The world could do with a lot more places like Japan. This was a thought that recurred constantly during a wonderful two-week trip I made last fall. Nowadays, the orderliness, civility and efficiency of the country seem more remarkable and admirable than ever. Few countries in the world are as fascinating. Besides spectacular monuments, museums and scenery, a deep culture of excellence and refinement informs daily life.
At the time of writing, the exchange rate between the dollar and the yen is extremely favorable, making 2016 an ideal year to discover the country for the first time. It has become progressively easier to travel in Japan. As the country readies itself for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, new English-language signage has appeared in airports and train stations. More Japanese than ever speak English. Excellent new hotels have opened recently in Tokyo and Kyoto. The country’s big cities not only offer exquisite Japanese cooking in all of its myriad varieties, but French restaurants to rival those in Paris and Lyon. And as I was repeatedly reminded, the Japanese just might produce the world’s best beef.
Even after visiting Tokyo many times, the immensity of the city always comes as a shock, which is why I especially appreciated the quiet beauty and thoughtful service at the 164-room Andaz Tokyo Toranomon Hills. The property occupies the top six floors of the 52-story Toranomon Hills skyscraper, situated in a stylish neighborhood between the Imperial Palace and the Tokyo Tower. The reception is softly lit, and check-in takes place on tablet computers at walnut tables, instead of at the usual counter. The relaxed elegance of the décor, created by the New York-based designer Tony Chi and Tokyo interior architect Shinichiro Ogata, harmoniously mixes Western and traditional Japanese styles.
Our Tower View King Room came with shoji (rice paper) panels, plus a walnut desk and a long love seat that ran the length of the picture window. Washi paper lamps created atmosphere, but there were also spotlights on dimmers for more illumination. A wood-paneled bath with quarry-tile floors came with both a soaking tub and a shower, along with locally made toiletries. (Their perfume changes with the season; for example, cherry blossom for spring).
The Andaz has an eight-seat sushi bar on the 52nd floor, and an excellent casual comfort-food restaurant, the Andaz Tavern, with a talented young Austrian chef, on the 51st. On the evening of our arrival, we enjoyed a delicious early dinner of duck consommé with foie gras-stuffed ravioli; an artichoke, avocado, arugula and burrata salad; and chicken roasted in an earthenware casserole with sherry and root vegetables.
The hotel’s AO Spa & Club is located on the 37th floor, and comes with a panoramic 65-foot indoor pool with a jet bath, plus five treatment rooms and a well-equipped workout room.
The following day we rose early for a visit to Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji fish market. The market will be moving to a new location in early November, so it was our last chance to enjoy the atmosphere and animation of a place that’s been in business on the same site for centuries. Having visited on my own in the past, I decided to take a tour this time and booked online with Tokyo FooDrink Tour. We met our charming guide, Yumi, who spoke good English after several years of living in New York, and spent three-and-a-half hours in the company of a pleasant couple from London. The tour included tastings of various Japanese delicacies, as well as oysters and sake. We also visited the fruit and vegetable side of the market and attended an auction of musk melons — a luxury in Japan — where the highest-quality fruits were selling for over $150 each. An intriguing morning concluded with lunch in a stand-up sushi bar that we would never have found on our own and wouldn’t have been able to patronize anyway, since neither of us speaks a word of Japanese beyond “Arigato.”
Spectacular views over Tokyo, stylish rooms and excellent food at the Andaz Tavern.
Nearest subway station is a 10-minute walk from the hotel.
Reserve spa treatments well in advance, since they are frequently booked up. The light menu in the bar is a much better alternative to room service, since the Western and Japanese comfort-food menu is fairly priced and well-cooked.
In 1853, the American naval commodore Matthew C. Perry famously sailed into Tokyo Bay and demanded that Japan open itself to foreign trade. As soon as Japan engaged with the world, the country began to have a major impact on Western art and design. Following a trip to Japan in 1905, American architect Frank Lloyd Wright fell under the spell of Japanese aesthetics. The love affair was mutual, since he was commissioned to design a new building for Tokyo’s prestigious Imperial Hotel, which was originally created by the Japanese royal family in 1890 as a state guesthouse.
Though now housed in two modern towers — alas, Wright’s building was torn down in 1968 — the current 931-room Imperial Hotel retains the aura of its royal pedigree and also preserves several important elements of Wright’s original structure, including its superb cocktail bar and a Frank Lloyd Wright suite appointed with original furnishings. Not having stayed at the Imperial for many years, we checked in for two nights and found ourselves delighted by some of the best service I’ve ever experienced. The staff display an instinctive graciousness, which gives the property an inimitably Japanese sensibility that helps to set it apart from foreign-owned chain hotels in the city.
Our traditionally decorated Junior Suite came with striped oyster-colored fabric on the walls, a padded white-leather headboard, good reading lamps, a lounger and ottoman, and a small mahogany coffee table. The bath provided a separate tub and shower, and was stocked with Japanese AYURA toiletries.
