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Japan for the Visitor

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Tokyo at night.

The modern nation of Japan, 'The Land of the Rising Sun', (also known as Nippon or Nihon), dates back to 8000BC. It is situated in the Pacific Ocean, east of China and Korea, stretching from the Sea of Okhotsk in the North to the East China Sea in the South.

Japan's long narrow shape in a north/south orientation and mountainous terrain, made up of 200 volcanoes (kazan) of which 40 are still active today, are caused by the location of Japan on the Pacific Ring of Fire, at the juncture of three tectonic plates. The location also enables Japan to experience different climates (Kiko). For example, the North experiences long cold snowy winters while the South has hot summers and mild winters. Heavy rains and typhoons (taifu) are also common in Japan during the summer and the Japanese live in fear that tidal waves (tsunami) or earthquakes (jishin) will break out. Recent major earthquakes include the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake and the 2004 Chuetsu Earthquake.

Japan is made up of 3,000 islands that make up an area of 377,955km2. The biggest islands are Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu, which form most of the country. Many of the cities in Japan such as Tokyo, Yokohama, Osaka, Nagoya, Sapporo, Kobe, Kyoto, Fukuoka, Kawasaki, Hiroshima, Saitama, Kitakyushu and Sendai are built on flat coast.

Getting To Japan

Getting to Japan has never been easier and cheaper thanks to the Japanese government's campaign to encourage foreigners to 'Visit Japan' and competition between airlines. Japan's major airlines are Japan Airlines (JAL) and All Nippon Airways (ANA), but various other airlines also fly to Japan, such as Singapore Airlines and United Airlines. The three main airports in Japan are Tokyo's Narita Airport, followed by Osaka's Kansai Airport and Nagoya's Central Japan Airport. There are a total of 145 regional airports throughout Japan and access by air is easy.

The ferry is an alternative and often preferred mode of transport for quickly getting around Japan. The major ports in Japan can be found in Osaka and Kobe and weekly links are available to nearby China, Taiwan and Korea as well as to Russia.

Travelling to Japan by Trans-Siberian rail route is lengthy and drawn-out, but at the same time makes for an interesting and well-organised trip. Trains depart daily from London and travel through Europe to Moscow and through Siberia to Vladivostok.

Visitors to Japan usually arrive in the country by plane, but on landing there are many ways to get around the country. With 23,686km of track, the train is a firm favourite among foreigners and locals. The Shinkansen (or 'bullet train') is the second fastest train on the planet after the French TGV and unlike in many places in Europe, trains in Japan are rarely late and almost never cancelled. Also with a road network of 930,000km and 260,000km of unsurfaced roads, another way to see Japan is by car or bicycle. Ferries also enable visitors to see places in Japan that would otherwise be missed, and trams and taxis also operate within the country.

Customs Visitors Should Know


Most Japanese people bathe every day and wash themselves before getting into the bathtub. Families will generally bathe in the evening, with the man of the house bathing first, followed by male children, female children and finally the woman of the house. Inside the tub no soap or towels are used and the water is re-used by the rest of the family. The same occurs when visiting a hot spring or public bath.

Baths in Japan often have a dimpled pattern on the bottom to help prevent slipping. They also feature a greater degree of automation than most western baths: start to fill the bath, at the touch of a button rather than with the use of taps, and a voice message indicator will tell you when your bath is half full and when it's ready. The water temperature is also usually automatically controlled, with the standard bath temperatures being 43°C.

Water saving is routinely practised in Japan, and for this reason Japanese washing machines are equipped with a pump and hose to take water from the bath. The typical Japanese bathing and washing routine goes something like this: the bather places their clothing in the washing machine, enters the bathroom, and sits on a low plastic seat. They then take water from the bath with a bath bucket and wash their hair using water from the bath or shower head.

Next, they apply soap to their body with a wash towel and rinse it off. They then repeat this and, after the second rinse, get into the bath. After about ten minutes, they stand and pat themselves dry with a towel. When the last member of the household has had their bath, they will put the powder in the washing machine, put the hose in the bath and press the washing machine's 'start' button.

The following morning, the clothes are taken out of the machine and hung outside. The hose is rolled back on to its bracket on the side of the machine, and the bath plug pulled to let the remaining water out.

Other Customs

Below are a few Japanese customs, but if all else fails usually saying 'Shitsurei shimasu' (please excuse me) will get the foreigner by.

  • Instead of the shaking of hands, Japanese greet each other for the first time with a bow.

  • Business cards or name cards known as meishi are exchanged when meeting someone.

  • On entering someone's home, an inn or restaurant it is tradition to remove your shoes and sometimes slippers are offered in replacement. No shoes are used on the tatami, or areas without carpet, which is a similar floor used in temples. Slippers should be changed on entering and exiting the restroom. The soles of feet should never be shown.

  • Guests are the first to be served a meal. Before eating it is customary to say 'itadakimasu' ('I receive'). Do not pick up the food from serving dishes with the ends of the chopsticks that will touch your mouth. It is also rude to wave your chopsticks around while talking. And don't stab your food. After finishing say 'Gochiso-sama deshita' (Thank you for the feast).

