Japan lies between the North Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Japan, made up of four major islands (Hokkaido, Honshu - with Tokyo, the capital city, and Yokohama - Shikoku and Kyushu) and more than 4,000 smaller ones. Japan is smaller than the UK, but with 126 million souls has twice the population. About 80 per cent of Japan is mountainous or forested and most of the population live in coastal areas.
With this "crush" come many of the typically Japanese solutions - the maintenance of personal space, short-stay "love hotels", and capsule hotels.
Tradition and respect for the past go hand in hand with modern technology. The calibrated tea ceremony contrasts with neon-lit cities; anime (animation) with cherry-blossom viewing; painstakingly prepared sushi with the fast-service vending machines that sell everything from soft drinks to potted plants.
Cheap flights to Japan land at either Narita near Tokyo or Kansai near Osaka, both well linked thanks to Japan's superior transport system.
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Japan’s climate varies with its latitude. The north has four distinct seasons while the south is subtropical. Okinawa averages a temperature of 21 degrees. The plum and cherry blossom trees bloom in March and April. The rainy season lasts from mid-June to mid-July. Except for Hokkaido and the mountains, it gets very hot and humid after a rainstorm. Typhoon season lasts from the end of August through September, but Japan generally only gets thunderstorms. Winter lasts from December to March and sees lots of snow with great mountain skiing.
When to fly to Japan
The peak seasons are when the Japanese are on holiday: New Year’s, 27 December to 4 January; Golden Week, 29 April to 5 May; and the Obon Festival in mid-August. These are the best times to book flights to Japan and visit major cities as the many Japanese have left on holiday.
Other peak seasons are school holidays, which is usually mid-July through August, national holidays, and festivals.
Spring and autumn are great times to visit. In spring the plum and cherry blossoms are in bloom and they alone are worth the flight to Japan. Autumn promises a foliage display. Book Japan flights and accommodation ahead if you’ll be visiting during a festival.
Getting around Japan
Japan has the world’s most efficient train service — from the Shinkansen or Bullet Train to steam locomotives — and rail passes are available.
Japan’s length makes flying worth considering; with domestic airlines offering low and discounted Japan flights.
There’s a comprehensive network of long-distance buses. The cities also have bus lines, but unless you speak Japanese, they're not as useful. Ferries are a great way to island hop and cruise, and can be a real bargain.
Subways and local trains are available in larger cities and are the best means of transport around the cities. Taxis are pretty much everywhere, but are pricey. Have the address written in Japanese as few drivers speak English.
Japan insider information
- Tokyo appears gaudy, noisy, and crowded, but look again: peaceful side streets, temples, shrines, bonsai trees, and somewhere a festival. The museums are world class as is the food, even the noodle shacks. It’s a shopper’s paradise offering designer fashions, souvenirs, crafts, high-tech, and antiques. At night, visit trendy clubs, Kabuki theatre, sumo wrestling, and performing arts. You cannot be bored in Tokyo.
- A testimony to the celebration of life, Hiroshima is a modern city laced with rivers and tree-lined boulevards. Dedicated to art, streets are lined with statues, stone lanterns, memorials, and sculptures. Visitors come mostly to see Peace Memorial Park and museum. Next on the list are the Hiroshima Museum of Art, Hiroshima Prefectural Art Museum, and Shukkeien Garden.
- The prefecture of Okinawa has a unique history. As the kingdom of Ryukyu, Okinawa wasn’t integrated into Japan until 1879, and during World War II was the only site of ground battle in Japan. Okinawa reflects the Ryukyu language, arts, and music, and tropical plants bloom year-round. With its beaches, colourful fishes, and coral reefs, Okinawa’s most popular attraction is diving.
- Completely rebuilt after the war, Nagoya is a modern but laid-back city. Little recognised for its attractions, there’s plenty to see: the display rooms of the famous Noritake chinaware company, the Tokugawa Art Museum’s collection fron a family that once ruled Japan, the Toyota Commemorative Museum of Industry and Technology, the open-air architectural museum, and cormorant fishing in summer.
- Hip, trendy Osaka is an international and progressive business centre. Like Tokyo, Osaka is the place to shop for the latest techno gadgets and toys. Osaka has cultivated excellent performance arts, major museums, and lowlife comedy. The city is also known for its friendly people, food, aquarium, castle, Bunraku puppet theatre, oldest state temple in Japan, and Universal Studios.
- Cleanliness is of paramount importance in Japan. Shoes are left at the door and there are even slippers to be worn in the toilet. It is expected that bathers will bathe before taking to onsen (hot spring) or sento (communal bath houses).