The fact that so much of the country is virtually unknown to those who live outside Japan is the one thing that most impresses people when they get there. Exploring the deeply cultural and historic ‘Land of the Rising Sun’ is a true adventure.
An archipelago situated in the North Pacific, Japan lies off the east coast of mainland Asia and is made up of four major islands – Hokkaido, Honshu, Kyushu and Sikoku – as well as thousands of smaller ones. These islands are actually the peaks of a huge chain of mountains and in total they cover almost four hundred thousand square kilometres and have almost thirty thousand kilometres of coastline. As a result, regardless of what part of the country you are in, you will never be more than one hundred and fifty kilometres from the sea – pretty amazing when you consider the vast area that Japan covers.
Tokyo is the capital city as well as being its financial and commercial centre. Other major cities in the country are the former capital – Kyoto which is a centre for heavier industry; Osaka, a very important seaport and home to one of the country’s two major airports; Yokohama, a seaport and leading shipbuilding centre; and Kobe which serves much the same purpose but is still recovering from the results of a major earthquake in 1995.
Japan as a country has its origins over two thousand three hundred years ago and from the time it was discovered right up until the late sixteenth century, it was ruled by a group of barons who seemed content to battle among themselves for the duration of their reign. According to legend the lands were formed by two gods, a brother and sister, who married and had a rather large number of gods and goddesses as kids – interesting. This lot, in turn had their own children, one of whom became the first emperor of Japan if you were to listen to hearsay.
During the period between 1600 and the end of the 1800s, an administration was formed to take over leadership of the city. Even today, while the emperor still retains his throne the control of the country is in the hands of politicians, bureaucrats and business men. Nevertheless, the fact that the emperor and his throne remain is testament to just how important tradition is to the people of Japan.
Despite their position as the most technologically advanced race on the planet, the Japanese have still preserve their extensive history and all that came with it in the way of customs and traditions. A combination of both ultra ancient and ultra modern make the country a fascinating place to visit where old and new live side by side. And, although the developments of past centuries do play an important role in the daily lives of most nationals, they still maintain a tradition of hospitality which has existed for centuries.
Everything to do with food in Japan centres around variety. From the types you can eat to the different establishments that serve it, you are in for a real adventure when it comes to eating out in Japan.
Rice has been the basic foodstuff of the Japanese for over two thousand years and is consumed by the natives for breakfast, lunch and dinner. In fact, there are very few dishes in the country which do not include rice of one type or another. But, as with all other foods in Japan, there is a great deal of variety even when it comes to this simple staple ingredient.
Highly recommended is fried rice or ‘chahan’ which is plain white rice with pieces of egg, peas, ham, prawns etc. Rice balls or ‘onigiri’ are another favourite and consist of rice which is rolled into balls and wrapped up with seaweed (nori in Japanese). Other food is put into the centre of the ball and they make excellent snacks. Sushi rice is rice with vinegar and is used in all the different sushi dishes. Donburi is simply a bowl of rice with some other food on top of it, namely chicken, beef or egg. Finally, ‘omochi’ is a sticky rice which is pressed into cakes and traditionally could only be eaten on special occasions.
Once you have decided on the type of rice which you wish to accompany your meal, it’s time to pick your main course. The list of alternatives is positively endless so here are just a few of the more popular dishes served in the country. To begin, sushi, the most famous and most popular Japanese dish, not only among the Japanese themselves but also among foreigners. Traditionally, pickled fish conserved in vinegar, today there are numerous different types. Nigiri are small rice balls with seafood served on top, ‘temaki’ are sushi cones rolled by hand, ‘norimaki’ are sushi rolls which contain rice and seafood wrapped in seaweed, ‘futomaki’ are big norimaki, ‘chriashi’ is seafood served over sushi rice and ‘inari’ are deep fried tofu bags filled with sushi rice.
Another favourite is ‘sashimi’ which is basically raw seafood is dipped into soya sauce before consumption. The most popular types are maguro (tuna), toro (fatty tuna), ika (squid), tako (octopus), ebi (prawn), saba (mackerel) and sake (salmon).
Another popular Japanese delicacy are the various types of noodles which most of you are probably familiar with. Others include ‘tempura’, a dish made from seafood and vegetables which have been deep fried in special batter, ‘yakitori’ or grilled chicken skewers, ‘gyoza’ which are Japanese dumplings of Chinese origin, ‘sukiyaki’ made from beef, tofu and vegetables cooked in a pot and dipped in raw egg. And the list goes on. You just have to be experimental and brave and forget about any weight watching because it’s not going to happen.
