Springtime in Japan brings the fleeting season of 'sakura' (cherry blossoms), a major annual event that has been celebrated here for centuries. Shops and stores sell sweets, drinks and dumplings flavoured with the blossoms
The flowers are in bloom for only a week or so and then start to fall, blanketing Tokyo in a blizzard of pink. They symbolise the impermanence of life - and the importance to fully appreciate its passing moments.
"Flower appreciation picnics" take place underneath the cherry trees in Tokyo's parks and along its canal sides. In some parks the trees are lit with lanterns for viewing after dark.
It is all very beautiful, but allergy-sufferers beware! Up to a quarter of the population suffer from hay fever at this time of year, and the visitor may want to pack some medication just in case.
Night falls, and Tokyo once again turns into a neon wonderland.
Blossom-viewing is hungry work - time for a hearty meal! Ramen is a dish whose popularity has exploded not only within Japan...
I've been in Tokyo for four weeks now. Generally weather has been mild since arrival, a jacket barely required on some days and even sunny at times. But on the Monday after I arrived was an unexpectedly severe blizzard. More than 20cm of snow dumped onto the city over the course of the day. It was the most seen in over 4 years and brought chaos with it. On the roads police were pushing cars out of snowdrifts and traffic was at a crawl or standstill everywhere else. I'm sure the media were advising everyone to stay indoors.
Unwisely I decided to honour my dinner reservation at a restaurant, a fair distance from where I was staying. When I finally got there I was the only diner. Guess everyone else had either cancelled or set out and never made it. The chef gave me an extra course on the house and the manager gifted me his umbrella when I left, no doubt concealing his amazement at my stupidity in not havi...
Kyoto, the former capital of Japan, has been a centre of Japanese culture for over a thousand years. Easily reached by bullet train from Tokyo, there are hundreds of temples, shrines, parks and gardens to wander through. It is best to allow several days for a visit, if possible.
Kyoto was one of the cities targeted for the atomic bomb at the end of World War 2, but was spared and so remains today one of the best places to get a sense of historical Japan.
The city is popular with both Japanese and international tourists. Spring and autumn are the best times to visit.
The gold building in the middle of the water is Kinkaku-ji, also called the Temple of the Golden Pavilion. It is a symbol of Kyoto and one of the biggest tourist attractions.
Although Kinkaku-ji dates back to the end of the 14th century it has burned down several times, most recently in 1950 due to arson. (It was reconstructed in 1955.) The pavilion's top two floors are completely covered in gold leaf.
Japan is known as the the land of the rising sun. It's also a land resplendent with mountains & volcanos, beautiful beaches, automation and efficiency, deep-rooted traditions and etiquette, quality food at every price level, futuristic high-tech cities and villages where nothing has changed for generations... We explored Tokyo and the western part of the country for 3 months and were repeatedly surprised by the quirky, the cute and all the other idiosyncrasies.
If you would like to venture outside the major cities of Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto and Hiroshima it can be overwhelming and hard to decide where to go. On our trip these are the places we enjoyed the most:
This town on the northern coast is full of authentic and traditional experiences and famous in particular for its historic Samurai and Geisha areas where you can see original samurai houses or attend a traditional tea ceremony. The laneways are captivating and even more so because of the many Japanese visitors dressed up i...
How often do you get the chance to spend time in a unique one-off artwork? Or to choose if you would rather sleep surrounded by sumo wrestlers, a bamboo forest or giant gold fish??
At Park Hotel Tokyo you can do just that. Their 'Artist in Hotel' program takes 'artist in residence' one step further. Since the project was launched in December 2012, 15 Japanese artists have each decorated a bedroom with 4 more currently underway. By 2016 all rooms on the 31st floor will be transformed.
As I toured the rooms it struck me how each artists had relished these large scale, three dimensional canvases. All paintings are done directly on the walls and some literally make use of all available surfaces and continue into the bathroom or wardrobe as if they didn't want to stop.
I very briefly met the artist busy painting the soon-to-be-launched Satoyama Woodlands room. She showed us that she had even painted underneath the luggage shelf.
The Copenhagen restaurant Noma has been called "the world's best restaurant". It ís a strange title - with something as subjective as taste, how can any restaurant be ranked as number one? Nevertheless, such headlines bring publicity, business and demand. Dinner at Noma is one of the world's most difficult reservations to make.
In March of 2014 more headlines announced that Noma was relocating from Copenhagen to Tokyo for a few weeks the following January. The entire staff of over 60 people, from head chef Rene Redzepi to the dishwasher, were coming to Japan and recreating Noma up on the 37th floor of the Mandarin Oriental hotel.
Reservations were snapped up the moment they were released in June. Many people paid extra for an accommodation package in order to secure a table. 60,000 more people remained on the waitlist, desperate to get in. Diners jetted in from around the world. A San Francisco girl who had a spare seat, and offered to pay for dinner on the condition the person fle...
Tokyo may be extraordinarily safe, clean and efficient for one of the world's largest cities, but the pace of modern life can still be overwhelming. When stressed-out Tokyoites need a break from the urban intensity, they head an hour or two out of town to places like Hakone, known for its onsen or hot spring resorts.
The first step to getting there is to try and find the right platform at Shinjuku, the world's busiest train station that 3 million people or more travel through each day.
The train to Hakone is the Limited Express Romance Car. It turns out the name simply means that there are no armrests between the seats (don't you just hate how armrests can get in the way of a good romance?)
The front of the train offers a panoramic view, including a distant Mt Fuji.
From Hakone station it is a short taxi ride up the mountain and over the bridge across the Hayakawa River to 'Yama No Chaya', a highly rated ryokan or traditional Japanese inn.