Japan known as Nihon or Nippon in Japanese, is a nation of islands in East Asia. Explore Japan, the “Land of the Rising Sun” the country where the past meets the future. Japanese culture stretches back millennia, yet has also been quick to adopt and created the latest modern fashions and trends.
Japan is often difficult to understand for those educated in the west. It can seem full of contradictions. Many Japanese corporations dominate their industries. Cities are as modern and high tech as anywhere else, but tumbledown wooden shacks can still be spotted next to glass fronted designer condominiums. Japan has beautiful temples and gardens which are often surrounded by garish signs and ugly buildings. The most acclaimed restaurant in the country, which costs hundreds of dollars for dinner, is a small shop located in a subway station seating less than a dozen people. In the middle of modern skyscrapers you’ll discover sliding wooden doors which lead to traditional chambers with tatami mats, shoji screens, and calligraphy, suitable for traditional tea ceremonies. These juxtapositions can seem perplexing or jarring to those used to the more uniform nature of European and North American cities, but if you let go, and accept the layered aesthetics, you’ll find interesting and surprising places throughout the country.
Japan has often been seen in the West as a land combining tradition and modernity, and many traditional structures and practices are preserved, but modern structures and practices definitely dominate your experience in Japan. Japan was the first Asian country to independently modernize, and the country continues to embrace new technologies and aesthetics, but unlike in many countries, Japan does not feel a particular need to attack or remove older technologies, structures, or practices. New things are mostly just layered beside old things. That’s not to say that Japan embraces the large scale preservation of historical structures or that people generally practice traditional ceremonies, but people generally believe that if a small number of people want to continue on a tradition or preserve a building that they own, they should be allowed to do that. In this way, development mostly happens in a piecemeal fashion, one building at a time, rather than in large redevelopment projects. Many urban blocks evolve to line up dozens of narrow buildings spanning fifty or more years of design history. Clothing styles evolve along a dozen paths at the same time rather than singular mass fashion trends. An individual that embraces a particular subculture and its fashions may alternately conform to vary different norms when working or at home, but there is little sense of conflict between these roles.
Japan’s location on islands at the outermost edge of Asia has had a profound influence on its history. Just close enough to mainland Asia, yet far enough to keep it separate, much of Japanese history has seen alternating periods of closure and openness.
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. Archaeological 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 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 (gaikokujin) and are more reserved and reluctant to communicate.
Visibly foreign visitors remain a rarity in many parts of Japan outside of major cities and popular sightseeing areas, and you may encounter moments when entering a shop causes the staff to seemingly panic. Don’t take this as racism or other xenophobia: they’re just afraid that you’ll try to address them in English and they’ll be embarrassed because they can’t understand or reply. A smile and a Konnichiwa (“Hello”) often helps.
See Japan’s Top 3 for some sights and places held in the high esteem by the Japanese themselves
Once in Japan, you must carry your passport (or Residence Card, if applicable) with you at all times. If caught in a random check without it (and nightclub raids are not uncommon), you’ll be detained until somebody can fetch it for you. First offenders who apologize are usually let off with a warning, but theoretically you can be fined.
Japan has one of the world’s best transport systems, and getting around is usually a breeze, with the train being the favored for most locations. Although travelling around Japan is expensive, there are a variety of passes for foreigner visits that can make travel more affordable.
Japan’s excellent Shinkansen network means that flying is usually more of a luxury than a necessity. That being said, flying remains the most practical mode of reaching Japan’s outlying islands, most notably for connections from the mainland to Hokkaido, Okinawa, and service to Kyushu to and from Tokyo. Flying is also useful for getting around sparsely populated Hokkaido, as the Shinkansen network there currently ends in Hakodate.
Tipping effectively does not exist in Japan, and attempting to offer tips can often be seen as an insult. Japanese service is legendary, and you do not need to bribe the waiters/waitresses to do their job
You must try its local cuisine of Japan
Bathing in Japan is a big deal
For everyday dress as a tourist, you are already at a disadvantage: no matter how you dress, you will stand out next to throngs of salary men in suits and grade schoolers in uniforms. And keeping track of Japan’s rapidly-changing fashions is far too much work for a tourist.
