Japan

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Japan, known as Nihon or Nippon (日本) in Japanese, is an island nation in East Asia.

Population: 127,253,075 people
Area: 377,915 km2
Highest point: 3,776 m
Coastline: 29,751 km
Life expectancy: 84.19 years
GDP per capita: $36,900
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About Japan

History

Japan's location on islands at the outermost edge of Asia has had a profound influence on its history. Just close enough to mainland Asia, yet far enough to keep itself separate, much of Japanese history has seen alternating periods of closure and openness. Until recently, Japan has been able to turn on or off its connection to the rest of the world, accepting foreign cultural influences in fits and starts. It is comparable with the relationship between Britain and the rest of Europe, but with a much wider channel.

Recorded Japanese history begins in the 5th century, although archaeological evidence of settlement stretches back 50,000 years and the mythical Emperor Jimmu is said to have founded the current Imperial line in the 7th century BC. Archeological evidence, however, has only managed to trace the Imperial line back to the Kofun Period during the 3rd to 7th centuries AD, which was also when the Japanese first had significant contact with China and Korea. Japan then gradually became a centralized state during the Asuka Period, during which Japan extensively absorbed many aspects of Chinese culture, and saw the introduction of Mahayana Buddhism and Confucianism. The popular board game of Go is also believed to have been introduced to Japan during this period.

The first strong Japanese state was centered in Nara, which was built to model the then Chinese capital Chang'an. This period, dubbed the Nara Period was the last time the emperor actually held political power, with power eventually falling into the hands of the court nobles during the Heian Period, when the capital was moved to Kyoto, then known as Heian-Kyo, which remained the Japanese imperial residence until the 19th century. Chinese influence also reached its peak during the early Heian Period, which saw Buddhism become a popular religion among the masses. This was then followed by the Kamakura Period, when the samurai managed to gain political power. Minamoto no Yoritomo, the most powerful of them was dubbed shogun by the emperor and ruled from his base in Kamakura. The Muromachi Period then saw the Ashikaga shogunate come to power, ruling from their base in Ashikaga. Japan then descended into the chaos of the Warring States period in the 15th century. Tokugawa Ieyasu finally reunified the country in 1600 and founded the Tokugawa shogunate, a feudal state ruled from Edo, or modern-day Tokyo. A strict caste system was imposed, with the Shogun and his samurai warriors at the top of the heap and no social mobility permitted.

During this period, dubbed the Edo Period, Tokugawa rule kept the country stable but stagnant with a policy of almost total isolation (with the exception of Dutch and Chinese merchants in certain designated cities) while the world around them rushed ahead. US Commodore Matthew Perry's Black Ships arrived in Yokohama in 1854, forcing the country to open up to trade with the West, resulting in the signing of unequal treaties and the collapse of the shogunate in the Meiji Restoration of 1867, during which the imperial capital was relocated from Kyoto to Edo, now renamed Tokyo. After observing Western colonization in Southeast Asia and the division and weakening of China, which the Japanese had for so long considered to be the world's greatest superpower, Japan vowed not to be overtaken by the West, launching itself headlong into a drive to industrialize and modernize at frantic speed. Adopting Western technology and culture wholesale, Japan's cities soon sprouted railways, brick buildings and factories, and even the disastrous Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, which flattened large parts of Tokyo and killed over 100,000 people, was barely a bump in the road.

From day one, resource-poor Japan had looked elsewhere for the supplies it needed, and this soon turned into a drive to expand and colonize its neighbors. The Sino-Japanese War of 1894–95 saw Japan take control of Taiwan, Korea and parts of Manchuria, and its victory against Russia in the 1904–5 Russo-Japanese war cemented its position of strength. With an increasingly totalitarian government controlled by the military, Japan launched a full-scale invasion of China via Manchuria in 1931 and by 1941 had an empire stretching across much of Asia and the Pacific. In 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, destroying a small portion of the U.S. Pacific fleet but drawing America into the war, whose tide soon started to turn against Japan. By the time it was forced to surrender in 1945 after the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 1.86 million Japanese civilians and military personnel had died, well over 10 million Chinese and other Asians had been killed, and Japan was occupied for the first time in its history. The Emperor kept his throne but was turned into a constitutional monarch. Thus converted to pacifism and democracy, with the US taking care of defense, Japan now directed its prodigious energies into peaceful technology and reemerged from poverty to conquer the world's marketplaces with an endless stream of cars and consumer electronics to attain the third-largest gross national product in the world.

But frenzied growth could not last forever, and after the Nikkei stock index hit the giddy heights of 39,000 in 1989, the bubble well and truly burst, leading to Japan's lost decade of the 1990s that saw the real estate bubbles deflate, the stock market fall by half and, adding insult to injury, the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995 that leveled parts of Kobe and killed over 6,000 people. The economy has yet to fully recover from its doldrums, with deflation driving down prices, an increasingly unsupportable burden of government debt (nearing 200% of GDP) and an increasing polarization of Japanese society into "haves" with permanent jobs and "have-not" freeters drifting between temporary jobs. Nevertheless, the Japanese maintain one of the highest standards of living in the world.

Climate

The Japanese are proud of their four seasons, but the tourist with a flexible travel schedule should aim for spring or autumn.

  • Spring is one of the best times of year to be in Japan. The temperatures are warm but not hot, there's not too much rain, and March–April brings the justly famous cherry blossoms (sakura) and is a time of revelry and festivals.
  • Summer starts with a dreary rainy season (known as tsuyu or baiu) in June and turns into a steam bath in July–August, with extreme humidity and the temperature heading as high as 40°C. Avoid, or head to northern Hokkaido or the mountains of Chubu and Tohoku to escape. The upside, though, is a slew of fireworks shows (花火大会 hanabi taikai) and festivals big and small.
  • Autumn, starting in September, is also an excellent time to be in Japan. Temperatures and humidity become more tolerable, fair days are common and fall colors can be just as impressive as cherry blossoms. However, in early autumn typhoons often hit the southern parts of Japan and bring everything to a standstill.
  • Winter is a good time to go skiing or hot-spring hopping, but as some buildings lack central heating, it's often miserably cold indoors. Heading south to Okinawa provides some relief. There is usually heavy snow in Hokkaido and northeast Japan due to the cold wind blasts from Siberia. Note that the Pacific coast of Honshu (where most major cities are located) has milder winters than the Sea of Japan coast: it may be snowing in Kyoto while it is cloudy or sprinkling rain in Osaka, an hour away.

Activities

  • Visit one of Japan's Top 100 Cherry Blossoms Spots or take a walk amidst thousands of cherry blossoms in Yoshino
  • Climb the 3776m Mount Fuji, an icon of Japan.
  • Ascend Mount Aso to see one of the world's largest volcanic calderas
  • Visit the snowy peaks of the country's largest national park, Daisetsuzan.
  • Climb the 2446 stone stops of the holy Haguro mountain through an amazing primeval forest.
  • Soak in the hot springs of Japan's onsen capital, Beppu.
  • Go river rafting in some of the last wild rivers in Japan in the Iya Valley
  • Ski the world famous powder snow of Hokkaido or in the Japan Alps.
  • Overnight in one of the holy temples of Mount Koya.
  • Spot a geisha in Kyoto, home to the oldest geisha community in the world.
  • Spend an afternoon at Miyajima visiting the tame deer and the famous Itsukushima Shrine.
  • Experience the sobering and powerful Peace Park Memorial at Hiroshima.
  • Sightsee through Japan on board one of the world's fastest and busiest trains, the Shinkansen.
  • Be amazed by the neon lights of the club and shopping districts of Tokyo and Osaka.

