If there’s one person who’s little black book of Japan you’d like to peek through, it would certainly be Max Fraser’s. Author of several design books including DESIGN UK and DESIGNERS ON DESIGN, which he co-wrote with Sir Terence Conran, his love of the country is deep, personal and seen through the lens of beautiful design. Recently chairing a talk to celebrate the iconic Japanese bathroom brand, Toto’s 100th anniversary, he acknowledged: “It’s no exaggeration to say that I’m addicted to Japan. Indeed, it is the everyday things there that constantly surprise and delight be it the objects, architecture, packaging, food, craftsmanship, rituals or their faultless hospitality.” After years of traveling the country, here’s his top 10 highlights, exclusively for The Chosen Club.
This island is home to a phenomenal array of artworks, housed within custom-built spaces designed by Tadao Ando. Located in the Seto Inland Sea, the place is very calm and a beautifully tranquil spot to enjoy the harmony between art and architecture. You can stay at Benesse House with some rooms housed above the art museum!
Teshima is a neighbouring island to Naoshima. There aren’t really places to stay here but a day-trip from Naoshima is a must. The Teshima Art Museum is one of the most spiritual engagements with art that you’re likely to have in your life. I say no more - just go!
Bizarrely, Japan lacks great hotels. Those that are good are extremely expensive and the rest are often conservative and identical in style. A place to stay between Hiroshima and Okayama is Onomichi and here there is U2 which is a converted warehouse on the waterfront. It houses Hotel Cycle which is a contemporary place to rest your head (and your bike if you’re into cycling). As part of the warehouse is a shop and various eating options with a western tilt which can be welcome when you occasionally want a break from Japanese food (quite rare!).
If you’ve read Lost Japan by Alex Kerr, you’ll have heard of the Iya Valley. The author describes it as one of the few remaining totally natural spots in Japan, a sort of mystical and mountainous valley dense with trees and a river snaking through it. A tiny road winds along the valley and there are some breathtaking views across the trees, making the autumn a great time to visit. Be sure to explore the rest of the Shikoku island too!
Kanazawa is a modest size city and one that you can mostly walk around. The 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art is an architectural gem that you should be sure to visit, designed by SANAA in 2004. The circular structure is internally carved up into various box-like rooms where sometimes you’re enclosed and other times viewing the sky through glass. Oh and the art is worth a look too! For design lovers, also check out the Sori Yanagi Design Memorial where you can find a modest display of the great designer’s 20th century design items.
Tourists flock to Kyoto and you can see why - it has an enormous number of temples to visit, many with stunning gardens. However, dare I say it, visiting temples can start to feel repetitive. Design lovers should head to Sfera, a beautifully designed building which is home to a well curated selection of Japanese craft items for the home. Downstairs is a cafe too. Tea and coffee lovers should head to Kaikado Cafe for a contemporary yet serene drinking experience.
Cut through the noise of this major city with a visit to the tiny hidden shop of designer Teruhiro Yanagihara. The entrance is a small doorway from the street without much signage so it's totally easy to miss it. Teruhiro is a great design talent, responsible for an array of products that are beautifully made and quiet in form. His studio is located in the building but he dedicates a whole floor to beautiful design objects that he’s either created or sourced from around Japan. Adjoining this is a gallery space for more experimental displays of his work and his collaborators.
Yoshino is a town located about two hours from Osaka in a region famous for the growth of cedar trees. In March, Airbnb launched the Yoshino Cedar House on the banks of the river - a house made entirely from local cedar where you can stay. You book a room upstairs (only two bedrooms) and enjoy a more communal experience as the house is maintained and served by the locals. From here, you can explore the forests, see items being made from the timber and immerse yourself in the local life which is a far cry from the busy cities.
Far to the west of Japan, on the island of Kyushu, is Arita. This is a small town where they have been making some of the finest porcelain products for over 400 years. The town is full of small workshops making beautiful tabletop items as well as many shops selling them, not to mention being located in a stunning mountainous region of rural Japan. There aren’t many places to stay here but head to Shiba Sansou close to Ureshino, about 20 minutes drive from Arita. This is a contemporary onsen hotel located next to a small river in the hills.
There is so much to see and explore in Tokyo and one is rarely disappointed just strolling around and taking in the wonders of this mega city. Although featured in every tourist guide, I really recommend a morning visit to Tsukiji Fish Market. This is the largest fish market in the world but won’t be in this central location for much longer as they plan to relocate it It’s a fully operational place, buzzing with trade from the very early hours. They’ve clamped down on tourists recently because, quite frankly, we just get in the way and annoy the traders. Now, tourists are granted access from 10am when it is a bit calmer. Here you will see some of the most amazing fish you’ve ever seen, much of it still alive. It’s jaw-dropping stuff. Get there at 8:30ish for a sushi breakfast in the tiny neighbouring restaurants so that you’re full of energy for 10am entry. Don’t wait any later to get in there and explore!