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Japan is an incredibly modern country with ancient roots, the home of sushi, ramen, and some of Asia's most beautiful scenery. All this has been drawing curious and enchanted travelers for centuries.
In the larger cities like Tokyo and Nagoya, travelers can see towering skyscrapers, modern fashion, and the culture of virtual reality and anime. Traveling through Japan, however, there are plenty of places for connecting to the country's ancient roots, for example Zen gardens, bathhouses, and centers of regional culture.
In this article, we will explain all the basics you need to know about Japan before you travel there. It is an amazing destination for everyone, from solo travelers to families. But before you decide where exactly you want to go, you can start here with the basics.
|Name of the country||The State of Japan||Abbreviation||Japan|
|Population||127 million (2016)||Area||377,972 sq km (145,936 sq miles)|
|Major language||Japanese||Major religions||Shinto and Buddhism|
|Major cities||Tokyo, Osaka, Yokohama, Nagoya||Currency||Yen (approx. USD1 = JPY 110.47, July 2018)|
|Prime Minister||Shinzō Abe||Famous figures||Hayao Miyazaki (Film Director); Haruki Murakami (Author); Ken Watanabe (Actor)|
|Time Zone||UTC+ 9:00||International call code||+81|
Located off the eastern coast of Asia, Japan is an archipelago surrounded by the Sea of Okhotsk in the north, the Pacific Ocean in the east and the south, and the East China Sea in the southwest. It is located southeast of Russia, east of the Koreas, and northeast of China and Taiwan, though Russia is its nearest neighbor.
The area of Japan is slightly smaller than that of the U.S. state of California and has a total coastline of 29,751 kilometers. Although the country incorporates thousands of islands, it is separated into 5 districts: Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, Shikoku, and Okinawa. Each district includes one large island and many smaller ones.
Often, the major islands in Japan are called the home islands. Out of the 6,852 islands in the country, only 430 are inhabited by people. The rest are uninhabited and controlled by nature.
Japan on the map
Japan is situated on four tectonic plates which have greatly affected the shape of the land and Japanese culture. It is one of the most geothermically active areas in the world. There are tremors almost every 3 days in Tokyo, although most of them can't be felt. The geothermal activity means there are plenty of natural hot springs.
The activity of tectonic plates has created towering and sharply defined mountains that cover 73% of the country. Japan's tallest mountain is the famous Mount Fuji which stands at 3,776 meters (12,388 feet) tall.
Japan is very heavily – almost 69% – forested. The high number of mountain ranges and untouched natural land make for beautiful scenery and plenty of opportunities for adventure sports.
Due to the many slopes and hills, only about 15% of the land in Japan is suited for agriculture and habitation, so most of Japan remains uninhabited, which is unusual compared to other developed nations.
Japan has a lot of fresh water originating in the mountains and flowing down in shallow rivers and streams. The country’s climate is very humid, but the high-levels of moisture make for splendid greenery and beautiful misty mornings.
Bathing in natural hot springs or onsens has been a tradition in Japan for thousands of years. It is thought to have health benefits, due to the natural minerals, and the Japanese have long used hot springs in purification rituals.
Due to Japan's high level of volcanic activity, it has over 27,000 hot springs throughout the major islands. One of our favorite hot springs is in Hakone, the most popular hilly hot-spring town in Japan, near Mount Fuji and less than 100 kilometers from Tokyo.
Hakone is famous for its hot springs but it is also surrounded by outstanding natural beauty. It overlooks the beautiful Lake Ashinoko and has a view of Mount Fuji in the distance, creating the perfect place to relax and experience this ancient Japanese tradition of hot-spring bathing.
Though Hakone can be visited in a long day trip from Tokyo, it’s worth staying there overnight at a resort with a hot-spring bath.
We also recommend Yudanaka, a delightful hot-spring town famous for monkeys bathing in the geothermal waters of Jigokudani. From Nagano, visitors can reach Yudanaka with a 45-minute drive.
Not far away you can find Shibu Onsen ‘spa street’, which has 9 public onsens you can try as well, and you will see local people strolling down the street in yukata (light robes) as they head for a soak.
Farther into the mountains, Jigokudani Monkey Park offers visitors the unique experience of seeing wild monkeys living around hot pools. Jigokudani literally means ‘hell’s valley’ due to the steam and boiling water that bubbles out of small crevices in the frozen ground.
