Tokyo

Tourists at Senso-ji temple, Asakusa, Tokyo.



Tourists at Senso-ji temple, Asakusa, Tokyo.

Photograph: Cristiano Fronteddu/Alamy

By Manami Miura, award-winning sake sommelier at the Ginza Kimijimaya liquor store, @sakephygram

My city in a nutshell
Tokyo is a city of gigantic proportions: 47 neighbourhoods slotting together like parts of an elaborate puzzle, home to more than 4,000 shrines and temples, 6,000 parks, and 300,000 restaurants (10 times as many as New York). Quiet shrines stand near neon-lit electronics shops, and serene parks edge up against alleyways lined with late-night ramen bars. But it wasn’t always this way: in the 1600s, when Tokyo was still called Edo, it was nothing but a tiny fishing village, until the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu decided to build a castle here. In 1868, it was made the capital, and it is now among the largest cities in the world.

If you do one thing
Ask 100 people what to do in Tokyo and you’ll probably get 100 different answers. I tell people to walk around Ginza. This central neighbourhood is one of Japan’s wealthiest postcodes, where glossy department stores and high-end brands are housed in many of Tokyo’s prettiest buildings, blending the best of Japanese fashion, design and cuisine – it’s also the heart of Tokyo’s sushi culture. Some of the greatest sushi restaurants on Earth are here, including the immortalised shop of Jiro Ono, star of the Jiro Dreams of Sushi documentary.

Ginza’s Sony Park.



Ginza’s Sony Park. Photograph: Alamy

While in Ginza, also visit Sony Park – a quirky urban space that often hosts live music – as well as the tiny shrine of Toyoiwa Inari, hidden down a very narrow alley. Also stop for a drink at Nissan Crossing, a cafe where you can have your face etched on top of your latte in macchi-art for ¥400 (£3).

My favourite place to eat
A small restaurant in Tokyo’s Ebisu neighbourhood called GEM by Moto. Diners squeeze in on stools around the hardwood counter as they watch owner and sake sommelier Marie Chiba at work. This year, Marie was awarded the Sake Samurai award – one of the most prestigious achievements in the sake industry – for her unique pairings at GEM, selecting sake for each customer based on their food choices from the regularly changing blackboard menu. Her most famous pairing, which you can ask for, is that of milky-white doburoku (unfiltered homebrew sake) with a blue cheese and ham cutlet. On the restaurant’s white walls, you’ll find scrawled messages from Marie’s many sake brewers, who travel from across the country to become customers themselves.
Small plates from £3.80, 1 Chome-30-9 Ebisu, Shibuya City, on Facebook

Where to stay

A dinosaur robot greets a guest at a reception of the newly opened Henn na Hotel” (



Henn-na Hotel. Photograph: Alamy

A trip to Tokyo wouldn’t be complete without dipping a toe into the city’s slightly stranger side. A stay at a Henn-na Hotel (meaning strange/weird hotel) will certainly allow you to do that. This chain, of which there are several branches across Tokyo, is almost solely run by robots: some in the shape of people, some in the shape of dinosaurs. You are generally checked in by a robot at reception, with a porter robot to carry your things to your room (plus robotic fish in the fish tank). The latest Henn-na Hotel, which opened on 1 September in Asakusa, even has holographic robot staff who flicker in front of you on the walls. You probably wouldn’t want to spend more than a night or two there, but the rooms are affordable and are in great locations, from Ginza to Maihama (by Tokyo Disneyland). If the robot novelty doesn’t appeal, I also recommend Remm in Hibiya (doubles from £85), a modern hotel that provides a quiet, comfortable night’s sleep in the heart of the city, with rooms featuring rain showers and massage chairs.
h-n-h.jp/en,doubles from £55

What the guidebooks overlook
Tokyo is often said to be the foodie capital of the world, with more Michelin stars than any other city on Earth. But less appreciation is given to the city’s creative brewers, of which there are hundreds. My favourites include Brewin’ Bar in Ginza, where you can try home-brewed craft beers (£6); an amazing urban winery called Fujimaru in Kiyosumi-Shirakawa, with both a restaurant and a wine tasting room; and Wakaze, a brewery that does pop-ups around the city, serving deliciously sour oak barrel-aged sake.

Moving on

Autumn leaves around Tsukimachi waterfall in Kuji district Daigo-town,



Photograph: Masaaki Ohashi/Getty Images

Head north to nearby Ibaraki prefecture, where nature is in abundance. This is where you’ll find the beautiful Tsukimachi waterfall, one of Japan’s 88 ancient power spots. Here people practise a Buddhist ritual called Takigyo, known as “waterfall meditation”, a cleansing of the mind and soul achieved by standing under the powerful – and very cold – water for anything from several minutes to several hours (something only committed monks achieve). You can rent a traditional shiro shozoku karate-style outfit and try it for yourself (I did it in August), warming up after at Momiji-en, a soba (buckwheat noodle) restaurant that overlooks the maple tree valley. About 12 miles away, you’ll find Japan’s highest bungee jump, which sees visitors throw themselves off a 100-metre-high suspension bridge above colourful Ryujin Gorge. To get to Ibaraki, take the 90-minute Limited Express train from Tokyo to Mito, then the 90-minute local Suigun Line train to Shimonomiya station. Tsukimachi waterfall is a 1½-mile walk from there. Alternatively, hire a car in Mito for easy access to Ibaraki’s more rural reaches.

