Japan, also known as the “Land of the Rising Sun”, is a country where the past meets the future. The culture of this country stretches back centuries yet it also leads the way in modern fashions and crazy fads. Travelling on the Shinkansen or bullet train our Japan adventure tours will take you on a high speed journey from Tokyo, the capital city of Japan to the attractive port city of Nagasaki and various towns in between to discover the wonders of this stunning country.
Japan cannot be beaten for its beautiful lakes, woodlands and cherry blossoms, but a view not to be missed is that of Mt Fuji on a clear day. Our Japan adventure tours offer you classic Japanese experiences from visiting temples and shrines in Kyoto to staying in traditional ryokans or finishing a long day at a sento, a communal Japanese bath house. If a communal bath isn’t quite your style why not head out for a meal of sushi washed down with a few sakes This traditional rice wine this will help you to get up the courage to belt out a few songs at the karaoke bar! From the modern glitzy cities to the small villages our Japan adventure tours will show all sides of this wondrous land.
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Japan Travel Articles, Inspiration & Information
Touring Japan for the Cherry Blossom
Most travellers are drawn to the abundance of delicious sushi, made from fish plucked fresh from the surrounding seas or the unique culture which, although has some Chinese influence has remained steady over the centuries. The Japan Cherry Blossom Festival is a less well known reason to visit the country.. Read more
Japan by Season – The best times of year to travel
If there was ever a land that embraces its seasons, it’s Japan. Speak of spring and you’re instantly transported to the candy floss canopies of the blossom festivals. Winter offers evocative views of snow-dusted pagodas on mirror lakes and monkeys in hot springs with icicle-crusted fur.. Read more
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Japan Travel Guide
Japan Travel Guide
Japan is in equal parts chaotic and serene, with neon gaming parlours, densely packed cities and often bizarre fashion trends clashing appealingly with cherry blossoms, hot pools, serene forests and tranquil temples. There appears to be a delicate balance between old and new, with technology and pop culture existing alongside rice paddy farming and old Shinto and Buddhist traditions. It is a country rich in history, some of it highly controversial. From the remnants of WWII to the old Shoguns and Samurais, Japan's story has rarely been a dull one. Its location on the Pacific ring of fire has resulted a number of natural disasters over the years, yet also provides the natural landscape that makes Japan so alluring and picturesque, from the sillhouette of domant volcano Mt Fuji, to the deep volcanic lakes on the island of Hokkaidō. The culture, once closed to strangers, now offers glimpses of itself to the world with performance arts such as Kabuki and Nō plays and the chance to stay in ryokans, traditional Japanese inns.
Japan's currency is the yen (symbol: ¥) which breaks down to 100 sen. Bank notes come in 1000, 2000, 5000 and 10000 yen denominations and coins come in 1, 5, 10, 50, 100 and 500 denominations.
As a developed nation, Japan is more pricier that most other Asian nations but needn't be as prohibitively expensive as its reputation would suggest. By eating at local restaurants, making use of public transport and staying in moderate accommodation, Japan can be an affordable destination. Meals in local resturants usually 1000-2000 yen (US$8-16), a pint of beers is around 600 yen (US$5) and entry fees for temples, museums and castles are generally between 500-1000 yen (US$4-9).
ATMs are very common in Japan, although many will only accept Japan-issued cards. The postal ATMs available in most post offices are all set up to accept internationl cards such as VISA and Mastercard. 7-11 convenience store ATMs should also work with international cards, as should Citibank Japan ATMs. It is wise to carry with you a mixture of cards and enough cash to cover emergencies.
Tipping is not expected in Japan and may cause offence or embarassment to recipients if pressed. It is better to give a small gift, or money in an envelope if you wish to reward someone for good service.
Major Cities and Towns in Japan
Japan is made up of four main islands, the largest in the centre is called Honshū where the capital city of Tokyo can be found. Around Tokyo other cities and towns on the main island include the old castle town of Matsumoto, Nagano which has a famous 7th century Buddhist temple, Takayama and the historic towns of Nikkō and Kamakura. Further south, Japan's second city Kyoto can be found, famous for being the cultural heart of the nation. Near to Kyoto are the ports of Osaka and Kōbe as well as nearby historic Nara and Himeji where one of the country's most dramatic castles is located. In western Honshū Hiroshima is a popular destination, best known for the a-bomb dropped there during World War II. On Kyūshū, the southernmost of Japan's islands, Nagasaki makes a popular destination as an attractive cosmopolitan city.
