The characters that make up Japan’s name mean “sun-origin”, which is why it is sometimes referred to as the “Land of the Rising Sun”. A journey to this land will never fail to fascinate and travellers can look forward to a trip of endless discovery, packed with gourmet experiences, indulgent spa treatments, modern art, pop culture, and heritage trails leading to towering castles and mist-shrouded mountains.
Japan is a land of astonishing contrasts. From antiquated temples and kimono-clad geisha girls hurrying between traditional tea houses in Kyoto, to lightning-quick bullet trains carrying sharp-suited businessmen between the high-tech cities of Tokyo and Osaka, Japan is a country where the past meets the future.
Although it is the tenth most densely populated nation in the world, with a population of 127 million and 30 million in the greater metropolitan Tokyo area alone – Japan possesses vast stunning areas of rural, unpopulated wilderness.
About 73 per cent of its territory is forested, mountainous, or unsuitable for agriculture or industry, including more than 200 volcanoes – providing vast areas of land for tourism, travel and recreation.
Japan is also often thought of as a small country – however, the largest of the four main islands, Honshu, is bigger than the whole of Great Britain. It is easy to see, therefore, why this land of rolling mountains and 6,852 islands is a tourism paradise.
One misplaced view is that Japan’s position as the world’s third richest nation makes it an expensive holiday destination. In reality, it can be cheaper to travel in Japan than in most parts of North America and Europe.
The “Land of the Rising Sun” is a destination like no other; offering heritage and history one day and hi-tech city living the next.
Travelling in Japan
Being the first Asian power to modernize, Japan’s travel infrastructure has been among the most advanced in the Asia-Pacific region for an eternity; symbolized by the futuristic bullet train. The latest trains have a business-class cabin and the interiors are modeled on the latest luxury airliners. The network these trains serve is highly efficient and covers the majority of the country, making this form of transport the mode of choice for most visitors.
The flying option is probably best when travelling from the country’s main hubs to some of the country’s more far-flung destinations such as Okinawa and Hokkaido.
Destinations in Japan
Japan consists of the four largest islands of Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu and Shikoku, which collectively account for 97 per cent of the country’s land area. The Ryukyu Islands, including Okinawa are a chain of islands south of Kyushu. Collectively, these islands are often known as the Japanese Archipelago. This geographical division greatly enhances the tourism experience as the differing regions offer travellers different climatic and geographical conditions and a wide variety of cultural, social and gourmet experiences.
Main Japanese Islands
Occupying 60 per cent of the country and known literally as the “main island”, Honshu is the second most populous island in the world after Java. The iconic symbol of the mountainous and volcanic terrain of Honshu is the majestic Mount Fuji, an active strato-volcano which towers above the landscape at 3,776-metres. Mount Fuji’s exceptionally symmetrical cone is frequently depicted in art and photographs. It is one of Japan’s “three holy mountains” along with Mount Tate and Mount. Haku. Honshu is home to the Japan Alps which attract walkers all year around. No visit to Japan would be complete without a visit to Kyoto, which has been described as a living museum as it is home to 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, comprising of temples, shrines and a castle, and thousands of other buildings of great architectural and historical interest.
The Tsugaru Strait separates Hokkaido from Honshu but the two islands are connected by the underwater railway Seikan Tunnel. Clean air, blue skies and the majesty of the mountains best describe Hokkaido. Unlike the other major islands of Japan, it is normally not affected by the June-July rainy season and the typically warm, rather than hot, summer weather makes it’s a popular attraction for tourists from other parts of Japan. In winter, the island’s towering peaks and high-quality powder snow make it one of Japan’s most popular regions for snow sports, culminating in the famous Sapporo Snow Festival.
Kyushu is the third largest island of Japan and the most southwesterly of the four main islands. It offers a slightly warmer and more tropical climate. An early centre of Japanese civilization, Kyushu offers many historical treasures, modern cities, thermal spas and endless fields of rice forested mountains. The island is mountainous, and Japan’s most active volcano, the 1,591-metre Mount Aso is situated on Kyushu. There are many other signs of tectonic activity, including numerous areas of hot springs. The most famous of these are in Beppu on the east shore.
Shikoku is the smallest of Japan’s four main islands and perhaps its least visited. However, it does have many attractions to offer such as Matsuyama Castle, a beautiful coastline and the best noodles in Japan! It is famous for the 100,000 or so pilgrims who visit 88 temples on the island in a set order each year. This pilgrimage was originated by the Buddhist priest Kukai, who is considered to be the father of Japanese culture. The region was not very developed until the construction of several bridges connected Shikoku with the mainland of Honshu.
Mount Fuji and Hakone One-Day Tour
This excursion takes guests to the most iconic image of Japan and some of Japan’s most stunning countryside. A 120-minute coach ride from the Hamamatsucho Bus Terminal takes us westwards from bayside Tokyo through stunning mountainous alpine scenery to the famous Mount Fuji. The first stop at the Fuji Visitor Centre provides vital background information ahead of the visit to the actual mountain. The 3776-metre peak is divided into ten stations, with the first station at the foot of the mountain and the tenth station at the summit. Paved roads go as far as the fifth station halfway up the mountain and we drive to this station to get a breathtaking view from 2,300 metres above sea level. After a delicious Japanese-style lunch, we continue onto Lake Ashi, a crater lake that is famous for its views of Mount Fuji and its numerous hot springs. We then take a cruise aboard a large sightseeing boat modelled after a pirate ship. The adventure continues with a ride on the Mount Komagatake Ropeway, to get an elevated view of beautiful Hakone National Park. We then return to Tokyo with an expected 8.30pm arrival time in the Ginza district.
The Future is Tokyo Day Tour
When the sprawling metropolis that is Tokyo ran out of space, they inevitably turned toward the sea.. Odaiba is a man made island created by massive ladfills, featuring many hypermodern and strange buildings memorably described as the result of a preschooler’s architecture class. Among the exhibition pavilions, indoor shopping malls, game centers, cafes, restaurants, and surrealistic constructions of Odaiba, the visitor never fails to be intrigued by the structures on this landfill that seems to hail from the future rather than the past. Here you will visit the Museum of Emerging Science, a highly interactive and bilingual science museum includes exhibits about environmental issues, robots (starring Asimo among others), information technology, biology and space exploration. Mega Web is a giant Toyota showroom that shows off all of Toyota’s latest models, car accessories and technologies. The Panasonic Center is a showroom for the latest products and technologies by the Panasonic Corporation. On display are the newest cameras, TVs, computers, Nintendo games, home appliances and more.
Take a ride on Tokyo’s monorail back to the mainland and visit Akihabara, Tokyo’s Electric Town. Akihabara is famous for its hundreds of electronic shops selling a mind boggling range of gadgets, gizmos, and devices that one way or another plug into the world of electricity as we know it. However in recent times, Akihabara has become even more famous for its “Otaku” culture. These are young Japanese who are “obsessed” with cosplay , manga, anime, gaming, or other aspects of Japanese culture, and now there are stores in Akihabara that cater to all Otaku!
Ghibli Museum & Akihabara Walking Tour
The Ghibli Museum is the animation and art museum of Miyazaki Hayao’s Studio Ghibli, one of Japan’s most famous animation studios. They have produced many feature length films with worldwide distribution such as My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away and Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea. Located in Mitaka, just outside of central Tokyo, the museum is a must-see for fans of the films. The museum itself is whimsically designed in the distinct style of the studio’s films, and many of their famous characters are there, including a life-sized robot from Castle in the Sky on the rooftop garden. The first floor of the museum exhibits the history and techniques of animation and has as a small theater which shows short movies by Studio Ghibli that are exclusive to the museum and are rotated monthly. The second floor houses special temporary exhibitions. The museum further has a cafe, children’s play area, a rooftop garden and a gift shop.
