Japan, a top Asian destination, annually attracts millions of visitors from around the world. Its culture and heritage, food and shopping offers a myriad of reasons to put it on your travel list.
Four distinctive seasons makes Japan attractive all year round. Stretching over 3,100 km across the Pacific Ocean, different regions offers tourists something to see and do. Kayaking in Okinawa or skiing in Hokkaido are just two possibilities.
Japan has taken big steps to re-orient itself to embrace the opportunities of an evolving world. Unlike the not too distant past, tourists can get by without facing too many language issues. Travellers are also becoming more adventurous, not only heading to the big cities, such as Tokyo and Osaka, but they are also exploring rural areas as well. The face of tourism in Japan is also transforming to cater to a technology-oriented trend that rides on the global “sharing economy” wave.
Japanese people are friendly and polite. They treat foreigners well and are generous in offering assistance. So, if you get lost or encounter any problems, do not be shy but ask for help. Body language may help break the ice. Learning the lingo may make your stay even more enjoyable. Begin with "Hajimemashite" meaning “nice to meet you.”
Because it’s a safe country
Japan has always been one of the safest countries to visit. Crime rate is low. Travellers feel secure walking on the streets, even at night. Single women travellers may sometimes encounter verbal harassment but aggressive assault is unheard of. Pick-pocketing is rare. If necessary, a tourist information centre or koban (police station) may offer assistance.
Because of its tourist friendly initiatives
The Government has been taking initiative to boost inbound tourism. In terms of medical tourism, high standards of excellence have been set to safeguard service quality. The implementation of medical visas have also made it easier to visit Japan for a medical holiday.
Japan is also promoting tax-free shopping in addition to reducing the minimum amount of purchase for tax exemptions. Plus, more tax-free counters make tax refunds easier.
Language barrier has long been an obstacle, a perception of Japan as a “Lost in Translation” destination seems to be fading. In major cities and popular destinations, signs and pamphlets printed in foreign languages are now widely available. Increasingly more Japanese service staff at major attractions and shopping centres speak English and Chinese. City transportation broadcasts in Japanese and English, some even Korean and Chinese.
Because of Tokyo 2020 Olympics
To welcome this world class event, Tokyo is transforming itself into an international host of a world class event. New infrastructure is being installed to welcome more international visitors. Whether you are heading to the Olympics or not, it will be exciting to witness the transformation of this vibrant capital and learn what the country has to offer.
Because of its extensive air routes
Travel has become more convenient and affordable with the surge of low-cost carriers. To differentiate oneself in the market, more unconventional routes have been launched. This has benefited travellers who seek to venture “off the beaten track”. Back in the days, when international tourists only had a choice to fly into Tokyo or Osaka, visiting Shikoku or Kyushu was a much longer journey. Nowadays, travellers can fly direct to Takamatsu or Kagoshima. New routes saves both time and money!
Japan’s dining culture is so rich and well prepared that one will never get sick of Japanese food. From the elaborate kaiseki to the everyday sushi, ramen and tempura, the range is so extensive and mouth-watering!
What to eat?
Associated with a traditional tea ceremony, Kaiseki-ryori (or simply kaiseki) is Japanese haute cuisine. The key to a delightful experience is created from the fineness of ingredients, preparation, setting and food presentation. Dishes are served in small portions and in sequence, one by one. Dinners enjoy a relaxing atmosphere, and at the end of the meal, sake and beer are served.
(Note: the same pronunciation “kaiseki-ryori” has another meaning. The other version literally means banquet dining, which is associated with drinking. One can distinguish the two by reading Chinese: 会席料理.)
Sushi すし (寿司) and Sashimiさしみ (刺身)
Eating raw fish may not be common in other countries, but this authentic cuisine has gained widespread popularity around the world. “Sushi” is a combination of raw fish eaten with vinegar and seasoned rice. Eating merely raw fish is “sashimi”. When devouring sushi, wasabi is an indispensable ingredient. Sushi chefs add a bit as it is believed to kill the parasites on the fish.
Ramen ラーメン / 拉麺
A popular meal for most salary men, ramen serves as a simple lunch, quick dinner or light supper. It consists of a bowl of egg noodles in broth, topped with chashu (sliced roast pork), bamboo shoots, leeks, bean sprouts and a piece of nori (seaweed). Originated from China, the widespread popularity makes it an essential part of local culinary tradition. When consuming ramen, Japanese consider slurping a sign of appreciation. You are expected to finish the soup to show it was tasty.
