurant. If you fancy pizza made from local ingredients for supper, the keyhole-sized Monk restaurant off the Philosopher’s Walk pedestrian path is a winner. With its great selection of rice wines, Sake Bar Asakura is ideal for an authentic after-dinner sake experience. Coffee-lovers will be pleased to know that hipster coffee is a huge deal in Kyoto, making % Arabica Kyoto Arashiyama and Kurasu the perfect pit stops for a flat white.
When your day of eating and sightseeing is done, the five-star Ritz-Carlton hotel on the banks of the Kamogawa River is a luxurious spot in which to spend the night.
While snow dwindles in parts of Europe, Niseko is almost invariably blanketed in it. Centred around the grand Mount Yōtei (the Mount Fuji of Hokkaido), Niseko is blessed with as many onsens (hot springs) as ski slopes. Public onsens are sprinkled around the region, but Green Leaf Niseko Village Hotel has private ones for men and women. They offer the best possible rest after a day on the slopes.
Nearby in Hirafu village, restaurants such as Ebisutei and The Barn by Odin keep skiers’ hunger pangs at bay. While bars like Bar Gyu (aka the Fridge Door Bar) provide a steady stream of liquor, you can fight off any hangover with a fresh intake of mountain air.