Welcome to Travel Planning 101. Find country specific information about where you are going and what to do to prepare to get there!
- Travel highlights of the country.
- Fun facts and background information.
- History notes, facts on currency, health, holidays and transportation.
- Pre-departure tips, when to go, and visa information.
- Information on weather and electricity plugs.
- Suggestions on things to do if you have extra time to explore on your own.
Places To See
Japan's highest mountain stands 3776m (12,388ft) high. When it's capped with snow, it's a picture-postcard perfect volcanic cone. Fuji-san last blew in 1707, covering the streets of Tokyo with volcanic ash. On an exceptionally clear day, you can see Mt Fuji from Tokyo, 100km (62mi) away, but on many days it's wreathed with clouds.
Your best chance of seeing the notoriously shy mountain is in the late autumn, winter and early spring when the air is fairly clear. Even during these times, the mountain may only be visible in the morning before it retreats behind a curtain of haze or clouds.
You can get a classic view of Mt Fuji from the shinkansen (bullet train) as it passes the city of Fuji (sit on the northern side of the train). But the best and closest views are from the Fuji Go-ko region where, on a clear day, the hulking presence of the mountain seems to fill the sky.
Officially, the climbing season on Mt Fuji is from 1 July to 31 August. Actually, you can climb Mt Fuji at any time of year, and it may be preferable to do so just outside the official season to avoid the crowds, but keep in mind that transport services may be less frequent and some of the huts may be closed. Of course, any time there's snow on the mountain you'll need the proper equipment and experience to climb Mt Fuji, and a midwinter ascent is strictly for expert mountaineers.
You want to reach the top at dawn - both to see goraiko (sunrise) and because early morning is the time when the mountain is least likely to be shrouded in cloud. Sometimes it takes an hour or two to burn the morning mist off, however. You do not want to arrive on the top too long before dawn, as it's likely to be very cold and windy, and if you've worked up a sweat during the climb, you'll be very uncomfortable.
Dense jungle blankets much of Iriomote-jima, an island that could well qualify as Japan's last frontier. Trekking through the interior, you may find leeches, which in Japan is probably good enough to merit the 'wilderness' tag. The island's major attractions are beaches, rivers and waterfalls, and the rarely seen Iriomote yamaneko (wildcat).
Much easier to find are the curious sakishimasuo trees, with their twisting, ribbon-like root buttresses. You'll find them all over the island, but particularly along the coast north of Ōhara.
Iriomote-jima has several small towns and a perimeter road that runs about halfway around the coast. No roads run into the interior, which is virtually untouched.
The island's number-one attraction is a trip up the Urauchi-gawa, a winding brown river a lot like a tiny stretch of the Amazon. From where the boats stop, it's a half-hour walk to the spectacular waterfalls, Mariyudō-no-taki, and long, rapids-like Kampirē-no-taki. There are some good swimming holes around the falls.
There are some great walks in Iriomote-jima's jungle-clad interior. To get to the falls you wade across the shallow lagoon from the causeway, plod through the mangroves behind the lagoon and then follow the river up to the base of the falls. At high tide, you can rent a kayak and paddle across. A path branches off from the river and climbs to the top of the falls, from where there are superb views down to the coast.
Daisetsuzan National Park
Sometimes spelled 'Taisetsuzan', this is Japan's largest national park, consisting of several mountain groups, volcanoes, hot springs, lakes and forests. It also includes Asahi-dake, at 2290m (7557ft) Hokkaidō's highest peak. The park is spectacular hiking and skiing territory, but bear in mind that a few days are needed to get away from tourist areas.
If you have limited time, Asahidake Onsen is a good spot for a quick look at the park. Tokachidake Onsen is more remote and may be good for those wanting to escape the crowds (a key consideration in summer and early autumn). There are a couple of hikes on the more well-trodden trails here, but there are also many more routes leading to more remote regions if you have several days, or even a week, to spare.
Hiking and other information with some English-language text is available at tourist information offices in the larger towns and destinations.
