Since 11 March 2011, one cannot talk about or consider visiting Japan without the devastating earthquake and tsunami that struck northeast Japan coming up. Yet, rather than focus on the immediate horrors and lingering fears of the tragedy, one should focus on the beauty and accessibility of Japan today. One should note how the Japanese people, resilient and steadfast, behaved after the waters receded: they gathered calmly in evacuation shelters, set off bravely on rescue missions, began the task of rebuilding.
Every image from those first weeks reflects some of the culture’s highest virtues: the ability to gambaru (do their best) and to gaman (bear suffering without complaint). They also capture the famous Japanese thoroughness and civility. This spirit will allow the Japanese people to rebuild northern Japan faster than anyone expects. And it is this very same spirit that makes travelling in Japan such a joy.
Do not avoid Japan because of fear. The March 2011 disaster was of once-in-a- lifetime proportions, and even at the height of the crisis most of Japan was perfectly safe for travel. At the time of writing, only a small area of Fukushima Prefecture was off limits
apan is wide open for travel. If you have been considering your first visit to Japan or returning to re-experience the unique magic of the country, the perfect time to go – and to celebrate Japan and its people – is now.Japan Is Approachably Exotic
Japan hits the travel sweet spot. It’s unique enough to give you regular doses of ‘Wow!’ without any downside. Indeed, travelling in Japan is remarkably comfortable, even with the language barrier thrown in – but it’s never familiar. Staying in a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) is marvellously different from staying in a chain hotel. Soaking naked in an onsen (hot spring) with a bunch of strangers might be a little odd at first, but it is beyond relaxing. Sitting in a robe on tatami mats eating raw fish and mountain vegetables may not be how you dine back home, but it is unforgettably delicious.Japan Makes You Think
Perhaps more than any country on earth, Japan makes you think. It is a country that took a good, hard look at the West and said ‘We’ll take your technology, but we’re keeping our culture’. It was never extensively missionised or colonised. It practises an ancient animist/pantheist religion while pushing the boundaries of modern technology. It is a country where tens of millions of people can cram into crowded cities without ever losing their temper. And while you explore Japan, you will regularly find yourself awed by how the Japanese do things – and perhaps, just as often, wondering ‘Why don’t we do it that way back home?’
With more than 1000 temples to choose from, you’re spoiled for choice in Kyoto. Spend your time finding one that suits your taste. If you like things gaudy and grand, you’ll love the retina-burning splendour of Kinkaku-ji. If you prefer wabi-sabi to rococo, you’ll find the tranquillity of Hōnen-in or Shōren-in more to your liking. And don’t forget that temples are where you’ll find the best gardens: some of them are at Ginkaku-ji, Ryōan-ji and Tōfuku-ji.
Japan is a food lover’s paradise and the cuisine is incredibly varied, running the gamut from simple soba noodles to multi- course kaiseki banquets. In a city such as Tokyo or Kyoto, you could eat a different Japanese speciality cuisine every night for a month without repeating yourself. There’s no doubt that a food tour of Japan will be memorable, but there’s just one problem: once you try the real thing in Japan, the restaurants back home will pale in comparison. The only solution is another trip to Japan!
There’s nothing like lowering yourself into the tub at a classic Japanese onsen. You can feel your muscles relax and the ‘ahhh’ that you emit is just an easy way of saying ‘Damn, I’m glad I came to Japan!’ If you’re lucky, the tub is outside and there’s a nice stream running nearby. The Japanese have turned the simple act of bathing into a folk religion, and the country is dotted with temples and shrines to this most relaxing of faiths.Staying in a Ryokan
Eat in your bedroom. Spend the day lounging about in a robe. Soak in a bath while looking at a garden. Don’t lift a finger except to bring food to your mouth. Sounds relaxing? Then we highly recommend a night in a good ryokan. The Japanese had the whole spa thing figured out long before they ever heard the word ‘spa’. From first-class place to the most humble ryokan, they will all give you a taste of how the Japanese used to live.Hiking in the Japan Alps
Close your eyes and picture Japan. If all you see are geisha, Zen gardens, bullet trains and hyper- modern cities, you might be in for a real surprise when you get into the Japan Alps. Hike right into the heart of the high peaks here and you’ll be in awe of so much mountain splendour. You can go hut-to-hut among the peaks for a week with nothing on your back but a solid day pack.Castles
Japan’s castles have about as much in common with their European counterparts as kimonos have in common with Western dinner dresses. Their graceful contours belie the grim military realities behind their construction. Towering above the plains, they seem designed more to please the eye than to protect their lords. If you have an interest in the world of samurai, shōguns and military history, you’ll love Japan’s castles. Now that the castle at Himeji is under wraps, try the one at Matsuyama or HikoneTokyo’s Modern Architecture
Japan may be known for its traditional temples, but Tokyo’s cityscape is a veritable open-air museum of contemporary structures. The capital has come a long way from copying the Eiffel Tower – these days you’ll find dozens of inspired and original works by a pantheon of the world’s greatest designers. Fill up on such architectural eye-candy as the chic boutiques in Omote-sandō, the quirky postmodern projects on Odaiba, or even the new army of office towers in Marunouchi.