Finally, as well as the variety of foods you can eat, there are also a number of types of eateries to be found in Japan. Firstly, for those of you who don’t like to venture too far away from what you are accustomed to back home, ‘restorans’ are regular western style restaurants. The most common native type of restaurant found in the country, however, is a ‘shokudo’ which translates as eating place. These establishments serve a combination of western and Japanese foods and for those of you with poor Japanese, the easiest alternative in shokudos is a ‘teishoku’ or a set course meal.
For the noodle fans among you, head to an ‘o’sobay-ya’ which specialises in both hot and cold noodle dishes. Shina ryori-ya are restaurants serving Chinese specialties. Izakayas are the Japanese equivalent of western pubs and a good place to go to get something simple in friendly and casual environment. Robatayaki are restaurants serving foods which are grilled over charcoal and ‘yakitori-ya’ serve barbecued chicken and other meats on skewers. And, last but not least for pastries and light sandwiches find yourself a Kissa ten.
Getting to Japan by air is not difficult thanks to the fact that there are flights to the country’s international airports from most major cities on the planet. While the majority of flights arrive in Tokyo, some also fly into one of the other international airport. These are Nagoya, Niigata and Osaka on the island of Honshu, Fukuoka, Kagoshima, Kumamoto and Nagasaki on Kyushu, Naha on Okinawa and Sapporo on Hokkaido.
The main airlines serving Japan are numerous. Japan Airlines (JAL) the flagship carrier, operates the most flights in and out of the country. It has direct connections between Tokyo or Osaka to Chicago, Dallas, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Vancouver in North America as well as numerous destinations in the UK, Australia and New Zealand.
All Nippon Airways, the country’s largest domestic carrier, offers daily flights from New York, Washington DC, Chicago and Los Angeles to Tokyo as well as several flights per week from San Francisco and Honolulu. It also operates direct flights from London and Sydney to both Tokyo and Osaka.
Other international airlines serving Japan include Air Canada which operates daily flights between Vancouver and Tokyo, from Toronto to Tokyo five times weekly and from Vancouver to Nagoya several times per week. American Airlines flies daily between Chicago, Dallas, San Jose or Seattle and Tokyo. British Airways has direct flights to Nagoya, Osaka or Tokyo from London, Quantas flies from Brisbane, Melbourne or Sydney to Tokyo and Osaka and KLM flies daily from Amsterdam to Osaka, five times per week to Tokyo, twice weekly to Nagoya and is the only carrier with a service to Sapporo which is also made twice weekly. And, these are just the major air connections so ensure that you shop around before deciding.
Finally, some information on the location of the major international airports. Narita or The New Tokyo International Airport is located about forty miles north of the city centre but several buses and shuttles leave from all terminals and take just over an hour to reach the city. You can buy tickets for all services inside each of the terminals. Kansai International is about thirty miles south of Osaka and again there are regular bus services into the city centre and they take about thirty minutes to get there. Fukuoka International is twenty minutes away from the city of the same name and Nagoya International lies six miles north of the city.
Japan has one of the most advanced public transport systems in the world so for those of you coming from less fortunate destinations, you’re in for a veritable transportation treat. Delays and cancellations are unheard, the rail service covers almost every destination you can think of, but unfortunately thanks to its excellence, the price of travel is also much more expensive than countries with less efficient transportation systems.
For travel around the country, we highly recommended obtaining a Japan Rail Pass. This pass allows unlimited travel on all lines as well as affiliated buses and ferries. It is only available to tourists and must be purchased prior to your arrival in Japan.
For seven days travel the pass will cost you Y28,300, for fourteen days it’s Y45,100 and for twenty one days it costs Y57,700. First class passes are considerably more expensive. The only extra charges which you will incur if you have a pass are for over night sleeper trains. Finally, your pass starts as soon as you validate it. This can be done at any of the Japan Railways Travel Centres which you will find at most major rail stations and at Narita and Kansai airports. It is worth noting that you shouldn’t validate your pass until you know that you are going to making some long journeys. For example, if you’re staying in a city for a couple of days, you are really not going to get the most out of it.
