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Visiting Japan is like stepping into another world and its cultured dance of ultra-modernity and ancient tradition is as fascinating as it is unique.

Travel to Japan with an open mind, surprising your taste buds with its sublime cuisine and embracing the unfamiliarity of its customs – slipping off your shoes for dinner, and perhaps even your entire outfit at an Onsen hot spring!

Experience the exhilarating rush of neon Tokyo and amidst this whir of activity seek out pockets of tranquillity in the hushed calm of a Buddhist temple or by contemplating the transience of the cherry blossom in an immaculate garden.

From the snow-capped peak of Mount Fuji to the geishas that adorn the streets of Kyoto, Japan’s beauties are many and varied – prepare to be intrigued and delighted in equal measures.

 

Culture and history

Being in the far east, Japan’s culture is vastly different from ours in so much that many of our everyday social conventions are considered outlandish and perhaps even offensive in Japan. It’s a good idea to get at least an overview of Japanese customs, although the locals won’t be offended if you’re not entirely familiar with their ways.

Bowing is the most appropriate way to greet someone, but handshaking is becoming more common in big cities. If you need to bow, observe these steps to make sure you get it right: put your feet together, rest your hands at your sides if you’re a man, or together in front of you if you’re a woman, and bend forward from your waist about 15º with your back straight. It may seem strange, but try not to make eye contact when bowing – you should look down instead.

In place of Mr or Mrs, the Japanese use the suffix ‘san’, which comes at the end of the name as opposed to at the beginning – so Mr Takahashi would be addressed as Takahashi-san. The san suffix applies to both men and women.

The religion in Japan is a combination of Buddhism and Shinto, with most people practising both. Shinto isn’t a religion in the typical sense, but more a celebration of the spirituality of things and the basic goodness of man.

When eating out, don’t be startled if you’re asked to remove your shoes before being seated, this is normal, although many restaurants nowadays feature a mix of western-style and Japanese seating – which involves kneeling on a cushion on the floor – so you may be asked which you prefer. Chopsticks are the norm here; if using them try not to rub them together as this can be considered rude, and make sure not to point them at anyone as they may find it threatening. Knives and forks are usually provided to westerners if you ask.

For a taste of Japanese culture before you go, perhaps read Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha, which follows the life of a geisha through pre and post-war Japan.

In the last ice age Japan was connected via land bridge to mainland Asia enabling people to roam freely between Siberia, Korea and China. At the end of the ice age, around 10,000 BC, Japan geographically separated into the group of islands that we know today – Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, Kyushu and Okinawa. Several tribal groups flourished over the centuries, hunting and fishing for survival and leaving behind remnants of a distinctive style of pottery known as Jomon - also the name of this period in history.

Later, from around 400 BC, the population exploded with an influx of peoples from Asia who brought with them the technique of wet rice farming. This practice of farming the land resulted in the creation of fixed settlements and inevitably boundaries were drawn. By the 1st Century AD there were over 100 different tribal regions in Japan. One clan, the Yamato, rose to power over the centuries and it is thought that the first emperor of Japan was one of their own. During the 5th and 6th Centuries both paper and writing were introduced to Japan from China, swiftly followed by Buddhism, which coexisted with their established Shinto faith.

By the 8th Century Japan was an organised nation with a divinely ordained imperial line and strict social stratification. A capital city was established in Nara, which then moved to Kyoto in 794. It was here that Japan’s artistic and aesthetic sensibilities were cultivated. Elaborate courtly rituals were devised and the pursuit of beauty and the ultimate refinement was paramount. Meanwhile, in the rest of the country, real life continued. Eventually unrest took root, resulting in all out civil war by the mid-15th Century, which continued for nigh on 100 years. Enter the Europeans. Arriving in the late 16th Century the Portuguese came bearing Christianity and gunpowder. The use of firearms was decisive in ‘uniting’ the country under strict military rule. From 1603 there was a new shogun in town and that town was Tokyo.