In many ways, the Imperial reminded me of a vast liner like the Queen Mary 2, since it comes with 13 different restaurants, including the Michelin-starred Les Saisons. There we were delighted to rediscover the cooking of chef Thierry Voisin, whom we knew from his time at Les Crayères in Reims. The highlights of our superb meal were sole in ginger butter, cheeses from Bernard Antony (France’s best cheese monger) and a feather-light dessert of fromage blanc, raspberries and yuzu sorbet.
Superb service, excellent location, very comfortable rooms and fine restaurants.
Smoking is still allowed in the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Old Imperial Bar.
In the Baby Room, a team of certified staff members provides assiduous child care.
The comfort and convenience of the first-class Green cars on the high-speed Shinkansen train from Tokyo to Odawara had me wishing, not for the first time, that similar services were available in North America. At Odawara, we changed onto a narrow-gauge line to Hakone, a popular resort for Tokyoites in need of fresh air and some greenery. On arrival, we found a smiling attendant from the Hakone-Ginyu ryokan waiting for us with a wheeled cart to transport our luggage.
A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn, often one intended for rest, reinvigoration and contemplation. And a ginyu, it turned out, is a person seeking inspiration for a poem through travel. Though neither of us penned any verse during our two-night stay, the peaceful hillside setting of this intimate 20-room wooden lodge was deeply relaxing. To be happy here, however, it is important to decide in advance how local you want to go. For example, will you be more comfortable sleeping in a traditional Western bed than on a futon (a kapok-filled mattress on the floor)? And when making your reservation, you should also be specific about any dietary restrictions or aversions.
Hakone-Ginyu offers four room types. “Hoshi” rooms on the third floor are available with Western beds or futons, and come with private onsen, or hot-spring water open-air baths. They’re decorated with Japanese furnishings, including sliding wooden doors with paper windows, a private dining room and a separate bedroom with tatami mat floors. These accommodations have better views than the larger “Tsuki” rooms on the ground floor.
The kaiseki dinners — comprising around a dozen Japanese dishes that were as beautiful to look at as they were to taste — were exquisite on both evenings of our stay and were complemented by an unexpectedly excellent wine list. A spa offers a variety of treatments and massages.
Charming service, excellent food, private onsen (hot-spring baths), and lovely views.
The small scale of the room furnishings made us feel Brobdingnagian.
Western-style beds are available but must be requested when making your original reservation; a porter service from the hotel will meet you at the train station, but must also be requested in advance.
After two relaxing days, we felt thoroughly refreshed and ready to take on Kyoto, the cultural capital of Japan, a city of 2.6 million inhabitants, with no fewer than 17 UNESCO World Heritage sites and roughly a quarter of Japan’s National Treasures (historical monuments and landmarks). Kyoto is in the midst of a tourist boom. Many hotels have recently opened and a Four Seasons is expected to debut this year. Since the city is very spread out, we decided to begin our stay at the new 39-room Suiran hotel, in the Arashiyama district of northwestern Kyoto, which is within walking distance of many of the city’s foremost attractions.
Suiran is located on the banks of the Hozugawa River, amid gardens landscaped in traditional Japanese style. On arrival, the delightful Mitsue Kawakami at the concierge desk advised us that most of the local restaurants close early — the neighborhood is a daytime destination for most visitors — so we immediately ventured out for a light dinner of noodles at Arashiyama Yoshimura. Subsequently, we found the restaurant at the Suiran to be expensive and not especially interesting, so we also took our custom to nearby Shoraian, where the specialty is yudo, or chunks of creamy tofu simmered in broth (which tastes much better than it sounds).
Suiran offers a bewildering variety of room types, with different furnishings and amenities. Underwhelmed by the ground-floor Yuzunoha Deluxe Room we’d reserved, which was rather dark and overlooked a small walled garden with a single tree, we moved to a Shiro-Sumire Premier Room and liked it considerably better. We had a view over the surrounding forest from a private wooden deck that came with a cedar-wood soaking tub filled with water from the local hot springs. Our spacious room had a high ceiling, and the large, well-lit white-marble bath was equipped with a rainfall shower. It was a perfect hybrid of Japanese refinement and Western comfort.
Ultimately, the things we liked best about the Suiran were its location, the comfort of its more expensive rooms and the delightful Ms. Kawakami. Alas, the fitness room proved tiny and, amazingly, there is no bar. However, I would recommend the property for a short stay without hesitation, as it is a fine base from which to explore northwestern Kyoto.
Ideal location for visiting the Arashiyama district on foot; superb concierges; attractive rooms.
Overpriced and uninteresting restaurants; the lack of a bar.
The hotel offers a complimentary taxi service from the main train station in Kyoto that must be organized with the concierge prior to arrival. (No mention of this was made in our reservation confirmation.)
The handsome low-slung design of the new Ritz-Carlton in central Kyoto was inspired by traditional Meiji houses, and from the moment we stepped out of our cab we were impressed by the hotel’s understated elegance and polish. Overlooking the Kamogawa River, the property is a tour de force of Japanese craftsmanship and artistic sensibility, from the hand-forged grillwork in the dramatic atrium lobby, to an indoor swimming pool with its own Zen garden.