The resident Japanese macaques, also known as snow monkeys, like to soak in the baths. These monkeys live in large social groups, and it can be quite entertaining to watch their interactions. While the monkeys are most numerous during the colder months, they can be observed all year round.
Mount Fuji is Japan's most famous mountain. It is perfectly shaped and has inspired painters, authors, and worshipers for centuries. Today, many people travel to Mount Fuji and the surrounding area to relax in the misty mountains and to participate in outdoor adventure sports.
Mount Fuji stands 3,776 meters tall and is an active volcano, though it hasn't erupted since 1707. The geothermal activity of the volcano creates natural hot springs in the area surrounding the mountain.
Today, Mount Fuji is a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its spiritual significance, and many people make pilgrimages to the mountain every year, outnumbering the recreational climbers.
Climbing to the top of Mount Fuji is a grueling hike and those who do it should be well-prepared and in great physical shape. It is typically open for climbing from July to August. Given its high altitude, the temperature on Mt. Fuji will be significantly colder than that at sea level.
For trekking Mount Fuji, visitors will firstly be driven to Mt. Fuji 5th Station, the end of the road for those driving to the mountain. Then they will walk from the 5th Station all the way up to the 7th Station, accompanied by a professional nature guide.
Those who want to take in the view of Mount Fuji without the physically challenging hike can instead enjoy the mountain from the Fuji Five Lakes Region on the northern side. You can hike around the lakes there, enjoy the scenery, the town, and of course the picturesque views of the nearby mountain.
The Five Lakes Region includes the Kawaguchiko, Saiko, Yamanakako, Shojiko, and Motosuko Lakes. The lakes area supports plenty of activities such as hiking, camping, fishing, snow sports, hot-spring bathing, and many other outdoor activities.
Among all the lakes, Lake Kawaguchiko is the easiest to access and offers the most activities for foreign tourists. The other lakes are equally beautiful but cannot be easily accessed by public transportation.
Due to the large number of mountains, certain areas of Japan have harsh winters and heavy snowfall. This makes them great places for outdoor lovers, including skiers, snowboarders, hikers and cyclists.
Two of the best places in Japan for outdoor sports and winter sports are Hokkaido and the Japanese Alps.
Hokkaido is the most northerly and the second largest island in Japan but only contains 5% of the country's population. The island is covered in large areas of wilderness, with beautiful lakes and wildflowers in summer.
In winter, cold fronts from Siberia bring snow storms that dump lots of white powdery snow in the area, making it perfect for snowboarders and skiers. There are many international level ski resorts in Hokkaido. The most famous is Niseko, favored by snowboarders and skiers for its long, cold winter season and numerous slopes.
Hokkaido also offers excellent seafood, history, and a chance to see the indigenous Ainu people. The Ainu, physically large, typically bearded, and often with wavy hair, resemble Caucasians more than Japanese. Since the Japanese settled in Hokkaido in the 1860s, many of the Ainu traditions have disappeared, as the Ainu have been assimilated into Japanese society.
The capital of Hokkaido, the modern city of Sapporo, is well known for its annual snow festival convened every February in a fairytale land of snow sculptures and ice carvings. The city gives its name to the famous local beer; its brewing is demonstrated at the Sapporo Beer Garden and Museum. Ramen Yokocho in the Susukino area serves Sapporo’s famous ramen.
The Japanese Alps are a mountain range running through the island of Honshu. The Alps include almost all of Japan's tallest mountains except for Mount Fiji. Most of the mountains there stand at over 3,000 meters and are capped with snow all year long.
There are many international-level resorts in the Alps and they attract many international thrill seekers and adventurers. The Alps have three sections: the northern Alps, central Alps, and southern Alps.
The northern Alps are the best place to start, as there are several beautiful hiking routes in the area that are suitable for all levels of hikers, and have more snow and more impressive scenery. Kamikochi, an alpine valley, lying in the southern part of the Chubu Sangaku National Park, is a good hiking and climbing base.
Japan remains one of the most fascinating countries in the world, with numerous cities and destinations worth exploring. Each spring, the Japanese are reminded of their country’s geographical diversity, as the media enthusiastically tracks the progress of the cherry blossom from the subtropical islands of Okinawa to the northernmost island of Hokkaido.
Tokyo and Kyoto are the country’s most illustrious cities.
Kanazawa remains one of the most important cultural hubs in Japan, with its cultural achievements rivaling those of Kyoto and Tokyo.
Osaka, prominent as a merchant city, is the commercial hub of the Japanese island of Honshu, also known for its modern architecture, nightlife, and street food.
