Soaking in an onsen at a traditional ryokan, slurping a bowl of hot and hearty ramen, feeling the electric energy on the bustling streets of Shibuya – these are the experiences travellers have so sorely missed since Japan was forced to close its borders to international visitors two years ago. Now, with the country’s imminent unrestricted reopening to vaccinated travellers on October 11 (check the official government website for visa, health insurance, and other requirements), the moment we’ve all been waiting for is almost here: we can start planning a trip to Japan. Whether you’re visiting for a week or a month, you shouldn’t miss these five quintessential experiences.
Find peace in a shrine
Peaceful gardens are abundant in Japan. In Kyoto, Heian Shrine is an enchanting sanctuary (Scarlett Johansson wandered the grounds here in the Sofia Coppola film Lost In Translation) which pays tribute to the original Imperial Palace that stood there centuries ago. Wander the tranquil grounds with its large pond and many flowers – the cherry blossoms are in full bloom around the middle of April.
APA Hotel Kyoto Gion EXCELLENT is in the heart of Kyoto and just a four-minute walk from Gion-Shijo Station (and about five minutes by car from the shrine). Meanwhile, in Osaka, Shitennoji – constructed in 593AD – is one of the oldest temples in the country; it has been destroyed and rebuilt throughout the centuries and features an idyllic pebble-covered inner courtyard that gives way to a gleaming red and gold pagoda. ibis Styles Osaka Namba, with its unbeatable location in the middle of the Dotonbori area, is a great hotel for those who want to be within a quick taxi’s distance to the shrine — and all the action of Osaka.
Savour a perfect bowl of ramen
A steaming bowl of ramen, with its slippery noodles, soft egg and tender meat swimming in a rich, umami broth, is an essential culinary experience in Japan. You can’t go wrong with any of the choices along Tokyo Ramen Street, a strip of restaurants beneath Tokyo Station where each venue offers its own version. (Ramen joint Gyoku is famous for its perfectly balanced broth made with a base of chicken and dried fish.) Mercure Hotel Ginza, a welcoming 208-room French-themed property with rooms that are generously sized by Tokyo standards, is helpfully close to Ramen Street.
Soak up Shibuya
Utterly bursting with energy and life, Shibuya is Tokyo’s famous shopping and entertainment district, best known for Shibuya Crossing – the busiest pedestrian intersection in the world. Shibuya is the place to people-watch and soak up the vibrant, electric atmosphere, especially at night when the streets and buildings are lit up in a sea of flashing neon. If you’re in the area, don’t skip dining at Hakushu, a cosy family-run restaurant that regularly wins awards for its melt-in-your-mouth Wagyu beef. Anywhere along Nonbei Yokocho (“Drunkard’s Alley”), a well-populated lantern-lit laneway where locals and visitors alike head to clink glasses and stay up late, is a characterful place for an after-dinner drink. Put your feet up at Shinjuku Prince Hotel, a boutique-feel property with glittering city views and simple rooms that strike the perfect balance between Japanese tradition and modern design.
Stay at a ryokan
Japan’s ryokans, which provide homestay-style accommodation similar to inns or B&Bs where the focus is on ritual, rest and relaxation, are part of a long-standing village tradition. Ryokans, ranging from the basic to the luxurious, usually offer rooms of sleek timbers and paper partitions, centring on the ritual of soaking in the communal spas, and kaiseki-style meals which feature multiple courses of seasonal Japanese cuisine. It’s the warm hospitality that makes staying at a ryokan so unique; you’ll typically be offered tea and sweets when you arrive, a robe and slippers to wear around the grounds, and your room will be turned down while you’re at dinner.
Often found in Japan’s smaller villages, ryokans such as Onsen Ryokan Mitake, within the bounds of tranquil Fuji Hakone Izu National Park, or Kyoto Ohara Ryokan Seryo, tucked into the quiet countryside surrounding Kyoto, offer a comfortable — and culturally insightful – stay in Japan.
See a sumo wrestling match
Sumo wrestling, Japan’s national sport, is anchored in culture and tradition – also, it’s a lot of fun to watch. Tokyo’s riverside Ryogoku district is the centre of the sumo world, being host to Ryogoku Kokugikan arena where the tournaments in January, May and September are held. It’s also home to the wrestlers’ living stables, where competitors live and train and you can get a glimpse into the day-to-day life of a sumo with a guided tour. (To really get into the spirit, order chanko nabe, a hot pot dish sumos fuel up on, at a local restaurant.) Want to stay close to the action? Shiba Park Hotel, a charming library-themed hotel, has a cosy atmosphere and is about 15 minutes away.