Japan's sophisticated cuisine has made ways to all corners of the world by means of sushi (and the less-sophisticated instant ramen noodles), but it is only in the country when you can truly appreciate the true form of it. Even more fascinating is the country's popular culture, which has developed a fandom all over the world, in particular the manga comics and anime cartoons - with the Japanese taking their affinity to their favorite characters and themes to the extreme.
In the 20th century, Japan enjoyed impressive economic growth, putting it among the world's most affluent nations today. This was mostly driven by rapid modernization and specialization in high technology in particular. Due to that, Japan is now full of contrasts between the still alive tradition and much cherished heritage and the ultra-modern infrastructure, buildings and facilities. The country's numerous airports and the world-renowned shinkansen high-speed train system allow easy entry and convenient transport, and while the Japanese are known to be reserved and their language skills are not their strongest asset, they will go out of their way to make you feel a welcome visitor.
|Currency||Japanese yen (JPY)|
|Population||127.1 million (2015)|
|Electricity||100 volt / 50 hertz and 100 volt / 60 hertz (Type A, Type B)|
|Time zone||Japan Standard Time, Asia/Tokyo|
|Emergencies||119, 110 (police)|
|edit on Wikidata|
(Kanji: 東京都) — the capital and main financial center, modern and densely populated.
(Kanji: 広島市) — large port city, the first city to be destroyed by an atomic bomb
(Kanji: 金沢市) — historic city on the west coast
(Kanji: 京都市) — ancient capital of Japan, considered the cultural heart of the country, with many ancient Buddhist temples and gardens
(Kanji: 長崎市) — ancient port city in Kyushu, the second city to be destroyed by an atomic bomb
(Kanji: 奈良市) — first capital of a united Japan, with many Buddhist shrines, and historical buildings
(Kanji: 大阪市) — large and dynamic city located in the Kansai region
(Kanji: 札幌市) — largest city in Hokkaido, famous for its snow festival
(Kanji: 仙台市) — largest city in the Tohoku region, known as the city of forests due to its tree lined avenues and wooded hills
(Kanji: 日本アルプス) — series of high snow-topped mountains in the center of Honshu
(Kanji: 宮島) — just off Hiroshima, site of the iconic floating torii
(Kanji: 富士山) — iconic snow-topped volcano, and highest peak in Japan (3776m)
(Kanji: 高野山) — mountaintop headquarters of the Buddhist Shingon sect
(Kanji: 佐渡島) — island off Niigata, former home to exiles and prisoners, now a brilliant summer getaway
(Kanji: 知床国立公園) — unspoiled wilderness at Hokkaido's northeasternmost tip
(Kanji: 八重山諸島) — the farthest-flung bit of Okinawa, with spectacular diving, beaches and jungle cruising
(Kanji: 屋久島) — UNESCO World Heritage site with enormous cedars and misty primeval forests
city in Japan
city in Ehime Prefecture, Japan
Japanese castle in Kōchi city
Japanese castle in Takahashi, Okayama prefecture
one of the 12 Japanese castles still in existence which were built before the Edo period
Japanese castle located in Nagoya, central Japan
castle in Kyoto, Japan
Japanese castle in Chūō-ku, Osaka, Japan
Japanese castle in Matsumae, Hokkaido
Japanese park in Kanazawa
Rinzai Zen Buddhist temple located in Matsuo, Japan
capital city of Ishikawa Prefecture, Japan
city in Japan
city in Japan
town of Japan
Japanese Buddhist temple in Nara
Buddhist temple in Nara Prefecture, Japan
Buddhist temple in Kyoto Prefecture, Japan
Buddhist temple in Nara Prefecture, Japan
mountains in Wakayama Prefecture, Japan
mountain in Shiga Prefecture, Japan
Also known as the "Land of the Rising Sun", Japan 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 still 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.
Although Japan has often been seen in the West as a land combining tradition and modernity, and juxtapositions definitely exist, part of this idea is obsolete, and is a product of Japan being the first major Asian power to modernize as well as Western patronization and heavy promotion by the travel industry. Keep in mind that continued demolition of some of Japan's historic landmarks goes on apace, as with the famed Kabuki-za Theater demolition. Still, with the proper planning, and with expectations held in check, a trip to Japan can be incredibly enjoyable and definitely worthwhile.