Japan's electricity current runs at 100 volts which is different to most other supplies in the world, so you should check the voltage of your electronic devices before plugging them in to a Japanese outlet. Unless your device is dual voltage, you should consider a convertor or transformer (or a universal adaptor with one of these built in). The most common plug type is two flat, parallel pins similar to that used in the United States although there are subtle differences so you may still need an adapter.
Etiquette and Culture
Most of the population live on the main island of Honshū on the coastal plains. The people are predominantly Japanese, and it is one of the most ethnically homogenous countries in the world. The next most prevalant group are Koreans with just under a million living in Japan. There are indigenous people such as the Ainu living in very small numbers here as well.
Japan is known for its complex set of social rules and traditions, but luckily most do not expect foreigners to understand these and are tolerant of social blunders. There are a few basic pointers below and Japanese are generally appreciative of any effort made to understand the basics of their culture.
Removing your shoes and changing into slippers is a common practice in homes and traditional hotels and even some restaurants and temples. If you see a raised floor and a row of slippers this indicates that you should remove your shoes and use the slippers. Slippers are then removed before stepping onto tatami (rice-straw) mats. There are also toilet slippers at the door to the bathroom to change into.
If visiting public baths or hot springs (onsen), the bath water is used by everybody so it is customary to wash off all soap and shampoo before getting into the water. Full nudity is acceptable and most baths are segregated, though if in doubt it always pays to ask first!
Blowing your nose in public is considered very rude and it is better to sniff until you can find somewhere private.
Sticking chopsticks upright in your dish represents death and is considered bad luck. If you are taking food from a shared dish it is customary to turn the chopsticks around and use the thick end to serve yourself from the communal plate. It is bad manners to cross your chopsticks or use them to point or gesture. Slurping noisily is not considered bad manners, nor is drinking directly from your bowl.
Japan is an archipelago made up of some 6800 volcanic islands. Its largest island is called Honshū. There are three other main islands Hokkaidō, Shikoku and Kyūshū which are linked to Honshū by bridges and tunnels. The distance between Japan's northernmost point to its southernmost is 3000 kms and it is twice the size of the United Kingdom.
Japan has a very long history and its isolation and resistence to colonisation has made it one of the world's most enduring nations. The Japanese people migrated to these islands from 10,000 BC, the previous inhabitants are believed to be originally from Polynesia and those few descendants that remain are called Ainu and mostly live in present-day Hokkaidō.
From its earliest records, Japan was ruled by dynastic emperors whose right to rule was based on their descendancy from gods. In the mid-6th century however, non-imperial rulers took control of the empire, keeping the monarchy in place in what was little more than a ceremonial title. This situation remained in place until the 19th century.
The first non-imperial leader was Prince Shōtoku from the Soga clan. He was a devout Buddhist and enthusiastic patron of the sciences and arts, introducing the Chinese calendar and a legal code. It was also around this time that Chinese script was introduced to the islands.
The Soga were usurped by the Nakatomi clan who renamed themselves to Fujinawa. The Fujinawa remained in power for five hundred years introducing land taxation and tenure and many Chinese conventions including Confucianism and the teaching Chinese history and philosophy. Capital cities traditionally moved with each new emperor, until the Fujinawa set up the first permanent capital in Nara. Political meddling by Nara's monks led them to move this capital in 794 to Heian-kyō (later named Kyoto) marking the beginning of the Heian era. They remained in power here until 1185.
The Kamakura era 1185-1333 saw the establishment of military-style 'Bakufu' government in Kamakura by Yoritomo of the Minamoto clan with general-leaders called Shoguns. Shoguns controlled large areas of land, delegating authority to regional Daimyos (warlords) who ruled by means of armies of Samauri. This saw the introduction of the caste system and feudalism in Japan.
Power struggles between Shoguns eventually led to anarchy in the 15th century when the country descended into a series of civil wars which lasted into the early 17th century. Japan was finally reunified under a triumvirate of generals, followed by a period of assasinations, intrigue and battles which eventually led to the emergence of the Tokugawa Shongunate. They had their capital at Edo (now Tokyo) and returned Japan to its previous feudal state.
