The “Land of the Rising Sun” is a country where the past meets the future. Japanese culture stretches back millennia, yet has also adopted (and created) the latest modern fashions and trends.
Japan is a study in contrasts and contradictions. Many Japanese corporations dominate their industries, yet if you read the financial news it seems like Japan is practically bankrupt. Cities are as modern and high tech as anywhere else, but tumbledown wooden shacks can still be spotted next to glass fronted designer condominiums. On an average subway ride, you might see childishly cute character toys and incredibly violent pornography – sometimes enjoyed by the same passenger, at the same time! Japan has beautiful temples and gardens which are often surrounded by garish signs and ugly buildings. In the middle of a modern skyscraper you might discover a sliding wooden door which leads to a traditional chamber with tatami mats, calligraphy, and tea ceremony. These juxtapositions mean you may often be surprised and rarely bored by your travels in Japan.
Although Japan has often been seen in the West as a land combining tradition and modernity, and juxtapositions definitely exist, part of this idea is obsolete, and is a product of Japan being the first major Asian power to modernize as well as Western patronization and heavy promotion by the travel industry. Keep in mind that continued demolition of some of Japan’s historic landmarks goes on apace, as with the famed Kabuki-za Theater demolition. Still, with the proper planning, and with expectations held in check, a trip to Japan can be incredibly enjoyable and definitely worthwhile.
Japan’s location on islands at the outermost edge of Asia has had a profound influence on its history. Just close enough to mainland Asia, yet far enough to keep itself separate, much of Japanese history has seen alternating periods of closure and openness. Until recently, Japan has been able to turn on or off its connection to the rest of the world, accepting foreign cultural influences in fits and starts. It is comparable with the relationship between Britain and the rest of Europe, but with a much wider channel.
Recorded Japanese history begins in the 5th century, although archaeological evidence of settlement stretches back 50,000 years and the mythical Emperor Jimmu is said to have founded the current Imperial line in the 7th century BCE. Archeological evidence, however, has only managed to trace the Imperial line back to the Kofun Period during the 3rd to 7th centuries CE, which was also when the Japanese first had significant contact with China and Korea. Japan then gradually became a centralized state during the Asuka Period, during which Japan extensively absorbed many aspects of Chinese culture, and saw the introduction of Mahayana Buddhism and Confucianism. The popular board game of Go is also believed to have been introduced to Japan during this period.
The Great Buddha of Kamakura
The first strong Japanese state was centered in Nara, which was built to model the then Chinese capital Chang’an. This period, dubbed the Nara Period was the last time the emperor actually held political power, with power eventually falling into the hands of the court nobles during the Heian Period, when the capital was moved to Kyoto, then known as Heian-Kyo, which remained the Japanese imperial residence until the 19th century. Chinese influence also reached its peak during the early Heian Period, which saw Buddhism become a popular religion among the masses. This was then followed by the Kamakura Period, when the samurai managed to gain political power. Minamoto no Yoritomo, the most powerful of them was dubbed shogun by the emperor and ruled from his base in Kamakura. The Muromachi Period then saw the Ashikaga shogunate come to power, ruling from their base in Ashikaga. Japan then descended into the anarchy of the Warring States period in the 15th century. Tokugawa Ieyasu finally reunified the country in 1600 and founded the Tokugawa shogunate, a feudal state ruled from Edo, or modern-day Tokyo. A strict caste system was imposed, with the Shogun and his samurai warriors at the top of the heap and no social mobility permitted.
Nuclear devastation in Hiroshima (1945)
During this period, dubbed the Edo Period, Tokugawa rule kept the country stable but stagnant with a policy of almost total isolation (with the exception of Dutch and Chinese merchants in certain designated cities) while the world around them rushed ahead. US Commodore Matthew Perry’s Black Ships arrived in Yokohama in 1854, forcing the country to open up to trade with the West, resulting in the signing of unequal treaties and the collapse of the shogunate in the Meiji Restoration of 1867, during which the imperial capital was relocated from Kyoto to Edo, now re-named Tokyo. After observing Western colonization in Southeast Asia and the division and weakening of China, which the Japanese had for so long considered to be the world’s greatest superpower, Japan vowed not to be overtaken by the West, launching itself headlong into a drive to industrialize and modernize at frantic speed. Adopting Western technology and culture wholesale, Japan’s cities soon sprouted railways, brick buildings and factories, and even the disastrous Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, which flattened large parts of Tokyo and killed over 100,000 people, was barely a bump in the road.