Drinks

The Japanese drink a lot: not only green tea in the office, at meetings and with meals, but also all types of alcoholic beverages in the evening with friends and colleagues. Many social scientists have theorized that in a strictly conformist society, drinking provides a much-needed escape valve that can be used to vent off feelings and frustrations without losing face the next morning.

In Japan, the drinking age is 20 (as is the age of majority and smoking age, for that matter). This is notably higher than most of Europe and the Americas (excepting the United States). However, ID verification is almost never requested at restaurants, bars, convenience stores or other purveyors of liquor, so long as the purchaser does not appear obviously underage. The main exception is in the large clubs in Shibuya, Tokyo, which are popular with young Tokyoites and during busy times will ID everyone entering the club. However, most clubs will accept any form of ID. They will normally ask for a passport, but if you show them a driver's license (legitimate or non-legitimate), they will accept it.

Where to drink

If you're looking for an evening of food and drink in a relaxed traditional atmosphere, go to an izakaya (居酒屋, Japanese-style pub), easily identified by red lanterns with the character "酒" (alcohol) hanging out front. Many of them have an all-you-can-drink (飲み放題 nomihōdai) deals at about ¥1,000 (USD10) for 90min (on average), although you will be limited to certain types of drinks. Very convenient, an izakaya will usually have a lively, convivial atmosphere, as it often acts as a living room of sorts for office workers, students and seniors. Food is invariably good and reasonably priced, and in all, they are an experience not to be missed.

While Western-style bars can also be found here and there, typically charging ¥500-1,000 for drinks, a more common Japanese institution is the snack (スナック sunakku). These are slightly dodgy operations where paid hostesses pour drinks, sing karaoke, massage egos (and sometimes a bit more) and charge upwards of ¥3,000/hour for the service. Tourists will probably feel out of place and many do not even admit non-Japanese patrons.

Dedicated gay bars are comparatively rare in Japan, but the districts of Shinjuku ni-chome in Tokyo and Doyama-cho in Osaka have busy gay scenes. Most gay/lesbian bars serve a small niche (muscular men, etc.) and will not permit those who do not fit the mold, including the opposite sex, to enter. While a few are Japanese only, foreigners are welcome at most bars.

Note that izakaya, bars and snacks typically have cover charges (カバーチャージ kabā chāji), usually around ¥500 but on rare occasions more, so ask if the place looks really swish. In izakayas this often takes the form of being served some little nibble (お通し otōshi) as you sit down, and no, you can't refuse it and not pay. Some bars also charge a cover charge and an additional fee for any peanuts you're served with your beer.

Vending machines (自動販売機 jidōhanbaiki) are omnipresent in Japan and serve up drinks 24 hours a day at the price of ¥120-150 a can/bottle, although some places with captive customers, including the top of Mount Fuji, will charge more. In addition to cans of soft drinks, tea and coffee, you can find vending machines that sell beer, sake and even hard liquor. In winter, some machines will also dispense hot drinks — look for a red label with the writing あたたかい (atatakai) instead of the usual blue つめたい (tsumetai). Vending machines that sell alcoholic beverages are usually switched off at 23:00. Also, more and more of these machines, especially those near a school, require the use of a special "Sake Pass" obtainable at the city hall of the city the machine is located in. The pass is available to anyone of 20 years of age or over. Many vending machines at stations in the Tokyo metropolitan area accept payment using the JR Suica or PASMO cards.

Sake/nihonshu

Sake is a fermented alcoholic beverage brewed from rice. Though often called rice wine, in fact the sake making process is completely different from wine or beer making. The fermentation process uses both a mold to break down the starches and yeast to create the alcohol. The Japanese word sake (酒) can in fact mean any kind of alcoholic drink, and in Japan the word nihonshu (日本酒) is used to refer to what Westerners call "sake".

Sake is around 15% alcohol, and can be served at a range of temperatures from hot (熱燗 atsukan), to room temperature (常温jo-on), down to chilled (冷や hiya). Contrary to popular belief most sake is not served hot, but often chilled. Each sake is brewed for a preferred serving temperature, but defaulting to room temperature is in most cases safe. If you are inclined to have one hot or chilled in a restaurant, asking your waiter or bartender for a recommendation would be a good idea. In restaurants, one serving can start around ¥500, and go up from there.

Sake has its own measures and utensils. The little ceramic cups are called choko (ちょこ) and the small ceramic jug used to pour it is a tokkuri (徳利). Sometimes sake will be poured into a small glass set in a wooden box to collect the overflow as the server pours all the way to the top and keeps pouring. Just drink from the glass, then pour the extra out of the box and back into your glass as you go. Occasionally, particularly when drinking it cold, you can sip your sake from the corner of a cedar box called a masu (枡), sometimes with a dab of salt on the edge. Sake is typically measured in (合, 180 mL), roughly the size of a tokkuri, ten of which make up the standard 1.8 L isshōbin (一升瓶) bottle.

The fine art of sake tasting is at least as complex as wine, but the one indicator worth looking out for is nihonshudo (日本酒度), a number often printed on bottles and menus. Simply put, this "sake level" measures the sweetness of the brew, with positive values indicating drier sake and negative values being sweeter, the average being around +2.

Sake is brewed in several grades and styles that depend upon how much the rice is milled to prevent off flavors, if any water is added, or if additional alcohol is added. Ginjō (吟醸) and daiginjō (大吟醸) are measures of how much the rice has been milled, with the daiginjo more highly milled and correspondingly more expensive. These two may have alcohol added primarily to improve the flavor and aroma. Honjōzō (本醸造) is less milled, with alcohol added, and may be less expensive; think of it as an everyday kind of sake. Junmai (純米), meaning pure rice, is an additional term that specifies that only rice was used. When making a purchase, price is often a fair indicator of quality.

A few special brews may be worth a try if you feel like experimenting. Nigorizake (濁り酒) is lightly filtered and looks cloudy, with white sediment at the bottom of the bottle. Turn the bottle gently once or twice to mix this sediment back into the drink. Though most sake ages badly, some brewers are able to create aged sake with a much stronger flavor and deep colors. These aged sake or koshu (古酒) may be an acquired taste, but worthwhile for the adventurous after a meal.

Worth a special mention is amazake (甘酒), similar to the lumpy homebrewed doburoku (どぶろく) version of sake, drunk hot in the winter (often given away free at shrines on New Year's Eve). Amazake has very little alcohol and it tastes pretty much like fermented rice glop (better than it sounds), but at least it is cheap. As its name implies, it is sweet.

