I remember learning, as a student, that Tokyo had the world’s largest population and, on arrival, there’s no doubt that it constitutes a full-on proper city. It’s at her most impressive lit up at night. Space is at a premium. Cars are parked in minimal or elevated slots. Houses come right up to the roads. Layers seemingly overlap with tall office buildings and apartments, rail tracks and highways, subways and basements.

Words Adam Jacot De Boinod

I remember learning, as a student, that Tokyo had the world’s largest population and, on arrival, there’s no doubt that it constitutes a full-on proper city. It’s at her most impressive lit up at night. Space is at a premium. Cars are parked in minimal or elevated slots. Houses come right up to the roads. Layers seemingly overlap with tall office buildings and apartments, rail tracks and highways, subways and basements.

Words Adam Jacot De Boinod

I stayed initially at the functional and affordable Mercure Tokyo Ginza (www.mercureginza.jp). It’s located among all the big brand stores. Luckily, I don’t suffer from chokuegambo, the desire to buy things at luxury brand shops. For the forces of ostentatious consumerism are strong in Japanese society and put pressure on the sarariman salaryman. Interestingly my first port of call was Omotesando, a similarly smart shopping district complete with a shopping centre called Omotesando Hills to replicate Beverley Hills.

For it’s the name of the direct route I took to the Meiji Jingu shrine. Here I delighted in standing beneath meoto kusu (meaning ‘husband and wife camphor tree’ as it symbolises a happy marriage). Sake barrels line the procession to this Shintu shrine to rid the evil spirits and I learnt that shrines never face west or north and never have statues as the spirit of the Gods are in nature.

From the Shibuya Sky Observatory on the 45th floor I looked down below at the famous zebra crossings and the new Olympic Stadium. I saw also the Tower Skytree, the second tallest building in the world after the Burj Khalifa in Dubai and felt the immensity of this urban jungle with the mountains and even the snow-capped Mount Fuji in the distance.

I had dinner at Peter, one of The Peninsula Tokyo’s restaurants (www.peninsula.com/en/tokyo/5-star-luxury-hotel-ginza); The entrance beckoned with delightful cloche lights and the foyer had an alluring eye and eyebrow installation. The stunning view from Peter on the 24th floor looks over the malachite green roofs of the Imperial Palace. For my starter, I had a red snow crab cake with coriander, tsukemono tartar sauce which I paired with Chardonnay 2016 from the Keller Estate in Petaluma, California, followed by a sirloin from Kobe with sancho pepper sauce, spinach and broccoli accompanied by Pinot Noir 2015 from the same Californian Estate. For dessert, I rounded off a delicious dinner with a chocolate ganache, namelaka, crumble and ice cream. An amazing treat.

I took the train to visit Team Lab. It’s a tech-art collective working within the digital realm seeking to ‘transcend physical and conceptual boundaries’; with their amazing expression of digital art using LED they created a true wonderland. The exhibition’s title was ‘Wander, Explore, Discover’ and the light shows were extremely imaginative and interactive. Indeed when I touched the walls, the images changed, and when I stood beneath the LED lanterns the colours altered. With mirrors and music added to the fray, all my senses were fully absorbed.

I next stayed at the well-located Candeo Hotels Tokyo Roppongi (www.candeohotels.com/en/roppongi). It’s bang in the middle of the nightlife district and near the Mori Tower with its sky view and art gallery. The hotel rooms are modern and functional and some even wear the signature distinctive black pyjamas to breakfast.

I sadly didn’t get to visit the gadgets and gimmicks of Akihabara, famous for its many electronics shops but I went instead to Takeshita Street in Harajuku. Here young girls, dressed up as rebel schoolgirls with their ties at half-mast, dream of being snapped up as models. They exuded super sweetness with their extra rosy cheeks, bows and ribbons, and lace with short skirts, both kitsch and cute as they acted out their fantasy of perfection for the Instagram age. Here also are the cafés to sit with dogs, cats, pigs, monkeys, owls, and hedgehogs. I entered one with piglets purely out of curiosity as these little creatures rubbed themselves up endearingly beside me.

I had dinner at Signature, one of Mandarin Oriental’s restaurants (www.mandarinoriental.com/tokyo). On the 37th floor, chef Luke Armstrong offered up a wonderful menu of contemporary French food. All the velvet banquettes and tables beneath the elegant cornicing, even the special island seat past the bar, are angled towards the mesmeric view of Tokyo’s jewelled skyline that is given greater impact by the lowered lighting and large windowpanes. A jazz quartet played and an internal fountain rippled.

In a depa-chika basement supermarket at Tokyo station I bought a bento, a packed lunch box before ‘seven minutes miracle’ cleaning ladies dressed in pink uniforms literally turned the seats round from the previous journey. I boarded the famous Shinkansen Bullet Train which links the country’s major cities. In under three hours I had reached Kyoto passing the otherworldly snow-capped Mount Fuji to my right forty minutes into the journey.

