From bubbling hot springs and white-sand beaches to ornate temples and metropolitan chaos, Japan is a land of almost mythic beauty and diversity. Composed of more than six thousand islands, Japan simultaneously houses the neon crush of humanity that is Tokyo and the quiet serenity atop snow-capped Mt. Fuji. Whether you’re interested in the food, culture or natural beauty, any visitor is sure to get swept up in the intricate simplicity that marks this truly one-of-a-kind country.
The first known habitation of Japan was around 30,000 BC, and a hunter-gatherer culture followed in 14,000 BC. By 500 BC (the Yayoi period), the inhabitants were already practicing wet-rice farming, pottery and metallurgy.
Despite initial resistance, Buddhism spread throughout the archipelago during the Asuka period (592–710), and from 794 to 1185 (the Heian period), what is considered indigenous Japanese culture began to emerge. This included various forms of prose, poetry and art.
The feudal era in Japan is best known for the emergence and subsequent dominance of the samurai, or the ruling warrior class. During the Muromachi period (1336–1573), Kyoto became the official seat of the shogunate, and Zen Buddhism flourished throughout the land. As the culture took root, however, so did civil unrest. The Ashikaga shogunate couldn’t control the mass of feudal warlords, and civil war eventually erupted in 1467.
With the introduction of Portuguese Jesuit missionaries in the 16th century, cultural and commercial exchange officially began between the Western world and Japan. The firearms brought from Europe quelled the last of the feudal warlords, and by 1590, Toyotomi Hideyoshi had officially unified the nation. Two unsuccessful invasion attempts were launched against Korea during this time (1592 and 1597).
By 1603, the Tokugawa shogunate moved to Edo, or present-day Tokyo, and in 1639, the two and a half centuries of isolationism known as sakoku (closed country) began. In 1854, this policy was forcibly lifted, opening the country to Western influences, political instability and economic crises.
Their subsequent involvement in World War I led to increased political power throughout Asia, and the nation then played an influential role in World War II—both through the bombing of Pearl Harbor and as the site of the two nuclear attacks that helped instigate the war’s end. In the fallout, Japan was left without much of its infrastructure or colonial holdings, and they transitioned to a constitutional monarchy in 1947.
The country enjoyed meteoric economic prosperity from the mid-1950s to the 1990s, becoming a global economic powerhouse. More recently, Japan endured prolonged economic stagnation and the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and subsequent disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.
Today, Japan remains known for its booming tourist industry in Tokyo, Kyoto and beyond. It has also enjoyed international headlines with numerous rising sports stars, including Shohei Ohtani, a Japanese baseball player already drawing comparisons to Babe Ruth.
Modern Japanese culture is a unique blend of tradition and global influences. This creates an interesting dichotomy throughout the nation—one in which you’re just as likely to see pagoda-style temples as impossibly high skyscrapers.
Traditional Japanese cultural pursuits include textile work, kabuki, tea ceremonies, martial arts, calligraphy, origami and Geisha culture. Today, they are perhaps best known for their globally consumed anime (animated television and film series), which are often based on manga (Japanese comic books). These comics have also enjoyed international success.
In the music realm, Japan remains known for karaoke and J-pop, or Japanese popular music.
Japan also has a long and celebrated literary tradition, from the deceptive simplicity of the haiku to the massive tomes of Haruki Murakami (The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Kafka on the Shore, Norwegian Wood and more).
Good to Know
When traveling in Japan, keep some of the following in mind:
Japan uses the Japanese yen. US dollars are not accepted for payment in Japan, so exchanged cash, credit cards and/or traveler’s checks are necessary.
The country used to be notorious for only accepting cash transactions, but every year, travelers are finding other payment methods, including credit cards and debit cards, are increasingly accepted. Note, for small transactions—tourist site entry fees, bus use, small restaurant bills and more—cash is often still required.
Many Western travelers are surprised to find some Japanese ATMs don’t accept credit, debit or ATM cards that have been issued outside Japan. To find a US-friendly ATM (often with an English menu option), visit a post office ATM or a 7-Bank ATM. Unless you’re in a major hub (where ATMs will likely be open at all hours), the postal ATMs will open and close with the post office itself. Keep this in mind, as it means they won’t be available on Sundays or public holidays. 7-Bank ATMs are open 24/7. Travelers can also utilize international ATMs, which are found in many convenience stores. (Look for Family Mart or Lawson.) Whatever type of ATM you prefer, they’ll be readily available, even in relatively remote parts of the nation.