If you are curious about sake, the Japan Sake Brewers Association has an online version of its English brochure. You can also visit the Sake Plaza in Shinbashi, Tokyo and taste a flight of different sakes for just a few hundred yen.

Shochu

Shōchū (焼酎) is the big brother of sake, a stronger tasting distilled type of alcohol. There are largely two types of shōchū; traditional shōchū are most commonly made of rice, yam, or grain, but can be made of other materials like potatoes, too. The other is rather industrially made out of sugar through multiple consecutive distillation, often used and served as a kind of cooler mixed with juice or soda known as a chū-hai, short for "shōchū highball". (Note however that canned chū-hai sold on store shelves do not use shōchū but even cheaper alcoholic material.)

Shōchū is typically around 25% alcohol (although some varieties can be much stronger) and can be served straight, on the rocks, or mixed with hot or cold water at your choice. Once solely a working-class drink, and still the cheapest tipple around at less than ¥1000 for a big 1L bottle, traditional shōchū has seen a resurgence in popularity in recent years and the finest shōchū now fetch prices as high as the finest sake.

Liquor

Umeshu (梅酒), inaccurately called "plum wine", is prepared by soaking Japanese ume plums (actually a type of apricot) in white liquor so it absorbs the flavor, and the distinctive, penetrating nose of sour dark plum and sweet brown sugar is a hit with many visitors. Typically about 10-15% alcohol, it can be taken straight, on the rocks (rokku) or mixed with soda (soda-wari).

Beer

There are several large brands of Japanese beer (ビール biiru), including Kirin, Asahi, Sapporo, and Suntory. A bit harder to find is an Okinawan brand, Orion, which is excellent. Yebisu is also a popular beer brewed by Sapporo. Microbrewed beers are also starting to appear in Japan, with a few restaurants offering their own micros or ji-biiru (地ビール) but these are still few in number. Most varieties are lagers, with strengths averaging 5%.

You can buy beer in cans of all sizes, but in Japanese restaurants, beer is typically served in bottles (瓶 bin), or draft (生 nama meaning "fresh"). Bottles come in three sizes, 大瓶 ōbin (large, 0.66 L), 中瓶 chūbin (medium, 0.5 L) and 小瓶 kobin (small, 0.33 L), of which medium is the most common. Larger bottles give you the opportunity to engage in the custom of constantly refilling your companions' glasses (and having yours topped off as well). If you order draft beer, you each receive your own mug (jokki). In many establishments, a dai-jokki ("big mug") holds a full liter of brew.

Some Japanese bartenders have an annoying habit of filling half of your mug with head so that you only have half a glass of actual beer. Though the Japanese like their draft beer poured that way, you may find it irritating, especially when you pay ¥600 for a glass of beer as in many restaurants and bars. If you have the gumption to ask for less head, say awa wa sukoshi dake ni shite kudasai ("please, just a little foam"). You will baffle your server, but you may get a full glass of beer.

Guinness pubs have started appearing all over the country recently, which is nice for those who like Irish drinks.

For those with a more humorous tastes in beer, try kodomo biiru (こどもビール, literally Children’s Beer), a product that looks just like the real thing but was actually invented with children in mind (there is 0% alcohol content).

Happōshu and third beer

Thanks to Japan's convoluted alcohol licensing laws, there are also two almost-beers on the market: happōshu (発泡酒), or low-malt beer, and the so-called third beer (第3のビール dai-san no biiru), which uses ingredients like soybean peptides or corn instead of malt. Priced as low as ¥120, both are considerably cheaper than "real" beer, but lighter and more watery in taste. Confusingly, they are packaged very similarly to the real thing with brands like Sapporo's "Draft One" and Asahi's "Hon-Nama", so pay attention to the bottom of the can when buying: by law, it may not say ビール (beer), but will instead say 発泡酒 (happoshu) or, for third beers, the unwieldy moniker その他の雑酒(2) (sono ta no zasshu(2), lit. "other mixed alcohol, type 2"). Try to drink moderately as both drinks can lead to nightmare hangovers.

Western wine

Japanese wine is actually quite nice but costs about twice as much as comparable wine from other countries. Several varieties exist, and imported wine at various prices is available nationwide. Selection can be excellent in the larger cities, with specialized stores and large department stores offering the most extensive offerings. One of Japan's largest domestic wine areas is Yamanashi Prefecture, and one of Japan's largest producers, Suntory, has a winery and tours there. Most wine, red and white, is served chilled and you may find it hard obtaining room-temperature (常温 jō-on) wine when dining out.

Tea

The most popular beverage by far is tea (お茶 o-cha), provided free of charge with almost every meal, hot in winter and cold in summer. There is a huge variety of tea in bottles and cans in convenience-store fridges and vending machines. Western-style black tea is called kōcha (紅茶); if you don't ask for it specifically you're likely to get Japanese brown or green tea. Chinese oolong tea is also very popular.

The major types of Japanese tea are:

  • sencha (煎茶), the common green tea
  • matcha (抹茶), soupy powdered ceremonial green tea. The less expensive varieties are bitter and the more expensive varieties are slightly sweet.
  • hōjicha (ほうじ茶), roasted green tea
  • genmaicha (玄米茶), tea with roasted rice, tastes popcorn-y
  • mugicha (麦茶), a drink of roasted barley, served iced in summer

Just like Chinese teas, Japanese teas are always drunk neat, without the use of any milk or sugar. However, Western-style milk tea can also be found in most of the American fast food chains.

Coffee

Coffee (コーヒー kōhī) is quite popular in Japan, though it's not part of the typical Japanese breakfast. It's usually brewed to the same strength as European coffee; weaker, watered down coffee is called American. Canned coffee (hot and cold) is a bit of a curiosity, and widely available in vending machines like other beverages for about ¥120 per can. Most canned coffee is sweet, so look for brands with the English word "Black" or the kanji 無糖 ("no sugar") if you want it unsweetened. Decaffeinated coffee is very rare in Japan, even at Starbucks, but is available in some locations.

There are many coffee shops in Japan, including Starbucks. Major local chains include Doutor (known for its low prices) and Excelsior. A few restaurants, such as Mister Donut, Jonathan's and Skylark, offer unlimited refills on coffee for those who are particularly addicted to caffeine (or want to get some late-night work done).

Soft drinks

There are many uniquely Japanese soft drinks and trying random drinks on vending machines is one of the little joys of Japan. A few of note include Calpis (カルピス), a kind of yogurt-based soft drink that tastes better than it sounds and the famous Pocari Sweat (a Gatorade-style isotonic drink). A more traditional Japanese soft drink is Ramune (ラムネ), nearly the same as Sprite or 7-Up but noteworthy for its unusual bottle, where one pushes down a marble into an open space below the spout instead of using a bottle opener.

Most American soft drink brands (Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Mountain Dew) are widely available. The only choices for diet soda will be Diet Coke, Coke Zero, or Diet Pepsi. Root Beer is nearly impossible to find outside of specialty import food shops or Okinawa. Ginger ale is very popular however, and a common find in vending machines. Caffeinated energy drinks are available in many local brands (usually infused with ginseng).

