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Japan Travel Guide
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Japan Travel Guide

Japan Travel Guide

Japan's distinctive curved archipelago rubs shoulders with Russia in the north and populates the Pacific Ocean with its islands in the south. Dense forest and mountainous terrain cover 70% of the country, held in place by the Japan Alps—the series of mountain ranges dotted with active volcanoes that dominate the central area of the main island of Honshu. Highly geologically active, smoky volcanoes dominate the southern islands too and eruptions are common.

Where Japan flattens out, you will find many of the major cities—in some cases built on reclaimed land. Not simply made up of snow-capped mountains, there are many beautiful beaches with some great surfing spots on the country's peninsulas—the Boso Peninsula, Izu Peninsula, and Kii Peninsula among others—as well as many places to snorkel and dive. Heading further south, you will reach the subtropics of Okinawa and its outlying island idylls.

Huge national parks and protected ecological zones house a range of distinctive wildlife and geographical points of interest from Akan-Mashu National Park  in the wilds of Hokkaido, to the UNESCO World Heritage accredited Ogasawara Islands , 1,000 kilometers south of Tokyo in the Pacific Ocean. Many islands are uninhabited, and nature is beginning to take some of them back in dramatic fashion—visit Tomogashima Island and its abandoned and now overgrown red-brick military buildings.

One of the major attractions of traveling throughout Japan is trying different local cuisines in every town you visit. While sushi is in fact a large part of Japanese heritage, myriad flavors from all around the world have contributed to Japan's robust foodie culture, attracting more and more culinary figures worldwide to try the new eastern hot spot. It should therefore come as no surprise that Tokyo is ranked the number one food city by Food and Wine magazine, not to mention the fact that Tokyo has more stars in the prestigious Michelin Guidebook than any other city in the world. From noodles to sashimi to gourmet French cuisine, Japan has the food to satisfy the most discerning of palettes, as well as the strictest of budgets.

The Cuisine of Japan: Not Just Sushi

To think that sushi best represents Japanese food is like saying that pizza is the finest dish to be found in Italy. The elements of sushi--freshness, seasonality, uniformity of texture, and a single, deep, intense flavor specific to each type of fish--are emblematic of Japanese gastronomy as a whole.

But what other delicious Japanese foods exemplify these key elements?

Yuba, which forms when soy milk is boiled to make tofu, is served throughout Japan. In Kyoto several restaurants, especially those near the famous temples, specialize in multi-course meals with yuba as the star. Dried strips adorn a fresh salad; mock duck is made of thin layers of yuba and sauteed mushrooms; and, crisp, fried yuba dipped into a soy sauce decked with rings of scallions can comprise a meal. Yuba provides a perfect backdrop for other stronger flavors as does its delicate texture.

Throughout the country you will also find wonderfully simple unagi restaurants. Few culinary experiences are as pleasurable as tasting the salty, sweet taste of grilled eel with a cold Asahi draft beer while sitting on a mat and just relaxing.

In fact, most traditional Japanese food is unpretentious, comfort food: Washoku. Ramen noodles in an enoki mushroom broth, a plate of deeply fried chicken Karaage, or a bowl of soba noodles with freshly grated wasabi (Japanese horseradish): these are easy to prepare, ingredient driven dishes created by a history of isolation from other gastronomies and cultures.

One of the most fun things you can do in Japan is to enjoy the cuisine in a typical, family-owned establishment. Usually the music playing is exquisite, classic jazz--Ella Fitzgerald, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis--and while you swoon a little to the vibe, the darkness of the room adds to a dreamy effect then heightened by the owner's ability to recognize what you most desire in order to be satisfied by the food. You don't need a menu, but instead a conversation will follow, as if between friends, and soon before you will be given a succession of small plates of whatever is in season: whole, grilled baby fish; edamame; picked vegetables; small, hot peppers; roasted bits of pork. The place? It's an izakaya, a Japanese pub, and no place on earth is more convivial.

What do you drink with Japanese food?

The current generation is more likely to drink beer or shochu, a strong alcohol (about 25% alcohol) typically made from grain or potatoes, but sake ("our father's drink," young people say) remains popular. An artisanal brewery in Yamanaka makes shishi no sato, but the sake from Niigata is a great introduction as it has a pure taste achieved through heavy filtration.

