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Welcome to Japan

Japan Is Open for Travel

Since 11 March 2011, one cannot talk about or consider visiting Japan without the devastating earthquake and tsunami that struck northeast Japan coming up. Yet, rather than focus on the immediate horrors and lingering fears of the tragedy, one should focus on the beauty and accessibility of Japan today. One should note how the Japanese people, resilient and steadfast, behaved after the waters receded: they gathered calmly in evacuation shelters, set off bravely on rescue missions, began the task of rebuilding.

Every image from those first weeks reflects some of the culture’s highest virtues: the ability to gambaru (do their best) and to gaman (bear suffering without complaint). They also capture the famous Japanese thoroughness and civility. This spirit will allow the Japanese people to rebuild northern Japan faster than anyone expects. And it is this very same spirit that makes travelling in Japan such a joy.

Do not avoid Japan because of fear. The March 2011 disaster was of once-in-a- lifetime proportions, and even at the height of the crisis most of Japan was perfectly safe for travel. At the time of writing, only a small area of Fukushima Prefecture was off limits

apan is wide open for travel. If you have been considering your first visit to Japan or returning to re-experience the unique magic of the country, the perfect time to go – and to celebrate Japan and its people – is now.

Japan Is Approachably Exotic

Japan hits the travel sweet spot. It’s unique enough to give you regular doses of ‘Wow!’ without any downside. Indeed, travelling in Japan is remarkably comfortable, even with the language barrier thrown in – but it’s never familiar. Staying in a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) is marvellously different from staying in a chain hotel. Soaking naked in an onsen (hot spring) with a bunch of strangers might be a little odd at first, but it is beyond relaxing. Sitting in a robe on tatami mats eating raw fish and mountain vegetables may not be how you dine back home, but it is unforgettably delicious.

Japan Makes You Think

Perhaps more than any country on earth, Japan makes you think. It is a country that took a good, hard look at the West and said ‘We’ll take your technology, but we’re keeping our culture’. It was never extensively missionised or colonised. It practises an ancient animist/pantheist religion while pushing the boundaries of modern technology. It is a country where tens of millions of people can cram into crowded cities without ever losing their temper. And while you explore Japan, you will regularly find yourself awed by how the Japanese do things – and perhaps, just as often, wondering ‘Why don’t we do it that way back home?’



Kyoto Temples & Gardens

With more than 1000 temples to choose from, you’re spoiled for choice in Kyoto. Spend your time finding one that suits your taste. If you like things gaudy and grand, you’ll love the retina-burning splendour of Kinkaku-ji. If you prefer wabi-sabi to rococo, you’ll find the tranquillity of Hōnen-in or Shōren-in more to your liking. And don’t forget that temples are where you’ll find the best gardens: some of them are at Ginkaku-ji, Ryōan-ji and Tōfuku-ji.



Japanese Cuisine

Japan is a food lover’s paradise and the cuisine is incredibly varied, running the gamut from simple soba noodles to multi- course kaiseki banquets. In a city such as Tokyo or Kyoto, you could eat a different Japanese speciality cuisine every night for a month without repeating yourself. There’s no doubt that a food tour of Japan will be memorable, but there’s just one problem: once you try the real thing in Japan, the restaurants back home will pale in comparison. The only solution is another trip to Japan!



Onsen

There’s nothing like lowering yourself into the tub at a classic Japanese onsen. You can feel your muscles relax and the ‘ahhh’ that you emit is just an easy way of saying ‘Damn, I’m glad I came to Japan!’ If you’re lucky, the tub is outside and there’s a nice stream running nearby. The Japanese have turned the simple act of bathing into a folk religion, and the country is dotted with temples and shrines to this most relaxing of faiths.

Staying in a Ryokan

Eat in your bedroom. Spend the day lounging about in a robe. Soak in a bath while looking at a garden. Don’t lift a finger except to bring food to your mouth. Sounds relaxing? Then we highly recommend a night in a good ryokan. The Japanese had the whole spa thing figured out long before they ever heard the word ‘spa’. From first-class place to the most humble ryokan, they will all give you a taste of how the Japanese used to live.

Hiking in the Japan Alps

Close your eyes and picture Japan. If all you see are geisha, Zen gardens, bullet trains and hyper- modern cities, you might be in for a real surprise when you get into the Japan Alps. Hike right into the heart of the high peaks here and you’ll be in awe of so much mountain splendour. You can go hut-to-hut among the peaks for a week with nothing on your back but a solid day pack.

Castles

Japan’s castles have about as much in common with their European counterparts as kimonos have in common with Western dinner dresses. Their graceful contours belie the grim military realities behind their construction. Towering above the plains, they seem designed more to please the eye than to protect their lords. If you have an interest in the world of samurai, shōguns and military history, you’ll love Japan’s castles. Now that the castle at Himeji is under wraps, try the one at Matsuyama or Hikone

Tokyo’s Modern Architecture

Japan may be known for its traditional temples, but Tokyo’s cityscape is a veritable open-air museum of contemporary structures. The capital has come a long way from copying the Eiffel Tower – these days you’ll find dozens of inspired and original works by a pantheon of the world’s greatest designers. Fill up on such architectural eye-candy as the chic boutiques in Omote-sandō, the quirky postmodern projects on Odaiba, or even the new army of office towers in Marunouchi.




Japanese Cuisine





Those familiar with Japanese cuisine ( nihon ryōri ) know that eating is half the fun of travelling in Japan. Even if you’ve already tried some of Japan’s better-known specialities, you’re likely to be surprised by how delicious the original is when served on its home turf. More importantly, the adventurous eater will be delighted to find that Japanese food is far more than just sushi, tempura or sukiyaki. Indeed, it is possible to spend a month in Japan and sample a different speciality restaurant every day.

With the exception of shokudō (all-round restaurants) and izakaya (pub-eateries), most Japanese restaurants concentrate on a speciality cuisine. In this chapter we discuss the main types of restaurants you are likely to encounter and we provide sample menus for each type. If you familiarise yourself with the main types of restaurants and what they serve, you’ll be able to get the most out of Japan’s incredible culinary scene.

Of course, you may baulk at charging into a restaurant where both the language and the menu are likely to be incomprehensible. Those timid of heart should take solace in the fact that the Japanese will go to extraordinary lengths to understand what you want and will help you to order. To assist you further, eating reviews in this book recommend specific dishes for restaurants in which no English menu is available. If there is an English menu, this is indicated in the review with the symbol .

In this guide, restaurant listings are organised by price category, indicated by the symbols $ (budget), $$ (midrange) or $$$ (top end). Budget options cost ¥1000 or less; midrange meals cost between ¥1000 and ¥4000; and top-end meals will cost more than ¥4000.

EATING IN A JAPANESE RESTAURANT

When you enter a restaurant in Japan, you’ll be greeted with a hearty ‘ irasshaimase ’ (Welcome!). In all but the most casual places the waiter will next ask you ‘ nan-mei sama ’ (How many people?). Answer with your fingers, which is what the Japanese do. You will then be led to a table, a place at the counter or a tatami room.

