Discovering Zen: Travels in Japan


It’s not every day you get to stay in a piece of history in one of the most exciting cities in the world. Located in the centre of Tokyo, in the upmarket shopping district of Ginza, the Imperial Palace is a Japanese institution, and one of the oldest and respected hotels in Tokyo, with a history dating back 128 years.

When it first opened in 1890, it was deemed the largest hotel of its kind in the Far East. Since then, it has hosted many notable guests – Marilyn Monroe and Joe diMaggio, Charlie Chaplin, John Wayne, Marlene Dietrich, Elizabeth Taylor, Steven Spielberg, Queen Elizabeth – to name a fraction. Due to its reputation and close proximity to the Imperial Palace, the Emperor also uses it as the state guesthouse.

The second incarnation of the hotel was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, and opened in 1923 on the day of the Great Kanto Earthquake. Incredibly it didn’t suffer any damage that day, but as the structure was built from terracotta and Oya volcanic tuff – a stone that wouldn’t withstand the tests of time or tremor – it was pulled down and replaced with the current incarnation of the hotel and its adjacent tower.

A city within a city, the third-wave Imperial has everything a discerning traveller could wish for – shopping arcade, four bars, a Shinto shrine, two chapels, a tea ceremony room, 931 rooms, 13 restaurants, including The Imperial Viking Sal – Japan’s first buffet-style restaurant – and the Michelin-starred Les Saisons. Needless to say it’s as popular today as it was in 1890.

To get a true sense of what The Imperial is all about, you need to immerse yourself in its history. Wrightian aficionados should book into the one-bedroom Frank Lloyd Wright suite – an homage to the famous architect, complete with Hopi-inspired carpets, stained-glass windows, Art Deco furniture and original stacked lamps. Overlooking Hibiya park, a stay here feels like waking up on a film set.

The Old Imperial Bar also retains much of the original atmosphere and Wrightian design features of the 1923 hotel, and, this being Japan, you can still smoke inside, lending the bar something of a bygone-era feel. Even if you’re not staying here, a cocktail at the bar is a must. Try the Tinkerbell – invented here, and inspired by the children’s character of the same name.

The decor throughout the hotel is classic and elegant – sweeping staircase, immaculately arranged flowers, chandeliers, polished wood and glass. The bedrooms have Seiki clocks on the wall. Lobby-level Rendezvous Lounge feels like one of those places where you could have an illicit meeting in the middle of the day and nobody would bat an eyelid. Needless to say, the staff at the hotel are the epitome of discretion, politeness and efficiency – they’d have to be with such a star-studded guestlist.

Perhaps my favourite part of the hotel is the onsen. Tucked away in the tower complex, it’s not easy to find, but once you do, you’ll probably have it all to yourself. A Finnish sauna and hot tub await, and there are massages should you need one. I’m a huge fan of onsen, and prefer them to regular spas due to their no-frills, communal atmosphere and absence of whale music. Swimwear is a no-no, but the baths are gender segregated.

With everything you need on your doorstep there’s really no need to leave, but as we don’t come to Japan every day, it would be criminal not to go and explore some of the countryside.

Three hours away by shinkansen (bullet train) and car is the prefecture of Mie – a coastal district just south of Kyoto. Not well known by overseas tourists, it’s a great place to escape the crowds. The winding roads weave through pine-studded mountains, past shrines, temples and national parks. Glimpses of the ocean appear at every turn.

This is the home of Mikimoto Pearl Island and the famous female “Ama” divers who used to source them. You can watch a display of their skills from a viewing room, and hear their trademark whistles as they come up for air between each free dive. These ladies are no spring chickens and yet they jump into the freezing water with gusto, no apparatus, fishing for all sorts, smiling and waving at the crowd like giddy children.

We stop for a break at Ama Hut Satoumian – a museum and collection of wooden huts where you can have lunch cooked by the Ama divers themselves. Dressed in their signature white costumes, they kneel on reed mats to grill the catch of the day on hot coals in the middle of the floor – abalone, scallop, octopus, sea snails and snapper, all plucked fresh from the ocean that morning, and which we eat hot from the shells with chopsticks.

Our hotel that night is the Nemu resort, overlooking Ago bay in Ise-Shima National Park. Surrounded by forest, and with another incredible onsen in the grounds, this is the perfect place to escape city living and embark on some serious downtime. Three baths all have different qualities – land (with medicinal thermal waters), forest (with anti-ageing nemunoki tree bark) and sea (with Mikimoto pearly waters, said to have therapeutic and beautifying properties). Two of the baths are inside overlooking the forest, and one is outside in a courtyard. My dip is all too brief (I’ll just have to come back), though the whole atmosphere of the onsen stays with me for days.

In summer months, yoga classes are held outdoors, but as it’s still a little chilly, our class is held in the yoga room, with floor-to-ceiling views of the trees, and hammocks in which to cocoon ourselves at the end. Our teacher tells us to focus on the nature and the many gods that live in the woods surrounding the resort. Japan has a love affair with trees and what’s called “forest bathing” (or shinrin-yoku). It’s such a wonderful, health-giving philosophy you wonder why it’s not compulsory for everyone. A couple of hours chilling out in the woods and we’d be far nicer people. At the Nemu there are camphor, white oak and bayberry, all lit up at night so you can appreciate them round the clock.

And although I’m no golfer, the Nemu has one of Japan’s best courses – the clubhouse is a work of art in itself, utilising the local wood and stone to bring the outside in.

The food is, naturally, seafood based, so we finish up with a supper of ise ebi – Japanese spiny lobster – enjoyed in a “glamping” tent, with the wind billowing around us, and the sound of the waves below.

The following day and we’re off to Ise Jingu – a collection of 125 shinto shrines dotted around a forested area the size of Paris. It’s a place of pilgrimage for many, and definitely the place to come for a serious dose of zen.

Our accommodation is the Toba – another seafront hotel 40 minutes on the opposite side of the bay to the Nemu. My room overlooks the trees and neighbouring islands – I even have a telescope for all-important stargazing and bird watching.

The restaurant is an elegant room with glittering views of the bay and, of course, fabulous local seafood. We dine like kings and drink sparkling sake, which is the perfect pairing for the delicate fish dishes that are works of art in themselves.

And yet again, there is a wonderful onsen. This one housed down the hill in the separate Ryokan Shiojitei building, where you can book into a traditional Japanese tatami room. There are indoor and outdoor pools, the latter of which are infused with Mikimoto pearl essence that leave your skin glowing. In Japan, every detail is considered, designed, thought out, and executed beautifully. To be honest, that’s half the therapy in itself.

As I soak there in the pearly waters, with the steam rising all around me, and eagles gliding overheard, I can think of no better place to be than here.

The Imperial Hotel has double rooms from 48,600 Yen (£324) per night, including continental breakfast. The Imperial Hotel, 1-1-1, Uchisaiwai-cho Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo 100-8558, Japan. +81 33 504 1111.  For more information, visit
The Nemu has rooms from £75 per night. Nemu Hotel & Resort, 2692-3 Hamajimacho Hazako, Shima, Mie Prefecture, Japan, +81 599 52 1211.
The Toba has rooms from £122 per night. Toba Hotel International, 1 Chome 23-1 Toba, Mie Prefecture, Japan, +81 599 52 1211.