Originally, from Portugal, this deep fried or battered dish, when made well, is light and crispy. The common choices of ingredients include prawn and vegetables, such as kabocha (pumpkin), nasu (eggplant) and satsuma-imo (sweet potato). It is served with a grated radish sauce.
As a nation that tops life expectancy charts year after year, the Japanese makes us all wonder what is their secret to a long life. A healthy lifestyle is, of course, one key aspect. Another is regular natural treatment at one of 3,000 plus onsens or Japanese hot springs.
What are the benefits of onsen?
Onsen or hot springs offers more than just relaxation. Bathing in natural hot springs makes your skin "tsuru-tsuru" つるつる meaning smooth as a baby skin. This is one of the biggest reasons attracting millions of female visitors to Japan each year. Modifying the pH values provide different medical effects. For example, Tamagawa Onsen in Akita prefecture is the most acidic (pH1.2). It is believed to have curing effects for cardiovascular disease, as well as problems with the spine, skin and liver. Cancer patients can also benefit from onsen because there are small amount of mild radioactive substances in the water. Whether it is true or not nobody knows, but what we do know is there are countless proven health benefits associated with hot springs.
Onsen for day-tripper
Many onsens are located within an hour of major cities, making them highly accessible to both locals and tourists alike. An efficient rail network means tourists can easily visit an onsen as part of a day trip.
Most Japanese travel sites suggest "higaeri-onsen" 日帰り温泉 (meaning: same day return). For those who have more time and prefer to soak up the tranquility, there are a number of hotels or ryokan offering accommodation in an onsen town. Some include breakfast and dinner as well.
A marketplace of novelty and irresistible bargains
Japan is a shopping destination like no other. With so much choices, it is hard to imagine someone visiting without bringing home something from a local artisan, fashion boutique or confectionery stop. Most commonly sought purchases and souvenirs include Japanese snacks and candies, cosmetic products, arts and crafts, pharmaceutical products or fashion labels.
Where to shop?
Tokyo’s Ginza, Ropponggi, Aoyama, Daikanyama and Shinjuku are all famous shopping areas. Upscale shopping malls such as Tokyu Plaza Ginza, KITTE Marunouchi, Ropponggi Hills and Omotesando Hills house many premium brands. For something less classy, LUMINE in Shinjuku, Tokyo Midtown or Tokyo Solamachi are some options. Away from the city, there is Futakotamagawa Rise—many regard this as the best mall within Tokyo metro area. Otherwise, AEON LakeTown in Saitama is believed to be biggest mall around Tokyo. In Kansai, Osaka is the best city to shop-til-you-drop. Unlike Tokyo, where people tend to go to large shopping malls, Osaka provides an open-air experience. Shinsaibashi-suji and Ebisubashi-suji are two popular arcades, featuring thousands of small shops lining up on both sides. In Fukuoka, the capital of Kyushu, shoppers should not miss Canal City Hakata, JR Hakata City, or Solaria Plaza.
Japanese artisanship prides itself on its quality. Genuine “made in Japan” arts and crafts make a worthwhile gift. In Tokyo, visitors of Akihabara can wander inside 2k540 Aki-Oka Artisan, an arcade featuring numerous local products. At Tokyo's Japan Traditional Crafts Aoyama Square, you will find a collection of the country’s most celebrated items. Alternatively, visit original stores in their specific “birthplaces” to discover more.
Whether it is a new school year or time to replenish your office supplies, Itoya in Ginza (Tokyo) is the place for stationery. Occupying two buildings, G Itoya and K Itoya, each features different items. If you have a tight schedule, a concept store at Haneda Airport is an excellent last minute shopping opportunity.
Today many Japanese cosmetic products are available overseas, still tourists can find some bargains irresistible. Shoppers should be warned that buying cosmetics in Japan is a treasure hunt. With literally millions of kusuri-ya 薬屋 (drug stores) around, the price-conscious tourist requires patience and much stamina to peruse through the long shopping arcades of Tokyo or Osaka.
In Japan, there is no shortage of snacks. Chips, chocolates, biscuits, candies of various kinds can easily cost a couple thousand yen! Highly sought after products include seasonal or limited editions or regional limited editions, such as takoyaki flavour Pocky or Hokkaido snow crab flavour Calbee. Popular snacks bought by tourists include, Calbee chips, Kit Kat green tea chocolate, jumbo size Pocky, cup noodles and wasabi beans. The diverse variety available allows travellers to find something suitable to their own taste.
