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Fast Facts

Area: 377,835 sq km
Capital City: Tokyo
Language: Japanese
Time Zone: GMT/UTC +9
Dialing Code:81
Electricity:100V ,50Hz
Weights & measures: Metric
Currency:Yen
Seasons:
Summer: June - August
Autumn: September - November
Winter: December - February
Spring: March - May
 
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About Japan

Japan is a land of contrast from the elegant formality of the Japanese tea ceremony to Karaoke bars, from the tranquility of perfectly racked gravel in a Japanese garden to the thrill of deep powder skiing. Japan offers so many unique experiences.

Located in the Pacific Ocean, the Sea of Japan separates the archipelago from the east coast of Asia.

Japan has four main islands which are surrounded by more than 4,000 smaller islands. The main four islands are:

Hokkaido (northern island)
83,000 square kilometres

Honshu (main island)
231,000 square kilometres

Shikoku
19,000 square kilometres

Kyushu (southern island)
42,000 square kilometres

Japan has 47 prefectures and the country can be divided into 9 tourist areas:

    1. Hokkaido
    2. Tohoku
    3. Kanto
    4. Chubu
    5. Kansai
    6. Chugoku
    7. Shikoku
    8. Kyushu
    9. Okinawa

Places to See

Hokkaido
Hokkaido is blessed with a rich variety of natural landscapes, from forests inhabited by wild animals to wetlands, steep mountains and much more.

It is becoming well known internationally with skiers and snow boarders for its perfect powder snow. A wide range of other activities are also on offer including relaxing in hot springs, mountain biking on the mountains in summer, hiking, fishing, white water rafting and enjoying wonderful fresh local cuisine. Read more

Tokyo
Tokyo is a high energy city. The capital of Japan it is a splendid place to experience traditional culture mixed with the vibes of modern day Japan. Shopping is a unique experience from the multi story electronics shops in the Shinjuku district to the pet clothing stores where you can buy your best friend (the 4 legged ones that is) a super hero outfit or a something for every day strolling out on a walk. Museums, a terrific sub way system and historical architecture make this city a must see.

Kyoto
Kyoto, has hundreds of temples and traditional gardens. It was the capital between 794 and 1868, and remains the cultural hub of Japan.

Mt Fuji
On a very clear day Mt Fuji, Japan's highest mountain (3776m/12,385ft) can be viewed from Tokyo 100 kms away. Mt Fuji is a perfectly symmetrical volcanic cone which last blew its top in 1707. The climbing season is in July and August, and is very popular with the Japanese.

Food and Wine

Eating in Japan is an experience!

Japanese cuisine is one of simplicity. It has evolved from a singular ideology and has borrowed little from the outside world. It epitomizes perfection in its preparation, cooking and presentation.

The pure natural taste of the freshest ingredients is paramount to the Japanese.

Once only known in western countries for its sushi, tempura or sukiyaki it is so much more. The traditional regional dishes vary widely across the country and although some may be a little bizarre to western tastes others are extraordinarily delicious.

Throughout Japan there are many small specialist restaurants serving just a few dishes such as sushi, sashimi or tempura.

Among the types of dishes found in Japan are :

  • Sukiyaki is prepared right at the table by cooking thinly sliced beef together with a variety vegetables, tofu and vermicelli.
  • Tempura is food that is coated in an air-light batter quickly deep-fried. It is served with a dipping sauce of soy flavoured with ginger and white radish. Among the ingredients used are prawns, fish and vegetables.
  • Sushi is small pieces of raw seafood placed on vinegared rice. The most common ingredients are tuna, squid and prawn. Cucumber, pickled radish and sweet egg omelet are also served.
  • Sashimi is sliced raw fish eaten with soy sauce.
  • Yakitori is made up of small pieces of chicken meat, liver and vegetables skewered on a bamboo stick and grilled over hot coals. These are often sold by street vendors and are a traditional Japanese "fast food".
  • Shabu-shabu is tender, thin slices of beef held by chopsticks and swished in a pot of boiling water, then dipped in a sauce before being eaten.
  • Soba and Udon noodles are two varieties of Japanese noodle. Soba is made from buckwheat flour and Udon from wheat flour. They are served either in a broth or dipped in a sauce, and are available in numerous variations.
It's possible to eat relatively cheaply especially outside of the major cities. If you are on a budget stick to the shokudo eateries, or eat bentos (boxed lunches) or teishoku (set meals) from cheaper restaurants or cafeteria-style places.

