A Traditional Japanese Wedding in Nagano

Nagano was the site of the 1998 Winter Olympics and is a wonderful contrast from the bustling city of Tokyo.  I took the JR East train from Tokyo station, which was about a two hour train ride.  I was headed there for a friend’s wedding and the setting of the Zenko-ji temple couldn’t have been a more beautiful place to have this traditional Japanese wedding.   I didn’t know what to expect, as many people had asked  me why I was headed to Nagano, as if to say there is not much to see/do there.  However, the temple was probably the most beautiful I had seen so far, and while there were plenty of tourists, it was not as congested as some of the others.   Nagano is known for their soba noodles, the buckwheat noodle that is part of so many Japanese dishes and get this, they even places that sell soba ice-cream and miso ice-cream!  Of course I had to try both, one right after the other!   (It just happened to be that they were both next to one another heading to the temple!).  While Tokyo can be overwhelming when it comes to figuring out where to stay, Nagano City only has a few hotels within the radius of the train station.

I decided on Hotel Jal City, based on the reviews I had seen online.   It was not a luxury hotel, but a very comfortable and clean one with a terrific traditional breakfast.  Sure, luxury is nice, but it is not always necessary, especially when you are on the go, and don’t have the time to enjoy the amenities.  I have a pretty basic requirement….clean with a bed that won’t ruin my back for the night!   Hotel Jal City was great….very quiet, clean and friendly.  In addition, very reasonably priced.  It is situated in the perfect location, halfway between the train station, which is an easy ten minute walk or quick cab ride, and the Zenko-ji temple with it’s beauty and shopping.     Since arriving six days ago, I have wanted to eat a traditional Japanese breakfast, and everywhere I had read, it said it doesn’t really exist, but here in Nagano City and at the Jal City Hotel, I had my traditional Japanese  breakfast.  It was buffet style, consisting of many little dishes, so there was the opportunity to try everything, like rice topped with curry, tofu, varieties of Japanese pickles and vegetables, local fish, and a variety of western breakfast foods as well.   The view from the 16th floor where we ate was breathtaking with the mountains as the backdrop.  When looking at the room phone, there are buttons to call the front desk and other rooms and also one for massage.  While I did not have a chance to partake, it was nice to know the service was available, especially if you have been on your feet for many days.  There are also several foot and back massage establishments in the area for very reasonable prices.  A friend of mine got a face massage and said it was terrific!

I probably had one of my best dinners in Nagano in a place where we sat on mats and enjoyed fresh soba noodles, delicious sashimi, tempura and a tofu salad.    So if you’re looking for a contrast from the exciting and flashy city of Tokyo, head north to Nagano, the home of the 1998 Olympics, and enjoy some great food, beautiful scenery and a hotel to make your stay most enjoyable.

Get Married at Hotel Chinzan-so Tokyo!

 There are an overwhelming number of hotels to choose from when in Tokyo for all price ranges and locations.   If you are looking for a relaxing and tranquil place to call home that is still in Tokyo, but on the outskirts from the busy city, you must pay the Four Seasons in Chinzan-so a visit.  It will soon be renamed Chinzan-so Hoteland when you walk the grounds, you will see why so many brides pick the lush and gorgeous Chinzan-so garden for their big day.  Take a stroll through the 6600 sq. meter garden at night and be treated to a light show of fireflies lighting up the night in the months May and June.   During the day, enjoy the walk up and around the shrine.   The hotel is perfect for a romantic escape or a girlfriend getaway and gives you all the amenities of five star hotel, while also offers guests the opportunity to partake in many of the traditional Japanese traditions, such as the Japanese tea ceremony, and relaxing in an onsen (hot bath).  Before coming to Chinzan-so, I was searching for a place to see a traditional Japanese ceremony, and while I found places that served the tea, I could not find a ceremony, so I was happily surprised when I found out they had it there.

The Japanese restaurant in the hotel is phenomenal. I had both breakfast and lunch there.  For breakfast, one has the option of choosing the Western or Japanese breakfast and a few different options for each.  For lunch, I opted for the sushi which came with a wide selection of various pieces, all fresh and some of the best I had while in Japan.   My friend ordered the bento box, which was three layers of various veggies, meats, and seafood.  In the evening, or anytime  of time of day, if you choose to take a day off from exploring, you can unwind and relax in the spa, including the onsen in both the men’s and women’s sections, as well as a co-ed sauna, steamroll, jacuzzi and swimming pool inside, and an outside jacuzzi.  The fitness center is also spacious and ultra modern, open 24 hours.   Perhaps one of the best parts of they stay was the breathtaking view from my bed.  The room had huge corner windows which allowed  me to see Tokyo lit up in the night, an amazing sight and a perfect way to fall asleep in the ultra comfortable king bed.  Every aspect of the stay made for a very relaxing environment including the L’Occitaine bath products which left me smelling oh so nice!

