Snowflakes the size of five-pence pieces drifted down onto the glassy surface of Ine Bay, an old fishing port on the Sea of Japan in the region some call Kyoto by the Sea. A blue heron perched on an oyster bed, waiting for an opportunity, or maybe beach season. Apart from our small touring boat, the bay was empty and the 230 wooden boathouses at the water’s edge were quiet, their owners tucked away in the beechwood homes behind. Despite the bite in the air, it was a spectacular scene in the birthplace of Japan.
If Japan’s map is a seahorse, the volcanic Tango peninsula, of which Ine forms a part, lies where body meets tail. It’s millions of years old. The culture goes back thousands, to the first yields of rice and saké. The funaya houses, with their direct access to the sea, go back hundreds of years, to the Edo era, when visitors like myself began coming for moments such as this.
Such moments of peace had been rare before Japan’s Covid-related closure. As Ine approached Venice levels of over-tourism, local authorities began working with tour operators to promote slower travel in the area. From now on, visitors would spend no fewer than two nights in a heritage inn and they would eat local, sustainable food. This year, specialists such as Inside Japan, Audley and Wild Frontiers have begun offering visits to artisan workshops, hoping people will see Ine in the context of a region steeped in history. My guide took me to meet three young samurai swordsmiths who, last year, opened the Nippon Genshosha forge to preserve time-honoured methods of whacking raw steel into £15,000 blades (gensho.jpn.com).
Ghibli Park opened in November
TOMOHIRO OHSUMI/GETTY IMAGES
If you’ve never visited Japan or are contemplating a return, consider yourself lucky. The classic destinations reopening to foreign tourism have been blessed with well-considered new infrastructure, allowing them to be explored in uplifting and edifying ways. And with tourists still thin on the ground, you’ll enjoy them with a decent amount of breathing space — provided you mask-up indoors and out.
In the ancient capital Kyoto, where I began and ended my tour around Ine, the new-build Hotel Higashiyama has been antiqued with washi paper doors and a bar for tea ceremonies (where I was greeted, after a whisky-soaked night, with the hangover cure of nourishing green tea). Staff knew their way around the massive contemporary art collection, but were also fluent in the city’s artisanal heritage, sending me off on a new “experience” with a master dyer of kimono silk (room-only doubles from £104; tokyuhotelsjapan.com). Looping back home, I discovered the recently opened Ace Hotel, stylishly carved out of a century-old telephone depot and preparing to host Denmark’s famed Noma restaurant, arriving for a residency in March.
Leaving Kyoto on the shinkansen high-speed rail line, I hit the city of Nagoya within the hour. The ancient forest outside town is where the Japanese animation studio Ghibli recently opened its theme park-museum mash-up Ghibli Park, a homage to films including Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro — gorged on by my kids when they were younger (£19; ghibli-park.jp). I would have dearly loved to get off here, but I’d tried to book tickets for the park too late. Ghibli fans should start planning pronto.
Everywhere else, the locals seemed ecstatic to see unfamiliar faces for the first time in three years — even the geisha I ran into in a public loo outside Mishima, the next stop on the shinkansen map and a former post on the ancient Tokaido trading route. Wearing a yellow kimono (left side folded over right, according to convention) and with a young recruit in tow, she was overjoyed to be entertaining two parties that day, after a long, slow lockdown.
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The pair were two of only ten geishas still employed in the area around Mishima. This quiet community with a babbling river and a strip of old-fashioned cocktail joints is now far better known as a base from which to bow at the altar that is Mount Fuji. Of course the view of Japan’s highest mountain has always been phenomenal, but the Fujisan Mishima Tokyu Hotel, which opened in 2020, has taken peak-peeping to new levels (room-only doubles from £139; tokyuhotelsjapan.com).
I had the indecency to arrive after dark, so I was instructed at reception to set my alarm for 6am for the curated experience. At the designated hour, I threw on the pyjamas and slippers provided and headed to the onsen bath on the 14th-floor rooftop just as the first blush of morning was hitting Fuji’s snowy peak. Despite its snub-nosed image appearing in artwork, postcards and the wall of every sushi bar for decades, I couldn’t help but gasp on seeing it for real. Or perhaps the gasp came from my fellow guest, horrified that I’d appeared in this sacred bathing area wearing outdoor clothes — which is to say, any clothes at all. The two of us spent the following half hour submerged on opposite sides of the steaming bath, dress code-compliant, as the peak progressed from pink to grey to stark white against the clear sky.
