Why Japan’s Golden Route Should Be Your Next Travel Adventure
Funaya wooden boathouses in Ine, Japan. Photograph by Mr Said Karlsson
At night, sitting naked in the onsen baths of the Arai Ryokan, you can see the koi fish sleeping. As you sink into its mineral-rich waters, the plump, iridescent bodies of the fish, all silver and citrus orange, flock to the light piercing through the natural murk of the pond via a floor-height window. Here, in lieu of pan-flute relaxation music, there’s something more serene: near silence. Just the rippling water and the rare patter of bare feet, as other patrons, every so often, pace the corridors outside.
Arai Ryokan is situated in the spa town in the Shizuoka prefecture, encircled by mountains on Japan’s eastern coast. Cut off from the bustle of bigger cities, it almost marks the halfway point in a journey taken by everyone from samurais and traders during the Edo period to today’s intrepid tourists, known historically as the “Golden Route”. Stretching from Osaka to Tokyo, the stops along the way capture the many characteristics that define Japan: the cuisine, the changing landscapes from sea cliffs to high-rise buildings and up-close perspectives of Mount Fuji. For those who want to see the country in its most authentic form, going a little off-piste, and beyond the big cities, is arguably the best way to do it.
Your trip can start at either end of the Golden Route, but if you want to conclude your trip with the implosive experience of Tokyo and give yourself time to explore it properly, your best bet is to start in Osaka. For international travellers, Japan Airlines – which flies twice daily from London – allows you to fly into Tokyo’s Haneda Airport and, with the Explorer Pass, check out many other cities en route. For the Golden Route, though, you just need to take a short, hour-long flight from Tokyo to Osaka’s Kansai International Airport to start your journey.
Giving yourself a day in Osaka is a good idea, even if to just ease into the Japanese culture in a city that’s easy to navigate and in where English is more widely spoken compared to the regional towns. Spend your day sauntering around the long-stretching markets, which include everything from luxury boutiques to “everything” stores. At night, though, like many of Japan’s neon sign-clad cities, it properly comes to life.
Osaka, Japan. Photograph by Mr Said Karlsson
It’s said that the people of Osaka “go broke on food”, so make time for its popular local cuisine. In dim and charming local restaurants, often filled with young people smoking cigarettes (it’s still legal indoors, but a rarity in most places), you’ll find the most authentic fare, such as kushiage, skewered deep fried vegetables and meats, and baked rice balls rolled with bonito flakes. Locals eat them round busy tables; it’s an unfussy and relaxed kind of culinary experience.
After breakfast, either by bus or a rented taxi (a tour guide, which Japan has no shortage of, can help you sort this), set off into the sticks towards Kyoto by the Sea, 100km north of the city. Start in Amanohashidate, where, some 15 million years ago, the tectonic plates beneath it shifted and a land bridge connecting two sides of Miyazu Bay rose to the surface. Since then, a near-four-kilometre long, pine tree and shrine-dappled stretch of land has formed from the silt that sidled up to its shores.
During the summer, the balmier climes mean locals flock to its sandier side, swimming in the water and sunbathing on the beach in the shadows of the great hills that surround it. You can view it best from the hillside looking down across the bay by taking the cable car into the heart of the Tango-Amanohashidate-Ōeyama Quasi-National Park.
Amanohashidate roughly translates to “bridge in heaven”, and folklore claims that, centuries ago, the gods failed to look after it and it fell to Earth. After you’ve taken in the view, head back down the hillside and try purple soba and fresh seafood from the quaint restaurants by the bay. Towns like these are mostly frequented by Japanese tourists, but with polite interactions, you’ll find people are willing to help despite the language barrier.
View over Amanohashidate, Northern Kyoto, Japan. Photograph courtesy of Kyoto by the Sea
A short drive around the coast from Amanohashidate will take you to Seikiro Ryokan, a registered cultural landmark that’s been owned by the same family for more than 300 years. Unlike hotels, ryokans are traditional Japanese inns where the rooms are purposefully scant of furnishings, designed to offer a little more mental clarity and grounding. Your bed? A mattress on the floor. Your shower? Expect a more communal bathing experience. Split by gender, you can shower off in an onsen downstairs, before dipping into the naturally hot spring waters. It might seem unorthodox at first, but the experience is otherworldly.
From here, you’re free to explore Kyotango, which is located on the Tango Peninsula, an area rich in craftsmanship. It may seem miles from civilisation, but it’s from here that Mr Kyoji Tamiya, a master weaver who works with mother of pearl, sells his ingenious creations to everyone from Japan’s empress to luxury couturiers in Paris. Give him notice, and you’ll be able to organise a private tour of his studio. Next door, a trio of young men run Nippon Genshosha, a samurai sword-making workshop where they craft the historic blades from scratch.
