There is a place were neon lights and bullet trains blend into timeless temples and quaint cobble alleys. Here, the salaryman in the bespoke suit mingles next to the woman in the traditional silk kimono. The concrete jungle foreground fades peacefully into the rolling mountain background in this “Land of the Rising Sun.” The perfect mix of modern and traditional. Of technology and nature. Electric energy and tranquility. It must be Japan.
No matter what time of year, Japan is guaranteed to present you with once in a lifetime experiences. Even if you can't read a single character of the Japanese writing system, Japan’s efficient design, incomparable public transit, and friendly smiles need no translating. They all say, “welcome.”
Don’t let the modern flashing lights of Tokyo fool you. Japan is a country rich in tradition. Many of the most important traditions in Japan focus on showing respect and creating harmony within the community. As visitors, tourists should be respectful of Japan’s etiquette.
Bowing is a common sign of respect and is done by everyone. Be prepared to greet hotel staff, shopkeepers and business colleagues with a short bow. But don’t worry, there is no need to get elaborate. A simple forward inclination of the upper body is all that is needed.
When visiting homes and many other buildings, you will need to remove your shoes. Be sure to wear shoes that are easy to take off! Your host will often provide you with a pair of house shoes. However, many western visitors will find that Japanese size shoes might be rather small.
Many rules and customs are in place to promote peace and tranquility. Never speak on your phone while traveling on the train. Even when speaking to your traveling companions, make sure to keep your voice low. Eating smelly foods on the trains is forbidden.
When giving or receiving items in Japan, it is customary to use both hands. This shows care and respect on the part of both people. Business travellers in particular should keep this in mind when exchanging business cards.
Japan is an island nation, located in the Pacific Ocean. The long chain of islands stretches past neighbours Russia, North Korea, South Korea and China. Tokyo, the capital city, lies on Honshu, the largest and centre island. Australian visitors need not worry about jet lag. Japan is 9 hours ahead of Universal Coordinated Time, which means Australians are never more than an hour off their home time.
Entering Japan is relatively easy for Australian travellers. While you will need a passport, no visa is required for tourists staying less than 90 days. Tokyo’s Narita Airport is a world class international transit hub.
The Japanese currency is the Japanese Yen. On average, one Australian Dollar will buy 88 Japanese Yen. Travellers should be aware that credit cards are not widely used and it is best to carry cash. While ATMs are plentiful, many do not accept non-Japanese cards and travellers should plan in advance. Tipping is not required in most establishments and, in fact, can cause offence.
Japan has a temperate environment and experiences four very beautiful seasons. Spring is the loveliest time to visit. This is when tourists can admire the magnificent cherry blossoms. However, the richly hued autumn foliage is nearly as compelling.
Top Japanese Experiences
Most people associate Japan with traditional images of kimono clad geisha or timeless temples. While these historical icons are in fact still a part of Japanese life, there is so much more! Japan is a leader in technology and innovative design. It is also one of best places in the world to explore nature. Between the beaches, mountains, ski resorts, theme parks, museums, temples, and teahouses, visitors will have plenty to do! In fact, there is so much to do, it can help to focus on a few “must-see’s.”
Japan is a relatively compact country. This fact, coupled with Japan’s ultra high speed train system, means tourists can cover a lot of territory. Most tourists will start in Tokyo, the country’s capital and largest city. Tokyo is a sleek and a thriving example of modernity. Neon lights flash over throbbing crowds in Shibuya Crossing while towers, such as the Tokyo SkyTree scrape the sky. However, it isn't all about the future here. Visitors shouldn’t miss the beautiful old Meiji Jingu Shrine.
Where Tokyo is hard and modern, Kyoto is soft and traditional. Visit Kyoto for an authentic look at timeless Japan. Stroll the streets of Gion to catch a glimpse of a real geisha scurrying to their next performance. Relax over a meditative cup of tea while learning the beautiful ritual of the tea ceremony.
Not far from Kyoto, the bustling city of Osaka gives all of the benefits of a big city with a small town feel. Also, in a country filled with exquisite culinary offerings, Osaka is known to be a haven for foodies. Sampling local okonomiyaki is a favourite here.
