My epic food tour of Japan: sushi, sake, puffer fish and bullet trains

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‘Kanpai!’ The cry echoed around the hotel dining room. It was the fifth ‘Kanpai!’ of the evening in our trip to Japan and it wouldn’t be the last. At this rallying cry, the Japanese equivalent of ‘Cheers!’, we all had to stand up and down a shot of sake – the clear but potent Japanese rice wine.

Japan food tour
The fish dish was laid out to represent a wintry scene; with a snowy topping to represent a farmer’s house in winter time, a pine-cone shaped sea cucumber, and herring wrapped with kelp

After emptying our glasses (which were quickly refilled) we sat down to enjoy the rest of our 15-course meal, each course a delicately crafted work of art.

We were in the fishing village of Toba, around 200 miles west of Toyko, and staying in a traditional Japanese ryokan where the bed was a rolled mat on the floor.

Japan food tour
A traditional Japanese-style ryokan hotel

However the food was anything but basic: the first dish alone was the most intricate I’ve ever seen, laid out to represent a wintry scene: there was a snowy topping to represent a peasant’s hut, a ‘devil-faced carrot’ to ward off evil, pearl oyster shellfish, pine-cone shaped sea cucumber, herring wrapped with kelp, peony-shaped salmon – and that was just the first course.

japan food tour
A ‘devil-faced carrot’ was carved to look like the devil in a bid to ward off any evil

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Montcalm London City and The Jugged Hare: brewing history and the wow factor

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The joy of reviewing hotels and restaurants is that with every new visit there is often something which will surprise, delight or even shock you. The Montcalm at the Brewery London City hotel in Chiswell Street in central London and its adjoining gastro-pub, the Jugged Hare, managed the hat-trick and did all three.

A hint that it was going to be an unusual experience was found straightaway in the hotel reception. I had arrived from the pouring rain, only to discover it was raining indoors too – water cascades endlessly down one wall of exposed brick inside the entrance hall. (‘Imagine having to work listening to that all day long!’ sighed the receptionist.)

Montcalm London City
The reception at Montcalm at the Brewery, London City. Sadly the watery wall is just out of shot

Thankfully such modern touches haven’t come at the expense of the historical nature of the building which dates back to 1750, when Whitbread started brewing beer on the site. The Whitbread clock is still ticking away in the courtyard, and next to the check-in desk was a plaque showing that HM The Queen and the Queen Mother had visited the brewery in 1962. The man registering next to me had his tiny baby in a sling: ‘His great-grandfather used to work here,’ he said proudly.

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Chewton Glen hotel, New Forest – luxury from spa to treehouse

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It isn’t often you plan on spending the night at a rather grand country house hotel and find yourself sleeping in a treehouse on stilts in the middle of a forest. But the treehouses at Chewton Glen, the five-star hotel and spa located deep in the heart of the New Forest in Hampshire, are about as far removed from the rickety wooden contraptions of one’s childhood (or Bart Simpson’s) as you could get.

chewton glen treehouses
Chewton Glen has 12 luxury treehouses hovering above the forest floor

In fact, they probably shouldn’t really be called treehouses at all, but maybe ‘luxury forest lodges’ probably didn’t sound, well, as much fun. The hotel’s own blurb describes them as secluded and romantic with the ‘exterior architecture in perfect harmony with the surrounding treescape’ and ‘on stilts, delicately balanced between the valley and tree canopy.’

I would probably describe them as ‘a really posh and gorgeous set of rooms which for some reason are plonked in the middle of a forest.’

chewton glen treehouses
Each treehouse has its own wood-burning stove, private balcony and hot tub

They might be on stilts but thankfully they didn’t feel at all delicately balanced and indeed once you were inside, it was easy to forget that you were hovering several metres above the forest floor.

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A relaxing stay at the historic Spread Eagle hotel, Midhurst

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Just one night at the Spread Eagle Hotel Midhurst felt like a really long stay – but in a good way. I arrived there on Sunday afternoon, and by the time I left 24 hours later I’d had a 90 minute massage, swam, sauna’d, steamed and lounged in the spa, had dinner, slept, had breakfast, explored Midhurst, returned for lunch and in between times had squeezed in an awful lot of doing absolutely nothing at all, such as relaxing in comfy sofas reading books. By the time it came for me to leave it seemed as if I’d been there for a week.

spread eagle hotel midhurst
The Spread Eagle hotel is a 15th century coaching inn in the heart of Midhurst in West Sussex

I’d heard about the Spread Eagle through its sister hotels, Ockenden Manor and Bailiffscourt – owned, like the Spread Eagle, by Historic Sussex Hotels – both of which I’d reviewed for ALadyofLeisure.com and really liked.

Guests expecting something similar to either Ockenden Manor or Bailiffscourt will find something different here as the Spread Eagle is very much along the lines of a comfy old coaching inn rather than a smart spa hotel like Ockenden Manor, or set in acres of tranquil countryside like Bailiffscourt. Dining at the Spread Eagle is less formal than the others and the spa, while modern and pleasant, is smaller than either of its sister hotels.

spread eagle hotel midhurst
The building has been extended over the centuries but the oldest part still remains – Queen Elizabeth I stayed in the Queen’s Suite (as did I)  which is on the corner on the first floor

However what you get at the Spread Eagle is a very relaxed, old world charm: the bar with its roaring fires is the perfect place to while away a rainy day or a wintery evening. Continue reading A relaxing stay at the historic Spread Eagle hotel, Midhurst

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Time for some serious pampering at Ockenden Manor hotel and spa

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Walking into a really gorgeous hotel room can be such a bittersweet moment. There is the initial reaction of ‘Wow! This is really, really nice….!’ and delight that this is actually all yours for the next 20 hours or so. Then there is the sudden realisation of ‘Oh, but then I’m actually going to have to leave here and go home…’ Followed by: ‘Why can’t I live here forever?’

Such is the effect of walking into a room at Ockenden Manor Hotel and Spa, a 17th century old country house set in nine acres of land, which has a first-class luxury spa facility neighbouring the hotel.

ockenden manor hotel and spa
Ockenden Manor – the spa is a separate building a short walk away

While the rooms in the hotel itself are older and more traditional, I was staying in ‘Clara’, one of the newly-done up rooms above the spa itself. The room instantly gave off a feeling of impeccable luxury, but in a nice, comfortable, relaxing way, rather than a starchy, soulless, hotel sort of a way. Continue reading Time for some serious pampering at Ockenden Manor hotel and spa

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News, reviews and opinions on everything to do with leisure, from hotels and holidays to food and fitness, by national newspaper journalist and author Sarah Bridge

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