When you get an email on a cold November day asking if you’d like to join JNTO for a week-long trip to Japan in a few weeks’ time, it was like Christmas had come early…and the only possible answer is ‘Yes’. You then send an email straight back saying ‘thank you’ a million times and start packing. Japan, for me, has been at the top of my ever-growing travel list for longer than I can remember so to finally be going was incredible. So, sit back, grab a coffee and let me tell you all about it – it might take a while….
Day 1: Tokyo
Sunday, 8am and I’m all checked in at Heathrow T5. I’m sat with a coffee trying to wake myself up and my phone pings – it’s the trip WhatsApp group! We don’t know each other so what happens next is an odd blind-date type game of the group locating themselves around the airport – ‘I’m in Starbucks’, ‘I’m in Giraffe’ – and then the ‘me too – I have blonde hair and glasses’ and the gradual gravitation of the group towards each other. Actually, by the time we were at the gate, we’d pretty much located the entire group – just the odd one or two to find later.
Fast forward 11 hours, it’s 7.30am and we’ve landed at Tokyo Haneda – this is the most central airport for Tokyo – Narita is quite a distance outside of the city. A quick note on the flight – we flew with British Airways and I have to say, it was one of the best BA flights I have taken in a long time. The plane was new and the seat pitch in economy was roomy; the crew were friendly and helpful; the food was tasty (including an ice cream mid-way) and there was plenty of good films to keep us entertained – what more do you need.
Ok, back to Tokyo. After passing through a temperature scanner, immigration and baggage (and meeting the last member of the group) we emerge into arrivals ready for our first day in Japan. We were immediately met by the friendly face of Miki, our fabulous guide for the week, and Sayaka from the JNTO office in Tokyo and it was straight onto a coach and into Tokyo.
JNTO had very kindly rented portable Wi-Fi devices for everyone to use for the entire trip which was a really nice touch, especially when most phone companies will charge you a daily fee to use your data while in Japan. If you’re spending time on land in Japan, this is a really cost-effective way to stay in touch and the little devices are rentable from the airport. Plus of course, all hotels have Wi-Fi if you can cope with being off radar until you’re back at your base.
First stop today was Tokyo port and the opportunity to meet the team there and see the new terminal currently under construction. It’s due to open in July and excitingly for us, will welcome Crystal Endeavor in August when her maiden voyage leaves from here*. The new port facilities are linked to the monorail system and it’s only around 10-15 minutes into the downtown area of the city. If you wanted to stay on and just ride the monorail loop – that takes an hour. One thing to note is that unlike the London underground system, all the train lines in Tokyo are owned by different companies and so require different tickets. You can get a day pass, however this needs to be purchased from a station on arrival – not something you can pre-book. After our update at the port and a good look at all the exciting plans for the new terminal it was back on the coach and on our way to teamLab.
I think you need to google teamLab first, as a video will explain it much more than I can with the written word – it is all about the sensory experience after all. It may seem an odd thing to do on our first day in Tokyo however remember we’ve been on an 11 hour flight, and we’ve essentially missed a nights sleep so JNTO need to keep us awake (we can’t waste precious time sleeping – we’re only here for five days)…and boy did this keep you awake.
It’s a fully immersive art gallery which brings together experiences for all the senses – for example; there is a huge room of knee-deep water which you walk through, and fish and other creatures are projected in the water all around you so it feels like you’re walking through a pond full of life; a room full of strings of lights hanging from the high ceiling which change colour and speed, and are reflected in the mirrored floor so you have a sense of it being endless; and another room which is full of squishy pillows which you have to climb over to get through…or not if you’re over tired like us – you just fall over and can’t get up for laughing too much! If you’re fit and able and have a spare hour in Tokyo, I would thoroughly recommend a trip here – it was around £22 per person.
For our first lunch in Tokyo we went to The Tavern in Andaz where we were treated to an amazing view from the private dining room and a full menu of delicious treats. The cuisine here is more western than some of the other restaurants we visited, but with a Japanese twist, and really delicious. During the meal, Sayaka took the time to talk us through the work that JNTO are doing to increase the profile of Japan in the UK and specifically what they are doing relating to cruise passengers. There is huge investment being made to specifically welcome cruise passengers to Japan at the moment, and more on that to follow.