At this point you will be given an o-shibori (a hot towel), a cup of tea and a menu. The o-shibori is for wiping your hands and face. When you’re done with it, just roll it up and leave it next to your place. Now comes the hard part: ordering. If you don’t read Japanese, you can use the romanisations and translations in this book to help you, or direct the waiter’s attention to the Japanese script. If this doesn’t work, there are two phrases that may help: ‘ o-susume wa nan desu ka ’ (What do you recommend?) and ‘ o-makase shimasu’ (Please decide for me).

When you’ve finished eating, you can signal for the bill by crossing one index finger over the other to form the sign of an ‘x’. This is the standard sign for ‘Bill, please’. You can also say ‘ o-kanjō kudasai’ . Remember there is no tipping in Japan and tea is free of charge. Usually you will be given a bill to take to the cashier at the front of the restaurant. Only the bigger and more international places take credit cards, so cash is always the surer option. When leaving, it is polite to say to the restaurant staff ‘ gochisō-sama deshita ’, which means ‘It was a real feast’.




Japan History

Japans 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 first strong Japanese state was centered in Nara, which was built to model the then Chinese capital Changan. 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 Perrys 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 worlds 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, Japans 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 worlds 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 Japans 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 worlds second largest economy to its larger neighbour, China. Nevertheless, the Japanese maintain one of the highest standards of living in the world.

People

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 Japans 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 (外人 gaijin) 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. Do not take this as racism or other xenophobia: they arere just afraid that you willll try to address them in English and they willll be embarrassed because they cant understand or reply. A smile and a Konnichiwa (Hello) often helps.

Holidays

The most important holiday in Japan is New Year (お正月 Oshōgatsu), 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 (花見, lit. "flower viewing"), a festival of outdoors picnics and drunken revelry in parks, cleverly disguised as cherry blossom (桜 sakura) viewing. The exact timing of the famously fleeting blossoms varies from year to year and Japans 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 (祭 matsuri) and impressive fireworks competitions (花火 hanabi) throughout the country. Tanabata (七夕), 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 (お盆), 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.




JAPAN FOR FREE





Japan offers visitors from abroad a lot of worthwhile places to see and things to do for free. The following is only a small number of examples of places and events that you can enjoy for free in Japan.

Imperial Palace East Garden ʢߖډ౦ޚԓʣ, 3-min. walk from Takebashi Sta. on Tozai Line, or 7-min. walk from Otemachi Sta. on Chiyoda, Mita, Hanzomon and Marunouchi Line, is a garden adjoining the Imperial Palace and a museum. The garden of 210,000 m2 first opened to the public in 1968. Here you can enjoy cherry blossoms and azaleas in spring, various roses in early summer, and camellias in winter. Open: 9:00–17:00 (Apr. 15–Aug.) 9:00–16:30 (Mar.–Apr.14, Sep.–Oct.),

9:00–16:00 (Nov.–Feb.): enter 30 min. before closing time. Closed: Mon.(the following day when Mon. falls on a national holiday except the Emperor’s Birthday, 23rd Dec.), Fri. & New Year’s holiday. Tel: 03-3213-1111. The museum, Sannomaru Shozokan ʢࡾͷؙঘଂؗʣ, is located in the Imperial Palace East Garden. Open: 9:00–16:45 (Apr.15–Aug.), 9:00–16:15 (Mar.–Apr.14, Sep.–Oct.), 9:00–15:45 (Nov–Feb.): enter 15 min. before closing time.

Tokyo Metropolitan Government Buildings ʢ౦ژ౎ிʣ, directly above Tocho-mae Sta. on Oedo Line, or 10-min. walk from Shinjuku Sta., built in 1991, has an observatory on the 45th floor (202-m high) which com-mands a panoramic view of metropolitan Tokyo. A num-ber of sculptures are exhibited outside around the buildings. [North observatory] Open: 9:30–23:00 (enter by 22:30), Closed: 2nd and 4th Mondays (open when Monday falls on a national holiday and closed the following day.), Dec. 29–31 & Jan. 2–3. [South observatory] Open: 9:30–17:30 (enter by 17:00), Closed: 1st and 3rd Tuesdays (open when Tuesday falls on a national holiday and closed the following day.), Dec. 29–31 & Jan. 2–3. Tel: 03-5320-7890. Ryogoku Fireworks Museum ʢ྆ࠃՖՐࢿྉؗʣ,

5-min. walk from JR Ryogoku Sta., provides you with the history, many documents, paintings (Japanese woodblock prints (Ukiyoe)), photos and videos of fireworks. Open: Thr.–Sat. (Nov.–Apr.), Thr.–Sun. (May, Jun., Sep. & Oct.), walk from Ryogoku Sta. on Oedo Line, is the official museum of the Sumo Association. It houses more than 20,000 historical and memorial items of Sumo wrestling, such as paintings, books, photos and the




Japan Today





The year 2011 was indeed a terrible year for the Japanese, and it came hard on the heels of two pretty tough years by any standards, with the severe economic downturn brought on by the global financial crisis of 2008.

In March 2011, just as the plum trees had burst into bloom and the nation was gearing up for the annual orgy of hanami (cherry-blossom viewing) parties, the Great East Japan Earthquake struck off the northeast coast of Japan. The resulting tsunami (a word that, not coincidentally, happens to be Japanese) was of epic proportions: reaching almost 40m in height, it washed away entire villages along the east coast of Tōhoku (the northern part of the main island of Japan).

To add to the devastation, the tsunami also triggered a major crisis at a nuclear powerplant in Fukushima Prefecture, about 240km northeast of Tokyo. At press time, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), which operates the plants, working with the Japanese government, seemed to have brought that situation under control, but the entire nation was still jittery and wondering how long it would be before the power stations could be declared cooled, cleared and no longer a concern.

» Population: 126.5 million (2011 estimate)
» GDP: US$4.4 trillion (purchasing power parity; 2010 estimate)
» GDP per capita: US$34,200 (2010 estimate)
» Inflation: -0.7% (2010 estimate)

Even without a sluggish economy and a severe natural disaster, things were already pretty tough for the Japanese as they set out into the new millennium.

In September 2010 the Japanese Coast Guard took the crew of a Chinese trawler into custody after a collision near the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. About a week later, the Japanese were forced to release the crew in the face of threats by the Chinese. If you listened closely, you could almost hear the nation letting out a resounding ‘Ara!’ (‘uh-oh!’). The reason is this: since the end of WWII, Japan has done little to cultivate warm relations with China (some would say they’ve even actively antagonised China) and has, instead, focused on its alliances with Western nations. Now, with China rising fast (the nation overtook Japan as the world’s second-largest economy in 2010), Japan faces a new and rather unsettling geopolitical situation.

Compounding the problems is the situation at home. The population of Japan fell by more than 100,000 people in 2010 and experts predict that – barring large-scale immigration, which most Japanese oppose – the population may shrink to 100 million people by 2050 (from its present level of 126.5 million). Don’t think for a moment that the Japanese are unaware of this. Indeed, the words shōshika (declining birthrate) and kōreika (ageing population) find their way into every bathhouse, bar and cafe conversation.