Akihabara is famous for its many electronics shops. In more recent years, Akihabara has gained recognition as the center of Japan’s otaku (diehard fan) culture, and many shops and establishments devoted to anime and manga are now dispersed among the electronic stores in the district. In addition to shops, various other animation related stablishments have become popular in the area, and you will have lunch today at one of Tokyo’s famous maid cafes where the waitresses dress up and act like maids.
Pop Culture! Tokyo Afternoon Tour
Take in 3 of Tokyo’s centers of youth fashion and pop culture. Start in Shibuya, Tokyo’s main center for youth fashion and culture, whose streets are the birthplace to many of Japan’s fashion and entertainment trends. It is also home to the famous 5 way “scramble crossing”. Next is Harajuku, and the famous Takeshita dori (Cat Street). Whether you are a goth, punk or anything in between, there is a shop in Harajuku that caters for you. Known as Electric Town, Akihabara was originally famous for its many electronics shops. However in more recent years, Akihabara has gained recognition as the center of Japan’s otaku (diehard fan) culture, and many shops and establishments devoted to anime and manga are now dispersed among the electronic stores in the district. You will end the afternoon with a coffee or tea in one of Tokyo’s famous maid cafes where the waitresses dress up and act like maids. You will also have the opportunity to take a souvenir photo with one of the maids.
Tokyo Shitamachi Afternoon Walking Tour
This afternoon explore Tokyo’s shitamachi (downtown). The suburb of Yanaka was miraculously spared the carnage of the Allied bombings in World War II, and part of its charm today of its best spots lies in this sense of being hidden. Visit old temples and shrines, one of Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist cemeteries as well as traditional shops selling Japanese paper and sweets. One of the most popular parks for hanami (cherry blossom parties) in Tokyo, Ueno Park was originally part of Kaneiji Temple, which used to be one of the city’s largest and wealthiest temples and a family temple of the ruling Tokugawa clan during the Edo Period. Now it is home to some of Tokyo’s best museums, including the Tokyo National Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Last stop for the day is Ueno’s Ameyoko-cho, a busy market street underneath the train lines. Originally the site of a black market after World War Two, this bustling market is the last of its kind in Tokyo, and is filled with shops and stalls selling various products such as fresh fish, dried food and spices. At one of the many open air restaurants under the train tracks, you can stop for a cold drink and a yaitori (grilled chicken skewer).
Sumo Training Experience
Your guide for the morning will meet you at your hotel and take you to the Ryogoku, the center of Japan’s sumo world. As well as the Kokugikan Sumo Stadium, Ryogoku is home to most of Tokyo’s sumo heyas. All rikishi (wrestlers) belong to heyas, or sumo stables, where they live, train and eat. We will be able to visit one of these heya to get up close and personal with these giant men and watch their asa geiko (morning training).
The day begins in the early morning, when the lowest ranked men wake up and put in some practice before going about their assigned duties, which include cleaning the building and preparing the food for the main meal of the day. Higher ranked sekitori appear at a more reasonable hour, and they begin a practice session that runs from about 7am until about 10am. After several hours of warm up and technique practice, the wrestlers play an exciting “King of the Castle” game where one wrestler stays in the ring fighting bouts without any rest until he is defeated.
Old Tokyo Day Tour
Take a day tour of this fascinating city with a local guide, making use of Tokyo’s comprehensive and user friendly public transport system. The day begins with a visit to Hamarikyu garden, an Edo Period Japanese garden surrounded by the Shiodome district’s futuristic skyscrapers. A great example of how Japan is the land of contrasts.
After stopping for a cup of steaming macha in a tea house on a small island in the park’s lake, take a boat cruise on the Sumida River passing under 12 bridges. Disembark in Asakusa, Tokyo’s old town where you can soak in the atmosphere of the Tokyo of old. Visit Sensoji, Tokyo’s oldest temple and wander down Nakamise, a shopping street that has been providing temple visitors with a variety of traditional, local snacks and tourist souvenirs for centuries.
The Tokyo Skytree is a new television broadcasting tower and landmark of Tokyo. With a height of 634 meters (634 can be read as “Musashi”, a historic name of the Tokyo Region), it is the tallest building in Japan and the second tallest structure in the world at the time of its completion. A large shopping complex with aquarium is located at its base. Enjoy the spectacular Tokyo view from the observation deck, the highest of its kind in Japan and some of the highest in the world.
The Edo-Tokyo Museum is one of Tokyo’s premier museums, charting the rise of Tokyo from a small fishing village called Edo through to the thriving metropolis that we see today. It is housed in a space-age building, and exhibits a wide range of historical artifacts, including collections of ukiyoe woodblock prints, kimono, scale models of town; and buildings from the Edo, Meiji and Shōwa periods.
Kamakura Walking Tour (with rickshaw ride)
This leisurely excursion takes guests to Kamakura, a very popular tourist destination for its temples, shrines and historical monuments. We board a local train on the Yokosuka Line to Kamakura and also take a train on the rustic Enoden Line to Hase. We proceed to the Hasedera Temple with its famous statue of Kannon and enjoy superb views of Kamakura and the ocean, before taking a short walk to the Great Buddha, the second largest Buddha statue in Japan. After lunch at a Japanese restaurant, we take a traditional rickshaw ride to the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine. This is Kamakura’s most important shrine and is the symbol of the first Shogun. We then walk back to Kamakura Station via Komachi Shopping Street, which is packed with interesting art and craft shops. We then take a local 55-minute train ride back to Tokyo.
Osaka One-Day Walking Tour
This full-day tour takes guests to the second largest city in Japan’s to see its interesting and exciting attractions. We travel by bus to the Aerial Garden Observatory, where you will get a sweeping view of Osaka. After lunch, we visit Osaka Castle. Built in 1583, this is one of Japan’s most famous castles and played a major role in the unification of Japan during the sixteenth century. This ancient structure towers over the city on a stone rampart and many relics of the Toyotomi, who built the castle and old Osaka are exhibited inside. We then walk to the nearby river boat dock to board the Aqua Liner for an hour-long cruise which takes in views of Osaka Castle, the Twin Towers and the City Hall on Nakanoshima Isle. The tour disbands on arrival at Osaka Station.
Higashiyama – Half Day Walking Tour
The Higashiyama District along the lower slopes of Kyoto’s eastern mountains is one of the city’s best preserved historic districts, and a great place to experience traditional old Kyoto. The streets in Higashiyama are lined by small shops, cafes and restaurants which have been catering to tourists and pilgrims for centuries. These businesses retain their traditional design, and they continue to serve customers today, selling local specialties such as Kiyomizu-yaki pottery, sweets, pickles, crafts and other souvenirs. Start the day with a visit Kiyomizu (Pure Water) temple, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. From the 13m high veranda jutting out from the Main Hall you can enjoy amazing views of the whole of Kyoto, whilst pondering the fact that both the Main Hall and Veranda were built without the use of nails or any kind of joiners. Kodaiji Temple was constructed in 1605 in memory of Toyotomi Hideyoshi by the great political leader’s wife. It features temple halls, gravel and landscape gardens, teahouses and a bamboo grove. Yasaka Pagoda, the last remnant of Hokanji Temple, is one of the most visible and recognizable landmarks in the Higashiyama District. Visitors may climb up the inside of the five story pagoda, which is a rare opportunity as most pagodas can only be viewed from the outside. Yasaka Shrine, host to the Gion Matsuri, is one of Kyoto’s most popular shrines and is located at the eastern end of Shijodori next to Maruyama Park. The shrine’s hanging lanterns are lit every night after dark. Chionin is the head temple of the Jodo sect of Japanese Buddhism, which has millions of followers and is one the most popular Buddhist sects in Japan. The huge Sanmon Gate, Chionin’s main entrance gate, stands 24 meters tall and 50 meters wide, and is the largest wooden gate in Japan. The gate was featured in the movie Last Samurai.
