The Olympics were a bittersweet reminder of all we’re missing by not being able to travel to Japan

Mt Fuji and the Tokyo skyline - Jackyenjoyphotography
Mt Fuji and the Tokyo skyline - Jackyenjoyphotography

Watching the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games, I felt a mix of sadness and pride. Against the odds – including a global pandemic and rock-bottom local enthusiasm – and one year late, Japan was finally launching scaled-back, spectator-free Tokyo 2020 to the world.

But as Japanese singer Misia stepped up to perform Kimigayo, Japan’s national anthem, my mind was wandering to memories of hot, sticky Tokyo summer nights – like the one unfolding on the television screen in my kitchen – and, specifically, towers of shaved-ice drizzled in syrup.

It was Misia’s dress, you see. With its tumbling layers of white organza, spray-painted at the hem in rainbow colours by designer Tomo Koizumi, it looked just like kakigori the ubiquitous shaved-ice dessert that is to Japanese summers what the 99 Flake is to ours. How good it would be to dig into an ice-cool kakigori right now, right there in Japan.

After 18 months barred from entering, like many other lovers of Japan – not to mention travellers with plans on hold – I am itching to return.

So, for the last 17 days, I’ve been glued to the Olympic coverage, as much for the thrill of watching Team GB as to catch sight of a country I love; of Mount Fuji, of the Rainbow Bridge in Tokyo Bay, of the rolling Pacific Coast, even downtown Sapporo, way up in Hokkaido, where the marathon events were shifted to cooler climes.

Day one was a feast for my Japan-hungry soul, as I watched the men’s road race peloton funnel through a towering torii gate into the sacred precincts of Okunitama Shrine in western Tokyo, one of Tokyo’s five most important shrines. Racing past guardian statues, stone lanterns and undulating timber and gold buildings, they were clapped on by masked Shinto priests dressed in the turquoise and white robes of the kind you see in the venerated shrines of Kyoto and Ise.

Cyclists in the peloton ride past the Okunitama shrine - BEN STANSALL
Cyclists in the peloton ride past the Okunitama shrine - BEN STANSALL

Later, the peloton accelerated up the brutal lower slopes of Mt Fuji. Summer is peak climbing season on Mt Fuji and, although the mountain is open, there are fewer than usual heading for the summit. Below, the riders skirted the shores of Lake Yamanaka – the largest of the Fuji Five Lakes and a classic stop on Japan’s tourism Golden Route – where, any other summer, you could find yourself windsurfing or stand-up paddle-boarding in the shadow of this icon.

Glimpses of familiar landscapes around the yacht harbour on Enoshima – which hosted the Games regatta – have been as thrilling for me as seeing Hannah Mills claim gold there. This little island in Sagami Bay is popular with first-time visitors to Tokyo, as it’s a just a day trip from the city centre and is an easy add-on to nearby Kamakura – known as the ‘Kyoto of eastern Japan’ – a town replete with ancient temples, shrines and a giant, oxidised-bronze Buddha.

As for the BBC’s twinkling night-time panorama of the metropolis and Tokyo Tower, this could be the view from any number of Tokyo’s incredible skyscraper hotels, restaurants and bars (where, incidentally, kakigori have replaced cocktails during the current lockdown alcohol ban). It is this stuff that has sustained my summer dreams of Japan – even if it was green-screened from Salford.

Kakigori - kazoka30/iStockphoto
Kakigori - kazoka30/iStockphoto

There is still no official news on when Japan will reopen to overseas visitors: most likely it will be well after yesterday’s Olympic Games closing ceremony, after autumn elections and once the impact of the vaccine programme has been assessed. Most tour operators selling Japan are focusing their attention on spring 2022.

You should too: below are my recommendations for ‘Where to go when Japan reopens’. In the meantime, you can continue to get your Japan fix thanks to the world’s best sports men and women, when the 2020 Summer Paralympics opens on August 24, 2021.

Where to go when Japan reopens


Tokyo 2020 was originally going to be all about the international relaunch of Tohoku (the torch relay began there in March), the region in Northern Honshu hit by the 2011 tsunami and earthquake. The reconstruction on Tohoku’s Pacific coast has been enormous, and visitors can now explore these areas and pristine coast via the new Michinoku Coastal Trail. Walk Japan offers eight-night guided trails.

Fishing village by the sea in Kyoto prefecture - Thomas Haupt
Fishing village by the sea in Kyoto prefecture - Thomas Haupt

Kyoto by the Sea

There is so much to love about Kyoto City, but with all the pent-up demand for travel to Japan, the next ‘open’ cherry blossom season in this ancient capital is likely to busier than ever. Avoid the crowds and head instead to Umi no Kyoto – or Kyoto by the Sea – on the Japan Sea coast, for sleepy villages, Unesco-Geopark beaches, seafood and rare red-hued sake. Stay in a boathouse built over the sea in the fishing village of Ine. Bespoke tour operator Different Japan has good access here.

Shiretoko Peninsula, Eastern Hokkaido

No skyscrapers, no geisha – and social distancing virtually guaranteed – Hokkaido’s Shiretoko Peninsula is Japan as you have never seen it, all untamed wilderness, red-crowned cranes and indigenous communities. Visit in autumn or winter to walk drift ice on the Sea of Okhotsk and track black bears with conservation experts Picchio, tours bookable direct; packages via Inside Japan Tours.

Islands of the Seto Inland Sea

The Art Islands of the eastern Inland Sea will be thronging again in 2022 when the next Setouchi Triennale takes place, but consider too the less well-known western side. Ikuchi island – one of the small islands between Honshu and Shikoku which is linked by the 70km Shimanami Kaido cycling route – is the location of Azumi Setoda, a new ryokan hotel from Adrian Zecha, founder of Aman. Various tailormade and guided tours of the Setouchi (Inland Sea) region are available from Inside Japan Tours.

Iriomote Island in Okinawa's far south - Ippei Naoi
Iriomote Island in Okinawa's far south - Ippei Naoi

Iriomote island, Okinawa

In July 2021, Unesco listed ‘Southwest Japan’s Islands’ as a new natural World Heritage Site for their biodiversity, subtropical rainforests and unique ecosystems. One of those islands was Iriomote in Okinawa’s far south, which is home to the endemic Iriomote cat. There are also coconut crabs and crested serpent eagles, which drop in regularly to Wondertrunk’s new glamping site close to Uehara port. This local specialist also organises cycling, jungle trekking and canoeing on the island and can arrange Japan-wide itineraries.