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Iori Machiya Rental, Japan
Kyoto 600-8061, Japan
Tel: 81 075 352 0211
Though Kyoto's famous temples and shrines are under government protection, the city's traditional houses, or machiya, are rapidly being destroyed. Enter Iori. The company, which also runs cultural programs in the city, has been restoring machiya and adding modern conveniences like Wi-Fi, air conditioning, and Western-style bathrooms. As a result, guests get many of the traditional benefits of a ryokan—fragrant wood soaking tubs, tatami mat rooms, sliding bamboo doors—along with Western comforts that make the experience more accessible. Whereas staying at a ryokan requires rising at a set hour and leaving the room for much of the day, renting an entire machiya allows you to come and go as you please. And instead of being tied to a prescribed dining schedule, you can dine out or have Iori's concierge service arrange for a chef to prepare a meal in your residence. There are ten different houses on offer, from a rambling mansion near the palace grounds that sleeps 14 to a cozy two-bedroom Gion town house that was once a florist's shop. The staff can help you determine the best fit for your needs, but our favorites are the riverfront properties—Minoya-cho, Izumiya-cho, and Zaimoku-cho, once home to a geisha—whose bamboo screens open to reveal the gurgling waters of the Kamo below.—Colleen Clark
Kyoto 604-8094, Japan
Tel: 81 75 211 5566, Fax: 81 75 211 2204
If you've heard rumors of Tawaraya, you've heard that it's a favorite of heads of state, movie stars, and obsessive Japanophiles. You may have also heard that it's devastatingly expensive. All true. Tawaraya, the three-centuries-old ryokan located in the heart of town, is Kyoto's über-inn—perhaps one of the finest in the world. Its wabi-sabi elegance and attention to even the tiniest details will make the aesthete in you swoon: the wetting-down each morning of the stone path in the garden; the perfectly aligned slippers inside the front entrance; the candle lamps in the hallway; the deft intermingling of mid-century Danish pieces among the Japanese furnishings; the sublime service performed by maids whose kimonos reflect, in design theme and color, the season. There are only 18 rooms, and they're almost always full (though, as one visitor remarked, you feel as if you're the only guest). If you want to experience traditional Japan in all of its excruciatingly understated splendor, call—way, way in advance—for a reservation at Tawaraya.
Kinmata Ryokan, Japan
Kyoto 604-8044, Japan
Tel: 81 75 221 1039
This inn, now in business for more than 200 years, is worth experiencing—if you're lucky enough to get a room. There are seven, but owner Haruji Ukai is so determined to give the best service and to preserve the inn's traditional (read quiet) atmosphere that he only books three "groups" at a time, which sometimes means only three rooms are occupied. This gives Mr. Ukai all the more time to concentrate on his cooking, which has earned him justifiable fame. Even if you're not staying here, you can partake of one of his exquisite kaiseki meals in Kinmata's attached restaurant. Your dinner might end with his memorable seafood zosui, a rich rice porridge served in a copper pot from Aritsugu, the famous kitchenware store around the corner. None of Kinmata's rooms have private baths, but all have beautiful antique furnishings and lamps, and views of the garden or interior courtyard with its ancient stone lantern.
Kyoto 604-8036, Japan
Tel: 81 75 211 2849
Don't overlook this inconspicuous shop in Teramachi if you have any interest in that most accessible of Japanese art forms, the ukiyo-e, or woodblock print: sensual, often sexual, frequently amusing, and highly colorful and graphic images of the "floating world" of Japan's Edo era. Nothing here is on display, however. Mr. Toru Sekigawa, who is well into his eighties, and his son Hitoshi, will talk with you, discern your tastes and interests, and then bring out prints for you to examine—just as Toru has for more than 50 years. They just don't make them like this—or like him—anymore.
Open daily 2 to 6:30 pm.
Marks & Web, Japan
Tel: 81 3 5220 5561
Marks & Web sells no-nonsense botanical toiletries from Matsuyama, the old Japanese soap company. Although rarely found outside Japan, this brand is well known in Tokyo for its herbal sunscreen, shampoos, and face creams, as well as for special accessories like maple-wood hairbrushes. The store is also a good excuse to visit the Marunouchi Building, an office and shopping tower in the business district next to Tokyo Station (www.marubiru.jp). There are shops downstairs (the Beams store sells a beautiful selection of clothes and accessories), offices in the middle, and scenic restaurants on top.