Inspiration
There are plenty of great Instagram accounts to follow for tips on Tokyo, including photographer @tokyo_one, who shares beautiful imagery, and @bunnytokyo who shares interesting stories. If you can get your hands on a copy, I also recommend the book series Tokyo Artrip. The books, written in Japanese on one side and English on the other, highlight great places to experience everything in Tokyo from sake and green tea to architecture and antiques.

Fixtures

  • Wales v Australia 29 September

  • England v Argentina 5 October

  • Quarter-final 2 19 October

  • Quarter-final 4 20 October

  • Third place play-off 1 November

Yokohama

Yokohama Chinatown street scene



Yokohama has Japan’s biggest Chinatown. Photograph: Alamy

By Emma Sato, photographer living in Yokohama, @gomphotography

My city in a nutshell
Yokohama is Japan’s second-largest city: it has one of the largest expat communities in the country – and the largest Chinatown. It may be less than an hour by train from the capital Tokyo (it is actually part of the Greater Tokyo area), but feels far more laid-back – the streets are uncrowded, easy to walk through and dotted with street art and cool cafes. The growing number of microbreweries in the city add to this youthful spirit, and there are beer festivals throughout the year, including an annual Oktoberfest.

If you do one thing

Yokohama’s Minato Mirai waterfront district.



Photograph: Sean Pavone/Getty Images

Spend the evening in Minato Mirai 21, Yokohama’s harbour area. At night, the sea reflects the city lights like a kaleidoscope. To see the skyline in full, jump on the ferris wheel (£5.30), a 15-minute loop that scoops you up among the skyscrapers. It’s also worth viewing the ferris wheel from afar – it lights up in five-minute displays on each quarter-hour. The best spots to watch from are either Osanbashi Pier, which juts 50 metres into the water, or Manyo Club (£19), an onsen (hot-spring) facility that has skyline views from the baths. Manyo also has footbaths outside, so you can roll up your jeans and sit back to watch the show.

My favourite place to eat
I love a yakitori restaurant called Sumibi Yakitori Azume, where chicken is grilled on skewers over charcoal (yaki: cooked over heat; tori: chicken). There are several tables, but sit at the 10-seater bar if you want a front-row view of the chef turning each skewer on the flames. Almost every part of the chicken is available, from the crispy skin to the liver. Wash it down with a local sake or sweet plum wine – the bar is lined with bottles.

Where to stay

prostyle ryokan bedroom


Prostyle Ryokan is a Japanese-Western fusion hotel that celebrates the fact that Yokohama was the first city in Japan to open its port to the outside world, back in 1859. The hotel’s design reflects this blending of cultures, from the sunken earth floors of traditional Japanese homes to the Western-style bedrooms, with corridors lit by refurbished gas lamps brought to Japan from the west in 1872. In the lobby, you can listen to curated playlists made by the hotel staff, using headphones plugged into record players. They also offer free smartphones for guests to use out and about during their stay.
prostyleryokan.com, doubles from £76 room-only

What the guidebooks overlook
Yokohama’s Koganecho neighbourhood was the city’s red-light district until the government set about gutting the local brothels in 2006, turning them into creative studios and workspaces. Today, the neighbourhood, which lines the northern banks of the Ooka River, is a great place to stroll around, stopping in at the art shops and galleries, or admiring the bright murals painted on the walls.

Moving on

Hakone Open Air Museum, with Arch Leg sculpture by Henry Moore.



Hakone Open Air Museum, with Arch Leg sculpture by Henry Moore. Photograph: Alamy


Catch the Shinkansen (bullet train) to Hakone, a striking onsen town less than an hour away with a great open-air museum, home to an enormous collection of artwork from the likes of Picasso and Henry Moore, as well as more than 1,000 statues in the sprawling grounds. Hakone’s real lure, though, is its Mount Fuji views. To take in all the sights (including designated “Fuji-viewing” spots), follow the “Hakone loop” – a day-long route that winds gently through the mountains and lakes via train, tram, cable car, enormous pirate-styled ship and bus. Don’t leave without trying the famous black eggs of Owakudani, cooked in sulphur water. Locals believe eating one will add seven years to your life. The Hakone Free Pass (£39) allows for unlimited travel in the Hakone area for two consecutive days.

Inspiration
Follow: @in_suke_gram, who posts artistic photographs of the city. Also @saketotsumami, who showcases great food and drink options around the city. He also has a website where he posts in-depth reviews of restaurants: saketotsumami.tokyominutes.com/ (use the translate function on Google to read easily).

