What to see in a week in Japan
A week in Japan. I have always dreamed of visiting Japan in spring, during the cherry blossom season. This year I finally managed to realize my dream, thanks to an invitation by the Prefecture of Oita to discover the incredible beauties of their region and a second invitation from Elle Japan magazine, with whom I have been working for a long time, to shoot a editorial in the streets of the capital city… But keep reading to find out all about my travelogue in Japan!
A week in Japan: My itinerary
To reach Tokyo I took the direct Alitalia flight from Malpensa, which in 12 hours arrives at Narita international airport. From there I moved to the other airport, Haneda, with the Limousine Bus (which takes about 90 minutes) to take the Japan Airlines flight and finally reach Oita (this flight takes about an hour and a half).
To have access to internet in Japan before leaving I had booked a travel sim on Sakura Mobile (alternatively it is also possible to rent a portable wi-fi, but I preferred the convenience of having the sim). Please note that in both cases you will need to return the sim or device at the airport before leaving, re-sending it with the letter or package that they provided upon arrival.
We head to the very first hotel of our stay in Japan, the Hotel Umine located on the seafront in the city of Beppu. Upon our arrival we discovered that in general in Japan entering Japanese-style hotel rooms is not allowed with shoes but only with the special slippers provided by the hotel! On the bed we found the outfit for the evening: yukata (a sort of robe), tabi (socks with flip-flops) and kinchaku clutch made of soft fabric. The hotel, as all the other hotels here, also provides complete skincare for face and body! The bathroom is usually half outside, on the terrace, where the bath and shower are located. The toilet is in a separate room and has a heated tablet, as well as several buttons including the one for making the bidet (Toto toilet).
The prefecture of Oita is a very famous Japanese spa and most of the hotels and facilities here have thermal baths in it. The Japanese spas, however, are very different from the Italian ones: the tanks, divided by males and females, are outdoors and you enter naked, without a bathing suit.
Finally the first real Japanese meal: a Teppanyaki style dinner was prepared by the chef right in front of us, grilling a series of dishes. We also drank a particular type of sake, served at room temperature and not as hot as the one normally offered by us in Italy.
It starts with mackerel on a bed of salad, then turbot and scallops. After that a soup made with potatoes and leeks with milk in the middle, simple but tasty grilled vegetables and shitake mushrooms, beef and finally white rice and miso soup. To end the dinner, a cup of toasted green tea (which loses its caffeine), a slice of apple pie and mochi.
Always available on the Japanese tables there is the oshibori, a warm towel used to clean hands before starting the meal or between the various courses!
The next day begins with a visit to OPAM, the Oita Prefecture Art Museum.
Inside there are temporary exhibitions (such as the manga show that will open in May), works of art, sculptures and modern art paintings that are very interesting.
The most striking work is certainly Amaniwa, by three contemporary Japanese artists: a garden that opens up to the sky, with an installation that recalls colorful flowers inside.
Below you can see a detail of the roof of the OPAM made of cypress interlocking wood panels, ie without nails: it enchanted me because, even though it had already been made for a few years, wood gives an incredible fragrance to the underlying environment!
Another work that I really loved was the Eurasian Garden Spirits by Marcel Wanders, a Dutch industrial designer: huge egg-shaped balloons with these incredible colors!
Before leaving OPAM we met the Vice Prefect of Oita, Mr Hirose!
For lunch we headed to the center of Beppu. We can’t wait to taste original Japanese sushi so we choose a typical restaurant divided into private rooms, each closed by its curtains. We order a plate of nigiri from a menu in Japanese language only (luckily there are the photos of the dishes) and we discover that here the wasabi is not normally brought apart but is used in small quantities, just a pin, to tie the slice of rice based fish! I really like his spicy taste, but if not, I recommend that you ask for it separately. Sushi is traditionally a Japanese street food, meant to be eaten with hands, putting the side with the fish in the soy sauce!
We then went at Dutour to have a coffee and a Montblanc with chestnuts. Dutour is one of the most common coffee shops in Japan, which we will also find in Tokyo.
After lunch we reach the nearby Kasuga Jinjya temple of Shinto religion, the most widespread religion in Japan. Before entering, wash your hands with purifying water. The atmosphere is incredibly peaceful and there are two centuries-old oaks that really leave you spellbound. I was very impressed by the prayers of the faithful, elegantly written or, perhaps I should say drawn, on wooden tablets!
Last stop of the day: TakasakiYama Monkey Park. It is a park that houses a total of 1172 macaques! This is the best time to visit because in the spring the mothers have just given birth and you can also see the puppies… How cute! But the funniest moment is when the rangers throw the potatoes at them: they start running to grab a piece and those who arrive late try to steal them from the others!
After leaving the park, we will have an hour’s drive to reach another location in the prefecture of Oita, this time in the mountains: Yufuin. On the way we see that the mountain has a similar shape to Mount Fuji (another place that I would love to visit in the future)!
In Yufu we stayed at Hoteya, a spa hotel structured with many typical Japanese houses, or ryokan. These are buildings with a tatami (bamboo wood) floor, futons as a bed and sliding paper doors with decorations that filter and soften the light. A truly amazing place! As I anticipated earlier, this area is famous for its thermal baths and in fact our ryokan had a wonderful bath dug into the rock located outside in the private bathroom with pure and hot thermal water over 40 °C! The ritual involves taking a bath in the evening after dinner, to enjoy the starry night all by itself!