Tokyo 103-8265, Japan
Tel: 81 3 3211 4111
As one of Japan's oldest (and most historic) department stores, Takashimaya offers as much to look at inside as outside. The Nihonbashi location, which first opened in 1933 and was designated an important cultural property in 2009 for its Showa-period design, features everything from Gucci bags to fist-size dumplings on its 11 floors. Besides the big-name designers, whose wares populate the marble-lined second floor, there is a nail bar for midday touch-ups, an "indigo bar" for customizable jeans, and a basement full of stalls with mouthwatering meal options and culinary souvenirs like gourmet sesame seeds or tins of Ippodo tea. If the weather is nice, have one of the uniformed elevator attendants take you up to the roof, where there is a garden café.—Rebecca Willa Davis
Open daily 10 am to 8 pm.
Tel: 81 3 3561 8311
Everyone's favorite stationery store, Ito-ya fills nine floors with every pen, notebook, and folder imaginable. Stock up on Camper notebooks, the school brand that has high-quality soft notebooks at bargain prices. There's a great selection of cards, wrapping paper, and hand-printed postcards. Be sure to go to the annex in back, which sells handmade paper or washi. This is the best place to buy intricately made washi in all styles and hues, as well as sheets of paper printed with delicate Japanese patterns.
Ippodo Tea Company, Japan
Kyoto 604-0915, Japan
Tel: 81 75 211 3421
What's more Japanese than a cup of green tea? This centuries-old, distinguished Kyoto institution takes its tea—all of which is grown in nearby Uji—as seriously as winemakers take their grapes. That's despite the disarming young salesgirl who looks like she might be sporting a few hidden tattoos and who admits in a whisper while she pours your Genmaicha that she herself prefers coffee. Even if you're only browsing, they'll proudly brew up and serve you a taste of whatever variety you fancy.
Arts & Science
Aoyama's Arts & Science epitomizes the Japanese approach to design, with a blend of understated elegance and functional luxury at all their stores (there are a total of four scattered throughout three blocks in the tony neighborhood alone). Over the Counter is an upscale provisions spot designed to look like an old-fashioned pharmacy, with luxe soaps and other staples stored behind a glass case, while the aptly named Shoes and Things, Men's Shop, and women's shop II are stocked with stylish leather brogues, crisp button-down shirts, and Japanese denim. Although their in-house lines of curios—from incense to leather wallets to socks—make perfect souvenirs, you'll be forgiven for picking up one of Arts & Science's slouchy leather satchels or gray seersucker jackets for yourself.—Rebecca Willa Davis
Open daily noon to 8 pm.
Yamato Mingei-Ten, Japan
Tel: 81 75 221 2641
Japanese handmade crafts are prized for their careful workmanship and intelligent design, and Yamato Mingei-Ten is one-stop shopping for folk art and crafts from around the country. The constantly changing collection includes everything from colorful children's toys to pottery. You might walk out with carved wooden soup spoons, a ceramic salad bowl, or an adorable papier-mâché cat. The store also has a branch around the corner that carries furniture and objects too big for your carry-on luggage.
Antiques Fairs, Japan
If you're looking for vintage finds or just a good browse, visit one of the city's outdoor antique markets. There are good ones at Nogi Shrine in Nogizaka (second Sunday of the month except November), Togo Shrine in Harajuku (every first, fourth, and fifth Sunday except December), and Hanazono Shrine in Shinjuku (every Sunday, closed in May and November). The largest antique fair in Japan—the Oedo Antique Market (www.antique-market.jp/eng/index.html)—is held on the first and third Sunday of every month at Tokyo International Forum in Marunouchi. The outdoor event started in 2003 and now has more than 250 dealers.
See + Do
Short Trips Outside Tokyo
As any resident will tell you, Tokyo is nothing like the rest of Japan, and since you're on the island, you really should take a train journey into the verdant hills and mountains just outside the metropolis. The beauty of the city's location is that within an hour on a train, you could be climbing 1,500-foot mountains, wending your way through the foliage in search of hidden Buddhist shrines, or eating noodles by the lush, ferny riverside on a breezy day. The two-hour trip to either Kyoto or Nikko is worth it. If not, there are closer destinations, such as the resort town of Hakone and the temple-clustered Kamakura each about an hour away. For those looking for Okinawa-like beaches without the long haul, the chain of Izu Islands running south of Tokyo offers up a tropical paradise reachable from the capital city in just 30 minutes.—Rebecca Willa Davis
See + Do
Senso-ji Temple, Japan
Tokyo's oldest temple is said to have originated in 628 when fishermen found a small gold statue of Kannon in their nets. Senso-ji, or Asakusa Kannon, as it's also known, is now one of Tokyo's most popular sights. Pass through the famous red gates (Kaminarimon) and walk up Nakamise Street along a row of small shops selling everything from tourist trinkets to traditional crafts. The temple itself is bustling with activity, particularly on festival days; on New Year's Day, the place is mobbed with hundreds of thousands of worshippers praying for good luck in the year to come. The temple was destroyed by firebombing in 1945, and the main hall (Hondo) was rebuilt in 1958. To the right of Senso-ji is the Shinto shrine Asakusa-jinja, which somehow has survived bombs and earthquakes and dates to 1649. To get to Senso-ji, either take a boat up the Sumida River from Hinode Pier or take the Ginza or Asakusa subway lines to Asakusa station.
