Japan is a must-see country and, for many travellers, a firm favourite as far as destinations go. Popular spots for the itinerary include Tokyo, Kyoto, Sapporo, Yokohama, Nagasaki, Osaka, Okinawa, Fukuoka and Niseko. Before you head off, it’s good to do a bit of research, and learn the do’s and don’ts about travelling in Japan from various sources. This guide should help you plan your trip!
Population: 128 million
Religion: Shinto and Buddhism
Emergency number: 119
- Japan’s literacy rate is almost 100 percent.
- On average, around 1,500 earthquakes strike the island nation every year.
- Japanese construction company Kongō Gumi was in operation for a world-record 1,400 years, until it became a subsidiary of another company in 2006.
- In Kamikatsu, a zero-waste village in Japan, rubbish is sorted into 34 different categories with all food waste used for compost.
- Tsukiji market in Tokyo is the largest fish market in the world.
The key dates
- 1 January: The most important holiday in Japan. “Year forgetting” parties are held to leave the old year’s troubles behind, houses are cleaned, and relatives visit.
- 11 February: National Foundation Day (kenkoku kinenbi). Celebrating the crowning of the first Japanese emperor in 660 BC.
The hot spots
Popular destinations include Tokyo, Kyoto, Sapporo, Yokohama, Nagasaki, Osaka, Okinawa, Fukuoka and Niseko.
There are 20 World Heritage Sites, including Mt Fuji, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, and the historic monuments of Kyoto.
Some itinerary ideas
- Honshu: Tokyo – Osaka – Kyoyo
- Kyushu: Fukuoka – Nagasaki – Aso – Beppu – Yufuin
- Hokkaido: Sapporo – Asahikawa – Furano – Tomakomai
How to stay healthy
- There is an ongoing risk of earthquakes and tsunamis in Japan, so it’s best to familiarise yourself with the safety procedures of where you are staying, just in case. Check www.jma.go.jp/jma/indexe.html to keep updated.
- Steer clear of the exclusion zones around Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.
While you’re there, please don’t…
- Blow your nose in pubic; it’s considered rude.
- Use the term “chin chin” when making a toast; in Japanese, this expression refers to the male genitals.
- Forget to learn the characters for “male” and “female” unless you want to end up walking into the wrong room full of naked people in a hot spring (onsen). (This one is from the personal experience of an Expat Living editor!)
Before you go, read …
- Any book by Haruki Murakami
- Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto – about mothers, love, tragedy, and the power of the kitchen and home in the lives of a pair of free-spirited young women in contemporary Japan.
- The Roads to Sata by Alan Booth – an account of the author’s journey, in 1977, through Japan on foot
Before you go, watch …
- Godzilla – conceived as a monstrous metaphor for nuclear weapons, the film has Godzilla leave a trail of destruction in his wake on the streets of Tokyo.
- Lost in Translation – Sofia Coppola’s classic rom-com/drama features Bill Murray as a lonely and ageing film star and Scarlett Johansson as a neglected wife. Many scenes are set in the Park Hyatt Toyko.
They said it
“No one will understand a Japanese garden until you’ve walked through one, and you hear the crunch underfoot, and you smell it, and you experience it over time. There’s no photograph or any movie that can give you that experience.” – J. Carter Brown
“Juu-nin to-iro” (“10 people, 10 colours”) – Japanese saying, akin to “different strokes for different folks”
“One must learn, if one is to see the beauty in Japan, to like an extraordinarily restrained and delicate loveliness.” – Miriam Beard, author
Do I need a visa?
Citizens of 62 countries, including Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, France, Germany, the UK, Canada and the US, do not require a visa to visit Japan. Stays are generally allowed for up to three months at a time.
How long will it take me to get there?
Between 3 and 4 hours from Hong Kong. Japan is 9 hours ahead of GMT, 1 hour ahead of Hong Kong.
What’s the money situation?
The official currency in Japan is the Japanese yen (JPY). Many ATMs in Japan do not accept foreign cards and credit card use is limited so it’s advisable to have sufficient cash with you. Cash withdrawals are possible at ATMs at post offices and 7-Eleven stores. Banks and post offices will exchange major foreign currency and travellers cheques.
When’s the best time to visit?
Late March to April is Sakura (cherry blossom season), a popular time to visit. June tends to be wet, while high temperatures and powerful storms can strike throughout July and August (with the exception of Hokkaido, mountaintop resorts like Hakone and the Japanese Alps). The autumn months of September to November are cooler and aesthetically beautiful. December typically kicks off the ski seasons in the north. Snow-covered landscapes in Japan are lovely, yet obviously very cold.
What’s the lingo?
Japanese. Here are some phrases to get you started:
What is your name? Anata no namae wa nan desu-ka
My name is __ Watashi no namae wa __ desu
How much? Dono gurai
Thank you: Arigato Yes Hai
No, thank you: Ie, arigato
Is there anything I should know about meeting the locals?
Japanese people greet each other with a bow. For foreigners, a bow followed by a gentle handshake is acceptable.
What’s a must-try dish? Where do we start?
Maybe with ramen, a noodle soup combining a meat or fish broth flavoured with miso or soy, and served with a variety of toppings depending on the region and the chef.
What should I buy as a souvenir?
Quirky snacks, yukata robes, wagasa (traditional Japanese umbrella made from paper and bamboo), cat-related paraphernalia.
Where to stay
The Westin Miyako Kyoto, a two-minute walk from Keage Station, proved a perfect complement to Kyoto’s cultural attractions. This grand old lady has hosted a slew of famous guests: in the 1920s Albert Einstein, the Rockefellers and Anna Pavlova; in the 1930s Charles Lindbergh, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford; later Helen Keller, John Wayne, Twiggy, Andy Warhol, to name but a few; and of course more presidents, prime ministers and royalty than you can shake a sceptre at.
See more in our Travel section!