A Grand Tour of Japan With Pulitzer Prize-winning Author Andrew Sean Greer
On the eve of a not-insignificant birthday, Andrew Sean Greer and his twin brother, Mike, set off to Japan — encountering poetry, soul-inspiring foliage, and a healthy dose of the Backstreet Boys along the way.
I am not fifty yet, but I’m awfully close. So is my identical twin, Mike. There are numerous childhood photographs of us together on our birthdays — redheaded, nerdy, smiles glittering with braces. But as we have grown older, we have begun to hold these ceremonies separately, like a fractured religion. This is partially because bars are not excellent places for children, and my brother has two sons. And I like bars.
This year, however, for our penultimate birthday before the abyss, I have an idea. I am over at Mike’s house, where his sons are playing video games and his wife has poured me a glass of wine.
“You know who made sure to travel before he got old?” I say. “Basho.”
“Basho,” he repeats, looking up from the soup he is making.
I explain that Basho was a 17th-century poet who often left his home in Edo (now Tokyo) to go on long wanders through Japan. He wrote about his travels in both haiku and prose, describing beauty, but also griping constantly about weariness and cold and his aging body — “Travelogue of Weather-Beaten Bones” is a typical title.
“How old was Basho when he died?”
“Fifty. My point is we should go to Japan.”
And so we do.
Every other trip I have taken in my 48 years has been carefully planned and mapped by me, with some input from my fellow travelers. This time, however, things are different. Is it that I’m growing older? They say one of the recompenses of age is knowing what you do not want. Here is what I do not want: to ever set an alarm at three in the morning to make an overseas restaurant reservation. This time, a company called Inside Japan Tours takes care of everything for us. Trains, taxis, portable Wi-Fi, and expert local guides. And a marvelous hotel: the recently rebuilt Okura in Tokyo.
We arrive, jet-lagged and still 48, to a perfect re-creation of the original Okura’s former grandeur by Yoshio Taniguchi, the son of the first hotel’s architect, Yoshiro Taniguchi. A man in glasses and a vest leads us to our room; an elderly woman in a kimono holds the elevator for us. I note that my brother has already learned how to thank someone in Japanese.
The room is large and modern, with sliding wooden walls that manage to imprison Mike within minutes of our arrival. A knock on the door: “Happy birthday!” This hotel worker is in a tie and ponytail, and in her hands are two glasses and a bottle of champagne. I pop the cork. Ten minutes later, my brother has broken out of his jail in time for another knock on the door: this time it is roses from an overseas beloved. A phone call comes from the front desk. Our reservations at the sushi counter are confirmed, and we should consider a cocktail on the 41st floor beforehand. What’s to consider? We put on our only nice jackets and head to the top. There, a Legoland view of Tokyo sparkles before us. My brother turns to me and says:
“We live like kings.”
“Happy birthday,” I reply.
And it is not even our birthday yet.
Mike and I are identical, but no longer indistinguishable: I have a mustache, and he is clean-shaven. I wear contacts; he wears chunky glasses. I am thin from anxiety; he is robust with a father’s happiness. He has, in fact, never been away from his family for more than three days, and his oldest son is 10. When we were planning our trip, Mike borrowed some of my anxiety to worry about being away from them — how would the boys fare without his morning egg sandwiches? His pasta? His video-game advice? These worries seem to have slipped away, though, as he sips his whiskey. He crosses his legs and I see he is wearing the slip-on shoes I loaned him. While we may not be mistaken for each other anymore, we can still share shoes. And slip-on shoes are essential in Japan.
Inside Japan handles our jet lag the next day with a ramen tour led by a local whose bounteous knowledge about Hokkaido noodles does not penetrate my brain—instead, I am staring at the towers and billboards, the maid cafés and cat cafés and hedgehog cafés. It seems possible there might be a café for everybody in the world!
After the ramen, we visit a place called Trunk House. Based on the traditional town house, or machiya, this hotel sits in “Hide-and-Seek Alley” in Kagurazaka, an area known as “little Kyoto” for its seclusion and charm, and has kept the sign of the geisha dance school it used to be, so that only the attentive passerby would read the small trunk painted on the curtain at the entrance.
