We arrived at a spacious series of rooms, a living area that later transformed to become our dining room, a sleeping area, upstairs a traditional wooden bath already filled with hot water, and downstairs, a study opening straight out onto the ryokan’s famously beautiful garden. Once we had changed into simple kimono-like tunics known as yukata, we were served a traditional kaiseki dinner as we sat on tatami mats in our room. There were ten tiny courses, each cooked in a different style – boiled, fried, grilled, in a broth and so on – and each was delivered with great delicacy by our hostess from behind a bamboo screen. Picking at microscopic tomatoes, delicate slivers of unfamiliar fish and sipping all manner of broths and teas was a masterclass in mindful eating. It’s easier to focus on what you’re eating when you’re trying to work out what it is. A traditional Japanese breakfast the next morning had a similar effect: though we were keen to race off for a day’s sightseeing, it’s impossible to gulp down not one but eight different dishes. You have no choice but to slow down and take your time – and that sets the pace for the rest of the day.
There’s also an overwhelming sense of etiquette: guests leave their shoes at the door, put on a yukata on arrival, and change into different shoes when using the bathroom. The Sekitei, where we stayed, had a wonderfully hushed ambience. The Japanese guests spoke almost in a whisper. There was wi-fi available – but it didn’t feel right flicking through Instagram in such an ancient, natural setting. It’s far less tempting to check your work emails, too, when no-one around you is doing the same.
On to Kyoto, where ancient temples filled our days, each more exquisite than the last. Apart from its famously serene bamboo forest, the city is home to over 1,600 Buddhist temples and more than 400 Shinto shrines. Each is rooted in its own calm landscape – surrounded by a lake, a forest, a neatly raked Zen garden, or a traditional Japanese garden filled with cherry trees and streams. Heading out early avoided the crowds, so we spent each morning walking these spiritual grounds, and a pleasing sense of routine set in. The city streets of Kyoto, too, are incredibly atmospheric: picking your way through the old wooden inns with their round lanterns and hand-painted flags feels like stepping into a Studio Ghibli film. It all added up to a profound sense of escape.
Finally, we went north to the mountainous town of Hakone, and here Japan’s raw natural landscape truly shone. We relaxed in steaming onsen baths, just like the ones we’d enjoyed in Miyajima. The difference here was that we had a private one on our balcony, overlooking a tree-covered hilltop. Hakone has an excellent open-air sculpture park too, with works by Henry Moore, Auguste Rodin and Joan Miró as well as a large Picasso collection inside. After touring the extensive grounds, guests soothe their feet in an open-air hot spring filled with citrus fruits, while enjoying fresh tea. Best of all, however, was the tiny toy train that took us up the mountain to Hakone. Just a few carriages long, it zigzagged its way up, reversing back and forth between stations, while passengers took in the amazing view.
At last we arrived back in Tokyo, nourished by ten days of the famously healthy Japanese diet, our minds detoxed from an absence of technology, giddy with the joy of having discovered some of the most beautiful places in the world. We felt thoroughly rejuvenated, and ready for our last night back in the hectic, crazy city of Tokyo. It was just as well – the karaoke bars were calling...
Call Scott Dunn’s Japan team on 020 8682 5060 to arrange your tailor-made trip to Japan