Japan: Imagining the future, embracing the past

From ultra-modern Tokyo to bucolic Beppu, the art of Japanese living offers a visionary path forward.

The iconic Tokyo Tower in Japan can be seen from an array of locations around the city. At over 1,000 feet tall, it is the second tallest building in Japan.
Photograph by Robert Harding World Imagery, Offset

With its captivating contrast of traditional and modern, Japan epitomizes InterContinental® Hotels & Resorts in its ability to ignite the imagination of even the most jaded traveler. The island nation has the world’s oldest population, yet is one of the most technologically advanced countries on the planet. Innovation and a thirst for continuous improvement seem to be hardwired into Japanese culture, and yet, somewhat paradoxically, there is an inherent respect for tradition and nature. This seamless intertwining of past, present, and future makes Japan a fascinating destination to explore.

One of the best places to experience the paradoxical essence of Japanese culture is in the nation’s largest city, Tokyo. Ultramodern and seemingly always in motion, Tokyo is one of the world’s most dynamic megacities. With millions of residents and futuristic, neon-lit districts like Shibuya, Akihabara, and Ginza, Tokyo is undoubtedly well suited for those seeking sensory overload. Lesser known is the city’s serene side, pockets of calm amid the frenzied pace where discerning travelers can experience Japan’s distinctive sense of aesthetics, defined by mindful attention to detail, appreciation of simplicity, and oneness with nature.

Guiding visitors to local cultural discoveries in any city is a signature specialty of InterContinental® Hotels & Resorts. The pioneer of international luxury travel has more than seven decades of amassed experience helping guests discover a destination from a local’s perspective. Today, there are InterContinental Hotels & Resorts properties in more than 60 countries worldwide, including Japan where guests authentically experience the art of Japanese living. In Tokyo, visitors benefit from the keen insights and cultural knowledge of the expert staff at the ANA InterContinental Tokyo, The Strings by InterContinental, InterContinental Tokyo Bay, InterContinental Yokohama Grand and Japan's newest InterContinental hotel, InterContinental Yokohama Pier 8.

InterContinental® Ambassador member David Smith, who organizes events around the world for C-Suite professionals, views the empathy for local cultural wisdom at InterContinental® Hotels & Resorts as a benefit in both of his traveling roles: as a globe-trotting adventurous spirit and as a business owner. “For me, the [InterContinental] hotels are an extension of me and my brand,” Smith says, “and they help me deliver beautiful seamless experiences for my guests.”

In Tokyo, being part of the InterContinental Ambassador member benefits program gave Smith the opportunity to participate in the meditative fine art and spiritual discipline of the Japanese tea ceremony, or chado. Typically translated as “The Way of Tea,” the ritualized practice is exquisitely choreographed and conducted in an intimate setting. The elegant tea ceremony is conducted by a tea master or host skilled in the preparation and serving of matcha, traditional powdered green tea.

The ceremony—arranged exclusively for Smith due to his keen interest in Japanese cultural traditions—exemplifies the ways in which individual InterContinental Hotels & Resorts can curate personalized experiences for Ambassadors. Above and beyond a typical tea ceremony, Smith was recognized as an honored guest in the home of a local tea master, creating an unforgettable memory and enabling a more meaningful and deeper understanding of Japanese culture. “Her knowledge of tea was absolutely breathtaking,” says Smith, who was enthralled by the intricacies of the ceremony. “All the different ways that you hold the cup, pass it around, share it, how long you sit for, how to cross your legs, and how to get up. It was choreography at its finest.”

Fully embracing the rituals of the tea ceremony at places like Shizu-Kokoro, a Tokyo tea school that hosts 90-minute workshops in English, requires being fully present in the moment. The same approach applies to the restorative Japanese art and practice of shinrin-yoku or “forest bathing.” A form of ecotherapy found to have multiple health and wellness benefits— including reduced stress levels and improved sleep quality and mood—forest bathing takes walking through the woods to a new level of consciousness. When directed by a certified shinrin-yoku guide, forest bathing is a full-sensory immersion into nature designed to promote a deeper awareness of one’s surroundings and renew body, mind, and spirit.