Fixtures

  • Ireland v Scotland 22 September

  • England v France 12 October

  • Scotland v Japan 13 October

  • Semi-final 1 26 October

  • Semi-final 2 27 October

  • Final 2 November

Sapporo

Sapporo Beer Museum interior with tables and tanks



Sapporo Beer Museum, the only beer museum in Japan. Photograph: John S Lander/Getty Images

By Narumi Abe, musician in the rock band My Bird Warms a Blanket for Colette, @narumiabe_perdrart

My city in a nutshell
Sapporo sits on the west coast of Hokkaido, Japan’s mountainous northern island. The cold Sea of Okhotsk, to the north, has some of the world’s richest fishing waters, and Sapporo is known for its seafood – especially crab, served at all-you-can-eat crab buffets across the city. It was also the birthplace of the eponymous beer in 1876, one of the four big beer companies in Japan (alongside Asahi, Kirin and Suntory). The red-brick Sapporo Beer Museum (free) is a popular spot. The best thing about Sapporo though is the weather: heavy snowfall in winter, when the city hosts Japan’s largest snow festival (4-11 February 2020), then a balmy climate in summer, far from the sweltering heat further south. But Hokkaido is perhaps at its best in autumn, when the trees turn bright red and yellow. And unlike further south, where the maples often stay green until late November, the transformation generally begins in late October.

If you do one thing

Ramen Alley, Sapporo,



Photograph: Lucas Vallecillos/Alamy

Walk down Ganso Ramen Yokocho, a narrow, lantern-lit alleyway home to 17 traditional hole-in-the-wall ramen shops. It’s Sapporo’s “original” ramen street, where miso ramen – Hokkaido’s famed noodle dish, often topped with “butter corn” – is said to have originated, spurred on by the need for a heartier broth in cold winters. The street looks almost the same as it did in the 1950s – except now there are ticket machines where you choose your order and pay. Most of the shops are tiny, seating around six people, so it’s not uncommon to queue.
3 Chome Minami 5 Jonishi, Chuo Ward

My favourite place to eat

Japanese style lamb barbecue



Japanese-style lamb barbecue Photograph: Kyoko Uchida/Alamy

Hokkaido is one of the few places in Japan where you’ll find lamb on the menu (or see sheep in a field): the animals were introduced to Hokkaido in 1857. Now, one of the island’s staple dishes is Genghis Khan (pronounced jingisukan) – grilled lamb or mutton in a sticky marinade. In Sapporo, there are plenty of Genghis Khan restaurants, but the tiny Sapporo Genghis Khan Main Branch is my favourite. It’s a real locals’ bar, with 18 seats crammed inside, and grills set up to cook in front of you. A 130g plate of lamb costs £7.50; English menus available on request.
6 Chome Minami 5 Jonishi, Chuo Ward

What the guide books overlook
Sapporo Art Park, about 15km south of the city centre, has nearly 100 acres of landscaped gardens, outdoor museums and craft studios offering workshops such as woodworking or weaving. The Sculpture Garden, with its 74 striking works of art from 64 artists, is a real highlight; its unusual statues stand in contrast to the park’s colourful foliage.
artpark.or.jp, Open 9.45am-5pm, free entry (workshops are chargeable).

Where to stay
Nakamuraya Ryokan is a charming inn about 10 minutes’ walk from JR Sapporo train station. It’s not five-star luxury, but it’s rare to find accommodation as traditional as this close to the city centre. The ryokan was founded in 1903 and has been in the same family ever since. The guest rooms have tatami mats, with roll-out futons in place of western-style beds, and there’s an on-site 24-hour public bathhouse. It also offers a “hairy crab experience”, where visitors can learn how to eat this Hokkaido speciality the local way (600g crab plus instruction, £41).
nakamurayaryokan.com, rooms sleeping up to four from £60

Moving on

Shikotsu-Toya national park with lake and autumn colours.



Shikotsu-Toya national park in autumn. Photograph: Sean Pavone/Alamy

Shikotsu-Toya national park is only an hour’s drive from Sapporo city, but a true Japanese wilderness. There’s nearly 1,000 square kilometres to explore, dotted with steaming volcanos, caldera lakes and forest-covered mountains. Make a beeline for Lake Shikotsu, one of the deepest in Japan, ringed by three volcanoes: Eniwa, Fuppushi and Tarumae. In autumn, the trees around the lake turn a brilliant burnt orange, intensified by the lake’s mirror-smooth surface. After a day of hiking, stop to soak at Marukoma Onsen (£7.50 public bath, £19 private) on the north shore. The open-air hot-spring baths come down almost to the lake’s edge.

Inspiration
Read: The Rurubu Omotenashi Travel Guide to Hokkaido – a chaotically colourful but compelling book detailing what to see, eat, buy and do in Hokkaido’s various regions. Follow: @raamen_jyoshis, an account dedicated to finding the best bowls of ramen in Sapporo. Each caption (written in Japanese but translatable via the app) goes into painstaking detail about the flavours and textures of the dish, with a rating out of five and any information needed to track down the shop.

Fixtures

Toyota

Korankei Valley, near Toyota, in autumn.