From Tokyo, shogun Tokugawa effectively ruled the country in place of the figurehead emperor. A new hierarchy was introduced with meticulous rules, which were harshly enforced. The people learnt obedience and restraint and the country operated in seclusion for nearly two centuries.  In the 19th Century the winds of change blew through, and America, Russia and several European countries effectively forced Japan to open her doors, and her ports, to the world.

Things to do

Explore the heart of Japan on a holiday to the two capitals – present-day Tokyo, and the ancient imperial capital of Kyoto. Take in the views of Mount Fuji from Hakone in the dazzling Izu National Park and tour the traditional village of Shirakawago.

Experience high-tech Tokyo on a tour of Akihabara’s Electric Town, before contrasting the neon lights with the spare simplicity of a Zen garden. In Kyoto you’ll explore Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples and then be stopped in your tracks as a Maiko (apprentice Geisha) floats by in immaculate make-up and dress.

Travel in springtime and you’ll be treated to Japan’s cherry blossom season in all of its candy-hued glory, while an autumnal holiday brings the red and gold of the maple trees sweeping across the country from north to south.

Tokyo

Japan’s vast capital city sits on the main island of Honshu and is home to some 14 million busy people. Despite this, the city functions with ease as a miraculous train network zips you wherever you want to go. Head to Roppongi Hills for views of Tokyo Tower, and while you’re there don’t miss the Mori Art Museum with its breathtaking vistas from the 54th floor.

Hit fashionable Shibuya and Harajuku for an insight into Japan’s youth culture, and then wander through Yoyogi Park to the ancient Meiji Temple. Don’t miss the lights of the Rainbow Bridge on a sky train ride to Odaiba, and be sure to get up early to visit the frenetic Tsukiji fish market and enjoy a sushi breakfast. Yes, you’re certainly going to be busy in Tokyo, but then that goes with the territory!

Currency

Yen -

The currency is yen.

Though major credit cards are widely accepted in major cities, most people prefer to pay in cash so it’s useful to carry some with you whenever you can.

Many shops will have a tray next to cash register where you should place your money when paying; it’s also where your change will be placed after a transaction.

Passports and visas

You’ll need a passport valid for the duration of your stay. British nationals don’t require a visa.

Visit GOV.UK for more advice on passports and visas.

Timezone

Japan is nine hours ahead of GMT.

Electricity

Mains voltage is 100 volts AC, it’s 60Hz in the west but in the east it’s 50Hz. Sockets take flat two-pin plugs, so you’ll need adaptor.

Language

Japanese -

Japanese is the official language, although it differs greatly from the east to west of the country.

Some English is spoken in large cities, but you may struggle to find many English speakers in rural areas.

Tipping

Generally speaking, tips aren't expected and it’s safer to avoid giving them in case you cause offence.

Instead, politely say ‘gochisosama deshita’ as you leave, which means ‘thank you for the meal’.

Climate

The climate is mostly temperate in Japan, the exceptions being Hokkaido which is milder due to its more northerly position, and Okinawa’s more subtropical locale.

The former is when you’ll find the vibrant pink of the sakura cherry blossoms in full bloom, and in the autumn the rich hues of red and gold foliage hail the approach of winter.

An umbrella is a must during June and the early part of July as this is when most of the rainfall occurs, while typhoons and tropical storms are most likely to hit in August and September.

Health

As health information can change at any time, we’d advise you to consult your GP at least 12 weeks before departure.

Country-specific information and advice on possible health risks is also published by the National Travel Health Network and Centre, and The British Foreign and Commonwealth Travel Advice Unit provides important health and safety information for British nationals travelling abroad.

Population and size

The population is around 127 million (twice that of the UK) with high population densities in the major cities.

Japan spans 377,915 square kilometres, so it’s roughly one-and-a-half times as big as the UK. It consists of four main islands in the Pacific ocean (Honshu, Kyushu, Hokkaido and Shikoku), about 160 kilometres east of the Asian mainland.



Climate

Cherry Blossom Festival

Cherry Blossom Festival

Admire Japan’s cherry blossom between the last week of March and first two weeks of April