The double doors swing open and the first thing that grabs my attention is the smell: a rich, woody aroma that evokes forests, mountains and the minimal interior of a traditional Japanese house.
The tableau before me is no less arresting. Beneath a curved roof thatched neatly with tree bark, there is a wooden stage with four columns, a painted pine tree and a garden-style border of white stones. The only thing missing is troops of masked actors versed in the 700-year-old world of Noh – an esoteric and deeply esteemed form of Japanese musical drama – to bring the empty, dimly lit theatre to life with tales of love and war, joy and loss.
It’s a place you would normally expect to find in the lush gardens of a Kyoto temple, or next to a mountainside hot-spring inn. The reality, however, is a little different: accessed via an ultra-modern network of lifts and escalators, this theatre is located in the basement of Ginza Six, Tokyo’s shiny new retail complex – a lantern-like structure with an angular metallic façade by architect Yoshio Taniguchi – and opened its doors to the public shortly after my visit.
My sneak peek into the spectacular pre-premiere space represents a paradigm shift in exclusivity for Japan. Forget shopping at sleek fashion flagships, sipping cocktails in cloud-brushing skyscrapers or sampling omakase dinners in the world’s tiniest Michelin-starred restaurants. Those may be quintessential Tokyo experiences, but in a society bound by strict rules and hierarchy there is still one key luxury that trumps all others: access to people and places that are normally out of bounds, even to most Japanese.
Step forward Naomi Mano, the elegant fortysomething mastermind behind my theatre visit and one of the best-connected women in Tokyo –perhaps even the entire country. Formerly the president of Quintessentially Japan, with impressive ties to the imperial family (she modestly confides over cups of fruit tea that her father introduced the current emperor to the now-empress on a tennis court), today Mano runs Luxurique, a boutique hospitality consultancy offering exclusive access to meticulously curated experiences, people – from artisans to head priests – and places that go far beyond conventional tourist offerings.
“Japan is one of the few places in the world where money does not buy access,” she explains. “Material luxury can be purchased in many shapes and forms, but the existential luxury of connecting with people and places that are very difficult to gain access to is another matter entirely.” My foray into the normally near-impenetrable world of Noh is thanks to Mano. Shortly before visiting the new theatre, she arranges a similarly next-to-impossible meeting with its master, the so-called godfather of Noh: Kiyokazu Kanze, the 26th generation of his family to run the widely revered Kanze School of Noh, which has some 700 actors nationwide. After a flurry of phone calls in the taxi, discussing en route how to address Mr Kanze – “Soh-ke” (“household head”) for Mano, “Mr Kanze” for me – we enter a fifth-floor office with old-school signage on a quiet Shibuya backstreet. A small dynamo of a man with neat grey hair and an expertly cut blue suit greets us; he has an electrifying presence, speaking in a deep, projected voice (“fan-tas-tique!” lingers alluringly in the air) and waving his arms with gymnastic gusto. My prepared questions go pretty much out of the window as I sit entranced, Kanze expounding with irresistible magnetism about the history of Noh (“It all began 700 years ago…”); its spirituality (“Everything in Japan has a spirit, from the grass to the trees”); and its essence for the spectator (“Noh trains you to be more diverse in your imagination – you are not shown something, you feel it yourself. And yes, it is OK to fall asleep”).
When I squeeze in a question about why he chose to relocate his theatre from Shibuya to the state-of-the-art Ginza Six, he speaks eloquently about his desire to attract a younger, more modern audience. “I am a gatekeeper of a tradition that has been in my family for 700 years; I must protect it with pride and dignity,” says Mr Kanze, an old school friend of Crown Prince Naruhito. “But I still want to ensure that Noh performances are fun and interesting – and easier to access and understand.” He adds, with sparkling eyes: “Plus, for the first time in history, the seat covers in the new theatre are washable. In a regular washing machine!”
