Enjoy hanami (the flower blossom), climb up the Mount Fuji and witness a sumo bout or a geisha dance, rediscover traditional Japanese cuisine or be carried away by the surprises held by metropolises of hair-raising avant-garde. Among the latter, Kyoto and Tokyo are not to be missed if you want to make a true journey into the heart of Japanese civilisation. Here is an overview to take into consideration before taking off...
Osaka, the effervescent
Osaka is a city bursting with energy that deserves to be better recognized by travellers. Third largest city by nighttime population in Japan, it slowly but surely made a name for itself between the two mother figures of the country, Tokyo and Kyōto. Economic rival of Tokyo, Osaka is Japan's commercial capital. In this city of merchants, you have to take a walk among the shopping arcades and taste street food to pick up on that energy.
The Yodo river that runs through the city and flows into the Osaka Bay and its multiple and bewildering urban attractions, complexes, huge exhibition centre and beautiful aquarium... Further down the map beats the heart of Japan with the country's oldest Buddhist shrine, the Shitennō-ji Temple, near Tennōji Park.
Leaving the underground shopping malls in the northern district of Kita, you will descend towards Dōtonbori, attracted by the culinary reputation of the neighbourhood, renowned as both the Osakaite 'Times Square' and the ‘belly' of the nation. You can walk the colourful gourmet streets and discover, around an alley corner, and away from the crowds and the extravagant shopping, the soul of the old Osaka of the Edo epoch, quivering like a firefly.
Kuidaore (“eat till you drop”) is the city motto. Food is available anywhere, anytime and for anyone! Smells, restaurants, food markets and kitchen set the pace of the city. Crab, octopus, fugu, beef, rāmen, takoyaki and many other dishes pretty much make it limitless. (Carnets de Traverse for Air France Travel Guide). So take advantage and feast in an okonomiyaki or a yakiniku restaurant, two Japanese food specialities.
Where to eat?
Kuromon shopping arcade
In order to hang on to that street vibe, we recommend you dine at a stand of the Kuromon shopping arcade. Enjoy a typical local setting for unusual and tasty food, in a very singular atmosphere.
Where to sleep?
The St. Regis Osaka
Refinement and discretion are the key words in this very well located hotel. A safe bet if you're looking for a pleasurable setting after an entire day walking around.
+81(0)6 6258 3333
Osaka Prefecture 541-0053
Rooms: from 46,308 JPY
Kyōto, historical soul of Japan
Walking around Kyōto is the guarantee to learn about Japan's history and ancestral traditions. With temples, sanctuaries, gardens and other historical spots, Kyōto is one of the richest cities in the world in terms of cultural impact (with no less than 17 UNESCO listed sites!).
It is also the city of geisha women, who you may cross paths with in the alleys of the Gion district. Their kimonos are sumptuous and their pace is fast. They can exit from a dark alley and you wouldn't notice. They put on rice-powder makeup, dark eyelashes and bright red lipsticks, and wear incredible hairdos. Their beauty is striking (Carnets de Traverse for Air France Travel Guide).
Trees and nature abound in Kyōto, making it very pleasant to roam. For the most romantic of you, do not miss the Arashiyama Park, and for the yogi in you the Ryōan-ji Zen garden. As for the philosophers, they'll find much to dwell upon along the temple riddled Higashiyama district. Among the various sanctuaries, the Kinkaku-ji is a golden temple lost in the verdant North-Western part of town that you absolutely have to visit.
Finally, what could be best than a stroll through the city, especially as Kyōto remains a human-scale metropolis with 1.5 million inhabitants. Wander through the streets, take some time and admire its old houses, go to markets and seek wonders of Japanese craftsmanship. Remember to stop by the Nishiki Food Market to savour local products!
Where to eat?
In a machiya (townhouse), you'll taste yuba in every shape and form. Namely, yuba is the skin that forms on the top of boiled soy milk. Savour a yuba with seasonal fruit soup, an assortment of yuba sushi and even a yuba shabu, a sort of Japanese fondue.
234 Yakushicho, Ohomiya, Imadegawa-sagaru, Kamigyo-ku, Kyōto
Kyōto Prefecture 602-8442
+81 (0)75 468 8487
Menu: around 4,100 JPY
Where to sleep?
Suiran, a Luxury Collection Hotel
Former imperial house, Suiran is a charming hotel that overlooks the Hozu River. Between nature and a traditional setting, let yourself go in this little piece of heaven. Ask for a room equipped with an onsen, traditional outdoor hot bath.
12 Susukinobaba-cho, Saga-Tenryū-ji, Ukyō-ku, Kyōto
Kyōto Prefecture 616-8385
+81 (0)75 872 0101
Rooms: from 58,662 JPY
Pleasant Hakone, on the shores of Lake Ashi
Many Tokyoites enjoy a second home at the foot of Mount Fuji, as a single day is enough to escape from the large metropolis. Do you love walking? The Fuji Five Lakes region is a perfect environment for a hike. Otherwise, it is also possible to rent a boat to sail on Lake Ashi. Art lovers will head to the Hakone Open-Air Contemporary Art Museum, where about a hundred modern sculptures await you in the midst of nature. A lovely discovery in sight.
Where to eat?
The restaurant is one of the best addresses in the vicinity for either lunch or dinner. It is famous for the Tofu Katsuni, which is a tofu sandwich with pork and ginger. However, be patient as there very well may be a long waiting line, people coming there to eat it every day.
1300-739 Gora, Ashigarashimo-gun
+81 460 82 1440
Where to sleep?
Hakone Prince Hotel
Enjoy spacious and comfortable rooms along the banks of the Lake Ashi. The hotel offers a traditional outdoor onsen, and it benefits from a view onto Mount Fuji.
144 Motohakone, Hakone-machi, Ashigara-shimo-gun
+ 81 (0)460 83 1111
The capital city offers a digest of all the contrasts to be found in Japanese culture, which never ceases to evolve between tradition and modernity. The largest megalopolis in the world awaits you for an unforgettable adventure.
In Tokyo, tradition and the now inspire daily life. Whether in a museum, a minimalist or out-there designed building, a temple or a gallery... you feel it everywhere. Everything is put though the filter of a carefully devised aesthetic, at once contemporary and inspired by the past (Carnets de Traverse for Air France Travel Guide).
To put you in the mood, start and mingle with the crowd in the Shibuya district. In this midtown, which is also Tokyo's business district, three million Japanese people commute daily. Witness the famous intersections where waves of human beings successively cross paths. For geeks and other manga lovers, make a detour via Akihabara, the high tech district of the city, absolutely unique in the world.
Away from the crowd, explore Ueno and especially its large park that houses works of art, temples and even an outdoor market. You can continue this pleasant walk in Yanaka, an artistic neighbourhood close by. Then head to Harajuku and the Yoyogi park where you'll see processions of newlyweds. In the latter, do not forget to stop by the Meiji-Jingū Shinto sanctuary.
To discover a genuine side of Tokyo, go to Asakusa. As a former fishermen village, it reflects by itself the spirit of Tokyo. This charming district is full of small alleys filled with shops, and presents the oldest temple (more than a thousand-year-old) in the capital: Sensō-ji. Dedicated to the Goddess Kannon, it attracts two million pilgrims each year at the end of May.
And if you wish to rise above the city, climb up the Tokyo Sky Tree tower, offering a panoramic vista.
And the evening starts…
If you want to go out at night, the Shinjuku district is particularly lively, especially the Golden Gai, a maze of small alleys where tiny bars stand alongside each other. For the motivated, prolong the evening in the Kabukicho district, where bars and cabarets are open to create a festive atmosphere.
What about shopping?
Do you love luxury and refinement? Then head to Nihonbashi, where you'll find numerous shops, including many luxury brands, before making a detour via the Mitsukoshi Ginza, a large underground department store that will look like an Ali Baba's cave for gourmet eaters. Afterwards, walk down the Omotesandō avenue, nicknamed the Champs- Élysées of Tokyo, where every luxury brand can be found without fail. Finally, for the love of bargain hunting, lose yourself in the Dover Street Market (for clothes) and Tokyu Hands (for all kinds of utensils).
Where to have lunch?
Tsukiji fish market
The market will be moved to Toyosu in 2017. In the meantime, it is still located in Tsukiji. In a very lively atmosphere, order fresh fish directly at the stalls. Savour local sushi and sashimi up until lunch!
Where to have dinner?
Enjoy some savoury grilled or steamed gyoza ravioli, served with a delicious marinated soya salad. This is a sheer delight!
Menu: around 2,437 JPY
Where to sleep?
The Peninsula Tokyo
Luxury, calm and serenity are the defining words for this hotel. Ideally located between Ginza and the Tokyo Imperial Palace, it is a little piece of heaven for all travellers who wish to discover the meaning of Japanese refinement.
+81 (0)3 6270 2888
Rooms: from 43,000 JPY