Japan's location on islands at the outermost edge of Asia has had a profound influence on its history. Just close enough to mainland Asia, yet far enough to keep itself separate, much of Japanese history has seen alternating periods of closure and openness. Until recently, Japan has been able to turn on or off its connection to the rest of the world, accepting foreign cultural influences in fits and starts. It is comparable with the relationship between Britain and the rest of Europe, but with a much wider channel.
Recorded Japanese history begins in the 5th century, although archaeological evidence of settlement stretches back 50,000 years and the mythical Emperor Jimmu is said to have founded the current Imperial line in the 7th century BCE. Archeological evidence, however, has only managed to trace the Imperial line back to the Kofun Period during the 3rd to 7th centuries CE, which was also when the Japanese first had significant contact with China and Korea. Japan then gradually became a centralized state during the Asuka Period, during which Japan extensively absorbed many aspects of Chinese culture, and saw the introduction of Mahayana Buddhism and Confucianism. The popular board game of Go is also believed to have been introduced to Japan during this period.
The first strong Japanese state was centered in Nara, which was built to model the then Chinese capital Chang'an. This period, dubbed the Nara Period was the last time the emperor actually held political power, with power eventually falling into the hands of the court nobles during the Heian Period, when the capital was moved to Kyoto, then known as Heian-Kyo, which remained the Japanese imperial residence until the 19th century. Chinese influence also reached its peak during the early Heian Period, which saw Buddhism become a popular religion among the masses. This was then followed by the Kamakura Period, when the samurai managed to gain political power. Minamoto no Yoritomo, the most powerful of them was dubbed shogun by the emperor and ruled from his base in Kamakura. The Muromachi Period then saw the Ashikaga shogunate come to power, ruling from their base in Ashikaga. Japan then descended into the anarchy of the Warring States period in the 15th century. Tokugawa Ieyasu finally reunified the country in 1600 and founded the Tokugawa shogunate, a feudal state ruled from Edo, or modern-day Tokyo. A strict caste system was imposed, with the Shogun and his samurai warriors at the top of the heap and no social mobility permitted. Nuclear devastation in Hiroshima (1945)
During this period, dubbed the Edo Period, Tokugawa rule kept the country stable but stagnant with a policy of almost total isolation (with the exception of Dutch and Chinese merchants in certain designated cities) while the world around them rushed ahead. US Commodore Matthew Perry's Black Ships arrived in Yokohama in 1854, forcing the country to open up to trade with the West, resulting in the signing of unequal treaties and the collapse of the shogunate in the Meiji Restoration of 1867, during which the imperial capital was relocated from Kyoto to Edo, now re-named Tokyo. After observing Western colonization in Southeast Asia and the division and weakening of China, which the Japanese had for so long considered to be the world's greatest superpower, Japan vowed not to be overtaken by the West, launching itself headlong into a drive to industrialize and modernize at frantic speed. Adopting Western technology and culture wholesale, Japan's cities soon sprouted railways, brick buildings and factories, and even the disastrous Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, which flattened large parts of Tokyo and killed over 100,000 people, was barely a bump in the road.
