|Country Information & Lifestyle|
Land of the Rising Sun
Japan is located on the Pacific Ring of Fire in East Asia in the Pacific Ocean and is made up of string of 6,852 islands, most of them mountainous and some volcanic. The four largest islands are Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu and Shikoku.
The Ryukyu Islands, including Okinawa, are a chain of islands south of Kyushu, and the Izu, Bonin and Volcano Islands are to the south and east of central Honshu.
Japan is bounded to the west by the Sea of Japan, which separates it from the eastern shores of South and North Korea and southeastern Siberia, to the north by La Perouse Strait and by the Sea of Okhotsk, to the northeast by the southern Kuril islands, to the east and south by the Pacific and to the southwest by the East China Sea.
Most people confine their stay to the main island Honshui where the capital Tokyo is. Traditional Japan is more apparent on the islands of Hokkaido, Kyushu and Shikoku, each of which offers a wonderful range of experiences that will deepen your appreciation of Japan and its culture. On all of these islands the pace tends to be slower and the people are more receptive to foreigners, their natural curiosity makes them friendlier.
The Japanese landscape is rugged, with more than four-fifths of the land surface containing mountains. There are many active and dormant volcanoes, including Mount Fuji, which is Japan's highest mountain.
Japan's abundant rainfall and the generally mild temperatures throughout most of the country have produced a lush vegetation cover and, despite the mountainous terrain and generally poor soils, have made it possible to raise a variety of crops.
Japan is home to nine forest Eco-regions which reflect the climate and geography of the country. The Japanese have a great fondness for seasonal blossom- and leaf-viewing. Most popular are the cherry blossoms of spring (in many areas, around Golden Week). Each year the entire country is captivated by the northward progress of the trees-the so-called "cherry blossom front." This is mirrored in the fall, to a lesser degree, by the southward progress of the turning maple leaves.
Japan, a land of ancient traditions, of centuries-old shrines and temples, a land that was home to the fearless samurai and of course the gentle, bewitching arts displayed in the film Memoirs of a Geisha. You might glimpse shadows of that world in Tokyo between high-fashion boutique and the skyscrapers but to find its living, breathing soul you must visit the ancient capital of Kyoto.
Japan is a multifaceted country where the modern technological age rubs shoulders comfortably with centuries of tradition. The Japanese, all 124 million of them, keep the best aspects of their life private, so to experience traditional Japan you must go off the beaten track out of the major cities and into the countryside.
Japanese cuisine, now popular in the West, involves very sensitive flavors, fresh crisp vegetables and an absence of richness. Specialities include teriyaki, sukiyaki, tempura, sushi and sashimi. An amazing number and variety of international restaurants are also available, which cater for every possible taste and budget, from French and Italian to Chinese, Indian and Thai.
The traditional arranged marriage is being replaced by the love match. It is still common for a family friend, relative, or mentor to act as a go-between (nakodo), even if the marriage is a love match. The wedding ceremony itself often consists of a curious blend of East and West: a traditional Shinto ceremony, in which the bride and groom wear elaborate kimonos, typically is followed by a Christian-style observance, with the participants in formal Western attire.
Temples are the places of worship in Japanese Buddhism. Virtually every Japanese municipality has at least one temple, while large cultural centres like Kyoto have several thousands. Shinto shrines are places of worship and the dwellings of the kami, the Shinto "gods".
People visit shrines in order to pay respect to the kami or to pray for good fortune. Shrines are also visited during special events and new born babies are traditionally brought to a shrine a few days after birth. Many couples hold their wedding ceremonies there.
Enthralling Tokyo, the capital, is a series of mini-cities with each district having a distinct heartbeat. Ginza, once the centre of old Tokyo is now a fabulous shopping district. Shinjuku is the empress of all Tokyo's entertainment districts, visit at night for a truly jaw-dropping experience when the streets behind Shinjuku station come alive in flashing neon.
In Shiodome the tranquil Hama-rikyu Gardens are delight especially when you stroll over pretty wooden bridges to reach the replica of the famous Nakajima tea-house for a traditional Japanese tea ceremony. Ueno in the NE of Tokyo is bustling, colourful district, a must see is Ueno Park with its pretty temple and amazing Shinobazu Point, which is completely carpeted with giant flowers in the summer.
