Sergio Bersanetti

My Japan

26 March - 1 April 2023

Presenting Japan

Japan is an island country in East Asia, located in the Pacific Ocean. Its predominantly mountainous territory comprises 14,125 islands, with the five largest accounting for approximately 97% of its total area of around 378,000 square kilometers.

With approximately 126 million inhabitants, it ranks as the eleventh most populous country in the world. The Tokyo Metropolitan Area, with its 38 million residents, stands as the largest metropolitan area on the planet.

I had the opportunity to visit a part of Honshu, the country’s largest island, during the cherry blossom season. I was accompanied by my trusty companion Ji Hun, whom you already met in my article about Seoul.
His fluent knowledge of Japanese was a godsend because navigating the confusing English signs (when available) and the complex transportation system would have taken much more time if I had been on my own.

I’m not trying to scare or discourage you from embarking on a journey to this beautiful country, but it’s only fair to warn you that proper preparation on how, where, and which bus and/or train tickets to purchase, for example, will save you some unnecessary headaches.

You’ll learn something about it by reading the rest of the article, but for all the details, I recommend consulting specialized websites about the Japanese transportation system.
For instance, Treksplorer explains the various options available to travel to Osaka and can be a good starting point, although I don’t agree with its claim that getting around that city is easy.

But now it’s time to go. Wake up at 4 AM, and depart from Seoul at 7AM, heading to Kobe.

Japan, here we come. Landing in Osaka and transfer to Kobe

The experience with Air Busan was really great. A brand new Airbus A321, plenty of legroom, good food, and punctuality… not bad at all for a low-cost airline. Apparently, having five other low-cost carriers in Korea helps maintain a high level of service.

Here’s an interesting tidbit: in Seoul, as the plane was taxiing away from the gate, all the ground staff responsible for loading the luggage onto the aircraft lined up, bowed, and waved goodbye to us passengers.
I was so amazed that I forgot to grab my phone to capture the moment, but it was a beautiful scene.

Seoul Osaka flight

Nice weather at departure, rain at arrival

After a 55-minute flight, Osaka welcomes us with rain, but it’s not a problem as the forecast predicts good weather for the upcoming days.

Our actual destination is Kobe, which we’ll be using as a starting point for our visits over the next two days. At Osaka airport, we purchase the ferry ticket that will take us there in approximately 30 minutes.

Ferry Osaka Kobe

Ferry to Kobe

A comfortable and fast trip

The ferry drops us off at Kobe Airport, from where we catch an elevated metro to get to the city center.

During the final stretch on foot to reach the hotel, we stumble upon a fashion parade inside a massive shopping mall.

 

Metro and fashion parade

Plenty of exciting things even before getting to the hotel. If the morning shows such promise…

In the hotel, just as I hoped, I come across the famous Japanese toilet, packed with a bunch of features.
Sadly, it only works when you seat on it, so I can’t show you it in action, but it’s really amusing!

 

Discovering Kobe

Kobe’s visit starts with a couple of jinja.

A jinja is a Shinto shrine made up of several buildings and adorned with statues of lucky animals, especially the fox.

They are widespread in Japan, to the point that I won’t even mention their name except in special cases since you’ll find them literally everywhere, and after a while, they tend to look quite similar.

The jinja is characterized by one or more torii, a gateway that can be found not only at shrines but also on the streets of certain cities. A torii indicates the presence of a sacred area.

Kobe is really lovely, you could say it’s “human-sized,” despite the fact that its one and a half million inhabitants don’t make it a small town.

I’ll show you some daytime and nighttime photos, including some taken on the beautiful Ferris wheel located in the harbor area.

Even though there will be a separate section about Japanese cuisine towards the end of the article, the famous Kobe beef “compels” me to open a brief chapter on food right away.

What makes it renowned worldwide is the fact that it literally melts in your mouth. Of course, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, as it’s more accurate to say that it can be minced in your mouth just by pressing your tongue against the palate, making it perfect for those who are toothless! It comes with a hefty price tag, but if you get the chance, you should definitely try it at least once in your life.