Our afternoon was spent visiting the Meiji jingu Shrine which was glorious in the afternoon sunshine and a welcome opportunity to stretch our legs in the fresh air as we walked through the shrine’s gardens. Our guide Miki is so knowledgeable and really took time to explain what was going on at the shrine, why things are done and what things meant; for example how you go about washing your hands before entering the shine – not as simple as it sounds. After just a few hours in Japan, you really start to get the sense of how everything has its process and it’s meaning – nothing is wasted, every action has a purpose.
We also enjoyed an amazing view of Tokyo from the observatory at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building (which is free to visit, you may just have to queue for a little while at busy times) Seeing Tokyo from above is pretty epic – it is just vast expanses of buildings interspersed with the beautiful green areas of parks, gardens and temples. But with a population of 38 million people in Tokyo and its surrounding area, what really did I expect!
By this point in the day, around 5pm, we’re all flagging a little bit so thank goodness it was time to check in to our hotel and freshen up before dinner. We stayed at the Grand Prince Hotel New Takanwa which was perfect for a one-night stay. It is a conference type hotel so missing some of that local charm you might look for on a holiday however the rooms were spacious and had everything you needed…including pyjama’s, toothbrush, razor and comb amongst other things – and this seems to be normal in Japan – all hotels had really great amenity packs. Oh and the TOTO toilet – if you don‘t know what that is, google it – I won’t go in to detail. But they are everywhere in Japan; hotels, restaurants, bars – there is always a TOTO!
Amazingly everyone managed to resist the urge to ‘rest their eyes’ and we all made it down at the planned time, all with a second wind for the evening ahead.
Our first dinner was at Gonpachi Nishiazabu, a Japanese restaurant that felt really local – it was fabulous – and here’s a fun fact, the location for the fight scene in Kill Bill (so one of the group told me). A great atmosphere, really tasty food and friendly staff. We were welcomed with a traditional plum wine and then it was a set price for all your drinks and food for two hours. The food just kept coming as it was freshly cooked in the open kitchen – tempura vegetables, tofu (there’s lots of that!), barbequed steak – a really relaxed choice for our first evening – highly recommend a visit.
After a brief revival with food and a few beers, the lack of sleep was definitely getting to us so it was back to the hotel and into our beds. I slept like a log – I’m not sure I even moved for 10 hours!
Day 2: Yokohama / Kyoto
After the best night’s sleep, there was time for a quick breakfast at the hotel. There was both western and traditional Japanese options on offer so something for every taste. And then just like that, we were leaving Tokyo – such a short visit and I will be back, we didn’t even scratch the surface – but onwards to see more of this amazing country.
Later that day we were getting the bullet train to Kyoto. Something to note when considering this option of travel is that there isn’t a lot of room for luggage on the trains. Our luggage was being taken separately on a truck and we’d be reunited later in the day at our hotel in Kyoto. This is quite a standard practice in Japan and fairly reasonable price wise I believe.
From our hotel in Tokyo, we drove to Sankeien Garden in Yokohama which took about 35 minutes. The great thing about Tokyo is that there isn’t a lot of traffic as most people use the train system so thankfully it was nothing like trying to drive out of central London.
The Sankeien Garden is beautiful and I would thoroughly recommend a visit. It’s a traditional Japanese garden, just how you imagine it to be, with endless paths to wander down and discover bridges and garden buildings, and amazing colours in the planting – Acers as far as you can see. We had a guided tour however you can very easily navigate your way around and they have maps and information flyers in lots of different languages. Here’s a good point to talk weather (well we are British!) Our trip was in the second week of December which isn’t a traditional time to visit Japan however it was glorious. The temperature was around 100C so much like it was a home but it was a lot brighter with sunshine and blue sky most days. It also meant that a lot of the sights were less crowded as it wasn’t peak season – much more pleasant and you could see so much more.
From the garden we moved on to Yokohama’s brand-new cruise terminal – just a 15 minute drive. Now I never thought you could be that impressed with a terminal – they’re all the same right? Wrong! Yokohama is my new favourite. The actual port facilities were immaculate as we walked through as a cruise passenger would. From the dock and security, you then come through into a beautiful shopping arcade with cafes, restaurants and shops and straight out to where the coaches would be. I think what really impressed me is the thought that’s gone in to not only the terminal, but the guests experience of the whole area including the work that has gone in to landscaping around the port to make it easy for guests to walk into downtown Yokohama. Ports are not pretty places, and usually impossible to just walk out of but this was the complete opposite. Above the terminal is the Intercontinental Pier 8 hotel and we were lucky enough to have a little tour – what a perfect place to stay a night before or after your cruise. The rooms are stunning, and most have a view out over the water, but what really sold it for me is the stunning rooftop bar overlooking the bay – the perfect place to watch your ship come in with a glass of something chilled.
