Japan is without a shadow of doubt one our favourite destinations: from its iconic beauty and extraordinary attention-for-detail to its interesting idiosyncrasies, we always leave this wonderful country feeling inspired. It’s no secret that this striking island is home to spectacular culture, unique sites and world-class cuisine (most of which the Western mind cannot easily fathom), but its top-rate hotels are not so well-known worldwide…
Here are some of our absolute favourite hotels in Japan. We hope to tempt you to stay in at least one of these astonishing properties to guarantee you a very special bespoke tour.
1. Aman, Tokyo
While competition is tough between several top-tier hotels in the exhilarating First World capital of Tokyo, the Aman Tokyo comes out on top for us. The absolute pinnacle of sophistication, this sleek property strikes the perfect balance between understated chic and sheer luxury, which is evident right upon arrival as one walks through its elegant yet inconspicuous entrance into the soaring atrium lobby, designed by the acclaimed Kerry Hill.
Delicate Japanese touches have been seamlessly woven into its interior design and overall architecture by the creative masterminds behind its aesthetic (think subtle white shoji paper and exquisite ‘ikebana’ flower arrangements), which help to introduce tasteful pops of colour into the monochrome colour palette, as well as lend a strong sense of place. The service offered by the friendly staff here is just impeccable, for they have truly mastered the art of ‘omotenashi’ (amenable and discrete Japanese customer service). Aman Tokyo’s restaurants, cigar lounge and bar are all to die for, but its state-of-the-art pool is arguably the best feature of the hotel. This oasis of calm glows an inviting aquamarine from within dark basalt-tiles and offers staggering cityscape views, making for the perfect retreat to relax and rejuvenate after a busy day exploring the city. Equally impressive panoramas can also be enjoyed from the comfort of your own room – waking up to the most phenomenal sunrise over the skyscrapers with Mount Fuji on the horizon is a truly unforgettable experience.
2. Gora Kadan, Hakone
Renowned as the best luxury ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) in the entire country, you will be hard-pressed not to enjoy a stay at this hotel. The property sets the bar high for others as it has perfected the sensitive combination of quintessential Japanese design and modern-day comforts that really is a feat to achieve. Stepping into the welcoming light-filled lobby, one is greeted by scenic views over the surrounding foliage, meaning that the importance and respect for nature that the Japanese uphold is immediately felt. This tangible atmosphere continues into the walkways to the rooms and suites, which have spacious vaulted ceilings and vast floor-to-ceiling windows; again, blurring the boundaries between inside and outside.
Classical Japanese notions also feature in the rooms within their decor, from tatami-mats and comfortable futon beds to private baths. The latter of which is unique to every single room, varying between ‘ofuro’ (smooth wooden indoor soaking tubs) and ‘rotenburo’ (soft stone-carved outdoor tubs). While this is a treat, the ultimate bathing experience here is soaking within Gora Kadan’s private open-air ‘onsen’ hot spring, tucked away in a remote spot at the end of the garden: lying back and luxuriating in the naturally heated bubbling water with steam rising around you in the fresh air is heavenly. The culinary experience provided here is another huge draw, guests can take their pick between Japanese or Western breakfasts in the morning and indulge in a ‘kaiseki’ multi-course dinner in the evening, which is truly special – thanks to the property’s esteemed chefs, one can even try the renowned delicacy of ‘fugu’ (pufferfish).
3. Ritz-Carlton, Kyoto
Well-located on the banks of the Kamogawa river within the ancient city, this hotel is leaps and bounds above the rest in this region. The Ritz-Carlton really is outstanding in terms of service, style and atmosphere. Its inherent elegance impresses right upon arrival within its Imperial purple-toned lobby and continues throughout the property. Its razor-sharp design succeeds in paying homage to traditional Japanese aesthetics while also introducing fresh, modern twists, which creates a luxurious and distinct experience and makes it hard to say goodbye at the end of your stay.
Local touches can be found scattered throughout, from the perfectly-manicured ‘bonsai’ trees and framed ‘kimono’ silks that decorate the communal areas to the ‘yukata’ robes and cherry blossom design of the marble en-suites that can be found within the well-appointed rooms and suites. While the views from the rooms vary, each one has its own special touch: whether it be a riverside panorama or calming view into a traditional Zen garden. The welcoming staff and inviting atmosphere mean that the hotel feels homely, and the addition of luxury amenities is a real bonus: our preferred top picks here are the beautiful pool, tranquil spa and ‘onsen’ bath downstairs. The Ritz-Carlton also offers a selection of fine dining choices within chic restaurants, which attract locals and visitors alike, and serves arguably the most delicious Japanese breakfast for the Western palette each morning.
4. Ryokan Kurashiki, Kurashiki
A true Ampersand favourite, Ryokan Kurashiki is the epitome of a classical ryokan (traditional Japanese inn). Originally a rice storehouse, the historic property has a sense of nostalgia ingrained in its 300-year old architecture and preserved interior design, from its dark wooden beams to its conventional ‘irori’ (open-hearth). Its prime position within the very heart of the Bikan quarter means that the authentic rooms and suites come complete with scenic views – either down the tranquil willow-lined canal or into the neat ‘bonsai’ and rock garden in the back.
The guesthouse is full of character with its delicate Japanese decorations, woven tatami mats and comfortable futon beds; not to mention the more recent suites and their beautiful en-suites. Amenable kimono-clad staff glide down the corridors and tend to your every need here – the friendly property hostess Nakamura-san is a fountain of local knowledge (who will happily arrange local tours of artists’ workshops and sake breweries for you) and the generous Mama-san, who serves your intricate ‘kaiseki’ meal with such care, is a joy. If you are after an immersive Japanese experience, then this is the place to stay – your time here is bound to be a highlight of your tour of this unique country.
Heralded as one of the most exciting and luxurious openings in Japan in recent years, this hot Aman property is well-worth a visit. Phenomenally set within the rural idyll of Ise-Shima National Park, the landscape here suits the sleek design of this hotel – care has been made by the typically attentive Aman masterminds to perfectly harmonise the property with its surroundings. Modelled on a Japanese ryokan, this property makes a concerted effort to stay true to traditional design but also goes one step further by merging in more modern and special comforts. Its serene spa and outdoor sunken terraces are preferred spots in which to lie back and relax – bliss for both a romantic retreat for couples as well as for family parties.
While the great alfresco area is one of the resort’s main perks, the minimalistic indoors is equally as breath-taking due to the vision of the talented late architect, Kerry Hill. Pale timber wood gently hugs the sublimely clean-cut furnishings and the floor-to-ceiling windows let in vast washes of daylight, as well as providing impressive panoramic views to the sea beyond, which becomes particularly picturesque at sunset. Local life can play a part in your stay here if you wish, as the hotel will gladly arrange visits to the nearby ‘Ama’ female freedivers community as well as organising expeditions to nearby cultural sites, such as Ise Jingu shrine. As its name suggests (aman meaning ‘peace’ in Sanskrit and nemu meaning ‘joy’ in Japanese), this property is a delightful and peaceful retreat like no other.
Have you visited Japan? Please comment below and let us know about your favourite Japan accommodation.
James Jayasundera is Founder and Managing Director of Ampersand Travel. Ampersand Travel create bespoke and luxurious travel experiences to Asia, the British Isles and Southern Africa.
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