Traveling Through Tokyo and Beyond: Discovering Hidden Retreats

Sensō-ji Temple, Tokyo
Mary Simms
Sensō-ji Temple, Tokyo

A Bucket List Adventure

Even in California, January’s frigid winter temperatures and rainfall can make a tropical escape top of mind. I’ve visited nearly every continent and learned that even in winter, I’m much more of an endless summer type of gal, ready with a bag of summer suits to head out to Hawaii, Thailand, the Philippines — or, still languishing on my bucket list — Fuji and Maldives.

Tokyo was never on my travel bucket list so I almost missed out on an incredible adventure. Thankfully, my husband is a photographer who loves the beauty of winter in stunning, sometimes snowy, cityscapes, and his birthday is in November. So, many a winter I’ve been enticed to leave sans a swimsuit and instead bundle up in socks, scarves and fur for a chilly birthday adventure. An autumn/winter trip to Tokyo intrigued him — and me — just enough that we spent 8 days there in late November.

Both of us fell in love with Tokyo’s majesty, hospitality, culture of service and rich history of traditions.

Lake Biwa Marriott Hotel
Mary Simms
Lake Biwa Marriott Hotel

Where to Stay

I’ve traveled the globe — first as a student, then as a soldier, a tourist and often on business trips.

When I was a student and even a soldier, the idea of a hostel always had a certain appeal to me. But I quickly became more realistic with my travel profile, learning that while I appreciated those price tags when making a reservation from my spacious home, upon arriving at the shoebox that that price delivered...well, it put a damper on the trip.

While on a trip around the globe for my 30th birthday, I once found myself in Singapore in what can best be described as a shoebox with a shower attached, spending a few hundred dollars a night. Now, I tend to stick to brand recognition, a quick web search to chains I’ve traveled with, and that I’m usually sure will provide accommodations to fit my American penchant for size and luxury, allowing me to rack up rewards points along the way.

Hilton Tokyo Odaiba
Mary Simms
Hilton Tokyo Odaiba

We stayed at Marriott and Hilton brands throughout our trip in Japan, and were pleasantly pampered with luxury and even more importantly — hospitality that far exceeded our western expectations.

Admittedly, I spend most of my time outside of the hotel, exploring each new city. But especially when traveling in the winter months, a luxurious retreat is a must for me. A private natural ‘onsen’ hot springs, in the room is even better… (more on that below).

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The recent opening of five Marriott Hotels in hidden, resort destinations across Japan gives both international and domestic travelers access to discover the natural beauty and culture of Japan, searchable at Marriott.com as well as japatabi.com, which reveals more about each destination.

Marriott Hotels, has opened 14 new resorts in Asia Pacific with 9 more Marriott Hotels in the pipeline. Across the company’s portfolio of 30 brands, they say they’re focusing on developing more resorts and leisure travel with 130 upscale and luxury resorts in the Asia Pacific region — in countries including China, Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand.

Izu Marriott Hotel Shuzenji
Mary Simms
Izu Marriott Hotel Shuzenji

Their goal in Japan? To turn hidden destinations near the base of Mt. Fuji into global tourist destinations as recognizable as Mt. Fuji. Also, to offer more options to travelers ahead of the 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo.

Marriott Rewards and SPG say they’ve been tapping into the trend of consumers wanting to spend money on authentic cultural experiences, offering masterclasses in Tokyo on their rewards platforms. By staying at these hotels, guests get access to the combined Marriott Rewards, Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) and Ritz-Carlton Rewards loyalty program.

Lake Biwa, Shiga Prefecture
Mary Simms
Lake Biwa, Shiga Prefecture

Hidden Retreats

If you’ve been to Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka and want to discover another side of Japan, you’ll fall in love with areas like Lake Biwa. A focus on discovering the next greatest destination is something the local tourism authorities in remote resort areas of Japan are very excited about.

