Carolyn’s field notes from Japan

A high-tech adventure from glittering Tokyo to temple-woven Kyoto

Recently, we sent Carolyn – along with her family – on a research trip across the breadth of central Japan. From lightning-fast bullet trains to candy treasure hunts – they travelled through the urban forests of Tokyo and the breathtakingly ornate temples of one of Japan’s most historic cities, Kyoto. With feet on the ground and insights and details at every turn, sending our team out into the world is the perfect way for us to gain a deeper understanding of the trips we plan for our travelers. That’s why we do it. And after hearing their tales, you’ll soon see why Japan is one of our favorite family travel destinations. Over to you, Carolyn.

The arrival

Our journey begins at night – amid glowing neon lights and glittering skyscrapers. Outside the car window, the city passes by in a blur of vivid color interspersed with small pockets of darkness. The streets are full – that much I can tell. I think I see a temple, Senso-ji perhaps. But the sleepless city of Tokyo will have to wait until tomorrow.

Soon, we’re drawing up outside the Otemachi Tower – an impressive 40-storey skyscraper in the heart of Japan’s thriving capital. And at the very top, our hotel – Aman Tokyo. As we rise higher and higher, my children start to get excited about the views that await us in our room. They’re not disappointed. Practically pressing their faces up against the floor-to-ceiling windows, they’re met with spectacular views of a twinkling, futuristic skyline – and at a rather dizzying height.

gardens in tokyo japan

Tranquil forests and high-tech sushi

The following morning, we wake to a different (but equally breath-taking) panorama. Sunlight catches on towering skyscrapers and highlights the lush greenery of the Otemachi Forest below. In the distance, the snow-smeared peak of Mount Fuji rises above a sprawling metropolis. It’s beautiful.

I take a closer look at our room; spacious and light filled. Incorporating traditional materials like washi paper and camphor wood, there is a perfect balance between old and new. Inspired by traditional Japanese residences, designed in a contemporary style.

Enchanted by the natural beauty of the Otemachi Forest, we head down to explore. Feet on the ground, cameras in hand. Weaving through delightfully green spaces, we make our way along a paved walkway that runs alongside sun-dappled carpets of woodland. Labyrinths of branches. Sporadic clusters of pine, beech, and oak. The chirping of grasshoppers blends with the gentle song of the Oriental turtle doves who call this urban forest home. A glistening stream fed by rainwater (which is then collected and recycled) trickles through this refreshing world of nature.

The purpose of this tranquil spot? To create a thriving ecosystem at the heart of the city center – and to offer respite from the urban hustle and bustle beyond. In late spring and summer, I’m told, is when this man-made woodland truly comes alive – dogtooth violets and red spider lilies pepper the ground as greenfinches and brown-eared bulbuls rest on the leafy branches of flourishing native trees above. And perhaps it is. But with evergreen plants weaved throughout the design, it still makes for a beautiful spot whatever time of year you choose to visit.

Leaving this calming pocket of nature behind, we set off for some lunch among one of Tokyo’s eclectic neighborhoods – Shibuya. Roasted shrimp, wasabi pickled eggplant, crab-filled gunkan, chili-marinated salmon. Just a few of the delights that await us at Uobei sushi restaurant. Finding a spot along the extensive conveyor belt delivering temaki and sashimi to happy diners via a high-speed chute, we take our seats. And place our orders on multi-language tablets – a process that causes much excitement among my son and daughter. Futuristic service, futuristic presentation. For a high-tech sushi experience, there’s no place better.

bullet train in tokyo in japan
bullet train and mount fuji in japan

Full speed ahead

Our next futuristic feat: hopping on the bullet train to Kyoto. An experience in itself, it is a fabulously easy (and luxurious) way to travel. Huge and nicely cushioned seats, a ‘flip out’ adjustable foot rest, headrest complete with reading light. Smooth, efficient. Everything is incredibly clean, and everyone is extremely polite. And then there’s the view. Whizzing past picturesque Japanese countryside dotted with small, tranquil towns, the snow-covered peak of Mount Fuji pierces clear blue skies in the distance. It’s quite the sight.

If you’d like to experience the bullet train for yourself, then our luxury Travel Experts know just the right seats to book. The perfect spot with a place for your luggage and a breath-taking view of Mount Fuji. Just say the word.

kyoto grounds japan
koi fish japan

A moment of Zen

Arriving in Kyoto – after our (almost) quick-as-lightning train journey – we head to our hotel, Four Seasons Kyoto. Nestled within Kyoto’s enchanting temple district, we spend the afternoon weaving our way through the nearby narrow lanes lined with tea houses and, unsurprisingly, a striking multitude of temples. We return to our room. Sleek black and white marble, fusuma screens, urushi lacquerware, washi-paper lamps. Each room is designed to maximize Kutsurogi – the Japanese art of relaxation. And as my kids amuse themselves by sliding around in their newly-found favorite slippers, I send down for one of the hotel’s Zazen self-meditation kits – an exciting little extra that’s available upon request.

