All about Japan

The grand tour of Japan - all you need to know

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Japan guide

There’s probably no better country in the world at balancing the old with the new than Japan. Its ability to mix the traditional with innovation has allowed the country to remain as one of the world’s most intriguing and popular destinations. Japan is home to one of the most advanced and developed societies in the world, it has one of the highest life expectancies in the world and is home to one of the largest and most important cities worldwide, the metropolis of Tokyo.

 

The basics

Japan is one of the most populated countries in the world with a population of around 127,5 million people. The area of Japan is comprised by over 6.000 different islands located in eastern Asia in the Pacific Ocean, despite only 430 of these being inhabited. Out of these, the four main islands which account for the majority of the population are Honshu, Hokkaido, Shikoku and Kyushu. Positioned astride the Pacific Ring of Fire, Japan has hydrothermal features such as geysers and hot springs. It also suffers frequently from earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions. Its climate is overall temperate with four seasons. On the northern island of Hokkaido, heavy snow is present during the winter. Whereas the southern Island of Okinawa has temperatures of around 20-25ºC all year long.

Japan’s current emperor, Akihito, leads a constitutional monarchy despite wielding only very little political power and serving primarily as a symbolic and diplomatic leader of the country. The political leader of Japan who heads the Cabinet is the Prime Minister.

Most Japan citizens speak Japanese as their primary language. The language has three writing systems: hiragana, used for native Japanese words and inflected verbs; katakana, used for non-Japanese loanwords, emphasis and onomatopoeia; and kanji, used to express the large number of Chinese loanwords in the Japanese language. The most practised religion is a blend of Shintoism and Buddhism with Buddhist temples being built next to important Shinto shrines. Shinto is the native religion of Japan and developed in prehistoric times.

 

History of Japan

japan historyAncient Japan has made unique contributions to world culture with its Shinto religion, architecture, distinctive art objects such as haniwa figurines, the oldest pottery vessels in the world, the largest wooden buildings anywhere at their time of construction and many literary classics including the world’s first novel.

Settled by migrants from the Asian mainland back in the mists of prehistory, Japan has seen the rise and fall of emperors, rule by samurai warriors, isolation from the outside world, expansion over most of Asia, defeat and rebound. One of the most war-like of nations in the early 20th century, today Japan often serves as a voice of pacifism and restraint on the international stage.

Arrivals from China and Korea, who conquered or integrated with the indigenous peoples that had settled there during the prehistory, brought with them new pottery and improved metalworking techniques which produced more efficient farming tools and better weaponry and armour. Elements of Chinese culture such as writing, classic Confucian texts and Buddhism as well as Korean ideas in architecture were also brought with them. However, despite this significant Chinese and Korean influence, Japan was still free to create its own culture and traditions as it was never subject to foreign political control. Its many catastrophic events such as wars, earthquakes, fires, tsunami, storms and epidemics has also helped shape Japan’s unique and sophisticated culture.

Some of the major events of Japanese history include:

  • From 1467-1603, Japan experienced a long period of instability and civil war known as the Sengoku (or Warring States). This resulted in a castle building boom and by the end of the period it is estimated that Japan had as many as 5.000 castles. Only a handful of these old castles remain today as Japan entered a long period of relative stability after the War where castles became less important. In the 1860s, Japan underwent an aggressive program of modernization where most Japanese castles were scraped as they were seen as symbols of Japan’s feudal past.
  • Japan was closed to the world for 217 years. Japan had little contact with the world from 1635-1852 due to a law known as the Sakoku Edict that restricted trade, banned foreign travel by Japanese, banned Christianity and made Japan off-limits to most foreigners. Japan’s long period of isolation put the country technologically behind the Western powers, but it also helped the country to develop a unique culture. In 1852, the American Navy effectively forced Japan to open her markets. When Japan first opened to the West, the country’s feudal institutions such as the Samurai remained intact for only a few short years. After that, numerous Samurai were dispatched to New York as diplomats.
  • In the 1600s Japan was already building robots. More specifically, Japan was producing a variety of mechanical puppets known as Karakuri for entertainment that could perform simple dances or acts from plays and were later modernized so that they could serve tea or shoot arrows.
  • In 1765 Japan developed colour printing which was soon used to produce graphic novels known as Geasku, which were essentially early examples of comic books. However, these were seen as a threat to Japan’s aristocracy as they often covered the political controversies of the day and were soon banned.