The current Imperial Palace is located on the former site of Edo Castle, a large park area surrounded by moats and massive stone walls in the centre of Tokyo. It is the residence of Japan's Imperial Family. Edo castle used to be the seat of the Tokugawa shogun who ruled Japan from 1603 until 1867. In 1868, the shogunate was overthrown, and the country's capital and Imperial Residence were moved from Kyoto to Tokyo.
In 1989, Emperor Akihito became Japan's 125th emperor. He is married to Empress Michiko, the first empress who did not come from the nobility. Their eldest son is Crown Prince Naruhito. They reside in the Imperial Palace in Tokyo.
Visit the Senso-ji Buddhist temple in a narrow street around an authentic flavor of old Tokyo, the joy temple in the shadow of Tokyo Tower, famed for its magnificent vermilion Sangedatsu Gate, and the host of tiny Mizuko Jizo statues in the cemetery holding colourful twirling statues plastic windmills and wearing crochet bonnets. They are believed to look after the souls of lost children and babies.
Tokyo may be the hub of all things political and commercial but to the Japanese the country's heart will always be Kyoto. The city became the nation's capital in 794 AD and was to remain so for the next thousand years.
In that time Kyoto oversaw a remarkable period of peace and prosperity, a time when the Japanese honed their many traditional arts, from pottery to the tea ceremony. Despite the legacy the inevitable impact of war and modernisation much of the legacy remains.
The Nijpo Castle, with its squeaking nightingale floors, designed to alert its inhabitants to intruders, locations of Memoirs of a Geisha such as the eight-century Buddhist temple of Kiyomizu-dera, which perches atop stilts in the Kyoto hills and is famed throughout Japan for its beauty, or even the Shinto shrine of Fushimi Inari, with its miles of vermilion totii gates,built so close together that they almost form a tunnel as they climb the Kyoto hills. You will be left with the impression of beauty and serenity that is impossible to forget.
Snow-capped Mount Fuji is the symbol of Japan and its lake district is a day trip from Tokyo, around two hours by train to Lake Kawaguchi, the largest resort. Explore the Saiko Lyashi No Satro Nenba folk village with its beautifully quaint traditional thatched cottages. Between July to end of August there is no snow on Mount Fuji so take a bus to the 5th station and climb to the Romitake Shrine residence of Mount Fuji's protective God.
Kyoto is the ancient Japanese capital, a city of temples and shrines, palaces, ancient wooden houses, geisha and delicious food. It is undeniably beguiling and genteel. To the south is the gorgeous temple of To-Ji, the tallest wooden pagoda in Japan. Wander the beautiful gardens which feature weeping willows hanging over streams and Japanese maples with delicate lace-like leaves.
The temple of Sanjusangen-do in Higoshiyama is a must-see. Inside are the intricate carved life-size statues that stand guard either side of the thousand armed kannon, truly an awe-inspiring sight.
Downtown Kyoto is for shopping and entertainment but no trip to Kyoto is complete without a visit to the fantastic district of Gion. Scurrying between centuries old wooden houses you will see a geisha adorned in silk kimono, face flawlessly powdered. Famed throughout the world both for their performance and their white make-up they bring colour to the streets. These highly trained performers remained hidden in their Kyoto tea houses for centuries rarely seen travelling beyond Gion.
For hundreds of years the geisha were an enigma to all but an elite few. These days geisha numbers are dwindling and there now remain only five hanamachi (flower town) where geisha and maiko practice. A chaya, tea house is an exclusive type of restaurant where guests are entertained by geisha. Come nightfall Gion transforms itself into a hub of bustle and activity, as the many restaurants and bars of Kyoto begin to start business for the evening.
Kyoto was Japan's capital and the emperor's residence from 794 until 1868 and has countless temples, shrines and historic monuments. Higashi Chaya District Gion is Kyoto's most famous geisha district and one of the most popular attractions. The district lies in the city centre and is filled with tea houses where geisha entertain, theatres, shops and restaurants.
