Insider’s Guide to Japan

Estimated reading time 10 min

A trip to Japan is a journey both backward and forward in time. Centuries-old Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples anchor the country firmly to its history, while futuristic inventions like Honda’s Uni-Cub—a self-balancing rolling seat—keep Japan at the forefront of global technological advancements. Add to the mix a cluster of pulsing, neon cities, ubiquitous cherry blossoms, and a UNESCO-listed cuisine, and you’ve got quite the captivating adventure ahead of you. Use this Insider’s Guide to Japan to inspire your next trip.

The Basics

Over 3,000 islands compose the archipelagic nation of Japan. Its closest neighbors—Russia, China, North Korea, and South Korea—lie just across the Sea of Japan, while the Pacific Ocean laps at the country’s eastern shore. Because it sits upon the convergent boundary of three continental plates, Japan is prone to frequent earthquakes. The country’s many hot springs and volcanoes, including Mt. Fuji, are also the results of tectonic movement.

Language

Japanese is the official language of Japan and is spoken by 125 million people. The regional language of Ryukyuan is common among the older generations of the Ryukyu Islands in the far southwest, and its speakers number near 1.45 million. Increased globalization has led to the presence of such foreign languages as English, German, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, and French.

Money & Tipping

Japan’s official currency is the yen. You can pay for most of your major transactions—hotels, trains, meals in tourist-oriented restaurants—by credit card, but you should always have cash on hand. Most bank ATMs in Japan only accept credit cards issued by Japanese banks, but ATMS at 7-Elevens and post offices will accept foreign cards. Traveler’s checks are a good idea if you’re traveling in an area where you don’t have easy access to an ATM.

Tipping is not customary in Japan, as many Japanese believe that good service should be the standard. Some people and establishments even consider the practice rude. However, tips are often  customary at certain tourist companies and the staff may be grateful to receive them.

If you do decide to leave a tip, keep the following in mind: Do not tip your taxi driver or waiter/waitress. A few dollars to your tour guide is by no means mandatory or expected, but is perfectly acceptable. If you want to leave a tip at your hotel, put it in an envelope and leave it in your room. Don’t be offended if your tip is rejected.

Culture & Etiquette

Japanese culture today is a fascinating combination of centuries-old traditions and modern advancements. It is a structured society that places high importance on loyalty, respect, hard work, and ambition. The Japanese are prideful people, and you should do your part to avoid situations that might embarrass them. Prepare for questions that may seem more personal than you’re used to—the locals are simply trying to show interest.

It is customary to greet locals with a bow. A slight dip of the head is more informal, while a deeper bow at the waist indicates respect. Avoid prolonged eye contact and be sure to nod when a local is speaking, as this shows that you’re listening. Remove your shoes when entering a home (and some restaurants, temples, castles, and other historical buildings), and always place them so they’re pointed toward the door. If you can, try not to reference the number four, which is pronounced the same as the Japanese word for “death” and is bad luck. When dining in a restaurant, hold your chopsticks at the ends rather than the middle or tips. Rest them in front of you with their tips to the left.

As you visit temples, keep in mind that photography is usually permitted on temple grounds but oftentimes not once you’re inside. You may show your respect by lighting incense or placing a coin in the offering box, followed by a short prayer.

Food

In 2013, traditional Japanese cuisine, or “washoku,” landed on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list. Each region has its own culinary traditions, so visitors can sample the variations of a single dish as they travel across the country. Some of Japan’s most popular foods include sushi and sashimi, tempura, and noodles (udon, soba, and ramen). Also popular are yakitori (grilled chicken skewers) and Japanese curry. Green tea is a staple throughout the day and is the central element in a traditional Japanese tea ceremony.

Weather and When to Go

Japan is a relatively rainy, humid country. Summers are stiflingly hot and humid, and typhoons are common in early August through early September. Siberian winds bring freezing temperatures and snow to the northernmost island of Hokkaido. Winters along the Pacific coast, however, are usually dry and sunny.

If you travel to Japan from mid-March to mid-April, you’ll have both pleasant temperatures and breathtaking cherry blossoms. Autumn brings equally ideal weather conditions for travelers.

Adventure & Exploration

Hokkaido

Hokkaido is an outdoor enthusiast’s paradise. Niseko, the country’s premier ski resort, draws visitors from around the world to its nearly 2,000 acres of pristine powder. While visitors flock to Niseko in the winter, the fragrant lavender fields of Furano attract summertime crowds. If you’re heading to Hokkaido, spend some time in Daisetsuzan National Park—the largest in Japan. Here you can experience active volcanoes, lakes, hot springs, dense forests, and possible brown bear sightings. After your outdoor adventures, head to the Sapporo Beer Museum and sample one of the country’s most popular brews. If you visit in February, don’t miss the illuminated ice sculptures of the Sapporo Snow Festival.