For most visitors stopping here en route to Tokyo, the sunrise surprise from Fujisan’s rooftop would be enough to write home about. Yet Mishima is also the gateway to the Izu peninsula. This mountainous promontory was formed when a rogue Philippine island rammed into Japan’s Pacific coast and fused itself there. And now, only 20 minutes from Mishima by taxi, it has a new claim to fame: the 452m-high Panorama Park.
The Shibuya pedestrian crossing in Tokyo
At the foot of Mount Katsuragi, I boarded a gondola to access an experience that’s as “après ski” as you get on Japan’s main island (£16 round trip; panoramapark.co.jp). There was the viewing deck, plus two full-service cafés linked by rows of wooden seating facing the Fuji view. Then, built into the treetops behind, were the VIP seats: four private cabanas laid with blankets and cushions (from £19pp). They were empty. I made my move.
Fuji is always changing — like a live-action film, I’ve been told. The Fuji I’d watched hours earlier was not the Fuji I saw from my cabana, framed by cirrus clouds and the distant Minami Alps. A server knelt beside me to deliver green-tea ice cream. Another tried to interest me in a foot bath, next to an ancient shrine further uphill. I couldn’t imagine a more quintessentially Japanese scene.
Until, that is, later that day. Because possibly the most Japanese thing about Izu is that you can roll up at Mishima station in a happy post-lunch stupor and alight 50 minutes later on the inner circle of Tokyo’s metro, between one of the world’s largest Muji stores and the tower that houses the Aman hotel.
That’s not to say the sudden transition, after the wild bamboo forests and acid-green fields of Izu, wasn’t vaguely terrifying. I made sure my first stop in Tokyo was the newly opened Shibuya Sky observation deck, where I was able to orient myself above the organised chaos of Shibuya Crossing, that iconic intersection that makes Piccadilly seem provincial (£11; shibuya-scramble-square.com). Safe above it, I popped my bags in the locker room and climbed up to the glass guardrail to watch Tokyo in miniature. To the east, I caught a glimpse of the 634m Skytree tower, and to the west, with Fuji protruding from the backdrop, I tried to pick out the low-rise neighbourhood where I’d be sleeping that evening.
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I’d chosen a hotel called the Mustard. Apart from the yellow business cards at check-in, its only nod to my favourite condiment was the brochure’s claim that it adds a “secret ingredient” to a neighbourhood — it’s hip and ultramodern yet cheap enough to attract those elusive digital nomads. There’s a Mustard in Shibuya, but a friend suggested I stay at the new outpost in Shimokitazawa, five minutes west by metro.
A tangle of narrow pedestrian streets around an old railway hub, the “Shimokita” neighbourhood was spared wartime bombing. It was spared any touch of modernity, in fact, until this decade, when immaculate new developments along the old tracks started cutting through little enclaves devoted to pocket-sized izakaya (Japanese-style gastropubs) and old kimono sellers.
It would be a good introduction to Tokyo. On my way there I spotted an artisanal doughnut bakery, a boutique selling paper-thin ceramics and a salon that indicated it worked with “human hair”. Mustard seemed at home in the slender whitewashed Reload complex, alongside a “coffee lab” playing jazz. Staying here was a good move. Shimokita sucked me in with shop after shop of affordable vintage and bonkers souvenir figurines, and the Mustard-ettes didn’t flinch when I kept popping to the lobby hours after check-out to repack my bags with new purchases (room-only doubles from £87; mustardhotel.com).
In my final hours in the city, I tried something new . . . to me. Midway to a recommended dinner spot, behind an indecipherable neon sign, I noticed an open kitchen with one empty stool at the counter. The cook waved me in. I pointed at something unreadable on the menu. Then I participated in the endangered practice of “hoping for the best”. I got lucky with some damned fine yakisoba noodles. Let’s hope at least some things never change.