The concierge at the Four Seasons was extremely helpful, helping me plan my trip to Kyoto.  They provided me with maps, phone numbers for possible hotels, and looked into train schedules for me.  Again, this is not found at every hotel.  Sometimes it can be tough to find staff who speak fluent English and can really help you around.  Practically the entire staff spoke English, which makes planning so much easier.  This was a crucial part of my trip, as the Kyoto part of the trip was a last minute addition, and I couldn’t have done it without their help.

If you are planing a wedding in Japan, you definitely want to consider the beautiful gardens at Chinzan-so.  They have wedding planners on staff to help with your every detail and the setting couldn’t be more beautiful.  It is a true oasis inside the bustling city of Tokyo.  While the property is not right in the center of Tokyo, and one must take around a $15 cab ride from the nearest metro station, it is definitely worth it if you are looking for a high end stay away from all the action, but close enough to do everything you would still do if you were staying within walking distance to the metro.  My only regret is that I had such a packed itinerary that I didn’t have the luxury of staying even longer at the property.  However, it was just enough time to relax in the spa, enjoy delicious Japanese cuisine, stroll the garden, see fireflies and partake in a traditional Japanese tea ceremony.  It was a magnificent addition to my stay in Tokyo.

As I mentioned, this Four Seasons property will soon will under new ownership as the Hotel Chinzan-so, but there is still the Four Seasons hotel in the financial district of Marunouchi, which is the ideal place to stay if you’d like to be close to Tokyo station, the hub for most of the railway lines and buses.   While it retains the Four Seasons name, it is very different than the experience  you’ll have at Chinzan-so.  This Four Seasons is steps away from the Ginza district, known for its high end shopping, and is a boutique hotel featuring just fifty seven guest rooms and suites.  However, just because it is smaller does not mean it compromises the five star amenities in the room and around the hotel.   The breakfast is delicious and again you have the option for a traditional Japanese, Western or English breakfast.  I opted for the traditional and was stuffed by the end!  Don’t let the variety of smaller portions fool you…you will be more than full when you are done with your bento box and side of grilled fish.  On the same floor as the restaurant, you will also find a gym with all the standard card and weight machines as well as a spa with mineral onsen.

Perhaps the greatest and most helpful amenity is their pick up and drop off service from Tokyo station.  Tokyo station is a large hub with many train lines and buses, so it’s easy to get confused, especially if you have just landed and this is your first time in Tokyo.  Just email them from where you are coming and your car number of the train and they will be there to help you navigate your way to the hotel, which is just a few steps from the station, and also help you with your luggage.  This was also a huge help on the way back to the station, as I was headed to the airport and getting to the Narita Express/Rapid service line. It took 20 minutes just to get through the station.  It could have been a painfully long haul with my luggage (yes, it got heavier as the trip progressed!…after all, I had tea, tea cups, sweets, and soba noodles to bring home!)

The staff speaks fluent English and is also very helpful in recommending places to go.  You should know that the hotel is down the road from the restaurant where i had the best sushi my entire trip (I dare say better than the fish market!).  It is called Sushi Midori and there was a line out front (if the locals are lining up, you know it’s good!)  They have a restaurant in Shibuya as well.  Not only was it the freshest, most succulent sushi I had in the two weeks I was here, it was also the most reasonably priced for what you get!  Be sure to try pieces you can’t get at home as well as the heated ones they put a blowtorch to!

For more information on the Hotel Chinzan-so click here: http://www.fourseasons.com/tokyo/  and the Four Seasons Marunochi, please click here: http://www.fourseasons.com/marunouchi/offers/

Conrad Hilton Tokyo=Luxury and Comfort

I had never been to Asia, so when a friend told me he was headed to a wedding in Japan and asked if I’d like to go, I was extremely excited to see the city and experience the culture, food, and a Japanese wedding.  I wanted to find hotel properties that exuded elegance with a romantic flair, but was also convenient to all of the popular neighborhoods and things to do see and do.  For the first five days of my stay in Tokyo, I stayed at the Conrad Hilton, Hilton’s luxury brand of properties.  I have stayed with Hilton before at some of their other brand properties, and have never had one bad experience so I was eager to try their more exclusive, high-end brand of hotels which includes the Conrad and Waldorf Astoria.  For the record, the hotel lived up and exceeded my expectations.

