Though very expensive, Japan is one of the most amazing, beautiful, and friendly countries in the world. From Mount Fuji to bustling Tokyo to zen-like Kyoto, Japan is a high-tech world mixed with the politeness and respect of their past. Honestly, I love Japan. It was a life-long dream to go there and it lived up to all my expectations. Japan has fantastic food, beautiful temples and shrines, zen gardens, national parks, and a culture with a long and rich history. It’s a wonderful place and, while it may be an expensive country to visit, there are plenty of ways to make this country affordable. Don’t get scared off by the prices. You won’t regret your visit here – it’s one of the most amazing places in the world. Let this travel guide help you plan an affordable trip to Japan!
Influence from the outside world followed by long periods of isolation have characterised Japan’s history.
In the feudal era (12th-19th century), a new ruling class of warriors emerged: the samurai. One of the most famous and successful samurai, Oda Nobunaga, conquered numerous other warlords and had almost unified Japan when he was assassinated in 1582. Toyotomi Hideyoshi succeeded him and united the land in 1590 but open war broke out following his death.
Tokugawa Ieyasu defeated all rival clans in the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 and was appointed shogun (ruler of Japan). The Tokugawa shogunate began the isolationist sakoku (locked country) policy that spanned the two and a half centuries of tenuous political unity known as the Edo period.
In 1854, the US Navy forced the opening of Japan to the outside world. Ensuing economic and political crises led to the Boshin War and the establishment of a centralised state unified under the name of the Emperor (Meiji Restoration).
The Meiji Restoration transformed Japan into an industrialised world power that embarked on a number of military conflicts to expand the nation’s sphere of influence, including two Sino-Japanese Wars (1894-1895 and 1937-1945) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905).
On 7 December 1941, Japan attacked the US naval base in Pearl Harbor. This act brought the USA into WWII and, on 8 December, the USA, UK and Netherlands declared war on Japan. After the devastating atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, Japan surrendered on 15 August. The war cost Japan millions of lives and left much of the country’s industry and infrastructure destroyed.
Japan later achieved exceptional growth to become one of the world’s most powerful economies.
In 2009, Yukio Hatoyama led the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), the main opposition party, to victory and became Prime Minister, defeating the long-governing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which had been in power almost continually since 1955. However, Mr Hatoyama resigned less than a year later after failing to implement an election pledge to move the US base off Okinawa. Fellow DPJ member Naoto Kan was elected Prime Minister in June 2010 and promised he would continue the programme of reform set out by his predecessor. However, the disasters of March 11, 2011 affected his leadership and he was forced to resign less than six months later over criticism of his handling of the nuclear crisis and reconstruction efforts.
Current Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda assumed office on September 2, 2011. Noda faces immense challenges in the continuing aftermath of the disasters in north-eastern Japan with public debt twice the size of the economy, an ageing population, low birthrate and a nuclear cleanup that could take many
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.
Language in Japan
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.
When to Go to Japan
There’re 4 clear seasons in Japan with spring and fall best to see. Sakura’s spring blossom and red fall maples are Japan’s favorite postcard scenes. It may be raining anytime of the year.
Local climate varies from continental (on Hokkaido) to subtropical (on Okinawa). The rainy period tsuyu lasts from early June till mid-July. Hot tropical winds off the Pacific blow through Honshu with air temperature reaching 26 Celsius and humidity 80%. The average summer temperature on Kyushu and Okinawa is higher but humidity here is much lower. Honshu (Tohoku) and Hokkaido seldom have late-July temperatures above +21 C. The latter is a most popular summer resort due to its magnificent wild nature.
Mid-October to mid-November is best to feel Japan’s famous fall colors. Tropical typhoons come to the Pacific coast with winds and cloudbursts from early September to late October. These are Asian hurricanes often bringing destruction, floods and landslides.
It may be quite cool at night, especially in highlands. Winter on the Pacific coast is mild and sunny while Honshu’s regions by the Sea of Japan are considered one of the snowiest in the world. Northern Japan may be very cold in winter. Huge ice-floes drift north past Hokkaido where the sea can be frozen for hundreds of kilometers. Extremals should like such a subarctic phenomenon. Ski resorts and hot springs on Hokkaido are among the country’s best.
Gaining a thorough insight into Japanese culture and society is at the heart of our “get beneath the surface” ethos. This is why we have created these pages, which are packed with information that will enrich your experience and understanding of Japan.