Inside, it is a wonder — and a far cry from the grand gestures of the Okura. The Trunk House has only one bedroom, meaning Mike and I could rent the whole building for a night, or just for a party. There’s a dark-wood open kitchen where a private chef prepares meals; a dining room; a garden that, at night, fills with water to reflect the moon; and, best of all, a white-pleather-lined karaoke bar with a disco ball! Perhaps a possibility for our 50th?
The tearoom upstairs where a butler prepares matcha for us has a traditional tatami floor, but the Stephen Kenn leather sofa and Jean Prouvé lighting are utterly of the moment, as is the cypress tub in the bath, above which is a classic Japanese mural updated with naughty details. The chef leaves bespoke chocolates in the upstairs fridge for nighttime snacking. The butler tells us he does a mean karaoke Backstreet Boys. This, I think to myself, is how rock stars live.
I don’t know how bad the hangover in Basho’s haiku was 300 years ago, but on the morning after our birthday in Tokyo, there are no cherry blossoms. Instead, maple leaves are on fire against the stony Emperor’s Palace and the commoner’s stony sky. I imagine our night was similar to
his, though. After all, our guide, Tyler Palma, an expat from Colorado, had taken us out in the “Drunkards’ Alley,” which is not so different from Basho’s beloved Edo, with small bars and restaurants that seat only five or six.
When Palma poked his head into the first bar, the mama-san kicked out all her clients to make room for us, saying, “Hurry up, you’re cutting into my drinking time!” and then squeezed us into a corner just as two women arrived waving glowing fans — souvenirs from a show they had just seen. Next, up a staircase to a red velvet room adorned with brass antlers, glass grapes, and other bric-a-brac, where a bald man in goth makeup brought us gin.
It seems impossible, my memory of dressing up in a priest costume and singing Backstreet Boys to my brother, who was dressed like a Japanese auto repairman, and even more so that we found our way back from karaoke to the Okura. And yet Mike confirms it is true. In America, our birthday has only just begun. And today, we are off to go wine tasting north of Mount Fuji.
Nothing to worry about, with maple leaves.
I have not often thought of wine when I’ve thought of Japan, but the world is full of the unexpected. Our guide, David Ellis, who is originally from Canada, and his Japanese wife, Naomi, meet us in the town of Koshu, a half-hour’s train ride from Tokyo. Ellis explains the history of Japanese wine — from Masanari Takano and Ryuken Tsuchiya, who brought wine-making techniques from Bordeaux in the 1870s, to modern-day methods. We walk through rainy vineyards where persimmon trees glow with neon-orange fruit. We look at French oak vats and antique storage rooms where “wine diamonds” of tartaric acid sparkle in the darkness. We listen, look, and nod.
And then we taste the wine. I can say I have not drunk any wine like it. Tart. Tangy. Peevish? Impertinent? It seems impertinent to even call it “wine.” David explains: “It’s at its best with sushi or oysters.” I shrug: aren’t we all?
We stop for lunch at a small place tucked in among the houses in the center of Koshu. We remove our shoes and sit for a bowl of noodles in broth. Outside, a maple is so bright with orange leaves that it lights up the restaurant’s tatami-floored room. Everyone is quiet, watching it, as if the emperor had come to dine with us. It is among the most remarkable, and humbly satisfying, things I have seen in Japan. Then again, I have not yet seen Fuji.
We wander along stone waterways to the next tasting. By the fourth vineyard, with all the tart wine going to my head, I turn to my brother. “What is wine, anyway?” I ask. “Is this wine? Are you wine? Am I wine?”
Outside, persimmons hang under the eaves to dry.
And then we head to Fuji.
We arrive at the Hoshinoya Fuji at night, taxiing through village streets to stop at a small outpost
in a parking lot where we are shown a wall of colored backpacks and invited to choose one. Then we are taken by shuttle, through the rain, up a hillside to a set of concrete cubes — a kind of James Bond villain’s lair — one of which belongs to us, and to us alone. There is blond wood, a sumptuous bed, a balcony with a gas fireplace, and a heated table with a quilt attached called a kotatsu.
“The best winter,” a friend once told me, “is watching TV and eating tangerines with your legs under a kotatsu.” We sit at two of these marvelous inventions this evening — another one farther up the hill where our dinner awaits. We are provided mackintosh boots, quilted coats, and headlamps for the hike, and hotel workers with lanterns guide us to a canvas tent with another kotatsu, this one equipped with a stovetop for cooking. A woman from Hokkaido helps us cook a seasonal meal of venison and mushrooms. On the canvas roof above, the rain patters throughout our meal.