 

Japanese islands

As mentioned in the beginning, Japan has four main islands. Each island offers something a little different, but all four of them are unified by Japan’s technology and hospitality.

Honshu

Honshu is the largest island of Japan and the world’s seventh largest island. It’s where the majority of the country’s cities are located and where most of Japan’s population lives. Honshu is connected to the other primary islands through underwater tunnels and bridges as it is the centre of Japan. It’s a mountainous island and home to many of the country’s active volcanoes with its most famous peak being Mount Fuji. It is also home to Japan’s largest lake (Lake Biwa), Japan’s largest river (Shinano River) and the Japanese Alps. The capital of Japan, Tokyo, can be found in Honshu as well as other major cities such as Hiroshima (the first city to experience the horrors of a nuclear bomb), Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe, Nagoya and Yokohama. Fruits, vegetables, rice, cotton and the bulk of Japan’s tea and silk all come from this island.

Hokkaido

Hokkaido is the second-largest and northernmost island. Its largest city is Sapporo, famous for its Japanese beer of the same name. The island is known for its natural mountainous landscape in the centre and coastal plains, with an abundance of national parks (such as the Shiretoko National Park) and festivals celebrating its earthly beauty. One of these festivals includes the Hokkaido Winter Festival, which attracts visitors from around the world and around Japan. It is also a popular destination for skiers and outdoor adventure enthusiasts. Hokkaido is separated from Honshu by the Tsugaru Strait. The island has a major role in Japan’s agriculture, especially corn, beef and wheat. Tourism also plays an important role in the economy, whilst industries like beer brewing and paper milling can also be found here.

Kyushu

Japanese islandsJapan’s third-largest and southernmost island (out of the four) is Kyushu. The island is well-connected to Honshu by rail and bus despite being separated by a small gulf. The most known city of the island is probably Nagasaki, a small but quaint city with old stone streets, trolleys, shopping and museums and is the last city on Earth to date to experience a nuclear attack. Another known city is Kumamoto, an old fortress city that has one of Japan’s oldest and best-maintained feudal castles and walls that evoke the Japan of the nation’s nightly historical dramas. Kyushu is known as the “Land of Fire” because of its chain of active volcanoes, which include Mt. Kuju and Mt. Aso. Its inhabitants produce a variety of agricultural products including rice, tea, tobacco, sweet potatoes and soy.

Shikoku

As the smallest of Japan’s four main islands, Shikoku is modest compared to the other three. It doesn’t boast mountains as high as those in Hokkaido or Honshu and it doesn’t have the same near-tropical climate as Kyushu. However, it does offer a tamer version of the busier tourist regions of Japan and its natural scenery is key in attracting outdoors enthusiasts in moderate physical shape. Shikoku is also home to a Buddhist pilgrimage, a festival celebrated each year, one of the oldest pilgrimages in the world, and is famous for its 88 Buddhist temples.

 

Main cities in Japan

TokyoTokyo

The greater Tokyo area is the most populous metropolitan area in the world. No wonder Tokyo is home to some of the biggest international companies of the world like Toshiba, Toyota, Nikon, Honda and Fujitsu, to name just a few. Tokyo balances past and future perfectly by mixing its traditional culture with the passion for everything new. The capital of Japan is also the city with the most number of Michelin stars awarded by the Michelin Guide. Tokyo is the go to place for everyone looking to learn from Tokyo’s culture and innovation, whilst also enjoying some of the best food that Japan has to offer. Tokyo is also the place to be if you are into manga cartoons, cosplay, crazy gadgets and the latest technology. The streets are full of locals in funky costumes, flashing smartphones and playing videogames in one of the city's many game cafes. Even more interesting, Tokyo is host to many themed cafes and bars. From owls and cats, to monsters and fairytales, your dining experience can never be more unique than what you have in Tokyo. 

