Japan is most glorious—and packed—in April, when the cherry trees bloom, and in late fall, when the foliage rivals New England's. We went in early March—plum blossom season!— and missed the crowds, but wouldn't hesitate to go any time.
WELCOME TO THE SLUMBER PARTY
Ryokan, Japanese inns, originated in the 13th century as lodgings for traveling warriors and tradesmen.These days theyrange from ancient and grand to student-style functional. Though often more expensive than hotel rooms—most charge per person, typically with the option of including breakfast and dinner—they're worth it. Each that we sampled was wonderfully different from the last. But be warned: they all abide by a strict footwear protocol—geta, wooden sandals, are provided to get you from your room to an outdoor bath, cloth slippers for the hall between your room and the toilet, and vinyl shoes for once you've reached the toilet. Here, our ryokan recommendations.
A simple, pleasant spot, with Internet access in the bite-sized lounge—a thoughtful touch, as there are surprisingly few Internet cafés in Japan. $77 PER PERSON; BREAKFAST $10. 1-31-11, ASAKUSA, TAITO-KU; 81-3/3843-2345; www.shigetsu.com
Turtle Inn Annex
The baths at this comfy inn are fed by a hot spring and have views of a river and banks of old cedars. $50 PER PERSON, CHILDREN UNDER SEVEN $13; BREAKFAST $9, DINNER $17. 8-28 TAKUMI-CHO; 81-288/53-3663; www.turtle-nikko.com
A magical ryokan with thatched-roof cottages, miniature gardens, private dining rooms, and a bathhouse set in Nara Park. FROM $155 PER PERSON, CHILDREN UNDER SEVEN FROM $75; BREAKFAST AND DINNER INCLUDED. 1167 TAKABATAKE-CHO; 81-742/262-662
One of Japan's oldest and most famous ryokan, and our biggest splurge. Our room had its own gardenand cedar bath. Dinner is a languorous 20-course feast. When you leave, the whole staff stands outside waving. $255 PER PERSON, CHILDREN UNDER SEVEN FROM $130; BREAKFAST AND DINNER INCLUDED. ANEYAKOJI AGARU, FUYA-CHO, NAKAKYO-KU; 81-75/221-1136; www.hiiragiya.co.jp
Three Sisters Inn Annex
An utterly unpretentious and lovable place, run by Kay, the eldest of the three Yamada sisters. It has a beautiful garden and futons that are a wee bit softer than usual—a boon for Western backs. FROM $40 PER PERSON, CHILDREN UNDER SEVEN $25. 89 IRIE-CHO, OKAZAKI, SAKYO-KU; 81-75/761-6333
OUR FAVORITE STOPS
A roundup of outstanding temples, shrines, toy stores, and noodle shops.
Nakamise-dori and Senso Temple
A street and landmark, a half block from the Shigetsu ryokan—perfect for the initial jet-lagged shopping and sight-seeing experience.
Little statues dedicated to Tanuki, the mischievous, sombrero-wearing raccoon dog in Japanese mythology. JUST OFF NAKAMISE-DORI
Also check out the cartoon kids and others who hang out in the plaza and Takeshita-dori, a nearby alley. SHIBUYA-KU; JR HARAJUKU STATIONwww.meijijingu.or.jp/english
The isle of video games. [This property is closed]
Nearly 5 million pounds of fish pass through daily. Arrive at 5 a.m. to see the tuna auction. Eat a sushi breakfast at Sushi Dai (Pavilion 6; 81-3/3542-1111), or have excellent eggs at Nihon-ichi, next door (81-3/3541-1105). CHUO-KU; TSUKIJI STATION ON HIBIYA LINE
Imperial Palace East Garden
Vast, lovely grounds, plus ice cream vendors. CHIYODA-KU; TOKYO STATION
Toy central. OMOTESANDO RD., SHIBUYA-KU; 81-3/3409-3431; JR HARAJUKU STATION OR OMOTESANDO STATION ON GINZA AND CHIYODA LINES
Tosho Shrine in Nikko National Park
So elaborate we had to go see it twice.
These statues, which protect children and travelers, line a riverside path to a waterfall. NEAR THE TURTLE INN ANNEX
For a lunch of noodles or sandwiches and tea. 6-39 YASUKAWA-CHO, NEAR THE NISHISANDO BUS STOP; 81-288/53-2843
Home to miniature deer and the Todai Temple.
Snack and shop on the road between the Todai Temple and this shrine. 160 KASUGANO-CHO
Nara National Museum
On view: eighth-century Imperial treasures from the Silk Road. 50 NOBORIOJI-CHO; www.narahaku.go.jp/index_e.html
A combination café, music library, and antiques shop that plays Brazilian jazz. 13 KUNODO-CHO; 81-742/223-214
Four hundred years of fortified serenity. NAKAGYO-KU
Known as the Golden Pavilion, this 1338 temple has top stories that are entirely gilded. 1 KINKAKUJI-CHO, KITA-KU
A lovely path along the canal, between the Ginkaku Temple (the Silver Pavilion, on Ginkakuji-cho in Sakyo-ku) and the 1296 Nanzen Temple.
A show of traditional arts—really weird and fun—in one of the city's best-preserved historic neighborhoods. GION-MACHI, HIGASHIYAMA-KU; 81-75/561-1119
Takashimaya Department Store
Great browsing—there's even an art museum—and it's one of the few places in Japan where you can use an American ATM card. CORNER OF KAWARAMACHI AND SHIJO, SHIMOGYU-KU; 81-75/221-8811
To Temple Flea Market
For pottery, snacks, toys, and secondhand kimonos. Held on the 21st of each month. 1 KUJO-CHO, MINAMI-KU
Kyoto Handicraft Center
Your one-stop shop for everything from kimonos to kites—blocks from the Three Sisters Inn Annex. MARUTAMACHI ST., SAKYO-KU; 81-75/761-5080
The couple who own this tea store will brew you a sample cup. MARUTAMACHI ST., SAKYO-KU, NEXT TO KYOTO HANDICRAFT CENTER; 81-75/771-1339
Spaghetti and Cake Second House
A coffee house—don't miss the banana cinnamon toast. NEXT TO TAKEMURA TEA, ABOVE; 81-75/751-1907
A good place to try Japan's answer to pizza. 1-2 HIGASHI-MACHI, SAKYO-KU; 81-75/751-5235
White Heron Castle
Be prepared to hike. When we finally reached the tower, Janet and I proudly got our tickets stamped to celebrate. 68 MOTO-MACHI
DON'T FORGET CASH OR TRAVELER'S CHECKS Some hotels accept credit cards. A few taxis do (they're so expensive, you'll need to defer payment). No one else does. No one. And there are practically no ATM's that accept American credit or bank cards (though you'll have better luck with a Citibank card). When we ran out of cash in Kyoto during a three-day national holiday, kindhearted Kay of the Three Sisters ryokan actually reached into the till and loaned us money.