From day one, resource-poor Japan had looked elsewhere for the supplies it needed, and this soon turned into a drive to expand and colonize its neighbors. The Sino-Japanese War of 1894–95 saw Japan take control of Taiwan, Korea and parts of Manchuria, and its victory against Russia in the 1904–5 Russo-Japanese war cemented its position of strength. With an increasingly totalitarian government controlled by the military, Japan launched a full-scale invasion of China via Manchuria in 1931 and by 1941 had an empire stretching across much of Asia and the Pacific. In 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, destroying a large portion of the U.S. Pacific fleet but drawing America into the war, whose tide soon started to turn against Japan. By the time it was forced to surrender in 1945 after the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 1.86 million Japanese civilians and military personnel had died, well over 10 million Chinese and other Asians had been killed, primarily in atrocities committed by the Japanese military, and Japan was occupied for the first time in its history. The Emperor kept his throne but was turned into a constitutional monarch. Thus converted to pacifism and democracy, with the US taking care of defense, Japan now directed its prodigious energies into peaceful technology and reemerged from poverty to conquer the world’s marketplaces with an endless stream of cars and consumer electronics to attain the second-largest gross national product in the world.
But frenzied growth could not last forever, and after the Nikkei stock index hit the giddy heights of 39,000 in 1989, the bubble well and truly burst, leading to Japan’s lost decade of the 1990s that saw the real estate bubbles deflate, the stockmarket fall by half and, adding insult to injury, the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995 that leveled parts of Kobe and killed over 6,000 people. The economy has yet to fully recover from its doldrums, with deflation driving down prices, an increasingly unsupportable burden of government debt (nearing 200% of GDP) and an increasing polarization of Japanese society into “haves” with permanent jobs and “have-not” freeters drifting between temporary jobs. This has resulted in Japan losing its position as the world’s second largest economy to its larger neighbour, China. Nevertheless, the Japanese maintain one of the highest standards of living in the world.
Japan is always crowded — like this beach in Taketomi, Okinawa
As an island nation shut off from the rest of the world for a long time (with mild exceptions from China and Korea), Japan is very homogeneous. Almost 99% of the population is of Japanese ethnicity. The largest minority are Koreans, around 1 million strong, many in their 3rd or 4th generations. There are also sizable populations of Chinese, Filipinos and Brazilians, although many are of Japanese descent. Though largely assimilated, the resident Chinese population maintains a presence in Japan’s three Chinatowns in Kobe, Nagasaki and Yokohama. Indigenous ethnic minorities include the Ainu on Hokkaido, gradually driven north during the centuries and now numbering around 50,000 (although the number varies greatly depending on the exact definition used), and the Ryukyuan people of Okinawa.
The Japanese are well known for their politeness. Many Japanese are thrilled to have visitors to their country and are incredibly helpful to lost and bewildered-looking foreigners. Younger Japanese people are often extremely interested in meeting and becoming friends with foreigners as well. Do not be surprised if a Japanese person (usually of the opposite gender) approaches you in a public place and tries to initiate a conversation with you in somewhat coherent English. On the other hand, many are not used to dealing with foreigners and are more reserved and reluctant to communicate.
Visibly foreign visitors remain a rarity in many parts of Japan outside of major cities, and you will likely encounter moments when entering a shop causes the staff to seemingly panic and scurry off into the back. Don’t take this as racism or other xenophobia: they’re just afraid that you’ll try to address them in English and they’ll be embarrassed because they can’t understand or reply. A smile and a Konnichiwa (“Hello”) often helps.
As Japan has undergone periods of openness and isolation throughout its history, Japanese culture is if anything unique. While heavy Chinese influences are evident in traditional Japanese culture, it has also retained many native Japanese customs, resulting in a seemingly seamless blend.
Festival procession in the neon-drenched alleys of Shinjuku, Tokyo
The most important holiday in Japan is New Year , which pretty much shuts down the country from December 30 to January 3. Japanese head home to their families (which means massive transport congestion), eat festive foods and head out to the neighborhood temple at the stroke of midnight to wish in the New Year. Many Japanese often travel to other countries as well, and prices for airfares are very high.
In March or April, Japanese head out en masse for hanami , a festival of outdoors picnics and drunken revelry in parks, cleverly disguised as cherry blossom viewing. The exact timing of the famously fleeting blossoms varies from year to year and Japan’s TV channels follow the progress of the cherry blossom front from south to north obsessively.
The longest holiday is Golden Week (April 27 to May 6), when there are four public holidays within a week and everybody goes on extended vacation. Trains are crowded and flight and hotel prices are jacked up to multiples of normal prices, making this a bad time to travel in Japan, but the weeks immediately before or after Golden Week are excellent choices.
Summer brings a spate of festivals designed to distract people from the intolerable heat and humidity (comparable to the US Midwest). There are local festivals and impressive fireworks competitions throughout the country. Tanabata , on July 7th (or early August in some places), commemorates a story of star-crossed lovers who could only meet on this day.
The largest summer festival is Obon, held in mid-July in eastern Japan (Kanto) and mid-August in western Japan (Kansai), which honors departed ancestral spirits. Everybody heads home to visit village graveyards, and transport is packed.