Lunch today was just across in downtown Yokohama at the Ocean Terrace restaurant in another Intercontinental hotel. It was a buffet selection which included a number of cooking stations where you could get freshly cooked dishes like tempura vegetables and shrimp.
We were on a strict timeframe for lunch as we had to make our train at 14.29 precisely. This was one of the real highlights for the group and there was much excitement as we stood on the platform waiting for our train to glide in exactly on time. It was like stepping on to a plane more than the trains that we’re used to. Everyone faces the same way and the seats are in a three-two configuration. The seat pitch was huge though – you can easily get up and out without disturbing your neighbour. It was just under two hours from Yokohama to Kyoto and gave us a great view of the Japanese countryside. We also had the pleasure of seeing Mt Fuji – what a sight. The train journey was over in no time and we arrived in Kyoto station. One thing to note – the bullet train can give you the equivalent of sea legs – we were all swaying a bit when we got off – just so you know it’s not just you. We were staying at The Thousand Kyoto for the next two nights and it was a quick 5 minute walk across the road from the station. This was my favourite hotel from the trip – it had a really beautiful modern Japanese style, a calm and serene atmosphere and perfectly placed location wise for exploring Kyoto.
Again, the rooms had everything you could need in terms of amenities, they were spacious, and the bathrooms were stunning with separate shower and bath; separate toilet (TOTO of course) and a large, well-lit vanity area.
We were never far from our next meal – we were so well looked after – and dinner tonight was a traditional Japanese menu in a stunning private dining room at Kiyomizu Kyotohigashiyama. This was our first sense of how intricate and beautiful Japanese food really is – it’s so much about how it looks first and foremost, although the taste is also exceptional. It’s also becoming apparent that traditional Japanese dinners have many courses (this evening we had seven) and how many different ways you can eat tofu. And this was just the beginning of our culinary journey.
Despite the jetlag we decided to end our second night in Japan with a nightcap in a local bar – drinks were to our surprise, not too expensive – similar prices to London really. After just the one, it was time for bed ready for another full day tomorrow.
Day 3: Kyoto
Up bright and early and after breakfast at the hotel we were on the coach, ready to explore the city of temples. Fun fact – the word Kyoto means capital city (and it was the original capital city). Tokyo, the current capital city, means East Capital.
There is only one way you can start your day in the city of temples…yes, at a temple. We spent a lovely hour or so wandering around the gardens of the Tenryu-ji temple. Such stunning landscaping, colours and it sounds cliched, but it has such a zen calmness about it. There is a bamboo forest in this area of the city and that borders the temple gardens too. We also had time to wander through the local shops and stalls outside the temple – our first opportunity to experience a little of ‘real Japan’.
From the temple, we sorted ourselves into pairs for our rickshaw ride around the local area, including through the bamboo forest we’d seen in the gardens. What a way to see the town – I don’t know how the drivers do it– they are seriously strong. It feels a little precarious when you first get on but once you’re off, it feels really stable and you can just sit back and enjoy the ride. The end point of the journey was our lunch spot – the Suiran hotel. Again, we were treated to a traditional Japanese lunch – beautifully presented and delicious (thankfully slightly less courses than the evening before!)
Our afternoon was one full of Japanese culture. A visit to Nijo castle was first on the agenda – dating back to the Samurai rule, this was a real insight into Japanese history. And second we had one of those opportunities that you just don’t ever think you’ll do – we had an hours Zen meditation tuition with a Buddhist monk. We were in a traditional wooden Japanese building, raised off the ground and with the sides open to the air and with amazing views over the garden, sitting on the floor on a cushion. Daily life is so hectic, it was lovely to just step outside of that for a little while and just sit and breathe. And contrary to what I thought, you don’t have to sit completely still for the entire time, if you feel uncomfortable, you just re-adjust your position and carry on.
Tonight was another highlight for the group – dinner with a Geiko and Maiko in a traditional tea house. Before that we had an hour or so to wander around the Gion area of Kyoto – full of life with shops, restaurants and bars – such a buzz and so safe – there wasn’t one time when I felt unsafe walking anywhere in Japan actually…and it’s certainly one of the cleanest places I’ve ever been to. There was a little souvenir shopping tonight including the groups ongoing hunt for new Kit Kat flavours – Japan has the most anywhere in the world – something crazy like 49 (don’t quote me!)
