Still Taboo: Why I Can’t Wait to Return to Japan

There’s that one morning I used to think about while we were in the middle of lockdown.

Wake up to sunlight penetrating a gauzy blind. Still tired from sleep, I slip a fresh cotton coat over fresh cotton pajamas and slip slippers like slippers over each foot. Not a soul in sight I trudge down a series of steps carved into sturdy rock, bamboo splinters tickling me as I walk, the sunrise just peeking over the horizon.

I can hear the waves below. As I reach the foot of the rock steps I can see it: a carved, sunken pine tub filled with water, thick plumes of steam forming a luminous halo in the amber first light.

Don’t you feel better already?


Ginza, Tokyo. Photo: Pol Ó Conghaile

And that wasn’t a Covid fever dream – it was a memory. The steps led down a fancy bit Ryokan (a traditional inn) in Atami, in the east of Japan’s Izu Peninsula. Taking the hour and a half train ride from Tokyo, I had visited it in 2016 and enjoyed the opportunity to shake off all the plans, decisions and everyday pressures and submit to the flow of things Ryokan.

In these hyper-traditional, full-service 17th-century inns, swap your holiday clothes for fluffy tunics and kimonos, kick off your shoes, and sleep on tatami mats. For dinner, you will be served the multi-course creation prepared by the chef that day. Many have hot spring baths where you can partake in Japan’s antiquity onsen bath ritual; mine had an adorable women-only bathtub with an ocean view, where little Japanese girls giggled at my blush as the heat warmed my bloodstream.

I had every intention of returning to Japan in 2020 – but the pandemic had other plans. When I first got there during the crisp, cold, sunny January, I fell in love with the blue skies reflected in Tokyo’s skyscrapers, restaurants that do one thing and do it really, really well, and the brilliant efficiency of the country’s high-speed trains.


Onsen – Japan’s famous hot spring baths

For my second trip, I had my eye on fall, when the country’s ornamental maple trees turn a fiery red and the trails are ripe and cool to be explored. As we waited out those early Covid weeks, I vowed to myself that I would leave once the pandemic was over, in the fall of 2020.

Autumn 2021. Autumn 2022?

After a strict travel hiatus, when borders were sealed off for almost all visitors for more than two years, tourists have been allowed to take group tours again since early summer, with self-guided tours to be allowed from September 7 – but all international tourists must visit on one organized tour arranged by a tour operator.

Last week, the Japanese government confirmed it would also stop PCR testing for triple-vaccinated visitors from early September; but they’re sticking to the strict tour-only rule for now.


In a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn, a futon is laid out for the evening. Omotenashi no Yado Keizankaku, outside of Kyoto.

It’s frustrating. I want to do what I did last time: spend a few hedonistic days in Tokyo, one of my favorite cities on the planet, and then head off to another area of ​​rural beauty, culture, and cuisine – maybe walk the Nakahechi route in the south Kii Peninsula, or soothe my soul with the rushing waters of the Oirase Gorge in the far north.

What I don’t want is to be locked into the traditional tourist trail after three years of rules and restrictions or find myself unable to tweak and adjust plans at the last moment. We still don’t know when Japan’s border rules will be relaxed further, although some in the industry are hoping for early fall.

Japan is my travel fantasy country. Before, I expected to enjoy it – as a established sushi fan, avid karaoke-goer, and lover of big, complex cities, I already felt a strong connection to it. But on that first trip, I found there was so much more to admire: how safe it is, both for you and your belongings; the peaceful spirituality of its temples; the impeccable courtesy and surprising friendliness of the locals; the endless beauty of its sprawling, secluded temple complexes.

The bamboo forests have a surreal, Alice in Wonderland Quality, and dainty little coffee and candy shops offer endless matcha-flavored delights and Play-Doh slush. The only thing I could really fault Japan for is not giving full control over the soy sauce dispenser (here you have the sushi as the chef intended – with a wafer-thin layer of the salty stuff to come out, and not a drip more).


A bullet train – or Shinkansen – in Japan.

For a spa fan, Japan’s onsen — ritual baths like the one I stumbled down to in my lockdown daydream — are even better than you make them out to be. There’s a whole ceremonial cleansing that should take place before you enter, with high-pressure faucets, brushes and buckets awaiting you alongside the steaming water. Whole health resorts are located around them onsen culture, with the most traditional being fed by natural, mineral-rich hot springs. At many bathing spots, the men’s and women’s pools are separate and traditionally taken completely nude – the ultimate culture shock (and sense of freedom).

yes it is expensive But it’s the one big, ambitious, long-distance adventure that I recommend to everyone – you get so much bang for your buck. For the sheer, eye-popping strangeness of the culture shock, yes – but also for the street style, the art, the architecture, the innovation, the warm hospitality and the locals that literally lead you to the door of the place where you go in circles Looking for.

Tokyo is a haven for fans of urban living, but don’t come all the way just for the capital – make sure you catch at least one bullet train and see at least a piece of gorgeous scenery. The combination of heart-pounding city life and heart-soothing nature is unbeatable and I can’t reiterate on it fast enough.

If I’m lucky, I might even find them rural Ryokan still subdued, not quite full yet, and flying home with an even better morning to meditate on.

Read our Japan Bucket List – 25 things to do in Japan. Still Taboo: Why I Can’t Wait to Return to Japan

Fry Electronics Team

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