The most important holiday in Japan is New Year (お正月 Oshōgatsu), which pretty much shuts down the country from December 30 to January 3. Japanese head home to their families (which means massive transport congestion bound for suburb area from large city such as Tokyo), eat festive foods and head out to the neighborhood temple at the stroke of midnight to wish in the New Year. Many Japanese often travel to other countries as well, and prices for airfares are very high.
In March or April, Japanese head out en masse for hanami (花見, lit. "flower viewing"), a festival of outdoors picnics and drunken revelry in parks, cleverly disguised as cherry blossom (桜 sakura) viewing. The exact timing of the famously fleeting blossoms varies from year to year and Japan's TV channels follow the progress of the cherry blossom front from south to north obsessively.
The longest holiday is Golden Week (April 27 to May 6), when there are four public holidays within a week and everybody goes on extended vacation. Trains are crowded, flight and hotel prices are jacked up to multiples of normal prices, making this a bad time to travel in Japan, but the weeks immediately before or after Golden Week are excellent choices.
Summer brings a spate of festivals designed to distract people from the intolerable heat and humidity (comparable to the US Midwest). There are local festivals (祭 matsuri) and impressive fireworks competitions (花火 hanabi) throughout the country. Tanabata (七夕), on July 7th (or early August in some places), commemorates a story of star-crossed lovers who could only meet on this day.
The largest summer festival is Obon (お盆), held in mid-July in eastern Japan (Kanto) and mid-August in western Japan (Kansai), which honors departed ancestral spirits. Everybody heads home to visit village graveyards, and transport is packed.
The Japanese are proud of their four seasons, but the tourist with a flexible travel schedule should aim for spring or autumn.
- Spring is one of the best times of year to be in Japan. The temperatures are warm but not hot, there's not too much rain, and March-April brings the justly famous cherry blossoms (sakura) and is a time of revelry and festivals. In early March, the Japan Meteorological Agency announces predictions about when the blooming will begin .
- Summer starts with a dreary rainy season (known as tsuyu or baiu) in June and turns into a steambath in July-August, with extreme humidity and the temperature heading as high as 40°C. Avoid, or head to northern Hokkaido or the mountains of Chubu and Tohoku to escape. The upside, though, is a slew of fireworks shows (花火大会 hanabi taikai) and festivals big and small.
- Autumn, starting in September, is also an excellent time to be in Japan. Temperatures and humidity become more tolerable, fair days are common and fall colors can be just as impressive as cherry blossoms. However, in early autumn typhoons often hit the southern parts of Japan and bring everything to a standstill.
- Winter is a good time to go skiing or hot-spring hopping, but as some buildings lack central heating, it's often miserably cold indoors. Heading south to Okinawa provides some relief. There is usually heavy snow in Hokkaido and northeast Japan due to the cold wind blasts from Siberia. Note that the Pacific coast of Honshu (where most major cities are located) has milder winters than the Sea of Japan coast: it may be snowing in Kyoto while it is cloudy or sprinkling rain in Osaka, an hour away.
The language of Japan is Japanese. Most Japanese have studied English for at least 6 years starting from junior high school, but conversational ability is usually poor. If lost, one practical tip is to write out a question on paper in simple words and give it to someone young, preferably the high school students. They may be able to point you in the right direction. It can also be helpful to carry a hotel business card or matchbook with you, to show a taxi driver or someone if you lose your way. Take comfort in the fact that many Japanese will go to extraordinary lengths to understand what you want and to help you, and try to pick up at least basic greetings and thank yous to put people at ease.
Japanese is a language with several distinct dialects, although standard Japanese (hyōjungo 標準語), which is based on the Tokyo dialect, is understood everywhere. Areas like Kyushu and the Tohoku region have dialects that are nearly incomprehensible to other Japanese. The slang-heavy dialect of the Kansai region is particularly famous in Japanese pop culture. On the southern islands of Okinawa, many dialects of the the closely related Ryukyuan languages are spoken, mostly by the elderly, while in northern Hokkaido a rare few still speak Ainu.
