With Japan unlocking its doors sans restrictions from October 11, there’s renewed interest in all that lies within its borders. The hot springs, temples and neon-bright cities remain as enchanting as ever, yet a lot has changed in 2.5 years.
While the world has waited patiently to return and experience the country’s famed omotenashi hospitality and culture, the locals have been busy adding finishing touches to a rich tapestry of new additions. The results speak for themselves.
Fresh hotels, adventurous theme parks, and unique experiences which both transport you to the past and bring a vision of the future to the present, are just a handful of the new things to discover.
Here’s our selection of some of the best.
Hotels worth checking into
As the chief entry point for most visitors, Tokyo delivers a heady mix of hotels to suit, including luxurious options such as The Peninsula and Aman.
One of the notable debuts is The Tokyo EDITION, Toranomon, which opened its gilded grand doors in late 2020 and has already picked up a legion of local fans.
Blessed with mesmerising skyline views, not to mention a sleek restaurant and bar from Michelin-starred chef Tom Aikens, it’s the full package. The location is perfect too, with access to Kamiyacho, Roppongi-Itchome and Toranomon subway stations.
Both deliver just the right mix of style and comfort.
Further afield is The Ritz-Carlton Nikko: an exquisite hotel in mountainous Tochigi, a mere two hours bullet train ride from Tokyo. Set on the shores of Lake Chuzenji, it boasts a minimalist design and private onsen, all in easy reach of UNESCO listed Toshogu Shrine.
Not to be outdone, former imperial capital Kyoto now has the colourful and quirky Ace Hotel – a sibling to the new Sydney outpost – in addition to Fauchon L’Hotel Kyoto, infused with sweet-toothed deliciousness thanks to its Parisian patisserie parent, Fauchon.
For those keen to experience the joy of a traditional Japanese ryokan with a modern twist, there’s Azumi Setoda, a newly renovated Japanese ryokan on the island of Ikuchijima in Japan’s Seto Inland Sea.
In recent years, the region has become synonymous with off-the-beaten-path travel, including art islands, such as Naoshima to its east, and the Shimanami Kaido cycling route to its west.
If the Japan 2023 ski season is calling, the five-star ANA InterContinental Appi Kogen Resort in Tohoku, a region known for having the highest snowfall in the country, and the all-inclusive Club Med Kiroro Peak Hokkaido further north are the ones for you.
Both hotels offer premium rooms, access to powder-white runs and plenty of opportunities for onsen and aprés ski time too.
Bars and restaurants to dazzle the senses
Speaking of delicious, there’s a veritable bounty of bars and restaurants waiting for you to stop, sip and savour a while. One of them even features the world’s first automated pasta robot.
First up is the Gold Bar at aforementioned The Tokyo EDITION, Toranomon – a highly-social space with a flamboyant and atmospheric black and gold interior. It almost glitters enough to require sunglasses indoors. Try the Nippon Pale Ale cocktail.
Other noteworthy bars include Swrl in Shibuya, a laid-back Brooklyn-inspired space shaking up an array of wine-infused cocktails, and the A10 speakeasy in Ebisa, hidden behind a fake wall of lockers and accessed via a staircase underground.
Bringing a touch of Peruvian flair to Tokyo, star chefs Virgilio Martinez and Santiago Fernandez have unveiled their latest venture, Maz, in the city’s financial district. As the duo behind Central in Lima, voted #4 in the Best Restaurants South America 2021, it’s fair to say it’s an experience worth relishing.
Italian chef Massimo Bottura has also brought his signature style to the city, unveiling Gucci Osteria in Ginza. The menu is a fusion of refined Italian cuisine and local produce, including a ‘Parmigiana that wants to be a ramen’.
For something quick and easy, head to E Vino Spaghetti at Tokyo Station. Designed for those short on time, an automated pasta robot uses AI-based image recognition technology to understand the status of pasta ingredients, plating up a tasty meal in just 45 seconds.
The robot makes up to 90 meals per hour and even washes pans on its own.
Continuing the high-tech theme is Cafe Dawn, where people who have difficulty going out, such as those with severe disabilities, remotely operate their alter-ego robot to serve customers. There’s even a remotely-operated barista robot!
Best new things to do in Japan
Known for its dazzling, immersive projections, ‘teamLab Borderless’ was a huge hit in Tokyo’s Odaiba. Although now closed in preparation for a new location launching in 2023, visitors can experience the same vibrant, technicolour whimsy at the nearby teamLab ‘Planets Tokyo’.
Due to popular demand, the exhibition has been extended to run through to the end of next year
If the wonders of the outside world are more your style, pick up a ticket for Shiki-shima, the most luxurious train from JR East. The 10-car sleeper train is designed to feel like a premium car or luxury yacht, with stunning rooms and an equally impressive observation car.
After nearly 30 years of planning, Osaka’s Nakanoshima Museum of Art finally opened this year. Within the dramatic, jet-black exterior, the museum houses one of Japan’s largest collections, including works by Dali and Magritte, and Japanese painter Jiro Yoshihara.
Nearby at Universal Studios Osaka is the impressive new Super Nintendo World, allowing visitors to step inside the world of Nintendo, complete with rides, characters and life-size recreations of iconic video game settings.
Ghibli Park, an official theme park based on adored Studio Ghibli animations including Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and My Neighbor Totoro, will open in Aichi Prefecture in November.
And that’s barely scratching the surface of what awaits when borders reopen. The best advice? Pack a sense of adventure, a healthy appetite, and a good pair of walking shoes and just let the holiday take you.