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Interior designer Sophie Ashby and fashion designer Charlie Casely-Hayford honeymoon between Japan’s megacities and their calmer counterparts.
I’ve been travelling to Tokyo with my fashion brand every six months for the last decade, but it’s Sophie’s first time and a chance for me to look at one of my favourite cities with fresh eyes. As a Londoner, I experience my hometown in a very two-dimensional way – people don’t really look up. However, the best gems in Tokyo are often to be found on the fifth floor or higher, so you either need to keep your eyes peeled or rely on insider tips.
Something we swiftly learn about Tokyo is that its restaurants’ signs and menus are likely only going to be in Japanese, and that you either need to book well in advance or take a book with you because queuing for good food is very much a part of Tokyo life. We begin our first evening at a traditional soba restaurant on the fourth floor of a building in Shibuya, Kamakura Matsubara-an Keyaki. We’re the only foreigners in its bamboo-clad interior as we tuck into what turns out to be one of the best meals of our two-week trip. Full of tempura, roast duck, hot soba broth and pretty much everything else on the menu, we tip our waiter and head to the door. As we put on our shoes a panicked man runs towards us, tip in hand, and pushes it back into my palm. It transpires tipping is not a thing in Japan and can actually be considered disrespectful. As our trip unfolds and the days turn into weeks, we learn that respect is truly what defines this nation, more so than anywhere either of us have travelled.
The Grand Hyatt Tokyo hotel serves as our home in the capital. Its spa really goes above and beyond – split by gender, it instantly changes the dynamic of your experience. Sophie eagerly watches and absorbs the etiquette from the Japanese women around her. You go in naked, shower between each area you move to and use the bucket to scoop water out of an ice-cold plunge pool to cool down your feet, but most importantly leave everything as you found it. Everything has its place and is done a certain way, without ever feeling imposing.
Among our trips to wonderful smaller galleries such as the Yayoi Kusama Museum and 21_21 Design Sight, as well as beautiful gardens like Shinjuku Gyoen, we seek out some of the city’s quirks. Meikyoku Kissa Lion is most certainly one – a smoke-filled, century-old café hidden down a side street in Shibuya, it has a strict “no talking” policy. Instead, all the seating points towards an incredible altar-like speaker system that solely plays classical music. The menu is basic and the service stilted, but as we sit with only our thoughts and our drinks, taking in Bach on the surround sound, it forms the perfect respite from the Tokyo buzz outside.
The queue we’re most proud to overcome is at the udon restaurant Shin Udon. Novice queuers beware: there is a teaser queue just outside the restaurant, but this is just the warm-up. A waiter will pop his head outside and lead you around a corner onto the main road to join a 45-minute line. It’s definitely worth it when you sit down in the intimate 10-seater venue. The buckwheat udon is made in-house and the tempura makes the wait seem irrelevant – to eat and get out quickly seems to be the done thing.
On our way to karaoke, we stop by Nonbei Yokocho – better known as Drunkards’ Alley – for some Dutch courage. This renowned street hides in the high-rise landscape of Shibuya under the train tracks, with a string of miniature, quirky bars that can hold six people each. At six-foot-six, I could pretty much touch all four walls of the bars we frequent, which makes the experience all the more interesting. There’s a lot of limbs and not a lot of space, but it’s most certainly one of our Tokyo highlights. Such intimacy forces you to talk to everyone in the room and that’s the real beauty of the street – it encourages socialising. The red velvet-lined walls, chandeliers and gilded artworks at Bar Piano (no piano to be seen), one of the street’s better-known bars, are really something to behold.
Our trip to Kanazawa is centred around craft, both modern and traditional. As creatives we want to immerse ourselves in areas we know very little about. The boutique travel agency Prior carves out incredible experiences for us that we otherwise would not have been able to access. On our first day we visit the house and studio of a yūzen kimono master. He talks us through the painstaking and laborious 10-step process of creating a hand-illustrated silk kimono in the yūzen style. If he makes a mistake the kimono is sent to one particular artisan; if it needs a repair it goes to another.