Dinner tonight was another amazing Japanese feast of tofu, sashimi, fish and steak – but the food was definitely overtaken by the wonder and iconic Japanese tradition of the Geiko and Maiko – more commonly known as a Geisha and her student. I think this is a misunderstood tradition or at least something people don’t know too much about – to be honest my knowledge was limited to reading ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ many years ago. I wasn’t really sure what to expect, I think I thought that it may be awkward. It is such a unique evening though, filled with laughter, fun, singing and unexpectedly, drinking games! The girls were delightful and made us all feel so welcome and just wanted to have fun and teach us Japanese songs and a really good game that I think was played in quite a few British houses this Christmas.
Every day we’d say this is our favourite day and we definitely did on this day….and then the next was always even better.
Day 4: Kyoto/Osaka
Our week was passing by so fast – we were already on Thursday and it felt like we’d only just begun. We’d be leaving Kyoto later today so after breakfast we checked out of this beautiful hotel and boarded the coach once more.
Now we all have moments in our life which stand out as one of the best – for me, today was one of them. It’s rare you feel a real part of somewhere when you travel through. Today we felt Japanese! We were taken to a traditional tea house where first, we were all dressed in Kimono – we chose which one we liked and then the lovely ladies helped us dress – you definitely couldn’t do it yourself, it’s so complex. We also had flowers put in our hair and had the opportunity to take photo’s with traditional fans and sunshades. It was incredible to see the whole group dressed in traditional kimono. We had the strange two-toe socks and sandals too – we fully embraced the experience.
We then took part in a traditional tea ceremony and were taught all the customs of the ceremony and why things are done a certain way. I’m starting to quite like green tea by this point in the trip!
Then, still in Kimono, it was back onto the coach and a short drive to the Kiyomizu area for lunch at a lovely little hotel. The cuisine was Italian with a Japanese twist and it was delicious – it was also nice to have a slightly western meal – we were craving a few carbs by now! After lunch we had a couple of hours free time to go shopping and explore around the area – it might sound strange doing that in Kimono – you’d think we’d look a little strange – but we actually just fitted right in – there were many Japanese girls in Kimono and you’d see Geiko out and about doing their shopping too – it felt surprisingly normal. And it was really comfortable – it’s a heavy piece of fabric but once its on, you don’t really notice the weight and it keeps you warm. Plus, those big sleeves are perfect for hiding a tissue or a lipbalm and your sash is the perfect place to stash your purse or phone – the life hacks we learnt about wearing Kinomo!!
The time went so fast and we soon had to go back to the tea house and change back into our own clothes. It was a little sad to take it off and return to normal – it really had been the best day.
The afternoon had another gem in store though as we went to the Fushimi inari Shrine. This is the iconic red shrine with thousands of identical red gates leading you up the hill and through the forest – you’ll have seen it in many Japan promotional shots I’m sure and it’s even more impressive up close. I’m running out of adjectives for Japan – everything is just what I wanted it to be and more.
From the shrine we drive to Osaka – about 45 minutes to an hour – and check in to the Hilton Osaka. As you can imagine, it’s very similar to any other Hilton worldwide, just with a few Japanese touches – the ever present TOTO and kimono pyjamas.
Tonight gave us another opportunity to just walk and be in a city at night time – every road looks inviting with bright lights and inviting smells from the restaurants – you can just follow your senses and see where you end up – and like I’ve said, it feels so safe.
Tonight for dinner, we were sampling some Japanese comfort food – we went to Okonomiyaki Chibo where they serve what I would describe as a cross between an omelette and a pancake. We sat around the chef who was cooking everything fresh to order on a huge hotplate, but you can also cook your own at the table – you just order what you want in it and they bring you everything to cook it. Miki, our guide, told us that this is a dish you cook at home in Japan when you want to use up everything in your fridge!
Ours were delicious – it had vegetables, shrimp and noodles in the pancake and then as it was cooking they laid strips of bacon on the top. And then when it was ready, they drizzled it in a thick teriyaki type sauce – out of this world and so filling – a pretty perfect evening! We had more time to explore after dinner, and to walk off the food, before the coach picked us up and took us back to the hotel. Time for sleep – it’s our final day tomorrow.