In Japan, the term "juice" (ジュース jūsu) is catch-all term for any kind of fruity soft drink - sometimes even Coca-Cola and the like - and extremely few are 100% juice. So if it's fruit squeezings you want, ask for kajū (果汁). Drinks in Japan are required to display the percentage of fruit content on the label; this can be very helpful to ensure you get the 100% orange juice you were wanting, rather than the much more common 20% varieties.

Shopping

The Japanese currency is the Japanese yen, abbreviated ¥ (or JPY in foreign exchange contexts). As of January 2014, the yen hovers at around 100 to the US dollar. The symbol 円 (pronounced en) is used in the Japanese language itself.

  • Coins: 1 (silver), 5 (gold with a center hole), 10 (copper), 50 (silver with a center hole), 100 (silver), and 500 yen. There are two ¥500 coins, distinguishable by their color. (The new ones are gold, the old ones are silver).
  • Bills: 1,000 (blue), 2,000 (green), 5,000 (purple), and 10,000 yen (brown). ¥2,000 bills are rare. New designs for all the bills except ¥2,000 were introduced in November 2004, so there are now two versions in circulation. Most merchants will not object to receiving a ¥10,000 bill even for a small purchase.

Japan is still fundamentally a cash society. Although most stores and hotels serving foreign customers take credit cards, many businesses such as cafés, bars, grocery stores, and even smaller hotels and inns do not. Even businesses that do take cards often have a minimum charge as well as a surcharge, although this practice is disappearing. The most popular credit card in Japan is JCB, and due to an alliance between Discover, JCB and China UnionPay, Discover and UnionPay cards can be used anywhere that accepts JCB. This means that Discover and UnionPay cards are more widely accepted than Visa/MasterCard/American Express. Most merchants are not familiar with this, but it will work if you can convince them to try!

The Japanese usually carry around large quantities of cash — it is quite safe to do so and is almost a necessity, especially in smaller towns and more isolated areas. In many cities, the Japanese can also use mobile phones to pay for their purchases where mobile phones function like credit cards and the cost is billed to them with their mobile phone bill. However, a Japanese phone and SIM card is required to make use of this service so it's typically not available to foreigners on short visits. If you already have a Japanese phone, be aware that initializing the prepaid card on a rental SIM will incur data charges, though this will most likely be less than the cost of a physical card. This can be avoided by using Wi-Fi.

Almost any major bank in Japan will provide foreign currency exchange from US dollars (cash and traveller's checks). Rates are basically the same whichever bank you choose. Having to wait 15-30min, depending on how busy the branch gets, is not unusual. Other currencies accepted are euros; Swiss francs; Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand dollars; and British pounds. Among other Asian currencies, Singapore dollars seem to be the most widely accepted, followed by the Korean won and Chinese yuan.

Exchange rates for US dollars and euros are typically very good (about 2% below the official rate). Exchange rates for other currencies are very poor (up to 15% below the official rate). Other Asian currencies are generally not accepted (currencies from nearby countries, like Korean won, Chinese yuan, and Hong Kong dollars, are exceptions). Japanese post offices can also cash traveller's checks or exchange cash for yen, at a slightly better rate than the banks. Traveller's checks also have a better rate of exchange than cash. If you are exchanging amounts in excess of USD1,000 (whether cash or traveller's checks), you will be required to provide identification that includes your name, address, and date of birth (to prevent money laundering and the funding of terrorism). Since passports usually do not show your address, bring along another form of ID such as a driver's license that shows your address.

Japanese ATMs, known locally as cash corners (キャッシュコーナー kyasshu kōnā), generally do not accept foreign cards and the availability of credit card advances, known as cashing (キャッシング kyasshingu), is spotty. The major exceptions are:

  • Over 12,000 Japanese 7-Eleven stores with ATMs accept foreign cards for cash withdrawals. Accepted cards include Mastercard, Visa, American Express, JCB and UnionPay (for a ¥110 surcharge), and ATM cards with the Cirrus, Maestro and Plus logos. These are the most useful for non-UnionPay users as they are everywhere and are accessible 24/7.
  • JP Bank (ゆうちょ Yū-cho), formerly the Postal Savings Bank and hence found in almost every post office, which in turn has a branch in almost every village. Most postal ATMs provide instructions in English as well as Japanese. Plus, Cirrus, Visa Electron, Maestro, and UnionPay are accepted, and you can do credit card advances on Visa, MasterCard, AmEx and Diners Club. Your PIN must be 6 digits or less.
  • Citibank, which has a limited network but does have ATMs at the major airports.
  • Shinsei Bank (新生銀行) ATMs, which accept Plus and Cirrus, are located at major Tokyo Metro and Keikyu stations, as well as in downtown areas of major cities.
  • SMBC (三井住友銀行) ATMS will take UnionPay cards for a ¥75 surcharge. You MUST change the language to either English or Chinese before inserting the card; the machine will not recognize it otherwise.
  • Mitsubishi UFJ(三菱東京UFJ銀行) ATMs will take UnionPay, foreign-issued JCB, and Discover cards for no surcharge. Be aware that you MUST press the "English" button first; their ATMs will NOT recognize non-Japanese cards in Japanese-language mode.
  • AEON (イオン銀行) ATMs will take UnionPay for no surcharge. Here you must press the "International Cards" button.

EMV ATM cards: Almost all Japanese ATMs currently do not accept EMV ATM cards (also known as IC or "Chip-and-Pin") issued by Maestro. There are two exceptions:

  • EMV cards issued in Canada and the Netherlands can be used at the above ATMs where Maestro is accepted.
  • AEON ATMs located only at Narita Airport and Kansai Airport currently accept all EMV Maestro cards.

Notice the trend of "local" Japanese banks going with UnionPay (and MUFG accepting Discover as well). While 7-Elevens are everywhere, having more options is always recommended, so try to get either a UnionPay or Discover debit card before arrival for increased convenience (for instance, at Narita Airport, there are the "usual" foreign-capable ATMs on the 1st floor of Terminal 2 that get crowded when the international arrivals start coming, whereas the Mitsubishi-UFJ ATMs on the 2nd floor are wide open during most hours).

One thing to beware: many Japanese ATMs are closed at night and during the weekends, so it's best to get your banking done during office hours! An exception is 7-Eleven, which is open 24 hours.

On top of these, there are cash dispensers (abbreviated to "CD" in Japan), intended for credit card cash advances. Some will work with foreign-issued ATM/debit/credit cards.

  • SMBC, UC Card, and Mitsubishi UFJ Card machines will take Visa and MasterCard.
  • Orico machines will take MasterCard only.
  • JCB machines will take Visa, MasterCard, American Express, JCB, Discover and UnionPay.

Note the difference between CDs and ATMs, even for the same financial institution. For example, for foreign-issued cards SMBC and MUFG bank ATMs take UnionPay (MUFG also takes Discover), while SMBC and Mitsubishi UFJ Credit cash dispensers take only Visa/MasterCard.