Other major JR travel passes include the East Pass which can be used on all lines in the east of the country. Prices for this for anyone under 25 are Y16,000 for five days, or Y25,000 for ten days. It is worth noting that there are also four day flexible passes which do not necessitate travel on consecutive days but must be used withing one month of your first journey. These passes also cost Y16,000. The West San-yo Area Pass resembles the East Pass but applies to travel in the west only. This costs Y20,000 for four days and Y30,000 for eight days. The West Kansai Area Pass can be used for destinations including Himeji, Osaka, Kyoto and Nara. A one day pass costs Y2,000 and for four days it is Y6,000. Finally the Kyushu Rail Pass costs Y15,000 for five days and Y20,000 for seven days. This pass also has to be purchased outside the country.
Another alternative to rail travel is to make your way around the country by bus. While they make take a great deal longer to reach their destination, no reservations are necessary and prices are much more backpacker friendly. As well as this, they serve those destinations not yet reached by train so in some cases your only option is to avail of the bus service. It is worth noting that the Japan Rail Pass is valid on some services too but in these cases people usually prefer to take ‘shinkansen’ or the bullet train.
Finally, because Japan is an island nation, numerous ferries operate between the various regions. The major connections link up Tokyo, Osaka and Kobe with the main ports of Hokkaido and Kyushu, but there are numerous other services which you can inquire about at any branch of the JNTO.
Kinkaku-ji – The Temple of the Golden Pavillion, Kyoto
Widely regarded as the most famous attraction in Japan, the temple was originally built in 1393 as a retirement home by Shogun Yoshimitsu Ashikaga. When he died, it became a buddhist temple. Constructed on pillars over a lake, this was designed to convey its place between heaven and earth. In 1950, a young Zen Buddhist monk set fire to the structure who hated himself, and as a result hated anything beautiful. Rebuilt in 1955, the temple is now even more spectacular – entirely covered in gold leaf with a phoenix on top, it really is a remarkable creation and should not be missed.
Ryoanji Temple, Kyoto
In stark contrast to Kinkaku-ji, this is an authentic Zen temple, traits of which are clearly visible in its austerity and minimalism. Home to one of the most famous Zen rock gardens in the world, there is a particular task which you are supposed to try while you are there. The collection of fifteen stones is the central feature of the garden but from any point, you can usually only see fourteen of the fifteen. This number signifies completeness in Buddhism so you are supposed to study the garden and stroll along the path until you see all fifteen. An extremely spiritual place surrounded in mystery, the garden remains tranquil and quiet even when packed.
Todai-ji Temple, Nara
Home to the Daibutsu-den which is the largest wooden structure in the world as well as the world’s largest bronze sculpture of Buddha, this temple is one of the most impressive in the country. A more recent addition are the Nio guardians which date from the thirteenth century and have just been restored to their former glory. And, as if all this wasn’t enough to entice you to visit the temple consider its location. Nara served as Japan’s first capital and is currently home to eight UNESCO world heritage sites making it the second most popular tourist destination in the country, surpassed only by Kyoto.
Tokyo International Forum
Despite the fact that this building has only been around since 1996, it is already an integral part of the Japanese capital. On a par with the Empire State Building in New York or the Opera House in Sydney, the Tokyo International Forum is an excellent example of what results when the architecture of east and west is merged. Built using glass and stone, the centre plays host to numerous concerts and events as well as restaurants, shops and an art gallery and is well worth visiting if you are in the city.
While the official climbing season for Japan’s highest peak takes place between July 1st and August 31st, there is no problem with climbing it at any other time of year. In fact, it is probably a better idea to do it outside of these times to avoid the crowds. But, for those of you who would like to see it, but not necessarily to conquer the three thousand seven hundred and seventy six metres that constitute Mount Fuji, don’t worry because there’s plenty to see and do in the surrounding area. Among the most popular are Fuji Five Lakes (Fuji Go-ko), the hot springs and Open Air Art Museum at Hakone and the castle at Odawara but there are many more which are worth checking out too.
Hakuta Dontaku, Fukuoka
One of the oldest festivals in Japan, this particular event has been in existence for over eight hundred years. Taking place over two days in early May (usually 3rd and 4th), a carnival atmosphere descends on the biggest town on Kyushu for the duration of the festival. Featuring a host of traditional activities including a representation of the three gods of Good Luck, a huge fireworks display and numerous music and dance performances, this is one of the island’s biggest events of the year.
