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Sublime Stays in Japan's Capital City
Navigating the art of Japanese hospitality among the finest hotels and ryokans in...
In cultures across Asia, the concept of time is paramount. In Korea, seniority matters in everything from birth order to job title. In Japan, punctuality is akin to trust. In Buddhism, time is relative to consciousness. In travel, time is… everything. The Conrad brand, which has its stronghold in Asia, built its 1/3/5 exploration program upon the importance of time.
The personalized itineraries take the guesswork out of traveling by offering complimentary, tailored suggestions of what to do with one-, three-, and five-hour blocks of time. Their website lists sample activities for 33 cities making it easy to discover hidden gems based on your own interests. This isn’t a matter of selling a tour or arranging a guide (although they can do both)—it’s a highly connected network of experiences that fall within specific time constraints. I tried out 1/3/5 in three new-to-me cities—Osaka, Tokyo, and Seoul—to learn how to make the most of my time.
At Conrad Osaka, they recommended a mix of modern and historical experiences. I did what most visitors to Osaka do: spent a day exploring the city and a day exploring the Kyoto area. In Osaka, I toured the gardens of the Expo 1970 Commemorative Park for an hour on a sunny day, then spent another hour wandering around the 400-year-old Osaka Castle. Since Osaka is known for its street food, I embarked on an hour-long food tour of the stalls in neon-lit Dotonbori Street, famous for its takoyaki (grilled octopus balls) and okonomiyaki (seafood or pork pancake). In Kyoto, I got to the soul of food with a Zen Buddhist lunch (shojin ryori) at Shigetsu, a restaurant that focuses on the spiritual practices of cooking and eating vegetarian food in accordance with the Chinese Zen spiritual teachings that appeared in Japan in the thirteenth century.
I visited the gold-leafed former villa of the Saionji family, which in 1397 was turned into Kinkakuji Temple (also known as The Golden Pavilion). Finally, I ended the day in the Gion district, the most important Geisha district in the country. Outside of booking a party, it’s difficult to see true Geishas—who go out of their way to remain unseen. Thanks to a concierge tip that the geikos (“women of art”) are most visible at certain times in the evening, I caught a secret glimpse of three Geishas in a taxi on their way to a party.
Next, onto Tokyo—a city that's impossible to see all of the attractions in just two days, so for my first visit I relied heavily on advice. The experts at Conrad Tokyo sent me on a whirlwind weekend around the city in chunks of one and three hours. The first stop was the famous Tsukiji Fish Market, boisterous and bustling with vendors selling everything from matcha to dried crabs. I attended a sushi class, where a kind chef cheered on my messy attempts at making rolls. Later, I kneeled for a formal Japanese tea ceremony, where I learned the language of matcha. I headed to Harajuku, where I was swept away in a sea of Japan’s trendiest street styles. For something alternative, I headed to Roppongi Hills, Tokyo’s largest urban redevelopment project. There, I visited the Mori Museum (Tokyo’s premier art institution, now in its 15th year), followed by sunset at the panoramic Tokyo City View and Sky Deck, where I watched the city’s glittering entrance into the night.
Finally, I headed to Seoul, South Korea. On recommendation from the concierge at Conrad Seoul, I started with a visit to Lee Hyo Jae, a traditional designer, at her studio for a three-hour crash course in Korean culture. Hyo Jae took me through the intricacies of a Korean fashion show right there in the studio, effortlessly rearranging scarves into everything from a bandeau top to a handbag. After a traditional Korean lunch of vegetables and kimchi, I headed to Gyeongbokgung Palace where I arrived just in time for the daily changing of the guards, a ceremony established in 1469 and performed today much as it was back then. An architectural tour of the traditional old village of Bukchon Hanok rounded out the day nicely. The next day, I started at the Leeum Samsung Museum of Art, where ancient Korean pottery are mixed with pieces of contemporary art. For something modern, I jumped right into the deep end at the SM Town Museum (home to the record label that launched K-Pop, the over-the-top Korean bubblegum pop bands taking much of the world by storm).
The 1/3/5 program felt like a treasure hunt, allowing me to discover all of my own interests in the context of learning about different cultures. I enjoyed the whimsy of asking someone who had gotten to know me by name what I should do that day. It was like staying with a friend in a foreign city—a friend who understands that the most valuable commodity when you’re traveling is making the most of your time.