Ellen Himelfarb was a guest of all the hotels mentioned, Japan Airlines, which has Heathrow-Tokyo returns from £1,189 (jal.co.jp) and the Japan National Tourism Organisation (japan.travel). The shinkansen train has Kyoto-Tokyo returns from £112 (shinkansen-ticket.com). Fifteen nights’ full board on the Japan Uncovered tour, which covers similar ground to the writer’s trip, from £7,090pp, including flights (wendywutours.co.uk)
YUICHI YAMAZAKI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
Five more new arrivals
1. The theme park: Ghibli Park, Aichi
Just like the animation studio’s beloved films — Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro are probably the best known — a trip to Ghibli Park is all about the wonders of nature and the joy of childhood, with a sprinkling of magic thrown in for good measure. Unlike at traditional theme parks, you won’t find adrenaline-pumping rides here. Its charms are more sedate, inviting you to step into the fantastical worlds of the films. Stroll through Dondoko Forest, keeping an eye out for Totoro; step into Yubaba’s office in the Grand Warehouse; or enjoy a retro Japanese snack at Milk Stand Siberi-An. The park opened in November 2022, and international ticket sales began in January this year. Book two or three months ahead.
Details From £12.40 for adults, £6.20 for children aged 4-12 (ghibli-park.jp/en)
2. The hotel: KAI Izumo
Opened in November 2022, KAI Izumo, near Matsue on the Sea of Japan coast, combines traditional hospitality and modern design with gorgeous coastal views, soothing hot spring baths (onsen) and exquisite multi-course kaiseki meals. After a day exploring the cliffs and coves, you can soothe your muscles in the steaming waters of the hotel’s open-air onsen, listening to waves crashing below you. As the home of Izumo Taisha, Japan’s oldest shrine, the region has deep links to Shintoism. You’ll see this reflected at KAI Izumo in the shinsen breakfasts, based on the foods offered to Shinto gods, and the open-air performances of kagura dances that tell tales of the gods’ exploits.
Details Half-board doubles from £248 (hoshinoresorts.com/en/hotels/kaiizumo)
3. The tours: Japan National Stadium, Tokyo
Sports fans who weren’t able to see the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games in person will love the new Japan National Stadium tours. The self-guided tours give you access to a surprisingly large range of areas, including the interview zone where the Olympic torch is displayed, the track and even the locker rooms. The VIP tours focus on the VIP lounge and seating area, and include access to the observation deck with views over the 200,000 sq m stadium. You’ll find plenty of signage in English to provide context. Book ahead if possible; tickets go on sale around a month in advance.
Details From £8.70 (kokuritu-tours.jp/en/)
4. The monument: Minamisanriku 311 Memorial, Minamisanriku
In the years since the devastating earthquake and tsunami of 2011, Japan’s northeast coast has benefited from an incredible reconstruction effort. As well as rebuilding, the region has invested in new museums, sports facilities and tourist attractions. But even as it looks to the future, it’s making sure not to forget the past. Opened in October, Minamisanriku’s 311 Memorial was designed by Kengo Kuma to provide a calm space for reflection and sharing. It focuses on the words and stories of local people, encouraging visitors to engage with the displays and discuss what they learn, striking a difficult balance between education, remembrance and hope. From Tokyo, travel by train to Sendai then by bus or train to Shizugawa station.
Details From £6.20 for adults, £3.10 for children (m311m.jp/en)
5. The green city space: Miyashita Park, Tokyo
If you visited Shibuya pre-pandemic, you might be surprised by how much it has changed. Alongside the iconic sights — Shibuya 109, the scramble crossing, the Hachiko statue — sleek new developments such as Miyashita Park give you even more reason to linger. The complex is home to all the stylish cafés and fashion-forward shops you’d expect, but it also has a free-to-enter art gallery, plus a rooftop park complete with bouldering wall and skate park. The attached hotel, Sequence, is trendy but affordable, and its 2pm check-out time enables you to squeeze in a few extra hours of sightseeing . . . or allows you a lie-in after enjoying Shibuya’s nightlife.
Details Room-only doubles from £138 (sequencehotels.com)