A note for those using SMBC/MUFG/Aeon ATMs: on-site staff at most branches are still unaware that their ATMs now accept foreign cards at all. If you're having trouble, pick up the handset next to the machine to talk to the central ATM support staff.

Vending machines in Japan are known for their pervasiveness and the (notorious) variety of products they sell. Most will take ¥1,000 bills, and some types such as train ticket machines will take up to ¥10,000; none accept ¥1 or ¥5 coins, nor ¥2,000 notes. And even the most high-tech vending machines do not take credit cards, save for certain ones in train stations (though there are limitations — for example, JR East ticket vending machines require a PIN of four digits or less; most credit card customers would be better off purchasing from a ticket window). Note that cigarette vending machines require a Taspo card (age verification), which are unfortunately off limits to non residents, but local smokers are usually happy to lend you theirs.

Prepaid electronic cards are quite popular in Japan for small purchases. There are cards for train fares, convenience store purchases, and public telephones, though they aren't interchangeable.

There is a 5% consumption tax on all sales in Japan, rising to 8% on April 1, 2014. Tax is usually, but not always, included in displayed prices, so pay attention. The word zeinuki (税抜) means tax-excluded, zeikomi (税込) means tax-included. If you cannot find out any words in the price card, most of them are tax-included.

Always keep a sizable stack of reserve money in Japan, as if you run out for any reason (wallet stolen, credit card blocked, etc.), it can be difficult to have any wired to you. Western Union has a very limited presence even in the larger metropolitan areas (their agreement with Suruga Bank ended in 2009, and they have just started a new agreement with Daikokuya as of April 2011), banks will not allow you to open accounts without local ID, and even international postal money orders require proof of a residential address in Japan.

Banking

Banking in Japan is a notoriously cumbersome process, especially for foreigners. You will need an alien resident card (ARC) and proof of a Japanese address. This means that while foreigners in Japan on an extended period (i.e. those on student, dependent or work visas) may open an account, this option is not available to those on short trips for tourism or business. Many banks also require you to have a Japanese seal (印鑑 inkan) to stamp your documents with and signatures are often not accepted as a substitute. Bank staff often do not speak English or any other foreign languages. Unlike most other countries in the world, Japanese bank branches will often only have ATM's available during office hours.

Tipping

Tipping effectively does not exist in Japan, and attempting to offer tips can actually be seen as an insult. The Japanese pride themselves on the service given to customers, and a further financial incentive is unnecessary. If you leave a tip in a restaurant, the staff will probably come running after you to return the money you 'forgot'. Even bellhops in high end hotels usually do not accept tips. Exceptions are high-end ryokan (see Sleep) and English-speaking tour guides.

Some restaurants do add a 10% service charge, and family restaurants may add a 10% late-night charge after midnight.

Costs

Japan has a reputation for being extremely expensive — and it can be. However, many things have become significantly cheaper in the last decade. Japan need not be outrageously expensive if you plan carefully and in fact, is probably cheaper than Australia and most European Union countries for basic expenses. Food in particular can be a bargain, and while still expensive by Asian standards, eating out in Japan is generally cheaper than eating out in Western countries, with a basic meal consisting of rice or noodles starting from about ¥300 per serve. Of course, on the other end of the spectrum, fine dining can be very expensive, with prices on the order of ¥30,000 per person not unheard of. For long-distance travel, in particular, the Japan Rail Pass, Japan Bus Pass, and Visit Japan flights (see Get around) can save you a bundle.

As rough guidelines, you will find it very difficult to travel on less than ¥5,000 per day (but if you plan carefully, it is certainly possible) and you can expect a degree of comfort only if you pay 10,000. Staying in posh hotels, eating fancy meals or just travelling long-distance will easily double this yet again. Typical prices for moderate budget travel would be ¥5,000 for hotel, ¥2,000 for meals, and ¥2,000 again for entry fees and local transport.

However, if you find yourself a little short on cash, you can get your essential items in one of the many ¥100 shops (百円ショップ hyaku-en shoppu) located in most cities. Daiso is the Japan's largest ¥100 shop chain, with 2,500 shops across Japan. Other large chains are Can Do (キャンドゥ), Seria (セリア), and Silk (シルク). There are also convenience-store-like ¥100 shops such as SHOP99 and Lawson Store 100 where you can buy sandwiches, drinks, and vegetables in addition to selected ¥100 items.

Tips for budget shopping

As noted above, Japan can be expensive. You might feel every item or meal comes with a high price tag in Japan. The main reason for this is that you have chosen an inner-city top-end shopping or eating district. If you wish to buy more reasonably priced items, consider carefully whether you are desperately looking for upmarket products, or just want daily commodities and groceries. The former should try intown premium department stores, boutiques and restaurants in the well-publicized shopping districts such as Isetan in Shinjuku and Matsuya in Ginza, the latter would be better off turning their sights toward suburban shopping malls or supermarkets such as Aeon or Ito-Yokado.

Shopping

The 5% consumption tax imposed is not refundable for purchases of consumable items such as food and beverages. However, for non-consumable items like clothing and electronics, the tax may be refunded for purchases of ¥10,000 or more before tax in a single receipt if you are not a resident and intend to bring the items out of Japan when you leave.

At many department stores like Isetan, Seibu and Matsuzakaya, you typically pay the full cost at the cashier and go to a tax refund (税金還付 zeikin kanpu or 税金戻し zeikin modoshi) counter, usually located at one of the higher floors, and present your receipt and passport to the counter to get reimbursed. In some other stores advertising "duty free" (免税 menzei), you just present your passport to the cashier when making payment and the tax is deducted on the spot.

When making tax free purchases or tax refund claims, counter staff would staple a piece of paper in your passport, which you should keep with you until you leave Japan. This piece of paper is to be surrendered to the customs counter at your point of departure just before you pass through immigration and checks may be done to ensure that you are bringing the items out of Japan.

Despite the saying that Japanese cities never sleep, retail hours are surprisingly limited. Opening hours of most shops are typically 10:00-20:00, though most shops are open on weekends and public holidays except New Year, and close on one day a week. Restaurants typically stay open until late at night, though smoking would usually be allowed after 20:00 so those who can't stand cigarette smoke should have your meals before then.

However, you will always find something you could need to buy at any time of day. Japan is crawling with 24/7 convenience stores (コンビニ konbini), such as 7-Eleven, Family Mart, Lawson, Circle K, and Sunkus. They often offer a much wider range of products than convenience stores in the US or Europe, sometimes have a small ATM and are often open all day all week! Many convenience stores also offer services such as fax, takkyubin luggage delivery, a limited range of postal services, payment services for bills (including topping up international phone cards such as Brastel) and some on-line retailers (e.g. Amazon.jp), and ticket sales for events, concerts and cinemas.

Of course, establishments related to night life such as karaoke lounges and bars stay open well into the night: even in small towns it is easy to find an izakaya open until 05:00. Pachinko parlours are obliged to close at 23:00.

