Known as the ‘Land of the Rising Sun’, Japan is an eclectic mix of past, present, and future, combining ancient samurai traditions and an impressive history with a modern-day persona and new world technology. The country is unique in that, until the late 19th century, it was ruled by the feudal Shogunate, with its semi-divine Emperor a powerless figurehead trapped in the Imperial Palace in the ancient city of Kyoto.
A land of contrasts, Japan is a fascinating destination for visitors. Combining the attractions of an ancient and unfamiliar culture with all the trappings of one of the world powerhouses in entertainment, fashion, and innovation, Japan is a journey of discovery wherever you go.
Nowadays, visitors can explore every part of the country, with its excellent air, rail, and public transportation system linking the five main islands of Hokkaido in the far north, Honshu, Shikoku, Kyushu to the tropical thousand-island archipelago that includes Okinawa. Topographically, Japan boasts everything from the massive Alps to forests, waterfalls, narrow coastal strips, great cities, glorious lakes and the Inland Sea.
Historically and culturally, the cities of Nara, Kyoto, Tokyo, and historic Kanazawa, as well as a few remaining original Daimyo castles, all tell of ancient Samurai traditions still highly respected by the Japanese people. Visitors need not worry about communication, as many Japanese people speak some English, and the locals are among the most gracious and respectful on the planet.
Due to its huge variety of attractions and activities, Japan can be visited at any time of year. The only possible exception is ‘Golden Week’ in late April/early May, when the entire country is on holiday and domestic travelers over take the famous sites. Accommodation at this time is completely booked and everything is crowded. Other busy periods include the New Year and the summer months of July and August.
Weather-wise, mid-June to mid-July is rainy and humid, making a summer visit between mid-July and late August preferable. Late August sees the arrival of the typhoon season, which spans into September. Fall (September to November) is a wonderful time to visit for the changing of the leaves and winter (December to March) sees the country’s ski resorts and onsen fill up. Spring is best known for its sakura, cherry blossom viewing and festivals and also considered high season in Japan.
Currency: Japanese Yen
Official language: Japanese
The history of Japan is long, unique, and blighted by many conflicts. The ancestors of the indigenous Ainu and Yamata people arrived on the islands around 12,000 BC. The country’s first permanent capital, Nara, was established in 710 AD, at the same time as the emergence of the present-day Imperial dynasty. Buddhism was introduced from China in the mid-6th century and the temples at Nara became a power in the land.
By the 16th century, the country was divided into feudal fiefdoms, controlled by powerful Daimyo families who were protected by their samurai warriors. Constant conflict and civil war flourished since 1467, with Imperial Kyoto, the Japanese capital since 794 AD, the prize to be claimed. The unrest spurred the rise of a new leader, Oda Nobunaga, who successfully entered Kyoto only to be forced to commit ritual suicide (seppuku). He was succeeded by a commoner, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, whose grand plan for the country’s reunification was taken over by Tokugawa Ieyasu on his death.
Finally at the battle of Sekigahara in 1600, Ieyasu’s samurai won and their master was established as Shogun. The Tokugawa Shogunate held power until the Meiji Restoration in 1868, ruling over a unified country which was completely closed off to the outside world. As part of the Meiji Restoration, the semi-divine Emperor’s powers were restored, and Tokyo became the seat of the Imperial dynasty. The country was open for trade and developed apace, although the same conflicts between powerful families continued, resulting in the rise of Japanese nationalism, which culminated in WWII with the attack on Pearl Harbor and led to Japan’s ultimate defeat in 1945.
Present-day Japanese culture is a fascinating mix of tradition and modernity as is observed in all aspects of everyday life. One unchanging concept is the “loss of face,” an idea which embodies personal dignity and peer status. Any conflict, criticism, insult, or request which cannot be fulfilled causes loss of face, and must be avoided at all costs. In society as a whole, harmony is the premier philosophy, essential in both family and business. Children are taught to value peace above their own needs, and are trained to work together rather than to aspire to be independent.
The resulting group-dependency relies heavily on body language in communication as words can have many underlying meanings. A passive facial expression is recommended for visitors, with eye contact discouraged as it invades the Japanese sense of privacy, invaluable in this crowded country. The hierarchy of status and age is important, with every person having his or her own place within the group. Formal greetings are standard (your name-san), and bowing the head is a sign of respect, although unwrapping a gift in the giver’s presence is not.
