A Virgin Experience In The Land Of The Rising Sun
Zul Andra learns that thereís always something old and something new thatís worth waking up to.
As we prepare for our descent towards Narita Airport, Tokyo, images of contemporary Japan rush to my head. “I’d like have a JD on the rocks with a can of Diet Coke on the side, please,” I ask the Singapore Airlines stewardess. That oughta help, I think to myself. I see everything and everyone from Ken Watanabe sipping sake to Sora Aoi fixing a Mitsubishi air conditioner and Shinji Kagawa doing a wheelie on a Kawasaki.
Strobes of flashing images to signal that I’m about to arrive upon this land. The neon signs of Japan’s soft power whizz past my ears. See, I’ve never been to the country, but it feels like I have been here all my life.
We could go on and on about the sumptuous cultural buffet that Japan has to offer. Not one traveller that I’ve known has ever returned from under the kimono of the land with stories of disappointment and regret. They go with an empty suitcase only to come home with mini Japanese flags on poles used to plot out stories of their adventures. It is intimidating at first, knowing that I too should return bearing stories and gifts of the trinkets and instant noodles variety.
Our first stop is Tokyo Marriott Hotel where we will stay the night. A one-and-a-half-hour drive from Narita Airport, the hotel is situated in a quieter business district away from the neon lights of the more popular strips. If you’re here for business, the last thing you need is a distraction from the other end of the Japanese cultural spectrum. But if you insist… Shibuya, where the famed shopping district and traffic intersection is found, is about a 30min drive away from the hotel. Or take the train from Osaki Station to Shibuya Station for about the same amount of time.
Trains are the best way to get around, they say. It’s cheaper, they say. Compared to SGD66 on Uber for a 30min drive, I’d say that they are correct. Well, whatever they’ve said, we didn’t get a chance to soak in the sights and the sounds of Tokyo’s nightlife because tomorrow morning, we will be ferried to Izu Marriott Hotel Shuzenji. Next time, Tokyo. But first, dinner.
Kacyo Ginza Restaurant is a ryotei (traditional Japanese restaurant) that was founded in 1927 during the Shōwa era—a period of uprisings and wars. Back then, Kacyo would not accept first-time customers and only catered to a select few, such as royalty and dignitaries. They also opened their doors to foreign guests. Charlie Chaplin and Walt Disney both dined here. Although those closed-door days are gone, the restaurant continues to maintain its authenticity. A rustic décor lined with wooden beams and sliding paper doors greets us. The nine-course dinner is a nod to tradition with dishes such as fried yam and propagule, among others, as appetisers and a bowl of ocha-zuke, a simple dish of green tea, dashi or hot water poured over cooked rice, before dessert.
There are a great number of Japanese restaurants in Singapore—Kacyo also opened a franchise in the city and another in Vietnam—ranging from fast food-style to fine dining. But just as I wouldn’t invite an Italian to an Italian restaurant in Singapore, it’d have been an absolute disservice to do the same to a Japanese. The last time I had Singapore Noodles in New York, it affirmed my notion that no decent native dish could come from the country you departed from if the flight takes more than 20 hours.
The following morning, we will be heading south from Tokyo on a twohour coach ride to the town of Shuzenji, Shizuoka. There, in the vicinity of Izu Marriott Hotel Shuzenji, we will learn a thing or two about the more peaceful Japanese way of life—from how radish is harvested to the meditative discipline of zazen. All under the watchful eye of the Great Goddess on Mount Fuji.
Such a view: the onsen built into the balcony at the Izu Marriott Hotel Shuzenji.
If you’re looking for the spectrum of Japanese culture, the road trip from Tokyo to Shuzenji could possibly be the most scenic route. We go from an urban jungle to the vast rice fields under the bosom of Mount Fuji.