Anime and manga

To many Westerners, anime (animation) and manga (comics) are the most popular icons of modern Japan. Many visitors come to Japan in search of merchandise relating to their favorite anime and manga titles. A popular place to do this is Akihabara. Akihabara is an "otaku" mecca. With everything from manga to electronics. You can also spend all day at the various arcades. Several of which are owned by SEGA and sport an amazing cast of games. Deep in Akihabara you can find Mandrake. Mandrake is a massive multi-level anime/collectibles store. There are also stores filled with showcases; each one hosting a cast from an anime or manga. To buy toys from these show cases you need to find a slip of paper and write down the code of the toy you want, then take the paper to the counter and the attendant will retrieve the toy for you. It's easy and effective, although the stores can becomes quite busy at times. Besides these stores, all throughout Akihabara you will find little shops selling figures from various animes and mangas. Truly a must-visit for any lover of anime and manga. Another option other than Akihabara is Ikebukuro located nearer to Shinjuku. The original Animate store is located near Ikebukuro East exit, and nearby are cosplay stores and a Mandarake store. A well known shopping spot to locals are the Book-Off chain stores. They specialise in selling second-hand books, manga, anime, video games and DVDs. The quality of the products can range from almost brand new (read once) to more well loved. Be sure to check out the ¥105 area where the quality of the books may be more well-loved, but there are many great finds. There is a small range of English translated manga but the majority are in Japanese. They also sell anime in DVDs (regular and Blu-ray) but be aware that they will be set to region 2 (Japan). Also available are video games ranging from Playstation games to DS games. (Be aware for DS games, that DS games will work on any region DS (3DS) however 3DS games have been region locked. )

Video and PC games

Video games are a huge business in Japan, but Japan's NTSC-J video standard is incompatible with PAL and SECAM televisions used in much of the world. In countries that use other NTSC standards (North America, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau and Southeast Asia), the NTSC-J versions will work with just a minor difference in brightness. Of course, the language will still be in Japanese (unless the game has multilingual options). For handheld consoles, the television standards don't apply.

Many consoles are also region-locked, preventing you from playing them on your console at home even if the video is compatible. This may be enforced by the hardware (e.g., physically incompatible cartridges) or by firmware/software (e.g., DVD and Blu-ray regions). Here is a list of modern consoles and their interoperability:

  • Television consoles
    • Microsoft Xbox One — region-free
    • Microsoft Xbox 360 — case-by-case basis
    • Nintendo Wii U — locked
    • Nintendo Wii — locked; even Korean and Japanese Wii systems fall under different regions and are incompatible
    • Sony PlayStation 4 — region-free
    • Sony PlayStation 3 — numerous games have no region protection at all (despite the fact that some games do advertise a region on the box); many games are multilingual, choosing the language of your console settings.
  • Handheld consoles
    • Nintendo 3DS — locked
    • Nintendo DSi — locked for DSi-specific games and DSi download content; region-free for DS games
    • Nintendo DS — region-free
    • Sony PSP — region-free

PC games, on the other hand, will usually work fine, as long as you understand enough Japanese to install and play them. Only-in-Japan genres include the visual novel (ビジュアルノベル), which are interactive games with anime style art, somewhat similar to dating sims, and its subset the erotic game (エロゲー eroge), which is just what the name says.

Generally the best places for Video Game shopping are Akihabara in Tokyo, and Den Den Town in Osaka (in terms of deals, you can purchase video games from almost anywhere in Japan).

Electronics and cameras

Battery-powered small electronics and still cameras made for sale in Japan will work anywhere in the world, though you might have to deal with an owner's manual in Japanese. (Some of the larger stores will provide you with an English manual (英語の説明書 eigo no setsumeisho) on request.) There are no great deals to be found pricewise, but the selection is unparalleled. However, if you are buying other electronics to take home, it's best to shop at stores that specialize in "overseas" configurations, many of which can be found in Tokyo's Akihabara. You can get PAL/NTSC region-free DVD players, for example. Also, keep in mind that Japanese AC runs at 100 volts, so using "native" Japanese electronics outside Japan without a step-down transformer can be dangerous. Even the US standard 110V voltage is too much for some devices.

Prices are lowest and shopping is the easiest at giant discount stores like Bic Camera, Yodobashi Camera, Sofmap and Yamada Denki. They usually have English-speaking staff on duty and accept foreign credit cards. For common products the prices at any are virtually identical, so don't waste time comparison shopping. Bargaining is possible in smaller shops, and even the larger chains will usually match their competitors' prices.

Most of the big chains have a "point card" that gets you points that can be used as a discount on your next purchase, even just a few minutes later. Purchases tend to earn points between 5% and even 20% of the purchase price, and 1 point is worth ¥1. Some stores (the biggest being Yodobashi Camera)) require you to wait overnight before being able to redeem points. The cards are handed out on the spot and no local address is needed. However, some stores may not allow you to earn points and receive a tax refund on the same purchase.

Also, major stores tend to deduct 2% from points earned if paid using a credit card (if using a UnionPay credit card, Bic and Yodobashi will disallow you from earning points entirely, though you get an instant 5% discount as compensation). If you know you will buy something else at the same store (which is likely given that you almost always pay on the floor the item is found on), choose to earn points as most items, earn at least 10 percent in points, compared to the 5% tax refund.

Fashion

While you may be better off heading for France or Italy for high end fashion, when it comes to casual fashion, Japan is hard to beat. Tokyo and Osaka in particular are home to many shopping districts, and there is an abundance of stores selling the latest fashion, particularly those catering to youths. Just to name a few, Shibuya and Harajuku in Tokyo and Shinsaibashi in Osaka are known throughout Japan as centers of youth fashion. The main problem is that Japanese shops cater to Japanese-sized customers, and finding larger or curvier sizes can be real challenge.

Japan is also famous for its beauty products such as facial cream and masks, including many for men. While these are available in almost every supermarket, the Ginza district of Tokyo is where many of the most expensive brands have their own shops.

Japan's main contribution to jewelry is the cultured pearl, invented by Mikimoto Kōkichi in 1893. The main pearl growing operation to this day is in the small town of Toba near Ise, but the pearls themselves are widely available — although there is little if any price difference to buying them outside Japan. For those who insist on getting their hands on the "authentic" stuff, Mikimoto's flagship store is in the Ginza district of Tokyo.

Then of course there is kimono, the classic Japanese garment. While very expensive new, second hand kimono can be had at a fraction of the price, or you can opt for a much cheaper and easier to wear casual yukata robe. See the Kimono buying guide for buying your own.

Cigarettes

Smoking cigarettes remains popular in Japan, especially among men. While cigarettes are sold at some of the many vending machines dotting Japan, visitors to Japan who wish to purchase them must do so at a convenience store or duty-free. As a result of the Japanese tobacco industry cracking down on minors (the legal age is 20), you now need a special age-verifying IC card, called a TASPO card, to purchase cigarettes from a vending machine. TASPO cards are issued only to residents of Japan.

Cigarettes generally come in 20-cigarette king-size hard packs and are fairly cheap, around Y300-400. Japan has few domestic brands: Seven Stars and Mild Seven are the most common local brands. American brands such as Marlboro, Camel and Lucky Strike are extremely popular although the Japanese-produced versions have a much lighter taste than their western counterparts. Also, look out for unusual flavored cigarettes, light cigarettes with flavor-enhancing filter technology although they taste very artificial and have little effect, mostly popular with female smokers.

