WHERE can you buy high-end jewellery, sex toys and edamame-flavoured KitKats all under one roof? Tokyo, of course.
Anyone who has visited Japan would agree — the country is like no other.
One thing surprises me, though.
The chaos of capital city Tokyo, with its neon lights, skyscrapers and maze of zebra crossings herding teeming crowds, is not a reflection of the entire country.
Japan’s culture stretches far and wide and the best way to get an overall flavour is a guided tour — you can tick off the sights and will have an expert on hand to answer any questions, about traditions and history or the best places to eat.
My whirlwind itinerary, with knowledgeable Richard from Inside Japan Tours, began in Japan’s second-largest city Osaka.
It hasn’t got all Tokyo’s bells and whistles, and some of the high-rise buildings that house financial workers may look a little weathered, but this is its charm.
There’s no fuss here, just exceptionally good street food, wild nightlife and a welcoming atmosphere.
Japan sticks closely to tradition and while you can find chunks of it woven into Osaka and nearly every region, heading to an onsen town is the best way to soak it up. Literally.
For the word translates as hot spring, but means more than that — describing the whole experience of staying in a traditional inn, or ryokan, and strolling from one public bath to the next, reaping the health benefits of mineral-rich waters which are naturally heated to a challenging 41C.
I was staying in Kinosaki Onsen, one of the best places in Japan to sample onsen.
No one batted an eyelid when I threw on my chunky wooden clogs and yukata — the kimono worn for onsen — and shuffled down the street to embrace the hottest bath I would ever sit in.
Sporting the traditional get-up might give you a bit of imposter syndrome, but it helps with getting into character for when you strip off and hop into the public spring completely NAKED.
Panic not, the springs are segregated by gender and there’s something very liberating about soaking in the buff while gazing at leafy gardens and trickling waterfalls.
By the time I returned to my ryokan, I felt fully submerged in Japanese culture.
An overnight stay at Nishimuraya Honkan only elevated that.
It’s all you would expect from a Japanese inn — no shoes inside, only the slippers provided, while clogs can be used to stroll the tranquil gardens.
Rooms are basic and charming.
Beyond the living room/bedroom’s paper sliding door lies a conservatory-type area with floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook a pond teeming with huge carp.
The town itself is tiny, with only one main street, and you can admire its volcanic beauty from on high by catching a cable car up Mount Daishi — or taking the 20-minute hike to its peak.
There’s a small Buddhist temple half way up the mountain.
But Kyoto is the place to go to find these houses of worship in abundance.
It’s hard to believe the city is Japan’s former capital, especially for those like me who associate the country with the bright lights and big crowds of its current capital, Tokyo.
There are no skyscrapers in Kyoto.
In fact, laws restrict buildings from exceeding a certain height.
This, in combination with the many temples — there are 1,600 Buddhist ones and 400 shrines — has resulted in a peace that feels a world apart from the bustling cities.
Wandering between these historic buildings, to the continuous sound of flowing stream water, makes me understand why the locals seem so relaxed.
Thanks to the many students living here, there’s also a great bar and food scene.
For knockout traditional grub head to La Bombance in Higashiyama, near the geisha district and run by a Michelin-starred chef.#
Dine on kaiseki, a multi-course dinner, with tiny dishes of the freshest sashimi, savoury custard topped with pickled veg-etables and fish wrapped in shisho leaves.
If this sort of grub is not your cup of tea, Tokyo has food to suit any taste.
You can get there on the famous bullet train from Kyoto in under two and a half hours, travelling at up to 320kmh. It is a must-try experience in itself.
Spend the night at the brand new and ultra-polished five-star Bellustar Tokyo in the central hub of Shinjuku, which occupies nine floors of the 225-metre-high Kabukicho Tower.
Bedrooms here are literally in the clouds but are from £405 a night.
So if you’re on a budget, head to sister resort Hotel Groove, which sits a few floors below and has rooms from £147 a night. For both, see panpacific.com.
The building is Japan’s answer to a glitzy Las Vegas, with hotels and entertainment all under one roof.
There’s a huge food court serving all sorts of cuisine including Japanese and Korean, a cinema spread across two floors with comfy sofa-style seats, and even a games centre that you can booze in — something that’s not normally allowed in Japan.
After a whistle-stop tour, I wave goodbye to Tokyo, soaring over the colossal buildings. I click on the plane’s TV screen in front of me.
“Popular on this route: Lost in Translation.” A fitting ending.
GETTING THERE: Finnair flies from Gatwick to Osaka and Tokyo via Helsinki from £846 return.
STAYING THERE: One night’s B&B at Zentis Osaka is from £185, based on two sharing.
Nishimuraya Honkan in Kinosaki Onsen has rooms from £270 per night, including breakfast, traditional dinner and a hot springs pass with robe and clogs.
A night’s B&B at Higashiyama in Kyoto is from £135, based on two sharing.
TOURS: A 14-night Best of Japan adventure is from £1,950pp, including accommodation with breakfast every day, all transport across Japan, some private guiding and a range of cultural experiences. Flights extra.
GETTING THERE: Finnair flies from Gatwick to Osaka and Tokyo via Helsinki from £846 return. See finnair.com.
STAYING THERE: One night’s B&B at Zentis Osaka is from £185, based on two sharing. See zentishotels.com.
Nishimuraya Honkan in Kinosaki Onsen has rooms from £270 per night, including breakfast, traditional dinner and a hot springs pass with robe and clogs. See nishimuraya.ne.jp.
A night’s B&B at Higashiyama in Kyoto is from £135, based on two sharing. See tokyohotelsjapan.com.
TOURS: A 14-night Best of Japan adventure is from £1,950pp, including accommodation with breakfast every day, all transport across Japan, some private guiding and a range of cultural experiences. Flights extra. See insidejapantours.com.