Travel to Japan, a trip into the past and the future

The Land of the Rising Sun has been a fascination for travellers since time began. Samurais, temples, futuristic skyscrapers, world-renowned cuisine; there is no end to the list of cultural associations we have with Japan. From the mythical slopes of Mount Fuji to the white sand beaches of Okinawa, Japan will take you on a journey you'll never forget.
  • Japan
    © iStockphoto.com / SeanPavonePhoto
  • Japan
    © iStockphoto.com / F11photo
Amy Adejokun
Amy Adejokun Expert destination Japan

Four islands

From an outsider's point of view, Japan, with its four connecting islands, is mysterious territory. The point at which modern technology meets ancient artistry, the country is a living crossroads between past and future. Dive into the never-sleeping streets of the capital or learn a different rhythm of life in the hilltop temples, you'll find yourself seduced from the off.

Urban exploration

Tall buildings, lights galore, ceaseless movement, thousands of people, Tokyo never sleeps. With 35 million inhabitants, the Japanese capital is the largest metropolis on earth and fascinates with its forests of skyscrapers, world-renowned gastronomy and age-old Shinto and Buddhist temples. For a more traditional side to Japan, head to Kyoto and Nara - both former capitals and full of Japanese gardens and ancient rituals.

Mount Fuji

Symbol of Japan, Mount Fuji has been immortalised time and again by artists the world over. It is the most sacred, as well as the highest, mountain in Japan with its peak reaching 3776 metres into the heavens. On a clear day, you can see its clear outline from the observatory at the top of the Tokyo Tower. Classed as a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2013, the dormant volcano is a haven for walkers both experienced and beginner.

Rural life

Once you've had enough of the fast-paced city, take one of the country's high speed bullet trains and take to the countryside. Zip between traditional villages, authentic houses and pass through landscapes which flourish with the changing of the seasons. Springtime brings blossom to the trees around Hokkaido or Aomori, whilst national parks such as Daisetsuzan and Shiretoko offer the perfect autumnal retreat.

Historic Japan

You'll also find, though you may not have expected it, plenty of castles and sanctuaries dotting the Japanese landscape. Himje is one of the country's best known castles and a UNESCO World Heritage site, whilst the sanctuary at Fushimi Inari Taicha is one of Japan's most visited sites. The city of Kyoto, ancient capital of Japan for over 1000 years, is also a must for history lovers. Packed with glorious monuments, this is where Japan's spiritual centre can be found. Those interested in recent history should also pay a visit to Hiroshima, where innumerable monuments stand to those who lost their lives to the atomic bomb.

Japan like a local

Alternatively, scrap the guide book's advice and discover the Japan of those who live there. Okinawa's beaches are a favourite spot for stressed out workers in need of a few days relaxation away from the fast-paced cities, and winter brings with it plenty of snow for skiing in Nagano and Sapporo. If you're looking for the ultimate in rejuvenation, try the thermal resorts of Hakone, famous for their hot springs and healing properties.

Japan: the key figures

Surface area : 377837.0 km2

Population : 127400000 inhabitants

  • Japanese culture is captivating.
  • The country is safe.
  • The railway network quality makes travel easy.
  • It is one of the most expensive countries in the world.
  • No signboards in the Latin alphabet outside the main towns.

Japan: what to visit?

Japan: what to buy?

Japanese artisanal products are rich due to their diversity and the know-how of their craftsmen. Kimonos, pearls, varnished items made of bamboo or wood, prints, and Shinto and Buddhist pieces of art. Of course, there is also a wide range of audio-visual and electronic equipment to choose from. Bargaining is not practised here. The shops are open from 10:00am to 7:00pm.

Japan: what to eat?

Japanese cuisine, which is now widespread in Europe, is very refined, light, and focuses on vegetables and fish. Specialities include teriyaki, (marinated beef, chicken or fish served on a hotplate), tempura (battered and fried seafood and vegetables), sukiyaki (thin slices of beef cooked in soya sauce), and of course sushi (raw fish wrapped in balls of rice) and sashimi (pieces of raw fish sometimes flavoured with soya sauce or horseradish mustard).

As for desserts, you will find oribenishiki (a rice cake with chestnuts filled with a bean paste), yakiimo, (a cinnamon-flavoured sweet potato cake), and chofu (a sweetened rice cake).

Breakfast is a meal of savoury dishes, often composed of bean sprouts, rice, soup, omelettes and grilled fish, and sometimes accompanied with a stewed dish. Generally speaking, the Japanese attach a lot of attention to the seasons and adjust their meals accordingly.

In terms of 'fast food', you will find bento, a single-serving meal in a plastic container or takeaway box that can include a variety of foods: fried eggs, fish, rice, vegetables, etc. They can mainly be bought at railway stations and in the business districts. Some restaurants also have them on their menu but present them differently.

If you are looking for something more affordable, Gyudon, a bowl of rice topped with fried beef and onions, costs less than £2. The average price for a dish of the day is around £5.

Japan: what are the cultural particularities?

Though much of Japan has been strongly westernised over the past years, traditions remain an important part of life here. When entering a temple, it is customary to remove your shoes, with slippers often provided at the door.

Meals are often held around traditional low tables. Women remain resting on their heels, whilst men sit cross-legged. If eating from a common plate, only touch the food you wish to take with your chopsticks and never leave them stuck vertically into your food, this is a ritual reserved for funerals.

Japan: travel tips

The Japanese calendar, like ours, consists of 4 seasons and the best time to plan on a trip there is in the spring or fall. In March and April, the mild temperatures and light rain are what make the cherry trees blossom, putting the whole country in a flutter. In autumn, once the typhoons of September have passed, October and November offer pleasant temperatures and a splendid blaze of fall colours, with shades of red, orange and yellow.

So as to avoid fully booked hotels, crowded public transport, and shops that are closed, there are 3 key periods to be avoided: the time around New Year's is generally synonymous with national holidays (businesses are closed from the 1st to the 3rd of January); Golden Week groups together several bank holidays from the end of April (starting on the 29th) to the beginning of May (the 5th); and Obon, a festival to celebrate the dead, is a time of migrations between the 13th and 15th July depending on the region but especially in mid-May.

There are few ATMs in Japan that accept foreign credit cards so make sure you have cash on you, for at least the beginning of the trip anyway. Japan is a very safe country so there is little to fear.

For unlimited use of the trains in the entire JR network (Japan Railways), which services the whole country, for a good price, make sure you buy your Japan Rail Pass before leaving the UK - it cannot be purchased at the same rate on the spot. Several types are available depending on the length of your stay.

If an earthquake should occur when you are there, you should notify your family or check in with the local British embassy.

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