Japan

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Introduction to Japan

Whether you end up taking photos of a reproduction Eiffel Tower, surfing an indoor wave, shacking up in a love hotel or kipping down in a capsule, you'll do best to come with an open mind and be prepared to be surprised.

Somewhere between the elegant formality of Japanese manners and the candid, sometimes boisterous exchanges that take place over a few drinks, between the sanitised shopping malls and the unexpected rural festivals, everyone finds their own vision of Japan.

Japan is the subject of more gullible and misguided musings than perhaps any other place in the world: the best way to approach it is to discard your preconceptions. Somewhere between the elegant formality of Japanese manners and the candid, sometimes boisterous exchanges that take place over a few drinks, between the sanitised shopping malls and the unexpected rural festivals, everyone finds their own vision of Japan. Whether you end up taking photos of a reproduction Eiffel Tower, surfing an indoor wave, shacking up in a converted love hotel or kipping down in a capsule, you'll do best to come with an open mind and be prepared to be surprised.

Full country name: Japan (Nihon)

Area: 377,835 sq km

Population: 127 million

Capital City: Tokyo

People: Japanese (including indigenous Ainu & Okinawans), Korean

Language: Japanese

Religion: Shinto, Buddhism, Christianity.

GDP: US$3.15 trillion

GDP per capita: US$24,900

Annual Growth: 1.3%

Inflation: -0.7%

Major Industries: High-tech electronic products, motor vehicles, office machinery, chemicals, steel, textiles, processed foods

Major Trading Partners: USA, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, Germany, China

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Traveler Facts

Visas: US passport holders, most EU residents and visitors from Australia and New Zealand do not require a visa if staying in Japan less than 90 days. For information on visas visit the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Time Zone: GMT/UTC +9

Dialling Code: 81

Electricity: 100V ,50Hz

Weights & measures: Metric



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Events

Expect a total sell-out for travel and lodging during Japan's biggest holidays, New Year (December 29 to January 3) and Golden Week (the lumping together of Green Day, Constitution Day and Children's Day, from April 27 to May 6). Other festivals include Coming-of-Age Day (second Monday in January), when ceremonies are held for boys and girls who have reached the age of 20. The Japanese celebrate the end of winter on February 3 or 4 by indulging in Setsubun (bean throwing) while chanting 'in with good fortune, out with the devils'. Hanami (Blossom Viewing) usually runs from February to April; the romantic Tanabata Matsuri (Star Festival) is on July 7; and O Bon (Festival of the Dead), when lanterns are floated on rivers, lakes or the sea to signify the return of the departed to the underworld, takes place from July 13-16 and mid-August.

Kyoto's Gion Matsuri (July 17) is perhaps the most renowned of all Japanese festivals. The climax is a parade of massive man-dragged floats decked out in incredible finery, harking back to a 9th-century request to the gods to end a plague sweeping the city. In the cute and kooky department, Niramekko Obisha (January 20; Chiba) combines a staring contest with consumption of sake - the one with the straightest face wins. The Yah-Yah Matsuri (first Sunday to the following Saturday of February; Owase) is an argument contest: competitors scream Samurai chants and try to look fearsome. Afterwards, they take off all their clothes and jump in the ocean. White Day (March 14) is a bizarre follow up to Valentine's Day where men are supposed to reciprocate to their valentine with a gift of chocolate or marshmallow.

Public Holidays

1 Jan - Ganjitsu (New Year's Day)

2nd Sun in Jan - Seijin-no-hi (Coming of Age Day)

11 Feb - Kenkoku Kinem-bi (National Foundation Day)

20 or 21 Mar - Shumbun-no-hi (Spring Equinox)

29 Apr - Midori-no-hi (Green Day)

3 May - Kempo Kinem-bi (Constitution Day)

4 May - Kokumin-no-Saijitsu (adjoining holiday between two holidays)

5 May - Kodomo-no-hi (Children's Day)

20 July - Umi-no-hi (Marine Day)

15 Sep - Keiro-no-hi (Respect for the Aged)

15 Sep - Shubun-no-hi (Autumn Equinox)

2nd Mon in Oct - Taiiku-no-hi (Health-Sports Day)

