Zen and the art of travel

Issue 7 - 2017
By Charlotte Hogarth-Jones · Images Mitsuku Wakabayashi, Nandin JP

From ancient temples and tranquil bamboo forests to the soothing rituals of everyday life, a journey through Japan offers the ultimate retreat.

Issue 7 - 2017
By Charlotte Hogarth-Jones · Images Mitsuku Wakabayashi, Nandin JP

From ancient temples and tranquil bamboo forests to the soothing rituals of everyday life, a journey through Japan offers the ultimate retreat.

As I sat sipping green tea in a Japanese ryokan, I gazed out at the zen garden with its koi carp and babbling brooks, revelling in the heat of the early- morning sun streaming through the window. It’s hard to think of a time I’ve ever felt calmer – and it certainly wasn’t what I’d expected to find in Japan, a country that to me had always seemed a bustling hub of technology and frenetic energy.

Travelling with one of my old university friends – both of us first-timers in Japan – we’d come to see bonkers game shows and Tokyo traffic crossings swarming with people, to eat sushi and buy brightly coloured kawaii pieces of plastic that I didn’t really understand. Maybe, I’d mused, I’d even fit in some kind of whirlwind romance, Lost in Translation-style. Winding down, on the other hand, was never part of the plan.

There’s something about the rituals of Japanese culture that makes a sense of calm almost inescapable. From gift-wrapping souvenirs in layers of tissue paper outside shrines to the simple act of checking tickets on a train, people here approach their jobs and daily activities with precision and an extraordinary amount of care. After a while, you inevitably start to pay your mind and body the same level of respect. After all, it’s hard to justify eating badly in a country where the diet is so cleansing and nutritious, and it’s easy to allow yourself a little time to relax when so much time is allowed for simple day-to-day tasks.


There’s something about the rituals of Japanese culture that makes a sense of calm inescapable. It’s easy to relax when so much time is allowed for simple day-to-day tasks


Tokyo, of course, is gloriously energetic, and I spent my first few days happily drinking it in through a jet-lagged haze. I visited Purinto Kurabu, Japanese photo-booths with wind machines and pop music blasting through the cubicles, and sat in cafés filled with Harajuku girls in outlandish costumes, gossiping over magazines and having their hair styled. At Disneyland, every Japanese tourist was dressed in exactly the same style as their contemporaries, and groups of identical Minnies, Mickeys and Goofys swarmed around me for photographs. So far, so chaotic.

Then we headed south, and everything changed. Japan’s high-speed trains are legendary, but nothing prepares you for how hushed and smooth they are. Watching the scenery fly by as we sped our way to the tip of the island felt wonderfully soothing. As dusk set in, we finally arrived at the tiny island of Miyajima, about an hour away from Hiroshima, and caught one of the very last ferries over to Itsukushima Shrine. Its famous red torii gate, designed in 1168, appeared to be floating in the water. We stayed on after the sun had set and the majority of the tourists had left, just to have the place to ourselves. It’s hard to imagine anywhere more picturesque – the arrival of tame deer nuzzling at my pocket only made the whole experience more magical.

That night, we stayed in a traditional Japanese ryokan, a type of guesthouse that has existed since the 8th century AD and which often includes communal baths or hot springs known as onsen. Here, the sense of ceremony reached a new level of exquisite perfection.


Light Japanese cuisine


Spring blossom


Old meets new in Pontocyo

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


Scott Dunn Suggests

Tokyo is the ideal place to begin an exploration of Japan. Take a river cruise through the city, check out the luxury stores in Ginza and then head to the Mori Art Museum where they have a free viewing platform with stunning views over the city skyline. Stay at the Mandarin Oriental Tokyo, which is centrally located in the Nihonbashi business district, close to the Imperial Palace and Ginza. From Tokyo, travel by bullet train to Kyoto, the cultural capital of Japan, where it’s wise to spend a few days with a guide visiting everything from temples to bamboo forests. The Yoshikawa ryokan is close to the central shopping district of Shijo-Kawaramachi and within walking distance of the Imperial Palace. Another alternative is the Hotel Granvia, located above JR Kyoto Station, which also includes a department store, museum and vast underground shopping mall. Next, head south to Iwaso on Miyajima Island. Another bullet train will then whisk you to Hakone Ginyu in the heart of the Fuji-Hakone National Park, which has spectacular views of the Haya-Kawa River and the Hakone Mountains. Then return to Tokyo for a night at the Peninsula Tokyo, located in Yurakucho opposite the Imperial Palace and Hibiya Park.
An Exploration of Japan, from £6,100 pp for nine nights including flights. For more information visit scottdunn.com/an-exploration-of-japan

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