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Japan’s hidden gems and hotspots

When you think about Japan, most people think of the bright, cosmopolitan cities – Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto – but there’s a lot more to see.

Nikko Kanaya Hotel
1/5
Yuba Restaurant Japan
2/5
Edo Wonderland
3/5
Andaz Tokyo
4/5
Tokyo from Andaz Tokyo
5/5

First we’ll look at Nikko, the picturesque mountain town at the entrance of Nikko National Park. It’s a scenic drive from Tokyo, through beautiful autumn colours (known as ‘koyo’) that line the roadside, and up along the winding roads of Irohazaka. A popular destination during the autumn season, the town is also home to the sacred Shinkyo Bridge, which was off limits to the public until 1973. Walk 20 minutes from the Shinkyo Bridge and you’ll find the historical Nikko Toshogu shrine, standing out with its vivid colours and intricate carvings that date back to the Edo period. Officially designated as a Unesco World Heritage site, the shrine definitely ought to be on your list if you find yourself in the area.

All around Nikko, restaurant signs keep repeating the same word: ‘yuba’. Nikko is well known for this protein-rich Japanese delicacy, which is made from skimming the thin layer of film that forms on the surface of fresh, heated soy milk. So we take the hint and settle in for a generous meal at Ebisu-ya (955 Shimohatsu Ishimachi, +81 288-54-0113; nikko-ebisuya.com). You might miss Ebisu-ya if you aren’t looking hard enough, sequestered as it is along one of Nikko’s main streets, but it’s absolutely worth the hunt. The restaurant is beautifully lined with white tatami room doors facing floor-to-ceiling windows, and guests sit on tatami mats while eating some of the best yuba in town. We try the speciality in different forms, from yuba maki rolled with vegetables and crab, to unprocessed nama yuba served with fresh wasabi and soy sauce.

Later, we stop for a quick coffee break at Nikko Coffee (754 Nikko Imaichi; nikko-coffee.seesaa.net), a fascinating coffee shop set in a 200-year-old Japanese home that used to serve as an ancient brothel. Here you’ll find slow-drip coffee in a range of blends, as well as a variety of teas and snacks including traditional Japanese ice dessert kakigori – there’s a great selection here, regardless of whether you drink coffee. This trendy-yet-homey café hits the spot for an afternoon break. 

To end our day we opt for a relaxing soak in a traditional Japanese hot-spring bathhouse. A steamy visit, the onsen experience at Yashio no yu (1726-4 Kiyotakiwa-no-Shiromachi, +81 288-53-6611) is the perfect ending to a rigorous day of walking in the chilly autumn air. After our onsen we check in at the historic Nikko Kanaya Hotel (1300 Kamihatsuishi, +81 288-54-0001; kanayahotel.co.jp), which has been standing since 1873, making it one of the oldest hotels in Japan. In its early years it was the very first hotel in the area to cater to foreigners, and received distinguished guests from all over the world – including Albert Einstein and Helen Keller. Later we sit down to dine at the hotel’s formal restaurant, where they serve a Japanese take on French and Western cuisine, with  such dishes as classic French onion soup, a seared fish in a soy-infused house gravy and a fluffy breakfast omelette served with a side of buttery toast.

Not far outside of Nikko sits the fun and exciting Edo Wonderland (470-2 Karakura, +81 288-77-1777; edowonderland.net). A great place for families, children and visitors who want to get familiar with some Japanese history, this unique theme park transports you back in time, with welcoming drums and traditional Japanese soldiers greeting you as you enter. You can get even more immersed in the experience by dressing up in traditional outfits, from kimonos to samurai robes, with traditional hairstyles and shoes to match. You can be riled up by a group of ninjas as you stroll through the park, try your hand at archery or throwing ninja stars, and practice toasting senbei, (traditional Japanese rice crackers) over an open fire.

As we head back into the big city, we set our sights on exploring East Tokyo and the unique spaces popping up around this peculiar neighbourhood. In the Yanaka area of Taito – amongst small cemeteries, shrines and a cluster of pre-World War II buildings – sits Hagiso (3-10-25 Yanaka, Taito, +81 3-5832-9808; hagiso.jp), a renovated home-turned-café and multipurpose art space. Architect Mitsuyoshi Miyazaki calls his space a ‘micro cultural complex’ where they host monthly events and exhibitions that take up about half the house. The other half sits the Hagiso café where they serve up hearty meals and unique coffee drinks. The second floor is home to a small hair salon and the architect’s studio/office. By re-interpreting the structure of the house, Miyazaki has preserved a little piece of old Japan with his smart use of space and design.

Another unique space in the East Tokyo vicinity is an old onsen-turned-art space called Scai the Bathhouse Gallery (6-1-23 Yanaka, +81 3-3821-1144; scaithebathhouse.com), which hosts works by many world-renowned artists. Browsing through the gallery, we have the opportunity to see ‘Street Portraits’ showcase by London-based designer Julian Opie. After perusing through the gallery, we dig a little further into the Yanaka area, which is also great for browsing shops filled with tea and Japanese dishware, sipping coffee at a variety of cafés and tasting the offerings at local food stalls serving croquettes and small bentos.

After exploring this historical side of Tokyo, we check in at the beautiful new Andaz Tokyo (1-23-4 Toranomon, +81 3-6830-1234;tokyo.andaz.hyatt.com) situated in Tokyo’s Toranomon business district. You really can’t beat the view from the rooftop bar on the hotel’s 52nd floor, with a sweeping 360-degree panorama of Tokyo’s skyline. 

We decide to take a seat for dinner at the Andaz Tokyo Tavern, which sports an exceptionally stunning open-space layout and a host of succulent dishes, from torched Miyazaki beef carpaccio topped with shaved truffles to lobster bisque served with parsnip cream and sea urchin. Each dish is executed perfectly, from the plating presentation to the flavours that linger deliciously in our mouths.

If you’re looking for a great central spot for your Tokyo stay, you’ll be very well situated in the Prince Park Tower Tokyo (105-8563 Minato, +81 3-5400-1111; princehotels.co.jp/parktower). One of the only hotels located right under the famous Tokyo Tower, this hotel boasts incredible views of the Tower itself, and of the Imperial Palace. Thanks to its convenient location, the hotel can be easily reached by metro from some of Tokyo’s most popular areas, making it a great starting point if you’re looking to take in all the city’s great sights. With so many interesting places to explore, we know we’ll be back to discover more of Japan’s hidden treasures.

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