Japan has gone through periods of openness and isolation during its history, therefore its culture is if anything unique. Having been in the Chinese cultural sphere for much of its history, substantial Chinese influences can be seen in Japanese culture, and these have been seamlessly blended with native Japanese customs to give rise to a culture that is distinctly Japanese.
During the Edo period, Japanese culture had been strongly influenced by Confucianism. The Tokugawa Shogunate instituted a rigid class system, with the Shogun at the apex, his retainers below him, and the other samurai below that, followed by a vast population of commoners at the bottom. Commoners were expected to pay respect to samurai (at the risk of being killed if they didn't), and women were expected to be subservient to men. Samurai were expected to a adopt a "Death before dishonor" attitude, and would typically commit suicide by self disembowelment (切腹 seppuku) rather than live in shame. Although the Edo period ended with the Meiji Restoration in 1868, its legacy still lives on in Japanese society. Honor still remains an important concept in Japanese society, employees are still expected to be unquestioningly obedient to their bosses, and women continue to struggle for equal treatment.
Japanese people are fiercely proud of their heritage and culture, and hold on to many ancient traditions that go back hundreds of years. At the same time, they also seem to be obsessed with the latest technology, and consumer technology in Japan is often several years ahead of the rest of the world. This paradox of being traditional, yet ultramodern often serves to intrigue visitors, and many keep returning to Japan to experience this after their first visit.
The most important holiday in Japan is the New Year (お正月 Oshōgatsu), which pretty much shuts down the country from 30 December to 3 January. Japanese head home to their families (which means massive transport congestion), 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. Top sakura spots like Kyoto are packed with tourists. Peak hanami often coincides with the start of the new school & financial year on April 1, which means lots of people on the move and full hotels in major cities.
Japan's longest holiday is Golden Week (29 April to 5 May), when there are four public holidays within a week and people go on an extended vacation. Trains become crowded and 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 7 July (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.
- 1 January — New Year's Day (ganjitsu 元日, gantan 元旦 or o-shōgatsu お正月)
- 2 and 3 January — New Year's Bank Holidays
- Second Monday in January — Coming-of-Age Day (seijin no hi 成人の日)
- 11 February — National Foundation Day (kenkoku kinen no hi 建国記念の日)
- 21 March — Vernal Equinox Day (shunbun no hi 春分の日)
- 29 April — Showa Day (showa no hi 昭和の日) — first holiday of Golden Week
- 3 May — Constitution Day (kenpō kinnenbi 憲法記念日)
- 4 May — Greenery Day (midori no hi みどりの日)
- 5 May — Children's Day (kodomo no hi こどもの日) - last holiday of Golden Week
- Third Monday in July — Marine Day (umi no hi 海の日)
- 11 August - Mountain Day (yama no hi 山の日)
- Third Monday in September— Respect-for-the-Aged Day (keirō no hi 敬老の日)
- 23 September — Autumnal Equinox Day (shuubun no hi 秋分の日)
- Second Monday in October — Sports Day (taiiku no hi 体育の日)
- 3 November — Culture Day (bunka no hi 文化の日)
- 23 November — Labor Thanksgiving Day (kinrō kansha no hi 勤労感謝の日)
- 23 December — The Emperor's Birthday (tennō tanjōbi 天皇誕生日)
- 31 December — New Year's Bank Holiday
Holidays based on the seasons, such as equinoxes, may vary by a day or two. Additional bank holidays, also known as compensation holidays, are usually added if any holiday falls on a Sunday, and in cases when two dates for holidays are close together.
Keep in mind that most Japanese people take additional time off around New Year's, during Golden Week, and during Obon. The most important festival is New Year's Day, and many shops and restaurants close for at least 2 days during this period, so it might not be an ideal time to visit. However, convenience stores remain open, and many temples conduct New Year's Day fairs, so it's still not difficult to find food to eat.
The Japanese calendar
The Imperial era year, which counts from the year of ascension of the Emperor, is often used for reckoning dates in Japan, including transportation timetables and store receipts. The current era is Heisei (平成) and Heisei 29 corresponds to 2017. The year may be written as "H29" or just "29", so "29/4/1" is 1 April 2017. The Western Gregorian calendar is also well understood and frequently used. Japan has celebrated its festivals according to the Gregorian calendar since 1873 and no longer uses the Chinese calendar, with the exception of some festivals in the Ryukyu Islands.
Japan has two dominant religious traditions: Shinto (神道) is the ancient animist religion of traditional Japan. At just over twelve hundred years in Japan, Buddhism is the more recent imported faith. Christianity, introduced by European missionaries, was widely persecuted during the feudal era but is now accepted, and a small percentage of Japanese are Christian.
