As you can imagine, we at Lekker Boutique Travel are crazy about travelling. We went on a dream trip to Japan in April. Our itinerary included sake, sushi, gardens, temples, modern architecture, ceramics, onsen (hot springs), hiking a Buddhist pilgrimage route, fesitvals and last but not least, cherry blossoms.
These are the insights and tips from one of our team. If you’d like to discuss arranging your dream trip to Japan then please get in touch!
I travel in order to experience something different from what I am used to and I have wanted to visit Japan for a very long time. My recent three week trip rates as one of my favourite destinations. If I had to describe Japan in a few words I would describe it as refined, elegant & mysterious.
There is a lot to do in Japan and our itinerary was carefully planned and ambitious. There was one day where we walked 20km (and that was in Kyoto, not even on the part of the trip where we went hiking).
Travelling around Japan is so easy given the incredible and efficient train system. It is easy to base yourself in one or two cities and do day trips to different places. The Japan rail pass is well worth purchasing and allows you unlimited travel on the bullet train network (with some minor exclusions). Japanese train stations are incredibly busy but equally organised. If your train is meant to arrive at 12.19, it will arrive at 12.19. Your ticket will tell you the car and seat number and when arriving at the platform you will see where the door of that car will stop along the platform and people form neat rows to enter the train. The train stops, people wait for those that disembark and then everyone boards in an orderly fashion and the train departs within minutes. Don’t be late, the train only stops for a few minutes.
It’s so much more than sushi. Japanese food was mysterious, interesting and sometimes challenging. Mysterious because you often have no idea if the building you are passing is even a restaurant…. and if it is, what kind it is, or how expensive it is. But once you have figured that out, it is also mysterious because you often do not know exactly what you are eating. As a fish eating vegetarian there were some challenges but there was so much amazing food, exquisitely presented that I really enjoyed most of the meals.
Soba – Soba noodles were something I had not had much of before the trip but became a favourite. We ate Soba served in a broth and cold soba (yes, cold noodles) served with a dipping sauce. Delicious.
Tempura – I generally don’t like fried food but the tempura in Japan was very, well, Japanese, subtle, light and delicious. We even ate tempura leaves.
Okonomiyaki. This is a dish which has some ‘pancake’, lots of cabbage, a fried egg, noodles and a sauce. Hard to describe because I have never eaten anything like it before. Delicious, and a speciality of Hiroshima.
Sake. Japanese rice wine. There are so many types and it can be served hot or cold. Hot sake at the end of a long day of sight seeing in the cold became a bit of a ritual of our trip.
Tea. A country after my own heart, where tea is appropriate at every moment. One of my favourite things was that at conveyor belt sushi restaurants there are instant boiling water spouts on the counter so you can make your own tea. We drank a lot of Matcha which is powered green tea that is whisked. Not my favourite, but I did love the various matcha flavoured things, especially matcha ice cream. My favourite tea was roasted stem tea. I had never tried that before and is one of my new favourites. Japanese desserts are mostly made from bean paste and served with matcha. The one Japanese dessert I did love was Taiyaki – a fish shaped pancake filled with custard.
Spring in Japan is spectacular. It is hard to plan a trip around cherry blossom season which is short and varies from year to year but we were incredibly lucky to arrive in Tokyo the weekend the city hit full bloom. There are so many different cherry blossom viewing spots, each one more breath taking than the next. There is a certain buzz in the air during the cherry blossom season and everyone is out and about enjoying the change of season.
I have to mention the Japanese toilets. They make normal toilets look like they come out of the Stone Age. Japanese toilets can wash you, in various ways, at various pressures, with various temperatures. The seat is always warm. It can play flushing sounds for you to give you privacy in public places. They can deodorise, flush automatically…. I could go on and on. The other incredible thing about Japan is the cleanliness. I have never been to a cleaner country. Public toilets in the busiest train stations in the world were absolutely spotless.
Design & beauty permeates every aspect of Japan. Everything seems considered from an aesthetic perspective. One example of this was the manholes with a beautiful flower motif. This includes the architecture. The ancient temples and shrines are magnificent and are often set in beautiful landscapes. Japanese gardens are exquisite. Walking in Tokyo is like taking a tour through an architecture magazine where every famous modern architect has built something. The sense of aesthetic permeates everything from the way food is presented to the packaging. It is worth going into one of the many department stores and walking through the food section. It’s a feast for the eyes.
Japan has many festivals and we went to Takayama for their spring festival where special festival floats are paraded through the streets during the day and the night. It was a really interesting experience. Some of the floats have special marionettes and there is a marionette performance that is watched by hundreds of people. It was unlike anything I had ever seen before.
We stayed in both western style and Japanese style accommodation (ryokan). Both styles of accommodation were excellent in their quality but I did prefer the Ryokan for a number of reasons. Firstly, they have a far more homely feel and the staff tended to be more attentive. I loved the experience of sleeping on a futon and having tea served in the room. Most ryokan included and multiple course local dinner which was always an interesting experience. Many of the Ryokan had their own onsen. I was very sceptical of onsen before I got to Japan (i don’t like public swimming pools, so bathing, naked, with strangers did not appeal). But I quickly got over that and loved the experience and looked forward to every onsen experience. Spring is still cold and a soak in a hot onsen is a wonderful way to warm up before bed.
We ventured out of the big cities and decided to hike part of the Kumano Kodo – the ancient Buddhist pilgrimage route in the Kii peninsula. Hiking through the cedar and cypress forests and tiny villages was tranquil, beautiful and a wonderful contrast to the big bustling cities. We visited beautiful shrines and stayed in lovely small ryokan and got to see a very different side of Japan to that of the mega city.
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