» Number of onsen: more than 3000
» World’s busiest station: Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station, servicing 740,000 passengers a day
» Cruising speed of the shinkansen (bullet train): 300km/h
» Islands in the Japanese archipelago: approximately 3900

Reading all this, you might think that the Japanese were down for the count. But here’s the surprising part: that’s not the case at all. As shown by the Japanese people’s response to the earthquake and tsunami, when faced with a tough situation they band together, roll up their sleeves and get to work. Let’s not forget that these are the same people who took a country that was little more than rubble in 1945 and turned it into one of the world’s most advanced and efficient countries in just a few short decades.

But more than rebuilding, one senses that the crisis of 2011 will yield a variety of benefits for Japan, and the world as a whole. Nuclear power will come under some serious scrutiny (some countries may abandon it, while others will make their nuclear powerplants safer). Japan, already a leader in solar-energy technology, will surely explore other forms of alternative energy and energy conservation.

And perhaps best of all, in the days following the quake, the Japanese news showed rescue teams arriving from around the world, including China, and Japan deeply and sincerely felt the strength and warmth of the world’s support. In a country where debts are scrupulously honoured, this can only bring Japan closer to the world, and the world closer to Japan.

Dos & Don’ts

» Do take off your shoes when entering a house, the inner hall of a temple, or any place where you step up onto tatami mats. Try to step out of your shoes right onto the tatami mats (ie don’t take off your shoes a short distance away and walk over).
» Do learn a few Japanese pleasantries, but don’t worry too much about communication difficulties – the Japanese don’t expect you to speak their language, and they might know a bit of English.
» Don’t get into a sento (public bath) or onsen (hot springs)bath tub before thoroughly rinsing your body.
» Do slurp when you eat noodles.




Itineraries





Whether you’ve got six days or 60, these itineraries provide a starting point for the trip of a lifetime. Want more inspiration?





If your time in Japan is limited, don’t try to do too much. Fly into Narita or Haneda (the latter is closer to the city). Stay in a convenient transport hub like Shinjuku , Shibuya , Ginza or the Tokyo Station area . Visit Tsukiji fish market your first morning (a good idea if you’ve got jetlag). Next, head up to Asakusa to visit the temple of Sensō-ji , then over to nearby Ueno for the Tokyo National Museum . The next day, take the loop line to Harajuku and walk to Meiji-jingū , the city’s finest Shintō shrine, then take a stroll down chic Omote-sandō . From there, head up to Shibuya to soak up some of modern Tokyo. Make sure you spend an evening wandering east Shinjuku , since this is where you’ll get the full experience of Tokyo’s neon madness. Other urban areas to check out include Ginza , for high-end shopping; Akihabara , for electronics and geek culture; and Roppongi , for international nightlife.

Break up your time in Tokyo with day trips to nearby attractions like the fantastic shrines at Nikkō and the temples at Kamakura ; if you’re a hiker and it’s summertime, you could even climb Mt Fuji .





The Tokyo–Japan Alps–Kyoto route is the classic Japan journey and the best way to get a quick taste of the country. You’ll experience three faces of Japan: the modern wonders of Tokyo , the traditional culture of Kyoto , and the natural beauty of the Japan Alps . While you can do this itinerary in any season, keep in mind that the Japan Alps can be snow covered any time from early November to late March – this rules out hiking unless you’re an experienced winter mountaineer – but you can visit the attractive cities of Takayama and Kanazawa any time of year.

Let’s assume that you’ll fly into Tokyo . Follow the preceding Tokyo & Around itinerary, which will give you a taste of things in the capital. Don’t worry about skipping some of the traditional sights in that itinerary, because you’ll be heading to Kyoto , and you’ll get your fill of shrines and temples there.

From Tokyo, take the shinkansen (bullet train) to Nagoya, then an express to Takayama . Spend a day here checking out the restored Sanmachi-suji district, then head into the Japan Alps via Shinhotaka Onsen or nearby Kamikōchi .




If You Like





Temples, Shrines & Gardens

You’ll find the Japan of your imagination – immaculately raked gardens, quiet Buddhist temples and mysterious Shintō shrines – waiting for you all across the archipelago, even in the ultramodern capital of Tokyo. Kyoto You could stay in Kyoto for a month and see a different garden, temple and shrine each day. If you’re after traditional Japan, you could spend your whole trip here and not get bored. Nara A short hop, skip and jump from Kyoto, Nara is a compact wonder of a city that some consider the birthplace of Japanese culture. It has some of our favourite gardens, temples and shrines. Kanazawa Some call this small city on the Sea of Japan coast a ‘mini-Kyoto’, but Kanazawa isn’t a ‘mini’ anything – it’s big on temples and has one of the best gardens in Japan: Kenroku-en. Tokyo That’s right: amid all that concrete and neon there are some wonderful hints of traditional culture. If you can’t make it to Kyoto, the capital has enough to satisfy the craving for ‘old Japan’.

Culinary Adventure

Who doesn’t come to Japan to eat? And we don’t just mean ‘extreme eating’; we mean some of the food you might have tried back home, only much better versions. Then there’s all the new stuff to try – and did we mention really good sake? Tokyo With more Michelin stars than any city on earth, this is the place for the best Japanese food in the country. And, if you need a break from local cuisine, some of the best French and Italian food you’ll find anywhere. Tsukiji Tokyo’s fish market deserves its own entry. Simply pointing out that it’s the biggest in the world doesn’t begin to convey the size, variety and excitement of the place. If you enjoy eating or cooking, you’ll enjoy Tsukiji. Kyoto If you want to sample kaiseki (haute cuisine) in traditional surroundings, or dine with a geisha, this is the place. And don’t forget the Japanese sweet shops and the wonderful old Nishiki food market. Depachika Department-store food halls in Tokyo and Kyoto are the best food shops on the planet. Be prepared to get hungry, get overwhelmed and get lost.

Hiking

When you think of going overseas to hike, Japan probably doesn’t rank near the top of your list. But Japan has some brilliant hiking and a reasonably priced hut system that rivals anything you’ll find elsewhere. Whether you fancy a week-long hike across the peaks with nothing but a daypack or just a few good strolls in the hills between bouts of temple-hopping, Japan will definitely satisfy. Japan Alps The Japan Alps in Central Honshū form the roof of Japan. If you like big peaks, grand scenery and long walks, this is the place. Hokkaidō You’ll find some seriously rugged hiking on Japan’s northern island. From incredible coastal treks to the famed Daisetsuzan Grand Traverse, Hokkaidō is a destination for nature lovers. Kyūshū If the whiff of volcanic gases and the threat of an occasional eruption adds a certain frisson to your hiking, you’ll love the volcanoes of Japan’s southern island of Kyūshū. Kumano Kodō Head down to the wooded wilds of southern Kansai to follow the ancient pilgrimage path to the shrines and hot springs of Hongū.