With a focus on rebranding and renovation from former La Foret hotels, make sure to check out the lake area at the base of Mount Fuji when staying at the Fuji Marriott Hotel Lake Yamanaka. White, sandy beaches also attract guests who want to explore mountainous trails. The Nanki Shirahama Marriott Hotel is near Osaka in Western Japan and located about an hour away from Kyoto. Lake Biwa, a few hours away from Tokyo and about an hour from the ancient metropolitan city of Kyoto, is home to the Lake Biwa Marriott Hotel, boasting Japan’s largest lake and natural ‘onsen’ hot springs. Both the Lake Biwa and Izu Marriott Hotel Shuzenji locations offer rooms with private hot springs, or onsens, available in nearly every room. The hotels, though they have the look and feel of a Marriot, are not owned or managed by the brand. Still, they allow global travelers to access a specific, unique experience associated with the well-known Marriott brand. Mori Trust executives have integrated deeply with Marriott and think the decision to rebrand has brought positive results. Since opening the five Marriott Hotels in Japan this past July, they say they’ve seen a steady increase in foreign travelers, which now account for approximately 20%.

Mary Simms

Tokyo Proper

We started out in Tokyo first, staying at the Hilton Tokyo Odaiba, which overlooks the Rainbow Bridge as well as the Odaiba Statue of Liberty, a beautiful small-scale replica of its sister in Paris and New York. It’s one of three Lady Liberty statues in Japan and serves as a great photo op for tourists and intriguing conversation starter for families traveling together. Next door, the Aqua City Obaiba serves up shopping set in the foreground.

We started each day at the Hilton executive lounge. It was convenient and offered a mix of options for American and Japanese fare, great for those wanting a hearty breakfast or a nutritious light bite overlooking Tokyo Bay and Rainbow Bridge. The views were breathtaking, and even their wellness spa, the pool, whirlpool, sauna and pre-therapy room have fantastic views of the bay.

Housed within the hotel, the Grillogy Bar & Grill far exceeded anything I’d begin to expect from a restaurant housed in a hotel. Everything was impressive — from seared scallops and the most succulent and delicious beef my husband (a red-meat connoisseur) claims he has ever tasted to the service and savory and innovative dishes. I left feeling incredibly satisfied and nourished thanks to perfectly prepared fresh and delicious ingredients.

Plan Ahead

Robot Show
Mary Simms
Robot Show

I’ve used Get Your Guide to book previous travel trips and the tourism experiences from the curated selection on their website have always impressed me.

We planned ahead to use Get Your Guide to deliver a Japan Mobile Wifi Rental and Tokyo Metro Pass tickets to the Robot Show. Stepping into the hotel lobby and having these essentials already set felt like a dream come true. All came with prepackaged delivery return address labels.

Friends who’ve travelled in Tokyo insisted that the Robot Show was a must-see tourist attraction. Set in the eclectic Shinjuku nightlife district, the late night show didn’t disappoint. Crazy, creative and fun, arrive early to grab a great seat and enjoy a drink before the adventure begins.

Mary Simms

Getting Around

Nearly everywhere I travel, I Uber. It’s usually cheaper than a taxi, but less confusing and generally less time-consuming than a Metro when trying to become oriented to a new city. Japan is one of the first metro areas I’ve encountered where Uber was costlier than taking a cab.

For this trip, we did a mix of independent and group travel. Tour guides were remarkable and made sure we didn’t miss the short window to load luggage on the bullet trains.

Remote Lands, an ultra-luxe Asia tour operator, specializes in highly customizable trips to Asia and offers what they describe as extraordinary experiences that are difficult to arrange and require privileged access to important people and exclusive events, drawing upon the company’s relationships with remarkable people around Asia.

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Where To Eat

The range of delicious food available throughout Japan was incredible. From warm matcha desserts to green tea, sushi, ramen, and enough seafood to satisfy your soul, I ate my way through the entire trip with delighted tastebuds. One of our first evenings in Tokyo we enjoyed a many course meal at the Ryotei (Japanese-style restaurant) ‘Kacyo’ Ginza Restaurant.