If you’re invited to a Japanese home for dinner, there’s a minefield of protocols to follow, beginning with the removal of your shoes before entering. Arrive on time, dress appropriately and conservatively, and wait to be told where to sit. Don’t point or pierce your food with your chopsticks, and try whatever is offered. If you don’t want second or third helpings, leave a little food in your bowl or drink in your glass as it’s good manners to never leave the guest with an empty plate. Finally, conversation while eating isn’t polite, as your hosts prefer to savor the food.
Due to Japan’s north-south location, weather patterns and average temperatures vary dramatically. Northern Hokkaido is snow-bound during its long winter and pleasantly warm during its short summer. Coastal Honshu varies in winter between brief snowfalls and warm, sunny days, with summers that are invariably hot with high humidity.
In the mountainous inland regions of Japan like Honshu, snowy winters are the norm, with weather patterns similar to Europe’s Alpine climate. Spring is warm and wet, and autumn is cool. The typhoon season is at its worst in August and September, and the brief rainy season runs from June to July.
Kyushu is generally warmer in spring and autumn, although it’s more susceptible to typhoons. Okinawa’s climate is sub-tropical, with frequent rain and typhoons and occasionally cold nights. Warm, humid winds blow across the country from the Pacific Ocean during the summer months and cold northeasterly winds sweep in from Korea and central Asia in winter. Overall temperatures in Japan range from 43°F (6°C) north of Hokkaido to 77°F (25°C) in Okinawa.
Citizens of the USA, UK, EU, Canada, and a number of other countries are granted 90 day to six month visa-free entry to Japan for tourism or business purposes. Visitors from other countries may need to apply for a tourist visa in advance of travel at a Japanese embassy or consulate. No specific vaccinations are required, although those traveling to remote areas are recommended to get vaccinated against Japanese encephalitis.
Taxi service in Japan is regulated, metered, reasonably priced, and can be hailed easily on the street. Many drivers speak some English, but having a map definitely helps. Scams are virtually non-existent as suited drivers are ultra professional and must open the door for you. Misuzu Taxis (+81-03-346-336) covers the Tokyo area.
Car rental is easily arranged with reliable internationally-known firms and is useful for exploring remote rural areas where bus service is sparse, but in general the trains can get you anywhere you need to go without much hassle. Driving in Japan is generally a pleasant experience, although Tokyo’s rush hours do get crazy and are best avoided. An International Driver’s License is required for US visitors.
The island nation has a good system of coastal ferries, although it’s not for visitors in a hurry. Destinations served from Tokyo include Tokushima as a route to Kobe, Kitakyushu, Kagoshima and Shibushi for Okinawa, with a ferry from Oarai, to the north of Tokyo, running to Tomakomai on Hokkaido. On the Japanese coast, a ferry runs from Otaru on Hokkaido to Maizuru. Ferries also connect with many small, offshore islands and an Inland Sea route runs from Kobe to Ota and Beppu.
Famous for its impressively efficient bullet trains, the high speed Shinkansen travel at 149–186 mph across a network of almost 1,500 miles and are a convenient way to get between Japanese cities. The Tōkaidō line is the world’s busiest passenger line and has carried over 6 billion commuters since its introduction. The most popular route runs from Osaka to Tokyo and offers a staggering 13 trains per hour.
In addition to the Shinkansen, extensive regular rail lines run across the country operated by a number of companies. Long-distance train travel is normally by express service and comparable to the time and cost of a domestic flight. Slower services are the more economical way to get around Japan if you have extra time to spare. Long-distance buses are the cheapest way to travel and are a good way to see the sites. Large cities boast comprehensive bus services, but have no information in English, so taxis are the most viable alternative if a subway station isn’t nearby.
Before you leave on your holiday, there are at least four health-related things you should do. Please check the handbook for specifics, but for now, here’s the short list:
Step 1: Check with the CDC for their recommendations for the countries you’ll be visiting.
Step 2: Have a medical checkup with your doctor.
Step 3: Pick up any necessary medications, both prescription and over-the-counter.
Step 4: Have a dental and/or eye checkup. (Recommended, but less important than steps 1-3.)
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