Castles

For anyone with an interest in Japan’s feudal era (think samurai, shōguns and daimyō ), a visit to a Japanese castle is sure to get the imagination working. Kids, in particular, find them fascinating. The Japanese word for ‘castle’, by the way, is jō. Himeji-jō The queen of all Japanese castles, the ‘White Heron’ is presently undergoing a multiyear renovation and the main keep is under wraps, but it’s still an interesting stop for castle fans. Hikone-jō Within easy day-trip distance of Kyoto, Hikone-jō is a beautiful castle that makes up for its lack of size with a fine view and graceful lines. Osaka-jō It’s not original and it’s not subtle, but it sure looks good from a distance or when the cherries in the surrounding park are in bloom. Matsuyama-jō Dominating the city of Matsuyama on the island of Shikoku, this is easily one of Japan’s finest original castles. Shuri-jō Way down in Okinawa, this rebuilt castle is a completely different kettle of fish from its mainland cousins – the Chinese influence is clear.

Onsen (Hot Springs)

If you’re tired of coming home from a vacation and feeling like you need a vacation, you should try a Japanese onsen holiday. Spend some time soaking in a few of Japan’s great onsen or, better yet, in an onsen ryokan (a traditional inn built around a private hot spring) and you’ll arrive home recharged. Kinosaki Japan’s classic onsen town is everything an onsen town ought to be: quaint, friendly and packed with homey ryokan. Walk from one great bath to another in your yukata (robe) and don’t miss the crab cuisine in the winter. Kayōtei We’re going to single this onsen ryokan out for




What is New





HANEDA GOES INTERNATIONAL

1 Tokyo has just become a whole lot more convenient: Haneda Airport is once again serving international routes. Only 30 minutes out of downtown Tokyo and within reasonable taxi distance, Haneda is much closer to the city than Narita, which remains Tokyo’s main international entry point.

SETOUCHI INTERNATIONAL ART FESTIVAL

2 First held in 2010, this festival is slated to be held every three years, with the next one coming in 2013 (July to October). Events are centred on the island-cum-art-museum of Naoshima.

EXTENDED SHINKANSEN LINES

3 Shinkansen (bullet train) lines have been extended north to the city of Aomori, at the northern tip of Honshū, and south to the city of Kagoshima, in Kyūshū. You can now cross almost all of Kyūshū and Honshū by bullet train.

JETSTAR OPENS JAPAN ROUTES

4 Jetstar, Australia’s budget airline, launched service to Japan (Kansai and Narita) in 2007. This makes Japan a much more reasonable destination for Australian backpackers, skiers and families.

LOCAL FOOD MOVEMENT

5 Local food is all the rage in Japan and locavores can sample the fare in cities and villages across the archipelago.

LEE UFAN MUSEUM

6 Designed by Andō Tadao, this new museum (named after Korean-born artist Lee Ufan) is a great new addition to the museums and galleries on Naoshima.

HIP CAPSULE HOTELS

7 Capsule hotels used to be the refuge of sozzled salarymen who missed the last train home. Not anymore. A wave of cool designer capsule hotels has swept the country. A good example of this is the Capsule Ryokan Kyoto.

SKY TREE BLOOMS IN TOKYO

8 Scheduled to open in spring 2012, the Tokyo Sky Tree will soar to 634m and feature two observation decks.

NEW BUS ROUTES ON MT FUJI

9 New bus routes and more frequent departures make climbing Mt Fuji easier.

KUMANO KODŌ DEVELOPMENT

10 Local tourism authorities have been working hard to open the Kumano Kodō pilgrimage trails to foreign tourists and their work has paid off in a big way




Living Art of the Geisha





No other aspect of Japanese culture is as widely misunderstood as the geisha. First – and let’s get this out of the way – geisha are not prostitutes. Nor is their virginity sold off to the highest bidder. Nor do they have to sleep with regular patrons. To put it simply, geisha are highly skilled entertainers who are paid to facilitate and liven up social occasions in Japan.

The origins of geisha are subject to some debate, but most historians believe that the institution of the geisha started in the Edo period (1600–1868). At this time, there were various types of prostitutes who served men in the pleasure quarters of the large cities. Some of these ladies became very accomplished in various arts and it is said that some pleasure houses even employed male performers to entertain customers. Some believe that these male entertainers were the first to be dubbed ‘geisha’, which means ‘artistic person’.

Eventually, there arose a class of young ladies who specialised exclusively in entertainment and who did not engage in sexual relations with clients. These were the first true female geisha, and over the years they became prized for the accomplishments in a wide variety of Japanese arts. Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden is an entertaining fictional account of the life of a Kyoto geisha. Without a doubt, Kyoto is the capital of the geisha world. Confusingly, in Kyoto they are not called ‘geisha’; rather, they are called maiko or geiko . A maiko is a girl between the ages of 15 and 20, who is in the process of training to become a fully fledged geiko (the Kyoto word for ‘geisha’). During this five-year period, she lives in an okiya (geisha house) and studies traditional Japanese arts, including dance, singing, tea ceremony and shamisen (a three-stringed instrument). During this time, she will also start to entertain clients, usually in the company of a geiko, who acts like an older sister. Due to the extensive training she receives, a maiko or geiko is like a living museum of Japanese traditional culture. In addition to her skills, the kimono she wears and the ornaments in her hair and on her obi (kimono sash) represent the highest achievements in Japanese arts. It’s therefore hardly surprising that both Japanese and foreigners consider a meeting with a geisha to be a magical occurrence.

GEISHA MANNERS

There’s no doubt that catching a glimpse of a geisha is a once-in-a-lifetime Japanese experience. Unfortunately, the sport of ‘geisha-spotting’ has really gotten out of hand in Kyoto’s Gion district (the city’s main geisha district). It’s probably best to keep the following in mind if you join the ranks of geisha-spotters in Gion: » The geisha you see in Gion are usually on the way to or from an appointment and cannot stop for photos or conversation.

» You shouldn’t touch or grab a geisha, or physically block their progress.
» No one likes being mobbed by photographers or hounded as they walk down the street.
» If you really want to get close to a geisha, private tour agencies and high-end ryokan or hotels can arrange geisha entertainment.
» Finally, if you are intent on getting a few photos of geisha, you will find plenty of ‘tourist geisha’ in the streets of Higashiyama during the daytime. These are tourists who have paid to be made up as geisha. They look pretty much like the real thing and they are usually more than happy to pose for pictures.

While young girls may have been sold into this world in times gone by, these days girls make the choice themselves, often after coming to Kyoto to see one of the city’s famous geisha dances. The proprietor of the okiya will meet the girl and her parents to determine if the girl is serious and if her parents are willing to grant her permission to enter the world of the geisha (the okiya makes a considerable investment in terms of training and kimonos, so they are loathe to take girls who may quit).

Once a maiko completes her training and becomes a geiko, she is able to move out of the okiya and live on her own. At this point she is free to have a boyfriend, but if she gets married she has to leave the world of the geisha. It’s very easy to spot the difference between a maiko and a geiko: geiko wear wigs with minimal ornamentation (usually just a wooden comb in the wig), while maiko wear their own hair in an elaborate hairstyle with many bright hair ornaments called kanzashi . Also, maiko wear elaborate long-sleeve kimonos, while geiko wear simpler kimonos with shorter sleeves.