Japanese Cooking in a Private Home
Visit a local Kyoto house to learn how to make some of Japan’s most well-known dishes. Your instructor will give you an overview of Japanese food, its history and the different regional cuisines found throughout Japan. Today you can choose either tempura or sushi for your main dish, which you will prepare yourself along with guidance from your instructor, as well as with side dishes including miso soup. You will then get to enjoy conversation with your instructor over lunch, and will get a special gift and recipe before you.
Kyoto Back Street Bike Ride
With your local guide, cycle through the Miyagawacho and Gion geisha districts, hoping to see a geisha or maiko (apprentice geisha) as they dash between appointments. Continue along the Shirakawa canal lined with weeping willow trees, past traditional Kyoto style tea houses. Next stop is the Imperial Palace Park with its beautiful gardens. Cycle back to Kyoto station along the Kamogawa River, whose riverbanks are popular with locals for strolling. Cherry blossoms bloom along the banks of the river in spring, and in summer restaurants open balconies looking out to the river. If you wish to continue sightseeing in Kyoto on your bike after the tour has finished, we can arrange for you to keep the bike until 19:00 at no charge.
Kyoto Cycling and Cooking
A leisurely ride into the center of Kyoto will bring you to Nishiki Market. Known as “Kyoto’s Kitchen”, Nishiki is a narrow shopping street lined more than 100 shops, selling fresh seafood and vegetables, pickles, Japanese sweets and sushi. After buying your ingredients for today’s lunch, it’s off to a local machiya to make lunch. A machiya is a traditional wooden townhouse used by Kyoto’s merchants as both residences and workspaces. Lunch will be Obanzai-ryori, a traditional cuisine that has been passed down through generations of ordinary Kyoto locals. Think of it is Kyoto home style cooking! Obanzai has been slowly disappearing with Japan’s modernization and westernization, but is starting to make a comeback as younger Japanese grow to appreciate its sophisticated use of seasonings and local ingredients. After cooking lunch, return to Kyoto station with your guide. If you would like to continue sightseeing in Kyoto on your bike after the tour has finished, we can arrange for you to keep the bike until 19:00 at no extra charge.
Market Visit, Sake Brewery and Cooking Lesson
Together with a local guide you will walk the mile-long Nishiki covered food markets, where there are many interesting food stores to explore as you help your guide buy the ingredients for your Japanese cooking class. This is a great opportunity to learn about local Japanese produce. After visiting the markets, you’ll travel through the back streets and lanes of Kyoto, and visit a former sake brewery for a tour and sake tasting. Finish the walk at a traditional wooden townhouse for your Japanese cooking class. Learn how to make rolled sushi, miso soup and cooked salad with seasonal fruit for dessert, and enjoy the results for dinner.
Private Tea House Experience
Explore the back streets of Kyoto`s geisha districts with the leading foreign geisha culture expert, Peter MacIntosh who has spent half his life living in Kyoto. He was married to an ex-geisha, studies Japanese arts and is a lecturer on Geisha Studies at a Kansai University He will discuss the history as well as the present situation of the flower and willow world of Kyoto. All this will be preparing you for entertainment in a traditional geisha teahouse, or ochaya, which is a private, members only establishment. The maiko/geiko will answer any questions you have as well as perform a dance accompanied by the shamisen. Afterwards some traditional games will be played followed by photo opportunities. All drinks and snacks are included.
This morning experience the quintessential Japanese enlightenment experience – Zazen (Zen meditation). Your guide will meet you in the morning and take you to a Zen temple, where you can learn the basics of the same sitting meditation that led the Buddha to Enlightenment: folded legs, erect posture, half-closed eyes and a focus on measured breathing that leads to awareness of the way the mind works. After Zazen, head to Chion-in temple. Chion-in is the head temple of the Jodo (Pure Land) sect of Japanese Buddhism, which has millions of followers and is one the most popular Buddhist sects in Japan. The Sanmon Gate, Chionin’s main entrance gate, stands 24 meters tall and 50 meters wide, making it the largest wooden gate in Japan and dates back to the early 1600s. From Chion-in walk through Maruyama Park and Yasaka Shrine, one of Kyoto’s most popular Shinto Shrines. Your spiritual day finishes with a Tea Ceremony in a Gion tea house. Your Tea Master will give you a full explanation of Japanese tea as well as the tea ceremony itself, its long history and relationship with Zen Buddhism. The Master will also tell you the meaning behind each movement involved in the making and serving of the tea, as well as the equipment involved.
Nara Half Day Tour from Osaka
Transfer from your hotel to Nara by train (45min) with a local guide. For 74 years during the 8th century Nara was Japan’s capital and many of the temples and shrines built at that time still remain. Visit Todaiji temple, the world’s largest wooden building and home to Japan’s largest Buddha. Next stop is Nara’s most celebrated shrine, Kasuga Taisha, established in 768 AD and famous for its hundreds of bronze and stone lanterns which have been donated by worshipers. Shin-Yakushiji Temple was founded during the Nara Period (710-794) by an empress for the sake of the ailing emperor. It is devoted to Yakushi Buddha, the patron of medicine in Japanese Buddhism. Inside the main hall there are life size statues of 12 guardian deities surrounding a two meter tall statue of a seated Yakushi Buddha, which are the temple’s main objects of worship. End the day with a wander through Nara Park, called Deer park by locals due to the large population of more than 1,000 tame deer living there.
Nara and Fushimi Day Tour from Osaka
Transfer from your hotel to Nara by train (45min) with a local guide. For 74 years during the 8th century Nara was Japan’s capital and many of the temples and shrines built at that time still remain. Visit Todaiji temple, the world’s largest wooden building and home to Japan’s largest Buddha. Next stop is Nara’s most celebrated shrine, Kasuga Taisha, established in 768 AD and famous for its hundreds of bronze and stone lanterns which have been donated by worshipers. Shin-Yakushiji Temple was founded during the Nara Period (710-794) by an empress for the sake of the ailing emperor. It is devoted to Yakushi Buddha, the patron of medicine in Japanese Buddhism. Inside the main hall there are life size statues of 12 guardian deities surrounding a two meter tall statue of a seated Yakushi Buddha, which are the temple’s main objects of worship. Take a wander through Nara Park, called Deer park by locals due to the large population of more than 1,000 tame deer living there.
On the way back from Nara, visit Fushimi Inari Shrine, which was used in the movie “Memoirs of a Geisha”. It is home to over 10,000 red tori gates, which form a path up the mountain behind the temple.
Hiroshima and Miyajima One-Day Tour from Osaka
This tour gives a great insight into history, along with visits to some of Japan’s most beautiful shrines. The tour gets underway with a JR Shinkansen train journey from Osaka. Of the two destination attractions on this tour, Miyajima is famous for its Itsukushima Jinja Shrine. Its red torii gate appears to be standing in the sea during high tide. In Hiroshima, we take a walk through the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, dedicated to promoting peace around the world. This site is near to the epicentre of the A-bomb dome and the fascinating Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum which features exhibitions related to this infamous period of world history. It is dedicated to the legacy of Hiroshima as the first city in the world to suffer a nuclear attack and to the memories of the bomb’s direct and indirect victims. We then take a JR Shinkansen train back to Osaka.
An insight into Japan’s rich and varied history will equip visitors to the country with a better understanding of contemporary Japanese society, thereby enriching the travel experience.
Traditional Japanese legend maintains that the country was founded in 600 BC by the Emperor Jimmu, a direct descendant of the sun goddess and ancestor of the present ruling imperial family, although archaeological evidence suggests a settlement dating back 50,000 years.
Geography has had a profound influence on the country’s development. Japan’s location at the outermost edge of the continent of Asia has had a deep impact on its history. Although it lies within the sphere of mainland Asia, it has been far enough away to keep itself isolated from mainland influences. Therefore, much of Japanese history has seen alternating periods of isolationist policies and openness. Until contemporary times, Japan has been able to turn on and off its connection to the rest of the global community, accepting foreign cultural and political influences in fits and starts.