Upon arrival, you will be taken up to the lobby on the 28th floor, which displays a breathtaking view of Tokyo Bay and the beautiful Hamari park.  This is also where the swanky bar serves up nightly food and drinks to relaxing piano music.  We stayed on the 34th floor which also had a magnificent view of the city and bay.  The rooms were really spacious, especially for a standard room in Tokyo and the beds were most comfortable.  The bathroom had both a shower and stand alone bathtub and a high end toilet to boot, that was heated and  played relaxing music.   Japan is definitely ahead of the curve when it comes to certain items.  Other features which you would expect from a five star property include automatic curtains and shades that are controlled by a knob next to your bed and the same for the blinds that connects the bathroom to the bedroom.  If you have time for a relaxing soak in the tub, you can stare out at the beautiful view from the bathroom. 

The restaurants, which include Gordon Ramsy’s Cerise,, which serves up French cuisine and their Chinese and Japanese options display gorgeous decor and also serve up meals that are second to none.  We dined at the traditional Japanese restaurant, which served a selection of eight courses, all light and full of flavor.  If you choose this option, you will be treated to a wide array of flavors that incorporate both fresh fish and meat.  Their breakfast was a spectacular buffet which included traditional American fare such as eggs, lox, fresh and dried fruit,  and dishes such as soba noodles, and a hot rice cereal to which you can add a mixture of Japanese toppings,

The hotel also features a modern fitness center with a jacuzzi and saunas in the locker rooms, and an olympic sized swimming pool (for an additional charge).  If you feel like unwinding with a spa treatment, the spa is the perfect oasis for a variety of treatments.

Booking a hotel from home before you have arrived in your destination can be challenging when trying to figure out the best location for everything you’d like to do.  There were so many options for hotels in Tokyo that it was tough deciphering the neighborhoods.  However, the Conrad was in a perfect spot, close to two major subway lines.  If you are traveling for business, it is very close to some big cooperations, but also steps away from a bustling nightlife of restaurants and bars.  If you are there for pleasure, you will find getting around the city very easy on the JR subway line, which leaves from the Shimbashi station, which is a 5-10 minute walk from the hotel.

 When traveling to Europe, while the languages are different, many people speak English.  However, I was worried about communicating with the locals here in Japan, as some speak a little English, but many don’t.  I therefore relied heavily on the concierge at the hotel.  I don’t think I’ve used their services as much as I did on this trip, and they were extremely helpful and informative in helping me plan my itinerary.  Not only were they armed with information on each location, they also made phone calls for me which made it that much easier to set things up.  In a country where you are not familiar with the things to see and do, and communicating may be a challenge, a good concierge is worth their weight in gold.

While in Tokyo, there is so much to explore with many neighborhoods of different character, including the business districts of Shimbashi and Shiodome, the nightlife district of Roppongi, the nerdy electronic district, Akihabara, the famous bustling intersection of Shibuya with its many restaurants and shops, and Shinjuku, with its shops, department stores, and various restaurants.  If you are an adventurous eater, you can try one of many restaurants that will serve such items as heart, gizzard, horse, cartilage etc.  I am usually a very adventurous eater, but even for me, my stomach did not take to this variety!   Harajuku is a great spot for young shoppers with the latest in cool hip styles and accessories.   Head to Ueno for a daily market, as well as a feel for “Old Japan.”  A must do for your trip to Tokyo is a visit to the Tsukiji Fish Market.  Definitely try to wake up early one morning for the auction.  The auction starts around 5am, but you must get there around 4am for a place in line, as they only accept the first 120 people and then divide into two groups.   After the auction, head to one of the many sushi restaurants within the market for the freshest sushi in Tokyo.  One place that came highly recommended and lived up to the expectation was Sushi Dai.  I waited 2.5 hours, lining up at 6am, but I was definitely good and hungry when it was my turn.  They take about fifteen people in at a time and you sit at the sushi bar, as they prepare around 12 pieces for you to try.  It is a very efficient meal, as you won’t be in there for more than thirty minutes, and you’ll pay 3900 yen, which comes out to around 45 dollars, but if you are going to Tokyo, you should try some amazingly fresh sushi.   Tokyo definitely has a lot of character with terrific food, very respectful people, and plenty to do, but if you are guy, beware of possible nightlife scams that target foreigners.  If you meet a girl and she asks you to go to another bar and then to another with her, make sure to never give your credit card and watch your drinks.

So if you are traveling to Tokyo for business or pleasure, do yourself a favor and stay at the Conrad Hilton.  It exceeded my expectations in comfort, food, location and customer service. It’s easy to see why they have received numerous awards from prestigious groups and publications over the years.

Previous Post: