If you’ve always liked the idea of a trip around Japan but need help striking the balance between travel, sightseeing and relaxation, this is the guide for you. DOSE writer Rosie spent a fortnight travelling around the country, refining the ideal itinerary to share with you…
Before you go
Buy your Japan Rail Pass online – it’s going to become your best friend on this trip. Exchanging it in any rail station once you arrive couldn’t be easier, and you can also reserve seats on the bullet trains while you’re at it.
Photo: Prince Hotel Lake Biwa Otsu
First stop: Tokyo
Going east can be a nightmare for jetlag, so now’s the time to treat yourself to an extra-special hotel room while you acclimatise. We stayed in a Club Deluxe King room at the Prince Gallery Tokyo Kioicho, with views so stunning that we didn’t mind the fact we woke up at the crack of dawn every morning. Read the full review here.
Guests staying in Club rooms have lounge access, so if you aren’t feeling up to much sightseeing you can spend a morning in the gorgeous spa then take advantage of the divine afternoon tea buffet overlooking the amazing skyline.
Fortified by fresh matcha tea and Japanese sweets, head out in the evening to sample the nightlife in local izbashi (pubs) or even give karaoke a go, before ending the night back in the hotel’s uber-sophisticated bar where sleek bartenders will mix you some of the best cocktails in the city.
The one benefit of jet lag waking you up in the early hours is that you can visit the fish market at the best time. Pick the sushi restaurant with the longest queue, order breakfast and watch fish being auctioned off at crazy prices – all before your alarm would go off on any other day.
Spend a couple of days exploring Japan’s shopping districts, from luxury Omotesando and Ginza, to the weird and wonderful Harajuku, to the frenetic Shibuya crossing, stopping off for some respite in the calm of Yoyogi Park where the Meiji Jingu shrine is located. Then there’s Asakusa, filled with food stalls and tiny boutiques perfect for souvenir shopping, as well as the Senso-ji shrine, where you’ll find plenty of locals scuttling around in traditional dress.
Save your entry fee for Tokyo’s Skytree and head instead to the Prince Club Lounge to enjoy a glass of champagne or sake while watching the skyscrapers light up as day turns to night (cocktail hour is from 5-7pm daily).
Second stop: Kyoto
Having whet your appetite for temples in Tokyo, take things up a notch in Kyoto, where you could spend weeks visiting the various world heritage sites, including the many red gates of the Fushimi Inari Shrine, the bamboo forests of Arashiyama leading to the tranquil gardens of Tenryu-ji temple, and the majesty of the golden pavilion, Kinkaku-ji.
Getting to Kyoto couldn’t be easier thanks to Japan’s superb bullet trains (Shinkansen), and guests staying at the Grand Prince Hotel can drop their luggage at the dedicated welcome counter at the train station to save valuable time for exploring more temples.
Make sure you spend an evening wandering through the Gion district, passing geishas walking to dinner appointments in one of the traditional wooden machiya houses, until you end up at Shinbashi Dori, a canalside street packed with charming restaurants and bars.
Escape the hustle and bustle in the quiet surroundings of the Grand Prince Hotel, which has a beautiful central garden perfect for enjoying a morning coffee while you plan which sites to tick off your list for the rest of the day. If you haven’t quite reached saturation point with temples, take a short train journey to Nara to make friends with the cute deer who roam the park, and to visit the Great Buddha Hall, Tōdai-ji.
Photo: Grand Prince Hotel Kyoto
Third stop: Lake Biwa and Osaka
When checking out from the Grand Prince Hotel Kyoto, leave your bags at reception and collect them later in the afternoon from the train station after a day of more culture and tradition – or have them couriered free of charge to Lake Biwa Otsu Prince Hotel, the next stop on our itinerary and a short train journey from Kyoto to Otsu, where a shuttle bus will take you directly to the hotel’s stunning location on the edge of Japan’s largest lake.
The Japanese have a remarkable ability to take a foreign concept, perfect it, then put their own unique spin on it – a skill that is showcased in the hotel’s French restaurant Beaux Sejours, whose head chef Mr. Tomoaki Sakata was awarded second place in the prestigious Taittinger Culinaire International competition held in Paris at the end of 2017. The restaurant serves French cuisine prepared with local Shiga ingredients such as melt-in-the-mouth Omi beef, and matcha crème brulee: a culinary experience in a league of its own.
Lake Biwa hosts a world-famous marathon every year, and it would be difficult to find a run more rewarding than around part of the circumference of the enormous lake. Reward your efforts with a trip to the beautiful Kanou Shoujuan sweet factory, a short train journey away with shuttle service from the hotel, where you can partake in a traditional Japanese tea ceremony or even do a course in how to make their famous rice-paper sweets.
Otsu is also ideally located for a day trip to Osaka, where more culinary delights await: tiny restaurant Mizuno earned a Michelin star for its okonomiyaki, a Japanese omelette made with shredded cabbage and topped with spring onions, meat or fish and lashings of sweet and salty sauce, all cooked on a hot plate in front of you.
Prepare for sensory overload as you head out to the main street of Shinsaibashi-suji, jam-packed with street vendors selling takoyaki (gooey fried octopus doughballs that are a must-try) and flashing signs for restaurants on multiple levels of every building. Continue to America Mura, which you could mistake for a US city lined with boutiques selling branded apparel and cartoon merchandise. The streets in this area are filled with culinary gems that are an Instagrammer’s dream, such as the famous coffee cups at W/O Coffee Stand and the cute vending machine where you place your order at Café No.
Plan ahead and get your luggage couriered back to Kyoto station free of charge once you check out of Lake Biwa Otsu Prince Hotel, so that you can hop directly on to a bullet train from there all the way to Hiroshima in just a couple of hours.
Photo: Sky Lounge, Top of Prince Hotel Lake Biwa Otsu
Fourth stop: Hiroshima and Miyajima
Japan Rail Pass holders can avail of a complimentary shuttle bus around Hiroshima’s main sights, with regular departures from the train station. Upon arrival, have your bags couriered to your room at the Grand Prince Hotel Hiroshima, then board the bus to visit the Atomic Bomb Dome and neighbouring Peace Memorial Park.
Get the bus back to the station and hop on the complimentary shuttle to the Grand Prince Hotel. Its beautiful views across the water are best enjoyed with an aperitif at sunset, when the Club Lounge serves drinks and snacks. The hotel’s waterfront location makes it an easy boat trip to Miyajima from its private port, where you can visit the famous Itsukushima Shrine in the water – just be prepared to get your feet wet to score that perfect photo.
If time permits, try to fit an Onsen experience into your trip – hot springs are the perfect way to relax tired legs after a busy day of sightseeing. We didn’t have time for the real thing, but the Prince Hotel’s on-site hot spring circuit came a close second, with indoor and outdoor baths and saunas open until the early hours, from which you can drift back to your room for a fantastic night’s sleep.
Photo: Grand Prince Hotel Hiroshima
Fifth stop: Tokyo
Don’t be put off by the distance between Hiroshima and Tokyo: thanks to the bullet trains you’ll be back in the capital in just 4 hours. For your return visit, see a different side to the city by staying in the Prince Park Tower, where the views of Tokyo Tower could fool you into believing you were in a Parisian park (read a full review here).
Once you’ve had your fix of views across skyscrapers, walk around Shiba Park and absorb the majesty of Zōjō-ji temple. Prepare yourself for the journey home by spending an evening in Japan’s answer to Soho, restaurant and bar-filled Roppongi, which buzzes at night. Get your final fix of wagyu steak at Teppanyaki Grow before picking up gifts to bring back at the sprawling Don Quijote store, an absolute treasure trove of weird and wonderful Japanese goodies, from groceries to electricals and even second-hand designer goods, spread out over several floors. If you find yourself getting carried away – which you will – you can get a cut-price Rimowa suitcase from the top floor to haul it all home.
Your JR Rail Pass will get you all the way to Haneda airport for your return flight – or, if you’ve just acquired a whole new set of suitcases, the Prince Park Tower runs a limousine shuttle service to spare the hassle of lugging them all on board a train. Just make sure you arrive in good time: public transport never, ever departs late in Japan.
Punctuality is just one of the many things you’ll miss as you head back to Britain, instilled with a sense of calm that comes from being surrounded by some of the most civilised, respectful and efficient people on the planet. There’s so much to learn from this fascinating nation, and a two-week immersion is a unique and enriching experience. If only there was a bullet plane to take us back in record time for a quick fix when tube strikes threaten to ruin our composure…
Photo: Premium Club Lounge, Prince Park Tower Tokyo
Rosie stayed as a guest of Prince Hotels & Resorts.
A Club Deluxe King room at the Prince Gallery Tokyo Kioicho costs £940 per night
A Deluxe King Room at the Grand Prince Hotel Kyoto, costs £380 per night
An Eizan Floor Suite Double Room at the Lake Biwa Otsu Prince Hotel costs £760 per night
A Premium Deluxe Twin room at the Grand Prince Hotel Hiroshima costs £390 per night
A Premium King room at the Prince Park Tower costs £620 per night