Japanese is written using a convoluted mix of three different scripts: kanji (漢字) or Chinese characters, together with "native" hiragana (ひらがな) and katakana (カタカナ) syllabaries, which were in fact derived from Chinese characters more than one thousand years ago. However, hiragana and katakana do not carry the meaning of the original Chinese characters they were derived from and are simply phonetic characters. There are thousands of kanji in everyday use and even the Japanese spend years learning them, but the kanas have only 50 syllables each and can be learned with a reasonable amount of effort. Of the two, katakana are probably more useful for the visitor as they are used to write words of foreign origin other than Chinese, and thus can be used to figure out words like basu (バス, bus), kamera (カメラ, camera) or konpyūtā (コンピューター, computer). However, some words like terebi (テレビ, television), depāto (デパート, department store), wāpuro (ワープロ, word processor) and sūpā (スーパー, supermarket) may be harder to figure out. Knowing Chinese will also be a great head start for tackling kanji, but not all words mean what they seem: 大家 (Mandarin Chinese: dàjiā, Japanese: ōya), "everybody" to the Chinese, means "landlord" in Japan!
Japanese cuisine, renowned for its emphasis on fresh, seasonal ingredients, has taken the world by storm. The key ingredient of most meals is white rice, usually served steamed, and in fact its Japanese word gohan (ご飯) also means "meal". Soybeans are a key source of protein and take many forms, notably the miso (味噌) soup served with almost every meal, but also tōfu (豆腐) bean curd and the ubiquitous soy sauce (醤油 shōyu). Seafood features heavily in Japanese cuisine, including not only creatures of the sea but many varieties of seaweed as well, and a complete meal is always rounded out by some pickles (漬物 tsukemono).
One of the joys of getting out of Tokyo and traveling within Japan is to discover the local specialties. Every region within the country has a number of delightful dishes, based on locally available crops and fish. In Hokkaido try the fresh sashimi and crab. In Osaka don't miss the okonomiyaki (お好み焼き) stuffed with green onions and the octopus balls (たこ焼き takoyaki).
Japanese food is eaten with chopsticks (箸 hashi). Curry rice and fried rice are eaten with spoons. Eating with chopsticks is a surprisingly easy skill to pick up, although mastering them takes a while. Some chopstick guidelines to be aware of:
- Never place or leave chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice, and never pass something from your chopsticks to another person's chopsticks. These are associated with funerary rites. If you want to give a piece of food to someone, let them take it from your plate, or place it directly on their plate.
- When you are done using chopsticks, you can rest them across the edge of your bowl or plate. Most nicer restaurants put a small wooden or ceramic chopstick rest (hashi-oki) at each place setting. You can also fold the paper wrapper that the chopsticks come in to construct your own hashi-oki.
- Licking the ends of your chopsticks is considered low-class. Take a bite of your rice instead.
- Using chopsticks to move plates or bowls is rude.
- Pointing at things with your chopsticks is rude. (Pointing at people in general is rude; with chopsticks, doubly so.)
- Spearing food with your chopsticks is generally rude and should only be used as a last resort.
Disposable chopsticks (wari-bashi) are provided in all restaurants as well as with bentō and other take-out foods. It is a myth that you should "whittle" your chopsticks after breaking them apart.
Many Japanese dishes come with different sauces and garnishes. Japanese never put soy sauce on their rice, though they do dip their sushi in it before eating, and they pour it on grilled fish as well. Tonkatsu (pork cutlet) comes with a thicker sauce, tempura comes with a lighter, thinner sauce made from soy sauce and dashi (fish and seaweed soup base), while gyōza (potstickers) are usually dipped in a mixture of soy sauce, vinegar and chili oil.
There are several large brands of Japanese beer (ビール biiru), including Kirin, Asahi, Sapporo, and Suntory. A bit harder to find is an Okinawan brand, Orion which is excellent. Yebisu is also a popular beer brewed by Sapporo. Microbrewed beers are also starting to appear in Japan, with a few restaurants offering their own micros or ji-biiru (地ビール) but these are still few in number. Most varieties are lagers, with strengths averaging 5%.
