How to Plan a Honeymoon in Japan

tokyo

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A postcard-worthy beach where, if you look closely enough, you’ll notice the teeny grains of sand are actually perfectly minuscule coral stars. A cozy yet monastic white room and fireplace-studded balcony designed expressly to allow its occupants joyous gasps when the clouds melt away and a coy, snowcapped Mt. Fuji appears magically, statuesque, before them. A private hot spring—far superior to your average hot tub—set within a zen garden. A bamboo forest, dense and uniform, through which kimono-garbed couples are pulled by lean men in human-powered carriages. A nondescript 18-seat restaurant, clad in wood yet decorated with a Michelin star, drawing nightly crowds coming to devour humble plates of handmade gyoza executed flawlessly. 

Japan is no one thing, one landscape or even one food. Its beauty goes way beyond sushi and past the far-out fantasy world offered by bits of Tokyo. If one thing unites the country it’s attention to details. And the details are exquisite. To a great degree, the island country offers something for every taste, every interest. And it’s all wrapped up in a great big super-clean bow, with pristine, on-time public transportation; kind, helpful and impressively quiet people, easy-to-figure-out currency and safe, drinkable tap water. In other words, it’s pretty much a dream destination. It also quickly becomes clear the country has a talent for making almost anything feel memorable and exceedingly special. For these reasons and more a journey through Japan makes a completely epic honeymoon. 

Tokyo, of course, is the assumed primary stop, and the capital is more than worthy of some time, not only to do things like hit a themed bar in Shinjuku, take a rickshaw tour, shop for cutesy Japanese souvenirs, and dine on imaginative haute cuisine. For the latter an unforgettable seasonally driven experience by a French-trained Japanese chef who won the Bocuse d’Or World Finale bronze a few years ago (the only native chef to ever win a medal), is available to guests of the Edo-inspired, one-of-a-kind Hoshinoya Tokyo. Luxury hotels are on the rise with the Olympics coming in 2020—a new Four Seasons among them—but this property, opened in 2016, is unique for bringing the ryokan concept (a traditional inn with Japanese architecture, tatami mats and shoji paper doors) to glamorous new cosmopolitan life in expansive, intricate rooms. There’s also a hot spring onsen on the rooftop, with an opening to the sky and mineral-rich water pumped from 1,500 meters underground. Aman Tokyo, with its luminous modern design, spa and shockingly authentic Italian restaurant Arva also makes for a romantic stay. 

Ideally honeymooners would take planes, trains and buses to other distinctive regions, too—mountains, countryside, beaches, even. (DuVine offers a Japan itinerary to cycling enthusiasts that takes adventuring lovers by bicycle through temples and tea fields in off-the-beaten-path parts of the country, too.) And to cities that don’t really feel like cities. Kyoto is one of those, a cherry blossom–strewn place jammed with intricate temples where history feels tangible and honored, but there are plenty of signs of modernity. See: the artisanal Kyoto Gin Distillery, the country’s first, a handful of cool breweries and coffee houses, and new design hotels, including Japan’s first Ace Hotel, opening shortly with design by Tokyo Olympic Stadium architect Kengo Kuma, and an upcoming Aman. (Whisky lovers shouldn’t miss the beloved Suntory Yamazaki Distillery.) 

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On the first heritage tip, however, it’s not rare to spot Japanese couples dressed in rented his-and-hers kimonos out sightseeing at the aforementioned bamboo forest in Arashiyama, where Hoshinoya Kyoto is a bit of a glamorous throwback. Comprising renovated 100-year-old heritage buildings immersed in nature and only reached by boat down the Oi River, popular for paddle boats, it’s the definition of zen. From that lush hideaway, guests can rise for mellow morning stretch classes done in their provided PJ-like loungewear under impossibly green baby maple leaves, learn the delicate art of an incense or tea ceremony, dine on elaborate, artistic, sake-paired kaiseki courses in comfy matching garb (and hot pot room service breakfasts), and savor prized Japanese whisky in the dark, intimate bar. 

Another part of Kyoto with seriously palpable ties to the past is Gion, the original geisha district where the artistic entertaining hostess’ livelihoods are actually still flourishing (pro tip: re-read Memoirs of a Geisha before you go). InsideJapan Tours, the led-by–expert locals tour company, offers an illuminating and comprehensive evening stroll in the district that includes a tea house visit and chance to pick the brain of, drink sake with, and be entertained by (likely via dance or music), a maiko, aka apprentice geisha. Japan’s onsen tradition is alive and well in most parts of the country, too, perhaps none more than Kinosaki, two and a half hours away by train, where seven sacred hot spring bathhouses are available to anyone bunking at a local ryokan, like the Relais & Chateaux Nishimuraya Honkan Onsen. (Foodies should note snow crab season is November to March.) 