Korankei Valley, near Toyota, in autumn. Photograph: Junko Takahashi/Getty Images

By Kamada Hideaki, design engineer who has worked for Toyota for 20 years

My city in a nutshell
Toyota is best-known as the home of the eponymous car manufacturing giant. Before it moved there, the city was called Koromo but in 1959 – as an acknowledgement of the economic prosperity the motor chain had brought to this otherwise agricultural community – it was renamed Toyota. Many visitors skip Toyota in favour of nearby Nagoya, but that is doing the city a disservice. It has art galleries, gardens, historic temples and an interesting local craft culture, not to mention scenic mountains and valleys on the doorstep.

If you do one thing
Korankei valley is a pretty ravine carved by the gushing Tomoe River, and a riverside footpath leads from one end of the valley to the other, past the 254-metre peak of Mount Inari. The route winds over the scarlet Taigetsukyo Bridge (a great spot for photos) and past Kojakuji Temple, part-way up the slope under a canopy of maples. There are over 4,000 maple trees in the valley, each turning like traffic lights from green to orange to red as the year progresses. It’s an explosion of colour so dramatic that thousands of visitors from across Japan come each year to witness it.

My favourite place to eat

Hitsumabushi EELS with rice




Hitsumabushi – grilled eel served on white rice Photograph: Alamy

Unachu is a traditional restaurant that serves the most delicious hitsumabushi – a regional speciality of grilled eel on white rice. We love eel in Japan (the Japanese consume three-quarters of the total global eel catch) and Toyota’s prefecture, Aichi, is one of the main eel-producing regions in the country. The eel is grilled on skewers over charcoal and dipped in a soy-based glaze, making it crispy on the outside and delicately soft inside. It’s served with a variety of bowls and condiments (£26). The idea is to divide the eel into three portions: the first is to be eaten alone with rice; the second with the accompaniments (nori, spring onions and wasabi); and the third with a green tea-based dashi sauce, poured out of a teapot. The restaurant itself is very pretty, with timber frames, tatami mats and sliding shoji doors.
unachu.com, around £26 a head

Where to stay

sanage onsen hotel


Toyota’s accommodation is dominated by “business hotels”, aimed at travellers who visit for work. For a place with a little more character, try Sanage Onsen Hotel Kinsenkaku in the countryside about seven miles north of the city. In Japan, traditional rooms are typically measured by the number of tatami mats they can fit (as opposed to square metres): here, all rooms consist of eight mats, suitable for up to four guests sleeping on roll-out futons. The hotel is particularly proud of its onsen: the natural water contains radon, which is said to promote healing. You can bathe in it, but also drink it to absorb the minerals – it’s the first resort water in Aichi prefecture designated safe to drink by the local government.
doubles from £212 with breakfast and dinner

What the guidebooks overlook
A small mountain on the outskirts of the city called Mount Sanage. It’s only 30 minutes by bus, but it’s like a different world, with shaded forests, tiny mountain shrines and far-reaching views over Aichi prefecture. I love to come here to run or hike, far from the noise of the city.

Moving on
Take a 90-minute train and ferry trip to the tiny art island of Sakushima – one of three islands in the Aichi archipelago, with a population of just 300. In 2000, Sakushima began a regeneration project to attract visitors, displaying over 20 modern art installations in the wilderness. There’s no public transport on the 1½-mile-long island, but it’s easy to walk or cycle the looping roads and footpaths, following an art map from the information centre. Circling the entire island on foot will take around two hours. In places, it’s as if you’ve walked into a Japanese video game, exploring fantastical art structures in the pretty island scenery.

Inspiration
Follow: @88mercury, based in neighbouring city Nagoya, takes beautiful images of Aichi prefecture, with lots of pictures shot in Toyota.

Fixtures

Kobe

Kobe from Mount Maya, the Ten Million Dollar Night View.



Kobe from Mount Maya, the Ten Million Dollar Night View. Photograph: Alamy

By Ami Takemoto, contortionist and performing artist in circus and dance shows across Japan, @ami_takemoto

My city in a nutshell
In a country not known for its cultural diversity, Kobe stands out. After Yokohama, it was one of the first ports to open up to the outside world (in 1868) and it has worn its multiculturalism as a badge of honour ever since. Perhaps the most obvious manifestation of this is the number of Western-style patisserie shops – I recommend L’Avenue – and the sprawling Nankinmachi, or Chinatown. But Kobe also has strong Japanese traditions: most notably the production of nihonshu, or sake as it’s known in the west (sake in fact just means alcohol in Japanese). Kobe’s Nada district is the top nihonshu-producing region in the country, with many breweries open for tours and samples.

If you do one thing
The view from the top of Mount Maya, just north of the city, is incredible – especially at night, earning it the nickname “the $10m view”. The most rewarding way to reach the peak is to hike, setting off mid-afternoon. The easy-to-follow route begins just behind Shin-Kobe station and takes around three hours. On the way up, you’ll pass the Nunobiki waterfalls – their misty white water a cooling refresher on the steep slope. Finally, you’ll reach the Kikuseidai observation platform, where the view unfolds. Catch the 20-minute Maya Viewline cable car back down – or up, if you don’t fancy the hike (£3.30 one-way).

