October 21, 2012
Japan Travel Guide
Japan is swathed in natural beauty, from the snow festivals and lavender farms of the northern isle of Hokkaido to the sun-drenched beaches and turquoise waters of the subtropical islands of Okinawa. Whether climbing volcanic Mount Fuji, wandering the pine forests of Mount Koya, taking in the springtime beauty of the sakura cherry blossoms or the spectacular maple leaves in the autumn, a journey to Japan is a wealth of unforgettable natural landscapes. In recent years, the powdery snow of JapanвАЩs ski fields has also been attracting international visitors.
Culturally, Japan offers a unique and exciting fusion of the traditional and the modern. The speed at which new technological developments are realised in Japan is as impressive as the longevity of traditional art forms and customs. Whilst it is no longer the economic powerhouse it was for the greater part of the 20th century, Japan is still a world leader in innovative design and fashion, and continues to offer superb customer service, clean and punctual trains and meticulously prepared and presented cuisine.
Japanese culture embraces the new while celebrating the past. ItвАЩs not unusual to see kimono-clad geisha singing karaoke in downtown Kyoto, or fully-robed Buddhist monks whizz by on motorbikes in central Tokyo. вАШCool JapanвАЩ has become an internationally-recognised byword for JapanвАЩs popular culture, and Japanese manga, anime and video games have never been more popular. Modern architecture in Tokyo, and other major Japanese cities, is well-regarded for forging radical new styles and using clever combinations of glass and concrete, which hint at traditional architectural forms yet offer minimalist sophistication. However, ancient castles, atmospheric Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines and fascinating festivals are never far away.
Shining skyscrapers towering above stunning Shinto shrines, and flashing neon lights bathing kimono-clad women: this is Tokyo and itвАЩs a city that thrills.
Brash electronics jostle next to upscale boutiques, giggling schoolgirls doll up for cosplay and salarymen cram onto commuter trains. In Tokyo, you will find everything, from peace memorials, smoking incense and folded prayers, to skull-thumping arcade games and toilets with more settings than your mobile phone.
Dine in world-class restaurants, shop in the worldвАЩs largest fish market and taste the worldвАЩs best sushi. Duck into roadside caf√©s to slurp steaming noodles and hide out in bars sipping sake and shochu. Sleep on tatami mats, steam in volcanic onsens, belt out karaoke and gaze up at Mount Fuji.
Effortlessly blending the old and the new, Tokyo is a city with a history and a heart that captivates every visitor.
Osaka is a bustling and energetic metropolis with its own distinct commercial culture and regional identity. Although it may appear to lack the sophistication of Tokyo, or the cultural refinement and traditional townscapes of nearby Kyoto, Osaka more than makes up for this with its own enthusiastic embrace of modernity. The city is bursting with eclectic street culture, vast underground shopping malls and futuristic architectural landmarks.
Another defining characteristic of the city is OsakaвАЩs people. They are friendly and outgoing and enjoy good food and entertainment. A local saying which sums up Osaka and the mentality of its people is kuidaore, which quite simply means вАШEat until you drop'. Osakan people are also very proud of their local dialect, which they think is more warm and expressive than standard Japanese.
A recent period of urban redevelopment has vastly improved many areas of the city, and Osaka is a great place to explore urban Japan.
Nagoya is one of JapanвАЩs wealthiest cities and its commercial power is on display everywhere, from stunning modern architecture to glitzy department stores. Situated halfway between the massive metropolises of Tokyo and Osaka, Nagoya has excellent transport links and is the perfect base for exploring central Japan.
Although Nagoya is an important centre for manufacturing and industry - with major Japanese companies such as Toyota and Noritake based here - the city does have a thriving cultural scene and a vibrant nightlife. The city hosts the annual World Cosplay Summit which attracts fans of manga and anime from all over the world, who gather in central Nagoya in the costumes of their favourite characters.
Nagoya also boasts a wealth of museums, including some excellent art museums. NagoyaвАЩs regional cuisine is also distinctive and there are a vast number of restaurants devoted to serving the chicken and eel dishes for which the city is known.
Kyoto offers a sophisticated mix of old and new Japan вАУ from exquisitely woven silk kimono to hi-tech innovations, the city adapts in its own way and at its own pace.
Kyoto is the treasure house of Japan. Having escaped the destruction of WWII, it remains the cultural heart of the nation, with more than 2,000 temples and shrines and no fewer than 17 major UNESCO World Heritage sites in and around the city.
Ancient festivals and ceremonies are still performed. Despite modernisation, the preservation of old wooden machiya townhouses and the undeveloped verdant hills and mountains which surround the city give the visitor a vivid impression of what traditional Japan must have been like.