Equivalent to US$1 shop or 1-Euro shop, 100-yen shops provide a diversity of products at a low price. Various items can be found, such as towel, cup, plate, storage, mirror as well as apparel, stationery, cooking utensils, beauty products, gardening tools, pet toys, and much, much more. Daiso is the largest franchise, with about 3,000 branches in Japan and 1,500 overseas. Smaller chains include Seria and Can Do.
For more information, browse through the websites below:
Short-term travellers (less than 6 months visa) can enjoy tax-free shopping by presenting their passports at tax-free shops. For a total purchase of 5,000¥ on “General Items” or “Consumable Items”, 8% consumption tax will be exempted. (Note: the total of 5,000¥ applies to each category but not the sum of items in both. Some shops may deduce the 8% tax off the final price upon payment. It is advisable to ask before you finalize the purchase.)
Or to compare another shopping destination, click South Korea
Facts and figures
Total land area 377,944 km2
No. of island 6,852
Land use Forest 66%
Population 127.3 m
Official language Japanese
Currency Yen (¥) US$ 1 ≈ 114¥
Time zone GMT +9
Country code +81
Population of major cities
Climate Average temperatures of different regions:
Kanto, Chubu, Kansai, Shikoku, Chugoku, Kyushu
Electricity Plug: 2-flat-pin Voltage: 100v/50 or 60 Hertz
Japan Airlines (JL) and All Nippon Airways (NH) are two major Japanese carriers serving a wide range of international and domestic destinations. The rise of lost-cost carriers, Vanilla Air (VN) and Peach Aviation (MM), both subsidiaries of All Nippon Airways, cater to budget travellers. Vanilla Air has a hub in Tokyo, while Peach Aviation mainly serves routes from Osaka. For more information on flights, check individual carriers’ websites below:
International flights mainly land in Tokyo via Narita Airport, some land at Haneda Airport as well. Other major hubs include Osaka’s Kansai International Airport, Chubu Centrair International Airport in Nagoya, New Chitose Airport in Sapporo, and Fukuoka International Airport, serving as the gateway to Kyushu.
New routes have also been developed by some budget airlines serving medium distance routes between some Asian cities and smaller hubs in Japan, such as Hiroshima, Takamatsu and Kagoshima. For more information on airports, check the following websites:
Japan Railways (JR) Japan Railways (JR) consists of a combination of six regional railway networks, JR-Hokkaido, JR-East, JR-Central (Tokai), JR-West, JR-Shikoku and JR-Kyushu, together forming an extensive national network.
Trains are classified into four categories: Local (futsu 普通), Rapid (kaisoku 快速), Express (kyuko 急行) and Limited Express (tokkyu 特急). There are also Shinkansen 新幹線 (bullet train) that runs a high-speed service between major cities, making travel between Tokyo and Osaka as short as two and a half hours, travel to Tohoku in less than four hours and Kyushu in five hours.
Tickets and seat reservation Train tickets can be purchased through ticketing machines or at a counter. Travellers wishing to travel on the Shinkansen or Limited Express trains should purchase a supplement ticket (tokkyu-ken 特急券) on top of the basic fare. Most trains, except some short distance ones, are divided into ordinary car and Green Car (first class) or GranClass. Travellers can choose between reserved (shitei-seki 指定席) or non-reserved seats (jiyu-seki 自由席); a supplement ticket for reserved seat is necessary. All Green Car and GranClass cars on Shinkansen and Limited Express trains are reserved seats, travellers must purchase Green Car tickets with seat reservation.
Japan Rail Pass (JR Pass) JR Pass is a ticketing system that makes travelling across Japan more convenient. It allows pass holders unlimited access to JR trains within a certain period, some even with access on Shinkansen trains. The pass becomes worthwhile if travellers are making multiple long distance trips.
Apart from the Japan Rail Pass which is jointly promoted by the six companies of the JR Group, there are individual passes by each company covering various regions.
Conditions and eligibility Different conditions may apply to the various passes. Travellers are advised to read the terms and conditions before purchase. All JR Passes are only eligible to foreign passport holders and those staying in Japan with on a temporary visitor visa. Purchasing a rail pass The JR Pass may be purchased in Japan, but it is advised that you purchase it in your home country, as it is cheaper to do so abroad. It can be purchased through travel agents. When you arrive in Japan, approach the JR ticket office in designated stations and present your passport and receipt to obtain the rail pass.