Here are some of the key periods of the country’s history:
The first signs of civilization and stable living patterns appeared around 14,000 BC with the Jomon culture, characterized by a Mesolithic-to-Neolithic hunter, gatherer lifestyle. The word Jomon means “cord pattern” and refers to the cord-marked impressions seen on Jomon pottery. Radio-carbon dating has revealed some of the oldest surviving examples of pottery in the world from this period. Archaeologists have discovered various household items, including basic daggers and hair combs made of shells dating back to the 11th millennium BC. Discovery of these household items implies that trade routes existed with destinations as far away as Okinawa.
This era lasted from about 300BC until 300 AD and is named after Yayoi town, the subsection of Bunkyo, Tokyo where archaeological investigations uncovered the first recognizable traces of the era. The Yayoi period is significant for the development of a social hierarchy and hundreds of small states that started to unify into larger countries. During this era, the “rice culture” was imported into Japan and with improved agricultural practices, definable social classes started to evolve and parts of the country began to unite under powerful land owners.
By the beginning of the Kofun Period (300 – 538) the country was united as Yamato Japan with its political centre in the province of Yamato (today’s Nara Prefecture.) The period’s name comes from the large tombs (kofun) that were built for the political leaders of that era. The Kofun period saw the establishment of strong military states, each of them centered on powerful clans. The establishment of the dominant Yamato state laid the foundations of the Japanese imperial lineage. Japan started to send delegations to Imperial China in the fifth century and based on the Chinese model, a central administration and imperial court system, with society organized into various social and occupational groups, was created. In AD 405, the Japanese court officially adopted the Chinese writing system. Together with the introduction of Buddhism in the sixth century, these two events revolutionized Japanese culture and marked the beginning of a long period of Chinese cultural influence.
The Asuka period (538-710) is highly significant for the development of the Buddhist religion within Japan. It is an era when the ruler Prince Shotoku is said to have played an especially important role in promoting Chinese ideas across Japan. Prince Shotoku also wrote the “Constitution of Seventeen Articles” about moral and political principles. This Confucian-style document focused on the kinds of morals and virtues that were to be expected of government officials and the emperor’s subjects.
The Nara period (710-784) saw the establishment in 710 of the first permanent Japanese capital in Nara, modelled after the Chinese capital. Large Buddhist monasteries were built in the new capital that quickly gained strong political influence. This religious force threatened the power base of the emperor and the central government, and consequently the capital was moved to Nagaoka in 784; and finally to Heian (Kyoto) in 794 where it would remain for over one thousand years. One characteristic of the Nara and Heian periods is a gradual decline of Chinese influence. Many of the imported ideas were gradually “Japanized”.
The Heian period (794-1185) marks the final age of “Classical Japanese History”. It is considered a time when the Japanese Imperial Court was at its peak and is an era noted for its art, literature and poetry. Strong differences from mainland Asian cultures emerged and due to the decline of the Tang Dynasty, the Chinese influence started to wane and effectively ended, with the last imperially sanctioned mission to Tang China in 838, although trade missions and Buddhist pilgrimages to China continued. The end of the period saw the rise of various military clans. Towards the end of the 12th century, conflicts between these clans turned into civil war, from which emerged a society led by the samurai under the political rule of the shogun.
The Kamakura period (1185-1333) is an age that marks the governance of the Kamakura Shogunate and the transition to the Japanese “mediaeval” age, a 700-year period in which the emperor, the court, and the traditional central government were left intact but largely relegated to ceremonial functions. Civil, military and judicial matters were controlled by the samurai class, the most powerful of whom was the shogun, the de facto national ruler. A significant event was the Mongol invasion, starting in 1274, when massive Mongol forces, with superior naval technology and weaponry, attempted a full-scale invasion of Japan. A famous typhoon referred to as kamikaze (divine wind in Japanese) is credited with helping to repel this attack.
The Muromachi period (1338 -1573) was an era when the Ashikaga Shogunate ruled for 237 years, from 1336 to 1573. It was established by Ashikaga Takauji who seized political power from Emperor Go-Daigo, exiling him to Yoshino. The early years (1336 to 1392) of the Muromachi age are known as the Nanboku-cho (Northern and Southern Court) period because the Imperial Court was split into two and they fought constant battles against each other until the Southern Court finally relinquished power.
The Azuchi-Momoyama period (1573-1603) is regarded as the late “Warring Kingdoms” period and marks the military reunification and stabilization of the country under a single political ruler. After having united Japan, the warrior Toyotomi Hideyoshi invaded Korea in an attempt to conquer Korea, China, and even India. However, after two unsuccessful campaigns against the allied forces of Korea and China his forces retreated from the Korean Peninsula in 1598. Following his death, Japan experienced a short period of succession conflict. Tokugawa Ieyasu, one of the regents for Hideyoshi’s young heir, emerged victorious at the Battle of Sekigahara and seized political power.
During the Edo (1603 – 1867) period, also called the Tokugawa period, the administration of the country was shared by over two hundred territorial lords in a federation governed by the Tokugawa Shogunate. This 265-year span, directly prior to the era of seclusion, was called “A peaceful state”. Cultural achievement was high during this period, and many artistic developments took place. The most important philosophy of Tokugawa Japan was Neo-Confucianism, stressing the importance of morals, education and hierarchical order in both government and society. A strict four-class system existed during the Edo period: at the top of the social hierarchy stood the samurai, followed by the peasants, artisans and merchants.
During this period (1868 – 1912), Japan undertook political, economic, and cultural reforms, emerging as a unified and centralized state known as the Empire of Japan. This period was a time of imperialism and absolutism and Japan became an imperial power, colonizing both Korea and Taiwan. Japan had previously been forced to sign unequal treaties with Western powers, granting the Western nations one-sided economical and legal advantages in Japan. Therefore, in order to regain independence from these countries, Meiji Japan was determined to close the gap on Western powers economically and militarily and drastic reforms were carried out. The new government also aimed to make Japan a democratic state, with equality among all people.
First contact with the West; isolation; and then reintegration
The first recorded contact with the West occurred in about 1542, when a Portuguese ship was blown off its course to China and landed in Japan. During the next century, traders from the rest of Europe arrived. Japan’s shogunate suspected that these European traders and missionaries were actually forerunners of a military conquest by European powers. This caused the shogunate to place foreigners under tighter restrictions and ultimately Japan forced all foreigners to leave and barred all relations with the outside world, except for severely restricted commercial contacts with Dutch and Chinese merchants at Nagasaki. This “official” isolation lasted for 200 years, until the reopening of Japan to the West was marked with the signing of the Convention of Kanagawa in 1854. Within several years, renewed contact with the West profoundly altered Japanese society. The shogunate resigned and the emperor was restored to power. The Meiji Restoration of 1868 initiated many reforms: the feudal system was abolished; numerous Western institutions were adopted, including a Westernised legal and educational system; and constitutional government was put into place along Western parliamentary lines.
Wars with China and Russia
Japanese leaders of the late 19th century regarded the Korean Peninsula as a potential threat to Japan and it was over Korea that Japan became involved in war with the Chinese Empire in 1894-95 and with Russia in 1904-05. The war with China established Japan’s domination of Korea, while also giving it the Pescadores Islands and Formosa (now Taiwan). After Japan defeated Russia in 1905, the resulting Treaty of Portsmouth awarded Japan certain rights in Manchuria and in southern Sakhalin, which Russia had received in 1875 in exchange for the Kurile Islands. Both wars gave Japan a free hand in Korea, which it formally annexed in 1910.