According to the tour guide, 68 percent of Japan is made up of forests and mountainous regions. It’s no wonder that most of Japan’s produce are the freshest in Asia. The water from the melting caps of Mount Fuji alone takes 80 years to distil down to the five lakes below. Water, which is used for all sorts of harvest. As we drive through Mishima, a city in Shizuoka Prefecture, population 100,000, we’re told that the clean water helps to produce the freshest daikon (white radish) and unagi (eel) around.
Mount Fuji comes with its own folklore. For the longest time, women were forbidden to climb the mountain as the Japanese believed that it’d make the Goddess living on it jealous. The last recorded eruption was 300 years ago where spews of ash and lava shot out from its southern side, creating a crater and another mountain, Mount Hōei, in the process. Of course, the infamous Aokigahara forest (or Suicide Forest for the unnerving), on the northwest flank of Mount Fuji, is another place rife with stories of the dead attracting the living dead.
We do digress. Before we check-in to Izu Marriott Hotel Shuzenji, we head to the Mishima Sky Walk. Open from 9am to 5pm, you pay about SGD12 for admission to walk across a 400mlong suspension bridge. The view is spectacular and Mount Fuji is within a comfortable Instagram-worthy distance on a clear day. Cafés and food stalls abound at the entryway and the tip of the bridge. If you’re still fit for another walkabout after crossing the bridge, the trails through the pine forest make for a lovely stroll. Note: visit the toilet near the carpark before you head off; it’s an experience in itself. The last time I saw something so clean and technologically forward was perhaps never. Japanese toilets are so immaculate, I’d have no problems dining in them.
On the topic of all things graceful and elegant, Izu Marriott Hotel Shuzenji would be considered one of my favourite Marriott stays compared to the one in Tokyo or the other one located in Shiga Prefecture—as experienced at the tail end of my trip. Tokyo Marriott and Lake Biwa Marriott both serve to accommodate a specific entrepreneurial spirit. Izu, on the other hand, feels more like a vacation. Or maybe the onsen (hot spring), built into the balcony of the Superior Room and overlooking the picturesque mountains, helps the credibility along.
We stay at the Izu Marriott Hotel Shuzenji for two nights and I am fortunate enough to be housed in a room with a balcony that faces west. As I prepare for the welcome dinner at the hotel’s Grill & Dining G, it’s a rather meditative experience to sit in the onsen and watch the sunset. It gets dark in Japan early and it’s almost pitch dark at around 5.30pm. Best time to pop open that sake.
Before dinner, we catch up with Mike Fulkerson, Vice President Brand and Marketing Asia-Pacific, Marriott International. “Marriott opens a property every 14 hours,” he gasps and so do we.
Mike Fulkerson, Vice President Brand and Marketing Asia-Pacific, Marriott International, gave us the low-down on the brand’s aggressive expansion in Asia.
In Japan, Marriott’s partnership with Mori Trust, a property developer, saw the venture open five Marriott hotels—a rebranding exercise of the former Laforet hotel chain—within the span of a year. With a total investment of about SGD190 million, the partnership will increase Marriott’s stable of properties in Japan to 20, including The Ritz-Carlton, Renaissance, Courtyard and Autograph Collection Hotels.
When Marriott acquired Starwood Hotels (W Hotel, St Regis and more) for USD13.6 billion in 2015, it increased the brand’s number of properties to about 7,000 globally. In the next few years, Marriott plans to open another 100 hotels and resorts in Asia-Pacific alone. And here I am, trying to find the smoking room.
The dinner at Grill & Dining G is everything we expect it to be coming from a premium classic hotel in this part of Japan. We have a fresh wasabi root to grate—it is nothing like the paste; this one is smooth and it doesn’t make my nose bleed—that goes perfectly with the fillet of wagyu from Shizuoka Prefecture and the stone-grilled red bream and abalone from Shimoda city in the Izu peninsula. Here’s where I realise that the miso soup doesn’t come with a spoon. I correct it by requesting for a flute of champagne to drown my ignorance. The evening ends with a traditional Japanese tea ceremony, which is the cue for us to hit the sack. The morning call for tomorrow is 4am and we will be taking a 45min drive to the famed Numazu Fish Market.