The traditional artistic and cultural scene in Kyoto has remained strong and enduring, and renewed local and international interest in the geisha tradition has helped to preserve much of cityвАЩs living arts.
Shintoism and Buddhism (most Japanese follow both religions, although religion does not play a major everyday role in most Japanese lives). Marriages are traditionally conducted at Shinto shrines and funerals at Buddhist temples. There is a Christian minority.
Japanese manners and customs are vastly different from those of Western people. A strict code of behaviour and politeness is recognised and followed by almost everyone. However, Japanese people do not expect visitors to be familiar with all their customs but do expect them to behave formally and politely.
A straightforward refusal traditionally does not form part of Japanese etiquette, and a vague 'yes' does not always mean 'yes'. (The visitor may be comforted to know that confusion caused by non-committal replies occurs between the Japanese themselves.)
When entering a Japanese home or restaurant, shoes must be removed. Bowing is the customary greeting but handshaking is becoming more common for business meetings with Westerners. The honorific suffix san should be used when addressing all men and women; for instance Mr Yamada would be addressed as Yamada-san.
Table manners are very important, although the Japanese host will be very tolerant towards a visitor. However, it is best if visitors familiarise themselves with basic table etiquette and use chopsticks. Exchange of gifts is also a common business practice and may take the form of souvenir items such as company pens, ties or high-quality spirits.
Japanese is the official language. Some English is spoken in Tokyo and other large cities but is less usual in rural areas. There are many regional dialects and there are distinct differences in the intonation and pronunciation between eastern and western Japan.
Things to see and do
Kyoto's geisha dances (odori) are held in April, May and October, are open to all. The most prestigious is the Miyako Odori (www.miyako-odori.jp/odori_en.html) held throughout April every year in the geisha quarter of Gion.
Himeji-jo is JapanвАЩs most impressive castle. Dating from the 17th century, it is in excellent original condition and is dominated by a towering six-storey central donjon. The castle is also known as Shirasagi-j≈Н, or вАЬwhite egret castleвАЭ, because of its gabled donjons and is supposed to resemble the shape of the bird in flight. Himeji-jo survived the WW2 bombings that destroyed much of Himeji city, and in 1993 it was added to UNESCOвАЩs World Heritage list. It has also featured in many Japanese samurai television dramas, as well as Hollywood movies such as the 007 adventure set in Japan, You Only Live Twice, and the Tom Cruise film, The Last Samurai.
Image credit: clausitosfootprints.com
The Kumano Kodo, literally the 'Kumano ancient road', is an ancient pilgrimage route in the mountains of Wakayama Prefecture. It is an area of stunning natural beauty вАФ forests, waterfalls, tea fields and soothing hot springs. It is also the spiritual heartland of Japanese mythology, and unique for its synthesis of Buddhism and Shintoism. Since 2004, it's been a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Kyoto International Manga Museum
The Kyoto International Manga Museum, housed in an old primary school, is the first museum in the world devoted to manga, or Japanese comics. The museum has a massive collection, both historical and contemporary, as well as international editions of Japanese comics and the works of international comic artists. Best of all, visitors are allowed to take the comics off the shelf and read them in one of the many reading spaces or outside on the lawn. Manga workshops are held at weekends and there are regular exhibitions of Japanese and international comics.
Naoshima is an island in the Seto Inland Sea, located off the coast of Okayama Prefecture. Originally a fishing port, the island is now home to an exciting array of contemporary art museums, including one which also functions as a hotel, and outdoor art exhibits. Old houses on the island have been converted into exhibition spaces.
Shirakawa-go Mountain Village
In the mountains of central Japan, lies the remote yet picturesque area of Shirakawa-go, which is famous for its Gassho-zukuri farmhouses. These charming traditional houses have high and narrow thatched rooves вАУ said to resemble gassho or hands together in prayer. This architectural style developed as a result of the heavy winter snows in the area, and also became a place to cultivate silk worms. Many of the still-inhabited farmhouses are open to the public for inspection and offer a fascinating glimpse of both traditional and modern rural life. In winter, hoards of photographers descend upon the villages of Shirakawa-go, to capture the farmhouses covered in snow. The farmhouses are also extremely photogenic in spring and summer.
Image credit: tigerxu.wordpress.com
Cherry blossom parties
From April through May, sakura or cherry trees start blossoming across the country, and lively parties are held underneath the pretty blossoms. The most famous areas are in Ueno Park in Tokyo and Maruyama Park in Kyoto.
Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum
Hiroshima in Western Honshu is known around the world as the city which was destroyed by the world's first atomic bomb on August 6, 1945. Every year, millions of visitors come to the city to pay their respects in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and the Peace Memorial Museum. The park, which was reconstructed in 1949, is home to many famous monuments and buildings, including the Children's Peace Monument and the A-Bomb Dome, which was built in 1915 and designed by the Czech architect Jan Letzel. The ruins of the dome, which are included on the UNESCO World Heritage List, have become the symbol of an international desire for peace.
This northern island was for a long time Japan's 'Wild West', and it still retains a distinct pioneer feel. Hokkaido is home to the last of Japan's indigenous Ainu people, and the remnants of their distinct culture. The Hokkaido Ainu Center (www.ainu-assn.or.jp/english/eabout07.html) is in Sapporo, and the Ainu Museum (www.ainu-museum.or.jp/en/index.html) is in Shiranoi.
When the Japanese want to relax, they head to a natural hot spring resort, or onsen. Famous ones include Dogo in Matsuyama, Shikoku, one of the oldest in Japan; and Ibusuki, on the southern tip of Kyushu, renowned for its hot-sand saunas.
Japanese tea ceremony
Arrange to take part in a traditional tea ceremony through the tourist information centres in Kyoto and Tokyo. The elegant ritual takes place in a tranquil room designed and designated for tea, a chashitsu, and is steeped in seasonal symbolism.
This pleasant coastal town, one hour south of Tokyo, was the seat of Japan's medieval feudal government, and is full of historic sights. Highlights include the giant bronze Great Buddha and colourful shrine Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu.
Don't miss the visiting the imperial capital of Japan for over 1,000 years, Kyoto. Founded in AD794, Kyoto's sights include the Golden Pavilion (Kinkakuji), the Zen rock garden of Ryoanji, the dramatic verandah of Kiyomizu Temple and the medieval Nijo Castle with its musical вАЬnightingale floorвАЭ. The historic Gion geisha district makes for a wonderful late afternoon wander.
Near Hiroshima is the picturesque island of Miyajima, where a famous red Shinto torii gateway seemingly floats on the sea at high tide. Attractions include the Itsukushima Shrine, the tame deer, and the cable car up the central mountain for panoramic views.
From July to early September it's possible to climb Mount Fuji, Japan's highest mountain at 3,776m (12,388ft) tall. You won't be alone, as in high season there are queues along several parts of the route. There are lodges along the route where you can stop for a rest or refreshments.
Image credit: scenicreflections.com
One hour south of Kyoto, Nara was the first imperial capital of Japan, and marked the far eastern end of the Silk Road. See the Great Buddha of Todaiji Temple, the world's largest wooden structure at 57m (187ft) high, and the sacred deer in ancient Nara Park.
Head to the subtropical islands of Okinawa, south of Japan, for sun-drenched, white-sand beaches, friendly locals and turquoise waters. Okinawa is the best place in Japan for water sports. Diving and surfing are also popular.
Japan's third largest city is renowned for its abundance of excellent restaurants, historic castle (an excellent reproduction of the original) and the performing arts of kabuki and bunraku. The city's Dotonburi area is particularly vibrant after dark.
Completed in 1266, the Sanjusangen-do Temple which is officially called Rengeo-in Temple, is a faithful copy of an original that was built in 1164, but burned down in 1249. Originally built by Taira no Kiyomori for the emperor Go-Shirakawa, the temple is today a national treasure. It is best known for its wooden image of the Thousand-Armed Kannon (the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy), a masterpiece of the Kamakura period, which stands surrounded by 1000 smaller statues of the same goddess. The hondo (main building) is split into 33 sanjusan (bays) that exist between its many pillars to symbolise the 33 incarnations of Kannon, hence the name Sanjusangen-do Temple, which literally means '33 bay hall'.
Image credit: photo.iennelopez.net
Sapporo Snow Festival
Every February, Sapporo, Hokkaido's vibrant capital, hosts its extraordinary Snow Festival (www.snowfes.com). The ice party lasts for seven days and is marked by huge, elaborate snow and ice sculptures. Several other towns in Hokkaido also have snow and ice festivals during the winter.
This is TokyoвАЩs most revered Buddhist temple, and pilgrims have flocked here for over 1,000 years вАУ though its size, noise and commerce may surprise you. A military commander commissioned SensojiвАЩs entrance gate вАУ and boy does it show! Giant lanterns watch over smoking incense, swirling crowds and teeming shops. Originally founded in AD628 to enshrine a statuette of the Kannon Bodhisattva (the Goddess of Mercy), damage from bombing raids mean that today youвАЩll find a lavish, five-storey reconstruction. Smoke from the huge incense burner in front of the temple is said to have healing powers.
Come winter, do as many Japanese do and hit the slopes. Mountains here are covered in top-class ski resorts (www.skijapanguide.com), especially in the central Japanese Alps and Hokkaido, and are famous for their powder snow. Many resorts also have onsen (hot springs) to relax in apr√®s-ski.