Maiko and geiko entertain their clients in exclusive restaurants, banquet halls, ‘teahouses’ (more like exclusive traditional bars) and other venues. An evening of maiko/geiko entertainment usually starts with a kaiseki (Japanese haute cuisine) meal. While their customers eat, the maiko/geiko enter the room and introduce themselves in Kyoto dialect. They proceed to pour drinks and make witty banter with the guests. Sometimes they even play drinking games, and we can tell you from experience that it’s hard to beat geisha at their own games! If it’s a large party with a jikata ( shamisen player), the girls may dance after dinner.

As you might guess, this sort of entertainment does not come cheap: a dinner with one maiko and one geiko and a jikata might cost about US$900, but it’s definitely worth it for a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Let’s face it: ‘I had dinner with a geisha’ is a pretty good entry in any ‘been-there-done-that’ contest.

It’s impossible to arrange private geisha entertainment without an introduction from an established patron. However, these days geisha entertainment can be arranged through top-end hotels, ryokan and some private tour operators in Kyoto. Knowledgeable sources estimate that there are perhaps 100 maiko and just over 100 geiko in Kyoto. Geisha can also be found in other parts of the country, most notably Tokyo. However, it is thought that there are less than 1000 geisha or geiko and maiko remaining in all of Japan.




Onsen





Japan is in hot water. Literally. The stuff percolates up out of the ground from one end of the country to the other. The Japanese word for a hot spring is ‘onsen’, and there are more than 3000 of them here, more than anywhere else on earth. So if your idea of relaxation involves soaking your bones in a tub of bubbling hot water, you’ve come to the right place.

With so many onsen , it’s hardly surprising that they come in every size, shape and colour. There is an onsen on an artificial island in Tokyo Bay. There are onsen high up in the Japan Alps that you can only get to by walking for a full day over high mountain peaks. There are onsen bubbling up among the rocks on the coast that only exist when the tide is just right.

Some Japanese will tell you that the only distinctively Japanese aspect of their culture – that is, something that didn’t ultimately originate in mainland Asia – is the bath. There are accounts of onsen bathing in Japan’s earliest historical records, and it’s pretty certain that the Japanese have been bathing in onsen as long as there have been Japanese.

Over the millennia, they have turned the simple act of bathing in an onsen into something like a religion. Today, the ultimate way to experience an onsen is to visit an onsen ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn with its own private hot-spring bath. At an onsen ryokan you spend all day enjoying the bath, relaxing in your room and eating sumptuous food. Like many of the best things in life, some of the finest onsen in Japan are free. Just show up with a towel and your birthday suit, splash a little water on yourself and plunge in. No communication hassles, no expenses and no worries. And even if you must pay to enter, it’s usually just a minor snip – averaging about ¥700 (US$6) per person.

Onsen Town

Kinosaki (Kansai;) Kinosaki, on the Sea of Japan coast in northern Kansai, is the quintessential onsen town. With seven public baths and dozens of onsen ryokan, this is the place to sample the onsen ryokan experience. You can relax in your accommodation taking the waters as it pleases you, and when you get tired of your ryokan’s bath, you can hit the streets in a yukata (light cotton robe) and geta (wooden sandals) and visit the public baths.

Hidden Onsen

Lamp no Yado (Noto-hantō, Central Honshū;) Noto-hantō is about as far as one can go in Central Honshū, and the seaside is about as far as one can go on this peninsula. A country road takes you to a narrow 1km path, from where you have to climb a switchback hill on foot. Sit in the rotemburo (outdoor bath) and enjoy the Sea of Japan views through craggy rocks.

Semitropical Onsen

Urami-ga-taki Onsen (Hachijō-jima, Izu-shotō;) Even in a country of lovely onsen, this is a real standout: the perfect little rotemburo located next to a waterfall in lush semitropical jungle. It’s what they’re shooting for at all those resorts on Bali, only this is the real thing. Sitting in the bath as the late-afternoon sunlight pierces the ferns here is a magical experience. Did we mention that’s it’s free?

Onsen-Beach Combination

Shirahama (Wakayama Prefecture, Kansai;) There’s something peculiarly pleasing about dashing back and forth between the ocean and a natural hot-spring bath – the contrast in temperature and texture is something we never tire of. At Shirahama, a beach town in southern Kansai, there is a free onsen right on the beach. And Sakino-yu Onsen here is just spectacular – you sit in the tubs and watch the rollers from the Pacific break over the rocks just a few metres away.

Do-It-Yourself Onsen

Kawa-yu Onsen (Wakayama Prefecture, Kansai;) If you like doing things your own way, you’ll love this natural oddity of an onsen in southern Kansai. Here, the onsen waters bubble up through the rocks of a riverbed. You choose a likely spot and dig out a natural hotpot along the riverside and wait for it to fill with hot water and – voila – your own private rotemburo . In the winter, it gets even better: they use bulldozers to turn the entire river into a giant 1000-person onsen. It doesn’t hurt that the river water is a lovely translucent emerald colour.

Onsen Ryokan

Nishimuraya Honkan (Kinosaki, Kansai;) If you want to sample the ultimate in top-end onsen ryokan, this is the place. With several fine indoor and outdoor baths and elegant rooms, your stay here will be a highlight of your trip to Japan, and will shed some light on why the Japanese consider an onsen vacation to be the utmost in relaxation.

Onsen Ski Town

Nozawa Onsen (Nagano Prefecture, Central Honshū;) What could be better than a day spent on the slopes, followed by a soak in a jacuzzi? Well, how about a day on the slopes followed by a soak in a real natural hot spring? This fine little ski town boasts some first-rate skiing, reliable snow, ripping alpine views and no fewer than 13 free onsen. Best of all, the onsen here are scalding hot, which is a nice contrast to the snow outside and it feels wonderful on tired skier’s legs.




Traditional Japanese Accommodation





Let’s face it: a hotel is a hotel wherever you go. And while some of Japan’s hotels are very nice indeed, you’re probably searching for something unique to the culture. If this is what you’re after, you’ll be pleased to learn that Japan is one of the last places in Asia where you can find truly authentic traditional accommodation: ryokan, minshuku and shukubō .

Ryokan

Simply put, ryokan are traditional Japanese inns. Ryokan are where Japanese travellers stayed before they had heard the word hoteru (hotel). They are Japanese-style accommodation with tatami-mat rooms and futons instead of beds. Most serve Japanese-style breakfast and dinner, as well. However, this simple explanation doesn’t do justice to ryokan.

A high-end ryokan is the last word in relaxation. The buildings themselves set the tone: they employ traditional Japanese architecture in which the whole structure is organic, made entirely of natural materials such as wood, earth, paper, grass, bamboo and stone. Indeed, a good ryokan is an extension of the natural world. And nature comes into the ryokan in the form of the Japanese garden, which you can often see from the privacy of your room or even your bathtub.

But more than the building, the service is what sets ryokan apart from even the best hotels. At a good ryokan, you will be assigned a personal maid who sees to your every need. These ladies seem to have a sixth sense: as soon as you finish one course of your dinner, you hear a knock on the door and she brings the next course. Then, when you stroll down the hall to take a bath, she dashes into your room and lays out your futon.

It is said that there are more than 80,000 ryokan in Japan, but that number decreases each year as modern Japanese find hotels to be more convenient.