After greasing the grill with lard, the meat is cooked and then placed in a bowl with an egg yolk  and soy sauce in it.
The taste is heavenly!

Kobe beef, pride of Japan

I still have to figure out how the cook managed not to burn his hand

We also get some beef sushi (though I prefer the fish variety) and a Kirin beer.

Since ordering another dish at that restaurant would force us to skip meals the next day, we head to a bento shop instead.
A bento is a box containing a meal; the one we got has rice, tofu, raw fish, vegetables, caramelized beans, and some other things I couldn’t identify. But if the Japanese enjoy them, I don’t see why I shouldn’t give them a try.

Since even that is not enough, we stop by a Seven Eleven and get some ramen and two rice balls to take back to the hotel, one with seaweed and the other with salmon, complemented by a good sake to wash it all down.

Hiroshima and Itsukushima

The sheer delight of finding a WARMED UP toilet seat awaiting me upon waking up is beyond words, but sadly, I can’t linger too long on the throne as we need to catch a train to Hiroshima and then a ferry to Itsukushima Island.

Train and ferry

Trains are comfortable and usually on time, although it’s better to avoid them during rush hours.

The island of Itsukushima, also known as Miyajima, is home to the renowned Itsukushima Shrine, famous for its floating torii gate.

The atmosphere there is truly delightful, especially with the cherry blossoms in full bloom and the presence of Japanese deer, called sika, which have long been regarded as sacred creatures in Japan. They are incredibly friendly, but I was told it’s for a rather sad reason: they’re quite hungry since apparently, there’s no one taking care of them.

The line to enter the sanctuary area is very long, so we decide to give up on that and take some photos from the outside.

Meeting a japanese deer

Although these animals are adorable, it’s always better to be cautious when approaching them

As everyone knows, Hiroshima has been completely rebuilt. The second picture shows an aerial view of the castle after the bomb exploded on August 6, 1945, while the Exhibition Center is one of the few buildings that wasn’t entirely leveled.

Remember how in Korea, the turtle is present next to almost every temple as a symbol of good luck? That’s why we find it in a monument erected in the ’70s in memory of the thousands of Koreans who died after the bomb.

Another symbol of hope is the Peace Bell, located just a few tens of meters away. Today, Hiroshima is a charming and modern city, very pleasant to visit, but what happened almost 80 years ago can never be forgotten, and perhaps it’s better that way.

The Hiroshima Castle was rebuilt in 1958.
Below, you can find some photos of the iconic shrine and a romantic nighttime view.

Nunobiki and Himeji

The next morning, we visit the Nunobiki Herb Garden, which is easily accessible from Kobe and definitely worth a visit even just because you can get there by cable car.

Nunobiki Herb Garden

Amazing cable car ride, with a breathtaking view stretching all the way to the Seto Inland Sea and Osaka

As amazing as the landscape and colors are by themselves, what truly makes it special are the scents. It’s actually one of the largest aromatic gardens in Japan, featuring a greenhouse where exotic fruits are grown all year round.

In the afternoon, we visit Himeji Castle, also known as the ‘White Heron Castle.’

Himeji is located 46 km west of Kobe and its castle was the first UNESCO World Heritage Site in Japan. It’s considered the ultimate masterpiece of Japanese castle architecture, reaching its peak in the 1600s.

Unfortunately, the interior is completely empty and quite dark, but the entire surrounding area is worth exploring, especially in this season.

Another short gastronomic digression, to describe what happened at lunch today in Himeji.

Of course, I couldn’t come to Japan without trying sushi at least once, even though the only one I hadn’t tried before was the one with the crushed shrimp topped with a sheet of jelly (you can easily recognize it).
The miso soup that came with it was quite different from what you usually find in Italy, and I really liked it.
Even the sushi rice is different, much less compact than ours, and since my chopstick skills leave much to be desired, I managed to destroy the first two pieces the moment I dipped them in the soy sauce bowl.