Generally speaking, the Japanese are not a particularly religious people. While they are strongly influenced by Buddhist philosophies and regularly visit shrines and temples to offer coins and make silent prayers, religious faith and doctrine play a small role (if any) in the life of the average Japanese. Thus it would be impossible to try to represent what percentage of the population is Shinto versus Buddhist, or even Christian. According to a famous poll, Japan is 80% Shinto and 80% Buddhist, and another oft-quoted dictum states that Japanese are Shinto when they live, as weddings and festivals are typically Shinto, but Buddhist when they die, since funerals usually use Buddhist rites. Most Japanese accept a little bit of every religion. Christianity is evident almost exclusively in a commercial sense. In season, variations of Santa Claus, Christmas trees and other non-religious Christmas symbols are on display in malls and shopping centers throughout metropolitan areas.
At the same time, Shinto and Buddhism have had an enormous influence on the country's history and cultural life. The Shinto religion focuses on the spirit of the land, and is reflected in the country's exquisite gardens and peaceful shrines deep in ancient forests. When you visit a shrine (jinja 神社) with its simple torii (鳥居) gate, you are seeing Shinto customs and styles. If you see an empty plot of land with some white paper suspended in a square, that's a Shinto ceremony to dedicate the land for a new building. Buddhism in Japan has branched out in numerous directions over the centuries. Nichiren (日蓮) is currently the largest branch of Buddhist belief. Westerners are probably most familiar with Zen (禅) Buddhism, which was introduced to Japan in the 14th and 15th centuries. Zen fit the aesthetic and moral sensibilities of medieval Japan, influencing arts such as flower-arranging (生け花 ikebana), tea ceremony (茶道 sadō), ceramics, painting, calligraphy, poetry, and the martial arts. Over the years, Shinto and Buddhism have intertwined considerably. You will find them side by side in cities, towns, and people's lives. It's not at all unusual to find a sparse Shinto torii standing before an elaborate Buddhist temple (o-tera お寺).
There are multitudes of books written on Japan. A good place to begin is one of the many recommended reading lists such as sites like The Crazy Japan Times, Japan Review or Japan Visitor. Some recommended books include:
- Untangling My Chopsticks (ISBN 076790852X), by Victoria Abbott Riccardi. Set mainly in Kyoto.
- My Mother is a Tractor (ISBN 1412048974), by Nicholas Klar. A former English teacher with a witty and informative take on Japanese society. Written from the depths of the Japanese countryside.
- Hitching Rides with Buddha (ISBN 1841957852), by Will Ferguson is about a Canadian English teacher who hitches rides across the country, following the blooming cherry blossoms. At times hilariously funny and deathly serious, it gives a very honest evaluation of all sorts of aspects of Japanese culture.
- Culture Shock: Japan (ISBN 1558688528). A part of the 'Culture Shock' series, this is an excellent overview of the culture and lifestyle of the Japanese. A good resource for a long or work-related stay in Japan or even for interaction with Japanese people.
- All-You-Can Japan (ISBN 1453666354), by Josh Shulman is a unique travel guide to Japan that offers a wise and economical travel strategy rather than references to various points of interest. The author was born and raised in Japan, and writes this short guide in a casual, easy-to-read language.
Television shows about Japan:
- Begin Japanology and Japanology Plus – Produced by NHK World, these long-running series explore a plethora of topics in Japanese culture and customs, from arts and foods to robots and refrigerators, as well as some unexpected topics like batteries or scissors.
- Travel-oriented shows produced by NHK World include J-Trip Plan and Journeys in Japan.
Bathing is a big deal in Japan, and be it a scenic onsen hot spring, a neighborhood sentō bath or just an ordinary household tub, bathing Japanese style is a pleasure. Japanese wax lyrical about the joys of hot water (湯 yu) and dub even the ordinary tub with an honorific prefix (お風呂 o-furo), and a visit to a Japanese hot spring — marked as ♨ on maps — should be on the agenda of every visitor.
Whereas a Western "bath" is used for washing in, "baths" in Japan are for soaking and relaxing. (Think of it more like a hot tub than a bath.) Washing is done first outside the tub, usually sitting on a stool in front of a faucet, but showers are also available.
