The insider advice on this page is from Wendy’s Trusted Travel Expert for Japan, the Philippines, and Asia’s Most Exotic Islands: Lorenzo Urra
When your goal is to go well off the beaten path in Asia without sacrificing five-star creature comforts, Lorenzo’s your guy. Originally from the Philippines and based in Hong Kong, he flies 120,000 miles a year, scouting out Asia’s most unspoiled and unusual experiences; in the Philippines alone, he’s visited more than 400 of the country’s 7,107 islands. He has encyclopedic knowledge of Asia’s exotic islands, pristine beaches, authentic accommodations, and hot spots on the rise. He can charter a crewed luxury sailboat in which you can explore the remote Mergui Archipelago in Burma or the stellar scuba-diving sites of Indonesia’s Raja Ampat Islands. In the Philippines, his travelers can walk among spectacular rice terraces that have been tilled for two millennia, and later pull in nets and share moonshine with local fishermen. In Japan he makes the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route a plush experience, with luggage transfers between ryokans and a trekking guide/translator (a necessity in this remote but beautiful corner of the country). Nothing that Lorenzo arranges is canned, and he’s honest about when you need his services and when you don’t. He also has a curated portfolio of enchanting beachfront villas on islands in Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, and beyond, as well as multi-bedroom homes near Japan’s premier ski areas.
Things to Do and See
Most underrated place
Kakunodate has a very well-preserved samurai district, with many of the houses still owned by the same families (and the samurai costumes and swords on display). The quaint town’s little alleyways are quite walkable, and it’s one of the top three sakura (cherry blossom) viewing places in Japan, as it’s far enough off the grid that it doesn’t get crowded. At Kakunodate’s sake brewery, Hideyoshi, a member of the family can show you how the beverage has been made there for 19 generations.
Most overrated place
Ryoanji, a rock garden temple in Kyoto; because it’s always very crowded, it lacks that Zen feeling.
Osaka Castle is a famous historical landmark originally built in the 16th century, but what’s there now is just a concrete reconstruction.
Kinkakuji, an extremely popular Zen Buddhist temple in Kyoto, is too crowded to be enjoyable. There are probably 50 other temples in that city alone where you won’t find another Westerner. I know where to find them.
Near the southernmost border of Japan, Yakushima Island is absolutely gorgeous, and much slower-paced than the rest of the country. There are beautiful hiking trails through the island’s pristine rainforest (part of which is a UNESCO reserve), and artisans in the sleepy village practice centuries-old traditions of lacquerware, pottery, woodworking, and other crafts.
Hirosaki is possibly the best cherry blossom spot in Japan: There are virtually no tourists in this entire prefecture, and it has a nice concentration of cherry trees, which rain their petals down on the walking trails come spring. This agricultural area is famous for its juicy pears, and there’s an intact castle (not a reproduction), beautiful temples, and a well-preserved samurai district.
How to spend a lazy Sunday
Strolling around the Roppongi Hills complex in Tokyo, including the beautiful Mori Garden, and the nearby Azabu-Juban residential area, which feels like a village within this huge metropolis. This area is great for shopping and also people-watching, as many Japanese families come here on Sundays.
Where to Stay and What to Eat
Best-value splurge hotel
Chikusenso, set in a forest at the foot of gorgeous Mt. Zao in Tohoku, has larger rooms (even at the entry level) than you’ll find in most comparable onsen resorts, and the rates—while certainly a splurge—include a traditional Japanese breakfast and kaiseki dinner. Unlike many other top ryokans that have fused Eastern and Western standards and ambiance, Chikusenso is very authentic and traditional—a true cultural immersion. It’s rare to find such total seclusion in the wilderness combined with luxurious amenities and exquisite service.
Since I can arrange an early check-in or late check-out at the Peninsula Tokyo, it’s an ideal place to start or end your trip; when you book through me, you get free breakfast and upgrades when available (one nice perk for all guests: free international phone calls). The service is flawless—everyone speaks very good English—and the views of Tokyo’s skyline are amazing. It’s a stone’s throw from the Imperial Palace gardens and a short walk from the Ginza shopping area, but its location in the financial district makes it a quiet refuge from the hustle and bustle at night. By Tokyo standards, even the least expensive Superior Rooms are spacious, at almost 550 square feet.
The dish to try
Find a place that serves only one dish—whether it’s ramen, tempura, or grilled eel—and you’re sure to have an enjoyable meal. Oftentimes, these hole-in-the-wall restaurants have been perfecting the recipe for more than 75 years.
May, after the crowds of Golden Week (April 29–May 5) have dissipated. The weather is still cool enough for a light jacket, and everything is lush and green. October is also great, thanks to the fall colors, and it isn’t yet cold except in the extreme north.
August, when it’s very hot and humid, making it almost unbearable to be outdoors; and February, which is very cold and rainy. Also avoid cherry blossom season in Tokyo and Kyoto (usually late March or early April), when prices triple, traffic is terrible, and both cities are so crowded you can’t find a square foot of space for yourself.
Twice a year, more than 3,000 lanterns are lit to illuminate Kasuga Taisha, a Shinto shrine in the city of Nara, an hour south of Kyoto. At any time of year, though, I can arrange a private lighting ceremony for our travelers; they can meet the Zen Buddhist monks and watch the shrine light up at night in brilliant oranges and greens.
Booking too many expensive sushi and kaiseki restaurants in advance, because if you get tired of sushi or 12-course meals and change your mind, you can be left with a hefty cancellation fee. Book a variety of restaurants, or decide on the restaurants after arriving in Japan.
The view of Mt. Fuji from one of the replica pirate ships that do sightseeing cruises on Lake Ashi in Hakone. Morning is best to get the clearest picture of the mountain.
Shoes that you can take off easily, as there are many buildings in which you have to remove your shoes; avoid complicated laces or boots.
It is not customary to tip drivers, bell staff, or waiters in Japan. The one exception is a private tea or dinner with geisha; in that case, it is appropriate to fill an envelope with 3,000 to 5,000 yen per geisha, offering it to the Maiko-san (the geisha in charge) with both hands.
Something made with washi, Japan’s ubiquitous handmade paper. Gift giving is a popular sign of respect here, so all sorts of little decorative items are available; you can find them in the department stores below Tokyo Station, the city’s main train terminal, or at the craft market that takes place in Kyoto on the 15th of every month.