The meeting is a genuine coup, but Mano’s reach is not confined to Noh, or to Tokyo. A few days earlier, I was on the shinkansen bullet train to Kyoto (in a right‑hand window seat, thoughtfully booked to catch a glimpse of Mount Fuji en route). Upon arrival, I enjoyed another coveted (and rare) audience, this time with celebrated gardening guru Jihei Ogawa, whose great-grandfather created the exquisite Garden of the Gods at Heian Jingu Shrine. I met Ogawa-san – a diminutive septuagenarian with animated eyes and an Armani bag slung across his black raincoat – beneath a chilly blue spring sky. As we strolled through the brilliant tomato-red gate and into a courtyard filled with sun-reflecting white gravel, he explained that the gardens symbolise Kyoto’s modernisation, having been created in 1895 as the city recovered from the blow of losing its 1,000-year status as capital to Tokyo.
Ogawa-san paused at the shrine to clap his hands in prayer and toss a coin offering, before leading us into the surprisingly empty gardens (we were a few weeks ahead of the cherry blossom frenzy). I followed him past spindly trees with branches curved like elegant spiders’ legs; a dreamy couple of hours ensued as we wandered past ponds with mythical names such as White Tiger and Blue Dragon. Ogawa-san urged us to gaze at the reflections in the water (while lamenting the lack of a drone to view them from above) and silently guided us across “divine” stepping stones resembling a dragon, undeterred by two tourists posing with a selfie stick in the middle.
Then quickly, dramatically, the garden gods manifested themselves. The blue skies darkened as we approached a small tea pavilion, and an impromptu snowstorm entertained us as we sipped hot sweet yuzu tea. Just as we finished, the sun serendipitously returned. We continued calmly around the final pond, the silence interrupted only by Ogawa-san pointing out two blue herons. “They’re facing the Imperial Palace,” he said, smiling brilliantly. “What a lucky day.”
My luck continued as Mano whisked me away for a delicious bento-box lunch at Kikunoi, a triple Michelin-starred restaurant in a Japanese-style house run by legendary Kyoto chef Yoshihiro Murata. Suitably recharged, I set out for my next encounter: Eigen Onishi, a dynamic third-generation priest at Kiyomizu-dera, one of Kyoto’s most celebrated Buddhist temples, set near a waterfall on a forested hill. Our black sedan pushed through tourist crowds – mainly young women posing for selfies in bright rental kimonos – as we drove into the temple precincts. Here, shoes slipped off, we entered a light-filled room with regal-looking high-backed chairs. As we admired the stunning city views, Onishi, with shaved head and swishing black robes, made his entrance.
Young and dynamic, Onishi-san introduced us to the temple – a Unesco World Heritage site founded in 778 AD – interspersing historical facts and Buddhist words of wisdom with startlingly contemporary references (I’m not surprised to discover later that the temple has 163,000 Instagram followers). Conversation segued smoothly from tea ceremony anecdotes and an Estée Lauder breast cancer awareness collaboration (for which Kiyomizu-dera was lit up in pink last October), to a YouTube hit performance at the temple by hip dance duo Les Twins (it’s politely suggested that I Google it). Ultimately, however, his goal is simple: “We hope that people, when they come here, will have a spiritual moment. That they will feel happy, joyful, at peace – maybe just for 30 seconds, maybe for longer.”
For us there was peace in abundance, and inspiration. We threw coloured lotus petals into a sacred 30m-deep space filled with more than 4,000 Buddhas, as Onishi‑san intoned: “We are empty glasses, full of memories. Buddha exists in yourself.”
The calm lingered well after my arrival at the Four Seasons Kyoto, an oasis of Kyoto‑style serenity that opened in October, set around an elegant 800-year-old pond garden, its clean‑lined interiors filled with rich textiles and washi‑paper lanterns. I enjoyed a sunset chat with master chef Masashi Yamaguchi while he prepared a delicious dinner at the minimal counter of the hotel’s Sushi Wakon restaurant.
And it was definitely still there as I sunk into an aromatic yuzu-infused bath at the end of the day. I was physically spent but mentally wide awake, running the day’s moments and exchanges over in my mind, my deep inspiration and satisfaction the legacy of a few extraordinary encounters as beautiful – and far more precious – than any material thing.