WHERE can you buy high-quality jewelry, sex toys, and edamame-flavored KitKats all under one roof? Tokyo of course.
Anyone who has visited Japan would agree – the country is like no other.
However, one thing surprises me.
The chaos of the capital Tokyo, with its neon lights, skyscrapers and maze of zebra crossings herding crowds, does not reflect the entire country.
Japan’s culture stretches far and wide, and the best way to get the most comprehensive impression is with a guided tour – you can tick off the sights and have an expert on hand to answer any questions about traditions and history or the best places to eat.
My stormy itinerary, with the knowledgeable Richard von Inside Japan Toursbegan in Japan’s second largest city, Osaka.
It doesn’t have all the bells and whistles of Tokyo, and some of the high-rise buildings that house financial workers may look a little weathered, but that’s its charm.
There is no hustle and bustle here, just exceptional street food, a wild nightlife and a welcoming atmosphere.
Japan sticks closely to tradition, and while you can find bits of it in Osaka and almost every region, a visit to an onsen town is the best way to soak it up. Literally.
Because the word translates to “hot spring,” but it means more than that – it describes the entire experience of staying in a traditional inn or ryokan and strolling from one public bath to the next, reaping the health benefits of the mineral-rich, natural water Enjoy heated to a demanding 41 °C.
I stayed at Kinosaki Onsen, one of the best places in Japan to try onsen.
No one batted an eyelid as I put on my chunky clogs and yukata – the kimono worn for onsen – and shuffled down the street to enjoy the hottest bath I would ever sit in.
Wearing the traditional getup might trigger a bit of imposter syndrome, but it helps to get into character when you strip down and hop into the public fountain completely NAKED.
Don’t panic, the springs are gender-segregated and there’s something very liberating about soaking in the buff while gazing at green gardens and trickling waterfalls.
When I returned to my ryokan, I felt completely immersed in Japanese culture.
An overnight stay at the Nishimuraya Honkan only reinforced this.
It’s everything you’d expect from a Japanese inn – no shoes inside, just the slippers provided, while you can stroll through the tranquil gardens in clogs.
The rooms are simple and charming.
Behind the living room/bedroom’s sliding paper door is a conservatory-like area with floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook a pond full of giant carp.
The town itself is tiny, with just one main street, and you can admire its volcanic beauty from above by taking a cable car up Mount Daishi – or taking a 20-minute hike to its summit.
There is a small Buddhist temple halfway up the mountain.
But Kyoto is the place to find these places of worship in abundance.
It’s hard to believe that the city is the former capital of Japan, especially for those like me who associate the country with the bright lights and large crowds of today’s capital, Tokyo.
There are no skyscrapers in Kyoto.
In fact, the law prohibits buildings from exceeding a certain height.
Combined with the many temples – there are 1,600 Buddhist and 400 shrines – this has resulted in a peace that feels like a world away from the busy cities.
As I stroll between these historic buildings and hear the constant sound of the running stream water, I understand why the locals seem so relaxed.
Thanks to the many students living here, there is also a great bar and food scene.
For stunning traditional food, head to La Bombance in Higashiyama, near the geisha district, run by a Michelin-starred chef.#
Enjoy Kaiseki, a multi-course small plate dinner of the freshest sashimi, savory custard with pickled vegetables and fish wrapped in shisho leaves.
If this type of food isn’t your thing, Tokyo has something to suit every taste.
You can get there in under two and a half hours on Kyoto’s famous bullet train, reaching speeds of up to 200 mph (320 km/h). It is an experience that you definitely have to try.
Spend the night at the brand new and state-of-the-art five-star Bellustar Tokyo hotel in central Shinjuku, spanning nine floors of the 225-meter-high Kabukicho Tower.
Rooms here are literally in the clouds, but cost from £405 per night.
So if you’re on a budget, head to sister resort Hotel Groove, which is a few floors down and has rooms from £147 per night. For both see panpacific.com.
The building is Japan’s answer to a glitzy Las Vegas, with hotels and entertainment under one roof.
There’s a huge food court that serves all kinds of cuisine, including Japanese and Korean, a cinema spread over two floors with comfortable sofa seats, and even a gaming center where you can drink – something that’s usually not allowed in Japan .
After a short tour, I wave goodbye to Tokyo and float over the colossal buildings. I click on the TV screen of the plane in front of me.
“Popular on this route: Lost in Translation.” A fitting conclusion.
GET THERE: Finnair flies from Gatwick via Helsinki to Osaka and Tokyo from £846 return.
STAY THERE: A bed and breakfast stay at Zentis Osaka costs from £185 based on two night stays.
Nishimuraya Honkan in Kinosaki Onsen has rooms from £270 per night, including breakfast, traditional dinner and a hot spring bath pass with a bathrobe and clogs.
A night’s B&B at Higashiyama in Kyoto costs from £135, based on a two-night stay.
TOURS: A 14-day Best of Japan adventure is available from £1,950 per person and includes accommodation with daily breakfast, all transport throughout Japan, some private guides and a range of cultural experiences. Flights extra.
GET THERE: Finnair flies from Gatwick via Helsinki to Osaka and Tokyo from £846 return. See finnair.com.
STAY THERE: A bed and breakfast stay at Zentis Osaka costs from £185 based on two night stays. See zentishotels.com.
Nishimuraya Honkan in Kinosaki Onsen has rooms from £270 per night, including breakfast, traditional dinner and a hot spring bath pass with a bathrobe and clogs. See nishimuraya.ne.jp.
A night’s B&B at Higashiyama in Kyoto costs from £135, based on a two-night stay. See tokyohotelsjapan.com.
TOURS: A 14-day Best of Japan adventure is available from £1,950 per person and includes accommodation with daily breakfast, all transport throughout Japan, some private guides and a range of cultural experiences. Flights extra. See insidejapantours.com.