The difference that may stick in your craw is that unlike a hot tub, baths in Japan are generally used naked. While this initially sounds shocking to Western sensibilities, it's simply the norm in Japan; friends, colleagues, and parents and children of any age think nothing of it. The Japanese even use the phrase "naked communication" (裸の付き合い hadaka no tsukiai) to describe the way bathing together breaks down social barriers. You should really consider trying it, but if you refuse then there are other options:
- Foot baths (足湯 ashiyu) are a popular way to relax; the only thing that goes in these baths is your bare feet, while you sit comfortable and clothed on the pool wall.
- Mixed-gender (混浴 kon'yoku) baths sometimes allow (but may not require) bathing suits, and sometimes they're only allowed for women. Commercial operations (that is, public baths not part of a ryokan) with kon'yoku baths tend to enforce bathing suits for both sexes.
- Some ryokan have "family baths" that you can reserve for just you and your group; these are meant for mom, dad, and the kids to bathe together. Some of these allow bathing suits, or you can use it to guarantee you'll have the bath to yourself. Similarly, some ryokan offer high-end rooms with a private bath; bathing suits might still not be allowed, but even if not it at least means you won't be sharing the bath with strangers, or you can take turns with your mates bathing solo.
Many onsen and sento prohibit the entry of visitors with tattoos. Intended to keep out yakuza gangsters (who often sport full-back tattoos), the rule is usually applied with a modicum of common sense, but heavily tattooed visitors will, at the very least, receive curious looks and may be asked to leave.
Onsen (温泉), quite literally "hot springs", are the pinnacle of the Japanese bathing experience. Clusters of hot spring inns pop up wherever there's a suitable source of hot water, and in volcanic Japan, they're everywhere. The most memorable onsen experience is often the rotenburo (露天風呂): outdoor baths with views of the surrounding natural scenery. While baths are usually large and shared, some swankier accommodations offer, often for an additional fee, reservable baths for you and yours alone, known as family baths, racier "romance baths" or just plain old reserved baths (貸切風呂 kashikiri-furo). Onsen baths can be either in standalone buildings available for anybody (外湯 sotoyu), or private guest-only baths inside your lodgings (内湯 uchiyu).
While most onsen are run commercially and charge fees for entry (¥500-1000 is typical), especially in remote areas there are free publicly maintained baths that offer minimal facilities but, more often than not, stunning views to make up for it. Many of these are mixed (混浴 kon'yoku), but while men still happily traipse into these naked, if holding a towel in front of their dangly bits, it's a rare woman who'll enter one without a bathing suit these days.
To find those really off the beaten track hot spring inns, check out the Japanese Association to Protect Hidden Hot Springs (日本秘湯を守る会 Nihon hitō wo mamoru kai), which consists of 185 independent lodges throughout the country.
Sentō and spas
Sentō (銭湯) are public bath houses found in any large city. Intended for people without their own home tub, they are typically quite utilitarian and are slowly dying out as Japan continues its break-neck modernization. Some, however, have gone upmarket and turned into spas (スパ supa), which, in Japan, does not mean Balinese huts offering Ayurvedic massage while getting sprinkled with orchids, but public baths for stressed-out salarymen, often with a capsule hotel (see § Sleep) bolted on the side. As you might expect, these come in varying degrees of legitimacy — in particular, beware any place advertising "esthe", "health", or "soap" — but most are surprisingly decent.
Japanese are understanding of the funny ways of foreigners, but there's one rule where no exceptions are made: you have to wash yourself and rinse off all foam before entering the bath. The water in the tub will be reused by the next person, and the Japanese consider it disgusting to soak in someone else's dirt! Basically, wash up as well as you hope the guy next to you has done.
Be it a fancy onsen or a barebones sentō, the choreography of an entire visit goes roughly as follows:
Shared bathing areas are usually sex-segregated, so look for the characters "man" (男) and "woman" (女) to pick the correct entrance. Men's baths also typically have blue curtains, while women's are red. Enter the changing room, leaving shoes or slippers at the doorway; at public baths there may be keyed lockers.
At public baths (sentō), you either pay the attendant directly (often through the changing room entrance, and it's almost always a woman), or use a vending machine in the entrance to buy tickets for entry and extra items such as towels or soap, which you then give to the attendant. On vending machines, look near the top for the Japanese words for "adult" (大人 otona) and "child" (子供 kodomo). (If the vending machine is too difficult to figure out, you can probably walk in and say sumimasen ("excuse me") to the attendant and accomplish the rest by gesturing.)