Resistence to the growing influence of Christianity, led to the period of 'sakoku' (closed country) closing Japan off from the outside world which lasted until the mid-19th century. The Tokugawa Shohunate collapsed in 1867 and in 1868 imperial power was returned, with 15 year old Mutsuhito crowned Emporer Meiji, ushering in the era of the Meiji Restoration (1868-1912) during which time Japan dedicated itself to industrialisation and modernisation.
During World War I Japan allied with Great Britain and the United States and enjoyed a decade of post-war prosperity before the depression of the 1930s similar to that experienced by the West. The Manchuria Incident of 1931 saw the Japanese military invade China. In 1936 Japan allied itself with Nazi Germany and the following year launched a full-scale invasion into China, then continuing into Indo-China. In 1941 Japan launched a surprise attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbour. On August 6 and 9 1945 the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
After the war, America stayed on as an occupying force, implementing social and political reform and purging the government of its military supporters. A peace treaty was signed in 1951 resolving all former quarrels with the Allies. The 1960s saw incredible economic recovery and increased industrialisation until the 1990s when the economy began to recede. In March 2011 Japan's coast was devastated by a tsunami which lead to a nuclear disaster at Fukushima.
Best time to travel in Japan
Japan has four distinct seasons, summer, winter, spring and autumn, but the way the seasons affect different parts of the country varies dramatically. Winter on the main island of Honshū is bitterly cold with heavy snowfall on the western side of the island, and dry and clear on the eastern side where the majority of the cities are based. The west received weather systems from Siberia which pick up moisture from the Sea of Japan giving it reliable, annual snowfall making it the ideal destination for skiers and snowboarders.
Spring has unpredictable weather with frequent spring showers, but is considered one of the best times of year to visit owing to the flowering of the cherry blossom, with different parts of the country covered in cloud-like canopies at different times between March and May.
Surprisingly, much of Japan experiences humid, tropic-style heat between the months of June and August culminating in a brief typhoon season in September. To escape the close conditions, many head for the more gentle temperatures of the hills in the northern reaches of the country.
Autumn, from October to November is perhaps Japan's other most picturesque season with brilliantly coloured maple trees dotting the landscape.
When to travel
Weather-wise spring and autumn offer the most reliable, comfortable weather, along with the most scenic countryside, but every season in Japan offers something to travellers making it a year-round destination.
There are also several festivals dotted throughout the year. The 'Golden Week' in late April/early May and the Obon holiday in mid-August both make travel difficult with locals on the move and it is important to make bookings for this time well in advance.
Yuki Matsuri is a snow festival held every year in February in Sapporo, Hokkaidō (the northernmost of the four main islands) where giant snow and ice scultures are displayed.
Gion Matsuri is a festival where geishas perform en masse, held in Kyoto every July.
Guide to food in Japan
Japanese food is a world cuisine and it is unlikely travellers will arrive on Japanese soil without some preconceptions about what to expect food-wise. Its the subtleties of the cuisine that make it so enjoyable, with hundreds of local variations, exquisitely close attention to presentation and the delicate balance of different flavours and textures.
The most common fast food, apart from western variations of burgers and fried chicken, are hearty bowls of ramen noodles usually served in a meat or fish broth, topped with sliced meat or seafood, seaweed and vegetables and sometimes flavoured with miso or soy sauce. Each region in Japan has its own variation of ramen. Karē raisu is another popular and quick dish of curry and rice which can have various meats or vegetables included in the curry sauce. Originally brought to Japan by the British from India it is made with curry powder and has developed many regional variations.
Japanese breakfast generally consists of miso soup, grilled fish, pickles and rice, although a version of what is considered a Western breakfast is usually available at hotels. Coffee and toast is another popular Japanese start to the day.
Wagashi is small, decorated confectionary that is often served with tea and takes on many, many forms. They are generally made from pounded rice and red azuki beans or chestnuts.
Bentō boxes are Japan's single-portion meals either made from home or store-bought and they traditionally contain rice with fish or meat and pickled or cooked vegetables. They range from basic fare purchased in train stations and convenience stores to ornate, elaborate inventions in beautiful laquered boxes.
