Bekah’s luxury Japan vacation celebrates the marriage of traditional Japanese culture and modern design – and as it turns out, was the perfect way to celebrate her own marriage.
When I decided to surprise my architect husband with an anniversary trip to Japan, my criteria was simple, yet specific. He loves the austerity of Japanese design and its relationship to the natural world. As long as we spent our quick seven days surrounded by clean lines and fall leaves, the trip would be a hit. Under the expert care of a Ker & Downey Luxury Travel Consultant, I figured I knew what to expect. After all, I travel for a living.
From the moment we stepped off the plane in Osaka, I realized I’d underestimated Japan. The hush of the airport and the efficiency of immigration was like slipping into a warm bath of social grace. Every step forward took us further and further from our daily lives of barking dogs and busy toddlers.
Japan’s serenity completely surprised me, not only in the rural destinations and small spa towns, but even in Osaka, where trains were timely and quiet, and traffic moved along without honking. From octopus for breakfast, to the countless details of a Tadao Ando hotel room, Japan offered up endless delicacies in a series of daily revelations.
The itinerary for our luxury Japan vacation showcased Japan’s trademark minimalism, from its roots to its modern achievements. For my architect husband fascinated by elegant design solutions, Japan was a wonderland.
The ryokan experience is essential. Doting hostesses anticipated our every need at Araya Totoan in Yamashiro-Onsen, a quaint spa town on the southwest coast. Every meal was wholesome, fresh, and healthy fare that left us more energized than stuffed. The fall air was crisp enough to enjoy hiking through the hillside to discover both active and historic shrines among the changing leaves.
We toasted our anniversary with a traditional 11 course Japanese meal and sake served in locally-crafted ceramic sake cups, and enjoyed desert in the hotel bar, an exquisite space constructed without nails and lit only by soft candles and paper lanterns.
On our second day, a local festival filled the streets around the public baths with dancers and street food. Even with no idea what they were celebrating (we were the only native English speakers in the entire town, from what we could tell), their élan was contagious.
Equally exhilarating was the public bathing experience. Araya has two gorgeous public baths with indoor and outdoor pools, and one meditation pool. Arriving on a quiet day in the shoulder season allowed us to spend the first day overcoming our nervousness about public nudity. Sitting alone in the expansive ladies bath, I quickly realized how liberating it was, being naked in a semi-public place. My husband, a seasoned skinny-dipper needed less convincing as he took advantage of all the amenities in the men’s baths.
Of course, we did most of the major scrubbing in our private bathroom, itself a wonder of tile and wood, capturing the spirit of the ryokan baths in miniature.
After sleeping tatami style and eating exclusively traditional Japanese fare for a couple of days, we were primed to see the modern Japan. Classic Japanese hospitality is the perfect foundation to appreciate its modern itineration. After a multi-modal journey without a single delay, we disembarked at Naoshima. Beginning in 1985, the island of tiny fishing villages has been continuously infiltrated by artists and architects who have turned the sleepy industrial area into major destination for culture hounds from across the world.
The Naoshima Art Site encompasses three traditional museums and numerous outdoor sculptures and art sites. The most iconic are the pumpkins, huge whimsical outdoor sculptures designed by Yayoi Kusama.
In Honmura, a tiny fishing village on the northeast side of the island, “art houses” are scattered throughout the narrow streets among residential and commercial streets. The leading aesthetic of the island is defined by Tadao Ando, one of the world’s most famous living architects, and a rock star of the design world.
Ando’s Naoshima hotel, Benesse House, is like sleeping inside an installation art piece of the caliber one might find at the Guggenheim or the Tate Modern. The architecture is breathtaking, and the onsite Benesse House Museum hosts works by Donald Judd, Cy Twombly, Jasper Johns, and Yukinori Yanagi. The Chichu Museum, also an Ando masterpiece, is home to works by James Turrell, Walter de Maria, and Claude Monet. Each space perfectly enshrines the works within. By servicing both Terrell, with his neon and negative space, and Monet’s oil on canvas, Ando proves the timelessness of good design.
That timelessness is Japan. Whether it is forging into the imagination, or rooting itself deeper into nature, Japan drifts in and out of past and present with the quietest of footsteps.
The food at Benesse House lived up to its surroundings. We enjoyed a French gourmet breather from our steady diet of Japanese food, only to return to the fresh octopus and miso soup the next morning at the breakfast buffet, but this time with cinnamon French toast to compliment.
To maximize our time in Yamashiro and Noashima, we bypassed Tokyo, and flew in and out of Osaka. We spent our first and last night at the Osaka Marriott Miyako in the soaring Abeno Harukas building. At 300 meters, Harukas is the tallest building in Japan. From our Ocean View room on the 53rd floor, we towered over the surrounding skyline in perfect silence. When we decided to venture out to see some architectural sites in Osaka, the metro station in the basement and pedestrian infrastructure connected us seamlessly to parks, shopping centers, and restaurants.
Those nights that were supposed to be rather inconsequential actually completed our experience of Japanese hospitality and design. The sleek, elegant Harukas, and efficient urban interface served as a 300-meter tall exclamation mark on our perfect week in Japan.