You can buy beer in cans of all sizes, but in Japanese restaurants beer is typically served in bottles (瓶 bin), or draft (生 nama meaning "fresh"). Bottles come in three sizes, 大瓶 Oobin (Large), 中瓶 Chuubin (Medium) and 小瓶 Kobin (Small), of which the Medium is the most common. Larger bottles give you the opportunity to engage in the custom of constantly refilling your companions' glasses (and having yours topped off as well). If you order draft beer, you each receive your own mug (jokki). In many establishments, a dai-jokki ("big mug") holds a full liter of brew.
Some Japanese bartenders have an annoying habit of filling half of your mug with head so that you only have half a glass of actual beer. Though the Japanese like their draft beer poured that way, you may find it irritating - especially when you're paying ￥600 for a glass of beer as in many restaurants and bars. If you have the gumption to ask for less head, say awa o sukoshi dake kudasai ("please, just a little foam"). You will baffle your server, but you may get a full glass of beer.
Guinness pubs have started appearing all over the country recently, which is nice for those who like Irish drinks.
For those with a more humourous tastes in beer, try kodomo biiru (こどもビール, literally Children’s Beer), a product that looks just like the real thing but was actually invented with children in mind (there is 0% alcohol content).
Japan , known as Nihon or Nippon (日本) in Japanese, is an island nation in East Asia.
The "Land of the Rising Sun" is a country where the past meets the future. Japanese culture stretches back millennia, yet has also adopted (and created) the latest modern fashions and trends.
Japan is a study in contrasts and contradictions. Many Japanese corporations dominate their industries, yet if you read the financial news it seems like Japan is practically bankrupt. Cities are as modern and high tech as anywhere else, but tumbledown wooden shacks can still be spotted next to glass fronted designer condominiums. On an average subway ride, you might see childishly cute character toys and incredibly violent pornography - sometimes enjoyed by the same passenger, at the same time! Japan has beautiful temples and gardens which are often surrounded by garish signs and ugly buildings. In the middle of a modern skyscraper you might discover a sliding wooden door which leads to a traditional chamber with tatami mats, calligraphy, and tea ceremony. These juxtapositions mean you may often be surprised and rarely bored by your travels in Japan.
Japan is conventionally divided into nine regions, listed here from north to south:
- Hokkaido - northernmost island and snowy frontier. Famous for its wide open spaces and cold winters.
- Tohoku - largely rural north-east part of the main island Honshu, best known for for seafood, skiing and hot springs
- Kanto - coastal plain of Honshu, includes the cities of Tokyo and Yokohama
- Chubu - mountainous middle region of Honshu, dominated by the Japan Alps and Japan's fourth-largest city Nagoya
- Kansai - western region of Honshu, ancient capital of culture and commerce, including the cities of Osaka, Kyoto, Nara and Kobe
- Chugoku - south-westernmost Honshu, a rural region best known for the cities of Hiroshima and Shimonoseki
- Shikoku - smallest of the four main islands, a destination for Buddhist pilgrims, and Japan's best white-water rafting
- Kyushu - southernmost of the four main islands, birthplace of Japanese civilization; largest cities Fukuoka and Kitakyushu
- Okinawa - semi-tropical southern island chain reaching out toward Taiwan; formerly the independent Ryukyu Kingdom until it was annexed by Japan in 1879, its traditional customs and architecture are significantly different from the rest of Japan.
Japan has thousands of cities; these are nine of the most important to the traveller.
- Tokyo - the capital and main financial centre, modern and densely populated.
- Hiroshima - large port city, the first city to be destroyed by an atomic bomb
- Kanazawa - historic city on the west coast
- Kyoto - ancient capital of Japan, considered the cultural heart of the country, with many ancient Buddhist temples and gardens
- Nagasaki - ancient port city in Kyushu, the second city to be destroyed by an atom bomb
- Nara - first capital of a united Japan, with many Buddhist shrines, and historical buildings
- Osaka - large and dynamic city located in the Kansai region
- Sapporo - largest city in Hokkaido, famous for its snow festival
- Sendai - largest city in the Tohoku region, known as the city of forests due to its tree lined avenues and wooded hills
See Japan's Top 3 for some sights and places held in the high esteem by the Japanese themselves, and Off the beaten track in Japan for a selection of fascinating but less well known destinations throughout the country.