Osaka

Osaka is Japan's second largest city. It's historically a merchant town and this has shaped the city's unique personality. Where Tokyo is shy and reserved, Osaka is outgoing and direct. The locals are business savvy and enjoy a heated negotiation. The city is packed with shopping and is home to many of Japan's largest companies such as Panasonic. But in addition to business, Osakan culture is also heavily focused on food. In fact, some lovers of Japanese cuisine view Osaka as the capital of affordable dining spree. Outside of the urban centres, pockets of tranquillity are tucked away in the countryside.

Kyoto

According to the Japan National Tourism Organization, the ancient capital of Kyoto is the most popular destination for foreign visitors to Japan. It’s a city that embodies all that people think of regarding Japanese tradition including centuries-old temples, ryokans (Japanese traditional style inn), teahouses, geisha, etc., all maintained in the authentic tradition of the city. Kyoto’s cityscape is well maintained, and there are many cultural workshops in which visitors can participate.

Nara JapanNara

With a history as Japan’s first permanent capital and its 8 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Nara is one of the country’s most culturally rich towns. The city is the birthplace of the fundamentals of Japanese tradition which are still associated with Japan today. The most impressive feature is Todaiji Temple, an enormous wooden building that houses one of Japan’s largest bronze statues of Buddha. Aside from temples, Nara Park is known for its population of inquisitive, free-roaming deer.

 

Japanese culture

Japan has a fascinating and multifaceted culture. It is steeped in the deepest of traditions dating back thousands of years on one hand, and 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. If you are looking for something different you are sure to find it here!

 

Traditional Culture

Many of Japan’s ancient practices and traditions are still intact today, helping shape Japan’s unique lifestyle and global perception.

Tea ceremonies are a common part of Japanese culture and have been greatly influenced by Buddhist practices with the event being sometimes linked to a meditative experience. Another Japanese tradition that is extremely prevalent throughout the culture is gift giving. When meeting with business associates or arriving at someone’s home you have been invited to, it is particularly important to show respect and gratitude by presenting your hosts with a gift. Just remember, do not give someone gifts in a set of four as it is an unlucky number in Japan, present the gift towards the end of your encounter and, if you are the one being offered a gift, strongly object acceptance at first.

Sumo Wrestling has a long and proud history and is considered the oldest sport of Japan. It has strict rules and traditions that have survived modernity and are still rigorously adhered to. The idea behind the sport is that two Rikishi’s (wrestlers) contend, push and try to throw each other out of the Dohyo (circular ring); the winner being the wrestler who forces his opponent to the ground or out of the circle. The Rikishi’s wear their hair in topknot, wearing nothing but a Mawashi (loincloth).

Geisha JapanIn terms of traditional performing arts, Noh is one of the oldest, surviving and regularly performed traditional Japanese theatres which originated in the 14th century. Noh has been designated as an “Intangible Cultural Heritage” by the UNESCO and was first only played by men, however a growing number of female players can be found nowadays. The hero/heroine wears a mask during the performance and a Waki acts as both a performer and a musician.

Another traditional performing art which has derived most of its material from the Noh theatre is Kabuki and its main audience are townspeople and farmers. It has its own distinctive music, costumes, stage craft and props which strive to adapt traditional styles for modern pallets. Contrary to Noh, Kabuki started out with performers of both sexes, but nowadays only men players can be found. The men that perform in Kabuki plays are characterised for wearing Kesho (kabuki make-up) during their performance.

The distinctive white face, red lips and elaborately decorated hairstyle of the Geisha is an enduring image portrayed throughout the globe. However, what many don’t know is that the first geisha on the scene were actually men and appeared around the early 18th century. As Japan cut off all contact with the outside world during the Edo era, the rich merchants of the cities continued to develop the arts of the country in the major urban areas. With the many courtesans of the time providing one area of fulfilment, the merchants looked for other types of entertainment, including music, dance and poetry. From these early stages, the world of the geisha developed, providing a service to entertain and charm, working alongside the very desirable, and for most people unobtainable, courtesan. It wasn’t until much later that women caught on and became the geisha as we know her today. If you long to experience geisha culture, you must head to the cultural capital of Kyoto where under a hundred geisha remain in the city, living and working in the traditional teahouses as they have always done.