She tells us there is wood-chopping tomorrow morning. We are served more impertinent local wine. We hike up even farther, to where a bonfire is lit nightly, and, as a local musician plays guitar, we sip Japanese whisky. And then, of all surprises, we are served yet a third birthday cake. In the shape of Mount Fuji.
The next morning we awaken, make coffee in our foldable camping filter, and sit at the kotatsu as we watch the morning view. Soon after, the same woman from Hokkaido arrives at our room, wearing a large backpack typical of Fuji guides and, attached to it, what resembles a fisherman’s tackle box, which she unfolds to reveal our breakfast. At home I eat like a possum, all seeds and berries. In Japan, I feast. But even as the morning tidies the linen sheets of the clouds, the view is the same as Basho’s: no Fuji. There is no other way to put it: Mount Fuji has a cold.
I suppose many celebrities cancel their appearances for health reasons, and understudies go on, as does the show. But there is no understudy for Fuji. The show does not go on. From our balcony, the view is a lake, a red maple, and, above it, a blank curtain of fog. Like the pale space where a stolen painting used to be.
The phrase shikata ga nai is (apparently) untranslatable, but expresses when things have gone wrong and you must learn to go with what is. I see Mike eating his breakfast, looking out at the cold autumn weather in his quilted coat. With a peaked hood on, he looks a little like Fuji himself.
When I look at my twin brother, I don’t see myself at all. The years have changed us in different ways: he looks wearier, but I look older. He has the gray temples and stooped posture of a working father who makes his sons dinner every night. But I have the lines around my eyes; I have the corded neck. We are aging differently. That seems strangest of all.
“I’m not moving ’til they kick us out,” he says.
“Well, I’m going up to chop wood.”
Basho passed through the small coastal city of Kanazawa on his way to bathe in the mountain hot springs, and so do we. But we travel by bullet train. Palma meets us at the station, and takes us to an izakaya hidden down a dark street, where a waitress with an eye patch serves us crab fresh from the fish market. Later, we climb stairs to a tiny karaoke bar with a live drummer. There
is nobody but a man in a rockabilly suit and a young woman in a spangled top, smoking a cigarette. She asks the Americans to sing Backstreet Boys. We oblige.
There are apparently three perfect gardens in Japan, and Kanazawa’s Kenroku-en is said to be one of them. Gardeners have prepared for the heavy snows of winter by tying branches to the top of each tree with rope, like arboreal marionettes — or Christmas trees.
A shrine nearby, guarded by fox deities, is covered in tablets on which people have written wishes. One says, in English: “I want my mom to buy me everything I want.” In the fish market, we eat sea urchin. In the geisha district, we follow alleyways between ancient wooden buildings. We have a three-hour sushi meal.
That night we sleep in a traditional machiya. It is the most classic of the places we stay — tatami mats and sliding paper doors, with a tearoom and dining area on the first floor, and upstairs sleeping quarters where great fluffy futons and pillows are rolled out. The kind of house where each twin is certain to bang his head at some point, and we do.
The next day, we are driven along Basho’s route through the mountains, stopping at a café where the pink-haired young owner tells us about her psychedelic rock band, which performs in old quarries. As Kanazawa is a center for traditional arts and crafts, we make sure to visit a ceramics studio and a home where a family has done lacquerware for generations. Then to the city of Kaga, to bathe in the hot springs.
The Kai Kaga is a hotel set in a 150-year-old teahouse, and it has been informed by the artistic traditions of the area: a lobby ceiling built without a single nail, plates and bowls from the nearby ceramics studio, the paper art of mizuhiki in white to mirror the falling snow, and a private onsen, in this town famous for its hot springs.
Mike and I slip into the pools that evening, enjoy a kaiseki meal featuring seven courses of snow crab, then visit the nearby public baths, hundreds of years old, where an elderly woman instructs us so emphatically that no Japanese is needed to understand. We lie in the hot water, watching the steam coil up to the stained-glass windows. Mike says, “We live like kings.”