Moving from kimonos to lacquerware, we head to the home of Akihiko Sugita, one of Japan’s most celebrated young urushi (lacquer) artists, and his wife Karin. The couple are in their 30s, around our age, and as we sit having tea, in total awe of their pure focus, they talk us through how making one piece can involve up to 124 processes and how they choose to work by candlelight rather than artificial light to pick up on delicate blemishes. However, it’s a trip to the studio of Mr Nakamura, a ceramicist, that truly resonates with Sophie and I’s design aesthetic – his work links the traditions of 300-year-old kutani (Japanese porcelain) with a very modern sense of form. All of this is housed in an extraordinary monolith of a family home and gallery space designed in concrete, glass, metal and timber. Mr Nakamura and his wife are aesthetes on every level – he is a third-generation ceramic artist and works in the same space that his grandfather once occupied. Being part of a family business myself, I feel a connection to the story told by Mr Nakamura and his work.
Our time in Kanazawa is brief, but we make sure to seek out the best food possible. Itaru Honten is a great spot with an electric atmosphere. There’s a sign outside that reads: “Sorry we are fully booked, next available table will be in 1.5 hours.” It looks like it’s there all year round, maybe to scare off those who aren’t truly committed… thankfully we’re in within 15 minutes. A straight-talking sushi restaurant, Itaru is exactly the palette cleanser we need before diving into another day of the arts. On our final night we book Tempura Koziano, a nine-seat tempura restaurant. We still dream about this place on a regular basis. The food, service, design, presentation, ceramics: everything is exquisite and worked harmoniously. As we finish we ask the chef about his intricate tableware. He tells us he sources each piece himself from different parts of Japan and that he likes to change them seasonally, at which point Sophie nearly faints from elation. If we could make one restaurant recommendation for anyone going to Japan, this would be it.
Kyoto gives us everything we want – tranquillity, vibrancy, culture and ceramics on tap. We set up base at the Four Seasons Hotel Kyoto. Situated among an 800-year-old ikeniwa, an ancient garden, our room overlooks a large pond accented by a traditional tea house. Despite being right in the centre of the city, as soon as we walk into the hotel grounds any metropolitan noise falls away and we love being able to oscillate between the two worlds.
We stop by all the classic tourist spots such as the Kinkaku-ji Temple with its famed Golden Pavilion and the Nishiki Market, but it’s the insider secrets we really seek out. After spending an incredible few hours at the Daitoku-ji Temple with a young tea master who had solely been practising the art of the tea ceremony for the last seven years, we’re tipped off about YSM, a discreet gallery-cum-ceramics concept store. This place is a true gem. Sophie spends her life travelling around the globe fi ding interesting and beautiful objects for her clients’ homes, and the YSM gallery completely takes her breath away with its sophistication, honesty and curation.
Our stay in Kurashiki provides an authentic insight into life in a small Japanese town – with the exception of its Ohara Museum of Art, which has a collection worthy of a national institute. With everything from Picasso to Pollock, Calder to Giacometti, Modgliani to Matisse, it’s one not to be missed. Although not the most traditionally luxurious accommodation of our travels, Ryokan Kurashiki is certainly our favourite. The attention to detail, service and personal touches make us feel like we’re guests at the house of a very warm host. The labyrinth of sliding rice-paper screens and low-beamed ceilings mean that as a dozy giant I have to keep my wits about me, but experiencing this traditional Japanese inn in such beautiful surroundings makes leaving very difficult.
For the final part of our trip we travel to the Amanemu hotel in the forested hills of Ise-Shima National Park, the perfect antidote to the bustling streets of some of the larger Japanese cities. Minimalist in aesthetic but strong and definitive in design, the hotel has the tranquillity of a Buddhist temple. The idea of visiting anything else becomes a distant memory as we sink into the steam of the onsen baths and reflect on our time in Japan. A monoculture from the outside, Japan has educated us in what a united country truly looks like. As we moved from city to city, there was always an underlying feeling of “we” as a nation rather than “I” as an individual, whether respecting oneself, others or simply our surroundings.
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