Drinking is very popular in Japan. Beer is the favourite drink of the Japanese and it's dispensed everywhere including from street vending machines. Sake (rice wine) is served hot or cold. Japanese green tea is also readily available at restaurants and it is very popular.

Festivals

Japan is the land of festivals. They seem to be able to find any excuse for a festival. Every city, town and village in Japan has at least one matsuri (festival) a year. Snow festivals, fire festivals, fertility festivals - you name it, they have it.

Matsuri have their origins in ancient Shinto rituals and beliefs. Important elements include purification, offerings to the gods - such as rice, sake or fruit - and contests or games held on the day. Most community matsuri have omikoshi, or portable shrines which are carried from house to house or shop to shop to bestow good fortune on all.

Some of the more famous festivals include:

Sapporo Snow Festival (Yuki Matsuri) - early February. The festival is a major international tourist attractions. The highlight of the festival is the giant and elaborate snow and ice sculptures.

Kamakura Festival - February 15-16th. In Yokote City, Akita Prefecture, children build kamakura - small igloos with an altar to the Shinto water gods.

Sanja Festival - May. About 100 omikoshi are paraded through the streets around Asakusa Shrine in Tokyo. There are also many other costumed participants.

Gion Festival - July. This is the most significant festival in Japan. The most famous Gion Matsuri is the one sponsored by the Yasaka Shrine in Kyoto. There is a parade of giant wheeled floats called hoko or spears. These represent 66 tall spears erected in 869 in Kyoto as part of a ritual to protect the city from an epidemic.

Aomori Nebuta Festival - August. Giant floats are paraded through the city of Aomori in the evening with musical accompaniment. On top of the floats are colourful, illuminated papier-mache nebuta, figures of warriors, kabuki actors or other famous people. On the last night, the nebuta are cast out to sea.

Awa Dance (Awa Odori) - August. In the city of Tokushima, groups of dancers follow a route along the main streets doing a variation on the Bon Odori.

Art and Culture

If traditional culture is your style, then visits to cities like Kyoto and Nara are a must. Filled with temples and shrines and the perfect palace to experience kabuki, and a tea ceremony. There are museums across the country with artifacts from across the centuries.

Until the 19th century, the main influences on Japanese art came from China and Korea. The Edo period is probably one of the most famous in Japanese art recognized for the stylised wood block prints.

The two famous traditional Japanese performances are kabuki (melodramatic theatre) and no (formal, masked theatre), both can be experienced in Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka.

Cartoons and comics are extremely popular with Japanese youth. Numerous cartoons are shown every day on TV along with bizarre game shows which often involve various tortures inflicted on the contestants.

Environment

Japan features coastlines with varied scenery, towering mountains, and steep valleys. Many of the mountains are volcanic, blessing the islands with numerous hot springs and spectacular scenery.

Japan also has the distinction of being one of the most seismically active regions of the world. Japan gets around 1000 earthquakes a year, most of them too small for the locals to notice without seismic equipment. This activity brings the danger of earthquakes and tsunami.

About 73% of the country is mountainous, with a chain running through each of the main islands: the highest mountain is Mount Fuji at a height of 3,776 m (12,388 feet). Flat land is limited in Japan and consequently many of the mountain sides have been cultivates all the way to the summits.

Mt Fuji straddles Shizuoka and Yamanashi prefectures in central Japan just west of Tokyo. A sacred mountain since ancient times, Mt. Fuji's summit was forbidden to women until the Meiji Era. Now it is a popular tourist destination and common destination for mountain-climbing.

Mt. Fuji is frequent subject of Japanese art. The most renowned work is Ukiyo-e painter Hokusai's masterpiece 36 views of Mt. Fuji.

Much of the flora and fauna found in Japan is imported, however, the inaccessibility of much of Japan's mountainous areas has preserved areas of great natural beauty especially the alpine regions of Honshu and Hokkaido. Japan's largest mammal is a brown bear (found in Hokkaido) they mainly eat grass and nuts. Their diet also includes fish and ants, making them omnivorous rather than carnivorous. Other animals unique to Japan include the giant salamander, the Iriomote wildcat, found in the Okinawa island group, and it is classified as a 'living fossil'.

Climate

Japan is a temperate region with four distinct seasons. Due to its length from north to south the climate varies greatly from region to region: the far north is very cold in the winter, while the far south is subtropical. The climate is also affected by the seasonal winds blown from the continent to the ocean in winters and vice versa in summers.

