Japan is located on islands on the outermost edge of Asia. It lies in the north-west corner of the Pacific Ocean. Stretching 3000 kms from northeast to southwest and includes more than 1000 islands. Japan's nearest neighbours are Russia to the north, Korea to the west, and Taiwan and China to the south-west. The four main islands are Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu.
Tokyo (meaning "Eastern Capital") became the capital city of Japan in 1868, at the beginning of the Meiji Period. Previously, the capital city was Kyoto. Tokyo is located in the north-eastern part of Japan in what is known as the "Kanto" region. One in three Japanese people live in this region. Tokyo itself has a population of 8 million within its city boundaries, and a further 3.6 million in the surrounding suburbs!
Japanese is spoken in Japan, and essentially nowhere else. The Japanese language is distinct from Chinese and Korean, although the written form uses Chinese characters, and is not known to be related to any other language.
Getting to Japan
While most people fly via Tokyo, there are several other ways of getting to and from Japan. For a start, there are many other airports in Japan, some of which make better entry points than Tokyo's somewhat inconvenient new Tokyo international airport (commonly known as Narita international airport). It's also possible to arrive in Japan by sea from a number of nearby countries, particularly South Korea
When to Travel to Japan
If travelling to Japan Spring is probably the best time of year to be in Japan. The temperatures are warm but not hot, there's not too much rain, and March-April brings the justly famous cherry blossoms and is a time of revelry and festivals. Just watch out for Golden Week (April 27 to May 6), the longest holiday of the year, when everybody travels and everything is booked full.
Summer starts with a dreary rainy season in June and turns into a steam bath in July-August, with extreme humidity and the temperature heading as high as 40°C. O-Bon (mid-August), when everybody is on the road again, is probably the worst possible time to visit.
Autumn - Fall, starting in September, is a close second to spring. Temperatures become more tolerable, fair days are common and fall colours can be just as impressive as cherry blossoms.
Travelling around Japan is really easy. It is made easy with a number of transport passes available for overseas visitors. A transport pass offers unlimited travel on specified transportation during the validity of the pass. A pass allows for economical and convenient transport as well as discounted sightseeing in most areas of Japan.
If you are travelling to Japan Visa conditions are subject to change, so it is always advisable to check with the Embassy Consulate of Japan. All foreign nationals, including permanent residents of Japan, are required to have their fingerprints electronically scanned and are photographed upon arrival in Japan. Refusal to provide fingerprints or be photographed is grounds for refusal of entry into Japan. People under 16 years of age and holders of diplomatic or official visas are exempt.
It is very advisable to take out comprehensive Travel Insurance when travelling to Japan that will cover any overseas medical costs, including medical evacuation, before you depart. Confirm that your insurance covers you for the whole time you'll be away and check what circumstances and activities are not included in your policy. In saying this medical facilities throughout Japan are of a high standard. In most major cities, medical facilities with English speaking staff can be found. The only downfall is that medical care can be expensive in Japan. You will find payment in full or a guarantee that costs will be met is usually required at the time of treatment.
The Japanese love their food. This can be seen by the number of people who eats out, even in a time of recession, and the number of food-related programs on TV. Tell someone that you're taking a trip to Hokkaido and the first thing they'll do is insist that you try the seafood while you're there or the Okonomiyaki in Osaka and so on. While sushi has become increasingly popular in the West, most Japanese food remains pretty much unknown. Japanese restaurants around the world have tended to cater for Japanese tourists and have been priced accordingly, ie. expensive. But in Japan there is a huge variety of food available at prices ranging from a month's salary to very reasonable.
Traditional Japanese food is undoubtedly one of the healthiest and most delicious in the world and fortunately for most of us, foods like tofu, sushi, tempura, miso, soba, and even green tea are now familiar and freely available to people outside Japan. The thing about Japanese food is that you either will love it or you will downright despise it. rice is still considered to be the staple diet of the Japanese people. A steaming hot bowl of rice is included in most Japanese bowls and even the side dishes are served with rice! From rice cakes or 'mochi' to regular bowls of rice, the Japanese simply love their rice! Apart from rice, most meals end with a round of green tea - exotic to the core! A traditional Japanese breakfast would include steamed rice, miso soup, and a variety of side dishes. And that's only their breakfast! Some of the more common side dishes are rolled omelette, grilled fish, pickles, salad, dried seaweed, and natto.
For lunch, the norm would be bowls of rice or noodles. From beef bowls to udon noodles and soba noodles, the Japanese also love their noodles! Sushi, tempura, and rice balls are traditional Japanese food items.
Things to see and do
A most to see is the coastal town of Kamakura, one hour south of Tokyo; Kamakura was the seat of Japan's medieval feudal government and abounds in historic sites.
A visit to the Island of Hokkaido, Hokkaido is home to the last of Japan's indigenous Ainu people, and the remnants of their distinct culture are a must to see.
Don't miss the capital of Japan for over 1,000 years, Kyoto. Founded in AD794, sights include the Golden Pavilion (Kinkakuji), the Zen rock garden of Ryoanji, Kiyomizu Temple and the medieval Nijo Castle. The historic Gion geisha district makes a great afternoon wander.
At Nara, one hour south of Kyoto, don't miss the ‘great Buddha' of Todaiji Temple, the world's largest wooden structure at 57m (187ft) high, and the sacred deer in Nara Park. Nearby, the 7th century Horyuji Temple is the world's oldest wooden structure.
See Osaka, renowned for its abundance of excellent restaurants, historic Osaka Castle and the performing arts of Kabuki and Bunraku. The city's Namba and Umeda districts are renowned for their nightlife and the Dotonburi area is particularly vibrant after dark.
Universal Studios Japan a 60-hectare (140-acre) theme park in Osaka, and Tokyo Disneyland are both enormously popular and unsurprisingly kitsch - worth taking children too.
A visit to the gorgeous island of Miyajima is a must to see its famous red Shinto torii gateway, which seemingly floats on the sea at high tide. Itsukushima Shrine, the cable car up the central mountain for panoramic views.
Japan offers a wide range of accommodation types. Lodgings come in both the typical Japanese and Western styles. Prices range from less than 2,000 yen per person for a bed in a dormitory more than 25,000 yen per person for a night at a first class hotel ryokan. Note that hotel rates in Japan are often given as "cost per person" rather t