Skyscrapers illuminated by neon lights. The sublime elegance of straw tatami mats in a ryokan. A sea of salarymen shuffling through the subway. The steam rising from a hot-spring onsen bath.
As Joanna Lumley visits a land of surprises and contrasts for her new three-part ITV series Joanna Lumley’s Japan (until September 23), she is drawn in by its diversity. “Isn’t it odd, we feel we are so familiar with Japan, with sushi and Toshiba, kimonos and Hello Kitty, tsunamis and sake. And yet when [I] travelled around that spectacular country, I couldn’t even guess at the unknown wonders that were in store,” she said.
Japan is a haven of such unknown wonders – be it within the confines of a futuristic robot restaurant in Tokyo or while enjoying tea ceremony in an old Kyoto house. Yet at the same time, these experiences always feel quintessentially Japanese. The geographical breadth of the Japanese archipelago is impressive, from powder-perfect ski resorts in Hokkaido to subtropical beaches in Okinawa.
For many, a highlight is the food (Tokyo alone has 216 Michelin-starred restaurants). Experiences vary wildly from skyscraper eateries such as Lost in Translation’s New York Grill at the Park Hyatt to tiny restaurants like Sukiyabashi Jiro (immortalised in the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi) – plus countless restaurants serving soba noodles, tempura, skewered chicken known as yakitori, and tonkatsu (breaded pork cutlets).
For others, the appeal is aesthetics – from the modern minimalism of architect Tadao Ando’s concrete buildings, to the wabi-sabi philosophy that celebrates transience and imperfection as seen in Zen gardens. It was a mix of all the above (plus a generous sprinkling of romantic notions relating to cherry blossoms) that prompted me to swap my native London for Tokyo nine years ago.
And it has not disappointed. I’ve been fortunate enough to travel extensively on assignment across Japan, visiting far-flung fishing islands, ancient temples, robotics studios, cloud-brushing mountains, tropical beaches – and interviewing sumo wrestlers, defence chiefs and politicians as well as whalers, tea ceremony masters and pearl divers. Yet even after nearly a decade living here, there is so much more to see and learn.
The itinerary here does not attempt to cover everything, a near-impossible feat in two weeks. It does, however, aim to offer a curated taste of the cultural richness and diversity Japan has to offer, with the goal of creating memories that linger long after flying home – starting, of course, with Tokyo.
Fly from London overnight.
After checking in at Park Hotel, head to Harajuku, the street fashion mecca. Soak up the rainbow-bright crowds of teenagers strolling down Takeshita Dori. Roam through a forested path to Meiji Jingu shrine before wandering past the fashion flagships of tree-lined Omotesando.
Make a morning visit to Sensoji – Japan’s oldest temple – and its lively market in Asakusa. Not far away is Ueno Koen, one of the city’s oldest public parks, filled with museums, shrines and a lotus pond.
If you’re keen to avoid the crowds, head a little further east to Yanaka, one of the few neighbourhoods to have survived the wartime bombing – resulting in a rare time-warp atmosphere. Stroll through its cherry tree-filled cemetery (a highlight is the big Buddha at Tennoji Temple). Don’t miss Scai the Bathhouse (scaithebathhouse.com), one of Tokyo’s best independent contemporary galleries.
Afterwards, for dinner, head to Kyubey in Ginza.
Jump on a bullet train for a three-hour journey to Kanazawa. The city is a historic gem in Ishikawa prefecture, famed for its wooden architecture and quality craftsmanship. Check into the convenient Hotel Nikko before exploring highlights, such as the historic lanes of the Higashi Chaya district and Kenroku‑en, one of Japan’s top three traditional gardens.
In the morning, visit the 21st-Century Museum of Contemporary Art, housed in a curved glass building by Japanese architects Sanaa.
Then take a Thunderbird train for a two-hour ride to Kyoto before taking a taxi to Kinmata Ryokan – and prepare to step back in time. A stay in a ryokan is a must for any Japan trip. Kinmata is a small, family-run inn near Nishiki Market. Have an afternoon bath, slip into a yukata gown and enjoy a kaiseki feast in your room.