Further down the coast, across spiralling roads that bring you terrifyingly close to the cliff-edges looking down into the Sea of Japan, you’ll find one of the most sublime examples of the country’s hidden gems: Ine, a fishing village on the peninsula, around two hours in a car from Kyoto. In winter, the bay can be dusted in snow from the blizzards while in late July, a 300-year-old festival sees boats in their droves take to the water. Accommodation is scanty, meaning it’s not overrun by strangers who come and go for the night. The locals collect fish from the market at the crack of dawn, living in cosy homes with boathouses on the water – to see it is to witness a slower way of life.
Nijo castle in Kyoto, Japan. Photograph by Mr Said Karlsson
Heading into Kyoto afterwards feels a little like coming up for air. The former Japanese capital city still has its deep-rooted history, its landscape shaped by myriad temples and shrines, the Nijo Castle jutting out of its topography. But the traditional sights are matched by new opportunities, starting with the accommodation. The Hotel Higashiyama, located in the east of the city, is a boutique residence only opened in July 2022. Once you’ve checked in, walk the entire length of bustling Nishiki Market, a narrow shopping street lined by more than 100 stalls and restaurants.
Jutting off it unassumingly is the tranquil vegan restaurant hale, serving up boundary-shifting flavours and natural produce in a country still reckoning with dairy- and fish-free diets. Head down further and you’ll stumble into gashapon arcades and second-hand designer stores stocking Issey Miyake and Raf Simons. As night falls, head to Pontocho, an atmospheric, lantern-lit alleyway with restaurants stacked tightly on top of each other, then head to a smoke-filled, disco ball-lit bar – the sleazier the better.
From Kyoto, you can take the bullet train to Mishima, where you’ll get the most gobsmacking view of Mount Fuji from the ground, before heading deeper into the Shizuoka prefecture. Make time for the Izu Panorama Park, from which you’ll get a clear, uninterrupted view of the entire mountain from a higher position.
Around the spa town of Izu below, you’ll find bamboo forests and shrines; bridges that bring good luck as you cross the fated river from which the hot spring water is pumped from underneath. If you’re in the mood to explore, you can head into the mountains around it and explore the fields where wasabi is grown. Needless to say, any meal you have in the Izu peninsula is likely to have it as an accompaniment. Inhale it; the stuff you get back home is likely a cheap imitation compared to this.
Bar exterior in the Shimokitazawa district of Tokyo, Japan. Photograph by Mr Said Karlsson
View over Tokyo, from Azumabashi towards the Sumida River, Japan. Photograph by Ms Sandy Noto
By this point, you’re only an hour-and-a-half’s journey by bullet train to Yokohama, the port city located next to Tokyo, and a worthy spot on your trip for the culture and nightlife of the capital with less of a crowd. Like the Coney Island of Tokyo, its crowning centrepiece is an amusement park with a constantly glittering Ferris wheel that lights up its skyline. In the day, the centre can be a little industrial, so explore the nearby Sankeien Gardens or take a pilgrimage to the Yamatecho district a little further inland: the mishmash east-meets-west architecture inspired much of the locations in Studio Ghibli’s From Up On Poppy Hill.
Yokohama is also a city under reinvention. Underneath the Keikyu railway, a site once populated with brothels and controlled by the yakuza has now been regenerated as a hub for local and global artists. Don’t be put off by the rather clinically named Koganecho Area Management Center – the artists inside it, often sitting inside greenhouse-like structures making work in full view of passersby, makes it worth the visit. From there, you can snake back down into the inner city, grab sashimi caught fresh off the coast that morning, and finish your night at a 24-hour karaoke club.
Where to stay? Well, if you want a little quiet, The Hotel New Grand, which has hosted everyone from US politicians to Sir Charlie Chaplin, is situated a little further from the city centre, but offers a kind of old-school, immaculately presented Titanic-esque interiors. For those hoping to be a little closer to the action, The Yokohama Bay Tokyu Hotel is right by Minatomirai underground station, and 80 per cent of its rooms look directly on to a dazzling view of the aforementioned Ferris wheel.
From here, you’re a 40-minute train ride into the centre of Shibuya, diving headlong into one of the biggest and most overwhelming metropolises on Earth. By this point, you might have spent a week or 10 days leading up to this moment, but that back and forth between city life and time away from concentrated civilisation on the Golden Route is not just a prelude but the eye-opening centrepiece of the journey itself. Then, you’ll arrive in Tokyo ready to sink into it fully and see it differently. Afterwards, you’ll remember Tokyo’s stacked skyscrapers and packed public transport, sure, but you’ll find yourself looking back to what might have seemed like the smaller things: the wasabi fields and Ferris wheels, the ryokans and the koi fish, sleeping quietly in the pond.