See + Do
Saiho-ji (Moss Temple), Japan
Kyoto 615-8286, Japan
Tel: 81 75 391 3631
Converted into a Zen temple in 1339, Saiho-ji Temple, in the southwestern outskirts of Kyoto, is justly renowned for its large and lush moss garden, which blankets the varied terrain with multihued green and blue fuzz. The effect is beautiful and rather otherworldly. To visit this World Heritage Site, you must reserve ahead of time by snail mail; the process is slightly complicated (you need a Japanese return address), so ask your travel agent or contact the tourist office for help a few weeks before you leave home. Visitors must be over 18. When you do arrive—at the assigned date and time—you'll be required, along with everyone else, to sit and chant sutras or else copy them out with ink and brush before the monks will allow you into the garden. It's all part of the fun.
See + Do
Ota Memorial Museum of Art, Japan
Tel: 81 3 3403 0880
This tatami-floored museum (you must wear slippers inside) has one of Japan's best collections of ukiyo-e woodblock prints and offers a respite from the crowds of Harajuku. Founder Seizo Ota collected thousands of works, and all the best-known artists, including Hokusai and Hiroshige, are represented. Leave your shoes in a locker by the entrance and enjoy the peace and quiet. There's an interesting shop in the basement that sells hand-printed Japanese cloths called tenugui.
See + Do
Meiji Jingu (Meiji Shrine), Japan
Leave the bedlam of Harajuku behind and walk to Meiji Shrine, a peaceful, wooded haven dedicated to Emperor Meiji (1852–1912). Pass through the giant cypress gate (or torii) at the back of Harajuku Station and walk along the wide gravel path. The shrine is an impressive sight—austere wooden buildings surrounded by greenery. On a quiet afternoon it can feel a long way from Tokyo. Meiji Jingu is a popular place to get married; on the weekends you're likely to see a wedding party in traditional outfits.
See + Do
Kichijoji is just a short, 20-minute subway ride from Shibuya, but it feels worlds apart from the bustling, neon-signed city center. The jewel in the crown of the charming neighborhood is Inokashira Park, with enough cherry blossoms in its 94 acres to make it one of the top hanami-viewing spots in Tokyo come early April. There is, however, plenty to keep you occupied year-round: In addition to a temple overlooking the Edo-era pond and the excellent, kid-friendly Ghibli Museum (tickets are issued with a specific entrance time, so be sure to book in advance), the streets leading up to the park are filled with shops and cafés befitting the neighborhood's bohemian residents. If the line at iconic yakitori spot Iseya is too long, Hachiju Hatiya's soaring ceilings and diverse menu make for an enjoyable, leisurely alternative.—Rebecca Willa Davis
See + Do
Katsura Rikyu Imperial Villa, Japan
Kyoto 615-8014, Japan
Tel: 81 075 211 1215
Built in the 17th century for an imperial prince, Katsura Rikyu is widely thought to be one of the best examples of how Japanese residential design masterfully integrates nature with architecture. As you walk through the villa, the views of the garden—which incorporates images from the classic Tale of Genji—change with each step. You must make reservations far in advance through the Imperial Household Agency. Instructions are on the agency's website, though you may ask your travel agent or hotel to handle arrangements for you, or stop by the Imperial Household Agency headquarters in Kyoto (3 Kyotogyoen, Kamigyo-ku, Kyoto). Childreneven teenagersare not allowed, and tours are only in Japanese, though you can slip on a pair of headphones and listen to a pre-recorded audio tour in English. If you want to understand why traditional Japanese building techniques and aesthetics continue to influence architects and designers worldwide, it's worth the effort.
See + Do
A former capital of Japan (1192–1333), Kamakura boasts 117 temples and 44 shrines as well as wooded hills, beaches, and the added advantage of being only an hour by train from Tokyo. Get out one stop before Kamakura at Kita (North) Kamakura, where there is a fine collection of leafy Zen temples, including Kencho-ji, the oldest Zen temple in Japan. The most popular shrine in Kamakura is Tsurugaoka Hachiman, a ten-minute walk from Kamakura Station. The 37-foot-tall Daibutsu or Great Buddha dates back to 1252 and is an amazing thing to behold. If you have any energy after sightseeing, follow the scenic Ten'en hillside walk, which takes a couple of hours and goes from Zuisen-ji in the east to Kencho-ji in the northwest.
