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Hurtle through Japan from Tokyo to the countryside on the 200mph bullet train

Mirror logo Mirror 14/04/2017 Aidan McGurran
Credits: Palace Hotel Tokyo © Provided by Trinity Mirror Plc Credits: Palace Hotel Tokyo

The image of Japan I had before I went was of techno-savvy mega-cities hurtling into the future with barely a glance at the past.

Add a cocktail of the weird and wonderful – manga cartoons, vending machines, love hotels, karaoke and the world’s most advanced public transport system – and you get the picture.

But all this barely scratches the surface, as I was about to find out...

I was fortunate enough to get a brief taste of Tokyo, one of the world’s most fascinating cities, before getting to grips with a part of the country most western visitors rarely see.

During my brief stay in the Japanese capital I was lucky enough to stay in the Palace Hotel Tokyo.

It's pretty luxurious but with lots of really nice Japanese touches - the idea behind it was a tribute to omotenashi (Japanese hospitality) and design - trust me you'll know exactly what this means after a day or two.

The hotel boasts ten restaurants and bars - with a great deal of choice - but don't miss out on the excellent Japanese Wadakura restaurant.

The location is pretty impressive too - just across from the Imperial Palace gardens - set in one of the few green spaces in the heart of the city.

Credits: Palace Hotel Tokyo © Provided by Trinity Mirror Plc Credits: Palace Hotel Tokyo

The views from all the rooms are pretty stunning.

Most of my week was spent on a leisurely tour of the Tohoku Province – the far north of the main island of Honshu – seeing how past and present, art and design, innovation and tradition, and notions of hospitality and service all merge in modern Japan.

Credits: Palace Hotel Tokyo © Provided by Trinity Mirror Plc Credits: Palace Hotel Tokyo

Genuinely excited at the prospect of travelling on a bullet train, I was transfixed by the sights and sounds of the amazing railway station before we’d even boarded.

And while the British may have a reputation for liking an orderly queue, the Japanese are in a league of their own.

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Instructions on the floor clearly mark where to line up for the first train and the second. Although a pedant could question the need to queue at all when everyone has a reserved seat anyway. Needless to say, the train arrives bang on time.

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It takes just over three hours to travel between the capital and Shin-Aomori station nearly 450 miles north – hitting 200mph at some points.

But even on this classic example of Japanese modernity and technical excellence there is still a nod to tradition.

Every time the elaborately attired conductor and buffet trolley staff enter the carriage they pause and bow ostentatiously – then turn and repeat the process as they leave.

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On arriving in Aomori, the contrast could hardly be greater... it’s older, gentler and worlds away from the manic hustle of Tokyo.

At the Aomori Museum of Art I was struck by the majesty of the gallery designed by Jun Aoki, where one of the exhibits is the famous giant Your Dog sculpture by Nara Yoshimoto.

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There was time for a quick visit to the A-Factory to sample some of the apple produce of Tohoku, before a truly incredible dining experience.

The style of cuisine at the Momoya restaurant is known as “kaiseki” – a multi (and I mean multi) course meal of seasonal dishes served in a very specific order.

It really is an assault on the senses, with the emphasis as much on presentation as taste.

The menu was truly extraordinary: abalone heart, pufferfish (yes, really), sashimi, acorn barnacle, prawn and vegetable tempura, shiitake mushrooms, fish roe, milt (if you don’t know, you don’t want to know), roast duck, tuna sashimi, vinegar-drenched seaweed, rice, miso soup, grilled mackerel and, for dessert, wagashi – little cakes with red beans and macha. Phew!

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Kaiseki is generally served only in very specialised restaurants, but if you get the chance you have to give it a go.

The next day we tried making some traditional Japanese lacquerware then travelled on to Inakadate to see how locals use rice paddy fields as canvases, planting different varieties of rice to create giant images.

The Hoshino Resorts KAI Tsugaru hotel/ryokan provided a real taste of luxury but with a distinctly traditional regional flavour.

The rooms are large and minimalist – I wondered why they had neglected to incorporate a bed until it was explained the futon would be made up while I was at dinner.

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Suitably refreshed I was ready for another train journey, albeit one a world away from the bullet train. The Gono Line is billed as “the most scenic train ride” in Japan – and with good reason.

As well as stunning views as it climbs high into the mountains before descending along the coast on the edge of the Sea of Japan, it is great fun too.

The day I made the journey was a blustery one and the older Japanese in particular “oohed and aahed” as waves crashed into the coastline just feet away from our train.

On arriving in Akita, we headed off to visit one of the city’s best known sake breweries, where the master brewer prepares taster dishes to complement each different variety of sake he serves.

The next day any trace of a hangover was quickly blown away by yet more stunning Japanese scenery.

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A lunch stop at Lake Tazawa provided a magnificent interlude, then it was time to head up Akita’s mountain peaks, home to some of the best known onsen (hot springs) in the country, particularly those of Nyuto Onsen, a village high up in the hills above the lake.

My British reserve was challenged by the news these hot springs had to be enjoyed as nature intended.

My baggy trunks were deemed surplus to requirements and, while I was a tad embarrassed as I gingerly stepped into the outside hot spring, it soon seemed the most natural thing in the world.

Just as I thought my day couldn’t get much weirder, it did. The Wanko Soba Challenge in Morioka brings out the competitive streak in the locals as they devour as many tiny bowls of buckwheat soba noodles as possible.

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My attempt was pathetic but several members of a taekwondo club managed to throw back hundreds.

The next day we headed for Ishinomaki, a city devastated by the 2011 tsunami. The resourcefulness of the Japanese people can be seen everywhere.

They were determined not to let the catastrophe destroy their community – perhaps not surprising for a country that was devastated during the Second World War and yet staged a remarkable recovery.

From such a classic example of Japan’s present it was perhaps fitting to then visit part of its spiritual past.

Yamadera is a sacred temple whose grounds are perched way up high on the mountainside.

To make it to the temple itself involves a climb of over a thousand steps, which some of the older locals make incredibly light work of.

The views from the summit are stupendous as the mountainsides were covered with trees just beginning to change colour as autumn arrived during my visit.

As we whizzed through the countryside on the bullet train back to Tokyo, I had time to reflect on this incredible land of contrasts and contradictions – a place which is certainly as weird as it is wonderful.

Getting there

  • British Airways flies from Heathrow to Tokyo from £819 return. ba.com/tokyo
  • Rooms at the Hoshino Resorts KAI Tsugaru hotel/ryokan near Aomori start at around £173pn. +81 50-3786-0099
  • Rooms at the Palace Hotel Tokyo start at £97pn. en.palacehoteltokyo.com
  • Pocket Wi-Fi from Japan Experience starts at £42 for 5 days and offers nationawide fast, unlimited internet access for up to 10 devices at one time. japan-rail-pass.com/services/pocket-wifi
  • Tourist info: seejapan.co.uk

Time zone: UK +8hrs

Currency: Yen £1 = 139

When to go: A unique destination any time


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