One of the first things that come to most people’s minds when thinking of Japan is literally lost in translation. YouTube clips of people being squished onto the subway carriages by white gloved attendants and a million people at the Shibuya pedestrian crossing litter the internet, giving the view that Japan is a difficult country to get to grips with and even possibly enjoy. From my first step off the plane and into the land of the rising sun, this preconception felt like a full blown conspiracy theory.
Lanterns in a market
Yes, at times there was a serious language barrier – but what I lacked in Japanese I made up for in extravagant and exuberant sign language – and everywhere I went the politeness, grace and friendliness of Japanese people blew me away. Oh and of course the efficiency, you cannot forget about the efficiency in a country where a delayed train simply does not exist.
Sophie at Kenrokuen Garden, Kanazawa
On top of the charming people, for me there are two other highlights that I think make this country so unique – the juxtaposition of old and new and the food which is mouth-wateringly delicious and at times downright weird. Japan provides such an incredible mix of super modern, super slick cityscapes and the desire to preserve and share centuries of traditional culture. I think that my time in Tokyo and Kanazawa on the west coast of Japan showcased this perfectly. Starting in Tokyo, staying at The Mandarin Oriental was an incredible experience, especially as I was lucky enough to stay in a suite. The views alone would have sold me as you look out over twinkling lights of the sprawling metropolis, but having this view from your bathtub that was the size of a paddling pool was the icing on the cake! Keeping with the super slick vibe, the hotel literally sits on top of a subway station meaning that there is no 10 minute walk to the station, no stopping for directions, you just descend down the escalator and voila – a city more than 837 square miles is at your fingertips with each district offering something different and exciting.
The view of Tokyo from The Mandarin Oriental
Following on after a short 50 minute flight, I visited Kanazawa and wider Ishikawa prefecture on the west coast of Japan. Often overlooked, Kanazawa is the centre for arts and crafts in Japan and has beautifully preserved Samurai and Geiko districts with tea houses that are still very much in business providing elegant entertainment. Walking along these streets, I felt like I had stepped back in time to 100 years ago, and staying in a Ryokan completed the time travel experience.
A traditional Geiko performance
A stop at one of these traditional inns has to be included in any trip to Japan with its graceful service and unrivalled hospitality otherwise known as Omotenashi. At each Ryokan I visited, the attention to detail was second to none and the level of service was akin to a carefully crafted art form. Of course, I was 100% spoiled and couldn’t lift a finger for anything – even down to having my own bath run for me and perfumed with lemon – but I was also instinctively left to enjoy the experience which was absolute heaven.
Now for the food. Never have I come across so many weird and wonderful tastes and textures or eaten so many different parts of a fish. To be honest, half the time I didn’t know what I was eating as there are so many vegetables and ways of preparing dishes that are completely foreign to the western palate.
Crabs in the Omicho Market, Kanazawa
However, there was not one meal that I came away dissatisfied or not liking, from squid sashimi to Kobe beef; walnut infused tofu to expertly prepared Dashi (sea stock) – it was all incredibly delicious.
Sashimi course in a Kaiseki dinner
Each dish is an art form with the presentation being just as important as the taste, especially so in the 9 course Kaiseki dinners traditionally served at Ryokans. I have never been the food blogger type, snapping away at the dishes in front me, but for these dishes I became the queen of food photos. They were all so beautiful with a Zen like quality in their layout on the plate, each component in balance with its neighbour in taste and aesthetics.
Appetizers in the 9 course meal
I could not recommend Japan enough to anyone, it’s like nowhere else that I have ever been with its culture, cuisine and gentle people and for me this is not Sayonara but just Ja Ne.
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