Japan is so large and it is impossible to do justice to this stunningly beautiful country but here are some of the highlights of the Land of the Rising Sun.
Rishiri and Rebun Islands are two small islands near the northern tip of Hokkaido and are part of the Rishiri-Rebun-Sarobetsu National Park. Rishri Island is a remote, small island with a dormant volcano at its centre, and Rebun Island is most famous for its rich flora which features many alpine flowers, some of which cannot be found anywhere in the world. The flowers are in bloom from around June to August which is the best time to visit Rebun. Not many tourists visit the island during the long and harsh winters.
Sapporo is the capital of Hokkaido and Japan's fifth largest city. Sapporo is also one of the nation's youngest major cities. In 1857 the city's population stood at just seven people. Sapporo became world famous in 1972 when the Olympic Winter Games were held there. Today the city is well known for its Snow Festival held every February.
Shiretoko National Park, located on the Shiretoko Peninsula in the eastern Hokkaido, is one of Japan's most beautiful and unspoiled national parks. No roads lead further than about three fourth up the peninsula, and the northern tip can only be viewed from boats, or be reached on multi-day trekking tours.
The peninsula is home to a variety of wildlife, including brown bears, deer and foxes. In winter the peninsula's coast along the Sea of Okhotsk becomes one of the northern hemisphere's southernmost regions to see drift ice. Daisetsuzan is Hokkaido's largest national park and it preserves a densely forested, mountainous area of virtually unspoiled wilderness, which equals more than ten times the size of Osaka City.
Niseko is the most famous ski resort in Japan, known for tons of light powder snow, its spectacular back country, and a large amount of foreigners, especially Australians who are responsible for popularising the resort with foreign travellers in recent years.
Abashiri is a city on the eastern coast of Hokkaido and is the northern hemisphere's southernmost region to see drifting sea ice. The sea ice typically reaches the coast around Abashiri in mid to late January and disappears again by late March to mid April.
The best time to view it is usually around the second half of February from the Aurora sightseeing boats which operate from Abashiri Port. While drift ice can be observed along the entire Sea of Okhotsk coast from Wakkanai to the Shiretoko Peninsula, it gets thickest around Abashiri.
A popular way to do so is from the trains between Abashiri and Shiretoko-Shari Stations. The nostalgic "Ryuhyo Norokko" and the "Ryuhyo Tokkyu Ohotsuku no Kaze" with panorama windows, are two special trains operated along the coast during the ryuhyo season.
Dewa Sanzan ("three mountains of Dewa") are three sacred mountains in Yamagata Prefecture, each with a shrine on or near its peak. Dewa Sanzan is a center of Shugendo, a folk religion based on mountain worship, blending Buddhist and Shinto traditions.
Shugendo practitioners, called yamabushi, perform feats of endurance as a means of transcending the physical world. Training includes such tasks as long pilgrimages and endurance of the elements.
Evidence of Shugendo's most extreme test of physical endurance and religious devotion lies in the nearby Churenji and Dainchibo Temples. Here, two monks succeeded in preserving their own bodies as mummies through extreme diet modification and meditation. Although the practice is now banned, these self-mummified monks are considered living Buddhas for their achievement.
Part of Dewa Sanzan's appeal is its remoteness. Yamagata's heavy snowfall makes travel in the mountains difficult during the winter months when only Haquro-san remains open.
Kakunodate is a former castle town and samurai stronghold in today's Akita Prefecture. While Kakunodate Castle no longer remains, the town is famous for its samurai tradition and its hundreds of weeping cherry trees. Around late April and early May large crowds come to see the stunning blossoms.
Apart from the loss of its castle, Kakunodate remains remarkably unchanged since its founding in 1620. The town was built with two distinct areas, the samurai district and the merchant district.
Matsushima, only half an hour outside of Sendai and is famous for its bay, which is dotted by many pine clad islets and has been ranked one of Japan's three most scenic views for centuries.
Fukuura Island is a pine covered island in Matsushima Bay, reached via a 252 meter long, red painted bridge. Fukuura is one of the bay's few islands that are accessible to the public but there is not much to see on the island besides plants and views of the bay.