 

New Culture

Over the years, Japan has acquired new cultures and practices that co-live alongside the traditional Japanese culture.

Manga JapanOne of the most known Japanese cultural activities is probably anime and manga. Manga are comic books with pictures and drawings of character depicting a storyline that has differing genres for every age group; whereas anime is a moving picture or cartoon with stories based mostly on Manga, but has better production values and more detail. Famous animes such as Pokemon and Naruto have become a global phenomenon with a huge following. There are also many anime and manga conventions held all over the world every year by fans.

Japanese fashion has influenced the global world of style. It has inspired futuristic, avant-garde and the exotic, in all parts of the world. From the traditional Kimono, street fashion in Harajuku or luxury brands, the Japanese have created their own unique designs.

There are also many themed cafes and restaurants that can be found all over Japan. From manga and anime influenced, to cafes where you can interact with cats to robot restaurants, you are sure to experience a unique time.

Public sleeping is another modern practice found in Japan that might seem odd to foreigners. It is called inemuri (sleep while being present) and is not only a common practice, but is also respected as a sign of a person who is working incredibly long hours to contribute to a company’s success and therefore just can’t keep their eyes open. Finding workers asleep at their desk is an everyday occurrence in Japan and is honoured by managers and other higher-ups in a company. However, it is an unintentional nap and it should appear as if they have dozed off while working.

 

The Japanese Way

Manners and customs are an important part of many facets of Japanese life. People grow up picking up the subtleties of this unique culture as they go through life, respecting the invisible and varied societal rules.

Japanese value outside appearances very much and have a very structured vertical business ranking. This ranking is based on age. In Japanese companies everyone is aware of everyone else’s age and it’s the age factor that determines everything from location of desks in a classroom to the order in which cups of tea are distributed and language in which you must address others, whether older or younger. Moreover, the value of the common greater good is more important than valuing one’s own needs (concept of wa).

Other manners and customs include bowing when saluting someone and taking off your footwear before entering ryokans, homes, temples or even some restaurants.

 

Japanese cuisine

Sushi Japanese foodJapanese cuisine is well known and appreciated globally for its precision, highly detailed technique and unique presentation. Based on “rules of five”, traditional Japanese cooking, or washoku, emphasizes variety and balance. This is achieved through the use of five colours (black, white, red, yellow and green), five cooking techniques (raw food, grilling, steaming, boiling and frying) and five flavours (sweet, spicy, salty, sour and bitter). These principles can be found even in a single meal of one soup and three sides paired with rice. Each region in Japan has its own variety of specialty dishes with ingredients that are carefully selected to complement its individual flavour.

Restaurants range from mobile food stands to centuries old ryotei, atmospheric drinking places, seasonally erected terraces over rivers, cheap chain shops and unique theme restaurants about ninja and robots. Many restaurants are specialized in a single type of dish, while other offer a variety of dishes. Some of the best traditional Japanese dishes include Sushi, Sashimi, Tempure, Yakitori, Miso Soup, Udon, Soba, Sukiyaki and Kaiseki.

Japanese restaurantSome restaurants in Japan have low tables and cushions on tatami floor instead of Western style chairs and tables. Shoes must be removed before stepping on tatami and avoid stepping onto cushions other than your own. Wet towels are provided at most restaurants to clean your hand before eating. Blowing your nose at the table, burping and audible munching are considered bad manners in Japan. After finishing your meal, it is generally good manner to return all your dishes to how they were at the start of the meal. In terms of drinking, do not start until everyone has been served and it is customary to serve each other alcoholic beverages instead of pouring your own drink. Also, under no circumstances should you leave a tip in any situation while visiting Japan. This is not only unacceptable, but also considered insulting.

 

With its many traditions and practices and its great variety in scenery, cuisine and things to do and see; Japan is definitely worth a trip and should be included in your list of next destinations to visit.

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