The hidden side of Japan
Japan’s eclectic capital is known for its fascinating mix of history and ultra-modernity, all bundled together in one beautiful, bustling city. Uncover living nostalgia in the streets of Asakusa, a shitamachi (low city) district known for its preservation of Tokyo’s past and for hosting a treasure-trove of shrines.
Step back in time at Japan’s oldest temple, Sensō-ji, where the foundations date back to 628AD. Painted in glossy, fire engine red, this ancient Buddhist site is striking by day, but when the crowds depart in the evening and the temple sits illuminated against the night sky, it becomes all the more stirring.
About a 10-minute walk from here is Kappabashi Street, where merchants first gathered a hundred years ago to hawk tools and hardware. Today, more than 170 shops squeeze into the 800-metre-long strip and it’s the best place in Tokyo to find beautiful dishes, lacquerware and any other kitchenware your heart desires – you’ll even spy the plastic food displayed in restaurant windows across the country.
No space goes wasted in this city, and that includes underground. Depachika (food halls) fill the basements of most department stores, serving delicious meals in exquisite arrangements to hungry locals and travellers. Be sure to venture into one of these sprawling subterranean delights before you leave for the south.
Highlights in Ehime prefecture
No holiday in Japan is complete without a relaxing soak in an iconic hot spring. And one of the best places to unwind is in Ehime prefecture, where you’ll find the country’s oldest spa. Ehime prefecture is less than a 1.5-hour flight from Tokyo’s Haneda Airport, and the costal region’s laid-back atmosphere contrasts with the intoxicating rush of Tokyo.
There, in the prefectural capital of Matsuyama, you will find the remarkable Dogo Onsen, the oldest hot spring in Japan. The therapeutic properties of these springs were first discovered 3000 years ago. Enjoy a leisurely stroll in the neighbourhood, passing guests from nearby ryokan (traditional Japanese inns) sporting patterned yukata (robes) and visiting the local shopping arcades and shrines. The bathhouse’s magnificent central wooden building (known as the honkan) was constructed in 1894, and the fine craftsmanship displayed and its historical value led to Dogo Onsen’s designation as an Important Cultural Property – the first public bathhouse in Japan to earn the title. But the onsen boasts more than its original, heritage features: in September 2017 a brand new annex called Asukanoyu opened, and its architecture is being lauded for the unique way it blends the concept of an onsen with art and traditional crafts of the Ehime prefecture. From 14 April, the hot springs will also display a special art exhibition.
Sink into a soothing, hot pool and when you emerge you’ll notice the slightly alkaline water has left your skin feeling soft and smooth. After your soak, enjoy tea and a snack of sweet, rice flour dumplings or osembei (Japanese rice crackers) in the resting area, before touring the Yushinden – the sumptuously decorated quarters of Dogo Onsen reserved for visiting emperors.
After relaxing in the hot springs, visit Shimanami Kaidō in the city of Imabari, located next to Matsuyama. While away a day travelling along this world-class, 70-kilometre cycling course that connects Shikoku with Japan’s main island of Honshu via six islands and nine spectacular bridges – the only ones in Japan to offer bike paths. Bicycle rental stations are set up along the way, helping travellers to explore the route with ease, and ferries also shuttle between the isles. After a day outdoors admiring the great views of the sea and islands on the Shimanami Kaidō you’ll be ready to stop by the bathhouse once more, or settle in to your ryokan’s private onsen.
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