After breakfast, move to the chic confines of the Hyatt Regency in the Higashiyama district for two nights. Then start exploring. Highlights include the Philosopher’s Path; the hilltop Kiyomizu-dera temple; Ryoanji temple; the geisha district Gion; or, slightly further afield, the bamboo forests of Arashiyama. For lunch, stop at Oku café.
This morning, hire a bicycle (Kyo No Raku Chari in Higashiyama has electric ones) and pick up some crafts at Nishiki Market; wander through the elegant Imperial Palace park; or take part in a tea-making class at Ippodo on Teramachi Street. Finally, meet a modern‑day geisha at a Gion teahouse.
Rise early, bid Kyoto sayonara and embark for Mount Koya, one of the nation’s most sacred mountains, in Wakayama prefecture. After a string of trains, take a cable car to reach the mountaintop town. Upon arrival, check into Fudo-in, one of countless local temples that take in guests. Then stroll among the exquisite temple architecture before viewing the tombstones deep in the forest at Okunoin, Japan’s biggest cemetery. Back at the temple, tuck into a vegetarian Buddhist dinner.
Witness the monks’ morning prayers, complete with drumbeats, chanting and incense burning before a gold altar. After breakfast, head back down to earth on the cable car – and travel by train to Osaka.
Heaven for foodies, Japan’s second biggest city is famed for its down-to-earth atmosphere and boisterous nightlife. Check into Dojima Hotel before learning how to make Osakan street food – from okonomiyaki pancakes to udon noodles – at an Eat Osaka cookery class run by local mothers.
In the evening, drink beer with locals in an izakaya-style pub and – for the brave – join in a karaoke session.
Next, head out to sea. Take two trains to Uno port in Kagawa prefecture, then a private boat to Naoshima. A contemporary art mecca, this small fishing island is a textbook template of how to revitalise an ageing rural community through art.
The best place to stay is Benesse House a sleek minimal concrete space by the architect Tadao Ando. Check in for two nights before exploring the subterranean Chichu museum, with its treasured Monet Water Lilies and the abstract rock installations in the Lee Ufan museum.
Naoshima is the nucleus of a growing art project that includes around a dozen fishing islands in the area. Not far away is Teshima. Hop on a local ferry, hire an electric bicycle at the port upon arrival and cycle across the hilly island, soaking up the creative atmosphere – from the minimal white Teshima Art gallery to Christian Boltanski’s installation on a remote beach where visitors can record their own heartbeat. Return to Naoshima and finish up with a muscle-warming soak at I Love YU, a kitsch bathhouse in Miyanoura Port.
Hop on a ferry to Takamatsu Port and check into the J R Hotel Clement Takamatsu. Next is the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum. It was in the tiny village of Mure that the sculptor built his home and studio, both painstakingly preserved – in a beautiful natural setting (an advance appointment is essential).
Take a 20-minute train ride to Furutakamatsu Minami and a 10-minute taxi, before being escorted through the intimately scattered abstract artworks.
Take the train back to Tokyo and check into the Park Hyatt Tokyo in Shinjuku, an iconic skyscraper hotel immortalised in That Film (Lost in Translation).
Do some last-minute shopping in the department stores or stroll through Shinjuku Gyoen park.
Fly to Britain.
WHEN TO TRAVEL
Autumn is one of the best times of the year to visit, often with good weather and fiery-leafed trees lending a stunning backdrop to sites. From December, temperatures drop – making it a good time to head to a northern ski resort or south for some Okinawan winter sunshine. Spring brings the iconic cherry blossom season. Golden Week around May is best avoided as it’s so busy. July and August are uncomfortably hot and humid – making it a good time to escape to the cooler green mountains of northern Japan.
- Return flights
- Airport transfers
- Breakfast every day
- A kaiseki meal at the Kinmata
- A dinner at the Shukubo temple lodging and all transport between destinations in Japan
- Add-on services, such as personal guiding and experiences, ranging from visits to a sake brewery in Kyoto to sumo in Tokyo, can also be arranged.
Tour provided by Inside Japan
InsideJapan Tours is the leading independent operator to Japan, staffed by specialists who have lived and travelled throughout the country. InsideJapan offers self-guided adventures as well as group tours.