Two World Wars
World War One (1914-1918) permitted Japan, which fought on the side of the victorious Allies, to expand its influence in Asia and its territorial holdings in the Pacific. The post-war era brought Japan unprecedented prosperity. Japan went to the peace conference at Versailles, France in 1919 as one of the great military and industrial powers of the world and received official recognition as one of the “Big Five” of the new international order. It joined the League of Nations (the forerunner of the United Nations) and received a mandate over the Pacific islands north of the Equator formerly held by Germany. During the 1920s, Japan progressed toward a democratic system of government. However, parliamentary government was not rooted deeply enough to withstand the economic and political pressures of the 1930s, during which military leaders became increasingly influential. In the 1930s, in the run up to the Second World War, Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931 and set up the puppet state of Manchukuo. In 1933, Japan resigned from the League of Nations. The Japanese invasion of China in 1937 followed Japan’s signing of the Anti-Comintern Pact with Nazi Germany the previous year and was part of a chain of developments culminating in the Japanese attack on the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on 7 December, 1941.
This attack was precipitated in July 1939 when Franklin Roosevelt announced that the US would no longer trade items such as gasoline and iron to Japan which needed it for its war with China. All Japanese assets were frozen in the US.
After years of war, resulting in the loss of millions of Japanese lives and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan signed an instrument of surrender on September 2, 1945. As a result of World War II, Japan lost all of its overseas possessions and retained only the home islands. After the war, Japan was placed under international control of the Allies with the objectives to ensure that Japan would become a peaceful nation and establish democratic self-government supported by the freely expressed will of the people.
Political, economic, and social reforms were introduced, such as a freely elected Japanese Diet (legislature) and universal adult suffrage. The country’s constitution took effect on May 3, 1947. The Allied nations signed the Treaty of Peace with Japan in September 1951. The U.S. Senate ratified the treaty in March 1952, and under the terms of the treaty, Japan regained full sovereignty on April 28, 1952.
Japanese Art and Culture
Japan is home to a rich diversity of tangible, intangible and national cultural heritage. Historically, the country has been subject to invasions of new and alien ideas, followed by long periods of minimal contact with the outside world. Over periods of time, the Japanese have developed the ability to absorb, imitate and assimilate elements of foreign culture that complement their own aesthetic preferences. This cultural heritage ranges from tangible, such as aesthetically beautiful temples, to intangible heritage, such as the tea ceremony, or even the ancient combat art of Sumo wrestling. Here are some of the cultural icons of Japan:
Although this sport may appear to be a powerful full-contact clash between two large wrestlers, Sumo preserves a host of ancient cultural traditions. Sumo originated in Japan and it is the only country in the world where it is practiced professionally. Although the simple aim is to force an opponent out of the ring (dohyō); or force an opponent to touch the ground with any part of his body other than the bottom of his feet, the bout is preceded by important rituals. On mounting the dohyō the wrestler performs a number of formal acts derived from Shinto practice. He claps his hands and performs the leg-stomping shiko exercise to drive evil spirits away. Stepping out of the ring into their corners, each wrestler is given a ladleful of water to rinse out their mouths and a paper tissue to dry their lips. Then both adversaries step back into the ring, face each other, clap their hands and then spread their hands wide to show that they have no weapons. Returning to their corners they each pick up a handful of salt which they toss onto the ring to purify it ahead of the almighty clash between the world’s heaviest combatants.
Japanese tea ceremony
This is an important ceremony that dates back over 1,000 years when Zen monks used powdered green tea in religious ceremonies. Although tea drinking was originally for medicinal reasons, by the 13th century, when the Kamakura Shogunate military dictatorship ruled the nation, tea and the luxuries associated with it became a kind of status symbol among the ruling classes. Tea tasting parties became popular in which recipients could win prizes for guessing the best quality tea. Today’s tea ceremonies have developed their own aesthetic process in which the principles of harmony, respect, purity and tranquility are manifest in the serving of the tea. The elaborate ritual follows a precise choreographed procedure that involves the server preparing a cup of tea for the first guest through a series of movements and actions, including the cleansing of each utensil to represent the “purity” aspect of the ceremony. For Japanese people in modern times, the tea ceremony represents a pathway to achieving wabi, a state of mind in which a person is calm and content. To achieve this, the form and grace of the tea ceremony is paramount.
Meaning “empty orchestra” in Japanese, different theories abound as to who invented karaoke but one claim is the karaoke-style machine was invented by Japanese musician Daisuke Inoue in Kobe in 1971. It has always been traditional to provide musical entertainment at Japanese social functions and Daisuke Inoue is said to have capitalized on this trend by designing a device that allowed revelers to sing along to popular backing tracks of famous songs. This form of entertainment has evolved and today’s karaoke bars in Japan feature karaoke jockeys who manage the music for a venue and “karamovies” in which singers can superimpose themselves onto famous movies to replace their favourite movie stars. Most Japanese singers have a favourite song that shows off the best of their vocal abilities and this is known in Japanese as jūhachiban. Once the potent rice-based spirit sake has been consumed, everyone will sound good!
Geisha are one of the most iconic images of Japan and the term means a “person of the arts”. Wearing elaborate colourful kimonos and wooden sandals, or socks indoors, with heavily made-up faces, these ladies are professional entertainers who attend to guests during meals, tea ceremonies, or other social occasions. To become a geisha, the apprentice has to be trained in various high-brow Japanese arts, such as dance, music, literature and poetry, as well as the art of communication, hence they have a high social status. Their role is to make guests feel at ease with conversation, drinking games and dance performances. They can be found in several Japanese cities, but the former capital of Kyoto remains the best and most prestigious place to experience the geisha at work, who are known in the local dialect as geiko. Geiko dinners have always been known as exclusive and expensive high-class events, but due to changes in society and the economic downturn, the regulations are now less restrictive and it is possible for tourists with a sufficient budget to experience this rich cultural experience.
In Japanese culture, garden-making is a form of high art, intimately related to the arts of calligraphy and ink painting. Since the end of the 19th Century, Japanese gardens have also been adapted to Western settings. One common characteristic is the ability of the garden designers to create a harmonious design, with the best that nature has to offer, in a limited space. Gardens in the traditional Japanese style appear in parks, on castle grounds, and in front of shrines and temples. Iconic features include stone lanterns, rocks, ponds and rolling hedges. Many of the principles that influence garden design come from religion. Shintoism, Taoism and Buddhism all stress the contemplation and re-creation of nature as part of the process of achieving and understanding enlightenment. Jisho-ji Garden and Nijo Castle Ninomaru Garden in Kyoto and Hamarikyu Gardens in Tokyo are worth visiting to witness this exquisite form of landscape architecture.
Traditional Japanese Bath Houses
Bathing means much more than just cleansing oneself in Japan and it is an important part of the daily routine that has important cultural connotations. For centuries, spiritual pursuits of purity, hygiene and ritual purification were an important part of Japanese culture and bathing was done communally. To this day, bathing is still a major Japanese indulgence and passion. Baths are for relaxation and contemplation and not just cleansing the body. Therefore, the body must be cleaned and scrubbed before entering the bathtub, known as a furo. In homes with small tubs, each family member bathes one-by-one, in order of seniority, traditionally starting with the oldest male or the oldest person in the household. Onsen, translated into English as hot spring, are baths that by definition use naturally hot water from geo-thermally-heated springs.
Otherwise known as Sho, calligraphy is one of the unique arts of the Far East. Successful calligraphy relies on the shape and position of the characters drawn, the gradation of the ink and the force of the brushstroke. Unlike the strokes of Roman letters, the strokes of Japanese characters have to be drawn in the correct order, not arbitrarily. Japanese calligraphy shares its roots with Chinese calligraphy and many of its techniques and principles are very similar. This ancient practice has a very strong following today and is even a subject on the school’s curriculum. Some universities even have specialist departments of calligraphic study. Tourists will get many opportunities to view this beautiful art that has been preserved from the past for posterity.
The performing arts in Japan date back hundreds of years but are still practiced in theatres across the country. Noh is a minimalist dance drama in which a masked actor performs very stylized moves accompanied by instrumental music. Kyogen is a popular form of drama and involves comedic plays known for its down-to-earth humour. Kabuki is a form of theatre performed by adult males who largely portray female roles. Fans of puppet theatre may enjoy a Bunraku performance, in which large puppets are manipulated to the accompaniment of narrators and stringed instruments.
