Just hours after arriving in Japan from London, a geisha girl is teaching me a drinking game. She sings a lilting, nursery rhyme-style tune as we take turns tapping the small wooden box between us, trying to catch each other out by whipping the box away so the other person must lay a closed fist on the table instead. As the song gets faster and faster, she titters sweetly, knowing I have no chance of keeping up. Inevitably, I lose and drink, blaming the jet lag.
Nothing else about Japan is this predictable. A startlingly advanced but deeply traditional nation, its people are endlessly welcoming yet it has been one of the world’s most inaccessible countries since the pandemic hit in 2020. Borders only fully reopened to independent foreign tourists in October 2022, while mask-wearing guidelines only lifted in March.
There’s no nervousness about tourists returning, however – instead everyone I meet is delighted to see visitors and keen to chat, making this the perfect year to get ahead of the crowds and finally arrange that bucket list trip.
A two-city itinerary is the bare minimum, and pairing the Japan’s former imperial capital Kyoto with the sprawling, neon metropolis of Tokyo is perhaps the best way to experience both Japan’s fiercely modern, fast-paced buzz and its rich cultural history.
The world’s second largest UNESCO destination, Kyoto is a mystical wonderland of ancient temples, revered shrines and cobbled streets lined with geisha houses and tiny artisan workshops. Even my hotel, the otherwise sleek and contemporary Four Seasons Hotel Kyoto, has an other-worldly charm typical of the city. It’s built around an 800-year-old Shakusui-en pond garden mentioned in a 12th-century epic poem and believed to have been owned by a distinguished samurai’s family. In honour of its history, the hotel now offers lessons in the Japanese martial art Budo and has its own waterside tea-house where a tea master leads guests through a curiously meditative ceremony following a thousand-year-old tradition. Twice-weekly geisha performances also provide a rare insight into an ancient and much misunderstood art form, drinking games and all.
More than 2000 temples and shrines are right on the doorstep including the unmissable Fushimi Inari Shrine dedicated to the Shinto god of rice, where thousands of bright orange torii gates mark a zig-zagging 4km pathway up a hillside populated by wild monkeys – though visit at 7am to avoid tourists. Yet Kyoto isn’t frozen in time but a lively university town that comes alive at night with rooftop cocktail bars, Michelin-starred restaurants and no-frills izakaya (Japanese pubs). “People are going out more than ever since the pandemic,” local tour guide Aki Atanabe says. “There was some hesitation at first but now there’s so much going on, it’s much more appealing for visitors.”
Tokyo has ramped up a gear during the country’s closure too. Always a breakneck, technicolour city of the future, it seems newer and shinier than ever thanks to a clutch of fresh attractions, restaurants and hotels. Even the city’s iconic network of zebra crossings at Shibuya Station can now be seen from above on the open-air observation deck of Shibuya Scramble Square, a 47-storey skyscraper first revealed in late 2019.
lsewhere, Super Nintendo World opened in 2021, Miyashita Park has been revamped as a shopping centre and rooftop park and Red Tokyo Tower has launched Japan’s largest eSports complex filled with VR games and immersive attractions. Directly above Tokyo Central Station and with just 57 rooms, Four Seasons Hotel Tokyo at Marunouchi even unveiled the city’s most anticipated restaurant at the height of the pandemic in summer 2021. Helmed by acclaimed British chef Daniel Calvert, Sézanne went on to win a Michelin Star just six months after opening and was named the second-best restaurant in Asia* this March.
Across town and despite lockdown, the chain went one further in September 2020 and opened the doors to its second location, Four Seasons Hotel Tokyo at Otemachi. Spanning the top six floors of a skyscraper overlooking the Imperial Palace, this glamorous Jean-Michel Gathy-designed property has the best views in town, with everything from bathtubs to the chic cocktail bar framed by uninterrupted skyline vistas and a snow-capped Mount Fuji rising in the distance.
Elsewhere, Tokyo is a jumble of distinctive, enchanting neighbourhoods where you can stumble upon a pop-up art gallery or all-night karaoke bar as easily as a tranquil shrine hidden in a city park. In Asakusa, there are traditional Japanese theatres alongside street food stalls and a retro theme park, while unassuming vintage stores in bustling Harajuku reveal racks of pristine, second-hand Dior, Chanel and Issey Miyake. Wherever you go, there’s a surprise on every corner, from the street art of Shimokitazawa to the ancient tiered temple of Sensoji or any number of increasingly odd animal cafes, if you prefer your matcha surrounded by puppies, snakes or even hedgehogs.
By 6pm, the ramshackle row of izakya under the railway tracks near Yurakucho are packed out with an after-work crowd indulging in nomikai, where tradition dictates that colleagues should drink together to wind down. Try lively Andy’s Shin Hinomoto for sashimi platters and grapefruit sours, though expect to squeeze your own fruit over iced shochu, a Japanese spirit distilled from sweet potato. Paper lanterns and discreet nameplates are the only ways to spot some of the city’s best restaurants, reached by easily-overlooked staircases from the street. At Genshi Charcoal Grill Iroriya Higashi, diners can kick off their shoes to crawl inside a tatami-mat lined booth where overflowing bowls of orange ikura (salmon roe) are dished up by waiters banging a taiko drum. If you’re feeling a little braver, try the set menu at Jidoriya Tsukada near Shibuya station, where I was served chicken sashimi – yes, really – washed down with (thankfully) unlimited sake.
Later, a quick drink after dinner ends up on a dancefloor surrounded by Tokyoites all thrilled that we’ve made the trip and full of infectious enthusiasm about everything we should see and do in their city. By the early hours, even the DJ has left his booth and joined us. It’s Japan all over: gloriously larger than life, constantly surprising and somehow always able to entice you to stay that little bit longer.
NEED TO KNOW
A deluxe room at Four Seasons Hotel Kyoto starts from £800. A deluxe king room at Four Seasons Hotel Tokyo at Marunouchi starts from £725. A superior city view room at Four Seasons Hotel Tokyo at Otemachi starts from £725. Book here