Oshima is a small, pine tree covered island close to the pier of Matsushima. The island can be accessed over a short bridge and offers some pleasant, short walks. Oshima used to be a retreat for monks, and decorated meditation caves can still be found on the island.
Hirosaki is one of the culturally richest cities in the northern Tohoku Region and developed around its castle. Several thousand cherry trees are planted around the castle grounds, making it one of Japan's most famous cherry blossom spots.
Like in all castle towns, the samurai, who served the Tsugaru Clan, lived in residences surrounding the castle of their feudal lord. Today, a section north of Hirosaki Castle remains preserved as a former samurai district.
Zao Onsen is a well known hot spring and ski resort in the mountains of Yamagata Prefecture. It is one of only a few places in Japan where juhyo or "ice trees" can be seen. Also known as "snow monsters", the trees take on curious shapes due to the heavy snowfall and freezing winds.
The snow monsters form around the peak of the Zao Ski Resort and are usually most spectacular around mid February. Access to the monsters is provided by a rope way and a gondola for both skiers and non-skiers. In the evenings, the monsters around the summit are lit up to be enjoyed outside or from a warm seat in the cafe.
Nikko is a town at the entrance to Nikko National Park, most famous for Toshogu, Japan's most lavishly decorated shrine and the mausoleum of Tokugawa levasu, the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate.
Nikko had been a centre of Shinto and Buddhist mountain worship for many centuries before Toshogu was built in the 1600s, and Nikko National Park continues to offer scenic, mountainous landscapes, lakes, waterfalls, hot springs, wild monkeys and hiking trails.
Nikko and the Okunikko area around Lake Chuzenji, in particular, are well known for their beautiful autumn colours. In the average year the colours start descending from the higher elevations of Yumoto Onsen in early October, are best around Lake Chuzenji and the Irohazaka road in mid to late October and reach the town of Nikko in the first half of November.
Nikko is located along Japan's Romantic Road, Japan's version of Germany's "Romantic Road", and leads over about 350 kilometers from Ueda City in Nagano Prefecture through the mountains of Gunma Prefecture to Utsunomiya City in Tochigi Prefecture.
Various interesting towns, hot springs resorts and lots of natural scenery can be enjoyed along the Romantic Road, including the mountain resort of Kariuizawa, active volcanoes, the hot spring mecca of Kusatsu and the world heritage sites of Nikko. Due to a lack of convenient public transport along many of its sections, the Romantic Road has remained off the beaten path for foreign tourists.
With a population of over three million people Yokohama is Japan's second largest city. Yokohama is located less than half an hour south of Tokyo by train, and is the capital of Kanagawa Prefecture. Towards the end of the Edo Period (1603-1867), during which Japan maintained a policy of self-isolation, Yokohama's port was one of the first to be opened to foreign trade in 1859.
Consequently, Yokohama quickly grew from a small fishing village into one of Japan's major cities. Until today, Yokohama remains popular among expats, has one of the world's largest Chinatowns and preserves some former Western residences in the Yamate district.
Takayama is a city in the mountainous Hida region of Gifu Prefecture, which has retained a traditional touch like few other Japanese cities, especially in its beautifully preserved old town.
The southern half of the old town, especially the Sannomachi Street, survives in a particularly pretty state with many old homes, shops, coffee houses and sake breweries, some of which have been in business for centuries.
Sado Island lies just off the coast of Niigata Prefecture, and is one of Japan's 's largest islands. This remote place has long been a destination for political exiles, many of whom ended up working in Sado's prosperous gold mine.
While the island is no longer a place of exile, traces of the culture and religion that these figures brought with them remain today. The island is home to the endangered Toki or Japanese Ibis, extinct in the wild but planned to be reintroduced thanks to a successful breeding program.
Yamanouchi is a municipality in northern Nagano Prefecture famous for the Jigokudani Monkey Park. The park draws many visitors because of its unique wild monkeys,Japanese Macaques, also known as Snow Monkeys, who bathe in the park's natural hot springs.