At that point, Ji Hun started feeding me like a child, and after a while, the restaurant owner arrived, saying that the scene had touched her so much that she decided to treat us to coffee.
When it was time to pay, her husband came over and gifted us two beautiful tea cups and wanted to take a photo with us.

I still haven’t understood the reason for such enthusiasm towards an Italian and a Korean, considering I had no clue what was going on, and generally, relations between Korea and Japan are anything but idyllic. Anyway, it’s all good.

Osaka

The atmosphere in Osaka, a city of 2.6 million inhabitants, is completely different compared to Kobe and Hiroshima. The buildings are taller, people are in more of a rush, shopkeepers aren’t particularly friendly, the young folks have a much more extreme look, and the number of drunkards and homeless people encountered on the streets at night is much higher. Additionally, there are English signs everywhere.

Years ago, Pan (see my Sichuan trip) told me that “Osaka is not Japan,” and now I think I understand what he meant.

However, there are still interesting things to see here, and our tour begins with a visit to the Harukas Tower, where the observation deck is located at a height of 288 meters.

Viewed from above, Osaka is rather unattractive, but if you take the stairs down a few floors instead of immediately hopping on the elevator, you’ll find some nice places and a terrace on the sixteenth floor of the building.

Osaka view from Arukas tower

Frankly, I was not too impressed

Then comes the time to visit Tennoji Park, which features a fascinating botanical garden, and Shitennoji, also known as the ‘Temple of the Four Heavenly Kings’, considered by some as Japan’s oldest Buddhist temple.

The last three photos are from another temple, Issinji, which is much less touristy but equally captivating.

Now I’ll show you two curiosities.

You might have recognized the fish in the first photo: it’s the fearsome ‘fugu,’ as delicious if prepared correctly as it is lethal if mishandled by inexperienced hands unable to completely remove the tetrodotoxin contained in its skin and some internal organs.
It’s no wonder that it takes ten years of study before a chef is authorized to serve it. This rule was introduced in 1959 after 420 people had died from poisoning in the previous three years.
Simpsons fans will recall that even Homer risked a close call in one of the series’ most famous episodes.

As for the second photo, it’s ‘spaghetti alla carbonara’ according to the japanese. As an italian, I feel slightly insulted lol

Jinjas are literally everywhere, even in the narrowest streets.
The two sake jars you see in a picture are an offering to the gods. Alternatively, they leave fruits or rice.

The last photo describes the ritual to perform when entering a jinja.

The Osaka Castle, originally built in the second half of the 16th century, has undergone several partial destructions and reconstructions, with its latest renovation completed in 2019.
It is nestled within one of the city’s largest parks, which is particularly popular during this time of year due to the cherry blossoms’ blooming.

We linger there for a while, as the natural daylight gives way to the artificial glow of the evening, transforming the city with new colors.

The night in Osaka is quite dazzling, just like in most cities in East and Southeast Asia.

The last two photos show the Dotonbori district, which in some parts resembles a bit the Navigli area in Milan, with a canal flanked by a series of restaurants and bars on both sides.

Now I’m gonna show you Dotonbori at night, when it’s all chaos and booze flows freely.

Dotonbori at night

People in Japan love nightlife

Kyoto

Kyoto, a city with approximately 1.5 million inhabitants, is the ancient capital of Japan, renowned not only for its Buddhist temples and shrines but also for its exquisite gardens and imperial palaces.

Train to Kyoto

I love the sleek, tapered shape of the front part of Japanese high-speed trains

Even though we caught a very early train from Osaka to get to Fushimi Inari Shrine before 8 AM, it seems half the world had the same idea.
This shrine stretches for almost 4 km along the mountainside and boasts over 10,000 torii gates, with 800 of them lined up to form an incredibly long tunnel.

About an hour later, after escaping the monkey attack, I can’t resist the allure of takoyaki, delicious octopus-filled balls with a soft and fluffy batter.

 

Then it’s time to visit the Tenryuj Garden, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

As you can see, I haven’t grown tired of taking pictures of the blooming cherry blossoms!