My favourite place to eat

People buying from popular Kobe burger takeaway.



Photograph: Malcolm Fairman/Alamy

Kobe beef is a variety of wagyu – the highly prized beef known for its succulent, buttery texture. If you’re looking to splash out, there are lots of restaurants offering tasting courses – the two-Michelin-starred Aragawa, for example, will set you back £270 a head. Wanto Burger is one place to try the city’s namesake meat for a fraction of the cost. It’s an American-style diner and serves a Super Wanto burger, with sliced Kobe beef steaks, in a huge bun for £28.
wantoburger.com

Where to stay

negiya ryokan exterior


Negiya Ryofukaku is a ryokan in Arima, one of Japan’s better-known onsen towns, around 30 minutes from Kobe. Though it doesn’t have the city-centre convenience, it makes up for it with traditional Japanese charm. Rooms are quintessential Japan, with neat tatami mats, low chabudai tables and sliding paper shoji doors. You can don a traditional yukata (Japanese robe) and shuffle between the steaming open-air baths – one of which has “golden” water thanks to its rich iron content – and the dining room, where an impeccably presented multi-course kaiseki-style dinner is served. In autumn, the entire resort is enveloped in orange maple trees.
Doubles from £150, half-board available, negiyaryokan.com

What the guidebooks overlook
Kikusui-Sarou – a traditional Japanese dessert shop beside Kobe’s iconic Minatogawa Shrine. When the shrine was built in 1872, Kikusui-Sarou’s shopkeeper donated a tile for the roof as a gesture of goodwill. Today, the shop’s signature treat is their “gilded rice cracker”, baked in the shape of that roof tile. It’s a nice place to sip green tea and sample a range of Japanese sweets.
3-15 -3, Tamondori, Chuo-ku Kobe, Hyogo

Moving on

Himeji Castle, 40 minutes by train from Kobe.



Himeji Castle, 40 minutes by train from Kobe. Photograph: Alamy

Take a 40-minute train ride west to the city of Himeji, with its 400-year-old castle – Japan’s only Unesco-protected castle. This wooden structure on a hill above the city, tiered like an elegant white wedding cake, is one of Japan’s 12 original castles – and, unlike most others, never had to be rebuilt after a natural disaster or war. From the top there are sweeping views across the labyrinth of defences below and out over Himeji. The castle gardens reach their peak during the spring cherry blossom season, when queues form outside the grounds, but they’re an enchanting place to stroll the rest of the year as you peer up at the majestic “White Heron”, as the castle is also known.
japan-guide.com, tickets from £7.50

Inspiration
Follow: @kobe_style, showcasing the city’s best food and drink spots. Also check out @kobe_cafe, introducing Kobe’s best cafes, with each post featuring detailed information on pricing, opening hours and location.

Fixtures

  • England v US 26 September

  • Scotland v Samoa 30 September

  • Ireland v Russia 3 October

Shizuoka

Kunozan Toshogu Shrine, on the edge of Shizuoka.



Kunozan Toshogu Shrine, on the edge of Shizuoka. Photograph: Sean Pavone/Alamy

By Kota Kuboshima, Shizuoka-born florist, @kakan.1999

My city in a nutshell
Shizuoka City, which sits on Sugura Bay, is often overlooked by tourists rushing from Tokyo to Kyoto or Osaka. But it’s a great place to spend a few days, visiting tourist-free temples, wandering the coastline and staring up at Mount Fuji whenever the clouds clear. In the surrounding countryside, the hills are covered with green tea bushes, strawberry fields and wasabi farms – the land is fertile because of the mountain spring water and cool coastal climate.

If you do one thing
Kunozan Toshogu shrine, on the edge of the city, is an ornate complex overlooking Suruga Bay from the side of Mount Kuno. The scarlet buildings of the shrine, dedicated to the powerful Edo leader Tokugawa Ieyasu, stand under a thick tree covering, with colourful paintings, copper lanterns and gold carvings. The ascent to the shrine zigzags over 1,000 stone steps, but for those who don’t want to sweat, there’s the Nihondaira Ropeway (£8 return), a cable car that dangles you above the forested slopes. On clear days, the views sweep across the tea fields and ocean to Mount Fuji.

My favourite place to eat

beer and food at hughop



Hug Hop, a craft beer bar five minutes’ walk from Shizuoka station, serves predominantly Shizuoka-brewed beer, from makers such as Baird Beer. There is also a regularly changing menu of pub dishes, like Japanese curry and pork belly (from £3). Beer names are written on a large blackboard in English, and there are often live music events.
On Facebook, @hughop

What the guidebooks overlook
Ethicus Coffee Roaster – a really cool coffee shop in the centre of Shizuoka. The owner, Yoshiya Yamazaki, is passionate about coffee, selecting the beans before roasting them himself. The shop is chic and minimalist, with an enormous open-plan kitchen where you can watch the coffee experiments take place.
2-21-12 Takajo Aoi-ku @ethicus.jp