Our light and airy Luxury Room overlooking the river came with oak and bamboo furniture and paneling, plus expanses of beige silk. A bonsai tree was centered on the table in front of the floor-to-ceiling window. Our bath featured cherry blossom motifs on the walls, a rainfall shower and a soaking tub. The most luxurious accommodations at the hotel have private Japanese gardens, created by noted landscape designer Kanji Nomura.
The hotel’s range of dining options includes sushi and tempura bars, a formal sit-down Japanese restaurant serving multi-course kaiseki meals, and La Locanda, for expensive Italian cuisine. In addition, the lobby houses an outlet for the delicious pastries of star Parisian pastry chef Pierre Hermé. After a day’s sightseeing, I indulged in a raspberry macaroon with litchi and rosewater-flavored cream. A well-appointed spa is managed by ESPA. Currently, The Ritz-Carlton is the best address in Kyoto for anyone who wants a full-service hotel.
Well-designed rooms; very convenient location.
Mediocre breakfast buffet; insufficiently discerning advice from the concierge desk.
The theme of the hotel’s extensive publicly displayed art collection is “The Tale of Genji,” a classic novel about the life and loves of an Emperor’s son, penned by a Japanese nobleman and a lady-in-waiting at the beginning of the 11th century.
We had attempted to design an itinerary that alternated between cities and the countryside. Leaving the bustle of Kyoto, we traveled on to the peaceful old town of Takayama. After a two-hour, 40-minute journey on a high-speed Shinkansen, we transferred to a local train that provided panoramic views of forests and gorges. A friendly young porter from the eight-room Wanosato ryokan was waiting for us at the station. The ensuing 20-minute drive offered a glimpse of a traditional Japanese way of life that has long since vanished from much of the country.
The Japanese come to Takayama for its old-fashioned atmosphere, its sake distilleries and its famous Hida No Sato Folk Village, a collection of centuries-old farmhouses that have been translocated and re-erected on a tranquil pond. Their nostalgic search for the past is driven by an impulse similar to the one that draws Americans to Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts, or Colonial Williamsburg. They still want good food and reliable modern comforts, however. Wanosato provides both, along with gracious hospitality that transcends the fact that most staff speak only rudimentary English.
Tired after our journey, we sipped tea by an open hearth in the main lounge, the heart of the 160-year-old main building. Afterward, we settled into our tatami mat-floored room, which featured a splendid cedar-wood soaking tub and afforded fine views of the adjacent river and forest.
An excellent dinner that included delicacies such as sansai (wild mountain vegetables) and Hida beef — which many consider to be Japan’s best — was served in the main dining room behind screens. Later, we joined other Western guests around the fireplace for a tot of sake and fell into agreeable conversation with couples from Australia, Singapore, and Spain.
Wanosato’s shuttle ran us into town the next morning after breakfast, and we spent a beautiful Indian summer day — one of the many things that Japan and New England have in common is the beauty of their fall foliage — visiting the Folk Village and tippling in the sake distilleries. Takayama is an utterly delightful place, and I highly recommend a two-day stay at Wanosato, so long as you are prepared to be a little adventurous and don’t mind sleeping on futons, as Western-style beds are not available here.
Beautiful and tranquil rural setting; excellent food.
The absence of Internet access outside of the lobby.
The complimentary shuttle service between the hotel and Takayama operates regularly throughout the day.
Two final train rides totaling about four hours brought us back to Tokyo. We arrived at The Peninsula at 3:15 p.m. and were disappointed to find that our room was not ready. A 20-minute wait ensued before we were finally ushered upstairs by a wordless front-desk attendant. Though the views over the Imperial Palace Gardens from our Grand Deluxe Room were wonderful, the room itself felt dated and slightly worn.
The Peninsula has four dining options, but after more than two weeks of Japanese food, we were ready for some meat and potatoes. We therefore opted for steaks — Gifu Hidagyu tenderloin and Kobe beef loin — at the hotel’s Peter restaurant on the 24th floor. As good as the food was, this space, too, needs a makeover. Generally I am a great admirer of Peninsula hotels, and the Tokyo property remains a solid choice. However, it needs to up its game in the face of competition from the sublime Aman Tokyo hotel, where we stayed on our previous visit to the Japanese capital (see my review in the December 2015 Hideaway Report), and the terrific new Andaz Tokyo Toranomon Hills hotel.
On the train out to Narita Airport, I felt even more wistful than I usually do when leaving Japan. I find that my respect and affection for the country increases with every visit. Happily, the opening of Amanemu, a new Aman resort in the Ise-Shima National Park near Nagoya, will provide an occasion for a return visit in the very near future.
Convenient location and views over the gardens of the Imperial Palace.
The ’80s-vintage décors need updating; service can be imprecise and distant.
It’s better to order a room service breakfast than to wait for a table and to suffer slow service in the extremely busy lobby restaurant.