As Japan’s capital hosts its first Olympic Games since 1964, there’s a strong argument to be made for venturing past Tokyo to beguiling places like Kyoto, Okinawa and Mt. Fuji—cities that prove the country’s range and soul.
Exquisite. It’s the only way to sum up the whole of Japan, a country as diverse as America, but beautifully streamlined and thoughtful in a way I’ve never found anywhere else. First impressions are everything, and here it positively shines. Instead of traveling first to famously quirky, crowded Tokyo, as many do, I approached my freshman journey as an opportunity to understand what exists beyond it. As I discovered via city, island and mountain stops, the answer is everything.
If you do visit the capital, the urban ryokan Hoshinoya Tokyo (from $935 per night), with its exclusive fine dining restaurant and rooftop onsen, and Aman Tokyo, home to elegant Italian eatery, Arva, are flawless choices.
Kyoto is home to nearly 1.5 million. A former capital, where people with valuables and valuable skills once gathered, this city is the opposite of bustling. It feels ancient, with hushed temples, Shinto shrines and sites (like the iconic Bamboo Forest) that exude a sense of calm. That’s especially pervasive in the neighborhood of Arashiyama, where kimono-clad couples line a bridge over the Oi River, which I traveled in a timber boat to the 25-room ryokan Hoshinoya Kyoto (from $1230 per night).
The soundtrack there is wholly natural: water bubbling, wind dancing through lime-colored baby maple leaves, birds singing. I missed April’s cherry blossom bloom by weeks, but nailed the explosion of maples. Hoshinoya is the most luxe branch of the family-owned Hoshino brand. Founded in 1914, each property is crafted to respect the heritage of its location.
Hydroelectric Energy garden in Hoshinoya Resort Karuizawa
One can feel the soul in these century-old structures. The uber-Japanese gardens comprise pristinely-maintained minimalist plants and rocks. At a famous temple nearby, people study 15 rocks arranged in such a way that they cannot be seen simultaneously. These gardens were established 170 years ago beneath a luminous 300-year-old maple. From prolific low seating, I contemplate nature—a favorite pastime here, for I’m told the Japanese believe we simply borrow the scenery. We don’t own it.
Kneeling on a tatami mat, I breathe deeply through a slow, precise and ancient incense ceremony with Yoko, learning to listen to the fragrance, not smell it. As jazz floats through my ears, I sip on Suntory Hibiki Harmony whiskey which the bartender spun like a record with a massive ice cube. I enjoy bites of delicate baby trout—head to tail, bones and all—served beautifully on a miniature charcoal grill as part of a nine-course kaiseki meal of perfectly executed dishes, paired with as many sakes. Kaiseki, like so many elements of Japanese life I come to find, is an art form.
Dinner at Hoshinoya Taketomi Island Resort
Wandering is the way to go in this incredibly-safe city. I happened upon stunning ceramic sake bowls in Nishiki Market and a tiny Michelin-starred gyoza joint (Gyoza Hohei). The brand-new Aman Kyoto and forthcoming Ace Hotel are signs of its rising status, but it’s still firmly rooted in the past. Centuries-old geisha culture, alive and well, is the surest sign.
InsideJapan Tours guide Peter explained geisha means “people of the arts,” and demonstrated it during a fascinating night excursion through the famed teahouse-studded Gion District. We went into one in Miyagawa-cho—like off-Broadway—where a gracious and glamorous maiko (junior geisha) poured us tiny cups of sake and performed a slow, mournful dance.
Elsewhere, the atmosphere is completely unique. Upon flying south, I explored Okinawa Prefecture (which the U.S. has occupied since 1945). It’s akin to a lush, old-school Hawaii with palms, hibiscus flowers, water buffalo–cart rides, sticky sweet shaved ice and spam-topped Okinawan soba noodles.
The pool at Hoshinoya Taketomi Island Resort
The 48 cozy, traditionally-built pavilions at Hoshinoya Taketomi Island (from $835 per night) are the perfect home base. Taketomi feels raw and natural, the best expression of a place deemed a Blue Zone for its locals’ longevity. A spry, strong and happy 91-year-old with a shock of white hair taught me to weave fragrant shell ginger fibers into a mat, a craft he created in his 20s. Beautiful moments like this are in great supply, whether hunting for star-shaped sand (yes, really!) on Kaiji Beach, listening to live Okinawan guitar every day at 5 p.m., or paddling quietly on a hand-built cedar wood sabani boat, of which few exist.
The mysterious and frequently cloud-covered Mt. Fuji—the tallest volcano in Japan, and active, too—offers yet another angle on Japan. I arrived at its verdant mountain surrounds via a surprisingly-pleasant and efficient bus. After selecting a canvas daypack at the lobby of Hoshinoya Mt. Fuji (from $745 per night), I was taken via Jeep Wrangler to my minimalist “cabin” with a fire-studded balcony facing the hidden icon.
Every moment the mountain emerges is exciting. I was easily swept away from chopping wood or making pizza al fresco to gaze at its every reveal. It proved distracting while canoeing one morning on the dreamily-reflective Lake Kawaguchiko. In the truss-ceilinged dining room, however, the most tender, flavorsome steak of my life kept my attention. Wine beef is only found here, since the cows eat grape mash from nearby wine country.
Hoshinoya Karuizawa Resort
Visiting Itchiku Kubota Art Museum with another InsideJapan Tours guide brought everything in focus. Kubota was the Claude Monet of kimono art; a 20th-century master dedicated to a rare late-15th and early 16th–century textile dyeing technique.
Each whimsical kimono he dreamed up and created, decorated in priceless landscapes and scenes, took 18 months. Learning of his dedication and craft, I realized that, in Japan, everything is an art form; a meditation. Every bit of daily life is performed with beauty in mind. To me, it’s a destination for romantics; those who savor, inhale and appreciate. Kubota museum signs say no cameras, food or drink, but also “do not rush,” the perfect summation of Japan for me. As I discovered, true beauty is revealed to us who take our time, admire and breathe.