The maze of narrow streets, the sultry night air filled with the aroma of street food, raindrops falling like liquid crystals, casting gleaming lights on the wet asphalt, reflecting the vibrant neon lights above.
The surreal juxtaposition of these reflections lit up ancient ruins, statues and futuristic skyscrapers, but those around me didn’t seem to notice. This is exactly what I was looking for in Japan.
Earlier, our taxi driver galloped down the rain-soaked streets of Osaka as high-end fashion boutiques zipped by at breakneck speed.
But behind that wall lies the true beating heart of this historic Japanese city, which has become the country’s modern culinary hub, aka the Kansai Kitchen, a place not good for the waistline but very good for the heart and soul.
Taking shelter from the rain, we sneaked into a small restaurant called Okonomiyaki Dan for dinner of octopus chow mein with grilled pork in a silky omelet, sizzling on the hot plate in front of us.
Having eaten safely, we were thrown into chaos again, only to stop for a refreshing sake at one of the many street bars, which were packed with people, huddled together for company and shelter. It really was the perfect start to my four night, four city tour of Japan’s best attractions.
After a fantastic night’s rest at the Zentis Hotel in Osaka, partly because of the great cocktail bar – you can’t go wrong with wasabi crumble or the signature River Gardens of gin, elderflower, shiso (native plant leaves), soda and lemon – I headed north for a totally slower-paced experience.
A two-hour train ride to Kinosaki Onsen is the best example of a city in this country that has managed to maintain traditional values. If you’re looking for a place to relax, serene, yet be able to step out of your comfort zone, then this is the place for you.
The “onsen” in the city’s name refers to the hot springs, where visitors don traditional yukata and geta and wander from bath to bath before stripping off and soaking naked in the very warm water.
Known as ‘hadaka no tsukiai’, this platonic nude communion offers spiritual and physical healing opportunities through 42-degree water that purifies and centers the mind.
Some people may need that new serenity when it comes to dinner at a traditional ryokan I’ve stayed at.
The owners of the Nishimuraya Honkan ensure strict adherence to the principles of Japanese hospitality, and the many side dishes, kaiseki-style, each bring new levels of flavor and sometimes even (swallowing) challenges.
An authentic Japanese meal consisting of 10 courses, including a steamed seafood platter, seasonal sashimi, conger eel “Mizunagetsu” custard, and the chef’s signature crab brains and squid innards, which can be double the size of the Kill Bill set menu, is frankly a test of taste.
Kyoto was the third stop on my Japan adventure, and the country’s former capital remains a center of high culture, with more than 1,600 Buddhist temples and 400 shrines dating back more than 1,300 years.
I visited some of these temples while diving around the city, with the 13th-century Nanzenji at the top of the Buddhist system.
By the time I reach the base of the 500-year-old “Three Gates” with giant cedar columns, the aroma of incense fills the rich city air I’ve grown accustomed to these days.
When I took my seat next to the temple’s karesansui (garden of dry mountains and water), which symbolizes a tigress crossing a stream with her cubs, I sat down and tried to answer the guide’s question… “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”
After much deliberation, but little progress, I made my way across town to Kyoto’s main spiritual site, the incredible Sanjusangendo Temple. The “Thirty Three Temples” was first built in 1164, burned down 85 years later, and was reborn from the ashes in 1266.
Designated a National Treasure of Japan, this ornate structure is as long as a football field. With a ceiling reminiscent of Westminster Hall, it houses 1,001 wooden versions of Buddhist Guanyin statues, 124 of which survived the fire that took the life of the original building.
Each Kannon was crafted, painted, and then covered with ornate gold leaf, which still reflects sunlight through traditional Japanese shoji doors to this day.
I stayed at the Higashiyama Hotel in Kyoto and the waterfall shower was an absolute treat, as well as the legendary Japanese electric toilet – especially the heated seat!
Finally, we took the Shinkansen (bullet train) into the madness of Tokyo, and thanks to our guides Richard and James from Inside Japan (insidejapantours.com), we made an excellent plan to see the highlights of this great city.
The journey took just 2 hours and 40 minutes, starting 310 miles away, but I sat comfortably watching town after town, seemingly endless rice fields and massive construction work whizz by in the blink of an eye.
I arrived at Shinjuku Station in Tokyo, the busiest train station in the world, serving more than three million passengers a day. It was unbelievable to witness the hustle and bustle of this sea of people.
The unbearable heat and humidity, the music blaring from every store door, giant 3D advertisements on huge billboards, neon lights and huge crowds make Tokyo an assault on the senses. However, away from the hustle and bustle, Hamarikyu is a former royal garden in the Edo period.
This expanse of green pastures, calm lakes and small historic buildings set against the backdrop of some of Tokyo’s newest and tallest skyscrapers really gives us a glimpse into a city that is still figuring out how best to deal with its sprawling heritage and plans for the future.
Of course, no trip to Tokyo is complete without a taste of the famous nightlife, which certainly lasts until the early hours of the morning. The neon-lit bar is packed, with an array of ’80s, ’90s and early 2000s songs playing for karaoke enthusiasts to sing along to, and the walls and ceiling are plastered with currency from around the world.
I ended my Japanese adventure at BELLUSTAR TOKYO. This is the newest hotel in the capital, which only opened in May, and is located in Kabukicho Tower.
This 47-story behemoth is changing the face of the Tokyo skyline and is unique for so many reasons that even hotel managers say they get lost.
The first 17 floors are earmarked for entertainment, with a basement club open until 28:30 (4.30am for you and me), a 24-hour food court, a Japanese version of Las Vegas, with arcades where you can drink (a no-no at every other gaming venue in the country), and an 8-screen cinema.
The rest of the complex is divided into two hotels, and you can stay at the luxurious Bellusar Hotel, where you can end a pleasant trip in the perfect way.
Growing up, I always thought of Japan as a mysterious and confusing place. But it turns out that this is the place where neon lights up old buildings, where old and new blend in perfect harmony.
But, on second thought, they could keep the squid guts…
book a holiday
- Finnair flights from Heathrow, Manchester and Edinburgh to Osaka, Japan via Helsinki, from £846 return; business class from £3,309.Finnair website
- Rooms at Zentis Osaka cost around £185 per night including breakfast. zentishotels.com
- Rooms at Kinosaki Onsen Nishimuraya Honkan are around £175 per person per night including breakfast. Nishimuraya.ne.jp/honkan/
- Rooms at Hotel Higashiyama in Kyoto cost around £135 per night including breakfast.Tokyu Japan Hotel Website
- Rooms at the BELLUSTAR Hotel Tokyo cost around £480 per night including breakfast.Pan Pacific Network
- Inside Japan offers a 14-night B&B tour of the best of Japan from £1,950 per person, including transport, some guided tours and a range of cultural experiences. International flights are charged separately. insidejapantours.com
You can find more information at japan.travel/en/uk