First and foremost: wear shoes that you can slip off easily, as you may be doing this several times a day. Athletic shoes are perfectly acceptable; just lace them very loosely so you can get in and out of them without using your hands.
Don’t trudge around town with a big backpack like some kind of urban camper; you will stand out very badly (which you will anyhow, being not Japanese), your backpack will get in everyone’s way (including your own), and it’s just inconsiderate. Smaller backpacks should be moved to your front when in crowded shops or trains.
Young Japanese women often dress in a manner that could be considered quite sexually provocative by Western standards, even during the daytime. This style of dress is not necessarily expected of foreign women but is not likely to be frowned upon either, so wearing what one is most comfortable with should suffice. Be warned however that exposed cleavage is virtually never seen in Japan and could attract a lot of wandering eyes, and even bare shoulders are frowned upon.
In business, suits are still the standard at most companies unless you know otherwise. Plan to wear your suit into the evening for drinks and entertainment.
Although everyone bathes naked at hot springs, for the beach or pool, you still need a bathing suit of some kind. Swim trunks or board shorts for men are fine, but speedos will stand out. If you will be using a pool, you will likely be required to have a swimming cap as well.
Though the cramped cities and older buildings present many barriers to those with disabilities and other mobility issues, Japan is a very wheelchair accessible country. Japan has switched into high-gear to create a “barrier-free” society.
The vast majority of train and subway stations are wheelchair accessible. When a person needs special assistance, such as a wheelchair user, they can inform station staff at the ticketing gates and will be guided to the train and helped off the train at their destination or any transfer mid-journey.
The major tourist attractions are adapted within reason and generally provide some sort of accessible route. While discounts are available for those with disabilities, the tourist attraction may not accept disability identification cards not issued in Japan.
Hotels with accessible rooms can be hard to find and often go by the name “barrier free room” or “universal room” instead of “accessible”. Additionally, even if an accessible room is available, most hotels require booking via phone or email.
There are lots of ATMs, but few Japanese banks accept foreign cards. Post offices, 7-Eleven convenience stores, plus now a growing number of convenience stores can take foreign ATM cards. In major metropolitan centers, Shinsei Bank, as well as Citi Bank ATMs are often available and allow withdrawal of as little as ¥2000. All allow you to use an English menu.
Foreign credit cards are accepted mostly at major hotels, chain stores, and places that deal with many foreign tourists. However, other Japanese stores may not be able to accept them. It is advised that enough cash is kept for emergencies at all times.
Most if not all Japanese are very understanding of a foreigner (gaijin or gaikokujin) who does not conform instantly to their culture; indeed, the Japanese like to boast (with debatable credibility) that their language and culture are among the most difficult to understand in the world, so they are generally quite happy to assist you if you appear to be struggling. However, Japanese will appreciate it if you follow at least the following rules, many of which boil down to social norms of strict cleanliness and avoiding intruding on others (meiwaku).
When you explore Be respectful in Japan.
Unesco World Heritage List
- Buddhist Monuments in the Horyu-ji Area
- Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto (Kyoto, Uji and Otsu Cities)
- Historic Villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama
- Hiroshima Peace Memorial (Genbaku Dome)
- Itsukushima Shinto Shrine
- Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara
- Shrines and Temples of Nikko
- Gusuku Sites and Related Properties of the Kingdom of Ryukyu
- Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range
- Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine and its Cultural Landscape
- Hiraizumi – Temples, Gardens and Archaeological Sites Representing the Buddhist Pure Land
- Fujisan, sacred place and source of artistic inspiration
- Tomioka Silk Mill and Related Sites
- Sites of Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution: Iron and Steel, Shipbuilding and Coal Mining
- The Architectural Work of Le Corbusier, an Outstanding Contribution to the Modern Movement *
- Sacred Island of Okinoshima and Associated Sites in the Munakata Region
- Hidden Christian Sites in the Nagasaki Region
- Mozu-Furuichi Kofun Group: Mounded Tombs of Ancient Japan