Nice time to see Japan

Sat, Jun 18, 2011, 01:00

Go Japan: The country’s most famous visitor attractions are half empty after the tsunami so, if you’re prepared for the odd aftershock, it’s a good time to visit, writes ALEX MEEHAN

IT’S LESS than 24 hours into my trip to Japan and I’m standing in the middle of my tiny hotel room, dripping wet from the shower and desperately trying to remember just exactly what you’re meant to do in an earthquake. The curtains are swaying, the floor is trembling and I’m beginning to wonder if coming back here was such a good idea.

But within a minute it’s all over, and normality has returned to the Tokyo suburb of Matsudo where I’m staying. It’s a timely reminder that despite the devastating earthquake and resultant tsunami that hit the country in March, the vast majority of the tremors that hit Japan are so short and lacking in intensity that, for the most part, the locals barely notice them.

Three months after the quake though, the Japanese tourist industry is understandably experiencing a massive drop in visitor numbers. The most up-to-date figures put the drop at 62.5 per cent month-on-month in April this year. That’s despite the fact that while the quake was felt all over the country, its effects were minimal almost everywhere other than in the Fukushima region, where the tsunami devastated coastal areas and killed thousands.

In Tokyo, the only visible signs that anything has happened at all is the fact that in many train stations, the escalators and some lights are turned off for part of the day to conserve electricity. The other main difference, of course, is that those tourists who have returned have found some of the country’s most famous visitor attractions half empty.

A CASE IN POINT is the traditional tourist region of Nikko and nearby Kinugawa. Located around two hours by train north of Tokyo – but still several hundred miles from Fukushima – Nikko is one of Japan’s biggest tourist attractions, and a traditional bolthole for well-heeled Tokyo-ites looking to escape the hustle and bustle of the city.

Home to the Toshogu shrine complex, Nikko was built in 1617 by Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first unifying ruler of Japan, and is a UNESCO world heritage site famed for its gold-plated shrine buildings, natural serenity and spectacular views.

It’s normally thronged with visitors, but was relatively calm and quiet when I arrived there late last month.

It was a similar story in the nearby spa town of Kinugawa, where naturally-heated hot springs bubble out of the ground and are harnessed to create relaxing spa pools. Famed for their healing properties, this area is popular with those on retreat but was also almost deserted when I visited.

Things are slowly changing, and visitors are starting to trickle back. Despite the country’s recent difficulties, it’s a great time to visit Japan and its incredible capital. Flight deals aren’t hard to come by, hotels are priced more competitively than usual, and for food lovers, many of the city’s famous Michelin-starred restaurants are offering discounts to encourage diners.

THE MAIN ENTRY point for Irish travellers to Tokyo will likely be Narita International Airport, 35 miles northeast of the capital, and the good news is that if your dates are flexible and you’re prepared to travel via cities such as Amsterdam or Copenhagen, you can now find a return flight for between €650 and €800.

The country’s train systems are legendary – trains are scheduled down to the minute and are rarely if ever more than 30 seconds late. Hopping a train from the airport to Tokyo is easy and costs around €20, and once in the city finding your way around is relatively simple given the huge scale of the train network – it’s rare to be more than a 10-minute walk from a train station anywhere in Tokyo.

Finding somewhere to stay in the city is also easy. There are thousands of western-style business hotels dotted around the city, with prices typically ranging from €80 per person per night. Four and five-star hotels will cost considerably more, but bear in mind that whichever hotel you choose, your room is likely to be significantly smaller than equivalent properties in the West.

For a more uniquely Japanese experience, check out a ryokan. There are hundreds of these old-fashioned inns in the city; essentially they’re a cross between a youth hostel and a bed and breakfast, with some hotel services thrown in.

On arrival you will take off your shoes, put on a pair of indoor slippers and be shown to your room, which could be either western-style or traditional.

If you opt for traditional, you’ll get a room with tatami mats made of straw on the floor, rice paper screens on the walls, and a roll-out futon mattress to sleep on. You’ll even get a yukata cotton robe to lounge around in.

Breakfast will usually be included in the price and will be Japanese-style, consisting of a piece of grilled fish, miso soup, rice, pickles and green tea. A night at the average ryokan costs much less than a hotel – around €40 to €50.