The gastronomy of Japan is so unique and spectacular that it is inspiring today's top chefs--Joel Robuchon, Ferran Adria, Alain Ducasse, among them--to rethink how they cook and serve in their establishments. Why not join in that discussion by taking off your shoes, sitting down on a tatame mat, picking up your hashi (chopsticks), and scooping up what's in front of you? It may not be sushi, but it will be good!

Spring

A welcome break from the winter cold, spring is celebrated throughout the country with the arrival of the cherry blossoms. Starting in the south and gradually moving up the country, the blossoms bloom between March and May depending on your location. Cool and breezy with generally sunny skies, spring is a comfortable time to get out and explore the cities and countryside.

Summer

Summer throughout Japan is stiflingly hot and intensely humid—make sure to keep hydrated. The beaches are packed, firework displays explode above the nation's rivers, and street festivals are held around every corner. The mountains offer some respite from the major city cauldrons. Be aware that September brings typhoons that can thwart you travel plans.

Autumn

As the weather cools, the autumn colors light-up the countryside. Starting in the northern island of Hokkaido and traveling south, the dazzling autumn leaves blanket the country between late September and early December. Similar to spring, the fall season is perfect for outdoor exploration and a great time to taste what's in Japan's larder.

Winter

The ski season begins and the northern areas are with covered with Japan's peerless powder snow. Crisp and cool, the weather remains clear throughout January on the mainland—becoming a little gray and uninspiring in February. Warm up with some hot sake and a bowl of bubbling hot-pot.

Japan's peerless public transportation shuttles you through sprawling cities and quaint villages at break-neck speed and with pinpoint punctuality. From the sleek shinkansen to the humble local train, timetables are followed religiously with a service you can quite literally set your watch by. Local buses and long-distance coaches follow suit and the army of taxis that patrol the streets are spotlessly clean and unreservedly trustworthy. In addition to this unrivaled service, a vast array of discount passes and travel cards are available offering wallet-friendly options to allow you to travel farther and wider with the upmost convenience and ease.

Japan Railways (JR)

Japan's leading railway company, Japan Railways (JR), has an elaborate and well-established network of trains throughout the country. From scenic local trains to the super express shinkansen, if you are traveling on rail in Japan, the chances are it will be with JR. A wide variety of unlimited ride passes are available to help reduce the cost of train travel and help you travel farther.

Purchasing tickets

Tickets for short distances are available from ticket machines installed at each train station. Tickets for traveling long distances and reservations are dealt with at ticket offices at major stations.

To use the train, first purchase a ticket at a vending machine or ticket window. Pass your ticket through the automated ticket gate or show your ticket to the inspector. Please keep the ticket as you will need it once you arrive at your destination. If there is no fare chart in English, buy the cheapest ticket indicated on the vending machine and pay the difference into the fare adjustment machine at your destination station before you go through the ticket gate. Most, if not all trains stop operating around midnight.

Booking long-distance trains

To book tickets for long-distance trains, follow either one of two different procedures:

If you did not validate your Japan Rail Pass at the airport, or did not make seat reservations at the Airport JR Travel Service Center, find a different JR Travel Center to validate your pass. The Tokyo Center is located at the Yaesu north-exist concourse of Tokyo Station, and is open 10:00 - 18:00 daily. If you have already validated your pass and need only to make seat reservations, go to any Reservation Ticket Office (Midori-no-Madoguchi) counter at major JR stations.

If you don't have a JR Pass, visit the JR Travel Service Center or one of the major travel agents.

Shinkansen (Bullet train)

Nothing screams "Japan" more loudly, than the super sleek shinkansen silently speeding out of Tokyo station bound for all corners of the country.

The world-renowned bullet train offers you the highest rail speeds to match its peerless comfort. It is operated from Tokyo and speeds off to major cities around the country at regular intervals.

The shinkansen rockets down a number of different routes across Japan. The Tokaido-Sanyo Shinkansen links Tokyo and Hakata. The Tohoku Shinkansen links Tokyo and Shin-Aomori, the Johetsu Shinkansen links Tokyo and Niigata, the Nagano Shinkansen links Tokyo and Nagano, and the Kyushu Shinkansen in Kyushu presently links Shinyatsushiro (Kumamoto Prefecture) and Kagoshima Chuo (Kagoshima Prefecture).

Types of Shinkansen

There are three types of Tokaido-Sanyo Shinkansen, Nozomi, Hikari, and Kodama. The Nozomi Shinkansen stops at fewer stations compared to the other two, and is your quickest route to the Kansai region of Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe and beyond. Note that the JR Rail Pass cannot be used on this particular train.

