PRE-TRAVEL BRIEFING: JAPAN
Did you know Japan has never been conquered by another country or culture? The way of life, stories, traditions & cuisine is almost entirely rooted in its own 2,500 year history & epic mountainous geography.
Japan, known as 'the Land of the rising Sun', calls itself Nippon / Nihon, or 'Sun Origin'. It is a vastly varied country in a surprisingly small amount of space; snowy Hokkaido in the north, tropical Okinawa in the far south, and mainland Honshu with it’s vast sprawling cities and remote ramshackle villages. Made up of a collection of 6,852 mountainous islands (only 430 of which are populated), it is a nation double the size of the United Kingdom, with double the population… living in half the space.
Japanese people are amongst the world's most polite, hospitable and courteous. On top of that Japan is also one of the safest countries in the world. This is a nation where you bow instead of shaking hands, where tipping is considered rude, and where a house has 3 kinds of slippers… but no shoes allowed!
If you’re planning a trip to these Eastern Isles, have a read through of the below - a little pre-travel briefing to help you travel deeper.
Japan is an archipelago of 6,852 mountainous islands. Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu and Shikoku are the four largest islands, and most likely to be your islands of choice to travel through.
Situated on an area where 4 tectonic plates meet, Japan is one of the most volcanically active places on earth. All this activity has formed huge volcanos (think Mt. Fuji) mountain ranges and thermal hot springs. About 1,500 earthquakes occur in Japan every year and minor tremors nearly everyday. Deadly quakes are a tragic part of the nation's past, most recently in Kobe in 1995 and Fukushima in 2011. All around the country you are likely to come across Tsunami evacuation guidance & instructions on what to do during a quake.
The nation stretches from frozen islands of the north to tropical islands in the south, with a population of 125,000,000. Relatively low immigration levels means Japan has very few non-ethnic Japanese locals, and the largest group of immigrants are from Korea.
Historically, vast tracks of land were unusable for farming so the culture evolved to be heavily reliant on the sea and fishing - a couple of days in Japan and you’ll quickly realise that the entire cuisine has been built around it.
A Brief History of Japan
The island group was first populated 30,000 years ago with waves of arrivals from different groups originating from Taiwan, Mongolia and Polynesia, mixing together to create a new race and culture. Japanese mythology stretches back to 650BC with the first emperor's arrival on the main island of Honshu. The nation was unified around 700AD and the first capital was placed in Nara (famous for its sacred deer).
The Imperial ruling family perservered over the centuries, but at times the nation was ruled by the Shogun, a military dictator. By 1200, the capital was in Kyoto and the first Shogun had been appointed to oversee the strong feudal society that had evolved and thrived. It was around this time that a Mongolian invasion was thwarted by storms destroying the invading fleet (the original divine wind called kamikaze).
Continued stability meant regional lords grew in power with samurai knights keeping the peace, but by the 16th century success & wealth meant these lords grew a little too big for their boots - the nation began to break up.
A new Shogun named Tokugawa Leyasu defeated these upstart lords and began an era of peace for 260 years called the Edo period, regarded as the defining era in Japanese consciousness. With this the Emperor was somewhat side-lined and the capital moved to Edo (now Tokyo), whilst the imperial family remained in the palace in Kyoto.
In order to protect the peace, the Shogun closed Japanese borders and broke off contact with the outside world. This lasted until 1863, when American warships arrived demanding that Japan open its borders for trade. This was the spark for a tinderbox of underlying issues that began the end of the Edo period, fundamentally restoring the Emperor to power.
The new Meiji period saw huge investment into rapid modernisation, aimed at re-alining the country with the 19th century world powers; specifically related technologies, industries, infrastructure and philosophies. Japan broke onto the world scene with two shock military triumphs; first China in 1895 and then the Russian Empire in 1905. Who is this small island with such great mite!?
Japan sided with Germany and Italy in WW2 in a bid to create a Pacific Empire. This culminated with the two infamous nuclear detonations at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Japan’s defeat in the face of such devastation damaged not only the cities, countryside & the lives of thousands, but also the national psyche. Their flag, a glorious rising sun, was updated; The red orb we know today is of the sun setting.
After the war years, the Japanese economy boomed in the 1970 and 80s, but then became stuck in a recession for many years with a rapidly aging population and zero interest rates. With major changes to economic, social and political norms recently, the economy has returned to growth. Despite this Japanese interest rates remain at the lowest in the world.