“Hurry up, we have to meet the geisha!” Not, in fact, a geisha, but a maiko, who is a geisha in training. Kyoto is our final stop. We are once again late, and Kiyo Woodruff, our Japanese-American guide, is herding us into a taxi heading for the Gion geisha district. There, behind a small door hung with an entrance cloth on a small side street, the maiko greets us on her knees, smiling.
She is 18, but it is impossible to tell under her heavy wig and makeup. She serves us tea and says to ask her anything we like. I want to ask her “Why?” but instead I ask her “How?”
She says she started training at 15 because she wanted a change from junior high school. She has no cell phone. Though formal, she is charming and cheerful and puts us at ease — all the skills of a geisha. My brother asks her what her favorite thing to wear is — and suddenly she loses her formality, laughs, and touches one of the gilded autumn leaves in her hair. She is 18, after all.
I remember my twin brother at 18. I can’t for the life of me remember myself.
When Woodruff sees our hotel for the night, she is pleased; her husband is an important leader in the battle to preserve Kyoto’s old town houses (designated at risk by the World Monuments Fund in 2010), and the Shiki Juraku is an homage to classic architecture. The contemporary, sculptural gate reveals a quiet walkway between guest rooms in dark-timbered town houses. We take long baths in the tub, knees up, looking out at the Australian ferns in the garden.
We have a boisterous meal at an izakaya that Woodruff found for us, and we order like madmen, trying the fugu fish, carefully divested of its poison, and omelettes, pancakes, even a hamburger. We buy the chef a glass of plum brandy, and he toasts our never-ending birthday.
Soon enough it is over. One last day in Kyoto, shopping for Mike’s boys (Woodruff finds a shop for us with anime action figures) and Mike’s wife (in a family-owned knife store). His thoughts have turned, once again, to his family. One last meal at Farmoon, a restaurant with only 12 seats. We sit at a counter in the cavelike room, where the chef, Masayo Funakoshi, prepares a meal that plucks from Italy and India. Afterward we walk beside the Kawa River, where banks of fallen leaves are bright in the dark water.
I say to Mike: “We’ve outlived Basho.”
“Not yet,” he points out. “You said fifty.”
I agree: “Not yet.”
When I am anxious in the early hours, and trying to fall back to sleep, I always think of the same image to calm myself: my brother and me as children, in the woods, our mittens clipped to our sleeves, placing autumn leaves on a little river and watching them float downstream.
And here we are again. Another river, another autumn. Another journey home.
A version of this story first appeared in the March 2020 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline An Autumn Like No Other.
Tokyo Narita, in the suburbs, is the main airport. But United Airlines now offers nonstop flights to Haneda, just 15 minutes from downtown, from five major U.S. hubs, including Chicago and D.C. The Japan Rail Pass gives discounted access on rail travel throughout the country.
We stayed at the 508-room Okura Tokyo, which recently replaced the iconic 1962 Hotel Okura. Another option is the new Trunk House, a former geisha house that can be reserved for groups. I loved a tiny izakaya on Drunkards’ Alley called Enoki, which only sits eight.
Take the train from Tokyo to this gateway to Japan’s wine region. Here, we visited wineries including Lumière, Katsunuma Jyozo, and MGVs. It’s an hour’s drive south through Yamanashi Prefecture to Hoshinoya Fuji, which offers spectacular views of the mountain.
Go back through Tokyo by train to Kanazawa. Be sure to stop at the “perfect” Kenroku-en Garden. We stayed at Uan Kanazawa, a blend of traditional and Western hotel styles, and Kikunoya, a former teahouse converted into an exclusive-use machiya, or town house, in the style of the Meiji era.
We chose to drive to the onsens in this spa town, but the journey can also be made by train. Communal bathing is an important part of Japanese life; at hot-spring ryokan Kai Kaga and the nearby public bathhouse Kosoyu, genders are separated, and no clothes are worn. Tattoos should be covered if possible.
In the ancient capital, we checked in to Shiki Juraku, a stylish new machiya hotel close to the Imperial Palace. Ask your hotel or travel advisor to secure a table at Farmoon, which adheres to ichigen-san okotowari, a system whereby new guests must be invited by regular customers.
This trip was planned by Inside Japan Tours, voted by T+L readers as a top tour operator in the 2019 World’s Best Awards. Their on-the-ground consultants have been planning in-depth, tailor-made itineraries around the country for 20 years