Watching sumo wrestling is an exciting and very traditional Japanese experience. Six major tournaments are held throughout the year in Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya and Fukuoka (www.sumo.or.jp/eng). Tickets can be purchased in advance or on the day.
Universal Studios Japan (www.tokyodisneyresort.co.jp) are both enormously popular with families. Even better is Tokyo's delightful Ghibli Museum (www.ghibli-museum.jp) based on the animated movies of Studio Ghibli.
Image credit: tokyodisneyresort.co.jp
Image credit: tokyodisneyresort.co.jp
Tokyo's Imperial Palace
Gain access to generally off-limits parts of the Imperial Palace grounds by joining a tour (www.kunaicho.go.jp/eindex.html). Otherwise, the East Gardens (Higashi Gyoen) are open year round without prior booking.
Traditional Performing Arts
In Tokyo or Osaka book a seat to see some bunraku, a unique form of puppet theatre, or the dramatic forms of noh and kabuki theatre which feature participants dressed in colourful traditional costumes (www.ntj.jac.go.jp).
Tsukiji Fish Market
Get up early to witness the world's largest fish market at Tsukiji (www.tsukiji-market.or.jp) in Tokyo. The action kicks off around 0400 and winds down around midday. Visitors must register by 5am at the Information Center for a special tour. Afterwards, feast on the freshest of sushi and sashimi at the restaurants beside the market.
Whale and dolphin watching
Several former whaling ports have caught onto the tourist value of switching to whale-watching tours. Between January and April is a good time to go whale or dolphin watching in eastern and western Japan (www.whaleroute.com/areas/japan).
Shopping and night life in Japan
Shoppers will encounter a blend of quintessential Japanese goods and sophisticated sales techniques in Japan, particularly at the big department stores which are usually located near major train stations and commercial districts. Department stores, which are more like exhibitions than shops, almost always have extremely attentive and highly trained staff. Smaller specialty shops, which sell traditional goods and have often been in business for hundreds of years, also provide a unique shopping experience and offer a high level of service. Special purchases include kimonos, mingei (local crafts including kites and folk toys), Kyoto silks, fans, religious articles such as Shinto and Buddhist artefacts, paper lanterns, ceramics, lacquerware, cameras and other electronic equipment.
Colourful souvenir shops stocked with high-quality hand-made and region-specific goods are ubiquitous. Fans of Japanese popular culture will be able to purchase the latest fashion and character goods from their favourite manga and anime in all major Japanese cities; in particular, Akihabara in Tokyo and Den-Den Town in Osaka. Outlet stores for brand-name goods manufactured in Japan are becoming increasingly common, and are often located near international airports.
Bargaining is not usual, however, there are significant discounts available during sales in summer (June-July) and winter (December-January).
Tax exemptions are available in authorised tax-free stores. Certain items costing more than ¬•10,000 are exempt from tax. Remember when buying electronic goods that they may not be compatible with UK or US voltage.
1000-1900 every day of the week and on public holidays.
Nightlife in Japan
Tokyo has an abundance of cinemas, theatres, bars, live music venues, coffee shops and nightclubs. A wide range of bars is available, from the upmarket and stylish to cheap street stalls where patrons stand to drink, with the key areas in Tokyo being Shibuya, Roppongi and Shinjuku. Izakaya, drinking halls that are similar to pubs, are patronised by everyone from university students to office workers and usually have a lively atmosphere. Karaoke вАЬboxesвАЭ, venues with small private rooms where customers can be served food and drinks while they sing, are one of the most popular forms of entertainment in Japan.
In summer, rooftop beer gardens are also common all over Japan. Be wary of clubs with вАЬhostessesвАЭ - companions who expect to be bought drinks and snacks. There are thousands of other bars and clubs that do not charge entry and do not offer hostess service.
In Tokyo, there are concerts of all styles of music almost every night. Foreign opera and ballet companies, orchestras and rock/pop stars visit Japan all year round. For those who would like to see the traditional Japanese performing arts, there is kabuki and noh theatre in Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Nagoya and other major Japanese cities. Check the Japan Arts Council website for details of venues and performances (www.ntj.jac.go.jp).
The English-language magazines Metropolis (www./metropolis.co.jp) in Tokyo and Kansai Scene (www.kansaiscene.com) in Western Japan are good sources for finding out what's on. It is advisable to purchase tickets in advance because shows are quickly sold out. Osaka is also renowned for its nightlife as is Sapporo on the northern island of Hokkaido and Fukuoka on the southern island of Kyushu.
Image credit: japan-australia.blogspot.com
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