Day 5: Osaka/Kobe
We’d had a couple of days without a port visit so we start our last day at Osaka Port. As with all the other ports, the team couldn’t be more welcoming and helpful in answering our questions about how it works and what our guests could look forward to when visiting Osaka. One of the main attractions is the aquarium, handily located right next to the port. We were given a quick 40 minute tour – it’s big so it really was a whistle-stop tour! It wasn’t a planned visit, I think the port people just added it in, so we were a little behind schedule from then on for the whole day – you can’t knock them for wanting to show off their city though and we thoroughly enjoyed it. Our second port of call (pardon the pun) was Osaka Castle Park – we didn’t get to go inside unfortunately (time restrictions) however we were able to walk through the park and get some great photos of the outside. Today in the UK was Christmas jumper day and I had promised the team I’d take mine and get a snap for them in Japan so this provided the perfect backdrop and the photo was duly taken and sent off!
We then drove the fairly short distance to Kobe and it was lunch time. What do you have to eat when in Kobe? Beef of course and oh my – it was insanely good. We went to a small restaurant which literally seated our group of 13 and as we did last night, we sat around the hot plates and the food was served to us straight off the grill – we had beef sashimi, an amazing salad and then the main event – seared beef and vegetables with three dipping sauces – I’m a real carnivore and this for me was just heaven.
This afternoon’s excursion was to a Sake museum. I’m not a fan personally of the traditional sake however it was really interesting to learn about how it’s made. I do however like plum wine (it’s not as potent) so a little taster of that went down a treat. They then let us loose in the shop and I think most relatives of our group got either sake or plum wine for Christmas.
Kobe port and its two terminals was next on the agenda. The facilities Japan has, and continues to invest in for cruise passengers has really impressed me on this trip. If you arrive into Japan on a cruise you must feel so welcome, and that’s how it should be. Great facilities, really friendly staff and helpful information to assist you with your onward journey.
Tonight we were staying in a hotel up in the hills from Kobe so on the way we stopped at the Kobe Rokko Garden Terrace which is a viewing spot that lets you take in the city below – it was truly stunning and thank goodness someone had an amazing ‘night mode’ on their camera and could capture it for us all (as iPhone cameras I’ve come to realise, really aren’t good at night!)
We stayed the night at the Arima Grand Hotel and this was by far the most traditional Japanese hotel we stayed at. Our rooms had entrance areas where you had to remove your shoes and don the slippers they provided before you entered the room. You also had separate slippers for wearing in the toilet. The rooms were very clean and traditionally designed and really what I thought I’d find more of in Japan. The hotel was a spa hotel and had natural hot springs which people book the hotel specifically to use. The pools should be entered naked – swimming attire is not permitted normally. They have set times if you do want to wear a swimming costume though but they charge you more for the privilege! Unfortunately, we just weren’t there long enough to experience them but certainly somewhere I’d go back to.
As we were behind schedule, we arrived, checked in and had to be at dinner within about 20 minutes. Dinner thankfully was at the hotel so we didn’t have far to go.
For our last night our guides had arranged a traditional Japanese dinner where normally you would sit on the floor, however now they’ve created tables with space underneath so although you are still sitting on the floor, your feet hang down into the space below – much more comfortable. The food just kept coming tonight and there were still new things to try and new ways to try tofu! One fun course from tonight was the steak as we got to cook it ourselves on our own mini candle-lit grills. And we had chocolate pudding in a little snowman pot – a little reminder that we were going home for Christmas – I’d almost forgotten.
Full to bursting and tired after another long day it was time for our final sleep in Japan.
Day 6: Kobe/Osaka
We were up and out by 7am this morning as we had a little adventure to get to Kansai International airport in Osaka. The coach took us from the hotel to Kobe airport where we then boarded a ferry (with all our luggage) which took us over to Kansai – it takes about 45 minutes and is obviously very popular as it was full up. It must just be the most efficient way to get there as Osaka is quite busy in terms of traffic. It was easy to do though, even with suitcases.
Once at the airport, we checked in, said a slightly emotional farewell to Miki and Sayaka and went through to departures (and a Starbucks coffee and muffin!)
Our flight home was long – 13 hours in the end – but passed without much to report. Home to my own bed, my husband and my dog – I’d missed them – I’d also found my new favourite place.
This trip was one of the most fascinating, well organised and (honestly) tiring trips I have ever been on and I would do it again in a heartbeat. Japan for me has it all – amazing, awe-inspiring scenery; vibrant, cosmopolitan cities; fascinating culture; beautiful cuisine (and the most ways to eat tofu known to man) and above all, friendly and interesting people who want to show you their country. It is the safest and cleanest place I have ever been to and if you’re toying with the idea of going but aren’t sure, please just go – I know you’ll love it as much as I did. And Japan – I will be back – you are something very special.
*Launch dates were changed due to COVID-19.