We were treated to a delightful sashimi bowl at the Uogashi Maruten Restaurant.
The port is a sea of calm even as forklifts and fishermen scurry in and out of the warehouses. Inside the commercial fish market, a variety of fresh seafood is being auctioned off to wholesalers in a manner befitting an autograph session at a library. The catch comes fresh off the boat and not surprisingly, none of that fishy stench can be got. Sellers and officials in the market are more than happy to see tourists taking pictures and asking questions. Japanese hospitality at its best. After the tour, we head for breakfast at Uogashi Maruten Restaurant, a 5min walk away. It’s one thing to experience fresh seafood being sold and quite another to savour a generous sashimi rice bowl with tuna, shrimp and scallop served right out of the market.
After a much-deserved rest back at Izu Marriott Hotel Shuzenji, we take a bus to a 9th century Shuzenji Temple founded by a legendary priest, scholar and artist, Kobo Daishi. Marvelling at an architecture that predates generations before us is quite a treat for the senses. To return to reality, we attempt Zen Buddhism’s primary practice of meditation, zazen (seated meditation in Japanese).
Following strict rituals of removing our shoes, cupping our hands over our stomach and bowing at specific times, we are led to a sacred meditation room within the temple. Supposedly 45minlong, the meditation lasts only 10 min for us tourists. But options for longer sessions are available at the temple.
After all that Japanese food, drinks and meditation, we rest for the night and prep to leave for Lake Biwa Marriott Hotel found in the south of Shiga Prefecture, which circles the entire Lake Biwa, the largest freshwater lake in Japan. It’s a three-hour coach ride to the next hotel and we are promised some of the best sake in Japan and a visit to a castle. Mutually exclusive, of course.
A picture of calm as we walk through the Omi Hachiman neighbourhood.
Lake Biwa Marriott Hotel opened in July last year and is considered one of the most stunning properties under the brand with unobstructed views of the lake. Having seen the other hotels in Tokyo and Shuzenji, it’s hard to not compare. Each property affords a calibre of luxury for business travellers but Izu Marriott Hotel Shuzenji stands out more as a vacation destination. However, give the vicinity of Lake Biwa enough time and its heritage will draw you in.
On the first day of our visit, we are given a tour around the Omi Hachiman neighbourhood, a 25min drive from the hotel. Built in the 16th century, the merchant houses and the channel system are still well-preserved. Enforced by bamboo to protect the houses from severe weather conditions across the seasons, almost all of them are no more than one-storey high. Samurais frowned upon any two-storey buildings as it suggested that the owner was looking down on them with contempt. The charming and sleepy neighbourhood surrounds the ruins of Mount Hachiman Castle and is a worthy visit to experience the traditional architecture of Japan.
The next day, we tour the 16th-century Hikone Castle in our kimonos and hakama costumes—for the women and the men respectively. The garb gives us that bit of extra energy, appropriated from traditions past, to climb the uneven steps towards one of the only 12 castles in Japan with its architecture intact.
The steps are consistently disproportionate and seem to slope diagonally to the side. This was intentional as enemy troops would lose their rhythm if they attempted to attack the castle. Japan, ahead in technology before they even knew what the word meant.
Our stay at Lake Biwa Marriott Hotel is a blissful one. Complete with all the amenities that a business traveller would expect, it’s the surrounding natural attractions that will keep guests coming back to experience more.
As we prepare to fly home, my suitcase is filled with stories to tell. Marriott’s properties are peppered all over Japan, making it convenient to tap into their loyalty programme whenever one returns for a better rate. And just like Japanese hospitality, Marriott’s footprint in the country continues to fill those big shoes. I shall see you soon, Japan. This time, I’ll be leaving the soup spoon behind.
This feature was first published in the print edition of Esquire Singapore, January 2018.