No trip to Japan would be complete without paying respects and honouring history in Hiroshima. This city was mostly destroyed by an atomic bomb during World War II. However, these days the city has been rebuilt and is a centre for peace and forgiveness.
Finally, winter sport enthusiasts can’t miss a visit to Sapporo. This famous ski resort area is a winter wonderland! Come for the Snow Festival, stay for the famous beer!
There are also many beautiful castles and temples to visit throughout the country. Iconic with their tiered structure and sweeping roofs, Japanese castles are a unique take on the castle concept. Although 144 castles were built during the medieval period, only 12 still remain today. Among the best are Himeji Castle, a world heritage site, and Matsumoto Castle. Temples are similarly breathtaking to visit. The stunning Kinkaku-ji Temple in Kyoto is entirely covered in gold!
But structures aren’t the only things worth visiting in Japan. This country is famous for beautiful, pristine gardens. The Japanese culture prizes dedication to detail. The Japanese gardens are prime examples of this. The culture also idealises balance and harmony, values which can clearly be seen in a traditional Japanese garden. Risurin Park in Takamatsu is the largest and most popular garden. For something a little different, however, visit Ryoanji’s zen stone garden in Kyoto.
Speaking of nature, Japan boasts some pretty impressive natural features. The most famous of these is iconic Mt. Fuji, or Fujisan. The country’s highest mountain is distinctive in its pure cone shape and crisp snow cap. Summiting this great peak is something anyone can do during the hiking season. However, if trekking isn’t on the itinerary, the mountain can be enjoyed from the nearby Fujigoko lake region. Or, if you are especially hurried, reserve a right side window seat on your bullet train bound for Kyoto and let Fuji fill your window.
Beyond essential locations, Japan is a land of essential experiences. Visitors should be sure to experience the beauty of Japan’s many cherry blossoms in the spring. In fact, cherry blossom viewing is such an important part of Japanese culture that cherry blossom viewing parties, called Hanami, are a favourite custom. If you happen to be visiting Japan in the spring, gather up a picnic and head out to Yoshino or Hirosaki for excellent viewing.
Another popular experience while in Japan is karaoke. Not to be confused with the western version involving poor microphones and public embarrassment, Japanese karaoke is an activity for friends. Special karaoke bars can be found in every city and visitors can rent comfortable private rooms and sing the night away. Still feeling shy? You can even rent a private booth alone and live out your greatest pop star fantasies. The booths are attended by waiters who will serve drinks. Many packages include free drinks, which undoubtedly make the singing a little easier.
Of course, many food lovers come to Japan to sample the exquisite cuisine. Japanese people appreciate clean flavours and precision presentation. The most popular food experience for tourists is fresh sushi. Sushi menus can be confusing for many westerners. Sushi refers to a combination of ingredients with rice in a long roll. Menus often also feature nigiri, which is fresh seafood on a ball of rice, or sashimi, which is simply slices of very fresh seafood. For a really unique experience, try Kaiten style sushi, where the varied dishes move past diners on a conveyor belt.
Many tourists come to Japan hoping to catch a glimpse of Japan’s iconic characters, such as sumo wrestlers or geisha Sumo is one of Japan’s traditional sports. Similar to wrestling, sumo features two large men who must force each other outside of a circle. Tourists can visit a sumo stable to witness morning workouts.
Geisha are Japan’s most exquisite performing artists, but something of an enigma to many foreigners. Skilled at arts such as dance, vocal performance and traditional instruments, geisha are also renowned for their social abilities in entertaining. The best place to catch sight of a real geisha is the Gion district of Kyoto. Tourists can also have their own geisha experience. Henshin, or geisha makeover experiences, allow tourists to experience the full costume and makeup worn by true geisha.
Of course, these aren’t the only characters that Japan has made famous. Perhaps even more famous are Japan’s anime The most well known anime outside of Japan is Hiyao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli. Fans of films such as Ponyo, Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle can explore Miyazaki’s world at the Studio Ghibli Museum near Tokyo. For the more serious Otaku, or anime fan, Akihabara is the place to be. Known as "Akiba" by the locals, this neon neighbourhood of Tokyo is a mecca for anime, manga and all things gaming related. In fact, you can even dress up as characters from Super Mario and drive Mariokarts through the streets!