Kyoto Imperial Palace Park
The Kyoto Gosho is surrounded by the spacious Imperial Palace Park, which is planted with a huge variety of flowering trees and open fields. It's perfect for picnics, strolls and just about any sport you can think of. The park is most beautiful in the plum- and cherry-blossom seasons (March and April respectively).
Take some time to visit the pond at the park's southern end, which contains gorgeous carp.
The Kamakura Daibutsu (Great Buddha) was completed in 1252 and is Kamakura's most famous sight. Once housed in a huge hall, the statue now sits in the open, its home having been washed away by a tsunami (tidal wave) in 1495. Cast in bronze, the statue is 11.4m (37.4ft) tall.
Its construction is said to have been inspired by Yoritomo's visit to Nara (where there is another, even bigger, daibutsu) after the Minamoto clan's victory over the rival Taira clan. Even though Kamakura's Daibutsu doesn't quite match Nara's in stature, it is commonly agreed that it is artistically superior. The Buddha itself is the Amida Buddha (amitābha in Sanskrit), worshipped by the followers of the Jōdo (Pure Land) school as a figure of salvation.
To get to the Daibutsu, take a bus from the No 2, 7 or 10 bus stop in front of Kamakura station and get off at the Daibutsu-mae stop. Alternatively, take the Enoden Enoshima line to Hase station and walk north for 10 minutes.
Expect a total sell-out for travel and lodging during Japan's biggest holidays, New Year (December 29 to January 3) and Golden Week (the lumping together of Green Day, Constitution Day and Children's Day, from April 29 to May 7). Other festivals include Coming-of-Age Day (second Monday in January), when ceremonies are held for boys and girls who have reached the age of 20. The Japanese celebrate the end of winter on February 3 or 4 by indulging in Setsubun (bean throwing) while chanting 'in with good fortune, out with the devils'. Hanami (Blossom Viewing) usually runs from March to April; the romantic Tanabata Matsuri (Star Festival) is on July 7; and O Bon (Festival of the Dead), when lanterns are floated on rivers, lakes or the sea to signify the return of the departed to the underworld, takes place from July 13-16 and mid-August.
Kyoto's Gion Matsuri (July 17) is perhaps the most renowned of all Japanese festivals. The climax is a parade of massive man-dragged floats decked out in incredible finery, harking back to a 9th-century request to the gods to end a plague sweeping the city. In the cute and kooky department, Niramekko Obisha (January 20; Chiba) combines a staring contest with consumption of sake - the one with the straightest face wins. The Yah-Yah Matsuri (first Sunday to the following Saturday of February; Owase) is an argument contest: competitors scream Samurai chants and try to look fearsome. Afterwards, they take off all their clothes and jump in the ocean. White Day (March 14) is a bizarre follow up to Valentine's Day where men are supposed to reciprocate to their valentine with a gift of chocolate or marshmallow. For those into music, the Fuji Rock Festival is held over three days in late July at the Naeba Ski Resort in northwest Japan. This festival boasts an awesome lineup of local and international bands playing against a mountain backdrop.
When to go?
Spring (March to May), with its clear skies and cherry blossoms, is probably the most celebrated Japanese season, but the Golden Week period, which is 29 April to 7 May, is a holiday period for the Japanese and many of the more popular travel destinations tend to be flooded with domestic tourists. Autumn (September to November) is a great time to travel: the temperatures are pleasant, and the autumn colours in the countryside are fantastic. Mid-winter (December to February) can be very cold, while the sticky summer months (June to August) can turn even the briefest excursion out of the air conditioning into a soup bath; on the plus side, major tourist attractions will generally be quieter at these times of the year. It's also worth considering peak holiday seasons when you plan your trip. Moving around and finding accommodation during New Year, Golden Week and the midsummer O-Bon festival can be a real headache.
Travel Visa Overview
Generally, visitors who are not planning to engage in income-producing activities while in Japan are exempt from obtaining visas and will be issued a tanki-taizai visa (temporary visitor visa) on arrival.