Inside the changing room, there will be rows of clothes lockers or baskets. Pick a locker and undress completely, placing all your garments in the basket. Be sure to place your valuables in lockers, if there are any, and take the key with you into the bath.
You'll be given a teeny-weeny washcloth for free, or sometimes a token fee. It's not particularly good for covering your privates (it's too small) and it's not much use for drying off, either. Larger towels are available, again sometimes for a fee; men should leave these in the changing room except when drying off, using only their washcloth for privacy, but women can use their large towel to wrap up with outside of the bathroom. If you'd like one, ask the attendant for a taoru.
After removing your clothes and entering the bathing area, take a little stool and a bucket, sit down at a faucet, and clean yourself really, really well. Shampoo your hair, soap your entire body, repeat. Rinse all foam off once clean. Try not to leave the water running, or get water on other people.
Only now can you enter the bath tub. Do so slowly, as the water can often be very hot indeed; if it's unbearable, try another tub. If you do manage to get in, don't let your washcloth touch the water, as it's dirty (even if you didn't use it, it would leave lint in the bath); you may wish to fold it atop your head, or just lay it aside. When sufficiently cooked, you may wash yourself once again if you're so inclined and repeat the process in reverse; it's fine to save washing your hair for after the bath, too, if you prefer. (At natural hot springs, though, you shouldn't rinse off the bath water, which is full of minerals that the Japanese consider healthy folk medicine.)
Note that the bath is for soaking and light conversation; don't roughhouse, submerge your head, or make a lot of noise. Japanese people may be a bit wary of foreigners in the bath, mostly because they're afraid you'll try to talk to them in English and they'll be embarrassed that they can't communicate with you. Just give them a token nod/bow, say ohayo gozaimasu, konnichiwa, or konbanwa depending on the time of day, and wait to see if they're interested in talking to you.
After your bath is finished, you can nearly always find a relaxation lounge (休憩室 kyūkeishitsu), inevitably equipped with a beer vending machine nearby. Feel free to sprawl out in your yukata, sip beer, talk with friends, take a nap.
Some features of Japan's toilets are worth mentioning. As elsewhere in Asia, you will find both Western-style porcelain thrones for sitting and floor-level units for squatting. (If you're unfamiliar with these, it's simple: pull your pants down to your knees, and squat facing the curved hood of the toilet. Get closer to the hood than it looks like you need to, or else you might miss.)
In private homes and home-style accommodations, you will often find toilet slippers, which are to be worn inside the toilet and only inside the toilet.
However, most visitors come away impressed by the undeniable fact that Japan is the world's leader in toilet technology. Over half of Japan's homes are equipped with high-tech devices known as washlets (ウォシュレット), which incorporate all sorts of handy features like seat warmers, hot air dryers and tiny robotic arms that squirt water. The device is operated via a control panel and may incorporate over 30 buttons (all labeled in Japanese) at first glance bearing more resemblance to a Space Shuttle navigation panel than your average WC.
Don't panic — help is at hand. The first key to solving the puzzle is that the actual flush mechanism is usually not operated by the control panel: instead, there is a standard, familiar, Western-style lever, switch or knob somewhere and it is thus entirely possible to take care of your business without ever using the washlet features. (In rare cases, mostly with very high-end gear, flushing is integrated; if lifting your bottom off the seat doesn't do the trick, look for buttons labeled 大 or 小, meaning a big or small flush respectively, on a wireless control panel on the wall.) The second key to exploration is that there is always a big red button labeled 止 with the standard "stop button" symbol ■ on the panel — pressing this will instantly stop everything. Older models simply have a lever nearby that controls the flow of a sprayer.
Armed with this knowledge you can now begin to dig deeper. Typical controls include the following:
- Oshiri (おしり) - "buttocks", for spraying your rear - typically shown in blue with a stylized butt icon; this action can be unnerving, but travellers should not be afraid - by the second or third attempt it will seem normal
- Bidet (ビデ) - for spraying your front - typically shown in pink with a female icon
- Kansō (乾燥) - "dry", for drying off when finished - typically yellow with a wavy air icon
Other, smaller buttons can be used to adjust the exact pressure, angle, location and pulsation of the jet of water. Sometimes the seat of the toilet is heated, and this can also be regulated. One explanation is that since houses are not usually centrally heated, the toilet business can be made a little more convenient by heating the seat. To be polite and save energy, you should leave the cover down on heated toilet seats.