The park has one man-made pool around which the monkeys gather, located a few minutes' walk from the park entrance. Visitors will likely already encounter monkeys along the path to the pool. The monkeys live in large social groups, and it can be quite entertaining to watch their interactions.
Accustomed to humans, the monkeys can be observed from very close and almost completely ignore their human guests. The monkeys are not the only ones enjoying the water, as the nearby towns of Shibu Onsen and Yudanaka Onsen are centred on the bathing experience. The largest ski resort in Japan, Shiga Kogen, is also located within Yamanouchi.
The Kiso Valley is located in Nagano Prefecture and runs alongside the mountains of the Central Alps. An ancient 70 km trade route called the Kisoji was developed along the valley and served as a very important means of commerce in the area.
The Kisoji became even more important from the beginning of the Edo Period, when it was amalgamated with other routes in the formation of the 500 km long Nakasendo ("path through mountains") and was one of the two means of transportation between Edo and Kyoto.
Because of restrictions by the shogunate, travellers were almost always forced to make their trips on foot. As a result, "post towns" developed every few kilometres to provide travellers with places to rest, eat, and find nightly accommodation during their arduous journey.
Along the Kiso Valley, a few post towns, particularly Magome, Tsumago and Narai, have been preserved to look as they did when they served travellers of the Nakasendo. Visitors are able to enjoy the stone paths and wooden buildings of a bygone era.
Tsumago was a post town on the Nakasendo route between Kyoto and Edo and is known today as one of the best preserved post towns in Japan. Cars are prohibited on the main street in the day and phone lines and power cables are kept concealed, allowing visitors to imagine they have slipped back to an earlier time.
Tsumago also recreates the post town atmosphere by maintaining its Honjin and Wakihonjin. In all post towns, the Honjin was the principal inn and served government officials who were travelling through. When more lodging was required, the Wakihonjin served to accommodate the travellers of lower status. Tsumago also maintains the office where labourers and horses were rented to aid in travel.
Eiheiji is the head temple of the Soto Sect of Zen Buddhism and stands in the wooded hills, about 15 kilometres outside of Fukui City. It consists of over 70 buildings and structures, connected with each other by covered walkways.
Eiheiji is still an active monastery with around 150 practising Zen monks. It is also possible for foreign visitors to stay at the temple for one or more nights and follow the monks' daily routine.
Matsumoto is the second largest city in Nagano Prefecture and is most famous for Matsumotojo, one of Japan's most beautiful original castles. The castle is one of the most complete and beautiful among Japan's original castles and is a good example of a so-called "hirajiro", a castle built on the plain rather than on a hill or mountain. The city is also a good base for trips into the Japanese Alps, e.g. to Kamikochj.
Located between Hiroshima and Shikoku, the isolated island of Okunoshima was a military site during World War II. Producing 6,000 tons of poisonous gas for the Imperial Japanese Army, it was a secret hidden from potential employees, the public and even maps.
Legend has it that when the war ended, the island's population of rabbits was released into the wild. With a circumference of just 4 km, it has been overrun by hundreds of the tiny creatures, earning it the name Rabbit Island.
Tourists have since hopped to the Japanese island to witness the long-eared utopia - or visit the Poison Gas Museum. The rabbits are very friendly jumping up for food whenever it is visible. Indeed, rabbit food is sold to tourists, who can also stay at the Kyukamura Okunoshima hotel on the island.
One local tour guide cautions that some of the island remains unsafe for visitors.
There are about 11 sealed-up locations on Okunoshima where workers say they buried gas when the war ended, Masayuki Yamauchi told the Japan Times. But Tokyo refuses to do a thorough cleanup because Okunoshima and Japan's poison gas program are still taboo subjects.
Tashirojima, located in Ishinomaki, is known as Cat Island thanks to its large population of stray cats, which outnumber the island's human inhabitants. There are only an estimated 100 people on Cat Island, with the majority aged over 65, which means that the scales will only continue to be balanced in the felines favour. Even some of the buildings on the island look like cats.
Japan, land of history, beauty, pagodas, mountains, geisha, tea houses, and so much more. We hope this taste of one of God's treasures will inspire you to take a trip and maybe stay awhile.