Money exchange services are available in Japan’s international airports. If you have a currency that’s desirable to the Japanese market, such as the US dollar, it usually makes the most financial sense to exchange your money in Japan rather than converting before you arrive.
As with any international travel, make sure you alert your bank to your departure and return dates, and expect to pay nominal transaction fees every time you use your credit card or ATM card abroad.
Tipping is not customary in Japan, and it’s sometimes even met with refusal. If this happens, don’t insist or be offended. Even at restaurants, it’s enough to simply be polite to your server and thank him or her. If you’re set on leaving a small tip at your hotel or inn, place the money in an envelope, and simply leave it in the room. Handing money directly to someone (especially cash) can be considered rude.
In Japanese culture, respect and appreciation are paramount. It’s good practice to be polite and thank people, even for small gestures.
When entering a home or temple, always remove your shoes (slippers are often provided for this reason), and only step on tatami (straw mats) in bare feet or with socks. When greeting anyone, bowing is customary, but a handshake won’t generally offend a Japanese person.
Westerners are likely to perceive the stricter gender roles in Japanese culture. Female students, for example, might have earlier curfews than their male counterparts, and men will often default to asking the permission or opinion of another man rather than a woman. While this is gradually changing throughout Japanese culture, it’s better to respect and accept this aspect of the nation than to protest and offend.
Note, the Japanese people, in terms of appearance, are quite homogenous, and this often makes Westerners stand out. Especially light or dark skin, blue eyes or blond hair can all make you a kind of novelty, and it’s common for people to ask for pictures or practice their English with you. Don’t be rude or offended at these attempts. Smile politely, and enjoy this distinctly Asian experience.
Current in Japan is 100 volts. (This differs from 120 in the United States and 230 throughout Central Europe.) Plugs have two non-polarized pins, which fit perfectly in North American outlets. Not all Japanese outlets, however, are polarized, so it’s a good idea to bring an adapter. Appliances that run between 110 and 127 volts should work in Japanese outlets, but appliances from 220 to 240 volts (as used in Europe, Asia, Australia and more) will need a converter as well.
Located everywhere from department stores to parks to even very primitive train stations, public bathrooms are readily available across Japan. Travelers will almost never find themselves too far away from a restroom.
In older buildings, temples and parks, however, it’s common to only have a squat toilet available, but Western-style toilets are becoming increasingly common in more modern settings. Bathrooms might not be outfitted with soap or paper towels, but in a waste-reduction effort, many are outfitted with powerful hand dryers and motion-sensor sinks.
Drinking water throughout Japan is safe, but many travelers find it has an unpleasant taste in certain areas. Many complain, for example, of a chlorinated taste to Tokyo’s tap water. While the water is potable everywhere, you can opt for bottled or filtered water if you’re not a fan of the taste.
When to Visit
In general, aim to visit Japan in late spring or late autumn. That’s March to May or September to November. During these windows, rainfall is at a minimum, temperatures are mild, and you’ll get to enjoy the stunning cherry blossoms of spring or the vibrant leaves of fall.
Read our When to Visit Japan article for more info.
- Japan calls its own nation Nihon or Nippon, both of which translate roughly to “sun origin.”
- The Japanese nation is composed of a staggering 6,852 islands.
- Some of the world’s most notable companies are Japanese, including Toyota, Sony, Canon, Nintendo, Sharp, Honda and more.
- That YouTube video you saw wasn’t a hoax. Japan’s railway system really does employ staff to physically cram people onto overly crowded trains.
- There are, on average, about 1,500 earthquakes annually in Japan.
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Regions and Cities
Home to iconic and postcard-perfect Mt. Fuji, this region boasts incredible mountain scenery and resorts throughout the Japanese Alps.
Nagano: The site of the 1998 Winter Olympics, Nagano is known for its heavy snowfall and the skiable terrain of Shiga Kogen Ski Resort. Visitors should also make a point to stop at Matsushiro Castle, which offers many Edo-era samurai residences and temples.
Bisected by a line of mountains running east–west, this region is full of rolling hills and plains country. After the devastation of World War II, it rebuilt with a more industrial mind-set.