While generally white in color, the designated shinkansen to the Tohoku region come in electric green and a vibrant red. There is also a rare yellow shinkansen-known as Dr. Yellow-that monitors the conditions of the tracks and overhead wires. Keep an eye out, it is a lucky day if you catch a glimpse of the doctor.

Types of seats

There are three types of seats: Non-reserved seats, Reserved seats, and Green Car seats For detailed information on all available routes and fares, click on the following link - JR East : Shinkansen timetables/charges

Shinkansen Rail Passes

Taking a trip on the shinkansen will almost certainly be one of the highlights of a trip to Japan. The sleek trains snake through the country's mountainous regions-or sometimes straight through the mountains-to a wide range of destinations. While this service is suitably priced for super quick express train travel in unrivalled comfort, costs can be reduced by purchasing one of a variety of passes. Take a look at the following link for all the regional passes and their respective routes and costs - Shinkansen (Bullet Train) Rail Passes: the regional passes and their respective routes and costs

Shinkansen Tickets

If you are planning to use the shinkansen to travel throughout Japan, doing some research into how to buy shinkansen tickets will make the process smoother.

Subway

Most major cities have a subway system that's clean, safe, and a great way to get around.

Major advancements are being made in providing multi-language support on the subway systems making it much easier to get around. Ticket machines, station names, as well as maps and guides of the subway and the local area are often provided in a number of languages.

In the larger cities such as Tokyo and Osaka, there are often subway stations clustered in similar areas. Changing lines can be expensive, so check the map closely to see which train lines you can access your destination from. For economical travel, research one-day or two-day passes which will almost certainly be on offer. Be aware that as it is the subway, your JR Rail Pass is not valid. However, it is possible to use your Suica Card, as well as a number of other local IC cards when using the subway.

In some of the bigger stations, there are transfer only gates where passengers don't exit the station but move onto a different line. This can be a little confusing so be aware of this when exiting through the ticket gates. If you are unsure about the price of a ticket, simply purchase the cheapest one and adjust the fare when you exit at your destination—there are fare adjustment machines next to the ticket gates.

For ease of travel and peace of mind, research the subway system in the area you will be traveling in. Many of them have sites in English. If you plan to travel exclusively by subway, research the various passes available to ride economically.

Other Local Railways

Each local railway in Japan has its own personality—the color of the train, the exterior and interior design, and often, an original character that adorns the promotional material.

A fun way to travel into local Japan, find out the events, recommended spots and original tours produced by each railway, and make use of the free WiFi.

The local railway services that criss-cross Japan might not have the speed of the shinkansen, but they travel to some of Japan's most interesting spots, often snaking around mountains and through scenic villages. Research the passes available to enable you to hop on and off the train as you please. Many lines have Sightseeing Service Centers at the terminal stations offering you information on things to do and see in the area, along with local and seasonal events. Sightseeing deals and discount tickets are often available. Certain trains have free WiFi with multi-language instruction available for all its passengers. Many local railways have websites in English. Taking a scenic railway journey in Japan is a great way to explore the country.

If you plan to do lots of traveling in the Kanto area, consider purchasing the Greater Tokyo Pass for unlimited travel on selected trains and buses. Only available for visitors to Japan.

Be aware that English signage is not as prominent in the local stations, and due to the designs of the platforms, they can sometimes be confusing and disorientating. If you have any questions, speak to one of the station staff.

Taxis

If you find yourself looking for a taxi in one of Japan's major cities, the chances are you won't have to wait long. The city streets are swarming with taxi cabs ready to open their doors-their automatic doors at that-and transport you to your destination. In local areas, the number of cabs decrease, but can usually be found in front of or nearby the local station.

The inside of the cabs are spotlessly clean and the service (generally) impeccable. Drivers won't take advantage of their clients and fares are calculated by the running meter. Taxis show various neon signs in their windscreens-usually in Chinese characters but English signs are growing-to show whether the taxi is free, taken, on a pick-up or going home. Like most countries around the world, taking a taxi is a more expensive option than public transport, but if you are traveling in a group of three or four, it can sometimes be an economical way to travel. While credit cards can generally be used in major city taxis, if you take a cab out in the countryside, cash might be your only option.

Buses

Bus services are available throughout Japan, and can often be a very convenient alternative to trains—especially when traveling in more local areas

While journeys generally take longer and weather and traffic can cause significant delays, fares tend to be cheaper and offer more options to travel overnight, saving the cost of a night's accommodation. If you are traveling locally or from city-to-city, make sure to consider the bus options when planning your trip.