For detailed maps and information, call the Tourist Information Center near Kamakura Station at 81-4-67223350.
See + Do
Iori Origin Arts Program, Japan
Kyoto 600-8061, Japan
Tel: 81 075 352 0211
Sure, Kyoto's temples and shrines are must-sees. But to truly gain an understanding of Japan's history and culture, it's important to graduate from observing to participating. For more than 30 years, the Iori Origin Arts Program has connected Japanese cultural masters with tourists for hands-on classes in traditional arts such as Noh drama, aikido, tea ceremony, calligraphy, and Zen meditation. It's best to arrange for a full-day class, which covers four different arts, often culminating in group performances or parties at the center's Noh theater stage. (Half- and multiday programs are also available.) The Iori staff is also a great resource for more contemporary aspects of Japanese culture. Play your cards right, and they'll give you the inside track on the city's best karaoke megaplexes and whiskey-soaked jazz bars.—Colleen Clark
See + Do
Hakone has hot springs, cool mountain air, and outstanding views of Japan's most famous peak, Mount Fuji. It's also teeming with day-trippers on the weekends, so a weekday visit or overnight stay is best. Leave the train from Tokyo and take the small Tozan line (Japan's first mountain railroad, completed in 1930) to Gora before switching to a cable car and finally a ropeway, which, weather permitting, will give you a magnificent view of Fuji. You can also take a boat—a startling repro galleon—across Lake Ashi, or have a dip in one of the area's mineral-rich hot-spring baths. For overnighters, there are scores of inns and hotels to choose from. A seriously luxurious option is Gora Kadan, a modern Japanese-style inn with open-air baths, a swimming pool, spa, and exquisite kaiseki dinners. Meanwhile, the picturesque Tozan line has several other interesting stops, including Miyanoshita, where you can have tea at the Fujiya Hotel, which dates back to 1878, and Chokoku No Mori, where you can visit the stunning Hakone Open-Air Museum, which has alfresco sculptures by artists such as Rodin and Henry Moore.
Take either the bullet train (Shinkansen) from Tokyo Station to Odawara, or Romance Car train from Shinjuku to Hakone Yumoto. From Odawara and Hakone Yumoto, take the Tozan line. A Hakone Free Pass or Hakone Weekday Pass covers all modes of transport in the Hakone area.
See + Do
Ginkaku-ji (Silver Temple), Japan
Kyoto 606-8402, Japan
Tel: 81 75 771 5725
The Silver Temple is almost as popular as its golden cousin, but many aficionados consider it far superior. Breathtakingly modern though half a millennium old, its sculpted sand garden would transport anyone into a Zen state (if not for the crowds). Ginkaku-ji is along Kyoto's "Philosopher's Path," a pedestrian stroll that follows a cherry tree–shaded canal and leads past a handful of interesting temples and gardens.
See + Do
Daitoku-ji Temple Complex, Japan
Kyoto 603-8231, Japan
Tel: 81 75 491 0019
A vast, walled-in Zen temple complex dating to the 16th century. There are about two dozen sub-temples here, and eight of them—and their gardens—are open to the public. You could spend a few hours wandering, and easily believe you've gone back in time. Admission to the complex is free, but each individual temple charges an entrance fee. A few also serve macha, whisked green tea, which you can sip while you sit and quietly contemplate the garden.
Open daily 9 am to 4:30 pm.
See + Do
21_21 Design Sight, Japan
Tokyo 107-0052, Japan
Tel: 03 3475 2121
Visitors could be forgiven for walking past this design museum, tucked away behind Tokyo Midtown; from the outside, the Tadao Ando–designed space barely peeks out from the grounds of Hinokicho Park. But it's well worth a visit to the triangular concrete and glass building, especially because the well-organized institution is the first of its kind in Japan. Since opening in the shadow of Tokyo Midtown in 2007, the museum has showcased works by a range of artists (including Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Irving Penn, and Shiro Kuramata) on an equally diverse group of topics, from chocolate to water. The variety of exhibitions is, in part, due to Issey Miyake, the renowned Japanese fashion designer who is also the co-director of the two-story space. Allow yourself extra time to visit the neighboring café.—Rebecca Willa Davis
Open Wednesdays through Mondays 11 am to 8 pm.