Where to stay
Hotel Garden Square, a few minutes’ walk from Shizuoka central station, is smart and modern, with spacious rooms looking out on to the city. But it is the neighbouring garden and kaiseki restaurant, Fugetsuro, owned by the same family, that make it stand out. The garden, with its waterfall-fed pond and bamboo groves, was created at the end of the Edo period (in the 18th century). The restaurant serves seasonal dishes so pretty they look like they’ve been painted on the plate (eight items from £45). Hotel guests have access to the garden, which is otherwise off-limits.
doubles from £62 room-only

Moving on

Mount Fuji and autumn foliage at Lake Kawaguchi



Mount Fuji from Lake Kawaguchi. Photograph: Sean Pavone/Alamy

Fujikawaguchiko is a lakeside town in the northern foothills of Mount Fuji, and there are few places in Japan that offer such a close-up view of the famous peak. There are bikes to hire for a ride around Lake Kawaguchi, and plenty of boat trips. Still days see the phenomenon of sakasa Fuji, or “upside-down Fuji”, where the lake creates a perfect mirror image. The Mount Kachi Kachi cable car runs 400 metres up to an opposing peak for panoramic views (£6 return). Fuji Q Highland (£43) is Japan’s premier adrenaline theme park, with some of the most spine-tingling rides on the planet, including a rollercoaster with the world’s fastest acceleration and largest loop. Expect long queues.

Inspiration
Read: D Design travel Shizuoka, a travel book written in Japanese and English focusing on the best things to see, do and eat in Shizuoka with a focus on design. It was created by Japanese concept store D&Department – a Japanese concept store that showcases the best local crafts.
1 Chome-24-10 Takamatsu, Suruga Ward

Fixtures

Oita

outdoor pool with steam at Shiraike Jigoku onsen



Shiraike Jigoku onsen in Beppu, north of Oita.

Photograph: Porames Rojanatreekoon/Alamy

By Kei Ueda, designer for an Oita advertising agency, @porquekei

My city in a nutshell
The city of Oita stands on the coast of Kyushu, sandwiched between mountains to the west and sea to the east. It’s not a pretty city – more a blur of concrete tower blocks and wide-laned roads – but its proximity to some of Kyushu’s wildest landscapes makes it a great base to explore the island’s wider reaches and go hiking, canyoning and wild swimming. And thanks to the same geothermal activity that carved these landscapes, Oita has another very tempting reason to visit: hot springs. It’s Japan’s top onsen spot, with more hot-spring facilities than anywhere else in the country.

If you do one thing
Go to an onsen: my favourite is Hyotan, just north of the city in Beppu. There are eight different onsen under one roof, from steaming open-air baths to sunamushi, where you’re buried up to your neck in hot sand. But onsen culture doesn’t just mean bathing: this area also has onsen jigoku or “hot spring hells” – places where hot sulphurous water (definitely not for swimming in) spills through cracks in the earth to create the most vibrant (and smelly) coloured lakes, from cobalt to deep red. They’re also hot enough to cook with. At Jigoku Mushi Kobo Kannawa, you can order (or take your own) vegetables and meat to steam in the water, which reaches temperatures of 98C (20 minutes’ use from £2.50).

Paper thin slices of raw pufferfish on fancy plate



Slices of raw pufferfish, or fugu, part of a fugu tasting menu. Photograph: Itsuo Inouye/AP

My favourite place to eat
Usuki Fugu Yamadaya restaurant in Oita’s Miyakomachi area has a sister branch in nearby Usuki (the original store) and two in Tokyo, one of which has three Michelin stars (and, unsurprisingly, prices to match). The Usuki one is known for fugu, the pufferfish banned from consumption through the Edo period due to the number of fatalities from its ovaries and liver, which contain a poison 13 times stronger than arsenic. Even now, the Japanese emperor is forbidden by law from eating it. It’s only served at restaurants with a special licence (taking around three years to earn), which verifies the chef’s ability to prepare it safely. Its fugu course (from £72) includes the fish in its many forms.
4-11-14, Nishiazabu, Oita

What the guidebooks overlook

jikogu mushi pudding



A pudding cooked using
jigoku mushi

A little restaurant called Okamotoya on a hill above Beppu. Outside, you can walk around the exposed sulphuric jigoku – bubbling and steaming like a giant witch’s cauldron – or stop to soak in their huge onsen, with views across Beppu Bay. My favourite reason to visit is the custard puddings, cooked using jigoku mushi (“hell steaming”) in the potent natural steam.
4 Kumi, Myoban, Beppu

Where to stay
Blossom Hotel, a minute’s walk from Oita’s main station, has beautifully styled interiors, with warm wooden furniture and elegant sliding shoji doors. Its biggest draw is the rooftop hot spring: an infinity-edge pool 80 metres above the ground. From the water you can see the city panorama, with the mountains behind and the sea in front. It also has steam rooms, saunas and a salt spa, as well as one of the largest roof gardens in Japan, home to roughly 1,000 trees and flowers.
jrk-hotels.co.jp, doubles from £66 room-only

Moving on

Stone-built shops in Yufuin



Stone-built shops in Yufuin. Photograph: Sanga Park/Alamy

A 60-minute train ride away is Yufuin, a small town at the foot of the twin-peaked Mount Yufu that’s consistently ranked as one of the top onsen towns in Japan. Yufuin’s architecture is traditional, from old stone farmhouses to elegant ryokans, but the boutique shops and trendy cafes give the town a bohemian flair. It’s a great place to explore on foot, dipping into the many craft shops and studios, where you can see people practise everything from pottery to washi (Japanese paper-making). Spend an hour crafting chopsticks at Hashiya Ichizen (£20), then have lunch at Izumi Soba, a traditional soba noodle shop by Lake Kinrinko on the edge of town.