Japan on the whole has a temperate climate with four distinct seasons; cold winters and hot summers. On the main island of Honshu average temperates in winter are 10°C and snow is common, with summer seeing highs of 30°C (which can be rather unpleasant in the major cities). To the far north in Hokkaido, the winter temperature can drop to -5°C and skiing is popular. In the southern island of Okinawa there is a tropical climate and average temperate of 28°C.
The best times to visit Japan are Spring (March - May) and Autumn (September - November) which also coincide with bursting cherry blossoms and the burnished tones of autumn leaves respectively.
In the major cities you'll find a good level of English spoken, and most train & bus stations, banks, shops etc will have English signage (thank heavens for us basic mono-linguists). If you venture into the more rural areas (and you definately should) you'll find a more basic level of English, and far fewer english signposts. Don’t let this put you off; you'll also encounter incredibly friendly locals who will do their utmost to help you find your way. It will help enormously to learn the basic phrases of Hello (Konichi-wa) and Thank you (Ari-gato). Failing that, there’s always the hilarity that goes with the Google Translate conversation function.
If you use an iPhone & need to browse websites written in Japanese, there isn’t an auto-translate function on Safari. To get around this, you can download the app “Microsoft translator” (small green logo) which will sit in your ‘actions’ tool bar (next to share, print, copy etc) & help you make sense of what’s been written. Learn more about how, here.
Money in Japan
Japan uses the "Yen" (which actually just means circle, based on a popular gesture for currency, a circle created by the thumb and forefinger). FYI - the little bronze ones are 5 yen pieces (they have no numbers on them!). We thought they were half yens for the first 2 weeks & kept leaving them behind… Whoops).
Fair warning - Japan is not a particularly budget destination. Accommodation and train/bus travel is expensive, but we did find relief in good quality food, local ramen shops & bbq restaurants, otherwise we bought food cheaply at the convenience stores that are dotted around every town and city: Family Mart, Seven Eleven & Lawsons are your best bet for snacks for the road.
Top Etiquette Tips for Japan:
Generally speaking- you don’t wear shoes in the house. Especially not on tatami mats (the carpet alternative found in most Japanese guesthouses & ryokans). You will likely be provided with three types of slippers:
Hallway & living slippers: For inside the home (but not on the mats)
Toilet slipper: For use in the loo
Outdoor slippers: For use for popping outside for whatever reason (washing, picking up the post, smoking etc)
As a general rule, if you see a pair of slippers… Put them on.
In the cities, it is illegal to smoke on the street outside of designated smoking areas, in some parts of Tokyo, you can also be fined for smoking & walking. Despite this, it is often permitted to smoke inside bars, restaurants & hotel rooms (though check first).
It is better to sniff, snort & clear your throat with a wet hack than it is to blow your nose. The latter is considered heinously rude (and a bit gross) - a direct opposite to our European sensibilities…
Don’t tip. Its not expected. Some places will charge a ‘cover’ - especially Izakaya (bbq) restaurants who serve small plates - but this is more to guarantee income
It is rare to see Japanese girls with their shoulders uncovered, or even legs exposed. Calf-length skirts are (currently) very fashionable, and teeshirts will often be worn under dresses. Whilst wearing strap tops & shorts is totally fine, you’ll probably draw more attention to yourself. The majority of Japanese (especially in the cities) dress exceptionally well, so if you want to make an effort, or like dressing up, this is the place to do it (alas, over-washed & over-worn backpacker clobber did not tick the box).
Don’t try and shake hands, a bow or a head-nod will suffice.
There’s a rule about what to dip in soy-sauce, and what to dip in wasabi - we don’t know what it is, but we got instructed about it a fair few times. It’s not rude to ask! However we do know that If you’re eating sushi, try not to add too much wasabi - it is considered an affront to the chef who would have already considered whether the dish needs it.
Don’t eat & walk. Food is to be savoured, and wandering around with it is taken to mean a lack of focus & appreciation of the work of the chef (ice-cream is something of an exception!). You’ll often see groups of people eating snacks directly outside of street vendors or convenience shops.
Slurping your noodles is totally fine, and not considered rude. It actually helps, especially with the piping hot soba or ramen you may get served - when you slurp you pull in more air, helping to cool everything down - yum.
When eating with a family, or at a restaurant, it is customary for someone else to pour your drink, rather than for you to pour yourself one. If your running low, and thirsty, your best bet is to offer a top-up to someone else & hope they return the gesture. If you do get offered, you should take a sip of your drink before titling it towards the server. Keep an eye on your mate's drinks to keep everyone happy.
There’s a whole process for using a Japanese bath, but as a broad rule - don’t get any soap in the bath water - make of that what you will…
The word for ‘cheers’, over beers, sake, or wine, is “Kampei!”
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