Designed by a Zen monk from Kennin-ji Temple in Gion, each kit contains a traditionally-crafted incense stick prepared by a local incense-maker and a brass Orin bell to be sounded three times to calm the mind. Managing to get my kids to sit still for a moment, I give them each a task. My daughter, the eldest, has the responsibility of lighting the incense while my son is in charge of sounding the bell. The soothing fragrance of fresh grass blends with echoing clear tones. A means of gently refreshing the spirit, I’m told. Seated on the balcony, we take a moment to relax together – something we repeat, later, after each day of exploring.

golden temple in the snow in kyoto

A dusting of snow

The following morning we awake to snow-dusted bamboo and crisp, clear skies. Making our way down to the hotel’s restaurant, we tuck into breakfast. Homemade tofu, steamed rice, grilled fish, fresh yuzu juice. My favorite? The Japanese omelet – thin rolled layers of egg seasoned with sugar and soy sauce. Outside, a Shakusui-en pond garden. It was here that I learnt why koi fish like nishikigoi are so treasured; known as ‘swimming jewels’, they’re believed to be symbols of beauty, nobility, and success. Upon seeing these bright red, orange, gold and white patterned fish, our children eagerly toss in the food given to them earlier by the hotel staff.

After a tranquil morning in this beautifully minimalist and scenic space, we meet up with Tammy, our local guide. An enthusiastic and lovely host, she takes us to see the Golden Temple – an echo of the extravagant Kitayama culture once popular among Kyoto’s aristocratic circles. Ornately coated in gold leaf, lightly covered with a sprinkle of snow. We’re lucky, she says – of the hundred plus times she’s been there, this was only the second time she’d seen it in the snow. Here, people throw coins at statues for good luck and the impressive temple overlooks a large pond peppered with ten small moss-carpeted islands. Tall pine trees rise, representing permanence and longevity, while circular pathways wind their way through the surrounding gardens, signifying enlightenment. Two very important symbols in Japanese gardens, we’re told.

Strolling over picturesque bridges and beside beautiful rock compositions, we learn of the city’s history and architectural styles – from Shinden to Bukke. With Tammy by our side, we cover a lot of ground. Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, palaces, gardens. There’s a lot to see.

tea ceremony kyoto japan
wagashi sweets japan

Time for tea (and treats)

I am – it is safe to say – a defiant fan of matcha. And so are my children. Matcha-flavored KitKat, ice cream, biscuits – you name it, we’ve probably tried it. So it seemed only fitting that we sample a taste of matcha tea too. Leaving our shoes by the door, we sit side-by-side on tatami mats opposite our tea hostess for an insightful (and delicious) private tea ceremony. But tea is not all we’re served. Wagashi (traditional Japanese sweets) are the first to be devoured by us. Made from a combination of rice flour, sweet red bean paste, sugar and cinnamon, they are carefully folded into triangles and have a soft mochi-like texture. Delicious.

And now for the tea. It’s a fascinating process to watch. Cleansing rituals, meticulous whisking, traditional rules of polite etiquette to follow. Everything is carried out so elegantly and with an exceptional attention to detail. It is a strangely moving experience; seeing the care and intention our tea hostess invests in each action to prepare the tea for us. My children are also intrigued by the display of utensils in play. A bamboo whisk (chasen), tea scoop (chashaku), intricate container (natsume) and teapot (tetsubin). Once prepared, we sit quietly, sipping on the frothy, green brew. The flavor is a complex one. Mellow with hints of bitterness, sweet yet savory. It’s a taste I’ll not soon forget – and one I’ll be sure to sip again.

japanese sweets supermarket kyoto
japanese candy
candied strawberries japan

Fed and watered, we meet up with Sue – our local food guide in Kyoto. Previously a professor in Osaka, we soon discover that she lived in California (my husband’s home state) for two decades. It’s a small world. The kids instantly take to her and become firm friends – but that might also have something to do with the fact that she’s going to show us where to buy the best sweets in town. A treat-finding treasure hunt, if you will. My husband is equally excited – having been craving some specific Japanese puffed corn snacks (Umaibo) for a while now. And our guide is only too happy to oblige.

Leading us to a local supermarket, she takes us to the shelves lined with colorful Umaibo packaging, translating all the flavors for us. Honey, nori (seaweed), shrimp, cheese, chocolate. We’re certainly spoilt for choice. While we stock up on Umaibo and matcha KitKats, Sue explains how Japanese candy is so special because often they incorporate traditional flavors and ingredients that simply can’t be replicated outside of Japan. And as she shows us around, it’s not long before we’re convinced – and buying up heaps of treats to bring home.

Among our stash, the following. Fujiya Milky Candies – made with natural spring water from Mount Fuji and premium condensed milk from Hokkaido. Chewy and deliciously creamy. Pastel-colored crunchy Konpeito with flavors of apple and grape, and sour and salty pickled plum Umeboshi. And perhaps the most interesting one – Fuwarinka Beauty Soft Candy. These fruity rose-flavored candies double as a beauty supplement, containing beloved skincare ingredients like collagen, hyaluronic acid, and vitamin C. Who knew.

gion kyoto

Final thoughts

Japan truly is one of the best vacation spots for families, with something to appeal to every interest and age. Here, you’ll discover a fantastic collision of old and new – all in a totally different context from western culture. Our daughter was fascinated that the maps we saw in Japan centered on the Pacific instead of America and Europe. A wonderful reminder of why we travel as a family; to curate the best (and most eye-opening) vacations for our kids so that they develop a global outlook and learn to understand new cultures. Whether that’s discovering new flavors, customs or others’ perspectives.

Should you wish to design your own trip to Japan with us, we’ll plan your adventure entirely around you. With us, nothing is ever cookie-cut or off-the-shelf.

Intrigued by Japan?

Whether you’re seeking temple-woven cities or tranquil Japanese gardens, our luxury Travel Experts can’t wait to design a trip specifically tailored to you. Click the link below to find out more.