The kimono is the traditional dress of Japan and is worn mainly on formal occasions. It is sometimes accused of being an impractical form of dress, but it has the advantage of giving the wearer a graceful and elegant appearance. There are various different types of kimono for use at different occasions. Women’s kimono include the furisodé and tomesodé for formal wear. Men’s kimono include the montsuki hakama for ceremonial occasions and the haori for less formal social occasions. There is also the yukata, worn by both sexes as informal attire at home, or for attending local festivals.
Religion and Beliefs
A popular saying in Japan states that you are Shinto at birth (marked with a Shinto ceremony), Christian when you get married (through a Western-style wedding), and Buddhist when you die (honoured with a Buddhist funeral). The Japanese tend to take a practical view of religion and use each religion to suits the occasion. Japan has a melting pot of two dominant religions: Shinto and Buddhism, but most Japanese people do not exclusively identify themselves as followers of a single religion. This was reflected in a poll which stated that most Japanese people are 80 per cent Shinto and 80 per cent Buddhist. Of the two faiths, Shinto, literally meaning the “Way of the Gods”, is derived from animistic cults that pre-dated the arrival of Buddhism in the country. Shinto’s religious presence is linked to the country’s physical landscape and some of the Shinto deities are linked to human welfare. In some rural areas, older country people still consult female shamans for guidance.
Buddhism was introduced into Japan from China and Korea in the sixth century and was officially adopted as the state religion during the Nara period, 1,450 years ago. The two religions have never been in serious conflict and in fact complement each other; with some Shinto deities regarded as protectors of Buddhist temples. The two religions’ complimentary role continues to this day as Shinto ceremonies are often used at birth and marriage ceremonies, whereas Buddhist ceremonies often lay the dead to rest. This is because within the Shinto religion, death is considered to be a source of impurity, therefore Buddhist ceremonies are used to deal with mortality and there are virtually no Shinto cemeteries in Japan.
Christianity was first introduced by European missionaries and although it was initially accepted, the religion was widely opposed during the feudal era and Christians were persecuted. However, the religion is now widely accepted and an estimated two per cent of the current population are practising Christians. This devotion seems to increase in December when images associated with Christianity, such as Santa Claus and angels, are on display in shopping malls in the big cities. However, this outpouring of Christianity, like in many Asian countries, is almost exclusively commercial. Similarly, many brides also don white dresses, associated with the Christian religion, when getting married. Since the end of the Second World War, the post-war constitution guaranteed freedom of religious expression to protect the right of all faiths to practise and the Islamic, Hindu and Sikh faiths are among many that flourish in the country today.
The Shinto religion is deeply rooted in the Japanese psyche and the country’s physical landscape and it is notable for the fact that it does not have a founder, not sacred scriptures like the Bible. Devotees of the Shinto faith follow sacred spirits which take the form of physical landmarks such as rivers and mountains, or elements such as rain and wind.
The religion does not recognise absolute right and wrong, and no physical being is regarded as absolutely perfect. Shinto is a sanguine faith, as human beings are considered to be fundamentally good, and sin is considered to be caused by evil spirits. Therefore, the purpose of most Shinto rituals is to keep away evil spirits by purification, prayers and offerings to the Shinto gods who are known as kami. Shinto teaches that everything contains a kami, commonly translated as a god or spirit. Humans too become kami after they die and become revered by their families as ancestral kami.
The kami reside in all things, but certain places are designated for the interface of the common world and the sacred. Many natural places are considered to have an unusually sacred spirit about them and are objects of worship, such as mountains, trees, rivers and waterfalls. A Shinto shrine is a building built to house the kami, with a separation from the “ordinary” world through a sacred space with defined features based on the age and lineage of the shrine.
The kamidana is a home shrine, which is usually placed on a wall, and acts as a substitute for a large shrine on a daily basis. In each case, the object of worship is considered a sacred space in which the kami spirit actually dwells. Consequently, this is treated with the utmost respect.
The Japanese people seek support from the Shinto faith by praying at their home shrine, or by visiting larger shrines in their locality. A whole range of talismans are available at shrines to pray for good health, good exam performance, success in the work place, etc.
The Buddhist religion was introduced into Japan via China and Korea in the form of a present from the friendly Korean kingdom of Kudara in the sixth century. A diplomatic mission brought gifts such as an image of a Shakyamuni Buddha and several volumes of Buddhist text.
While Buddhism was welcomed by the ruling nobles as Japan’s new state religion, it did not initially spread among the common people due to its complex theories and initial conflict with Shinto.
However, by the seventh century, the religion was firmly established and Japan had dozens of temples, various orders of priests, and a body of skilled artisans to craft the icons and other images that practice of the faith required.
Today, the government of Japan recognizes more than 150 schools of Buddhism, but it is difficult to know how many Japanese are affiliated with each school, because many Japanese claim more than one religion.
Recently, it has been reported that due to secularization and materialism, Buddhism and religion in general, have declined, especially in rural areas.
An estimated 100 temples a year are reportedly closing. However 70 per cent of Japanese people still follow Buddhism in some form, and 90 per cent of Japanese funerals are still conducted according to Buddhist rites.
Christianity was first brought to Japan in the 16th century initially by Portuguese missionaries and many of the country’s estimated two million Christians live in Western Japan, where the missionaries’ activities were the greatest during this initial contact.
The two historically most important things these European missionaries imported to Japan were gunpowder and Christianity. The Japanese barons initially welcomed this foreign trade, mainly because of the new weapons, and, therefore, tolerated the Jesuit missionaries.
However, towards the end of the 16th Century the Jesuits lost their monopoly position in Japan when Franciscan missionaries arrived despite a prohibition edict by the rulers of that time. This started a wave of persecution against Christianity leading to the complete extinction of the religion in Japan by 1638. The government’s rationale was that it would be impossible to exert absolute control over the populace with the interference of an overbearing and intolerant foreign religion.
In 1873, after the Meiji restoration when imperial rule was restored to Japan, freedom of religion was declared and the number of Japanese Christians began to rise again.
Religion as a tourism activity
Although Japanese people are not viewed, in contemporary times, as being particularly religious, the two leading faiths have had a very profound influence on Japan’s cultural development and this provides a wealth of tourism potential for visitors.
Western visitors are probably most familiar with the Zen form of Buddhism and this school has influenced cultural and artistic pursuits such as the tea ceremony, flower arranging, calligraphy, the martial arts, ceramics and painting.
The complimentary role between Shinto and Buddhism is also of interest in the physical sense to visitors to Japan. Travellers will see a torii at the entrance to a Shinto shrine standing next to an elaborate Buddhist temple.
Many Shinto shrines celebrate many festivals in order to show the kami the outside world and these celebrations will be of great interest to tourists wanting to gain an insight into one of the world’s unique religions.
Important features of Shinto art include elaborate shrine architecture and the preservation of tangible and intangible cultural heritage such as calligraphy; the Noh theatre; and court music, known as gagaku, an ancient dance form that originated in the courts of Tang China from 618-907.
Interesting features when visiting a Shinto Shrine
Torii – One or more torii gates, which are usually made out of wood and painted orange and black, mark the entrance to a shrine.
Komainu – These are a pair of guardian animals, usually dogs, foxes, or lions, and are found on either side of the entrance to a shrine.
Purification Trough – Found near the entrance to the shrine, the water of these fountains is used to clean visitor’s hands before entering the main hall of the shrine.
Main Hall – The main hall and the offering hall can either be two separate buildings or combined into one. The main hall’s innermost chamber contains the shrine’s sacred objects, whereas the visitors make their prayers and offerings at the offering hall.
Ema – Shrine visitors write their wishes on wooden plates and then leave them at the shrine in the hope that their wishes will come true.
Omikuji – These are fortune telling paper slips found at many shrines and temples. Randomly drawn, they contain a variety of predictions. By tying the piece of paper around a tree’s branch, good fortune is believed to come true.