  • Usually the hostess doesn't sit down during a meal and should not be asked to either. When sitting at a low table without chairs, men should sit cross-legged, women should tuck their legs neatly beneath them with knees and big toes touching.

  • At drinking parties people refill each other's cups and when this is done the cup should be held in two hands. It is rude to fill your own glass unless you are drinking with friends.

  • At the end of a meal with friends or other people, the bill is divided evenly or paid by one person.

  • A contract or application carries a personal seal, not the person's signature.

  • New Year Cards are sent out during December and are delivered on New Year's morning.

  • There are no people in Japan living below the standard international poverty line and only 5% of families live on the nation’s lowest wage.

  • A gift (omiyage) is given when paying a visit to somebody and on returning from a journey. The gift should be from the destination you travelled to. Colleagues and family usually receive gifts from each other and return the favour as soon as they can. On special occasions money or a small gift is also customary.

  • Money is also offered at funerals. Green tea is drunk then too and the only time when chopsticks should be placed inside the bowl after a meal is at a funeral. Men wear black suits, white shirts and black ties. Women wear black clothing.

Tea (ocha) is commonly drunk with meals, although this is often oolong cha, not the machya drunk in tea ceremonies (Sadoh, a custom strongly influenced by Zen Buddhism). Tea ceremonies are separate 'events' and rarely feature as part of a meal, being a highly ritualistic ceremony requiring a number of years to understand, before mastery.

Food and Drink

As far as food goes, I'm pretty easy. I love Japanese food. I love meatloaf and mashed potatoes. I love spaghetti. I'm easy.
- Frank Oz

The Japanese are used to eating both native and foreign food at home and in restaurants and like many other countries they have special foods for special occasions too. For example, mochi (rice cakes) are created for New Year and candies are created for White Day in March.

Steamed rice known as gohan in Japan is used in a wide variety of meals. Therefore, the word gohan has gone on to refer to any meal, including those from the west. A typical Japanese meal consists of rice (kome), meat or fish, vegetables, soup and pickled vegetables. This is often eaten in a ritualistic manner starting by eating some of the main or side dish, then the rice and then drinking the soup before tucking into the pickled vegetables and using up the rest of the rice. Traditionally the Japanese use chopsticks to eat their meals and say thanks to everyone and everything that helped make the food, such as God, the farmer, the fisherman, the cook, the waitress and even the fish or animal that gave its life, before and after they have eaten it.

It amazes you how empty of meat, or even fish of any size, the supermarkets are. Kobe beef was something like £100 a lb!! The consomme crisps and curry puffs were the best this crisp addict has ever had, in all her world travels! The bread was so sweet and the onions too, absolutely delicious! I don't do puddings as a rule, but the humidity took its toll and I consumed many bright-green, melon flavoured mounds of crushed ice.
- a Researcher

Other typical Japanese dishes revolve around the sea and contain such ingredients as fish and seaweed. For example, Fugu Fish, Sushi and Wasabi. Seafood is also used in the creation of Bento and Onigiri dishes that are typically eaten at midday while at school or in work.


Today Japanese people usually can be found imitating the fashion trends of the West in extreme ways. For example, Kogal reflects how young wealthy upper class westerners dress, Gothic Lolita (GothLoli) reflects the Victorian era and dolls from that period, and Ganguro (black-face) sport hair dyeing, tans, false eyelashes and platform shoes, probably derived from Janet Jackson or Naomi Campbell.

Japan has not forgotten or abandoned their traditional clothing range though, which includes the kimono that is now only used on formal occasions. Yukata (a simple type of kimono) are worn in summer along with geta or zori sandals and tabi socks. Sometimes women fasten a comb matching their kimono to their hair and have a matching handbag too. Happi coats are also worn by the Japanese whether the wearer is a shopkeeper or attending a festival (matsuri).

Japanese clothing and traditional outfits reflect the seasons as well as the person wearing them, through the colours and designs that are used. The seasons are also reflected in the choice of fabric: cotton fabric is used in spring and summer outfits whereas the fabric used for autumn and winter clothes is heavier or lined.

Traditional Buildings

On visiting the country foreigners are likely to see a vast array of different buildings, which are reflective of the country's past, its people and their culture. Japanese buildings include Bath Houses, Castles, Traditional Houses and places of worship (such as Buddhist Temples, Shinto shrines). Traditionally, Japanese houses are built from wood that withstands the climate and is easy to obtain. There is also a raised floor to help air flow and a low hanging roof covered in ceramic tiles (or thatch) is put in place to protect the house from heavy rain. Screens and paper panels partition off parts of the house for privacy and let in light. Many of the houses also have a veranda which connects the outside of the house with the inside.

Temples and shrines are built in the same way, but some are influenced by the nagare style, where one side covered the stairs and many of them are built around special Japanese features. There are also outdoor and indoor museums in Japan, each reflecting a part of Japanese life and its history. For instance, there is the Historic Village of Hokkaido, Abashiri Prison Museum, Meiji Mura, the Button museum, Kite museum, Cigarette Lighter Museum and Drum Museum.

If you get the chance, I would urge everyone who can, to go there at least once to appreciate what a fantastic place Japan is!!!
- a Researcher

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