We enjoyed a multitude of multiple course meals, indulging in delicious and decadent cuisine. Once you’re ready for a break from all of the delicious local-style food, Michelin-starred Chef David Myers (who has restaurants throughout Asia) has Salt Water and Salt Water Kitchen, which specialize Italian cuisine in Tokyo.

Eri Katsu, Traveling Spoon
Mary Simms
Eri Katsu, Traveling Spoon

Traveling Spoon

Hospitality was a theme of the trip, as each day I was simply blown away by the level of service and hospitality at nearly every exchange or encounter. This was true in businesses and restaurants, but I felt no greater warmth than when Eri Katsu welcomed us into her home, located in Shimokitazawa neighborhood, located about a five minute walk from either the Umegaoka or Setagayadaita station on the Odakyu line. Katsu is one of the culinary masters who participate in Traveling Spoon, a network of rich culinary experiences designed to turn tourists into travelers. Sipping sake and enjoying fresh sushi while she shared ancient traditions left me ready to tackle a full day of touristing and shopping in Harajuku.

Traveling Spoon easily connects travelers (through online booking) to delicious and memorable experiences hosted by locals in their very own homes. You can select from an in-home cooked meal, a cooking lesson, or a market tour (or all three). The experience is 100% private as well (no matching aprons with 15 other tourists!). As an aside, all hosts have been personally vetted by the founders.

One of Traveling Spoon's strongest network of hosts is in Tokyo and it was one of the favorite parts of our trip.

Sake & Beer

There’s no shortage of group or exclusive private day tours in Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka for a multitude of Sake Brewing and Beer factories. Many are paired with food, some even with a sake samurai (one of only 70 in the world).

Unique Experiences

Have you ever been to a cat cafe? They’re growing in popularity in the United States I discovered, after stumbling upon one when Gwen Stefani first introduced me to Harajuku fashionistas in Harajuku Girls, the hit song from 2004.

In the Hikone Area, about an hour outside of Kyoto, we visited Hikone Castle and participated in one of my favorite experiences of the trip: dressing up in decadent traditional kimonos and touring the castle, complete with a photoshoot. It was so fun, I didn’t even mind the cold.

OneThreeOneFour, a is a destination photoshoot company that arranges similar Kimono Photoshoots in Tokyo, allowing tourists and travelers alike to dress up in the traditional Japanese outfit and explore the streets of Tokyo or visit a traditional temple.

A few hours away from Tokyo and about an hour from the ancient metropolitan city of Kyoto is the Lake Biwa Marriott Hotel, also home to Japan’s largest lake and natural ‘onsen’ hot springs.

Both the Lake Biwa and Izu Marriott Hotel Shuzenji locations we stayed in provided ultimate hospitality and service with any wish delivered upon request and a private hot springs, or onsens, in the rooms I called home. Living with a private onsen is a luxury I quickly became accustomed to and was one of the most enjoyable parts of the trip.

Though Hilton and Marriott are American chains, the experience of service and hospitality at leach location I visited was unprecedented.

When to Go

Seasons are very important in Japan, so deciding when to go will impact your experience as much as the destination you choose. We visited at the end of the autumn season, from September to November, when beautiful fall leaves frame the temples.

I’ve been told that winter, from December to February, is beautiful, with the occasional reward of early cherry blossoms to balance out the frigid temperatures.

For some, the preferred time of year to visit Japan is March to May, a season with milder weather and beautiful trees blossoming — including the famous cherry blossom trees. June to August is considered summer season and can be hot and humid.

Turns out Tokyo is a fan favorite for many. From outdoor markets, coffee and green tea vending machines on every corner, precise bullet trains, private hot springs, temples, castles, kimonos and so much good food I’m glad this made my travel bucket list and can’t wait to return.

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