Hip & Traditional Japan

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Ice sculptures in Sapporo, Japan.
Ice sculptures in Sapporo, Japan.

Japan is filled with history, as much as it’s an innovator in modern culture, so here are our top city picks for exploring this unique destination.

Why We Chose It: Filled with ancient tradition, history, culture, and impressive architecture, Kurashiki, located in southern Okayama Prefecture, is an idyllic stop while traveling through Japan. In the historical area of Bikan Chiku, visitors can board one of two small boats that traverse the Kurashiki-gawa River to take in views of the city’s riverbanks—this gondola-like boat ride is called “Kurashiki Kawabune Nagashi.” Only a short walk from the river, visitors can stroll Kurashiki’s streets to view its traditional, colorful buildings that have been remodeled and now house cafes, inns, and bars. The Ohara Museum of Art, located in the Bikan Chiku area, houses modern and contemporary pieces by Western and Japanese artists.

Why We Wouldn’t Leave: It feels like you’ve been transported back in time to the era between the 1600s and 1800s—all thanks to the city’s architecture and intricate canal system. The small wooden buildings that capture traditional Japan are definitely a sight to behold.

The Hotel(s): Kurashiki Royal Art Hotel is located about a 3-minute walk from the Bikan Chiku district. The property features fine dining restaurants such as Hachikengura, which was a storehouse during the Edo period; and Kurashiki, which specializes in Japanese fare. Guestroom amenities include a deep-soaking tub in a marble bathroom and a glass-enclosed shower. Rates start at $192 per night for a single room, and $268 per night for a twin room.

We’re There: When traveling from Tokyo to Kurashiki by air, travel time is about an hour (give or take 15 minutes) from Haneda Airport to Okayama Airport, and 30 minutes from the airport to the Okayama Station by bus. For those traveling by rail, it’s a 3.5-hour trip to Okayama Station via the JR Tokaido-Sanyo Shinkansen Line.

Why We Chose It: It’s a city with a beer named after it, so of course it piqued our interest—add its trendy underground shopping mall and its famous snow festival, and you’ve got a must-visit destination. Sapporo is the largest city on Hokkaido, and its Odori Park, located in the city-center, is filled with beer gardens in the summer and is host to the snow festival in the winter where snow sculptures and ice statues are on display. The underground shopping mall is the city’s main shopping center; it directly connects to the Sapporo Station, which serves as the transportation hub for all of Hokkaido. Another highlight: the centuries-old Sapporo Clock Tower.

Why We Wouldn’t Leave: Here, highlights include exploring the 12-block Odori Park, which separates the city into north and south, and its fountains and art installations; touring the Sapporo Beer Museum and learning about the history of beer in Japan; and taking in the views from above in the Sapporo TV Tower, which stands at the eastern end of Odori Park. Plus, serving as one of the main transportation hubs, Sapporo is a great jump-off point for travelers who want to explore other areas during their trip.

The Hotel(s): The modern Cross Hotel Sapporo is described as “a hotel where fashion, music, art, and various entertainment elements meet together.” The property hosts temporary art exhibitions in its main entrance, while during the summer, an open-air, stylish cafe offers guests a chance to enjoy Japan’s summer weather; and in the winter, a bar counter made of ice is open with art illumination to welcome guests. The Cross Hotel Sapporo also offers guests dining at the Agora restaurant serving Italian cuisine, and a spa located on the top floor offering city views and an open-air bath overlooking Sapporo. Guestrooms are available in three different categories—Urban Style, Natural Style, and Hip Style. Room rates start at $75 per night for a standard room.

We’re There: From Tokyo to Sapporo, travel time is about an 1.5 hours via air from Haneda Airport to New Chitose Airport; and another 35 minutes from the airport to Sapporo Station aboard the JR Chitose Line.

Why We Chose It: Travelers with an interest in Buddhist statues will be enthralled with the city of Nara, which is home to eight UNESCO World Heritage sites. We recommend a visit to the Todai-ji Temple, which has the Daibutsu, the world’s largest Buddha statue made of copper and gold. Just outside central Nara is the oldest existing Buddhist temple in Japan, the Horyu-ji Temple, which was built in the early seventh century and was named a World Cultural Heritage site in 1993. Located in the center of the city is Nara Park, which was established in 1880 and is home to hundreds of free-roaming, tame deer said to be messengers from the gods. For some extra exploration, travelers can take a side trip to see what is considered to be one of the best cherry blossom viewing in Japan at Yoshinoyama.

Why We Wouldn’t Leave: Deer, cherry blossoms, and Buddhist temples and traditions—Nara sounds like the makings of a Japanese fairytale story if you ask us.