Stays of up to six months are permitted for citizens of Austria, Germany, Ireland, Mexico, Switzerland and the UK. Citizens of these countries will almost always be given a 90-day temporary visitor visa upon arrival, which can usually be extended for another 90 days at immigration bureaux inside Japan. Citizens of the USA, Australia and New Zealand are granted 90-day temporary visitor visas, while stays of up to three months are permitted for citizens of Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Iceland, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Singapore, Spain, Sweden and a number of other countries.
Japan requires that visitors to the country entering on a temporary visitor visa possess an ongoing air or sea ticket or evidence thereof. In practice, few travellers are asked to produce such documents, but to avoid surprises it pays to be on the safe side.
additional information on visas and regulations, contact your nearest Japanese embassy or consulate, or visit the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan (www.mofa.go.jp). Here you can find out about the different types of visas available, read about working-holiday visas and find details on the Japan Exchange & Teaching (JET) program, which sponsors native English speakers to teach in the Japanese public school system.
Japanese-style plug with two parallel flat blades
Affected by seasonal wind reversal from the southerly monsoon, Japan has a quite different climate to its Asian neighbours of the same latitude. You can expect the warmer temperatures of the south to cool as you move north so that the average July day is about 28°C (83°F) around the southern islands and only 23°C (73°F) near Hokkaido. Most of the year, the climate is moderate, but in winter it's cold throughout most of the country, with the exception of southern Kyūshū and Okinawa. Rainfall varies across the nation but is quite regular the year round and usually just a bit heavier during the June rainy season (which misses Hokkaidō).
History and Culture
If traditional culture is your thing, you can spend weeks in cities like Kyoto and Nara, gorging yourself on temples, shrines, kabuki, nō, tea ceremonies and museums packed with treasures from Japan's rich artistic heritage. If modern culture and technology is more your bag, you'll find Japan's cities an absolute wonderland - an easy peek into the future of the human race, complete with frenzied pop soundtrack.
Pre-20th Centure History
Japan's earliest settlers were fishers, hunters and gatherers who slogged over the land bridges from Korea to the west and Siberia to the north. It's also thought that seafaring migrants from Polynesia were part of the ethnic blend. By AD 300, the fierce Yamato kingdom had loosely unified the nation through conquest and alliance. Buddhism was introduced from China in the mid-6th century and soon became the state religion. Rivalry between Buddhism and Shintō, the traditional religion of Japan, was diffused by presenting Shintō deities as manifestations of Buddha.
With the empire more or less stable, particularly after the conquest of the indigenous Ainu in the 9th century, Japan's emperors began to devote more time to leisure and scholarly pursuits and less time to government. Important court posts were dominated by the influential Fujiwara family. Out in the provinces, a new power was on the rise: the samurai, or warrior class, readily turned to arms to defend its autonomy, and began to muscle in on the capital, Heian (modern-day Kyoto). The Taira clan briefly eclipsed the Fujiwara, and were ousted in turn by the Minamoto family in 1185. After assuming the rank of shōgun (military leader), Minamoto Yoritomo set up his HQ in Kamakura, while the emperor remained the nominal ruler in Kyoto. This was the beginning of a long period of feudal rule by successive military rulers which lingered until imperial power was restored in 1868.
The feudal centuries can be clunkily split into five main periods. The Kamakura Period (1185-1333) saw several invasion attempts by Kublai Khan's Mongol armies. Japan managed to stave them off, but a weakened leadership lost the support of the samurai. Emperor Go-Daigo presided over the beginning of the Muromachi Period (1333-1576), until a revolt masterminded by the disgruntled warrior Ashikaga Takauji saw him flee to the hills. Ashikaga and his descendants ruled with gradually diminishing efficiency and Japan slipped into civil war and chaos. The various factions were pacified and unified during the Momoyama Period (1576-1600) by Oda Nobunaga and his successor Toyotomi Hideyoshi. The quick spread of Christianity during the Christian Century (1543-1640) was tolerated at first, then ferociously quashed as the interloping religion came to be seen as a threat. During the Tokugawa Period (1600-1867), Tokugawa Ieyasu defeated Hideyoshi's young heir and set up his headquarters at Edo (now Tokyo). The emperor continued to exercise purely nominal authority in Kyoto while the Tokugawa family led Japan into a period of national seclusion. Japanese were forbidden to travel overseas or to trade abroad and foreigners were placed under strict supervision. The rigid emphasis of these times on submitting unquestioningly to rules of obedience and loyalty has lasted, some would say, to the present day.