Japan has a fascinating and multifaceted culture; on the one hand it is steeped in the deepest of traditions dating back thousands of years; on the other it is a society in a continual state of rapid flux, with continually shifting fads and fashions and technological development that constantly pushes back the boundaries of the possible. This is part of what makes it such a fascinating country to visit.
Japan is famous for its supposed ethnic and social homogeneity, but there is much more to the story of the Japanese people than this popular myth. Today’s vision of Japanese society includes minority groups that historically have been sidelined, such as the Ainu of Hokkaido and the Ryukyuans of Okinawa, as well as Koreans, Chinese, Brazilians and many more.
Japanese people appear at first glance to be one of the most socially and ethnically homogenous groups in the world.
It is reasonable to equate Japan’s rapid post-war economic development to the 1990s with social solidarity and conformism. Despite labour shortages since the 1960s, authorities resisted officially sanctioning foreign workers until the 1980s, relying on increased mechanisation and an expanded female workforce instead (1).
Until recently, Japanese workers have associated themselves primarily with the company they work for – a businessman will introduce himself as “Nissan no Takahashi-san” (I am Nissan’s Mr Takahashi). By extension, we might get the idea that a Japanese person subordinates the self to the objectives of society.
In 2008, however, long-serving Japanese politician Nariaki Nakayama resigned after declaring that Japan is “ethnically homogenous”, showing that the old “one people, one race” idea has become politically incorrect.
Criticism of Mr Nakayama’s statement focused on its disregard for the indigenous Ryukyukan people of southern Okinawa, and the Ainu people from the northern island of Hokkaido – colonised by the Japanese in the late nineteenth century.
In 1994 the first Ainu politician was elected to the Japanese Diet, suggesting that the Japanese are keen to officially recognise distinct ethnic groups in Japan.
For centuries Japan has operated with a syncretic belief system: Shinto and Buddhist rituals coexisting side-by-side with increasing influence from other religions. This is why they say that in Japan, people are born Shinto, get married Christian and die Buddhist.
Shinto, Buddhism and the Japanese belief system
Religion in Japan is a wonderful mish-mash of ideas from Shintoism and Buddhism. Unlike in the West, religion in Japan is rarely preached, nor is it a doctrine. Instead it is a moral code, a way of living, almost indistinguishable from Japanese social and cultural values.
Japanese religion is also a private, family affair. It is separate from the state; there are no religious prayers or symbols in a school graduation ceremony, for example. Religion is rarely discussed in every day life and the majority of Japanese do not worship regularly or claim to be religious.
However, most people turn to religious rituals in birth, marriage and death and take part in spiritual matsuri (or festivals) throughout the year.
Japan things to see and do
Breakfast at Tsukiji Fish Market
Get up early to witness the world’s largest fish market at Tsukiji in Tokyo. The action kicks off around 0400 and winds down around midday. Visitors must register by 0500 at the information centre for a special tour. Afterwards, feast on the freshest of sushi and sashimi at the restaurants beside the market.
Capture Shirakawa-go on camera
In the mountains of central Japan, you’ll find the remote, yet utterly picturesque area of Shirakawa-go. It is famed for its Gassho-zukuri farmhouses, charming traditional houses with high and narrow thatched rooves – said to resemble gassho (hands together in prayer). Many are still inhabited and open to the public, offering a fascinating glimpse of both traditional and modern rural life.
Curl up with a comic, Kyoto International Manga Museum
The Kyoto International Manga Museum, housed in an old primary school, is the first in the world devoted to the Japanese manga comics. The museum has a massive collection, both historical and contemporary, as well as international editions of Japanese comics. Visitors can take the comics off the shelf and read them in one of the many reading spaces.
Dine out like an Emperor in Osaka
Japan’s third largest city is renowned for its abundance of world-class restaurants, its historic castle (an excellent reproduction of the original) and the performing arts of kabuki (classical Japanese dance and drama) and bunraku (traditional puppet theatre). The city’s Dotonburi area is particularly vibrant after dark and its aquarium shouldn’t be missed – it is one of the largest in the world.
Discover the floating gateway of Miyajima
Near Hiroshima is the picturesque island of Miyajima, where a famous red Shinto torii gateway seemingly floats on the sea at high tide. Attractions here include the UNESCO-listed Itsukushima Shrine, the tame deer and the cable car up the holy Mount Misen, which offers fantastic panoramic views.