This article is based on Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike 3.0 Licensed text from the article Japan on Wikivoyage.

Popular cities in Japan

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Tokyo Metropolis , covers the city of Tokyo, a bulk of the plain of Kanto and a chain of islands extending thousands of kilometers south.

Interesting places:

  • Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum
  • Studio Alta
  • Sensoji Temple
  • The Tokyo Metropolitan Government
  • Shinjuku Central Park
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Kyōto was the capital of Japan for over a millennium, and carries a reputation as its most beautiful city. However, visitors may be surprised by how much work they will have to do to see Kyoto's beautiful side. Most first impressions of the city will be of the urban sprawl of central Kyoto, around the ... (read more)

Interesting places:

  • Maruyama Park
  • Yasaka Shrine
  • Kodaiji Temple
  • Ryozen Kannon
  • Kyoto Imperial Palace
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Ōsaka is the third largest city in Japan, with a population of over 17 million people in its greater metropolitan area. It is the central metropolis of the Kansai region and the largest of the Osaka-Kobe-Kyoto trio.

Interesting places:

  • Osaka Castle
  • Osaka Castle Museum
  • Hozenji-Yokocho Alley
  • HEP Five
  • Grand Front Osaka
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Sapporo (札幌) is the capital and largest city of the northern island of Hokkaido, Japan.

Interesting places:

  • Clock Tower
  • Sapporo JR Tower
  • Former Hokkaido Government Office Building
  • Sapporo TV Tower
  • Odori Park
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Naha is the capital of the Okinawa Prefecture in Japan and is the main city on Okinawa Island, with a population of around 700,000 - more than half the total population of Okinawa.

Interesting places:

  • Makishi Public Market
  • Tsuboya Pottery Museum
  • Shurijo Castle
  • Sonohyan-utaki
  • Okinawa Peace Park
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Nagoya is the capital and largest city of Aichi prefecture, in the Chubu region of Honshu.

Interesting places:

  • Nagoya Twin Tower
  • Nagoya Castle
  • Nagoya TV Tower
  • Meijo Park
  • Aichi Arts Center
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Kōbe is one of Japan's underappreciated cities. A cosmopolitan port city with an international flavor, hemmed in by Mt. Rokko, it constantly comes up number one in expatriate rankings of the best place to live in Japan.

Interesting places:

  • Kobe Tower
  • Meriken Park
  • Stamp Museum
  • Kobe Fashion Museum
  • Akashi Kaikyo Bridge
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51 hotels in this place

Hakone is a mountainous area west of Tokyo in Japan. The Hakone checkpoint on the historical Tokaido road marks the beginning of the Kanto region.

Interesting places:

  • Great Boiling Valley
  • Hakone Shrine
  • Hakone Open Air Museum
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48 hotels in this place

Located on the western coast of Tokyo Bay directly south of Tokyo, Yokohama is the second largest city in Japan and one of the cities most used to seeing foreigners.

Interesting places:

  • Red Brick Warehouse
  • Landmark Tower
  • Pacifico Yokohama
  • Yokohama Marine Tower
  • Yamashita Park
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Hiroshima is an industrial city of wide boulevards and criss-crossing rivers, located along the coast of the Seto Inland Sea. Although many only know it for the horrific split second on August 6, 1945, when it became the site of the world's first atomic bomb attack, it is now a modern, cosmopolitan city with ... (read more)

Interesting places:

  • Children\'s Peace Monument
  • Hiroshima National Peace Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims
  • Bell of Peace
  • Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park
  • A-Bomb Dome
panoramio Photos are copyrighted by their owners

States in Japan

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Popular cities:

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Popular cities:

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Popular cities:

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panoramio Photos are copyrighted by their owners

Points of Interest in Japan

Castles

When most Westerners think of castles, they naturally think of their own in places like England and France however, Japan, too, was a nation of castle-builders. In its feudal days, you could find multiple castles in nearly every prefecture.

Original castles

Because of bombings in WWII, fires, edicts to tear down castles, etc. only twelve of Japan's castles are considered to be originals, which have donjons that date back to the days when they were still used. Four of them are located on the island of Shikoku, two just north in the Chugoku region, two in Kansai, three in the Chubu region, and one in the northern Tohoku region. There are no original castles in Kyushu, Kanto, Hokkaido, or Okinawa.

The original castles are:

  • Uwajima Castle
  • Matsuyama Castle
  • Kochi Castle
  • Marugame Castle
  • Matsue Castle
  • Bitchu Matsuyama Castle
  • Himeji Castle
  • Hikone Castle
  • Inuyama Castle
  • Maruoka Castle
  • Matsumoto Castle
  • Hirosaki Castle

(Nijo Castle is an original however, it was actually an Imperial residence rather than a castle, so it is not included on the list of originals)

Reconstructions and ruins

Japan has many reconstructed castles, many of which receive more visitors than the originals. A reconstructed castle means that the donjon was rebuilt in modern times, but many of these still have other original structures within the castle grounds. For example, three of Nagoya Castle's turrets are authentic. Reconstructions still offer a glimpse into the past and many, like Osaka Castle are also museums housing important artifacts. Kumamoto Castle is considered to be among the best reconstructions, because most of the structures have been reconstructed instead of just the donjon. The only reconstructed castle in Hokkaido is Matsumae Castle. Okinawa's Shuri Castle is unique among Japan's castles, because it is not a "Japanese" castle; it is from the Ryukyuan Kingdom and was built with the Chinese architectural style, along with some original Okinawan elements.

Ruins typically feature only the castle walls or parts of the original layout are visible. Although they lack the structures of reconstructed castles, ruins often feel more authentic without the concrete reconstructions that sometimes feel too commercial and touristy. Many ruins maintain historical significance, such as Tsuyama Castle, which was so large and impressive, it was considered to be the best in the nation. Today, the castle walls are all that remain but the area is filled with thousands of cherry blossoms. This is common among many ruins, as well as reconstructions. Takeda Castle is famed for the gorgeous view of the surrounding area from the ruins.

Gardens

Japan is famous for its gardens, known for its unique aesthestics both in landscape gardens and Zen rock/sand gardens. The nation has designated an official "Top Three Gardens", based on their beauty, size, authenticity (gardens that have not been drastically altered), and historical significance. Those gardens are Kairakuen in Mito, Kenrokuen in Kanazawa, and Korakuen in Okayama. The largest garden, and the favorite of many travellers, is actually Ritsurin Park in Takamatsu.

Rock and sand gardens can typically be found in temples, specifically those of Zen Buddhism. The most famous of these is Ryoanji Temple in Kyoto, but such temples can be found throughout Japan. Moss gardens are also popular in Japan and Koke-dera, also in Kyoto, has one of the nation's best. Reservations are required to visit just so that they can ensure the moss is always flourishing and not trampled.

Spiritual sites

Regardless of your travel interests, it's difficult to visit Japan without at least seeing a few shrines and temples. Buddhist and Shinto sites are the most common, although there are some noteworthy spiritual sites of other religions, as well.