Local bus

Local bus routes crisscross the whole country and offer you convenient access to some of the more out-of-the-way locations. Traveling in the city is very easy as generally, a flat-fare is charged. You can use your IC cards—such as the Suica Card—on many buses and most of the time, you board at the front. The stop names generally flash up in English.

Outside of the main cities, some buses calculate their fares by journey traveled. In this case, you will board in the center door. Take a ticket and when you get off, match your ticket number with the fare highlighted on the screen at the front of the bus. Put the exact fare into the box next to the driver and exit from the front door. Be aware that it might not be possible to use IC cards on these services.

If you plan to do lots of traveling in the Kanto area, consider purchasing the Greater Tokyo Pass for unlimited travel on selected buses and trains. Only available for visitors to Japan.

Highway bus

Highway buses link cities to cities or cities to tourist spots. They are generally less expensive than traveling by airplane or railway and run both day and night. If you are flexible with your time, these bus trips are a great option. Prices vary, based on distance and comfort. If you are traveling to and from Tokyo, the Shinjuku Expressway Bus Terminal is a hub for country-wide travel.

Highway Bus Information Websites

Many bus companies have English sites where you can find all the relevant information and also make reservations. Research to find the most suitable routes for you.

Bicycles

Whether cycling the riverside paths of Kyoto, the backstreets of Kamakura, the winding mountain roads of Wakayama or along the Setouchi inland sea—and everywhere in between—use pedal power for a deeper Japanese experience.

Bicycle Rental

Many hotels, as well as private shops, offer rental bicycle services. Often located near to train stations, bicycle rental is generally cheap and easy to register for. You may need your passport when signing up. Most shops will have maps and other useful guides that you can make use of. More modern stores may give you the option of an electrically-assisted bicycle—ideal for hilly terrain.

In the major cities of Tokyo, Yokohama  and Osaka , bicycle sharing systems are gathering momentum. While relatively easy to use, some prior research is recommended to make sure you fully understand what is required.

Rules of the road

If you decide to get out and about on a bicycle, make yourself familiar with the rules of the road. Read through the Japan Traffic Safety Association traffic safety guidelines  before jumping on the saddle. Bicycle accidents are common in Japan's major cities, so ride safely and sensibly. Designated bicycle paths are rare, but efforts are being made to mark out bicycle zones on the side of main roads—while still on the actual road, the area is generally respected by motorists.

Parking Bicycles

Parking for bicycles is generally in designated areas. Often in front of stations. Parking your bicycle outside of these zones leaves it susceptible to being taken away, where you will have to pay a fine for its return. In major cities, bicycle parks are often available, but some may be for registered bicycles only—cyclists who pay a monthly parking fee. Confirm with the hotel or wherever you are renting your bicycle from about where to park.

Travel further

Japan is consistently inventing ways to encourage travel by bicycle, so keep an eye out for some special train services that offer room for you and your bike. They tend to be seasonal and local, but do some research to see if you are able to take advantage of this opportunity. It makes Japan's mountainous terrain much more easy to manage.

Ferry & Cruise Ships

From short ferry crossings to overnight trips, party boats and international cruises, there are many ways to explore the seas and waterways surrounding Japan.

Ferries

Travel down the left side of the country on the Sea of Japan or up the right side from Tokyo to Hokkaido . Alternatively, head south to the bottom of Japan's southern island of Kyushu and travel to the subtropical islands of Okinawa on the ferry from Kagoshima to Naha. Wherever your destination, Japan offers ferry options to get there.

A couple of ferry passes enable you to discover more of Japan in an economical way. The Japan Ferry Pass 21 allows you to board six different ferries over a 21 day span. Research the many routes on offer to find the ones that suit your schedule. Alternatively, explore the Osaka and Shikoku region by making use of the SUKIPPU 2000 round-trip ticket. You can get discounts on train and ferry travel on selected routes.

A number of international ferry options are available. Travel from Busan in Korea to Hakata in Fukuoka by high-speed or slow ferry. Alternatively, you can take the once-a-week ferry from Shanghai that travels to Osaka and Kobe in around three days.