From day one, resource-poor Japan had looked elsewhere for the supplies it needed, and this soon turned into a drive to expand and colonize its neighbors. The Sino-Japanese War of 1894–95 saw Japan take control of Taiwan, Korea and parts of Manchuria, and its victory against Russia in the 1904–5 Russo-Japanese war cemented its position of strength. With an increasingly totalitarian government controlled by the military, Japan launched a full-scale invasion of China via Manchuria in 1931 and by 1941 had an empire stretching across much of Asia and the Pacific. In 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, destroying a large portion of the U.S. Pacific fleet but drawing America into the war, whose tide soon started to turn against Japan. By the time it was forced to surrender in 1945 after the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 1.86 million Japanese civilians and military personnel had died, well over 10 million Chinese and other Asians had been killed, primarily in atrocities committed by the Japanese military, and Japan was occupied for the first time in its history. The Emperor kept his throne but was turned into a constitutional monarch. Thus converted to pacifism and democracy, with the US taking care of defense, Japan now directed its prodigious energies into peaceful technology and reemerged from poverty to conquer the world's marketplaces with an endless stream of cars and consumer electronics to attain the second-largest gross national product in the world.
But frenzied growth could not last forever, and after the Nikkei stock index hit the giddy heights of 39,000 in 1989, the bubble well and truly burst, leading to Japan's lost decade of the 1990s that saw the real estate bubbles deflate, the stockmarket fall by half and, adding insult to injury, the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995 that leveled parts of Kobe and killed over 6,000 people. The economy has yet to fully recover from its doldrums, with deflation driving down prices, an increasingly unsupportable burden of government debt (nearing 200% of GDP) and an increasing polarization of Japanese society into "haves" with permanent jobs and "have-not" freeters drifting between temporary jobs. This has resulted in Japan losing its position as the world's second largest economy to its larger neighbour, China. Nevertheless, the Japanese maintain one of the highest standards of living in the world.People
As an island nation shut off from the rest of the world for a long time (with mild exceptions from China and Korea), Japan is very homogeneous. Almost 99% of the population is of Japanese ethnicity. The largest minority are Koreans, around 1 million strong, many in their 3rd or 4th generations. There are also sizable populations of Chinese, Filipinos and Brazilians, although many are of Japanese descent. Though largely assimilated, the resident Chinese population maintains a presence in Japan's three Chinatowns in Kobe, Nagasaki and Yokohama. Indigenous ethnic minorities include the Ainu on Hokkaido, gradually driven north during the centuries and now numbering around 50,000 (although the number varies greatly depending on the exact definition used), and the Ryukyuan people of Okinawa.
The Japanese are well known for their politeness. Many Japanese are thrilled to have visitors to their country and are incredibly helpful to lost and bewildered-looking foreigners. Younger Japanese people are often extremely interested in meeting and becoming friends with foreigners as well. Do not be surprised if a Japanese person (usually of the opposite gender) approaches you in a public place and tries to initiate a conversation with you in somewhat coherent English. On the other hand, many are not used to dealing with foreigners (外人 gaijin) and are more reserved and reluctant to communicate.
Visibly foreign visitors remain a rarity in many parts of Japan outside of major cities, and you will likely encounter moments when entering a shop causes the staff to seemingly panic and scurry off into the back. Don't take this as racism or other xenophobia: they're just afraid that you'll try to address them in English and they'll be embarrassed because they can't understand or reply. A smile and a Konnichiwa ("Hello") often helps.Holidays
The most important holiday in Japan is New Year (お正月 Oshōgatsu), which pretty much shuts down the country from December 30 to January 3. Japanese head home to their families (which means massive transport congestion), eat festive foods and head out to the neighborhood temple at the stroke of midnight to wish in the New Year. Many Japanese often travel to other countries as well, and prices for airfares are very high.
In March or April, Japanese head out en masse for hanami (花見, lit. "flower viewing"), a festival of outdoors picnics and drunken revelry in parks, cleverly disguised as cherry blossom (桜 sakura) viewing. The exact timing of the famously fleeting blossoms varies from year to year and Japan's TV channels follow the progress of the cherry blossom front from south to north obsessively.
The longest holiday is Golden Week (April 27 to May 6), when there are four public holidays within a week and everybody goes on extended vacation. Trains are crowded and flight and hotel prices are jacked up to multiples of normal prices, making this a bad time to travel in Japan, but the weeks immediately before or after Golden Week are excellent choices.
Summer brings a spate of festivals designed to distract people from the intolerable heat and humidity (comparable to the US Midwest). There are local festivals (祭 matsuri) and impressive fireworks competitions (花火 hanabi) throughout the country. Tanabata (七夕), on July 7th (or early August in some places), commemorates a story of star-crossed lovers who could only meet on this day.
The largest summer festival is Obon (お盆), held in mid-July in eastern Japan (Kanto) and mid-August in western Japan (Kansai), which honors departed ancestral spirits. Everybody heads home to visit village graveyards, and transport is packed.