Many ryokan in Japan pride themselves on serving kaiseki ryōri (Japanese haute cuisine), which rivals that served in the best restaurants. Staying at one of these so-called ryōri ryokan (cuisine ryokan) is like staying at a three-star ‘residential restaurant’, where you sleep in your own private dining room.

Another wonderful variety is the onsen ryokan: a ryokan with its own private hot-spring bath. These places were like luxury spas long before anyone had heard the word ‘spa’. Some of the top places have rooms with private en suite onsen baths, usually built overlooking gardens. When you stay at an onsen ryokan, your day involves a gruelling cycle of bathe-nap-eat-repeat. A night at a good onsen ryokan is the perfect way to get over your jet lag when you arrive in the country or a special treat to round out the journey in Japan.




The People of Japan





The uniqueness and peculiarity of the Japanese is a favourite topic of both Western observers and the Japanese themselves. It’s worth starting any discussion about the people of Japan by noting that there is no such thing as ‘the Japanese’. Rather, there are 127 million individuals in Japan with their own unique characters, interests and habits. And despite popular stereotypes to the contrary, the Japanese are as varied as any people on earth. Just as importantly, Japanese people have more in common with the rest of humanity than they have differences.

Why then the pervasive images of the Japanese as inscrutable or even bizarre? These stereotypes are largely rooted in language: few Japanese are able to speak English as well as, say, your average Singaporean, Hong Kong Chinese or well-educated Indian, not to mention most Europeans. This difficulty with English is largely rooted in the country’s appalling English-education system, and is compounded by a natural shyness, a perfectionist streak and the nature of the Japanese language itself, which contains fewer sounds than most other major languages (making pronunciation of other languages difficult). Thus, what appears to the casual observer to be a maddening inscrutability is more likely just an inability to communicate effectively. Outsiders who become fluent in Japanese discover a people whose thoughts and feelings are surprisingly – almost boringly – similar to those of folks in other developed nations.

It is thought that modern Japanese result from the mixing of early Jōmon people, who walked over to Japan via land bridges formed during an ice age, and later Yayoi people, who arrived from the Korean Peninsula in boats.

All of this has produced a people who highly value group identity and social harmony – in a tightly packed city or small farming village, there simply isn’t room for colourful individualism. One of the ways harmony is preserved is by forming consensus, and concealing personal opinions and true feelings. Thus, the free-flowing exchange of ideas, debates and even heated arguments that one expects in the West are far less common in Japan. This reticence about sharing innermost thoughts perhaps contributes to the Western image of the Japanese as mysterious.

Of course, there is a lot more to the typical Japanese character than just a tendency to prize social harmony. Any visitor to the country will soon discover a people who are remarkably conscientious, meticulous, industrious, honest and technically skilled. A touching shyness and sometimes almost painful self-consciousness are also undoubted features of many Japanese. These characteristics result in a society that is a joy for the traveller to experience.

And let us say that any visit to Japan is a good opportunity to explode the myths about Japan and the Japanese. While you may imagine a nation of suit-clad conformists or inscrutable automatons, a few rounds in a local izakaya (pub-eatery) will quickly put all of these notions to rest.

JAPANESE ETIQUETTE

Many visitors to Japan worry about committing a dreadful breach of etiquette. Perhaps this is natural. After all, Japan is a relatively formal society with a complex system of manners and mores. And let’s not even get into the language, which makes the tu/vous questions of French look like child’s play. But here is something we cannot emphasise strongly enough: relax . No one expects you to know all the rules of polite Japanese behaviour and no one is watching you like a hawk, waiting for you to do something wrong. So, the first rule is this: just do what would be polite in your own country, and you won’t go too far wrong. That said, there are a few things to keep in mind if you want to gain bonus points with the locals. » Use two hands when giving your name card or receiving one. Ditto for presents or important documents.

Lifestyle

The way most Japanese live today differs greatly from the way they lived before WWII. As the birth rate has dropped and labour demands have drawn more workers to cities, the population has become increasingly urban. At the same time, Japan continues to soak up influences from abroad and the traditional lifestyle of the country is quickly disappearing in the face of a dizzying onslaught of Western pop/material culture. These days, the average young Tokyoite has a lot more in common with her peers in Melbourne or London than she does with her grandmother back in her furusato (hometown).

In the City

The overwhelming majority of Japanese live in the bustling urban environments of major cities. These urbanites live famously hectic lives dominated by often gruelling work schedules and punctuated by lengthy commutes from city centres to more affordable outlying neighbourhoods and suburbs. Until fairly recently, the nexus of all this activity was the Japanese corporation, which provided lifetime employment to the legions of blue-suited white-collar workers, almost all of them men, who lived, worked, drank, ate and slept in the service of the companies for which they toiled. These days, as the Japanese economy makes the transition from a manufacturing economy to a service economy, the old certainties are vanishing. On the way out are Japan’s famous ‘cradle to grave’ employment and age-based promotion system. Now, the recent college graduate is just as likely to become a furitaa (part-time worker) as he is to become a salaryman. Needless to say, all this has wide-ranging consequences for Japanese society. Most Japanese identify themselves as both Shintō and Buddhist, but many young Japanese get married in Christian ceremonies performed by foreign ‘priests’ (many of whom are not real Christian priests). Most families once comprised a father who was a salaryman, a mother who was a housewife, kids who studied dutifully in order to earn a place at one of Japan’s elite universities, and an elderly in-law who had moved in. Although the days of this traditional model may not be completely over, it has been changing fast in recent years. As in Western countries, tomobataraki (both spouses working) is now increasingly common. The kids in the family probably still study like mad: if they are in not yet in high school, they will be working towards gaining admission to a select high school by attending an after-school cram school, known as a juku; if they are already in high school, they will be attending a juku in hopes of passing university admission exams. As for the mother- or father-in-law, who in the past would have expected to be taken care of by the eldest son in the family, they may have found that beliefs about filial loyalty have changed substantially since the 1980s, particularly in urban centres. Now, more and more Japanese families are sending elderly parents and in-laws to live out their ‘golden years’ in rōjin hōmu (literally ‘old-folks homes’).

In the Country

Only one in four Japanese live in the small farming and fishing villages that dot the mountains and cling to the rugged coasts. Mass postwar emigration from these rural enclaves has doubtless changed the weave of Japanese social fabric and the texture of its landscape, as the young continue their steady flight to the city, leaving untended rice fields to slide down the hills from neglect. Today only 15% of farming households continue to make ends meet solely through agriculture, with most rural workers holding down two or three jobs. Though this lifestyle manages to make the incomes of some country dwellers higher than those of their urban counterparts, it also speaks clearly of the crisis that many rural communities are facing in their struggle to maintain the traditional way of life. The salvation of traditional village life may well rely on the success of the ‘I-turn’ (moving from urban areas to rural villages) and ‘U-turn’ (moving from country to city, and back again) movements. Although not wildly successful, these movements have managed to attract young people who work at home, company workers who are willing to put in a number of hours on the train commuting to the nearest city, and retirees looking to spend their golden years among the thatched roofs and rice fields that symbolise a not-so-distant past.