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From there why not change gears completely and fly south to Okinawa, a prefecture best known to Americans for housing our military after WWII. Quite close to Taiwan, it’s a set of tropical-feeling islands where the people are known for living long, healthy lives (it’s one of the world’s five Blue Zones). On most, tradition has given way to a modern beachy feel, but on bucolic Taketomi, home to just several hundred natives, things feel pretty close to how they always have, architecture and transportation (mostly via buffalo-drawn cart, foot or bicycle) included. Think of an old school Hawaii. 

Hoshinoya Taketomi Island resort embraces these down-to-earth cultural differences and handicrafts—you can learn to weave fragrant natural plant mats with the hardy, smiling 91-year-old who first came up with the method some 70 years ago, or press hibiscus flowers and other just-picked flora into postcards. The red-roofed cabins are topped with fearsome shisa lions for protection from evil spirits, and make for an ideal honeymoon stay, with options for intimate, romantic dinners inside. And island life would not be complete without a few things: visiting the beach with its mind-blowing star sand, going for a peaceful sail or paddle aboard a wooden sabani ship, swimming in the wide oval pool, eating taco rice (an American-fusion dish traditional in the islands), stargazing, and being serenaded in the aforementioned buffalo cart by a driver playing Okinawan guitar and singing the island’s unofficial song about a beautiful local girl who rejected the proposal from a rich Okinawan government man, instead choosing her local island love. 

Another must-go destination, Mt. Fuji, contrasts the mellow island life in some regards, but its serenity and lush natural beauty are easy segues. The snow-coated icon of Japan is magnificent and awe-inspiring—it draws travelers in magnetically, inspiring a host of activities with it in sight. The simplest comes by staying at Hoshinoya Fuji, the first “glamping” resort in Japan, though that’s underselling things a bit. Couples are lent their pick of colorful canvas backpack filled with a cache of camp-worthy supplies (think binoculars) upon arrival, with a Jeep Wrangler taking them up to their minimalist “cabin" with a working fire on the balcony oriented to Fuji, visible when the mysterious clouds part like stage curtains revealing the main event. 

Lake Kawaguchiko
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From there, canoeing on the mirrorlike Lake Kawaguchiko is a beautiful way to take it in, or a guided tour with InsideJapan of the Oshino Hakkai ponds and lava tubes, and authentic, ancient Edo house will do the trick—the can’t-miss photo op there makes for a classic souvenir. Hiking over lava rock through mossy forest is also an option in this outdoorsy region, as is culture—the Itchiku Kubota Art Museum is a spectacle devoted to the Monet of kimono art’s breathtaking creations. There’s plenty of culinary stimulation, too. Omnivores will approve of the meat-forward cuisine at the resort, especially the melt-in-your-mouth wine beef (the cows are fed grape mash), a specialty found only in the vino-producing surrounds. After dinner in the restaurant or under the trees (interactive meals here include al fresco pizza making and multi-course dutch oven extravaganzas), head up to the Cloud Terrace bonfire for live music and roasted marshmallows with, perhaps, a glass of local whisky.  

Explore another region for further understanding of a different intoxicating Japanese export: sake. At breweries like Marumi, one of the oldest in an area known for exceptional water, it’s possible to taste your way through ginjo and daiginjo sakes, learning what to look for and how to distinguish the good from the best. (If you don’t make it to a brewery, simply stop by any izakaya, drinking spots that specialize in sake.) Fun fact: the fermented rice-based beverage was originally a key element of Shinto rituals, and is hundreds of years old. 

 Afterward, connect with more of Japan’s legacy at a traditional ryokan such as the artistic Kai Matsumoto, where the onsen culture is a focus. The sacred bathing rituals and charming tatami-matted rooms—where a masseuse can deliver soothing pressure-point massages—aren’t the only reason this is a popular destination for Japanese. Matsumoto is known as a city of music (every summer there’s an international music festival) and each night at Kai there’s a moving live concert in its acoustically superior round space. 

This is a country so full of gems it’s hard to see them all through the shimmer. Snowboarders and skiers should check out Kiroro, while hikers can tackle self-guided itineraries through InsideJapan Tours that twist past giant cedars, waterfalls and hot springs, in Hokkaido and the Japanese Alps. And art enthusiasts have the islands of Setouchi, where the Setouchi Triennale Art Festival late September through early November includes works by the likes of Yayoi Kusama and James Turrell. Ultimately lovebirds would need months to experience every side of Japan, but with some pointed planning, unimaginable worlds open up, making for one of the most exciting, fascinating, and romantic adventures on Earth. 

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