Winter in Japan is delightful, with glittering seasonal lights, ice festivals, ancient temples dripping with icicles, and tea houses providing a warm retreat. If you’re heading there for a ski holiday, make time for a city stopover in Tokyo and Kyoto, which provide plenty to see and do while encapsulating all the contrasts of modernity and tradition that make Japan so fascinating.
For many visitors, Tokyo provides a first, fast-paced and exhilarating encounter with Japan in what is surely one of the world’s most amazing urban experiences. After all, this is Japan’s showcase of arts, music, high fashion, teenage trends, cartoon animation, technology and pop culture. If you want to plunge in, stay at ibis Tokyo Shinjuku located in a district crowded with avant-garde skyscrapers and thronged department stores and boasting Japan’s busiest train station. In the evenings Shinjuku is the epicentre of Tokyo’s incredible night-life. Giant video screens and neon flash above alleys of karaoke joints, jazz lounges, discotheques and sophisticated high-rise bars.
Shibuya is another district worth exploring for its youthful fashion and homeware stores; in side streets, tiny restaurants lure you in from the cold with street snacks. The more budget-conscious Harajuku district is a must-visit for its eye-popping teenagers in manga-inspired outfits, from Gothic vampires to pink-clad Barbie lookalikes. It’s typical of Tokyo that you can walk from here to serene Meiji Shrine, where you might come across a bride and groom in traditional attire, shuffling in procession behind Shinto monks.
Alternatively, you could settle at Mercure Tokyo Ginza. Tokyo’s most famous neighbourhood, Ginza features swanky department stores and fashion boutiques that showcase impeccable Japanese style and service and glittering winter decorations. Ginza and adjacent Marunouchi also feature gorgeous Christmas lights on their tree-lined avenues.
A stroll brings you to the East Gardens of Tokyo’s Imperial Palace, where humped bridges and dainty vistas are pretty under snow. (Note 23 December and 2 January are among the few dates on which you can get into the palace itself.) Another great park for a warmly dressed visit is Koishikawa Korakuen, by Tokyo Dome, which incidentally features terrific seasonal illuminations all the way into February. The gardens re-create famous Japanese landscapes in miniature and feature sumptuous autumn colours well into November, pines under snowy epaulets in December, and spectacular early-blossoming plum trees by February.
A 2.5-hour train ride west, Kyoto is Tokyo’s alter ego. Japan’s capital from 794 to 1868, Kyoto is home to several dozen gardens and museums, three palaces and 2000-odd temples and shrines. December’s Hanatouro Festival sees many of Kyoto’s historical sights and its riverfront lit with lanterns and decorated with ikebana (flower arrangements). At night the renowned Bamboo Forest walkway is wonderfully atmospheric.
The Golden Temple, covered in 200,000 pieces of gold foil, is the city’s most famous sight, but almost equally renowned is the minimalist rock garden at nearby Ryoanji Temple. Visiting in winter means crowds are avoided – just the time for proper Zen contemplation.
Silver Temple and its raked-sand gardens stand near the rambling Philosopher’s Path, which erupts in pink cherry blossoms (and crowds) in spring. Follow the path along the Biwa Canal on a stroll that takes a half-day if you stop off at the many temples. Eikan-do is the most charming; monks sleep in corners, and wooden verandahs overlook a pine-scented landscape.
In the evenings, when the real chill sets in, head to traditional Gion for a look around. Geisha dressed in stunning kimonos hurry through alleys crammed with antique shops, art galleries and atmospheric tea houses – perfect retreats against the cold. Venerable restaurants line Hanamikoji Street. Cross the river to Pontocho pedestrian alley, where delightful traditional bars provide warmed sake to get your circulation going.
Kyoto isn’t all old, however, as you’ll discover when staying at ibis Styles Kyoto Station near the city’s spectacular contemporary train station. From here it’s a 10-minute walk to Shijo-dori, the main shopping street, where girls in pink uniforms bow you into gleaming department stores. Daimaru is the largest, with nine floors of rather staid goods; nearby Hankyu appeals to a younger market; and Takashimaya has great arts and crafts. The basement food halls are astonishing for their variety and presentation.
Teramachi-dori and Shinkyogoku, which run across Shijo-dori, are lined with stalls selling lurid T-shirts, accessories and plastic gadgets. End your exploration on Nishiki-koji, which runs for many city blocks. This alley has been a market street since the 17th century, its wooden shops stuffed with dumplings, hot red-bean buns and other winter stomach-warmers.
Future Beauty: 30 Years of Japanese Fashion
Accor Hotels is proud to be a sponsor of this exhibition featuring garments from the Kyoto Costume Institute, now showing at the Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, until 15 February 2015. For more information go to www.qagoma.qld.gov.au.