Enjoy a traditional Japanese tea ceremony
Arrange to take part in a traditional tea ceremony through the tourist information centres in Kyoto and Tokyo. Take a seat on the tatami-mat floor, the elegant ritual takes place in a chashitsu, a tranquil room designed and designated for tea, and is steeped in seasonal symbolism.
Experience the opulence of Sensoji Temple
Pilgrims have flocked to Sensoji Temple, Tokyo’s most revered Buddhist sanctuary, for over 1,000 years. Originally founded in AD628 to enshrine a statuette of the Kannon Bodhisattva (the Goddess of Mercy), damage from bombing raids mean that today you’ll find a lavish, five-storey reconstruction. Walk under its giant lantern to reveal smoking incense, swirling crowds and teeming shops.
Go whale and dolphin watching
Several former whaling ports have caught onto the tourist value of switching to whale-watching tours, so climb aboard a boat to spot both humpback and sperm whales. For the best chance of seeing these incredible mammals, take to the seas between January and April. Dolphin watching is popular in eastern and western Japan.
Hit the slopes with some skiing
Come winter, do as many Japanese do and hit the slopes. Mountains here are sprinkled with top-class ski resorts, especially in the central Japanese Alps and Hokkaido, where pistes are famed for their powder snow. Many resorts also have onsen (hot springs) to relax in après-ski.
Marvel at Himeji Castle
Himeji-jo is Japan’s most impressive castle. Dating from the 17th century, it survived WWII bombings and is still in excellent condition. Dominated by a towering six-storey central donjon, Shirasagi-jō (or “white egret castle” as it is nicknamed) is supposed to resemble the shape of the bird in flight. In 1993 it was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage list.
Pack a picnic for the pretty cherry blossom parties
From April through May, sakura (cherry blossom trees) start blooming across the country, and lively parties are held underneath the pretty blossoms. Known as a Hanami party, friends and family gather for a picnic with food and drinks with the most famous areas in Ueno Park in Tokyo and Maruyama Park in Kyoto.
Pay your respects at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum
Hiroshima in Western Honshu was destroyed by the world’s first atomic bomb in 1945. Visitors come 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 Children’s Peace Monument and the A-Bomb Dome – the ruins of which are on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
See Japan's indigenous culture in Hokkaido
For a long time, this northern island was 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 visitors will find the remnants of their distinct culture. If you’re short on time, visit the Hokkaido Ainu Center in Sapporo or the Ainu Museum in Shiranoi.
See the world's largest wooden structure in Nara
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-high (187ft), and the sacred deer in ancient Nara Park.
Seek out ringside seats for Sumo wrestling
Watch the theatre of a sumo contest. Witnessing sumo wrestling is pacy, exciting and truly traditional Japanese experience. Six major tournaments are held throughout the year in Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya and Fukuoka. Tickets can be purchased in advance or on the day.
Set sail for culture in Naoshima
Naoshima is an island in the Seto Inland Sea, located off the coast of Okayama Prefecture. Originally a fishing port, it is now home to an exciting array of outdoor art exhibits and contemporary art museums, including one that functions as a hotel. Old houses on the island have also been converted into exhibition spaces.
Tour the imperial capital, Kyoto
Don’t miss Kyoto, the imperial capital of Japan for over 1,000 years. Founded in AD794, Kyoto’s best 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 “nightingale floor”. The historic Gion geisha district makes for a wonderful late afternoon wander.
Unwind in a hot spring
When the Japanese want to relax, they head to a natural hot spring resort called oronsen. Famous soaks include Dogo in Matsuyama, Shikoku, which is one of the oldest in Japan with 3,000 years of history; and Ibusuki, on the southern tip of Kyushu, renowned for its hot-sand saunas.
Walk the Kumano Kodo trail
The Kumano Kodo is an ancient pilgrimage route in the mountains of Wakayama Prefecture. It is an area of stunning natural beauty with 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.
Before you go
Visa and Passport Requirements
Citizens of the U.S., Canada, and most EU countries do not need a visa for tourist visits up to 90 days. Technically, you may be required to prove that you’re visiting for non-remunerative activities. A copy of your travel itinerary is sufficient.
Japan has some very strict laws on what constitutes illegal pharmaceuticals. Many over the counter medications are prohibited, such as pseudoephedrines like Sudafed or Vicks inhalers. Even with a prescription, strong painkillers and things like EpiPens are likely to be confiscated by customs, and you could even end up being deported. This medication can be brought into Japan by applying for a Yakkan Shoumei, or import certificate that you then declare to customs.