Hiroshima: Forever marked in the history books as the first city to be targeted by a nuclear weapon (August 6, 1945), visitors today can walk the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and visit the Peace Pagoda. There’s also a vibrant cultural scene, offering symphony orchestra performances and various festivals throughout the year.
If you’re looking for Japan’s cultural heart, look no further. Surrounded by mountains and sea, the area is a diverse collection of traditions, cosmopolitanism, history, food and counterculture. The region boasts five UNESCO World Heritage sites—more than any other Japanese region.
Kyoto: The Imperial Japanese capital for over one thousand years, Kyoto was spared from much of the destruction surrounding World War II. This left the city’s more than two thousand religious sites relatively intact, and any traveler seeking out temples or shrines should make this piece of preserved history a priority stop.
Nara: From tombs to Buddhist temples to Shinto shrines, Nara has enough landmarks to keep any visitor busy. Don’t forget to check out the former imperial palace and the city’s various parks, gardens and green spaces.
Osaka: It’s easy to think of Osaka as little more than a sprawling cityscape, but the soaring skyscrapers are just the beginning. It’s also an important economic center, shopping mecca, culinary powerhouse and cultural hub. Dive in to everything Osaka has to offer, and you won’t be disappointed.
Bordered by hills and mountains and home to the pulsing metropolitan heart of Tokyo, this region is the most industrialized, urbanized and populous and provides the most opportunities for nightlife.
Tokyo: With over 13 million prefecture inhabitants, Tokyo is a bustling, cosmopolitan, international, chaotic wonder. With its mind-bogglingly clean streets, neon overload, shopping at every turn and food that’s worth the trip alone, Tokyo is less a city and more a can’t-miss experience.
This mountainous island (Japan’s third largest) is perhaps best known as the home of Mt. Aso, the nation’s most active volcano. It’s also populated with numerous hot springs, a renowned porcelain industry and silk production.
Kagoshima: Welcome to the “Naples of the Eastern world,” so called for its bayside location and warm weather. This historically and culturally significant city features a distinct, rich food culture, botanical gardens and an impressive aquarium.
Nagasaki: While most known for its infamous status as the last city to endure a nuclear attack (August 9, 1945), Nagasaki offers present-day visitors a lot more than this. Visit the churches that echo the heavy Dutch and Portuguese colonial influence, and enjoy its vibrant shipbuilding scene.
The smallest of Japan’s four main islands (in size and population), the region is marked by mountainous terrain, captivating seascapes, mild winters, numerous agricultural crops and an economically significant copper mine.
Uwajima: Prepare for the unexpected in Uwajima. While many tourists know about the stunning Uwajima Castle, fewer are aware of the Taga Shrine (a decidedly out-of-the-ordinary fertility shrine), the Gaiya Festival (roughly translated to the “awesome” festival) and the town’s tradition of bullfighting—sans the matador.
Worth a Visit
Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
Located just outside Kyoto, this towering forest of thin-trunked bamboo and meandering walkways is any photographer’s dream.
Jigokudani Monkey Park
Having to traverse the narrow, ice-laden two-kilometer footpath into the park scares off many visitors, but those who brave the walk are treated to the iconic view of red-faced Japanese macaques bathing by the dozens in the steaming hot springs. It’s an up-close-and-personal wildlife experience that’s not to be missed.
Arguably the most iconic Japanese destination, no travel guide would be complete without a mention of Japan’s highest and most sacred peak. Even starting from the fifth station (reachable by car), it’s a steep, rocky ascent to the 12,389-foot summit. The view from the top, though, is worth every lung-burning step.
When people think of the neon blitz that is Tokyo, they’re often picturing lively Roppongi. Bars, cabarets, restaurants and all things nightlife abound, and on any given night, it’s filled to brimming with Japanese and international youth alike.
Shinkansen (Bullet Train)
This network of high-speed train lines might not seem exciting at first glance, but with maximum operating speeds of 200 miles per hour (320 kilometers per hour), it’s quite the experience. It’s also a convenient (and fast) way to get from major hub to major hub.
Things to See and to Do
Full Article Coming Soon!
How to Get to Japan
A US traveler doesn’t need a visa for stays of 90 days or less. This applies to business travel, as well as tourism.
Most international travelers will arrive through one of Tokyo’s two international airports: Haneda Airport or Narita International Airport. Other popular hubs include Osaka International Airport (Osaka), Kansai International Airport (Osaka), Chubu Centrair International Airport (Nagoya) and others.