By the turn of the 19th century, the Tokugawa government was stagnant and corrupt. Foreign ships started to probe Japan's isolation with increasing insistence, and famine and poverty weakened support for the government. In 1868 the ruling shōgun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, resigned and Emperor Meiji resumed control of state affairs, seeing Japan through a crash course in Westernisation and industrialisation. In 1889 Japan created a Western-style constitution, the tenets of which seeped into national consciousness along with a swing back to traditional values. Japan's growing confidence was demonstrated by the ease with which it trounced China in the Sino-Japanese War (1894-5) and Russia in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-5). Under Meiji's son, Yoshihito, Japan sided with the Allies in WWI. Rather than become heavily involved in the conflict, however, Japan took the opportunity, through shipping and trade, to expand its economy at top speed. Emperor Hirohito ascended to the throne in 1926. A rising tide of nationalism was quickened by the world economic depression that began in 1930. Popular unrest led to a strong increase in the power of the militarists: Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931 and entered into full-scale hostilities against China in 1937.
Japan signed a tripartite pact with Germany and Italy in 1940 and, when diplomatic attempts to gain US neutrality failed, the Japanese launched themselves into WWII with a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. At first Japan scored rapid successes, pushing its battle fronts across to India, down to the fringes of Australia and out into the mid-Pacific. The Battle of Midway opened the US counterattack, puncturing Japanese naval superiority and turning the tide of war against Japan. By August 1945, with Japan driven back on all fronts, a declaration of war by the Soviet Union and the release of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it was all over. Emperor Hirohito announced unconditional surrender. Japan was occupied until 1952 by US forces who aimed to demilitarise the country and dismantle the power of the emperor. A recovery programme enabled the economy to expand rapidly, and Japan became the world's most successful export economy, generating massive trade surpluses and dominating such fields as electronics, robotics, computing, car production and banking.
With the arrival of the 1990s, the old certainties seemed to vanish: Japan's legendary economic growth slowed to a virtual standstill; the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) was swept out of power and then back in again the next year; a massive earthquake in 1995 brought Kobe to its knees (a disaster made worse by a government that was slow to react); and to top it off, a millennial cult with doomsday ambitions engineered a poison gas attack on the Tokyo subway system.
Things began to look up with the appointment of Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, who ushered in a few brief years of economic vitality, but the job took its toll and he died while still in office from a massive stroke. His successor, LDP stalwart Yoshiro Mori, held the dubious honour of possessing the lowest approval rating of any leader in recent Japanese history, until he announced his resignation in early April 2001.
Mori's successor was the telegenic Junichiro Koizumi, who stayed in power until 2006 and was followed in quick succession by Abe Shinzō, Fukuda Yasuo, Tara Aso and Yukio Hatoyama. Naoto Kan took over as prime minister in June 2010.
Economically, Japan was hit by the global financial collapse that started in 2008, with its share market losing a third of its value and Toyota announcing its first ever loss in its 70-year history.
Japan is the world's most rapidly ageing society, with the birth rate declining to 1.3 per woman, and with its elderly (65 years plus) comprising 21% of the population while its children (up to 15 years) comprising just 13%. This has serious ramifications economically as well as socially, with a growing ratio of supported to supporter, and increased pension and health costs.
Internationally, despite criticism for continued whaling and other issues, contemporary Japan is widely respected in the world. Its cultural exports are popular worldwide, especially its manga and anime among younger people, and it is seen as a world trend-setter.
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