Cruise Ships

If you are looking for a more luxurious time, you can board a number of cruises offering you a grander experience on the water. Day and night cruises often run in the bays of the waterside cities—such as Tokyo and Kobe—offering you a different view of the respective cities and the low-slung Yakatabune party boats that crawl through Tokyo's waterways are a great way to see the city while eating and drinking. Cruise around the Seto Island Sea with its lemon trees, sea shrines and whirlpools or even farther afield with a trip around the Japanese archipelago and on to destinations in Korea and China with Princess Cruises: Cruise schedules, Cruise Compete: Cruise plans, Celebrity Cruises: Cruise plans.

It is easy to feel a little overwhelmed and disoriented when you visit Japan for the first time, so find out the basics before you fly and get acquainted with the country through our Helping You Plan Guide

Learn a little more about Japan's customs, culture and Wi-Fi connectivity, as well as its seasonal weather, geography and luggage delivery options. Many of the questions first time travelers might have are answered here, along with insider tips and practical advice to help you navigate the country with confidence.

Language

Japan's official language is Japanese, but English is generally understood in major cities and designated tourist sites.

Timezone

All of Japan sits within the same time zone, and no daylight saving is practiced. The country is nine hours ahead of GMT.

Wi-Fi & Connectivity

Wireless hotspots are popping up all over major cities in Japan, so you should never be too far from a Wi-Fi connection.

Plugs & Electricity

Japan uses two flat parallel prong plugs. For guaranteed charging of your electrical necessities, purchase a plug adapter beforehand.

Currency

The Japanese yen is used throughout the country and you can exchange foreign currency at the airports and most major banks.

Tax-Free Shopping

Visitors to Japan are eligible for tax exemption on many consumer goods. The process of receiving your tax back can vary from store to store.

Tipping

Tipping is not practiced in Japan. In fact, it can cause discomfort and confusion if you do. A service charge is generally added on to the final bill in restaurants.

Credit Cards

Even though Japan is a cash-centric country, credit cards are usually accepted in most shops, restaurants and taxis in major cities.

Weather (When to Visit)

The weather in Japan can vary wildly depending on where you are traveling to. Find out the best times to visit and what to pack.

Visa Information

Travelers from 68 countries across the globe can visit Japan for up to 90 days without requiring a visa.

International Tourist Tax

Visitors to Japan pay a 1,000 yen departure tax to expand and enhance the country’s tourist infrastructure—a small tax that will make a significant difference.

Custom & Duty

The Japan Customs official page is your most trustworthy source to answer any questions or queries related to Japanese customs and duty.

IC Travel Cards

Make your journeys as smooth as the public transportation you will ride on by purchasing a chargeable IC travel card.

Drinking Water

While bottled water is readily available all over Japan—including in the infinite vending machines—the tap water is perfectly safe to drink.

Luggage Storage & Delivery

If you don't wish to haul your luggage around with you, drop your bags and cases off at the delivery service kiosks located at the airports.

Tips for Budget Travels

To stretch your yen as far as possible, research into discounted travel and accommodation, as well as eating options that won't break the bank.

Emergencies

If you do find yourself in a situation that requires serious help, dial 110 for an urgent call to the police and 119 for fire or ambulance.

Embassies

Your embassy is there to help and support you if you should need it. Make sure you know how to get in touch.

Customs & Manners

Following a general travelers code of respect for the people you meet and places you visit will stand you in good stead.

Local Laws

Make sure you are aware of the local laws in Japan as ignorance is not accepted as a valid line of defence.

Business Hours & Holidays

Avoid closed doors and fully-booked hotels by finding out the Japanese business hours for major businesses, services, and facilities, and the dates of the major holidays.

Useful Apps

Download a selection of apps to make your trip to Japan run even smoother. Choose from a list of all-round, navigation, sightseeing and accommodation applications.

Postal Services

Instead of just an email, send a postcard back home to let friends and family know about your Japanese adventure.

Telephone

While modern technology enables you to connect with friends and family around the world from the palm of your hand, there still might be times when you need to make use of public telephones.

Online Reservation Sites

Book your stay in Japan through one of these convenient sites offering a wide range of accommodation options.

Traveling with a Disability

At major train stations, airports, and hotels, as well as in most newer shopping centers and theaters in the city, the disabled traveler or wheelchair user should have little trouble getting from place to place.

Traveling with Children

Traveling to Japan with children may seem like a daunting prospect and something best avoided, however, the country is surprisingly accessible.

Muslim Travelers

Japan continues to enhance its hospitality for Muslim travelers through the introduction of Muslim-friendly facilities.

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