Tokyo is not only Japan's capital but also the most populous metropolis on the planet. The city offers unlimited options for shopping, entertainment, culture, and dining. These are best appreciated in districts such as Asakusa, Shinjuku and Shibuya.
Most people spend a few days here, to begin experiencing the bustling city life, like that at the famous Shibuya Crossing.
Having seen the modern side of this incredible city, visitors can explore its ancient side by visiting some of its many historic sites, such as the Meiji Jingu Shrine, or enjoying the perfect sushi-lover’s experience with a half-day visit to the world-famous Tsukiji Fish Market, finishing off with a sushi-making class.
Truly to understand Japan, visitors must spend time in the backstreets and environs of Kyoto, its old imperial capital. Kyoto’s prominent ancient and historical side can be explored by investigating side streets with old shops and townhouses, exploring temples, and wandering through outlying districts.
There are many things to do for visitors who travel to Kyoto, from dyeing your own kimono and dressing up as a geisha, to walking the path of philosophy and taking a culinary tour. We recommend taking a full-day tour inside Kyoto city.
Make your way to Higashiyama district, and explore the eastern side of the Gion, before proceeding through some delightful stone-paved roads up to Kiyomizu temple. Then visit one of the best-loved spots in Kyoto, the far end of the Philosopher’s walk, from the Silver Pavilion to near Nanzenji Temple.
To extend your trip, add a few days on the outskirts of Kyoto, visiting Arashiyama, a beautiful wooded, riverside district; Fushimi Inari, the most famous of the many thousands of shrines dedicated to Inari; Uji, renowned all over the country for its green tea; Nara, an ancient city known for its wooden temples and a monumental bronze Buddha.
When Japan modernized, Kanazawa focused on culture, shielded as it had been from outside influence by its location between the mountains and the sea. The city retains its heritage today and has many historical attractions including restored residences and pleasure districts, as well as modern museums.
Full of atmosphere, the city has retained old-fashioned street lamps and wooden-lattice windows, concealing elegant restaurants and craft galleries. Its best-known attraction, however, is Kenrokuen, one of Japan's most beautiful gardens.
Osaka is the second largest metropolitan area in Japan, as well as being a large port city. The main central sights include the reconstructed Osaka Castle, the National Museum of Art, and the Floating Garden Observatory, a futuristic structure providing a panoramic view of the city.
The lively downtown areas of Namba and Donbori are best for entertainment, shopping and eating.
Few people in the modern world are not affected in some way by the ideas, culture and economy of Japan, as it is one of the world’s most energetic and industrialized nations.
We recommend first-time visitors start by exploring the country’s most illustrious cities, Tokyo and Kyoto, spending at least 2 days in each, and making day-trips to nearby historic towns such as Kamakura and Nara, or the scenic hot-spring town Hakone, or maybe the merchant city Osaka. Such visits can be combined to form a week-long tour.
Adding a few more days, you could extend your trip into the country’s picturesque mountain area, Takayama, Shirakawa-go and Kanazawa, where tradition is maintained in streets, houses, gardens, and crafts. Exploring slowly on foot, visitors will have enough time to soak in the traditional rural lifestyles.
Purchasing a travel package for visiting Japan has many benefits, especially because having a private guide and an itinerary allows visitors not only to see as many attractions as possible, but also to learn about them from a local.
We like to arrange itineraries according to the goals of the traveler, including the must-see sites, but also the chance to experience authentic local culture. See our guide on planning a trip to Japan.
The most popular gateway city for Japan is Tokyo, arriving at Narita International Airport. An alternative is to fly to Osaka, landing at Kansai International Airport.
Both cities serve as international hubs for Japan’s two leading airlines, Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways (ANA), which offer direct flights to and from many countries in Asia, Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand.
Other major airports handling international flights, mainly from Asia, include Hiroshima, Nagoya, Niigate, and Sendai in Honshu, Sapporo in Hokkaido, and Nagasaki in Kyushu. Discover more about how to fly to Japan.
Visitors from most European countries, Australia, New Zealand, United States of America and Singapore may enter Japan with valid passports for short visits as Temporary Visitors. The period of stay for a Temporary Visitor is 90 days. There is no need to obtain a Japanese visa.
Would you like to experience the perfect trip to Japan, but don't know where to start? Our experts at Asia Highlights plan tailor-made trips to match the desires of each individual traveler. We can help you see what you want to see and avoid what you want to avoid. Send us an email today.