Gion Matsuri, Kyoto
Taking place throughout July, it is as if the entire city of Kyoto travels back in time during this particular festival. One of the largest of its kind in the country, Gion Matsuri has been taking place for over eleven hundred years and features street fairs, games, parades as well as traditional food and drink. If you are interested in seeing Japan at its most traditional, Kyoto with its collection of almost two thousand temples and shrines is the place to do so and the month of July is the best time to avail of this opportunity.
Nebuta Matsuri, Amomori
This is a particularly unique festival thanks to the fact that it’s so easy to join in. Unlike most Japanese festivals where you simply get to look on, this one is rather interactive and as a result it is usually much more fun for all concerned. All you need is the proper attire which you can buy in local stores. Another big drawing factor of Nebuta Matsuri are the huge floats many of which reach up to nine metres in width and five in height. Representing demons, gods and other such groupings, many of them take up to four months to build so you can imagine how spectacular they are in the flesh.
Sanja Matsuri, Tokyo
Widely regarded as the biggest and boldest of all the Buddhist festivals taking place in Japan, the central feature of Sanja Matsuri are the shrines which house the kami or local deities. Throughout the city people vie for the honour to carry the shrines and those who are successful behave rather erratically to entertain the god, much to amusement of the onlookers. As well as the shrine processions, a host of traditional entertainers take to the streets and the festival attracts over two million people to the capital during the third weekend in May.
Fuji Rock Festival, Niigata
And now for something a little different and less traditional. An annual three-day celebration of rock music, this festival takes place on the Neaeba Ski slopes and is the biggest event of its kind in the eastern hemisphere. With four stages and a campsite located one thousand metres up in the mountains, the location is amazing and pretty unique for a rock festival. Those of you who don’t think you could handle three days, however, or those of you who don’t have the time can always avail of the one or two-day tickets and listen to the sounds of a host of international stars as they play into the night.
The currency used in Japan is the Yen (Y). Notes come in denominations of Y1,000, 5,000 and 10,000 and the notes in use are Y1, 5, 10, 50, 100 and 500.
The language spoken in almost all of the country is Japanese with the exception of certain regions where the older people speak various older languages which have since become redundant. English is widely spoken, however, particularly by younger citizens and in major cities and tourist areas.
Most of the country experiences a temperate climate resulting in a humid monsoon climate with south easterly winds blowing from the Pacific in summer and north westerly winds from Eurasia during winter. Japan experiences four distinct seasons but because it stretches for over three thousand kilometres along north and south, various parts, and particularly the extremities experience very different climates. For example, at certain times of the year you can sunbathe in the south or ski in the north at the same time. In general winters are cool and sunny in the north while they are significantly colder around the capital. Summer, which takes place between June and September, can get very hot and spring and autumn are generally quite mild. June is the rain season and typhoons are most likely to occur in September or October.
Japan lies nine hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time and it does not observe Daylight Saving Time.
The bigger stores throughout the country are usually open between 10.00am and 6.30 or 7.00pm daily while smaller shops are open for similar hours but many close on Sunday. Furthermore all stores close for one or two days per month. Business hours are generally between 9.00am and 5.00pm from Monday to Friday with many also opening until lunchtime on Saturday. Finally, banks open between 9.00am and 3.00pm from Monday to Friday.
Electricity in Japan is 100 Volts AC which is found in very few places worldwide. Furthermore, Tokyo and the east of the country operate on 50Hz while western Japan is on 60Hz.
A 5% sales tax is levied on most items in Japan but there are two ways in which to get around paying this surplus. Firstly, you can shop in any of the tax-free shops which entitle visitors to an exemption. Because these shops are specifically for foreigners, however, they are not always cheaper so you are advised to shop around before making any decisions. The second alternative is to pay the tax but shop in places which offer tax refunds for visitors on items purchase which cost over Y10,000. In this case you will need to pick up a special form when making your purchases and have the shop owner stamp if for you. He or she will then issue your refund immediately but you will need to have your passport with you to avail of this incentive.
Citizens of Austria, Germany, Ireland, Mexico, Switzerland and the UK can stay for a period of up to six months without a visa but if you are going to work during your stay you will need to obtain the appropriate working papers. When you arrive you will be give a 90-day Short Stay Visa upon arrival which can be extended for another ninety days while inside the country. Those of you visiting from the US, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and most European countries will also be granted the same visa when they arrive but if you intend to stay for longer you will need to organise this before you leave your home country. Residents of all other countries or those of you of you intending to work or study while you are there should contact the Japanese Embassy in your home country to find out exactly what documentation you will need before travelling.