Besides Japan Railways (JR), there are a number of other companies providing railroad services:
Tobu(access from Tokyo to Nikko, Kinugawa Onsen and Kawagoe)
Odakyu (access from Tokyo to Hakone, Kamakura-Enoshima and Izu Peninsula)
Meitetsu (providing an extensive network around Nagoya)
Kintetsu (serving the south of Kansai region with connections between Osaka, Kyoto, Nara and Ise)
Nankai (access to Wakayama and direct connection between Kansai International Airport and Osaka-Namba)
Hankyu (offering network surrounding Osaka, Kyoto and Kobe.
Hanshin (connecting Kobe-Sannomiya with Osaka-Umeda and Osaka-Namba)
Keihan (one main line connecting Kyoto with Osaka).
Nishitetsu (operating a railway network around Fukuoka. It also has bus routes connecting to other cities in Kyushu)
Apart from the well-developed railway network, buses are also common means of conveyance. In cities like Kyoto, a local city bus is widely used. In sub-urban or rural areas, buses are major modes of transport. Intercity buses are also available, although slower than trains, they are a good way to save money. Most of the railway companies also operate a network of buses. These include JR Bus, Kintetsu Bus, Meitetsu Bus, Keihan Bus, Hankyu Bus and Nankai Bus.
Some scenic routes are only accessible via bus. A famous route, such as the Takayama-Shirakawago-Kanazawa route, offered by Nohi Bus is a popular choice. The service also runs express buses from Takayama to Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya. Hokutetsu connects Kanazawa with other cities. Alpico links cities in Nagano Prefecture with Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya. Hokkaido Chuo Bus services between cities within Hokkaido.
Ferries are a means of transportation within Japan, although it usually takes longer. Long distance ferries usually depart at night and arrive the next morning. They are equipped with communal baths and restaurants. Some may even have kids room and other amenities. Passengers can choose the travel class of their compartments. The lowest class features a common room lined with tatami mats.
Tomakomai serves as a major port in Hokkaido. Ferries run by Shin Nihonkai Ferry cross Akita, Niigata and Tsuruga in Fukui. The same company also runs services between Otaru and Niigata, as well as Maizuru in Kyoto. Taiheiyo Ferry crosses from Tomakomai to Sendai and further to Nagoya. MOL Ferry services between Tomakomai and Oarai (Ibaraki).
In the south, Osaka, Kobe and Kitakyushu are major ferry terminals. Hankyu Ferry links Osaka and Kobe with Kitakyushu. Meimon Taiyo Ferry connects Osaka with Kitakyushu. Ferry Sunflower has routes between Osaka and Beppu, Kobe and Oita, and Osaka and Shibushi (Kagoshima). Miyazaki Car Ferry sails between Miyazaki and Kobe. Ocean Tokyu Ferry links Kitakyushu with Tokushima and all the way to Tokyo.
There are other shorter routes linking Shikoku with Kyushu, Chugoku and Kansai regions, as well as ferries crossing between Hokkaido and Tohoku. Okinawa, the southernmost island of Japan, is also connected by ferries that depart from Kagoshima.
Travelling on public transport may be convenient, but driving can also be fun. A driving holiday is particularly suitable for those visiting more remote reaches, such as Hokkaido, Tohoku, Shikoku, Kyushu and Okinawa. However, travelling within big cities, like Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto or Fukuoka, where public transport is well-developed, driving could be a nightmare. If you are travelling to northern Kanto region, such as the Prefectures of Nagano or Niigata for a ski holiday, or the Alpine region in Chubu, renting a car could also be a wise option. This is because you can explore the destination at your own pace.A number of car rental companies have offices at major airports.
License and insurance To drive in Japan, holding an international Driving Permit (IDP) is necessary. The driver must be 18 years old or above. In winter, Hokkaido, Tohoku and northern Kanto regions are covered with heavy snow. Although winter tires are provided by default, travellers with no or little experience maneuvering in the snow should avoid such conditions. Insurance is always included in the rental contract, yet it is advised that you double check the conditions with the rental companies and confirm the coverage and liability terms.
Gasoline and parking Gas stations are found across Japan, some operate 24 hours. There are full service and self-service stations. To fill a full tank, the Japanese yell out: “mantan”. Choose from レギュラー (regular), ハイオク (high octane) and 軽油 “keiyu” (diesel) fuel. More details can be found here.
While parking lots can be in low supply and costly in urban areas, in smaller towns and countryside areas, parking is easy. Hotels and ryokan normally provide parking for their guests, but these come with a price tag of 1000¥ per night; yet, some places offer free parking.
