Japan combines a rich history and heritage, with fun, quirky and ultra-modern sights, stunning landscapes and world-renowned food. Whether you’re heading there to ski in Niseko, wander the laneways of Tokyo, see the tropical side of the country in Okinawa, or explore anything in between, a little bit of planning always pays off. Our mini guide to Japan covers money, visas, weather, culture, the language … even some souvenir advice!
Population: 125 million
Religion: Shinto and Buddhism
Emergency number: 119
- Japan’s literacy rate is almost 100 percent.
- On average, around 1,500 earthquakes strike the island nation every year.
- Japanese construction company Kongō Gumi was in operation for a world-record 1,400 years, until it became a subsidiary of another company in 2006.
- In Kamikatsu, a zero-waste village in Japan, rubbish is sorted into 34 different categories with all food waste used for compost.
- Tsukiji market in Tokyo is the largest fish market in the world.
- 1 January: The most important holiday in Japan. “Year forgetting” parties are held to leave the old year’s troubles behind, houses are cleaned, and relatives visit.
- 11 February: National Foundation Day, celebrating the crowning of the first Japanese emperor in 660 BC.
Hot spots and itineraries
Popular destinations include Tokyo, Kyoto, Sapporo, Yokohama, Nagasaki, Osaka, Okinawa, Fukuoka and Niseko. There are 20 World Heritage Sites, including Mt Fuji, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial and also the historic monuments of Kyoto.
Some itinerary ideas
- Honshu: Tokyo – Osaka – Kyoyo
- Kyushu: Fukuoka – Nagasaki – Aso – Beppu – Yufuin
- Hokkaido: Sapporo – Asahikawa – Furano – Tomakomai
Staying safe and healthy
There is an ongoing risk of earthquakes and tsunamis in Japan, so it’s best to familiarise yourself with the safety procedures of where you are staying, just in case. Check www.jma.go.jp/jma/indexe.html to keep updated. Also, be sure to read the latest on COVID requirements and regulations.
While you’re there, please don’t…
- Blow your nose in pubic; it’s considered rude.
- Use the term “chin chin” when making a toast; in Japanese, this expression refers to the male genitals.
- Forget to learn the characters for “male” and “female”, unless you want to walk into the wrong room full of naked people in a hot spring (onsen). (This is from the personal experience of an Expat Living editor!)
Before you go, read …
- Any book by Haruki Murakami
- Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto – about mothers, love, tragedy and the power of the kitchen in the lives of free-spirited young women in contemporary Japan.
- The Roads to Sata by Alan Booth – an account of the author’s journey, in 1977, through Japan on foot
Before you go, watch …
- Godzilla – conceived as a metaphor for nuclear weapons, the 1954 film has Godzilla leave a trail of destruction on the streets of Tokyo.
- Lost in Translation – Sofia Coppola’s classic rom-com/drama features Bill Murray as an ageing film star and also Scarlett Johansson as a neglected wife. Many scenes are set in the Park Hyatt Toyko.
- Spirited Away – 2001 fantasy film that won Best Animated Feature at the Oscars and held a Japan box-office record for 19 years.
They said it
“Juu-nin to-iro” (“10 people, 10 colours”) – Japanese saying, akin to “different strokes for different folks”
“When you look at Japanese traditional architecture, you have to look at Japanese culture and its relationship with nature. You can actually live in a harmonious, close contact with nature – this very unique to Japan.” – Tadao Ando
“No one will understand a Japanese garden until you’ve walked through one, and you hear the crunch underfoot, and you smell it, and you experience it over time. There’s no photograph or any movie that can give you that experience.” – J. Carter Brown
Do I need a visa?
Presently, citizens of 68 countries, including Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, France, Germany, the UK, Canada and the US, do not require a visa to visit Japan. Stays are generally allowed for up to three months at a time. Do visit the Embassy of Japan in Singapore website for more information, as there have been ongoing suspensions of these visa regulations on account of COVID.
How long will it take me to get there?
Between 6 and 7 hours from Singapore – Japan is 9 hours ahead of GMT, 1 hour ahead of Singapore.
What’s the money situation?
The official currency in Japan is the Japanese yen (JPY). Many ATMs in Japan do not accept foreign cards and credit card use is also limited so it’s advisable to carry sufficient cash. Cash withdrawals are possible at ATMs at post offices and 7-Eleven stores. Banks and post offices will exchange major foreign currency and travellers cheques.
When’s the best time to visit?
Late March to April is Sakura (cherry blossom season), a popular time to visit. June tends to be wet, while high temperatures and powerful storms can strike throughout July and August (with the exception of Hokkaido, mountaintop resorts like Hakone and the Japanese Alps). The autumn months of September to November are cooler and aesthetically beautiful. December typically kicks off the ski seasons in the north. Snow-covered landscapes in Japan are lovely, yet obviously very cold.
What’s the lingo?
Japanese. Here are some phrases to get you started:
- Hello: Konnichiwa
- What is your name? Anata no namae wa nan desu-ka
- My name is __ Watashi no namae wa __ desu
- How much? Dono gurai
- Thank you: Arigato
- Yes: Hai
- No, thank you: Ie, arigato
Last but not least
Is there anything I should know about meeting the locals?
Japanese people greet each other with a bow. For foreigners, a bow followed by a gentle handshake is acceptable.
What’s a must-try dish? Where do we start?
Japan is a culinary giant so it’s hard to single out one place to start; but maybe with ramen, a noodle soup combining a meat or fish broth flavoured with miso or soy, and served with a variety of toppings (depending on the region and the chef).
What should I buy as a souvenir?
Quirky snacks, yukata robes, wagasa (traditional Japanese umbrella made from paper and bamboo), cat-related paraphernalia.
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