Considering how ingrained Japan has become in Western society, from the Ninja films of the 1980’s to modern day household brand names and popular culture, there is nowhere else on Earth that can feel so familiar yet at the same time so completely and utterly alien as Japan.
Japan feels like a world apart from what you left back home, thanks in part to its periodical isolationist stance where Japanese culture evolved in a bubble completely cut off from the rest of the world. Japan is now well and truly open to the wider world however, and it has quite simply managed to become one of the most technologically advanced societies in the world whilst at the same time keeping the bulk of its unique culture intact. You may not see modern company men walking round with Katana like their not so distant ancestors, but everywhere you look you will be reminded that this is still a country steeped in ancient tradition, god and ancestor worship, Buddhist beliefs and honour.
Shinto is the dominant religion of Japan, an ancient animist religion dating back to Japan’s very beginnings, and Buddhism follows closely behind. Most Japanese tend to accept the philosophies of both of these religions interchangeably. Other religions are much more uncommon in Japan.
Mostly these religions play more of a cultural role than a religious one, with the rituals and practices a heavy influence on the everyday lives of the Japanese. Much in the same way as many people in the UK are atheist but still use Catholic churches for significant life ceremonies and rituals.
The Japanese people are famous for their politeness, and this is a reputation that is well deserved. The Buddhist concept of humility and being humble is very distinctly visible in Japan, and visitors should take on this stance too. The Japanese are very friendly, and it is one of the few places where a stranger walking up to you and initiating a conversation is much more likely to be a local simply interested in saying hello rather than a tout trying to con you out of some cash. Because of the extreme politeness, you may also get quite a few stares and nervous giggles, especially if like me you are a 6”2 Gaijin and stick out like a sore thumb. This is more of an issue in rural areas away from the bigger cities which still don’t get many tourists.
Learning just a little of the language and attempting to speak to locals in Japanese shows a lot of respect, even if you completely mangle the pronunciation, and you will find people will be much more open with you if you make the effort.
Bowing is big in Japan and chances are you will be aware of it even if you don’t know any of the subtle rules and etiquette involved. When bowing you stand straight and bow from the hip with your hands at your sides, head straight and looking down. (No there is no elaborate and ridiculous hand gestures like I have seen a lot of people do). Very basically the deeper the bow, the deeper the respect conveyed, and you should generally bow lower to those in authority or your elders. In practice, the Japanese are very forgiving if you don’t quite get it right and will respect the fact that you are trying. If in doubt, just match the angle and depth of the bow of the person who is bowing to you.
The Visa situation in Japan is great for many countries, and is essentially a backpackers dream! 90 day (or three month) temporary visas are issued on arrival to citizens of a long list of countries including the UK, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Singapore and many others. Some countries which have reciprocal visa agreements with Japan, including the UK, can be granted extensions of up to six months simply by applying at an immigration bureau once they are there.
Apart from the routine vaccinations that are recommended to all travellers regardless of their destination (such as Measles, Mumps and Rubella, which most people get inoculated against during childhood), there are no recommended vaccinations for visitors to Japan.
Proof of the yellow fever vaccination is required for anyone who enters Japan from a country where Yellow Fever is present, and officials WILL check, scrupulously. So make sure you have your yellow booklet if this applies to you.
Japan’s health care system is extremely advanced and of a high quality. Hospitals and clinics can be easily accessed from most places and pharmacies are widely available. English speaking doctors and nurses are less common in rural areas however.
Crime and Safety.
Japan is extremely safe and boasts one of the lowest crime rates in the world. Basic common sense and reasonable precautions with your personal security and safety are often more than sufficient to keep you safe.
Costs and money.
The currency of Japan is the Yen.
Japan is an extremely expensive country, there really isn’t any getting around that fact. But it has become slightly more reasonable in recent years. The average backpacker daily budget of £30 a day will just about let you survive here, and there are ways to budget if you are careful, but it is absolutely worth every penny.
Unlike most of Asia, accommodation costs in Japan are on par with the most expensive Western countries, if you are used to hotels in England or Europe you will know what to expect price wise. The most basic hostel will still set you back £20 GBP or more a night, and the unique pod hotels are a little more expensive at around £30 GBP a night for – as it says on the tin – a little pod to sleep in. Well worth it for the experience, provided of course you can fit in! A private hotel room can be anything from £50 GBP upwards and the sky really is the limit.
Transportation costs are also extremely expensive, even public transport can put a huge dent in your daily budget. You can buy daily transport passes in most cities which can save you a bit, but either way the more you want to get around, the bigger the dent in your budget. The Japan Rail pass is also an extremely good option if you want to get around the country a lot as it will save you a lot of money.
Food and drink in Japan is generally quite reasonable. There are of course very expensive restaurants with Western prices, but there are also a wide range of cheap noodle shops and sushi conveyor belt restaurants where you can keep costs down.
There are also plenty of ways to save money on activities by taking advantage of all the free national parks, temples and museums, and with so many of them being must see attractions, it is easy to do. Major attractions do tend to have admission fees of around £5 GBP or so, but if you intersperse these with the free sights, then you can keep costs down.
When to go.
Spring or Autumn are often said to be the best times to visit Japan, as they avoid the extreme heat and cold of the summer and winter months and the entire country explodes with colour as the Sakura season starts and the cherry blossoms bloom in March and April and the leaves turn every shade of red and gold in the Autumn.
Be aware that Typhoons can often hit the Southern Islands in the autumn which will bring everything to a standstill. The North can get extremely cold in the Winter too, so unless you fancy a bit of skiing then the South can be a bit warmer during this time.
There is perhaps nowhere better in Japan to take a step back in time and feel like you are in the Edo period. Kyoto was the heart and capital of Japan for centuries, and it still bears the legacy of that history with a huge variety of temples, traditional architecture, palaces and tendered gardens.
This is one of Japans best showcases of feudal era Samurai fortresses, you can almost imagine the Samurai at its gates.
Tokyo is a glass, chrome and neon mega city, filled to the brim with world renowned malls and restaurants and award winning architecture and futuristic skyscrapers, but scratch beneath the surface and you can still get glimpses of the past as ancient temples and shrines nestle amongst the modern landscape.
Climb to the summit of Mount Fuji.
The sunrise from the summit is worth the exhausting night time trek, and is one of the best views you will get of the holy mountain.
No, not literally. The Gion district is an amazing place to simply wander round and explore the traditional architecture and hopefully catch a glimpse of a Geisha, perhaps the quintessential example of ancient versus modern Japan.