Inspiration
Follow: @foodies_oita – a great Instagram page if you’re interested in finding restaurants that aren’t in the guidebooks. Each post includes the name of the cafe or restaurant in English, as well as a detailed description about the place and food (written in Japanese but translatable via the Instagram app).

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Fukuoka

Shofuku-ji shrine, in Fukuoka.



Shofuku-ji shrine, in Fukuoka. Photograph: Peter Elvin/Alamy

By Daiki Tanaka, professional surfer, @daikitanaka0614

My city in a nutshell
Fukuoka is the largest city on the southerly island of Kyushu – a five-hour Shinkansen (bullet train) ride south of Tokyo. Despite the city’s size (it’s home to 1.6 million people), it’s very compact: if you are flying there from Tokyo, you can get from the airport to the centre in less than 15 minutes, and most of Fukuoka’s key sights – such as Shofukuji, the oldest Zen shrine in Japan – are within easy walking distance.

Make sure that you come with an empty stomach: Fukuoka is known for its food, from rich bowls of pork-broth hakata ramen to bright pink karashi mentaiko (pollock or cod roe in the shape of a sausage). Fukuoka Now is a website in four languages and a monthly magazine in both Japanese in English, which was founded by Canadian Nick Szasz and is packed with local news and upcoming events.

If you do one thing

Night view of Fukuoka city and tower



Fukuoka city. Photograph: Yuliia Burlachenko/Alamy

Ride the lift to the top of Fukuoka Tower (£5), which stands an imposing 234 metres high beside the sea. On a clear day, you get a snapshot of the real Fukuoka: Hakata Bay and the sea beyond dotted with small islands, the sandy shore, the mirror-like high-rise buildings and the hazy mountains marking the edge of the prefecture. Dusk is a great time to visit, so you catch the last of the sunset over Hakata Bay, before the city lights flick on to reveal one of Japan’s most amazing nightscapes.

My favourite place to eat
Despite Tokyo’s thousands of ramen shops, Fukuoka has a good claim to be the ramen capital of Japan. My favourite ramen bar is Hakata Isso, known for its rich tonkotsu ramen, served with soft chashu (pork belly slices) and a sticky soy egg. You’ll usually have to queue to get in, especially as it only seats around 10 people. As with most Japanese ramen shops, you select and pay for your food using the ticket machine on arrival (the words are written in Japanese characters, but ask which one is the standard tonkotsu ramen, £5), then hand your ticket to the server. Ramen is technically fast food, so don’t linger long after you’ve finished eating.
3 Chome-1-6 Hakataekihigashi

Where to stay
Stand By Me is a “standing bar where you can also stay”. In Japan, standing bars or tachinomiya – tiny bars where the only option is to stand – took off in the 1980s as an inexpensive and quick place to grab a drink, and have become popular as fun places to hang out. Stand By Me has a standing bar downstairs and a hostel upstairs, with shared and private rooms that are simple, but clean and comfortable. A £7.50 ticket for the standing bar lets you pick any four things off the menu, including beer, sake and lots of delicious local food: it’s a good “sightseeing sampler” if you’re new to Japanese cuisine and aren’t sure where to eat. The bar is also a great space to meet other like-minded travellers.
dorm beds from £34, private rooms from £102

What the guidebooks overlook
Palm Beach The Gardens: even a lot of Fukuoka locals don’t know about this place. It’s a small dining and shopping complex on a golden beach, about 30km from the city centre. There are surfer-style cafes and bars serving Hawaiian favourites such as loco moco and garlic shrimp, as well as Italian gelatarias and cool surf shops. It’s one of my favourite places in Japan to watch the sunset, especially after a day of surfing.
285 Nishi-ku Nishiura, Fukuoka-shi, Fukuoka

Moving on

Stalls selling local snacks and sweet near Dazaifu’s Tenmangu Shrine.



Stalls selling local snacks and sweet near Dazaifu’s Tenmangu Shrine. Photograph: Nirad/Getty Images

After a couple of days in Fukuoka, catch the bus or train to Dazaifu, nine miles south-east of the city. This seventh-century settlement was Kyushu’s administration centre for more than 500 years, from the year 663. The main tourist sight is Tenmangu Shrine, which was built in 903 on the grave of the scholar and politician Sugawara Michizane. The ornate red-and-gold shrine is large by Japanese standards – 250 metres wide – and set beside an enormous pond in the shape of the kanji character for “heart”.