3 Nov - Bunka-no-hi (Culture Day)

23 Nov - Kinro Kansha-no-hi (Labour Thanksgiving Day)

23 Dec - Tenno Tanjobi (Emperor's Birthday)

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Best time to Visit

Spring (March to May), with its clear skies and cherry blossoms, is probably the most celebrated Japanese season, but it's a holiday period for the Japanese and many of the more popular travel destinations tend to be flooded with domestic tourists. Autumn (September to November) is a great time to travel: the temperatures are pleasant, and the autumn colours in the countryside are fantastic. Mid-winter (December to February) can be bitterly cold, while the sticky summer months (June to August) can turn even the briefest excursion out of the air conditioning into a soup bath; on the plus side, major tourist attractions will generally be quieter at these times of the year. It's also worth considering peak holiday seasons when you plan your trip. Moving around and finding accommodation during New Year, Golden Week (late April to early May) and the midsummer O-Bon festival can be a real headache.



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Currency / Costs / Approx. Spending

Currency: Yen

Meals

Budget: ¥550-880

Mid-range: ¥880-2700

High: ¥2700-5000

Deluxe: ¥5000+

Lodging

Budget: ¥2800-3850

Mid-range: ¥3850-7700

High: ¥7700-20000

Deluxe: ¥20000+

Japan is probably the most expensive country in the world for travel, but there are ways of keeping the outlays to a just-about bearable level. A skeleton daily budget, assuming you stay in the cheapest hostels, eat modestly and travel short distances, would work out to USD60.00. Add about USD10.00 for extras like snacks, drinks, admission fees and entertainment. Staying in business or deluxe hotels and eating in pricey restaurants can easily have the ticker tipping USD200.00. Long-distance travel is a real budget buster in Japan - if you intend to travel around to different places, it's well worth investing in a Japan Rail Pass. At the other end of the spectrum, high rollers will have no problems off-loading their cash. Japan specialises in establishments catering to the ostentatious flattery of business accounts - the higher the bill, the greater the prestige of the guests.

There is little tipping or bargaining in Japan. If you want to show your gratitude to someone, give them a gift rather than a tip.

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Attractions

Tokyo

The sheer level of energy is the most striking aspect of Japan's capital city. Tokyo is a place where the urgent rhythms of consumer culture collide with the quieter moments that linger from older traditions. It's hectic madness leavened by the Zennest of calms.

What makes Tokyo fascinating is the tension between mammoth scale and meticulous detail. Sightseeing in its streets can be a neon assault that leaves you elated and breathless or an encounter with the exquisite art of understatement. Jump aboard the subway and see how one city is really many.

Daisetsuzan National Park

Japan's largest national park (2309 sq km/1432 sq mi) is in central Hokkaido, the northernmost and second largest of Japan's islands. The park, which consists of several mountain groups, volcanoes, lakes and forests, is spectacular hiking and skiing territory.

Japan's largest national park (2309 sq km/1432 sq mi) is in central Hokkaido, the northernmost and second largest of Japan's islands. The park, which consists of several mountain groups, volcanoes, lakes and forests, is spectacular hiking and skiing territory.

Kyoto

Kyoto, with its hundreds of temples and gardens, was the imperial capital between 794 and 1868, and remains the cultural centre of Japan. Its raked pebble gardens, sensuously contoured temple roofs and latter-day geishas fulfill the Japanese fantasy of every Western cliché hunter.

With an astonishing 1600 Buddhist temples, 400 Shinto shrines, a trio of palaces, and dozens of gardens and museums, Kyoto is Japan's cultural treasure house. Perhaps more impressive, 17 of Kyoto's ancient structures and gardens have been declared Unesco World Heritage sites, making of it one of the world's most culturally rich cities.

Nagasaki

Nagasaki is a busy and colourful city, but its unfortunate fate as the second atomic bomb target obscures its fascinating early history of contact with the Portuguese and Dutch. The chilling A-Bomb Museum and Hypocentre Park are evocative reminders of the horror of nuclear destruction.

As a solemn aniversary, a bell in the turtle-shaped Fukusai-ji, a Zen temple, tolls at 11:02am daily, the time of the explosion. One of the world's biggest Foucault pendulums (a device which demonstrates the rotation of the earth) hangs inside the temple.

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Sources: CIA FactBook, World FactBooks and numerous Travel and Destinations Guides.

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