Before embarking on your trip to Japan, there are a few things you should know in order to make the most of your trip. This article will give you various tips ranging from when to go, what to do, and where to stay, to what to eat.
- During cherry blossom season, Hirosaki Castle offers stunning scenery.
- In Yudanaka you can watch snow monkeys enjoying a hot spring bath.
- Japanese people pay very close attention to etiquette.
- Staying in a ryokan is an excellent opportunity to experience traditional Japanese lifestyle.
- It's very easy to find beautifully packaged local delicacies to bring home as souvenirs.
1. Cherry blossom season is the peak time for tourists
In Japanese society, the cherry blossom is important as it represents the beauty and brevity of life. The blooming season varies according to location, but is usually about late-March to mid-April.
As the season begins, cherry blossom trees are covered in light pink. Soon the petals start to fall. This beautiful season only lasts about two weeks, making the time especially precious.
It is no wonder that cherry blossom season is the peak time for tourists. Hirosaki Castle is a good destination if you are looking for cherry blossom scenes.
If, however, you do decide to travel during this season, make sure to book your accommodation early!
2. Shinto is the native religion
Shinto is Japan's native religion. Most Japanese would consider themselves either Shinto or Buddhist. Even though Shintoism and Buddhism are two different belief systems, in Japan they seem to be well integrated and many people even practice both.
A recognizably Japanese icon from the practice of Shinto is the torii, a wooden archway commonly painted red. A torii symbolically marks the transition between the mundane and the sacred.
Most famous are the torii of the Itsukushima Shrine and the Inari Shrine. In the former, the torii stand on water, and appear to be floating. In the latter, many torii are lined up to form a beautiful red tunnel, popular among photographers. Stone foxes with red scarves stand guard at the entrance to the gate of the Inari Shrine.
Various Japanese traditions, including some of its festivals, originate from Shintoism. Many Japanese festivals involve procession with a Shinto deity, which would otherwise remain in its shrine.
3. Geisha women feature in the Gion District
Even if you have never visited Japan, you might be familiar with the distinctive sight of Geisha, women with pale white make-up, red lips, elaborate hair styles, and brightly patterned kimonos.
Geishas are trained in various traditional arts, and they entertain guests with conversation, dance, music, and pouring drinks. They were very popular in the 17th and 18th centuries, but declined during the First World War (1914-18).
The best place to see a Geisha in action is in the Gion district in Kyoto. There you can also have an opportunity to try on a traditional kimono and take beautiful photos as mementos.
4. Ryokans are the traditional inns
A wide range of tea equipment is necessary for even the most basic tea ceremony.Different styles and motifs are used for different events and different seasons. All the tools for tea are handled with exquisite care.Ryokans are traditional Japanese inns. They are more commonly found in the rural areas of Japan. They include breakfast and dinner and often include hot spring facilities. You can experience various aspects of traditional Japanese lifestyle by staying in a ryokan.
For example, you can:
- Sleep on a futon (Japanese-style bedding) on top of tatami (straw mat flooring);
- Enjoy the warmth of kotatsu (Japanese low tables with blankets) on a cold day;
- Eat kaiseki-style meals, elaborate multi-course meals featuring local products and delicacies; or
- Take a leisurely dip in an onsen (a Japanese hot spring bath).
5. Monkeys bathe in the hot springs
Onsen, Japanese hot spring baths, are very popular amongst locals as well as tourists. The tranquil experience of bathing in thermal water reinvigorates mind and body. The bathing areas are gender-segregated and some have outdoor areas where you can enjoy nature while bathing.
Yudanaka is a spa town in the Japanese Alps famous not only for hot springs, but also for snow monkeys. The sight of these sociable monkeys enjoying a hot bath is very amusing.
Another excellent destination for an onsen experience is Hakone, where you can find centuries-old hot spring baths and ryokans. You can have hot spring baths either in public bath houses or ryokans. Many ryokans also make their baths available to day-visitors.
6. Japanese cuisine suits every taste
Japan has a delightful variety of cuisine to try. In general, Japanese food tends to be less spicy. Japanese people are more health-conscious about what they eat and pay careful attention to the aesthetics of their food. Even the tableware is thoughtfully arranged.
Many Japanese restaurants specialize in a single type of dish, for example ramen shops and tempura shops. But you should also try their kaiseki meals, with multiple courses of delicious side dishes.
Each district has its own delicacies to offer. You can try monjayaki in Tokyo, takoyaki in Osaka, tonkotsu ramen in Fukuoka, and fresh seafood in Hokkaido.
7. Bullet trains link major cities
The most distinctive feature of Japanese transportation is the bullet train, shinkansen, which is used for long-distance travel between cities. Apart from their really fast speed, shinkansen are known for being safe and punctual.
Shinkansen allow people to move smoothly from one city to another. Many popular sightseeing places are near the train lines, between Tokyo, Osaka and Fukuoka. The cost of hiring a private car can be high in Japan, but the nationwide network of tracks provides a relatively cheap option for traveling around the country.
When taking shinkansen, you can experience the breathtaking views of Japan in comfort, while enjoying a delicious bento bought from the station.
8. Shopping is an amazing experience
Shopping in Japan is an amazing experience. There are so many beautiful things you can buy. No matter what your interests are, you will surely find something interesting, from fashionable clothes, good quality toiletries, exquisitely packaged local delicacies, and beautiful tableware, to exceedingly cute stationery. Japan has it all.
Japanese culture puts an emphasis on aesthetics and presentation. The people like to give souvenirs when they travel. You will find many beautifully packaged local delicacies ideal for souvenirs.
There are many types of store, from department stores, convenience stores, shopping malls, and flea markets, to supermarkets. They all offer exciting shopping experiences.
One unique type of shop you should visit when you're in Japan is the hundred yen shop. Everything in the shop costs 100 yen (plus 8 yen tax), which is only about USD 0.90, so it is very affordable. Even though prices are cheap, the quality is usually reliable and a wide range of useful products is sold.
9. Etiquette is important
Social etiquette is important in any culture, but Japanese culture takes it to a higher level. The people are extremely polite and considerate to others. Foreigners are often stunned by the hospitality and kindness they meet there.
While excellent etiquette is a positive aspect of Japan, it does mean that you have to behave carefully there so as not to do things that are considered impolite and offend someone unknowingly. Just a few of the most basic things you should know include:
- Shoes: When visiting someone's home, make sure you take off your shoes.
- Public transport: When on public transport, make sure to be quiet and put your phone on silent.
- Tipping: Do not tip. Tipping is not expected and an attempt at tipping may even cause offense. The reason is that people are doing acts of service not in anticipation of something in return, but from the kindness of their hearts.
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