I stayed a couple of nights at the Kyoto Hotel Okura (www.hotel.kyoto/okura) where smart liveried bellboys showed military precision and timing as my cases were taken to my spacious room that overlooked the river and to the mountains beyond, the lovely bowl of a setting for Kyoto, the former capital before Edo (Tokyo).

I took myself straight off to the Arashiyama Hanatouro, a special seasonal celebration in the outskirts of the city. Billed as a ‘pathway of blossoms and light’ it’s a long walk past flower arrangements and lanterns in a bamboo forest with illuminated walkways. Very refreshing and uplifting.

I booked myself in to witness the ways of a maiko (www.granbellhotel.jp/en/kyoto/maiko). These young women dedicate themselves to five years training in the dying art of becoming a geisha. The maiko is untouchable as she’s a work of art and her kimono was a splendid cobalt blue set against its gold screen backdrop. The maiko I witnessed sang, played table pastimes, and explained her yearning to enter this dedicated profession based on a wish to feel fully feminine and traditional.

I recommend going early to Kyoto’s famed Golden Pavilion, perhaps with a coach tour, to avoid the crowds to engender the contemplation that the setting demands. With stunning architecture and landscaping it was originally the retirement villa of a statesman before becoming a Buddhist temple. There’s gold foil on lacquer on the upper two levels, a charmingly detached teahouse, and a pond garden with its reflection perfect for a reflective mind. The stillness and placement of the trees with moss growing up into the bark give a pure sense of oneness and harmony.

Next I saw the Nijo-Jo Castle. As I trod on the floorboards, the sound of nightingales was mimicked: a former effective alarm system similar to the geese in ancient Rome. For the castle was the home of the Shogun who sat apart and above the others, with the exception of the hall where he received the Emperor’s legates when he sat beneath them. The interior has rooms whose beauty is in the coffered ceilings and the gold leaf screens of tigers and geese, herons and peacocks, and even leopards as they were once believed to be female tigers.

The coach tour stopped next at the Imperial Palace, residence to the Emperor until 1869, with its large walled rectangular complex complete with carriage porches and waiting rooms, halls for state ceremonies and imperial audiences, and an exquisite garden with a meandering stream spanned by earthen and stone bridges. The spacious inner courtyards touched me with their perfectly raked gravel exuding an austere stillness.

I came next to stay at the Hotel Kanra (www.hotelkanra.jp), well-located close to both the river and the station and right beside the mammoth Higashi Hongan-ji temple. The hotel’s front doors gracefully opened to a foyer decorated in Zen style with stunning lanterns and a beautiful bonsai tree. I loved my room, my ‘zen den’. All aesthetically pleasing as it was like a house with its own little garden and with the corridor effectively becoming an indoor street. Simplicity at its most gratifying. It had elegant sliding shutters, low seating for crouched eating, slated bathroom flooring, and an onsen style bath. Here I felt I had a true Japanese experience.

One of the many other temples and shrines I enjoyed in Kyoto was Fushimi Inari Taisha with its famous tunnel of 10,000 vermillion torii gates whose dedications were written in calligraphy on their reverse side. It had trails that led into the wooded forest while over in the east of the city the historic temple Kiyomizudera Monzenkai, devoted to the Goddess of Mercy, had a delightful three-storeyed pagoda overlooking a spring from which people drink to purify themselves.

One evening I climbed up a narrow staircase above a shop to watch the Gear Theatre (www.gear.ac/en). It bills itself as ‘not a play, not a musical, not a circus but somewhere in between’. It’s a non-verbal performance of robotic mime, magic, juggle, and dance. It was fabulous, light-hearted, and digitally inspiring as it drew on the tradition of old-fashioned theatre but with a high-tech twist. Words weren’t needed. I won’t spoil it for you. Just go, as it’s a visual masterpiece!

Wanting a break from city life, I set off for the Philosopher’s Walk. It’s in the outskirts and hugs the canal and runs parallel to a number of shrines and temples. I could only imagine the spring blossom of the cherry trees that line the walk and the spectrum of colour of the autumnal leaves. It leads to the Eikando Zenrin-Ji Temple and is full of hidden surprises, especially the impromptu procession of five chanting monks in their Chinese coolie sun hats.

Down a back street near Kyoto’s station and standing only in his kimono to greet me was Belgian-born Tyas Sōsen. I had come to this ‘tea master’ to learn all about the formal Tea Ceremony (www.tea-ceremony-kyoto.com). In an hour, cut from the full four and a half hour session, in his converted stockroom originally for charcoal, I watched the act performed as I sat in silence across the counter from Tyas whose fluent English got me quickly up to speed. There are four stages: you clean the utensils, make the tea, serve the tea, and then reset everything. As his brochure explained: ‘It’s a ritual rather than a ceremony, a rite of hospitality’. Quintessentially Japanese.


Adam Jacot de Boinod worked on the first series of QI, the BBC programme for Stephen Fry and is the author of The Meaning of Tingo and Other Extraordinary Words from around the World, published by Penguin Books.