At the top end of eating options, kaiseki-ryōri is a cuisine of small, expertly balanced and meticulously presented dishes, much like a Japanese version of a degustation menu. It focusses on using fresh, seasonal ingredients and kaiseki-ryōri restaurants seek to provide an atmosphere as elegant and carefully thought out as the food itself.
It is impossible to speak of Japanese cuisine without mentioning sushi and sashimi, made from rice prepared with vinegar, served in different forms with fish and seafood being the main ingredients. In addition to sushi, unagi is a popular fish dish, made of eel seasoned with soy sauce and sake and cooked over charcoal. The famous fugu (blowfish) which is potentially fatal if prepared incorrectly, is a daring experience, if only for the price of the bill at the end.
Shabu-shabu involves thin slices of beef and vegetables cooked at the table in a light broth and there are various other stews that are prepared at the table, offering fresh and fragrant fare.
This merely scratches the surface of the food experiences available in Japan; there is a whole culinary world within its islands just waiting to be explored.
Top Attractions and Highlights in Japan
Tokyo is home to some of the most daring architecture, scores of fashionable restaurants and clubs with traditional Japan peaking out in its temples, shrines and gardens. Visit Tsukiji, Tokyo's famous fish market, for the freshest sashimi and sushi you're ever likely to try.
Kyoto was Japan's imperial capital for more than 1000 years. The wake of this history has left a treasure chest of cultural gems including palaces, temples and gardens. It is considered Japan's cultural heart and where you may experience some of its traditional culture and wonderful cuisine.
An ancient former capital, Nara is an elegant historical city and home to the bronze Buddha of Tōdai-ji nestled in Nara-kōen park where tame deer wander freely. Its compact size and relaxing air make it a rewarding destination and its proximity to Kyoto makes it a comfortable side trip.
The northernmost of Japan's main islands, this is Japan's wilderness wonderland with hiking opportunities in the Daisetsu-zan National Park.
Miyajima is the holiest island in Japan and is the home of the Shinto shrine Itsukushima, a UNESCO world heritage site. Passing under the floating torii gate on the way to visit the shrine is an act of sanctification and purification.
6. Mt Fuji
Japan's iconic conical peak, Mt Fuji is a dormant volcano and Japan's highest mountain. Enjoy its majesty from the cities and lakes at its base, or take one of several hiking trails to the summit for spectacular, if hard-earned, views from the top.
Home of Japan's most ornate and famous castle. Go back in time to the age of the samauri in this beautiful and elegant fortress.
Pay respect to the many killed during World War II from the a-bomb attack at the Peace Memorial Park.
With its streets lined with temples and merchant houses, Takayama was once an enclave of skilled carpenters who were engaged by emporers in Kyoto and Nara to build great palaces and temples.
Located on the island of Kyūshū, it is a elegant and cosmopolitan city while the nearby highlands offer hot pools and hiking trails.
10 Interesting Facts about Japan
1. Japan's economy is driven by manufacturing, in particular the automotive, electronic and machine tool industries.
2. Its head of state is Emperor Akihito, this is a ceremonial position only but he is greatly respected.
3. Japan's national sport is sumo wrestling, although there are many other popular sports including karate, judo and baseball.
4. Golf is very popular in Japan with over 2000 golf courses and 14 million people participating in the sport.
5. The Japanese characters that make up Japan's name literally translate to “sun-origin” which is why Japan is sometimes referred to as the land of the rising sun.
6. Japan is the world's third largest economy by GDP, following China and the United States.
7. The country of Japan sits on the Pacific 'ring of fire' which, as a result of tectonic plate movements, has three quarters of the world's volcanoes. This is the reason behind Japan's high number of earthquakes and volcanic activity.
8. Almost three quarters of Japan is covered by forest or mountains. This means the majority of the nation's 127 million people live on the southern coastal plain of Honshū (the largest of the main islands), making it one of the most densely populated areas in the world.
9. The capsule hotel was invented in Japan, originating in Osaka. The hotels have lying room only and 'rooms' are stacked one on top of another along corridors.
10. Around 15kms off the coast of Nagasaki there is an isolated island called Hashima, nicknamed 'ghost island'. It was a coal mining facility and had over 5000 occupants during the peak of production before petroleum took over and the island was completely abadoned and left to ruin. It is now partially open for tourists and was used as a filming location for the James Bond film Skyfall in 2012.