- Mount Fuji - iconic snow-topped volcano, and highest peak in Japan (3776 m)
- 88 Temple Pilgrimage - an arduous 1,647 km trail around the island of Shikoku
- Narrow Road to the Deep North - a route around northern Japan immortalized by Japan's most famous haiku poet
While geography is not destiny, the fact that Japan is located on islands on the outermost edge of Asia has had a profound influence on its history. Just close enough to mainland Asia, yet far enough to keep itself separate, much of Japanese history has been the alternation of periods of closure and openness. Until recently, Japan has been able to turn on or off its connection to the rest of the world, internalizing foreign cultural influences in fits and starts. It is comparable with the relationship between Britain and the rest of Europe, but with a much wider channel.
Recorded Japanese history begins in the 5th century, although archaeological evidence of settlement stretches back 500,000 years and the mythical Emperor Jimmu is said to have founded the current Imperial line in the 7th century BC. Archeological evidence, however, has only managed to trace the Imperial line back to the Kofun Period during the 3rd to 7th centuries AD, which was also when the Japanese first had significant contact with China. Japan then gradually became a centralised state during the Asuka Period, during which Japan extensively absorbed many aspects of Chinese culture, and saw the introduction of Mahayana Buddhism and Confucianism. The popular board game of Go is also believed to have been introduced to Japan from China during this period.
The first strong Japanese state was centered in Nara, which was built to model the then Chinese capital Chang'an. This period, dubbed the Nara Period was the last time the emperor actually held political power, with power eventually falling into the hands of the court nobles during the Heian Period, when the capital was moved to Kyoto, which remained the Japanese imperial residence until the 19th century. Chinese influence also reached its peak during the early Heian Period, which saw Buddhism become a popular religion among the masses. This was then followed by the Kamakura Period, when the samurai managed to gain political power. Minamoto no Yoritomo, the most powerful of them was dubbed shogun by the emperor and ruled from his base in Kamakura. The Muromachi Period then saw the Ashikaga shogunate come to power, ruling from their base in Ashikaga. Japan then descended into the anarchy of the Warring States period in the 15th century. Tokugawa Ieyasu finally reunified the country in 1600 and founded the Tokugawa shogunate, a feudal state ruled from Edo, or modern-day Tokyo. A strict caste system was imposed, with the Shogun and his samurai warriors at the top of the heap and no social mobility permitted.
During this period, dubbed the Edo Period, Tokugawa rule kept the country stable but stagnant with a policy of almost total isolation (with the exception of Dutch and Chinese merchants in certain designated cities) while the world around them rushed ahead. US Commodore Matthew Perry's Black Ships arrived in Yokohama in 1854, forcing the country to open up to trade with the west. The resulting shock led to the collapse of the shogunate in the Meiji Restoration of 1867, during which the imperial capital was relocated from Kyoto to Edo, now re-named Tokyo. Japan launched itself headlong into a drive to industrialize and modernize, which soon turned into a drive to expand and colonize its neighbors, culminating in the disastrous Second World War that saw 1.86 million Japanese and well over 10 million Chinese and other Asians die in battle, bombings, starvation and massacres. Forced to surrender in 1945 after the nuclear attacks of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan was occupied for the first time in its history. The Emperor kept his throne but was turned into a constitutional monarch. Thus converted to pacifism and democracy, with the US taking care of defense, Japan now directed its prodigious energies into peaceful technology and proceeded to conquer the world's marketplaces with an endless stream of cars and consumer electronics, rising from the ashes to attain the second-largest gross national product in the world.
As an island nation shut off from the rest of the world for a long time (with mild exceptions from China and Korea), Japan is very homogeneous. Almost 99% of the population is of Japanese ethnicity. The largest minority are Koreans, around 1 million strong, many in their 3rd or 4th generations. There are also sizable populations of Chinese, Filipinos and Brazilians (many of whom are actually ethnic Japanese). Though largely assimilated, the resident Chinese population maintains a presence in Japan's three Chinatowns in Kobe, Nagasaki and Yokohama. Indigenous ethnic minorities include the Ainu on Hokkaido, gradually driven north during the centuries and now numbering around 50,000 (although the number varies greatly depending on the exact definition used), and the Ryukyuan people of Okinawa.