The Japan National Tourist Organisation (JNTO) operate five main Tourist Information Centres (TIC) throughout the country and you will find these in the following locations:
Passenger Terminal Building
Kansai International Airport
Tel: 0724 56 6025
Open: 9.00am – 9.00pm
Kyoto Tower Building
Tel: 075 371 5649
Open: 9.00am – 5.00pm Mon. to Fri. & 9.00am – 12.00pm Sat.
Tokyo International Forum
Tel: 03 3201 3331
Open: 9.00am – 5.00pm Mon. to Fri. & 9.00am – 12.00pm Sat.
Passenger Terminal Two
Tel: 0476 34 6251
Open: 9.00am – 8.00pm
Passenger Terminal One
Tel: 0476 30 3383
Open: 9.00am – 8.00pm
As well as these centres, the JNTO operates tourist information offices with English speaking staff throughout the country. These are usually found in the main railway station and are easily recognised by finding the sign with a red question mark and the word ‘information’ printed underneath.
Post offices in Japan are recognisable by their symbol which consists of a red ‘T’ with a bar across the top on a white background. When posting mail, it is worth noting that the red boxes are for ordinary mail while the blue are for special deliveries.
The main branch in an area opens between 9.00am and 7.00pm from Monday to Friday and 9.00am and 3.00pm on Saturday. Many of these also have a window where you can avail of a twenty-four hour service seven days a week. In smaller towns, local post offices open between 9.00am and 5.00pm from Monday to Friday.
Both travellers’ cheques and foreign cash can be exchanged at Narita and Kansai international airports or in any bank displaying the ‘Authorised Foreign Exchange’ sign. In the case of the latter you will need to go the appropriate exchange counter. As well as this, however, you can also change foreign currency in any major post office, and in some of the larger hotels and department stores. While their rates are not quite as good, their opening hours are usually longer but be aware that they require quite a bit of paperwork before handing over your Yen. Banks are generally open between 9.00am and 3.00pm.
Finally, if you are using your credit card, the good news is that the exchange rate is even better than that given by banks but the bad news is that credit cards are not widely accepted outside the major cities. In fact, even in these locations, many businesses refuse to accept them also. If you are taking your card with you, however, VISA, MasterCard, American Express and Diners Club are those most commonly accepted.
The country code for Japan is 81 so if you are calling from abroad you need to dial your international dialing code followed by 81, the local area code and the local number. The same instructions apply when you are making an international call from within the country. You should also note that you need to omit the 0 from the local area code where applicable for both types of call.
Local calls cost Y10 for three minutes but for long-distance or overseas come prepared. Any Y10 coins which are not used will be returned but Y100 coins will not. The majority of payphones, however, now accept prepaid phonecards (terefon kado) which come in denominations of Y500 and 1,000 and can be bought from convenience stores or vending machines throughout the country. In most cases, however, it is not possible to make an international call from these booths. In order to do so you will need to go to any of the grey ISDN or green phones which have a gold metal plate around the buttons. These are found in booths marked ‘International & Domestic Card/Coin Phone’ but are very rare.
When you do find a phone where you can make international calls, the number for the operator is 0051 but if you wish to make the call yourself check the relevant number for the organisation or card type that you are using.
Finally, when making long distance or international calls try to do so late at night or at weekends. Between 7.00pm and 11.00pm on weekdays you will receive a discount of 20% and at weekends calls are 40% cheaper.
Up until recently tipping was virtually unheard off but the western custom is becoming more frequent. Nevertheless, it is still quite uncommon and at no time is it essential. In restaurants where a service charge of between 10% and 15% has already been included, you should only tip if you really think it’s necessary. If a service charge has not been added a tip equivalent to a service charge is adequate. You don’t need to tip taxi drivers but many people tell them to keep any small change. It is worth noting once again, however, that at no time is tipping compulsory, it is entirely at your own discretion and will probably earn you some funny looks as the locals find it quite strange.
It is worth noting what the public holidays are before you travel to a country as the majority of businesses, banks and shops usually shut for the day. In Japan they take place on January 1st, the second Sunday in February and the 11th, March 21st, April 29th, May 3rd and 5th, July 20th, September 15th and 23rd, the second Monday in October, November 3rd and December 23rd. Furthermore, when the public holiday falls on a Sunday, the following Monday is taken as a public holiday. Finally, it is a good idea to check the particular area too as certain towns and cities also shut down during special events.