Kii Peninsula

Located in south central Honshu, the Kii Peninsula boasts mountains, gorges, waterfalls, beaches, and hot springs. However, despite its abundant natural beauty, it’s the peninsula’s bountiful sacred sites that make this a must-see area. The Shinto shrine of Kumano Nachi Taisha was built as an homage to the spirit god of Nachi-no-taki, the tallest waterfall in Japan. The Buddhist Garan temple complex comprises eight temples and pagodas in the 1,200-year-old UNESCO-listed town of Koyasan. Another of Koyasan’s temples is the misty, forested Okunoin—a memorial hall dedicated to the founder of Shingon Buddhism. The Ise Jingu shrine, known as the “soul of Japan,” is torn down every 20 years in a ritual called Shikinen Sengu, or shrine reconstruction. This ceremony, which dates back to 690, is based on the concept that continual rebuilding renders the shrine eternally holy.

Osaka

Osaka’s motto is “eat until you drop,” and the city’s imaginative food culture certainly makes this possible. Its claim to fame is hako-zushi, or “box sushi,” so called because it’s pressed into a wooden box mold. Other tasty culinary offerings include Japanese barbecue, ramen, udon, tempura, and curry. Also popular is takoyaki—crispy balls of dough filled with octopus. Those who’d like an in-depth look at the city’s food culture can visit the Momofuku Ando Instant Ramen Museum. This attraction chronicles the origins of Cup Noodles and the evolution of Nissan Foods package designs. You can even create your own Cup Noodles blend and decorate the container!

Osaka has much more to offer than just its cuisine. The National Bunraku Theatre features traditional Osakan puppet theater performances. The Kaiyukan Aquarium houses sea life from across the Pacific Ring of Fire, including Arctic penguins and a whale shark. Those seeking a pulsing nightlife scene need look no further than Dotonbori Street and canal. (For a great view of the area, head to the Ebisubashi Bridge at the street’s western end.) Don’t forget the Osaka Castle—one of the country’s most famous landmarks and an important symbol of Japanese unification.

Tokyo

With its glaring neon lights and mega-malls, this energetic capital city won’t disappoint. In addition to housing the world’s tallest tower (the Tokyo Sky Tree), Tokyo holds the world record for the city with the most Michelin stars. For expansive views of the metropolis, head to observation towers atop the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. (On clear mornings you can see snow-capped Mt. Fuji looming to the west.) Explore the world’s largest collection of Japanese art at the Tokyo National Museum, or wander through the stalls of dried fish and seaweed at the Tsukiji Outer Market. Of course, you can always catch a Kabuki show or experience the spectacle of a sumo match. If you need an escape from the bustle, Shinjuku Gyoen Park offers the perfect peaceful environment.

Visitors seeking the complete opposite of relaxation may wish to join the throngs of pedestrians at the Shibuya Crossing—the busiest intersection in the world. At peak times, you’ll be hurling yourself into the mayhem along with over 1,000 of your closest friends. If you’d rather watch the spectacle from afar, you’ll have a great view from the Shibuya train station.

Hiroshima

When you hear “Hiroshima,” you might picture the mushroom cloud from the atomic bomb that eviscerated the city in 1945. The Hiroshima of today, however, is a city of quiet reflection. The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum displays items salvaged from the aftermath of the bomb and serves as a reminder that we should never take peace for granted. In the adjacent Peace Memorial Park, an arched monument contains the names of every known victim of the bomb. The park’s Flame of Peace will continue to burn until all of the world’s nuclear weapons are destroyed.

Perhaps the most haunting reminder of the destruction waged upon the city is the Atomic Bomb Dome. Once the Industrial Promotion Hall, the memorialized dome was one of the few buildings left standing after the blast and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Another noteworthy stop in the park is the Children’s Peace Monument. Visitors will learn the story of a girl named Sadako who developed leukemia in the aftermath of the bomb. She believed that folding 1,000 paper cranes—the Japanese symbol of longevity and happiness—would lead to her recovery. Sadly, she passed away before completing her goal. This monument now stands in her memory, surrounded by strings of paper cranes folded by children all over the world.

Kyoto

For three weeks in late March and early April, Kyoto is a wonderland of delicate pink cherry blossoms. They’re so important to Japanese culture that the act of admiring them has its own word: hanami. Kyoto’s most popular (and crowded) site for hanami parties is Maruyama Park. The park’s crowning jewel is a giant weeping cherry tree that glows from below when illuminated at night.

Though thousands of visitors come for the blossoms, Kyoto has many more destinations to explore. Stop by the Golden Pavilion, burned down in 1950 but rebuilt in 1955 with its iconic gold leaf extending to the lower floors. Watch a traditional geisha dance or sip on matcha in a traditional tea house. Need to clear your head? Spend some time in one of the city’s meticulously groomed Zen gardens. Interested in a brisk mountain hike? Head to the Fushimi Inari Shrine and hit the trails lined with thousands of orange torii gates.

Related Posts