Interesting features when visiting a Buddhist Temple:
Gates – these mark the entrance to the temple grounds. There is usually one main gate, and possibly several additional gates, along the temple’s main approach and these are usually of an elaborate design.
The Pagoda – this is a structure that has evolved from the Indian stupa and usually comes with three to five storeys.
The Bell – The bell is a prominent feature of every Buddhist temple. On significant occasions such as New Year’s Eve, the temple bells are rung 108 times, corresponding to the Buddhist concept of “108 worldly desires”.
Main Hall – The sacred objects of worship, such as statues, are displayed in the main hall. The majority of cemeteries in Japan are Buddhist and are located at a temple complex. The Japanese visit their ancestors’ graves throughout the year, especially during obon, a Japanese Buddhist custom to honor the departed (deceased) spirit of one’s ancestors.
Tastes and Flavours of Japan
As the Japanese archipelago stretches a long distance from north to south, the different climatic conditions have a great influence on differing regional cuisine and local delicacies, thereby producing a very varied dietary culture.
Japanese cuisine is renowned for three qualities: the seasonality of the food; the quality of the ingredients; and the exquisite presentation. This claim is reinforced by the fact that the Michelin Guide has awarded Tokyo-based restaurants more Michelin stars than restaurants in Paris, Hong Kong, New York, Los Angeles and London combined.
Japanese cuisine is based on combining staple foods, typically rice or noodles, with a soup and okazu — dishes made from fish, meat or vegetables to add flavor to the staple food. These are typically flavoured with dashi, miso and soy sauce and are usually low in fat.
According to United Nations data for the years 2005 to 2010, life expectancy in Japan was the highest in the world. UN data said Japanese men have an average life span of 79 years and women 86 years.
Research compiled by Professor Yasuo Kagawa of the Jichi Medical School, Tochigi-Ken, Japan, said this longevity is partially down to Japanese people having an extraordinarily low level of cholesterol in their blood; a fact which apparently also explains the very low death rate from heart disease in the country. Professor Kagawa attributes this to the special diet prevalent in Japan.
Healthy food does not equate to bland food and the cuisine on offer in Japan is among the most innovative and delicious on the global culinary map today.
Styles of cooking
The most famous Japanese food is probably sushi, which is cooked vinegared rice (shari) combined with other ingredients (neta). Neta and forms of sushi presentation vary, but the ingredient which all sushi have in common is shari. The most common neta are tuna, squid and prawns. Other prominent cooking styles are:
Sashimi this is very fresh raw meat, most commonly fish, sliced into thin pieces. It is traditionally served with soy sauce, ginger root, wasabi paste and a citrus-based sauce known as ponzu.
Tempura is a Japanese dish of seafood or vegetables that have been covered in batter and deep fried.
Sukiyaki is a popular dish of thinly sliced beef, served with vegetables, tofu and vermicelli and usually cooked in a sizzling iron skillet at the table side.
Nabemono is a variety of one-pot dishes, usually chicken, fish, tofu, or vegetables, simmered in a light, fish-based broth.
Shabu-shabu is similar to sukiyaki and is prepared at the table with a combination of vegetables, but cooked in boiling water.
Teppanyaki is a style that uses an iron griddle to cook dishes such as steak and shrimp.
Yakitori is made up of small pieces of chicken meat, liver and vegetables skewered on a bamboo stick and grilled over hot coals.
Tourists’ first impressions
Eating in Japan can be an initial culture shock for the first time visitor. Beyond the aforementioned cooking styles, the incredible variety of vegetation used in Japanese cooking surprises most Western palates such as Take-no-ko (bamboo shoots) and the treasured matsutake mushrooms, to name just a few. Although most might feel overwhelmed by this unfamiliar cuisine, with a sense of adventure you can dine quite successfully and experience a gastronomic experience that is unique to this fascinating country.
Essential culinary guidelines
Aside from the content of the meal, the basic formula for a Japanese meal is soup, raw fish, an entrée (grilled, steamed, simmered), then rice and pickles, fresh fruit for dessert and green tea to conclude the meal.
The key issues are freshness; simplicity; and presentation. Fish and sea food are always consumed on the day that they have been caught. Likewise, vegetables are always preferred fresh and not of the frozen variety. The benchmark is: “What is served; is what is in season.”
Regarding simplicity, Japanese cuisine adheres to the concept that the original flavour of the food should remain, rather than be masked through over use of added spices, herbs, etc.
Therefore subtle additional ingredients, such as thinly-sliced fresh ginger, are used to accent original flavours.
The final consideration is tasteful preparation. Simple foods such as fish must appeal to the eye as well as to the stomach, hence the artistic preparation of sushi dishes. In Japanese food, the visual harmony is as important as the balance and variety of natural flavours.
One of Japan’s most famous high-end dishes is Kobe beef, which is meat produced from the black Tajima-ushi breed of Wagyu cattle, raised according to strict production methods in Hyogo Prefecture. The meat is a delicacy and renowned for its flavour, tenderness, and fatty, well-marbled texture. Livestock are fed on beer and grain to produce meat so tender and fatty that it rivals foie gras in texture. Another special procedure in the production of this meat involves massaging the cattle to achieve the tenderness of the steak.
Another of the country’s most celebrated delicacies is fugu (puffer fish.) Literally meaning “river pig” this fish can be lethally poisonous due to its inherent tetrodotoxin. Therefore, it must be carefully prepared to remove toxic parts and a Japanese chef must undergo intensive training of about 7-10 years to become a fugu chef. However, this training may not be needed in the future as some fish farms in Japan are producing a variant of non-poisonous fugu.
Less threatening but equally sought after is the matsutake group of mushrooms. These delicacies have been an important part of Japanese cuisine for the last 1,000 years. A Japanese matsutake at the beginning of the season, when it is at the highest grade, can retail for up to USD$2000/kg.
Feasting on a Budget
Despite the country’s misplaced reputation as being one of the world’s most expensive destinations for tourists, Japanese cities have an abundance of quality restaurants that will satisfy the palate without emptying the wallet.
The traditional and extremely popular bento, literally meaning “convenience”, is a Japanese box lunch available at convenience stores, train stations and department stores. These carry-out meals usually contain rice as a staple, and an assortment of pickles, grilled meat or fish and vegetables in an almost limitless variety of combinations depending on the season.
Buckwheat soba noodles provide a cheap and popular snack. These are served either chilled with a dipping sauce in summer; or in a hot soy-based broth in winter. Toppings are chosen to reflect the seasons and to balance with other ingredients.
The buckwheat udon noodles provide an equally satisfying snack. These are thick and white in colour, compared to the thinner, brown soba variety. Udon is usually served hot as a noodles soup in its simplest form or in a mildly flavoured broth called kakejiru. It is usually topped with thinly chopped scallions, or can include other toppings such as prawn tempura or tofu.
Another inexpensive option is okonomiyaki, which has become known as a Japanese pancake, but is actually a combination of vegetables, meat, or seafood in an egg-and-flour batter cooked at the table.
Another inexpensive, but equally satisfying option, is the robatayaki (grill). Platters of fish, vegetables, tofu, or other ingredients are lined up on a platter. Just point at the ingredients you want and the chef will perform his culinary magic on the griddle. Popular choices include yaki-zakana (grilled fish) and asari saka-mushi (clams simmered in the alcoholic spirit sake.)
Every island in the Japanese archipelago has its own rich diversity of specialty dishes based on regional climatic and supply conditions.
The food of Hokkaido is one of the northern island’s biggest attractions. The vast expanse of coastline provides high quality seafood and likewise the abundance of fertile agricultural land provides superior meat and vegetables.
One of Hokkaido’s local specialties called Jingisukan features grilled mutton, a type of meat that is seldom used in Japanese cuisine.
