Hi – I’m Antonio Sbarra. I’m an Italian photographer and video-maker who loves Japan. I grew up in a little city located in South Italy. When I was a kid, I used to watch many movies and documentaries about travel. I decided that travel was the thing I wanted to do with my life.
My interest was in Asia – especially countries such as China and Japan. I had this longing to experience something totally different from Europe. This meant temples, shrines and different kinds of structures. As a student I spent a lot of time studying Japanese places and culture. While studying, I said to myself that my first trip must be in Japan. No matter what!
So, I was 20 years old when I went abroad to Japan. I felt a little bit lost and scared, but at the same time I was in my dream destination. It was very exciting and everything was as I imagined. People were kind, everything was in order and there was so much difference with Italy.
The Japanese Travels of Antonio Sbarra
From the most touristic places to the most rural, telling you all the places I’ve visited in Japan would be a long list. One of my goals when traveling in Japan is to visit all of the country’s castles. So far, I’ve ticked 15 castles off the bucket list.
I think the most impressive is the Matsumoto Castle and the Hiroshima Castle. I love their shape and colour. I’m also in awe of their position surrounded by water.
Another cool castle is Gujo Castle. It’s located on the top of a mountain. The view is absolutely majestic. I visited during fall season and was lucky to see the castle surrounded by momiji autumn leaves.
Best Experiences from Two Years of Travel in Japan
I’ve had many amazing and memorable experiences in Japan. For example, when I was in Tokyo, I was going to the station to go back home but the station was closed. It was very late, about 3am. So I had to go back by walking. It was a one-and-a-half hour walk.
During my walk I saw an old Japanese man who was walking the same way as me. He started to ask me a lot of questions about Italy because he had traveled a lot in Europe, especially in Italy. We walked and talked together for a while in the early hours of the morning. It was a special moment.
Many claim that Japanese people are cold and asocial. However, this is far from the truth. Japanese people tend to live busy lives (they work long hours) which at times can come across as anti-social. I think they are super friendly, especially in little towns with no tourists.
Another fantastic experience that I will cherish forever was celebrating the New Year in a Japanese house. I had the opportunity to eat a special kind of traditional new year’s food called “Osechi”. The food is contained within special boxes called Jubako which look similar to bento boxes.
Top 3 Destinations in Japan Recommended by Antonio Sbarra
As mentioned before, I’ve had the good fortune of traveling all throughout Japan. It’s hard to recommend only a few places because the whole country is a highlight. However, if I had to narrow it down to three places, they would be:
1) Chureito Pagoda: this place is so cool. The pogoda resembles the classic image of Japan. A stunning pagoda is found next to the formidable Mount Fuji. I recommend visiting Chureito at sunrise or sunset. Experiencing this place during spring and fall is amazing – but I hope to see it covered in snow one day too!
2) Narai-juku: this is the street of the Nakasendo and it’s located in the Nagano Prefecture. Around here you’ll find many old houses and shops. It transports you back to those old traditional Japanese times. I highly recommend wandering around the streets of Narai-juku.
3) Matsumoto Castle: as I said before I love its colors, shape and position. It’s the perfect place to visit during spring and fall to see a beautiful mix of colors. Both sunrise and sunset are perfect times to take pictures at this incredible castle.
14 Day Itinerary Recommended by Antonio Sbarra
For travelers who are visiting Japan for 14 days I would recommend visiting places like Tokyo, Kyoto, Nara, Osaka and Hiroshima. These places are the perfect introduction to the country for first time visitors.
However, if you would like to see a different side of Japan that not everybody gets to experience then I would recommend: Kawaguchi Lake, Kamakura, Nagoya and Nagano Prefecture. Of course, you could combine the classic destinations with a few different destinations (as mentioned above) to give your trip a bit of variety and flavour!
If you are visiting during New Years I recommend spending the day at the temples. You’ll feel the true air of Japan – it’s an amazing experience.
Immersing in the Culture of Japan
A great experience to do in Kyoto is to stay up late and go see some Geisha around the Gion. You can also wake up early to see Maiko going to lessons. These are fantastic cultural experiences that I recommend for Japan.
I personally love Japanese culture. It wasn’t difficult for me to integrate into the customs and traditions of Japan at all. Everything is in order, they have neat lines for things and they bow for greetings. You have to take off your shoes in some places like castles and shrines.
One thing I would say about Japanese culture is that the people are very kind and respectful. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting many local people and even exploring some of Japan with them. Going on photographer trips and eating food with local Japanese is always fun!
Japanese Food: The Best in the World
As you may well know, the food in Japan is absolutely world-class. There’s nothing better than having sushi in a standing restaurant with the chef making it fresh right in front of your eyes. Almost all restaurants in Japan have chefs making the food in front of you. This is such a fantastic part of Japanese food culture.
Then there is ramen and the slurping sounds people make when they devour these delicious noodles! I’ve also had the pleasure of making okonomiyaki and takoyaki with Japanese people. It’s actually quite a funny experience to try.
I think Japanese food is delicious. Before coming here I didn’t like fish but after my trip I started to enjoy it a lot. The best thing is just to hang out with local people, go exploring together, find some great food and enjoy the beautiful surroundings.
What you Need to Know Before you Go
Here are some tips for people who are thinking of visiting Japan for the first time:
1) Get a rail pass before arriving in Japan. With a JR Pass you’ll be able to use all JR train lines, shinkansen and JR buses.
2) Try to learn some basic Japanese words and try practicing them during your trip.
3) If you’re a smoker, you should know that you can’t smoke everywhere in Japan. There are determined areas where you can smoke.
4) Eat all the different types of food and street food.
5) Japan is one of the safest countries in the world. So don’t worry if you’re traveling alone.
6) You’ll fall in love with conbini or convenience stores.
7) Don’t speak too loudly or take calls inside the trains.
8) Get an IC e-card at the station. You can use it almost everywhere!
9) Vending machines are everywhere!
10) Explore the cities early in the morning. It’s a special time in Japan 🙂