Winning tip: Art and yurts, Naoshima
Naoshima, the jewel of Japan’s art islands and an easy one-hour train journey from Kyoto or Osaka, has museums ranging from a gallery hotel to art installations. Free buses take you around the art locations and to an amazing art-filled sento bathhouse (£4.40), complete with full-size elephant sculptures overlooking the baths. Staying in the Benesse Foundation’s hotels is very pricey (from £250) but there is a fantastic alternative a very short walk from the key art sites and beautiful: Tsutsuji-so’s yurts (£25-£30 per person per night). They are private, traditional Mongolian tents with proper beds.
E-bikes in Takayama
A tour on e-bikes of the Japanese Alps countryside around Takayama with Daisuke, the tour guide, for just £42 per head, was the highlight of our holiday. We started from JR Hida-Hagiwara station and took in historic villages to start with then a hidden valley off the tourist trail, the e-bikes making light work of the hills. There were surprises along the way such as a traditional Japanese lunch (included in the price) and coffee on the river in the middle of nowhere, and all for a reasonable price. The 26km/six-hour route and its views were incredible.
Friendly hostel, Nagano
One of the best hostels I’ve stayed in was 1166 Backpackers in Nagano, run by a lovely woman named Orie who makes everyone feel at home. She runs regular events in the hostel communal areas, such as sake tasting. Beds are about £20 a night. It’s in the Monzen district of Nagano, within easily walking distance of Zenkoji temple. It’s well-placed for day trips to nearby amazing Matsumoto Castle or Snow Monkey Park.
Alpine honeymoon bliss
To get a complete contrast from city life, I suggest a stay at the Oshi Ryokan in Nagano’s Japanese Alps. Mr Oshi (a Shinto priest who looks after the nearby temples) will take you to the temple at the crack of dawn – an incredible experience. Mrs Oshi also cooked us what was probably the most amazing meal we had in Japan – each dish was a work of art and it was so special having the experience in their home, rather than a restaurant. We were on our honeymoon and the lovely couple even offered to let us try on their own wedding kimonos and take photos.
• Double from £65 B&B, about £120 with dinner, oshiryokan.com/en-gb
Subtropical beaches, Yaeyama Islands
For a £25 return flight from Naha (on Okinawa) to Ishigaki, you can experience the subtropical climate and unspoilt beaches of Japan’s Yaeyama Islands. Stay at Shiraho Friends House (£12 a night in shared gender-specific rooms). Almost every review of this hostel praises its owner, Hiro; he really is amazingly helpful without being overbearing. The island is great for swimming and leisurely walks along the palm groves. In the evening you can head to a bar, see night-blooming flowers, or go to a free viewing at the observatory.
Day trip from Tokyo
At the foot of 600-metre Mount Takao, a great day hike within the Tokyo city bounds, is the tucked-away Keio Takaosan Onsen. With a mix of indoor and outdoor (rotenburo) baths of various water temperatures, it is the perfect place to restore sore muscles, with all the vibe of a mountain ryokan (traditional inn) for a fraction of the price:£6.70 for adults and no time limit. You just need to bring your own towel. The onsen is next to Takaosanguchi station on the Keio line.
You can save thousands of yen by hiring a campervan from japancampers.com. It’s near Narita airport, and runs a pick-up service from Narita station, so you can be mobile within a few hours of arriving. The campers start at ¥6,000 a day (£40), less than you’d pay for a hotel room, and come with camping equipment. The staff are helpful, bilingual and just a phone call away if you run into difficulties. It is perfectly legal to sleep in your van anywhere you stop, giving you the freedom to roam around the world’s safest country, and the Japanese baths (sentos) are on hand for your daily scrub.
All you can eat and drink, Tokyo
Instead of drinking in western-style bars, which can be very expensive, go to a typical izakaya such as Kin no Kura in Shinjuku, Tokyo, where I’d suggest a nomihodai option – all you can drink for a set time and set price. Pay around £17 for 2-3 hours of uninterrupted drinking! Order from a tablet on the table, and the server will announce briskly: “Hai dozo!” (Go ahead). It’s a great, social place too – ideal for playing card games. The range of drinks include beer on tap, highballs and sake. You can also get a tabehodai (all you can eat option in izakayas).
• 1-16-6 Kabukicho
Excellent hostel, Tokyo
The Kaisu Hostel (6-13-5 Akasaka) in Minato is a short walk from Roppongi but quiet enough to have a good night’s sleep in its shared rooms with pods. It’s spotless – like almost all Japanese hotels – and serves great beer in the stylish bar area; and at around £20 a night it was great value. It has a female-only shared room too, with 10 pods. It’s a short walk to an izakaya called Motsusen (lunch £3.40, dinner £19 and all-you-can-drink menu, 9-2 Kabutocho) where you can rub shoulders with salarymen and eat until you can’t move.
I accidentally miscalculated how much cash to bring (my hotel gave price per night rather than the total of all three nights and I was careless in checking) and on my last day in Tokyo I was broke ... I took myself to a sento for the afternoon for the equivalent of £3. I spent a couple of hours in there, sheltering from the 38C heat, getting clean after a sweaty day stomping the streets and having a cultural experience at the same time. It was one of the highlights of my Japan trip because, as well as being a sucker for a spa, it was great to feel SO comfortable strutting about naked – because nobody bats an eyelid. Best three quid I ever spent.
Conveyor belt sushi chain
If you want to try conveyor belt sushi, Genki Sushi, with branches from Hokkaido down to Kyushu, is a great choice. Most of its dishes only cost 70p and you can order your food via multilingual touch screens. If you’re with kids, they are going to love being able to order their own food, as well as the little robot trains that deliver your order to your seat. We visited the Shibuya branch in Tokyo and it was wonderful, but later on we saw the dinner queue stretching into the street, so best get there early.
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