Population

Japan has a population of approximately 127 million people (the ninth largest in the world) and, with 75% of it concentrated in urban centres, population density is extremely high. Areas such as the Tokyo–Kawasaki–Yokohama conurbation are so densely populated that they have almost ceased to be separate cities, running into each other and forming a vast coalescence that, if considered as a whole, would constitute the world’s largest city. One notable feature of Japan’s population is its relative ethnic and cultural homogeneity. This is particularly striking for visitors from the USA, Australia and other multicultural nations. The main reason for this ethnic homogeneity lies in Japan’s strict immigration laws, which have ensured that only a small number of foreigners settle in the country. The largest non-Japanese group in the country is made up of 650,000 zai-nichi kankoku-jin (resident Koreans). For most outsiders, Koreans are an invisible minority. Indeed, even the Japanese themselves have no way of knowing that someone is of Korean descent if they adopt a Japanese name. Nevertheless, Japanese-born Koreans, who in some cases speak no language other than Japanese, were only recently released from the obligation to carry ID cards with their fingerprints at all times, and some still face discrimination in the workplace and other aspects of their daily lives. Aside from Koreans, most foreigners in Japan are temporary workers from China, Southeast Asia, South America and Western countries. Indigenous groups such as the Ainu have been reduced to very small numbers, due to intermarriage with non-Ainu and government attempts to hasten assimilation of Ainu into general Japanese society. At present, Ainu are concentrated mostly in Hokkaidō, the northernmost of Japan’s main islands. The most notable feature of Japan’s population is the fact that it is shrinking. Japan’s astonishingly low birth rate of 1.3 births per woman is among the lowest in the developed world and Japan is rapidly becoming a nation of elderly citizens. The population began declining in 2007, and is predicted to reach 100 million in 2050 and 67 million in 2100. Needless to say, such demographic change will have a major influence on the economy in coming decades.

Women in Japan

Traditional Japanese society restricted the woman’s role to the home, where as housekeeper she wielded considerable power, overseeing all financial matters, monitoring the children’s education and, in some ways, acting as the head of the household. Even in the early Meiji period, however, the ideal was rarely matched by reality: labour shortfalls often resulted in women taking on factory work, and even before that women often worked side by side with men in the fields.

As might be expected, the contemporary situation is complex. There are, of course, those who stick to established roles. They tend to opt for shorter college courses, often at women’s colleges, and see education as an asset in the marriage market. Once married, they leave the role of breadwinner to the husband.

Most Japanese babies are born with a Mongolian spot (mōkohan) on their lower backs. This harmless birthmark is composed of melanin-containing cells and usually fades by the age of five. It’s common in several Asian races and in Native Americans, raising interesting questions about the origins of the Japanese.

Increasingly, however, Japanese women are choosing to forgo or delay marriage in favour of pursuing their own career ambitions. Of course, changing aspirations do not necessarily translate into changing realities, and Japanese women are still significantly underrepresented in upper management and political positions, and there is a disproportionately high number of females employed as OLsoutsiders, Koreans are an invisible minority. Indeed, even the Japanese themselves have no way of knowing that someone is of Korean descent if they adopt a Japanese name. Nevertheless, Japanese-born Koreans, who in some cases speak no language other than Japanese, were only recently released from the obligation to carry ID cards with their fingerprints at all times, and some still face discrimination in the workplace and other aspects of their daily lives. Aside from Koreans, most foreigners in Japan are temporary workers from China, Southeast Asia, South America and Western countries. Indigenous groups such as the Ainu have been reduced to very small numbers, due to intermarriage with non-Ainu and government attempts to hasten assimilation of Ainu into general Japanese society. At present, Ainu are concentrated mostly in Hokkaidō, the northernmost of Japan’s main islands. The most notable feature of Japan’s population is the fact that it is shrinking. Japan’s astonishingly low birth rate of 1.3 births per woman is among the lowest in the developed world and Japan is rapidly becoming a nation of elderly citizens. The population began declining in 2007, and is predicted to reach 100 million in 2050 and 67 million in 2100. Needless to say, such demographic change will have a major influence on the economy in coming decades.










The People of Japan





The uniqueness and peculiarity of the Japanese is a favourite topic of both Western observers and the Japanese themselves. It’s worth starting any discussion about the people of Japan by noting that there is no such thing as ‘the Japanese’. Rather, there are 127 million individuals in Japan with their own unique characters, interests and habits. And despite popular stereotypes to the contrary, the Japanese are as varied as any people on earth. Just as importantly, Japanese people have more in common with the rest of humanity than they have differences.

Why then the pervasive images of the Japanese as inscrutable or even bizarre? These stereotypes are largely rooted in language: few Japanese are able to speak English as well as, say, your average Singaporean, Hong Kong Chinese or well-educated Indian, not to mention most Europeans. This difficulty with English is largely rooted in the country’s appalling English-education system, and is compounded by a natural shyness, a perfectionist streak and the nature of the Japanese language itself, which contains fewer sounds than most other major languages (making pronunciation of other languages difficult). Thus, what appears to the casual observer to be a maddening inscrutability is more likely just an inability to communicate effectively. Outsiders who become fluent in Japanese discover a people whose thoughts and feelings are surprisingly – almost boringly – similar to those of folks in other developed nations.

It is thought that modern Japanese result from the mixing of early Jōmon people, who walked over to Japan via land bridges formed during an ice age, and later Yayoi people, who arrived from the Korean Peninsula in boats.

All of this has produced a people who highly value group identity and social harmony – in a tightly packed city or small farming village, there simply isn’t room for colourful individualism. One of the ways harmony is preserved is by forming consensus, and concealing personal opinions and true feelings. Thus, the free-flowing exchange of ideas, debates and even heated arguments that one expects in the West are far less common in Japan. This reticence about sharing innermost thoughts perhaps contributes to the Western image of the Japanese as mysterious.

Of course, there is a lot more to the typical Japanese character than just a tendency to prize social harmony. Any visitor to the country will soon discover a people who are remarkably conscientious, meticulous, industrious, honest and technically skilled. A touching shyness and sometimes almost painful self-consciousness are also undoubted features of many Japanese. These characteristics result in a society that is a joy for the traveller to experience.

And let us say that any visit to Japan is a good opportunity to explode the myths about Japan and the Japanese. While you may imagine a nation of suit-clad conformists or inscrutable automatons, a few rounds in a local izakaya (pub-eatery) will quickly put all of these notions to rest.

JAPANESE ETIQUETTE

Many visitors to Japan worry about committing a dreadful breach of etiquette. Perhaps this is natural. After all, Japan is a relatively formal society with a complex system of manners and mores. And let’s not even get into the language, which makes the tu/vous questions of French look like child’s play. But here is something we cannot emphasise strongly enough: relax . No one expects you to know all the rules of polite Japanese behaviour and no one is watching you like a hawk, waiting for you to do something wrong. So, the first rule is this: just do what would be polite in your own country, and you won’t go too far wrong. That said, there are a few things to keep in mind if you want to gain bonus points with the locals. » Use two hands when giving your name card or receiving one. Ditto for presents or important documents.

Lifestyle

The way most Japanese live today differs greatly from the way they lived before WWII. As the birth rate has dropped and labour demands have drawn more workers to cities, the population has become increasingly urban. At the same time, Japan continues to soak up influences from abroad and the traditional lifestyle of the country is quickly disappearing in the face of a dizzying onslaught of Western pop/material culture. These days, the average young Tokyoite has a lot more in common with her peers in Melbourne or London than she does with her grandmother back in her furusato (hometown).