At the ryokan dinner includes a series of dishes based on fish, raw and cooked, and meat, and then finished as usual with a bowl of white rice and miso soup.
During the dinner they prepared the futons, mattresses with duvets resting on the floor: I had never slept on anything like that!
The morning after waking up they made us find the typical Japanese breakfast. It is a very rich and complete meal: white rice, miso soup, tofu, poached egg with vegetables, piece of tuna with horseradish and gianchetti, vegetables cooked with dashi, basket with sauteed vegetables, small piece of grilled fish and eggs of fish, algae, tiny cuttlefish (only this season’s delicacy), pickled vegetables with very salted plum. In the pan there is tofu cooked with mushrooms… Itadakimasu! Enjoy your meal!
The day in Yufu began with a nice walk through the central street of the city, Yunotsubo Kaido, where there are a number of typical shops, souvenirs, restaurants and where we also met girls wearing traditional kimonos.
For lunch I tried my first soba (buckwheat noodles) which are served cold and accompanied by fish and vegetable tempura. Yummy!
Upon my arrival I noticed the Snoopy Tea House so after lunch I took the opportunity to sit down and order one of their matcha latte!
The time has come to say goodbye to Oita and reach the capital of Japan, Tokyo! We arrived in the late afternoon and while on the road from Haneda airport to the Hotel Celestine Shiba, located in the Minato district, I could see how this is one of the most original metropolises I’ve ever seen, with lots and lots of green!
For dinner we had reserved a table at Gonpachi, a very famous restaurant used as location for a scene in the movie Kill Bill… Do you remember it watching these images?
The next day begun with a visit to the editorial staff of Elle Japan, to define the details of my editorial that I will soon put the link to! The editorial staff celebrates 30 years of activity this year: congratulations!
Leaving the office we find ourselves in Omotesando, an avenue where we walk between a string of boutiques in a row, and we decide to head towards Harajuko to see the famous Takeshita Street!
How much I dreamed of tasting one of these wonderful and giant rainbow candy cotton cones!
Right at the beginning of the street there is Cat Cafe Mocha, a very nice little place with lots of cats that live happily!
In Harajuku there is also another little place not to be missed. It’s called Eddie’s Ice Cream: pink walls, perfect corner for taking pictures and you can also customize your own ice cream with white chocolate lettering and decorations!
Just before sunset we went up to the 52nd floor of the Park Hyatt for the happy hour at their New York Bar.
Seeing Tokyo from above was incredible and above all being able to admire the various colors from sunset to dark, thanks to the soft lighting of the bar.
For dinner we had an appointment with my dear friend Gloria who also happened to be in the city and had booked a table at the Tsukiuda sushi restaurant: I highly recommend it, even here the chef prepares the dishes in front of the diners and the selection of fish is really varied and excellent!
The next day begins with the pre shooting shooting session for Elle Japan: do you like the result?
First stop the Tokyo Tower, and in particular a glimpse that we had noticed the previous day while we were in the taxi. We walked through the Zojoji, the temple of children never born, with endless statues of children holding the wind wheel, until we reached a small street that leads directly to the Tower!
Although the season of hanami, or cherry blossoms, this year was very early (towards the end of March), I was still very happy to have found some of the plum trees still in bloom! Here at the Toyokawa Inari Temple in Shinjuku Gyoen!
Third location for the shooting: the iconic Shibuya Crossing, a pedestrian crossing in the Shibuya district, just outside the station. Want a tip? Climb up to the first floor of Starbucks to see the myriad of little ant-men crossing!
Here is also the statue of Hachiko, the dog of the homonymous film with Richard Gere … If you haven’t done it yet, I suggest you watch it because it tells a really touching story!
For lunch we decide to take a short break at Andersen bakery to get a slice of savory pie and a delicious apple sandwich (strudel style): highly recommended for those with little time (and a bit nostalgic about focaccia and Italian bread)!
The streets around Shibuya are open-air shopping malls, where you can buy anything!
To move around Tokyo we have often traveled by taxi but also by metro, which is really very convenient. Orienting yourself is not too difficult, although the writing is mostly in Japanese: the stops are always indicated in English.
In the late afternoon we reached another iconic district of Tokyo, Shinjuku. It is the youth district, which literally lights up at night with restaurant signs, fishing-puppet shops and so on… There are two streets, Golden Gai and Omoide Street, which I think are the most crowded places that I’ve ever seen anywhere in the world!
… In fact, here I was in three backstage photos where you can feel how literally I am upset by the number of people …
… But with a little patience I managed to get my shot!
Everything in Japan is a new, unique and different experience: in a flash you’ll find yourself saying lots of “arigato”, thanks, one after the other, bowing your head, just like the Japanese do! Each area is unique and magical and I find that the Tokyo-Oita combination is perfect to see the different aspects of Japan, understand the cultural and lifestyle differences, learn about new flavors…
We have come to the end of this journey: often you ask me how I have clean hair and perfect fringe even after 12 hours of flying and I want to reveal my secret to you! It’s all in the hooded sweatshirt: it’s my travel uniform, which I use every time I travel, to protect my hair!
Thank you to Oita Prefecture and Elle Japan for allowing me to realize the dream of visiting Japan … I hope to return soon to see more of this beautiful country!
Happy Monday and good start to you all!