The Hotel(s): Noborioji Hotel, a Small Luxury Hotels of the World property, is a boutique hotel located at the foot of the Kofuku-Ji temple with wood interiors and large windows, a fitness center, and a fine dining restaurant serving French cuisine with a modern twist. The 12-room property embodies a chic, elegant design, and rooms include flat-screen TV, complimentary WiFi, a minibar, and a Nespresso machine. There are also rooms with a walk-in shower and a balcony available upon request—balcony rooms face Nara Park. Rates start at $600 per night.

We’re There: It’s approximately a 2-hour train ride from Tokyo to the Kyoto Station by JR Tokaido Shinkansen Line, and 35 minutes from the Kyoto Station to Kintetsu Nara Station by the Kintetsu Kyoto Line.

Why We Chose It: One of the most populous cities in the world, and Japan’s political and economic center, Tokyo is an energetic and lively metropolis. Travelers should check out Ginza, an area known for its boutique shops and department stores from around the world. The Asakusa neighborhood brings travelers back to the traditional Edo period; and the Shibuya area is a fashion and trend-setting hub for Japan’s younger generation. Akihabara is another interesting area known for its electronic shops. It attracts customers from around the world, and it’s the perfect place to shop for video games, anime, and manga, Japanese comics. Akihabara is considered an otaku cultural center by many, which is a Japanese term for people with obsessive interests in Japanese anime and manga comic books.

Why We Wouldn’t Leave: We are lured by the profusion of neon lights, the over-the-top anime culture, and the out-of-the-ordinary maid cafes, where guests are invited to play board games, relax and have a meal with, for example, Hello Kitty plates and cutlery, all adding to the city’s one-of-a-kind culture.

The Hotel(s): Aman Tokyo, which opened this past December, is located on the top six floors of the recently built Otemachi Tower. The hotel houses a restaurant with a wine cellar on the 33rd floor, a cafe, a lounge, an Aman Spa, a fitness center, a pool, and a yoga and Pilates studio, as well as a cigar lounge and a library. The pyjama room at the Claska Hotel is a unique space whose decor changes often to simulate an art installation of sorts. The current “installation” has stuffed animals around the bed’s box frame, art pieces hanging from the wall, and a lampstand resembling a teddy bear.

We’re There: Tokyo’s main international airport, Narita International Airport, welcomes flights from around the world and is one of the main gateways into Japan.

art comes to life
Sakaiminato, located in the Totori Prefecture, is the hometown of Shigeru Mizuki—one of Japan’s top manga artists—and where Mizuki Shigeru Road is located, a shopping district named after the artist. This shopping area features bronze statues of more than 150 characters from Mizuki’s work, such as “GeGeGe no Kitaro,” which depicts the world of supernatural monsters known as Yokai. At night, the statues are lit up, giving the space a mystical ambiance. This area is definitely a must-see as bystanders can sometimes spot people in Yokai costumes. Travelers can get a Yokai Guidebook from the Sakaiminato Tourist Information Center and collect Yokai stamps around the area to receive a free gift from the center. The Mizuki Shigeru Road is located less than a minute’s walk from the JR Sakaiminato Station.

japan with g adventures
Travelers can explore some of these cities in Japan, and more, while on a G Adventures tour. Both the 14-day Discover Japan ($4,499 pp) itinerary, which visits Tokyo, Kyoto, Kanazawa, Hiroshima, Miyajima, Kyoto and Mt. Fuji, and the 12-day Backroads of Japan ($3,599 pp) itinerary to Tokyo, Nagano, Matsumoto, Takayama, Kurashiki, and Kyoto, visit historical and modern areas, and offer guests plenty of time to explore on their own.

One distinct site to see in Tokyo, according to Alistair Butchers, innovation manager for G Adventures, is the area around Harajuku on a Sunday. Here, teenagers dress up and hang out at the entrance of the major shrine dressed in the colorful costumes of anime characters, or styles from the goth culture. He also suggests taking in a Sumo wresting match as a must-do while in Japan, as it’s the country’s major sport.

“People travel with a G Adventures tour for the ease of finding where they’re going because of the language barrier. Travelers also seem to be looking for experiences they can’t necessarily have by themselves,” he adds. Butchers also points out that this is a country that receives many second-time travelers. “A lot of people first go to Tokyo and Kyoto. Our two itineraries let travelers see different parts of the country, like going to the mountains to see a Japanese house versus seeing a more urbanized side of Japan.”

For more on traveling through Japan, check out Super Value Tours’ Itineraries to Japan and Japan with G Adventures.

Archived related articles (available on recommend.com/magazine/issue archive):
Okinawa: To Visit is to Love It (March 2014) 

contact information
Aman Tokyo: amanresorts.com/amantokyo/home.aspx
Claska Hotel: claska.com/en/hotel/
Cross Hotel Sapporo: crosshotel.com/sapporo
Japan National Tourism Organization: jnto.go.jp/eng/
Kurashiki Royal Art Hotel: royal-art-hotel.co.jp/e_index.htm
Noborioji Hotel: slh.com/hotels/noborioji-hotel/