A Beginner’s Guide To Japan
Planning a visit to the land of the rising sun? We’ve got the low-down on this fantastic country, whether you’re keen to broaden your horizons or simply want to know the best way to get from A to B.
Tamara Hinson is a Surrey-based freelance travel journalist who writes for newspapers such as the Telegraph and Guardian, along with in-flight publications and travel websites. She’s especially interested in getting off the beaten track and some of the more unusual destinations she’s visited include North Korea and Benin.
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First, a few basics. Japan is a Germany-sized country whose neighbours include Russia, China and South and North Korea. Home to 127 million people, its capital, Tokyo, has 13 million people alone. It’s a country with incredibly varied landscapes, ranging from alpine peaks to rainforests, neon-lit cities and lush river valleys. And with visitor numbers on the rise, there’s no better time to visit.
When To Go
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In reality, there’s not really a bad time to go to Japan, but spring is a wonderful time to experience the country at its finest. “March, April and May are excellent months to visit,” advises Akemi, a tour leader for Intrepid. “The weather is usually fine and the beautiful cherry blossoms are in full bloom.
September, October and November are also ideal, as the days are warm, but not too humid, and the autumn colours make the gardens and countryside look amazing. Winter, while cold, offers great conditions for skiing and snowboarding and it’s a wonderful time to go to snow festivals and admire the stunning mountain scenery. The summer months can be quite humid but tourist areas are generally quieter and there are many fun festivals and firework displays to enjoy.”
Concerned that you’ll accidentally offend your host by saying the wrong thing or by making a major faux pas during dinner? The rules relating to Japanese etiquette can seem daunting at first, but we’ve got the low-down on the basics.
When entering homes in Japan, you’ll be expected to remove your shoes and change into slippers. “These will always be provided at the entrance,” explains Michael Gane, who’s currently based in Japan as head of operations and marketing for tour operator Gane and Marshall. “Moreover, there are different slippers to be worn in the bathroom, so don’t forget to change from your house slippers and into the provided bathroom slippers – and then back again!”
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If you’re struggling with chopsticks, don’t be afraid to ask for a knife and fork. “Many restaurants, apart from very traditional ones, will provide them without you needing to ask,” explains Michael. “In sushi restaurants, it’s ok to eat with your hands or with chopsticks. If you opt for the former, remember to use your right hand. It’s also worth remembering that sticking chopsticks into food and leaving them upright, passing food with chopsticks, or pouring your own drink, are all considered somewhat rude.”
Japanese are known for their humility, and being loud or boastful are both seen as negative qualities. “Boasting is frowned upon in Japan, perhaps even more so than in Western cultures,” reveals Michael. “Japanese will rarely refer to themselves directly – the Japanese word “watashi”, meaning I/me/myself, is almost never used in ordinary conversation. Try to imitate this behaviour when in Japan, even when speaking in English.
While we’re not expecting you to be holding entire conversations in Japanese by the end of your holiday, knowing a few basic words can make a huge difference. “I usually teach the word “Sumimasen” which has multiple meanings: excuse me, I’m sorry and thank you,” explains Intrepid tour leader Akemi. “I also teach good morning, hello and good evening; ohayogozaimasu until 10am, konnichiwa for the day time and konbanwa for after 6pm. We use these three greetings every day. Also, “oishii,” which means yummy. Any visitors who go to a restaurant will have many opportunities to use this word. It makes the staff happy and it makes it easier for visitors to talk to local people.“
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Don’t be surprised to hear words which sound familiar, either. “Japanese is full of European “loan” words,” reveals Michael Gane. “Pay attention to Japanese conversation and you’ll frequently pick up on these terms. Often, loan words are used even where a Japanese equivalent exists, so you are much more likely to hear the word “beachi” than you are “sunahama”, the traditional Japanese word for beach. Similarly, “parku” is often substituted for “koen”, the Japanese word for park. Knowing this can be a huge help when travelling in Japan.”
When it comes to getting from A to B, train’s the way to go. “Those visiting Japan for the first time should always get a Japan Railway Pass (which we call a JR pass) if they want to see lots of the country,” suggests Miyako, a host for Homestay.com. “Train is one of the best ways of travelling in Japan and the JR pass offers unlimited journeys at a really low price. And a bit of practical advice: for maps and information once you arrive in any Japanese city, go to the place marked ‘I’ in the train station. This is the travel information centre where you can pick up maps, information guides and lots of other useful information for free.”