You approach along a cobbled street that is lined with vendors selling everything from wooden trinkets said to bring good luck to the umegae mochi unique to Dazaifu, rice balls filled with azuki bean paste and grilled with plum blossoms – a nod to the 6,000 or so plum trees that surround the shrine.

Inspiration
Follow: @fukuokadeeps on Instagram, an account showcasing the rare sites of the city, from forgotten statues to little-known temples.

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Kumamoto

Kumamoto Castle against pink sky



Kumamoto Castle dates from 1467. Photograph: Sean Pavone/Getty Images

By Noriyuki Yamashita, shochu enthusiast and owner of Glocal Bar Vibes, @glocal_bar_vibes

My city in a nutshell
Kumamoto city is built around the 17th-century Kumamoto Castle – considered one of the “top three castles” of Japan. In 1877, it successfully withstood a 20,000-strong samurai attack for nearly two months. In 2016, it faced another attack: a magnitude 7.3 earthquake. Although parts of the building were damaged, it stills stands on its grassy mount as a symbol of Kumamoto’s resilience. To the west lie the islands of Amakusa, and to the east, the volcanic mountains of Aso, making Kumamoto a great base for exploring Kyushu island’s wild side. But don’t rush to leave the city too quickly: after dark, the side streets around Shimotori and Kamitori (Kumamoto’s two main strips) come to life, packed with hundreds of tiny izakayas (bars) that deserve at least a few nights of your attention.

If you do one thing

Suizenji Jojuen Garden



Suizenji Jojuen Garden. Photograph: Alamy


Suizenji Jojuen is a 17th-century garden considered one of the most beautiful in Japan, full of arched stone bridges, plum trees and herons standing stoically at the water’s edge. It was designed in the kaiyu-shiki-teien style, leading visitors clockwise around a pond. The various elements of the garden are meant to reflect the 53 stops or post stations of the Tokaido – a road that connected Tokyo (then named Edo) with Kyoto. You’ll head across a replica of Tokyo’s Nihonbashi Bridge, pass a miniature Mount Fuji and finish at the Kokin Denju No Ma teahouse, transported to Suizenji in 1912 from Kyoto’s Imperial Palace. Stop for tea on the tatami mats (£4, including a sweet treat), watching the koi carp and turtles swim in the pond.

My favourite place to eat
Hero Umi izakaya specialises in seafood, getting its catch fresh each day from the Amakusa islands – the archipelago is just an hour away and is known for its high-quality hauls. At lunchtime, the fisherman’s bowl (ryoshi no makanai donburi, £7.50) is an assortment of sashimi caught that morning, served with rice and soup. In the evening, large sashimi platters come paired with a 120-minute nomihodai (all-you-can-drink) menu (from £30, call ahead to book). Don’t leave without ordering a side of basashi (raw horse meat) – a popular Kumamoto delicacy.
hero-umi.com

Where to stay

Hot spring baths at Maruko Hotel



Hot spring baths at Maruko Hotel

Maruko Hotel, a 120-year-old establishment just off the Kamitori, has the charm of an old-style ryokan but with the convenience of a sleek city centre hotel. You’ll find tatami rooms with roll-out futons, as well as western-style bedrooms. There are male and female hot-springs baths, a private bath you can reserve for your group, and a tiny outside tub so you can soak in the open air. Dinner is served in traditional ryokan style, with lots of colourful small plates of pickles, fish, tofu and endless bowls of rice.
doubles from £170 room only, set meals from £15

What the guidebooks overlook
My own shochu bar, Glocal Bar Vibes (a “local” bar for “global” people). As the bar owner I’m biased, but you can seriously feel Kumamoto. We sell over 120 different kinds of shochu – a distilled spirit made from barley, potato or rice. It’s the most popular alcoholic drink in southern Japan (not sake/nihonshu, as most people think). On Tuesdays we do an all-English night – no Japanese speaking allowed. It’s a great chance to drink with the locals.
Arita BLD 3F, Chūō-ku

Moving on

Boats on Kuma River, Hitoyoshi, Kumamoto,



Photograph: Getty Images

Head to the southern city of Hitoyoshi – a 90-minute drive through 24 tunnels, or a 150-minute steam train along the Kuma River (£20 one-way). Even for Japanese tourists, this is about as inaka (rural) as it gets. The city is sometimes called Little Kyoto because of its red-lacquered shrine gates, Edo-style teahouses and hot-spring baths. But there’s also another reason to visit: shochu, the distinctively Japanese liquor made since the 16th century. There are 28 distilleries in the Hitoyoshi-Kuma valley, and the “Kuma shochu” name has World Trade Organisation protection. Distillery tours always end with a generous shochu tasting, so you may want to stay the night: I recommend Nabeya Honkan, beside the rushing Kuma River.

Inspiration
Follow: @kumalikecom on instagram (or visit their website: kumalike.com) for tips on the best restaurants, bars and attractions, as decided by the locals.

Read: asianwanderlust.com/en/kumamoto-japan/ – a great blog giving you and in-depth account of the top things to do and places to stay in Kumamoto

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