The Japanese are well known for their politeness. Many Japanese are thrilled to have visitors to their country and are incredibly helpful to lost and bewildered-looking foreigners. Younger Japanese people are often extremely interested in meeting and becoming friends with foreigners as well. Do not be surprised if a Japanese person (usually of the opposite gender) approaches you in a public place and tries to initiate a conversation with you in somewhat coherent English. On the other hand many are not used to dealing with foreigners (commonly known as gaijin (外人), outsider, or gaikokujin (外国人) - a more polite phrasing) and are more reserved and reluctant to communicate.
Visibly foreign visitors remain a rarity in much of Japan, and you will likely encounter moments when entering a shop causes the staff to seemingly panic and scurry off into the back. Don't take this as racism: they're just afraid that you'll try to address them in English and they'll be embarrassed because they can't understand or reply. A smile and a Konnichiwa ("Hello") often helps.
As Japan has undergone periods of openness and isolation throughout its history, Japanese culture is if anything unique. While heavy Chinese influences are evident in traditional Japanese culture, it has also retained many native Japanese customs, resulting in a seemingly seamless blend.
The Japanese currency is the Japanese yen, abbreviated ¥ (or JPY in foreign exchange contexts). The symbol 円 (pronounced en) is used in the Japanese language itself. As of 2008, the exchange rate hovers around 100 yen to the dollar.
- Coins: 1 (silver), 5 (gold with a center hole), 10 (copper), 50 (silver with a center hole), 100 (silver), and 500 yen. There are two ¥500 coins, distinguishable by their color. (The new ones are gold, the old ones are silver).
- Bills: 1000 (blue), 2000 (green), 5000 (purple), and 10000 yen (brown). ¥2000 bills are rare. New designs for all the bills except ¥2000 were introduced in November 2004, so there are now two versions in circulation. Most merchants will not object to receiving a ¥10000 bill even for a small purchase.
Japan is still fundamentally a cash society. Although most stores and hotels serving foreign customers take credit cards, some businesses such as cafés, bars, grocery stores, and even smaller hotels and inns do not. Even businesses that do take cards often have a minimum charge as well as a surcharge, although this practice is disappearing. The Japanese usually carry around large quantities of cash - it is quite safe to do so and is almost a necessity, especially in smaller towns and more isolated areas. In many cities, the Japanese can also use mobile phones to pay for their purchases where mobile phones function like credit cards and the cost is billed to them with their mobile phone bill. However, a Japanese phone and SIM card is required to make use of this service so it's typically not available to foreigners on short visits.
Almost any major bank in Japan will provide foreign currency exchange from US dollars (cash and traveller's checks). Rates are basically the same whichever bank you choose. Having to wait 15-30 minutes, depending on how busy the branch gets, is not unusual. Other currencies accepted are Euros, Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand dollars, and British Pound Sterling. Among other Asian currencies, Singapore dollars seem to be the most widely accepted.
Exchange rates for US dollars and Euros are typically very good (about 2% below the official rate). Exchange rates for other currencies are very poor (up to 15% below the official rate). Other Asian currencies are generally not accepted. Japanese post offices also can cash traveller's checks or exchange cash for yen, at a slightly better rate than the banks. Traveller's checks also have a better rate of exchange than cash. Note that if you are exchanging amounts in excess of US$1000 (whether cash or T/C), you will be required to provide identification that includes your name, address, and date of birth (to prevent money laundering and the funding of terrorism). Since passports usually do not show your address, bring along another form of I.D. such as a driver's license that shows your address.
Japanese ATMs, known locally as cash corners (キャッシュコーナー kyasshu kōnā), generally do not accept foreign cards and the availability of credit card advances, known as cashing (キャッシング kyasshingu), is spotty.
The major exceptions are:
- Citibank, which has a limited network (see here for a list) but does have ATMs at the major airports.