Lunar holidays such as equinoxes may vary by a day or two; the list below is accurate for 2012. Holidays that fall on a weekend may be observed with a bank holiday on the following Monday. Keep in mind that most Japanese people take additional time off around New Year’s, during Golden Week, and during Obon. The most important festival is New Year’s Day, and many shops and restaurants close for at least 2 days during this period, so it might not be an ideal time to visit. However, convenience stores remains open, and many temples conduct New Year’s Day fairs, so it’s still not difficult to find food to eat.
January 1 – New Year’s Day
January 2 and 3 – New Year’s Bank Holidays
January 9 (Second Monday of month) – Coming-of-Age Day
February 11 – National Foundation Day
March 20 – Vernal Equinox Day
April 29 – Showa Day – first holiday of Golden Week
April 30 – Showa Day Observed
May 3 – Constitution Day
May 4 – Greenery Day
May 5 – Children’s Day – last holiday of Golden Week
July 16 (third Monday of month) – Marine Day
September 17 (third Monday of month) – Respect-for-the-Aged Day (
September 22 – Autumnal Equinox Day
October 8 (second Monday of month) – Sports Day
November 3 – Culture Day
November 23 – Labor Thanksgiving Day
December 23 – The Emperor’s Birthday
December 24 – Emperor’s Birthday Observed
December 31 – New Year’s 2013 Bank Holiday
January 1, 2012 – New Year’s Day
January 2 and 3, 2013 – New Year’s 2013 Bank Holiday
The Japanese calendar
The Imperial era year, which counts from the year of ascension of the Emperor, is often used for reckoning dates in Japan, including transportation timetables and store receipts. The current era is Heisei and Heisei 24 corresponds to 2012. The year may be written as “H24″ or just “24″, so “24/4/1″ is April 1, 2012. Western years are also well understood and frequently used.
Buddhist temples, Mount Koya
Shinto torii gate, Dewa Sanzan
Japan has two dominant religious traditions: Shinto is the ancient animist religion of traditional Japan. At just over twelve hundred years in Japan, Buddhism is the more recent imported faith. Christianity, introduced by European missionaries, was widely persecuted during the feudal era but is now accepted, and a small percentage of Japanese are Christian.
Generally speaking, the Japanese are not a particularly religious people. While they regularly visit shrines and temples to offer coins and make silent prayers, religious faith and doctrine play a small role (if any) in the life of the average Japanese. Thus it would be impossible to try to represent what percentage of the population is Shinto versus Buddhist, or even Christian. According to a famous poll, Japan is 80% Shinto and 80% Buddhist, and another oft-quoted dictum states that Japanese are Shinto when they live, as weddings and festivals are typically Shinto, but Buddhist when they die, since funerals usually use Buddhist rites. Most Japanese accept a little bit of every religion. Christianity is evident almost exclusively in a commercial sense. In season, variations of Santa Claus, Christmas trees and other non-religious Christmas symbols are on display in malls and shopping centers throughout metropolitan areas.
At the same time, Shinto and Buddhism have had an enormous influence on the country’s history and cultural life. The Shinto religion focuses on the spirit of the land, and is reflected in the country’s exquisite gardens and peaceful shrines deep in ancient forests. When you visit a shrine with its simple torii gate, you are seeing Shinto customs and styles. If you see an empty plot of land with some white paper suspended in a square, that’s a Shinto ceremony to dedicate the land for a new building. Buddhism in Japan has branched out in numerous directions over the centuries. Nichiren is currently the largest branch of Buddhist belief. Westerners are probably most familiar with Zen Buddhism, which was introduced to Japan in the 14th and 15th centuries. Zen fit the aesthetic and moral sensibilities of medieval Japan, influencing arts such as flower-arranging, tea ceremony , ceramics, painting, calligraphy, poetry, and the martial arts. Over the years, Shinto and Buddhism have intertwined considerably. You will find them side by side in cities, towns, and people’s lives. It’s not at all unusual to find a sparse Shinto torii standing before an elaborate Buddhist temple.
Karaoke (カラオケ) was invented in Japan and can be found in virtually every Japanese city. Pronounced kah-rah-oh-keh it is abbreviated from the words “Empty orchestra” in Japanese – many natives won’t have any idea what you’re talking about if you use the English keh-ree-oh-kee. Most karaoke places occupy several floors of a building. You and your friends have a room to yourself – no strangers involved – and the standard hourly rate often includes all-you-can-drink booze, with refills ordered through a phone on the wall or through the karaoke machine itself. The major chains all have good English-language song selections. Old folks prefer singing enka ballads at small neighborhood bars.