Smaller domestic airports are spread across the nation and connect small to midsize cities with major travel hubs.
Getting Around - Transportation
Japan’s known for its efficient, punctual (and often overcrowded) network of public transportation options. You’ll likely have little problem connecting between metropolitan areas and big cities.
One of the most popular options among travelers is Japan’s extensive railway system. Just remember that traveling in Japan is never cheap. For the best deal, look into the various available rail passes. If time is pressing, domestic air travel is another popular option.
If you have the time, Japan’s local, short-distance and long-distance bus network can be a more economical (and scenic) way to get from place to place. As with the rail system, look into multiday bus passes for the best value.
To shuttle between the thousands of islands that compose the Japanese archipelago, domestic ferries are common. While tunnels and bridges connect the four main islands, some smaller, more remote islands are only reachable by boat.
Car rental in Japan is always an option, but your intended schedule will determine if it makes sense. If you’re sticking to major cities, traffic, parking and unfamiliar streets and signage can make driving difficult. If you’re looking to get to more remote areas, however, car hire could be the fastest and most economical choice.
For leisurely day exploring, bike rentals are readily available throughout the nation.
Japanese is the national language of Japan.
For Western visitors, the potential language barrier in Japan is always a concern. Many tourists find, however, that most Japanese people speak at least a little English. (In 2011, it became compulsory for Japanese students to start English in the fifth grade.) Especially in big cities, signage and announcements will often be in Japanese and English, so travelers don’t have to be overly worried about not reading the Japanese script.
If you’re feeling adventurous and want to try out some simple phrases, here are a few to get you started:
- Hello: konnichiwa
- What’s your name?: namae wa?
- Thank you: arigatou gozaimasu
- I like it: suki desu
- It’s good: ii desu yo
- I’m sorry: gomen nasai
- Excuse me: sumimasen
Backroads Pro Tip
Modern Japanese script is an amalgamation of three separate scripts: kanji, hiragana and katakana. Kanji has over 2,000 characters, and hiragana and katakana each have 46. Depending on the content’s context, writing can also be oriented horizontally (read left to right) or vertically (read top to bottom, right to left). These elements combine to make the Japanese written language a particular challenge for non-Japanese speakers.
Food and Drink
One of the most distinctive—and popular—features about Japanese culture is the food. A traditional Japanese diet revolved around rice, miso and other simple, seasonal ingredients. Today, pickled vegetables, tempura, noodles (soba, udon and more) and beef are common. Seafood is also prevalent, and it’s often served grilled or raw (as sashimi or in sushi).
Backroads Pro Tip
“Sushi” and “sashimi” are often used interchangeably outside of Japan, but these are distinct foods. Sushi is considered any dish made with vinegared rice, meaning sushi could conceivably contain cooked fish or even no seafood at all. Sashimi, on the other hand, is raw meat or fish served fresh and thinly sliced.
The most common beverages include green tea, beer and sake. More recently, there’s also been an uptick in wine and whisky consumption.
For many people, Japan travel is increasingly about the food. In 2011, the nation overtook France in the number of Michelin-starred eateries and has not relinquished that title since.
Travelers are often surprised to find that some foods typically associated with Japan (ramen, fried dumplings, gyoza and more) are actually inspired by foreign dishes and are not strictly “Japanese.”
Read our Food in Japan - What to Know and Eat article for more info.
Japan is a notoriously safe country. In fact, a 2014 study from the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development ranked it the “safest country in the world.” That doesn’t mean, however, you can be entirely complacent as a tourist. Take normal common-sense precautions to guard against petty crime—especially when you’re in crowds or in metropolitan areas.
Most necessary safety precautions relate to outdoor adventuring. If you’re hiking in Japan or partaking in other wilderness excursions, make sure you’re in adequate physical shape to tackle the challenge, always take enough food and water, and prepare for unexpected weather.
For fire or ambulance services, call 119. Police have a dedicated emergency number: 110. Operators will generally be proficient in Japanese and English.
What is Backroads
Established in 1979, Backroads is a pioneer in active, immersive and off-the-beaten-path travel. Now operating adventure tours in over 50 countries, our passion for discovery and our desire to experience the world in original ways continue to inspire our pursuit of new adventures. We hope this guide will be enlightening to you as you plan your next great Japan adventure!