JOMON 縄文 (c. 14000 BC – c. 300 BC)
People lived by hunting, fishing and gathering
Pottery discovered by archaeologists
YAYOI 弥生 (c. 300 BC – c. 250 AD)
Rice agriculture introduced Making iron or bronze ware began Society started to develop hierarchy
KOFUN古墳 (250 – 538)
Kanji (Chinese characters) introduced
The first court was born, named as Yamato court
ASUKA 飛鳥 (538 – 710)
Buddhism arrives in Japan
Koseki 戸籍 (family register system) formed
NARA 奈良 (710 – 794)
First permanent capital established in Nara
The Buddha in Todaiji 東大寺 was built
Capital moved to Nagaoka-kyo 長岡京 in Kyoto
HEIAN平安 (794 – 1185)
Capital moved to Heian-kyo 平安京 (present Kyoto).
Fujiwara Michinaga 藤原道長 took over ruling on behalf of the emperor
Literature masterpieces such as Genji monogatari 源氏の物語 (The Tale of Genji) by Murasaki Shikibu and Makura no soshi 枕草子 (The Pillow Book) by Sei Shonangon created
KAMAKURA 鎌倉 (1185 – 1333)
Minamoto no Yoritomo 源頼朝 was appointed shogun (general) A warrior-centred government Kamakura Bakufu (Shogunate) 鎌倉幕府 started
The big Buddha was erected in Kamakura
The fall of Kamakura Bakufu
MUROMACHI 室町 (1336 – 1573)
Period of unrest due to civil war, also significant cultural development (tea ceremony, flower arrangement)
Trading with Portugal and Spain began.
Golden Pavilion 金閣寺 erected
Silver Pavilion 銀閣寺 erected
The fall of Muromachi Bakufu
AZUCHI-MOMOYAMA 安土桃山 (1573 – 1603)
A period of reunification under the rule of Oda Nobunaga 織田信長 and Toyotomi Hideyoshi 豊臣秀吉
Nobunaga established Azuchi castle
Osaka castle was built by Hideyoshi
Death of Toyotomi Hideyoshi
EDO 江戸 (1603 – 1868)
Tokugawa Leyasu 徳川家康 shogunate begun in Edo (Tokyo).
Toshogu 東照宮 in Nikko erected
The Netherlands moved to Dejima in Nagasaki. Nation was completely closed
15th Tokugawa shogun (Tokugawa Yoshinobu 徳川慶喜) returned power to the imperial court
MEIJI 明治 (1868 – 1912)
Meiji Restoration begins
Telegraph between Tokyo and Yokohama was established
Beginning of school system
Establishment of Tokyo University
TAISHO大正 (1912 – 1926)
Emperor Meiji died. Emperor Taisho crowned
Japan joined forces in WWI
Great Kanto Earthquake devastated Tokyo and Yokohama
Famous novel Izu no Odoriko 伊豆の踊り子 (The Dancing Girl of Izu) by Kawabata Yasunari 川端康成 published
SHOWA 昭和 (1926 – 1989)
Second Sino-Japanese war
Beginning of WWII
The Pacific War begun
Hiroshima and Nagasaki hit by atomic bombs, Japan surrendered WWII
Japan became a member of the UN
Tokyo Tower erected
Tokaido Shinkansen, first Shinkansen line, launched
First oil shock
Second oil shock
Tokyo Disneyland opens
HEISEI平成 (since 1989)
The Great Hanshin Earthquake in Kobe
Winter Olympics in Nagano
Universal Studio Japan (USJ) opened in Osaka
World Expo in Aichi Prefecture
The Great Tohoku Earthquake in Fukushima, followed by Tsunami
Tokyo Sky Tree opens
Mt. Fuji listed as UNESCO World Heritage
Washoku (Japanese cuisine) inscribed as UNESCO Intangible Culture Heritage
Atomic element 113 “Nihonium” discovered by Kyushu University
A basic estimate of daily spending (per person) is illustrated below.*
Staying in hostel, B&B shared flat or capsule hotel.
Food & Drink
Ramen, bento, convenient stores snacks, yatai, depachika, street food, shokudo or self-catering.
Local - Bike rental, public transport or by foot. Regional - Local train, bus or ferry.
Staying in 5-star hotels or high class ryokan.
Food & Drink
Michelin starred or fine dining, kaiseki ryori, special seasonal cuisine, premium wine or sake.
Local - Hotel limousine or taxi. Regional - Shinkansen, Limited Express train or airplane.
Total basic daily spending ¥7000 (US$ 60)
Total basic daily spending ¥90000 (US$ 775)
*This excludes sightseeing, shopping and other personal tourism activities, such as beauty care and hiring eco-guides.