- The Post Office (郵便局 Yūbin kyoku), which also does banking and has a branch in almost every village. Most postal ATMs provide instructions in English as well as Japanese. Plus, Cirrus, Visa Electron, Maestro are accepted, and you can do credit card advances on Visa, Mastercard, Amex and Diners Club. Your PIN must be 6 digits or less.
- Over 12,000 Japanese 7-Eleven stores with ATMs accept foreign cards for cash withdrawals. Accepted cards include Visa, Mastercard, American Express, JCB and UnionPay, and ATM cards with Plus, Maestro or Cirrus logos.
One thing to beware: many Japanese ATMs are closed at night and during the weekends, so it's best to get your banking done during office hours! An exception is 7-Eleven, which is open 24 hours.
Vending machines in Japan are known for their pervasiveness and the (notorious) variety of products they sell. Most will take ¥1000 bills, and some types such as train ticket machines will take up to ¥10,000; none accept ¥1 or ¥5 coins, nor ¥2000 notes. And even the most high-tech vending machines do not take credit cards, save for certain ones in train stations.
Prepaid electronic cards are quite popular in Japan for small purchases. There are cards for train fares, convenience stores purchases, and public telephones, though they aren't interchangeable.
There is a 5% consumption tax on all sales in Japan. As of April 2004, the tax must now be included in all displayed prices, but some stores still ALSO display tax-excluded prices, so pay attention. The word Zei-nuki (税抜) means tax-excluded, Zei-komi (税込) means tax-included. If you cannot find out any words in the price card, most of them are tax-included.
Tips are not customary and would most likely be refused. Japanese service is legendary, and you do not need to bribe the waiters/waitresses to do their job properly. Besides, the meal is probably expensive enough already. Some restaurants will however add a 10% service charge. Most family restaurants that are open late or 24 hours will also add a 10% late-night charge.
The number of restaurants in Japan is stupendous, and you will never run out of places to go. For cultural and practical reasons, Japanese almost never invite guests to their homes, so socializing nearly always involves eating out.
According to the world famous Michelin Guide, which rates restaurants in major cities around the world, Tokyo is the most "delicious" city in the world with over 150 restaurants that received at least one star (out of three). In comparison, Paris and London received a total of 148 between them.
Most Japanese-style restaurants have lunchtime teishoku (定食), or fixed set meals. These typically consist of a meat or fish dish, with a bowl of miso soup, pickles, and rice (often with free extra helpings). These can be as inexpensive as ¥600 yet ample enough even for large appetites. Menus however will for most establishments be in Japanese only; however many restaurants have models (many in exquisite detail) of their meals in their front window, and if you can't read the menu it may be better to take the waiter or waitress outside and point at what you would like.
Restaurants will present you with the check after the meal, and you are expected to pay at the counter when leaving — do not leave payment on the table and walk out. The phrase for "bill" is kanjō or kaikei. When it's getting late, a server will usually come to your table to tell you it's time for the "last order." When it's really time to go, Japanese restaurants have a universal signal - they start to play "Auld Lang Syne". (This is true across the country, except at the most expensive places.) That means "pay up and move out."
Many cheap chain eateries have vending machines where you buy a ticket and give it to the server. At most of these restaurants, you'll have to be able to read Japanese to use them, though. At some of these restaurants, there will be plastic displays or photographs of the food with varying prices in front of them. It is often possible to match the price, along with some of the kana (characters) to the choices at the machine. If you're open-minded and flexible, you might get shoyu (soy sauce) ramen instead of miso (fermented soy bean) ramen or you might get katsu (pork cutlet) curry instead of beef curry. You'll always know how much you're spending so you'll never overpay. If your Japanese language skills are limited or non-existent, these restaurants with vending machines are really quite comfortable places because there is limited or no conversation required at these establishments. Most of the customers will be in a hurry, the hired help will usually not be interested in making conversation and will just read your order when they take your ticket and the water/tea, napkins, and eating utensils are either supplied automatically or self-service. Some other places have all you can eat meals called tabehōdai (食べ放題).
Tipping is not customary in Japan, and wait staff may not even understand that the cash you left on the table was intended for them. 24-hour "family restaurants" such as Denny's and Jonathan usually have a 10% late-night surcharge.