There are estimated to be around 80,000 restaurants in Tokyo, catering for all price points, and in general the standard of food is astonishingly high.

There’s also a lot more on offer than just sushi – in fact you could eat out every day of the week here and not eat a single piece of raw fish.

But if sushi and sashimi are your thing, and you don’t mind getting up in the middle of the night, head for the famous Tsukiji fish market, the largest in the world, where the most desirable tuna are auctioned off for huge sums before being whisked away to the city’s sushi restaurants.

If you’re on a budget, you can eat like a king in Tokyo for around €10 – try ramen noodles in tasty soup stock; a donburi rice bowl topped with stewed meat and onions; deep-fried breaded tonkatsu pork cutlets; or even a uniquely Japanese take on curry – a plate of sticky rice with curry sauce and an omelette on top. Also particularly good is okonomyaki – essentially a fried noodle, meat and vegetable pancake that’s truly delicious with a frosty glass of beer.

Tokyo and Kinugawa where to...

Eat

The Oak Door, 6-10-3 Roppongi, Minato-ku, Tokyo. Tel: 00-81-3- 43331234 or see tokyo.grand.hyatt.com. The Grand Hyatt houses seven restaurants but its flagship is The Oak Door, which has gained a reputation as one of Tokyo’s premier steak houses. If your wallet is up to the challenge, this restaurant is renowned for serving wagyu beef from the Kobe district, prepared over an oak-fired grill in the centre of the dining room. The beef is quite unlike anything found outside Japan, but it carries a hefty price tag - expect to pay JPY12,000 (around €100) for a 5oz sirloin.

Ittoku, 3-1-1 West Mabashi, Matsudo City, Chiba Prefecture. Tel: 00-81-47-3412928 or see 1and9.jp. Ittoku is part of a new wave of casual gastro-pubs serving mind blowing fusion Japanese/European food in a relaxed environment. Chef Suzuki Hiromasa is much in demand in Japan and in the UK, and his Mabashi suburban location is a great place to go to try really unusual yet flavoursome high-end food without spending a fortune.

Les Créations des Narisawa,2-6-15 Minami Aoyama, Minato, Tokyo. Tel: 00-81-3-57850799 or narisawa-yoshihiro.com. For an exciting introduction to cutting-edge Tokyo cuisine, try chef Narisawa Yoshihiro’s Les Créations des Narisawa. Meriting two stars in the Michelin guide, it was voted best restaurant in Asia and the 12th best restaurant in the world in the most recent edition of the San Pellegrino world’s best restaurants guide. Described as the best-kept secret of Tokyo’s elite gourmands, it offers a tasting menu for around €180. But don’t expect Japanese food – Narisawa specialises in French food with a Japanese twist.

Stay

Grand Hyatt Tokyo,
6-10-3 Roppongi, Minato-ku, Tokyo. Tel: 00-81-3-43331234 or see tokyo.grand.hyatt.com. Opened in 2003, this hotel is a five-star luxury hotel with some Japanese twists to remind visitors they’re not in London or New York. With 21 floors, 389 rooms and suites, seven restaurants, a wedding chapel, a Shinto shrine, pool and spa, it’s definitely aimed at the top end of the market. A double or grand room at the Tokyo Hyatt starts at around €450 a night with suites starting at around €900.

Kinugawa Grand Hotel,1021 Ohara, Kinugawa Onsen, Nikko, Tochigi Prefecture. Tel: 00-81-288-771313 or kgh.co.jp. Around a two-hour train ride north of Tokyo, Nikko and the nearby town of Kinugawa are traditional retreats for Tokyo-ites seeking respite from the city. The Kinugawa Grand has both western and Japanese-style rooms, a very impressive traditional restaurant as well as stunning gardens and two naturally-heated onsen bathing areas. Staying here starts from JPY15,000 (around €130) per person per night for two people sharing, including all taxes, breakfast and dinner.

Sadachiyo,2-20-1 Asakusa, Taito-ku, Tokyo. Tel: 00-81-3- 38426433 or sadachiyo.co.jp. Located in Asakusa, the bustling old quarter of Tokyo, Sadachiyo has a good reputation and offers visitors the chance to stay in a traditional Japanese ryokan inn in the heart of the city. It offers old Edo-style accommodation starting from around €85 per person sharing per night. Expect rice paper screens, tatami mats and kimono-clad staff.