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Tour leader Richard Farmer shares 10 highlights from a deluxe Small Group Tour this spring, including travelling in style; eating, drinking and sleeping soundly at the finest establishments; and seeing the landscape bloom with pastel pink cherry blossom.
1. Cherry blossom at Kanazawa Castle’s Ishikawa-mon gate
Our timing in Kanazawa for the cherry blossom was perfect, and the weather behaved (unfortunately not always the case in precipitation-prone Kanazawa!) We saw plenty of blossom in the famous Kenrokuen garden next door too, but nothing beat the sheer number of trees in one place lining the approach to the castle.
2. The staff at Taheizushi in Kanazawa
Probably the best sushi experience I’ve had thus far in Japan. There are just 10 seats at the counter and the head chef expertly prepares the sushi in front of you, placing it down piece by piece in his recommended order. The high staff to customer ratio means that dining here feels like a very personal experience; the chefs chatted to us to explain what we were eating and the best way to appreciate each course.
They have an excellent selection of sake to accompany the cuisine, all sourced locally from around Ishikawa prefecture. We got through quite a lot of it, and each time our little flask ran out, we asked to try a different one. Every time we ordered more, the junior chef called to the head chef to ask which sake to serve next; the head chef knew exactly which fish he had selected for the next course and responded with the best sake to pair it with. I could eat there every night.
3. Pirate Ship cruise on Lake Ashi in Hakone
I love these delightfully kitsch boats, and the views on a beautiful clear day (like the one we had) are great. It was busy spring season, and the boat was pretty packed, so I upgraded us to the ‘First Class’ section, with its own private cabin and open deck at the front of the ship. If ‘luxury’ is in the title of the tour, I’m going to make sure we get the full VIP treatment!
4. A Shinto priest blessing a car at the Hakone Shrine
You can get your new car blessed at quite a few major shrines. Meiji Shrine in Tokyo even has a specific enclosure dedicated to these ceremonies. The priest came out, opened every single door of the car, including the bonnet, before waving waved his ‘wand’ (complete with white zig-zag paper tassels) in each of the cars orifices to make sure the entire vehicle was divinely guaranteed to be roadworthy!
5. The Higashi Chaya-gai tea district in Kanazawa
I couldn’t believe how nice and quiet it was on the beautiful spring day I took this picture. The shop you can see at the end of the street is one of my favourites in the area, specialising in a food called fu, usually translated as ‘wheat gluten’, a Kanazawa speciality which comes in a variety of forms. I couldn’t resist buying some of the maple syrup flavoured fu crackers. We only popped in to look, but after getting hooked on the free samples, we all succumbed to buying snacks to take home!
6. Tea ceremony experience in Kyoto
After getting decked out in kimono by personal dressers in our hotel rooms in Kyoto, we joined this private tea ceremony. After explaining the history and meaning, our host demonstrated the ceremony and served us tea. We then got chance to whisk the thick tea ourselves. The bitterness isn’t to everyone’s taste, so I often end up drinking the second and third bowls made by our groups and am bouncing off the walls from the caffeine afterwards!
7. Riding the Hokuriku Bullet Train back to Tokyo in the ‘Gran Class’
Although all bullet trains include ‘Green Car’ first class carriages, only a few selected lines offer the premium ‘Gran Class’ seating we rode on our return to Tokyo. Besides the extra wide and comfy reclining seats (with so many buttons and gizmos that they feel like a dentist’s chair) all passengers in this car receive a complimentary bento box lunch and free flowing drinks!
All the wines served on the train are sourced from areas along the Gran Class routes; we enjoyed sipping sparkling wine from the Takahata Winery in Yamagata prefecture as the scenery whizzed by.
8. Mount Fuji from Owakudani
We were so lucky with the weather on this day, getting to see Mount Fuji in all its glory. Views as good as this are rare, and we celebrated our good fortune by enjoying some of the local ‘black eggs’ cooked in the nearby sulphurous hot springs.
9. Eihei-ji temple, Fukui
This tour included a stop at one of my favourite spots in all of Japan: the Buddhist monastery of Eihei-ji in Fukui. It was founded in this remote mountain setting by Zen Master Dogen in the 13th century after his return from studying in China.
He was a real stickler for ‘doing things right’, and this temple complex is an exact reproduction of the seven-hall-layout, with the covered corridor walkways connecting the halls that he had encountered in the temples of medieval China. The builders of Kyoto’s more famous monastery complexes were more willing to compromise on designs, making this one of the few places in Japan where you can see this unique style of temple architecture.
10. Room at the Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo
We stayed at some amazing hotels on this tour, but for a reason I can’t quite put my finger on, I liked the Mandarin Oriental the best. There are certainly newer luxury hotels in Tokyo, but entering this room made me feel the most immediately relaxed out of all the places we stayed.
Maybe it was the muted wood colour scheme, the small dish next to the bed that contained their house-blend of essential oils perfuming the room, or the platter of strawberries complete with a handwritten welcome note, but I could have stayed here forever! The Bottega Veneta premium body and beauty products here were the best I’ve come across, with a scent somewhere between a wedding bouquet and a frankincense-infused Latin mass. And yes, the spares somehow ended up in my suitcase!
Dreaming of cherry blossom? Our spring Small Group Tours sell out quickly – don’t miss the chance to see this beautiful season with our full list of departures.