Also ubiquitous are pachinko parlors. Pachinko is a form of gambling that involves dropping little steel balls into a machine; prizes are awarded depending on where they land. Legally you can only win trinkets (from cigarette lighters up to computers) but in reality, most pachinko players opt for nondescript tokens, which they exchange off-site for cash, skirting anti-gambling laws. The air inside most pachinko parlors is quite harsh from tobacco smoke, sweat, and hot machinery — not to mention the ear-splitting noise. Video arcades, though sometimes difficult to distinguish from pachinko parlors from the outside, have video games rather than gambling, and are often several floors high. Unlike pachinko, they attract all ages from kids to adults, and are usually clean on the inside.
Japan’s national game is Go, a strategy board game that originated in China. By no means everyone plays, but the game has newspaper columns, TV, and professional players. The game is also played in the West, and there is a large and active English language wiki discussing it. On a sunny day, the Tennoji ward of Osaka is a good place to join a crowd watching two Go masters go at it. Besides Go, another popular board game in Japan is shogi or Japanese chess.
Mahjong is also relatively popular in Japan, and frequently features on Japanese video and arcade games, although it’s associated with illegal gambling and mahjong parlors can be quite seedy. While gameplay is similar, scoring is drastically different from the various Chinese versions.
Baseball is hugely popular in Japan and the popularity is a historical one (baseball was first introduced in Japan around 1870s by an American professor). Baseball fans traveling internationally may find Japan to be one of the great examples of baseball popularity outside of United States. Baseball isn’t only played in many high schools and by professionals, but also referenced in many Japanese pop culture as well. In addition, many Japanese players have gone on to become top players in Major League Baseball. The official Japanese baseball league is known as Nippon Professional Baseball, or simply known as Puro Yakyū, meaning Professional Baseball. Travelers who are interested in baseball may watch professional baseball games once in while with a friend or a Japanese local. Just make sure you reserve your ticket in advance. The rules in Japanese baseball are not much different than baseball in United States, although there are some minor variations. The Japanese national baseball team is also considered to be one of the strongest in the world, having won the inaugural World Baseball Classic in 2006, as well as the second edition in 2009.
These days, TV animation is also popular in Japan especially with nerds called otaku. Although TV animation was regarded as childish before, today, many Japanese adults as well as children find it so exciting that they are proud of it as their culture.
Autumn colors in Kofu, Yamanashi
The Japanese are proud of their four seasons (and an astonishing number of them are firmly convinced that the phenomenon is unique to Japan), but the tourist with a flexible travel schedule should aim for spring or autumn.
Spring is one of the best times 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 (sakura) and is a time of revelry and festivals.
Summer starts with a dreary rainy season (known as tsuyu or baiu) in June and turns into a steambath in July-August, with extreme humidity and the temperature heading as high as 35°C. Avoid, or head to northern Hokkaido or the mountains of Chubu and Tohoku to escape. The upside, though, is a slew of fireworks shows and festivals big and small.
Autumn, starting in September, is also an excellent time to be in Japan. Temperatures and humidity become more tolerable, fair days are common and fall colors can be just as impressive as cherry blossoms. However, in early autumn typhoons often hit the southern parts of Japan and bring everything to a standstill.
Winter is a good time to go skiing or hot-spring hopping, but as some buildings lack central heating, it’s often miserably cold indoors. Heading south to Okinawa provides some relief. There is usually heavy snow in Hokkaido and northeast Japan due to the cold wind blasts from Siberia. Note that the Pacific coast of Honshu (where most major cities are located) has milder winters than the Sea of Japan coast: it may be snowing in Kyoto while it is cloudy or sprinkling rain in Osaka, an hour away.
There are multitudes of books written on Japan. Some great, some amazingly un-great. A good place to begin is one of the many recommended reading lists such as this one on Amazon  or sites like The Crazy Japan Times , Japan Review  or Japan Visitor . Some recommended books include:
Untangling My Chopsticks (ISBN 076790852X), by Victoria Abbott Riccardi. Set mainly in Kyoto.
My Mother is a Tractor (ISBN 1412048974), by Nicholas Klar. A former English teacher with a witty and informative take on Japanese society. Written from the depths of the Japanese countryside.
Hitching Rides with Buddha (ISBN 1841957852), by Will Ferguson is about a Canadian English teacher who hitches rides across the country, following the blooming cherry blossoms. At times hilariously funny and deathly serious, it gives a very honest evaluation of all sorts of aspects of Japanese culture.
Culture Shock: Japan (ISBN 1558688528). A part of the ‘Culture Shock’ series, this is an excellent overview of the culture and lifestyle of the Japanese. A good resource for a long or work-related stay in Japan or even for interaction with Japanese people.
All-You-Can Japan (ISBN 1453666354), by Josh Shulman is a unique travel guide to Japan that offers a wise and economical travel strategy rather than references to various points of interest. The author was born and raised in Japan, and writes this short guide in a casual, easy-to-read language.