But when the fast pace and cultural wonders of Japan start to overwhelm you, there is only one Japanese experience that you need: the Onsen. Onsen, or hot springs, can be found throughout Japan but those in Hakone and Yufuin are especially pleasant. For unique bathing experiences, winter guests at the onsen in Jigokundani may be joined by monkeys! But for a convenient and tourist friendly hot springs experience, Oedo Onsen Monogatari in Tokyo is a hot springs based theme park. However, foreigners should be mindful of proper hot springs etiquette when visiting. The baths are traditionally visited in the nude. Make sure to scrub yourself clean before entering the communal baths! And, travellers with tattoos should be aware that many hot springs will deny entry to anyone with any kind of ink.
Safe Travelling In Japan
Japan prizes harmony above all else. Most Japanese people will put the welfare of the community above the interests of the individual. The country has many rules in place for this reason and Japan tends to be a very well organised society. Thanks to these unique values, crime rates are low. Further, cleanliness and hygiene are highly valued and travellers will rarely experience problems with food sanitation.
However, natural disasters are a very real possibility during your stay. Typhoons, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis and especially earthquakes are part of life in Japan. Smart travellers will prepare themselves in the case of any emergency.
Earthquakes are a regular occurrence in Japan. Fortunately, the country is extremely well prepared for them. Most buildings are designed and constructed to withstand even strong tremors. In the case of smaller earthquakes, (less than 4 or 5 magnitude) most tourists will notice little more than a gentle bouncing as buildings move. However, in the case of larger earthquakes, stay indoors! Find shelter under a sturdy cover, such as a strong table. Open a door so that you maintain an exit. And, make sure to keep important items, like passports, within reach.
Visitors may also experience one of Japan’s periodical typhoons. Similar to the tropical cyclones which hit Australia, typhoons are powerful rain and wind storms. In the case of a typhoon, make sure to get inside to a safe location. Close and reinforce all windows. Also, keep a supply of basic necessities on hand, such as food items and water. Typhoon season in Japan generally runs from May to November, so plan accordingly!
Tsunamis and volcanic eruptions are less frequent occurrences in Japan, but they can happen. A tsunami is a powerful wave that generally arises following a strong earthquake. If there has been an earthquake in the last 24-48 hours, travellers are advised to stay away from beaches. This is definitely not the time for swimming! In the case of a volcanic eruption, immediately move to a place of safety.
Snow hazards pose another natural risk. Japan is home to a variety of world class ski resorts and visitors come from around the world to participate in snow sports. However, as with any athletic activity, snow sports can be dangerous. Each year many tourists experience injuries while skiing and snowboarding. Make sure to wear proper protective equipment and only participate at your comfortable ability level.
Beyond activity injuries, snow also poses a danger from exposure. Wear proper sunglasses to prevent snow blindness and always protect your skin with sunscreen. Be alert for avalanches and always check the conditions before going out.
In 2011, Japan experienced a powerful earthquake and a subsequent massive tsunami. In the destruction, Fukushima’s nuclear power plant was badly damaged and some radiation was leaked. However, the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency has recently assessed the country and found no risk of radiation in most of the country. The area immediately around the Fukushima plant, however, is still at risk.
Japan has one of the best and most efficient rail systems in the world. However, there are still some risks in traveling on the trains. Due to high population density, commuter trains are almost consistently packed full. Pickpocketing does sometimes occur in these circumstances. Occasionally, the crowds hide a Chikan, meaning a man who gropes women on crowded trains. Be alert and watch your belongings on crowded trains!
Finally, tourists should be aware that Japan has a rigid legal system and very tough laws. Recreational drugs of any kind are not tolerated. Avoid all drug use and make sure that you carry a prescription for any medications.
Aside from the elements and a few busy trains, most tourists will find Japan a wonderfully safe and welcoming destination!