In the City

The overwhelming majority of Japanese live in the bustling urban environments of major cities. These urbanites live famously hectic lives dominated by often gruelling work schedules and punctuated by lengthy commutes from city centres to more affordable outlying neighbourhoods and suburbs. Until fairly recently, the nexus of all this activity was the Japanese corporation, which provided lifetime employment to the legions of blue-suited white-collar workers, almost all of them men, who lived, worked, drank, ate and slept in the service of the companies for which they toiled. These days, as the Japanese economy makes the transition from a manufacturing economy to a service economy, the old certainties are vanishing. On the way out are Japan’s famous ‘cradle to grave’ employment and age-based promotion system. Now, the recent college graduate is just as likely to become a furitaa (part-time worker) as he is to become a salaryman. Needless to say, all this has wide-ranging consequences for Japanese society. Most Japanese identify themselves as both Shintō and Buddhist, but many young Japanese get married in Christian ceremonies performed by foreign ‘priests’ (many of whom are not real Christian priests). Most families once comprised a father who was a salaryman, a mother who was a housewife, kids who studied dutifully in order to earn a place at one of Japan’s elite universities, and an elderly in-law who had moved in. Although the days of this traditional model may not be completely over, it has been changing fast in recent years. As in Western countries, tomobataraki (both spouses working) is now increasingly common. The kids in the family probably still study like mad: if they are in not yet in high school, they will be working towards gaining admission to a select high school by attending an after-school cram school, known as a juku; if they are already in high school, they will be attending a juku in hopes of passing university admission exams. As for the mother- or father-in-law, who in the past would have expected to be taken care of by the eldest son in the family, they may have found that beliefs about filial loyalty have changed substantially since the 1980s, particularly in urban centres. Now, more and more Japanese families are sending elderly parents and in-laws to live out their ‘golden years’ in rōjin hōmu (literally ‘old-folks homes’).

In the Country

Only one in four Japanese live in the small farming and fishing villages that dot the mountains and cling to the rugged coasts. Mass postwar emigration from these rural enclaves has doubtless changed the weave of Japanese social fabric and the texture of its landscape, as the young continue their steady flight to the city, leaving untended rice fields to slide down the hills from neglect. Today only 15% of farming households continue to make ends meet solely through agriculture, with most rural workers holding down two or three jobs. Though this lifestyle manages to make the incomes of some country dwellers higher than those of their urban counterparts, it also speaks clearly of the crisis that many rural communities are facing in their struggle to maintain the traditional way of life. The salvation of traditional village life may well rely on the success of the ‘I-turn’ (moving from urban areas to rural villages) and ‘U-turn’ (moving from country to city, and back again) movements. Although not wildly successful, these movements have managed to attract young people who work at home, company workers who are willing to put in a number of hours on the train commuting to the nearest city, and retirees looking to spend their golden years among the thatched roofs and rice fields that symbolise a not-so-distant past.

Population

Japan has a population of approximately 127 million people (the ninth largest in the world) and, with 75% of it concentrated in urban centres, population density is extremely high. Areas such as the Tokyo–Kawasaki–Yokohama conurbation are so densely populated that they have almost ceased to be separate cities, running into each other and forming a vast coalescence that, if considered as a whole, would constitute the world’s largest city. One notable feature of Japan’s population is its relative ethnic and cultural homogeneity. This is particularly striking for visitors from the USA, Australia and other multicultural nations. The main reason for this ethnic homogeneity lies in Japan’s strict immigration laws, which have ensured that only a small number of foreigners settle in the country. The largest non-Japanese group in the country is made up of 650,000 zai-nichi kankoku-jin (resident Koreans). For most outsiders, Koreans are an invisible minority. Indeed, even the Japanese themselves have no way of knowing that someone is of Korean descent if they adopt a Japanese name. Nevertheless, Japanese-born Koreans, who in some cases speak no language other than Japanese, were only recently released from the obligation to carry ID cards with their fingerprints at all times, and some still face discrimination in the workplace and other aspects of their daily lives. Aside from Koreans, most foreigners in Japan are temporary workers from China, Southeast Asia, South America and Western countries. Indigenous groups such as the Ainu have been reduced to very small numbers, due to intermarriage with non-Ainu and government attempts to hasten assimilation of Ainu into general Japanese society. At present, Ainu are concentrated mostly in Hokkaidō, the northernmost of Japan’s main islands. The most notable feature of Japan’s population is the fact that it is shrinking. Japan’s astonishingly low birth rate of 1.3 births per woman is among the lowest in the developed world and Japan is rapidly becoming a nation of elderly citizens. The population began declining in 2007, and is predicted to reach 100 million in 2050 and 67 million in 2100. Needless to say, such demographic change will have a major influence on the economy in coming decades.

Women in Japan

Traditional Japanese society restricted the woman’s role to the home, where as housekeeper she wielded considerable power, overseeing all financial matters, monitoring the children’s education and, in some ways, acting as the head of the household. Even in the early Meiji period, however, the ideal was rarely matched by reality: labour shortfalls often resulted in women taking on factory work, and even before that women often worked side by side with men in the fields.

As might be expected, the contemporary situation is complex. There are, of course, those who stick to established roles. They tend to opt for shorter college courses, often at women’s colleges, and see education as an asset in the marriage market. Once married, they leave the role of breadwinner to the husband.

Most Japanese babies are born with a Mongolian spot (mōkohan) on their lower backs. This harmless birthmark is composed of melanin-containing cells and usually fades by the age of five. It’s common in several Asian races and in Native Americans, raising interesting questions about the origins of the Japanese.

Increasingly, however, Japanese women are choosing to forgo or delay marriage in favour of pursuing their own career ambitions. Of course, changing aspirations do not necessarily translate into changing realities, and Japanese women are still significantly underrepresented in upper management and political positions, and there is a disproportionately high number of females employed as OLsoutsiders, Koreans are an invisible minority. Indeed, even the Japanese themselves have no way of knowing that someone is of Korean descent if they adopt a Japanese name. Nevertheless, Japanese-born Koreans, who in some cases speak no language other than Japanese, were only recently released from the obligation to carry ID cards with their fingerprints at all times, and some still face discrimination in the workplace and other aspects of their daily lives. Aside from Koreans, most foreigners in Japan are temporary workers from China, Southeast Asia, South America and Western countries. Indigenous groups such as the Ainu have been reduced to very small numbers, due to intermarriage with non-Ainu and government attempts to hasten assimilation of Ainu into general Japanese society. At present, Ainu are concentrated mostly in Hokkaidō, the northernmost of Japan’s main islands. The most notable feature of Japan’s population is the fact that it is shrinking. Japan’s astonishingly low birth rate of 1.3 births per woman is among the lowest in the developed world and Japan is rapidly becoming a nation of elderly citizens. The population began declining in 2007, and is predicted to reach 100 million in 2050 and 67 million in 2100. Needless to say, such demographic change will have a major influence on the economy in coming decades.

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