Buddhist

Buddhism has had a profound impact on Japan ever since it was introduced in the 6th century. Like shrines, temples can be found in every city, and many different sects exist.

Some of the holiest sites are made up of large complexes on mountaintops and include Mount Koya (Japan's most prestigious place to be buried and head temple of Shingon Buddhism), Mount Hiei (set here when Kyoto became the capital to remove Buddhism from politics, the head of the Tendai sect of Buddhism), and Mount Osore (considered to be the "Gateway to Hell", it features many monuments and graves in a volcanic wasteland).

Many of the nations head temples are located in Kyoto, like the Honganji Temples and Chion-in Temple. Kyoto also has five of the top Zen temples named in the "Five Mountain System" (Tenryuji, Shokokuji, Kenninji, Tofukuji, and Manjuji), along with Nanzenji Temple, which sits above all the temples outside of the mountain system. Although there are "five" temples, Kyoto and Kamakura both have their own five. The Kamakura temple's are Kenchoji, Engakuji, Jufukuji, Jochiji, and Jomyoji Temples. Eiheiji Temple is also a prominent Zen temple, although it was never part of the mountain system.

Nara's Todaiji Temple and Kamakura's Kotokuin Temple are famous for their large Buddhist statues. Todaiji's is the largest in the nation, while the Kamakura Daibutsu is the second largest, meditating outside in the open air.

Horyuji Temple in Horyuji, just south of Nara, is the world's oldest wooden structure. The beautiful Phoenix Hall in Uji is seen by most visitors to Japan on the back of the ¥10 coin, if not in real-life.

Shinto

Shintoism is the "native" religion of Japan, so those looking to experience things that are "wholly Japanese" should particularly enjoy them as they truly embody the Japanese aesthetic. The holiest Shinto Shrine is the Grand Ise Shrine, while the second holiest is Izumo Shrine, where the gods gather annually for a meeting. Other famous holy shrines include Itsukushima Shrine in Miyajima, Toshogu Shrine in Nikko, the Kumano Sanzan, and the Dewa Sanzan, Meiji Shrine in Tokyo, and Shimogamo Shrine, Kamigamo Shrine, and Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto.

Christian

Japan's introduction to Christianity came in 1549 by way of the Portuguese and Saint Francis Xavier. He established the first Christian church in Yamaguchi at Daidoji Temple, whose ruins are now part of Xavier Memorial Park and the Xavier Memorial Church was built in his honor.

When Toyotomi Hideyoshi came into power, Christianity was banned and Christians were persecuted. Nagasaki is the most famous persecution site where 26 Japanese Christians were crucified. They are saints today and you can visit the memorial for these martyrs in the city. The Shimabara Rebellion is the most famous Christian uprising in Japan, and it was this rebellion that led to the ousting of the Portuguese and Catholic practices from Japan (although Christianity had already been banned by this time), along with approximately 37,000 beheadings of Christians and peasants. In Shimabara, you can visit the ruins of Hara Castle, where the Christians gathered and were attacked, see old Portuguese tombstones, and the samurai houses, some of which were occupied by Christian samurai. Oyano's Amakusa Shiro Memorial Hall contains videos of the Shimabara Rebellion and great displays related to Christian persecution. Less famous sites may be off the beaten path, like the Martyrdom Museum and Memorial Park for martyrs in Fujisawa. When the nation reopened, some Christians assumed that meant that they were able to practice Christianity freely and openly, so they came out after 200 years of practicing secretly. Unfortunately, it was still not legal and these Christians were brought together in various parts of the country and tortured. You can see one of these sites at Maria Cathedral in Tsuwano, built in the Otome Pass in the area where Christians were put into tiny cages and tortured.

Along with the Martyrdom Site, Nagasaki is also home to Oura Church, the oldest church left in the nation, built in 1864. Because of Nagasaki's status for many years as one of the nation's only ports where outsiders could come, the city is rich in Japanese Christian history, so even the museums here have artifacts and information about the Christian community.

Strangely, you can often find Christian objects in temples and shrines throughout the country. This is because many of these objects were hidden in temples and shrines back when Christianity was forbidden.

Other

Japan has a handful of well-known Confucian Temples. As Japan's gateway to the world for many centuries, Nagasaki's Confucian Temple is the only Confucian temple in the world to be built by Chinese outside of China. Yushima Seido in Tokyo was a Confucian school and one of the nation's first-ever institutes of higher education. The first integrated school in the nation, the Shizutani School in Bizen also taught based on Confucian teachings and principles. The schoolhouse itself was even modeled after Chinese architectural styles. The first public school in Okinawa was a Confucian school given to the Ryukyuan Kingdom along with the Shiseibyo Confucian Temple.

The Okinawan religion also has its own spiritual sites. Seta Utaki, a World Heritage Site, is one of the most famous. Many Okinawan spiritual ceremonies were held here. Asumui in Kongo Sekirinzan Park is a large rock formation believed to be the oldest land in the area. As a religious site, shaman used to come here to speak with the gods.

World War II sites

The three must-visit places for World War II buffs are Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the main island of Okinawa. Okinawa is where some of the most brutal battles occurred between Japan and the United States, and the area is crawling with remnants from its dark past. The Peace Park, Prefectural Peace Museum, Himeyuri Peace Museum, and the Peace Memorial Hall are some of the best places to learn more, see artifacts, and hear accounts of the battles that took place here.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki are important sites in many ways. Hiroshima is the first city ever to be attacked by an atomic bomb, as well as the deadliest. After Hiroshima was devastated, the bombing of Nagasaki days later led the Japanese to surrender, ending WWII. Even those who are not particularly interested in World War II may find the atomic bomb sites interesting, as issues surrounding nuclear weapons and the threat of nuclear war remain a concern to this day. These sites show how powerful, devastating, and harmful atomic bombs can be, not only to the land and those who die, but also for the survivors.

Many people are curious about the possibility of visiting Iwo Jima. Currently, the Military Historic Tours Company has exclusive rights to conduct tours of the island.

Pilgrimage routes

  • 88 Temple Pilgrimage — an arduous 1,647 km trail around the island of Shikoku
  • Chugoku 33 Kannon Temple Pilgrimage
  • Narrow Road to the Deep North — a route around northern Japan immortalized by Japan's most famous haiku poet

Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum - Tokyo

Osaka Castle - Osaka

Maruyama Park - Kyoto

Children\'s Peace Monument - Hiroshima

Five-Story Pagoda - Hatsukaichi

Red Brick Warehouse - Yokohama

Nagoya Twin Tower - Nagoya

Todaiji Temple - Nara

Kenrokuen Garden - Kanazawa

Clock Tower - Sapporo

Meriken Park - Kobe

Tokyo DisneySea - Urayasu

Senko-ji Temple - Onomichi

Hirosaki Castle - Hirosaki

Studio Alta - Tokyo

Sensoji Temple - Tokyo

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government - Tokyo

Shinjuku Central Park - Tokyo

Nakamise Arcade - Tokyo

Asakusa Shrine - Tokyo

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