As befitting an island location, Hokkaido is also famous for the quality and taste of its crab meat, and the most popular crustaceans to look out for are Taraba-gani (king crab), Zuwai-gani (tanner crab) and the Kegani (horsehair crab).
Another local delicacy is “soupy curry”. This dish originated in Sapporo and has become a popular mainstay in many restaurants in the city area. It is served in a variety of spice-heat levels and curry types.
As Japan’s former capital and seat of the Imperial Court for over a thousand years, Kyoto offers a rich culinary tradition befitting its former royal status. A famous dining experience is kaiseki ryori, a traditional multi-course dinner, which is similar in status to the West’s haute cuisine.
This is regarded as Japan’s most exquisite culinary offering.
This elaborate style of dining places emphasis on subtle flavours and local and seasonal ingredients. A kaiseki ryori meal has a prescribed order of dishes which is determined by the cooking method of each particular dish.
An example of a kaiseki ryori dinner might be sashimi (raw fish) to start, served with local vegetables, followed by a grilled fish and miso soup, sushi, a nabe pot which is similar to fondue without cheese, a meat, a rice dish and a dessert to finish. A particular aspect of this form of dining is the incredible artistry that goes into preparing a meal.
The cuisine of this island differs significantly from mainstream Japanese dishes because of the influence of other countries and the regional climate.
Goya Champuru and Okinawa Soba and are two of the island’s greatest specialities. Goya champuru refers to a dish which is prepared by stir frying ingredients. The most popular champuru variety is goya champuru, in which the bitter goya vegetable is stir fried with tofu, eggs and pork.
Although they share the name with noodles of the same name found on the Japanese mainland, Okinawa soba are completely different and made of wheat rather than buckwheat flour. Similar to ramen noodles, Okinawa Soba is served in a bowl of broth with a number of toppings.
Taco rice is a unique dish that is attributed to the US military presence on the island of Okinawa. The meal’s exact origins are uncertain, but it surfaced in Okinawa sometime after the end of the Second World War. A bowl of taco rice consists of typical taco ingredients, such as ground beef, lettuce, tomatoes and salsa, served over rice.
Etiquette is hugely important and governs the expectations of social behaviour in the country. Like many social cultures, etiquette varies greatly depending on the person’s status.
Bowing is a very important custom in the Japanese culture. It can express many meanings, including respect, gratitude, apology, greeting, etc. Don’t assume you can learn how to do it right. A simple inclination of the head is enough for foreigners. This form of etiquette is very complex. The depth of a bow can depend on the social status or age of the person the individual bows to.
The Japanese language uses a broad array of honorifics to address people. These honorifics are usually gender-neutral, though some are used for both genders. –Kun is primarily used for males, whereas –chan is primarily used for women and can be attached to both first names as well as surnames.
Japanese people do not show affection in public – kissing and hugging in the street are not usual scenes in the Japanese public sphere. Even patting on the back is not considered polite. Japanese people are in general very reserved and showing extreme emotion is out of place. Saying “no” can be an uncomfortable experience because Japanese people instinctively try to please.
The business world of Japan, like most other aspects of life, is influenced by the culture of Japan. When invited to a Japanese house, it is a tradition to bring a small present. If on a business trip, it is good practice to bring corporate gifts unique to your home country. Drinking is an important part of Japanese culture and is seen as a way to reduce pressure.
Do’s and Don’ts
For the majority of non-Japanese people, there are more opportunities for making etiquette mistakes than getting it right, but the Japanese people are renowned for being generous and forgiving to foreigners who don’t know the rules. As with any unfamiliar culture it is best not to worry too much about getting it wrong, but the following list gives a guideline to behaviour that should be avoided at all costs.
A step too far:
Entering someone’s home wearing outside footwear is a definite no-no. As you cross over into the entranceway of someone’s apartment, be sure to remove your footwear. There will most likely be a pair of slippers set aside for guests, so it is imperative to use these. Raised floors help indicate when to take off shoes or slippers. At the entrance to a home, the floor will usually be raised indicating that you should take off your shoes and put on the slippers. If the house has a tatami mat room, the floor may be raised slightly, indicating that you should remove your slippers.
Never leave your chopsticks sticking up out of a bowl of rice, or other dish. This gesture is associated with Buddhist funerals in Japan, as this is how rice is offered to the dead. When you are not using the chopsticks, place them neatly on the table, on the small chopstick rests provided.
A grave error:
Similar to the last advice, never pass food from your chopsticks to someone else’s chopsticks. The only acceptable time to pass something between two people using chopsticks is at a funeral. After a cremation, the remaining bones of the deceased are picked up by a relative with special chopsticks and passed to chopsticks held by another relative who then places the bones into the urn. Therefore avoid this most potential faux pax at all times.
Don’t mark your card:
As in most Asian countries, the giving of business cards is a hugely symbolic gesture in Japan. Therefore, always give the card the respect it deserves. It is protocol to receive the card with both hands and show an interest in the details. Do not write on it or stuff it into your back pocket. The correct and polite procedure is to place the card carefully into your wallet, or card holder.
Smell of roses before bathing:
The use of public baths forms an integral part of daily life in Japan. The communal bath is for soaking and you should be clean yourself before you join fellow bathers in the communal water. A small stool with brushes and cleaning materials is provided for this use before entering the pool.
Four reasons to avoid offence:
In the Japanese language, the sound of the word “four” is the same as that for “death”, therefore, four is regarded as an unlucky number and it is considered inappropriate to give four items as a gift.
A slippery mistake
Many people provide slippers in their home at the entrance to the bathroom. It is customary to slip out of the room slippers into the toilet slippers and after using the bathroom back into the room slippers.
Holidays and Festivals
The most important holiday period on the calendar is New Year which virtually shuts down the entire country from December 30 to January 3. During this period, the Japanese people head home to their families, eat festive foods and head out to local temples at the stroke of midnight to welcome in the New Year.
Another high profile festival which is featured in many foreign media because of the blaze of colour, is the hanami, the “flower viewing” festival, usually held in March or April. This is when the cherry blossom trees bloom and families head out en masse to enjoy picnics in parks and countryside walks. The exact timing of the fleeting blossoms varies from year to year, but the nation’s media follows the progress nationwide with a fervent passion.
The nation’s longest holiday is “Golden Week” (April 27 to May 6) when the country celebrates four public holidays within one week. This provides the perfect opportunity to take an extended holiday. This is not a good time to travel, as trains and planes are crowded and hotel rates enter a higher price band.
The summer months bring a spate of festivals. One of the most notable is Tanabata, traditionally held on July 7th which commemorates a story of star-crossed lovers who can only meet on this day.
Another prominent summer festival is Obon, which is held in mid-July in Eastern Japan and mid-August in Western Japan, which honours departed ancestral spirits. This is a time when Japanese people head home to visit local graveyards. Like most national holidays, this is not a good time to travel as most forms of transport are packed.
Lunar holidays such as equinoxes may vary by a day or two; the list below is accurate for 2011. Holidays that fall on a weekend may be substituted with a holiday on the following Monday. Bear in mind that most Japanese people take additional time off around New Year; Golden Week; and Obon. The most important festival is New Year’s Day, and many shops and restaurants close for at least two days during this period.
January 1 – New Year’s Day
January 2 and 3 – New Year’s Bank Holiday
January 10 (Second Monday of month) – Coming-of-Age Day
February 11 – National Foundation Day
March 21 – Vernal Equinox Day
March 22 – Vernal Equinox – Observed
April 29 – Showa Day
May 3 – Constitution Day
May 4 – Greenery Day
May 5 – Children’s Day
July 18 (third Monday of month) – Marine Day
September 19 (third Monday of month) – Respect-for-the-Aged Day
September 23 – Autumnal Equinox Day
October 10 (second Monday of month) – Sports Day
November 3 – Culture Day
November 23 – Labour Thanksgiving Day
December 23 – The Emperor’s Birthday
December 31 – New Year’s 2012 Bank Holiday