Japan can be broken into 6 different climatic zones:

Hokkaido: has a temperate climate with long, cold winters and cool summers. Precipitation is not heavy, but the islands develop deep snowbanks in the winter.

Sea of Japan: The northwest wind in the wintertime brings heavy snowfall. In summers, the region is cooler than the Pacific area, but it can experience extremely hot temperatures due to the Foehn wind phenomenon.

Central Highlands: A typical inland climate, with large temperature differences between summers and winters and between days and nights. Precipitation is light.

Seto Inland Sea: The mountains of the Chugoku and Shikoku regions block the seasonal winds, bringing mild weather throughout the year.

Pacific Ocean: Experiences cold winters with little snowfall and hot, humid summers due to the southeast wind.

Southwest Islands: Has a subtropical climate with warm winters and hot summers. Precipitation is very heavy, especially during the rainy season. Typhoons are common.

Winter (December - February)
The temperature rarely drops below 0°C in the plains along the Pacific coast during wintertime. It is also quite dry and very often sunny. Central Japan and Northern Japan are well known for their winter sports whilst southern Japan is comparatively mild and pleasant in winter.

Spring (March - May)
Spring is probably the most celebrated seasons with numerous festivals celebrating the cherry blossoms. It is the holiday season for the Japanese so many popular tourist destinations are very busy with domestic tourists. Splendid views of mountains, fields and gardens all blanketed in gentle pink abound in this season.

Summer (June - August)
The Japanese summer begins in June with a three to four week rainy season in most parts except Hokkaido. It becomes hot and humid from July onward and many Japanese enjoy bathing in the sea and relaxing at cool resorts in mountainous areas.

Autumn (September - November)
Autumn brings freshness with a light breeze and cool temperature after the hot and humid summer. Autumn leaves provide brilliant colour across the country. It is a great time to travel the temperatures are pleasant, and the autumn colours in the countryside are fantastic.

Average temperatures in major cities:

  Winter Spring Summer Autumn
Sapporo –4.1 6.7 20.5 11.3
Tokyo 1.5 10.1 22.1 14.8
Osaka 5.8 14.8 27.2 18.7
Naha 16.6 21.3 28.5 24.9

Accommodation

Japan offers both western-style and Japanese accommodation to the traveler. The types of accommodation vary widely in terms of style and price. You can choose to stay in the familiar comforts of a western-style hotel, or enjoy the comfort and personal attention of a traditional Japanese inn or Ryokan.

Tipping is not customary except at top luxury ryokan, where a guest will tip a maid when she first serves tea in the room.

Getting to Japan

The majority of people arriving in Japan fly via Tokyo, there are several other ways of getting to and from Japan. There are numerous other international airports in Japan, and depending on where you are planning to go one of these may be a better option. As well as Tokyo's Narita airport there is Kansai in Osaka and Chitose in Hokkaido

It is also possible to arrive in Japan by sea from a number of nearby countries, including South Korea.

Internal travel
Flying is an efficient way to travel from the main islands to any of the small islands, and is often not much more expensive than going by rail.

Train is the most popular way to travel in Japan. The trains are on time, (except during very heavy snow storms in Hokkaido but that is a whole other story) fast, clean and comfortable. (but take a snack if traveling from Kutchan to Sapporo during a snow storm as after 11 hours on a journey that should take 2 you may be a little hungry). The subway in tokyo is extremely efficient and in most stations the ticket machines are in English and Japanese. Maps on the wall display the ticket prices, and if in doubt ask. As they say in Japan

Services range from small local lines to the shinkansen, or 'bullet trains', which have become a symbol of modern Japan. The Shinkansen can reach speeds of up to 300km/h.

If you are planning to travel by train be sure to purchase a Japan Rail Pass. these passes must be purchased before you arrive in Japan. They offer great value for money.

Intercity buses are generally slower than trains, but they are markedly cheaper.

Driving in Japan is not quite as scary as often made out to be. The major roads are clearly sign posted in both Japanese and English. Don't forget traffic travels on the left in Japan.

Ferries connect Kyushu, Shikoku and the southern coast of western Honshu, across the waters of the Inland Sea. Ferries also connect the mainland islands with the many smaller islands off the coast and those dotted down to Okinawa and beyond to Taiwan. This can be a very economical and easy way to travel between islands.

Almost every Japanese city will have a bus service. they are usually not difficult to use so long as you know where you are going to. Tell the driver your destination and thy will tell you how much to put in the coin operated box to get a ticket.

More information

For more information about Japan visit the National Japanese Tourism Bureau web site http://www.jnto.go.jp

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