Retreat to the far western reaches of Tokyo for a guided forest bathing session amidst the ancient trees and lush vegetation of mountainous Okutama Town, the city’s first designated forest therapy site. Okutama has five forest therapy trails and town-certified guides specially trained in shinrin-yoku techniques. To embark on a self-guided forest bathing experience in the heart of bustling Tokyo, power down any personal electronics and spend some contemplative time at the Institute for Nature Study. Located a ten-minute walk from Meguro Station and easily accessible via train or bus, the nature reserve is an island of tranquility set aside some 500 years ago as a lord’s estate. Walk slowly along the institute’s forest paths and through the botanical gardens to soak in the welcome silence and bask in the natural beauty.

Actual soaking in the restorative waters of onsen, or natural mineral water hot springs, is a revered part of Japanese culture. The country’s location along the Ring of Fire, a narrow zone along the Pacific Ocean characterized by active volcanoes and frequent earthquakes, makes Japan a hotbed of geothermal activity. There are some 25,000 natural hot springs throughout the Japanese islands. Over the centuries, resort towns replete with communal bath houses, day spas, and traditional ryokan (guest houses) with private baths for guests have sprung up in the mountainous and forested areas with the highest concentrations of springs.

One of the most popular of these onsen retreat areas among native Japanese is Beppu, located blissfully off the beaten path on the southern island of Kyushu and home to more than 2,000 geothermal springs. The new ANA InterContinental® Beppu Resort & Spa, opened in 2019, offers a refined onsen experience, blending the best of the ancient bathing ritual with the modern sophistication of an InterContinental resort. From the outdoor onsen baths—exquisitely crafted from granite, Japanese cypress, and Beppu stone—guests are afforded sweeping views of Beppu Bay. The baths are fed by Myoban onsen waters (the most famous of Beppu’s hot springs), said to cleanse and beautify the skin. The resort also offers international visitors local know-how about onsen etiquette (such as undressing completely before entering the communal baths) and guides them to authentic hot-spring experiences in the region, like soaking in the family baths at Shiraito Falls Onsen.

The new ANA InterContinental® Beppu Resort & Spa offers onsen baths with incredible views of the surrounding mountains in the area.
The new ANA InterContinental® Beppu Resort & Spa offers onsen baths with incredible views of the surrounding mountains in the area.

Only a 90-minute flight southwest of Tokyo, Beppu is within reach for a relaxing weekend getaway from the capital, a more extended vacation, or as a rejuvenating add-on after spending time in Tokyo for business. That’s not to say that Tokyo doesn’t have its own bathing hot spots. Both onsen (natural spring-fed baths) and sento (tap water-filled baths) are readily found in the city. Traditional sento bathhouses are functional, bare-bones facilities whose only decorations typically are wall murals of Mt. Fuji and other natural areas. Most onsen, on the other hand, have an indulgent, spa-like vibe and are designed for luxuriating.

To experience both ends of the communal bathing spectrum, begin by visiting a classic Tokyo sento like Akebono-yu, one of Tokyo’s oldest public bathhouses still in operation, which opened in the late 1700s. The city’s onsen options run the gamut from the serene Toshimaen Niwa no Yu set amidst tranquil Japanese gardens to family-friendly Ooedo-Onsen Monogatari, a festive onsen theme park featuring hot spring-fed baths, therapeutic spa treatments, dining, shopping, and recreational activities.

Whether soaking in an onsen, forest bathing in the woods, experiencing the calming effects of a meditative tea ceremony, or savoring traditional delicacies at Unkai Japanese Restaurant—which overlooks a serene garden and pond at the ANA InterContinental Tokyo—the attention to personal well-being in Japan redefines what it means to live in a fast-paced, forward-thinking society. For visionary travelers open to new possibilities, embracing the art of Japanese living with the expert, local guidance of InterContinental® Hotels & Resorts offers the inspiration and insights to reimagine the future.

Learn how you can continue fueling your fascination for discovering new places by becoming an InterContinental® Ambassador.

Participating InterContinental ® Ambassador members will receive a token gift for their time.

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