Japan has a long and rich history tracing back to 35,000 B.C. and the arrival of the first humans on its shores. Evidence of these early hunter-gatherers as well as the agricultural groups that followed can be seen in pottery shards, ritual clay figurines and broken arrows found at archeological sites throughout the countryside. The first official, written documents regarding Japan dates back to the 5thcentury, however.
Many aspects of Japanese life and society were influenced by the Chinese, from Buddhism and governing principles to writing characters and literature. In fact, the first permanent capital city of Nara was established by the year 710 and was designed to imitate that of the Chinese capital at the time. They took many ideas and concepts from the Chinese and adapted them to fit their needs and aesthetic.
Throughout Japan’s long and gloried history, the emperor has been chiefly a figurehead and spiritual leader. Powerful land owners, called shoguns, took turns vying for control of the country. They developed a feudal system that included daimyo, lesser lords loyal to specific shoguns, Samurai, a warrior class to help protect their land and, of course, many peasants and artisans to support the system. As with European feudal systems, one was not allowed to marry or rise above his station in life.
The daimyo were constantly fighting amongst themselves for control until 1603 when Ieyasu Tokugawa seized control and became the ruling shogun. He brought all of Japan under his control and moved the capital to Edu. For the next 250 years, the shogun became a hereditary position and the Tokugawa Shogunates reigned over one of the most peaceful times in Japan’s history, the Edu Period.
It was also the start of Japan’s isolation from the world. In 1633, the shogun forbade foreign travel and in 1639, decided to prevent all foreign trade with the exception of China and the Netherlands. This decision eventually hurt Japan and by the 19th century they were sorely behind the rest of the world powers.
Commodore Perry’s actions in 1853 forced Japan to change its strategy when he required them to sign a treaty allowing trade with the United States. The Japanese were embarrassed that they were forced into a corner and realized that they needed to modernize both their military and their overall society if they were to continue to survive as a powerful nation.
The transformation was wide-sweeping. In a bold move, they demolished their feudal system, moved the capital, stripped the daimyo of their lands, instituted a public education program, encouraged capitalism and switched from an agrarian to an industrial society. By 1894, they were able to flex their new muscles and defeat China in the Sino-Japanese war and again, in 1904, gain more land from Russia after a military defeat.
Japan felt these changes would improve their image with the powerful countries of the West, yet they faced repeated racial discrimination from both the League of Nations and from the United States’ Exclusion Act of 1924, which disallowed the entry of Japanese citizens to the United States. Obviously, the proud country was offended and a surge in national pride was experienced. In fact, they continue to fight and gain control of more land in both China and other areas of Asia until 1940, when they joined the Axis powers and in turn, attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor on that fateful day in 1941.
After their loss in WWII, Japan was forbidden from maintaining a military and was occupied by the West until 1952. This allowed them to focus on restoring other aspects of their country and increasing economic growth until it became the powerhouse that it is today.
Japan is actually an archipelago, a group of islands, consisting of four larger islands, Kyushu, Hokkaido, Honshu and Shikoku, and over 3,000 smaller islands. Together, they form an area roughly the size of California.
Due to the fact that it is an island nation, Japan is almost a completely homogeneous country. Over 99% of the population is Japanese, with the remaining portion made up of Chinese, Koreans, Brazilians and Filipinos.
Over 70% of Japan is made up of mountains and volcanoes. In fact, its tallest mountain, Mt. Fuji, is an active volcano.
The two main religions in Japan are Buddhism and Shintoism; most Japanese identify with both. In fact, a popular study shows that 80% of the population claims to be Buddhist and yet 80% also claims to follow Shintoism.
- The public transportation system throughout Japan has special seating and/or entire cars just for women to give them an added sense of security when traveling.
- Tipping is practically non-existent in Japan. Wait staff pride themselves on their service and consider a tip to be rather insulting.
- It is polite and customary to address a person by their last name plus the word san. So, if your co-worker’s last name is Smith, they would be addressed as Smith-san.
- Sometimes the train cars are so crowded that employees physically squish people inside in order to close the doors.
- While Japan is very proper and etiquette-driven, it is perfectly acceptable to slurp your noodles at dinner.
- It can take up to 10 years for a chef to be trained on the proper way to prepare the poisonous blowfish for customers.
Japan is not just the hustle and bustle of Tokyo. It is a wide and varied country, offering travelers many options on what to see and do.
- Cherry Blossoms – the abundance of pink and white cherry trees bursting into bloom each spring is a sight to see
- Mount Aso – hike to this remote location and see one of the world’s largest calderas, a volcano that has collapsed upon itself;
- Mount Fuji – climb this Japanese icon to its staggering 12,000 foot summit;
- White Water Rafting – Japan has some great Class IV and V rivers in the rural Iya Valley, located on the island of Shikoku;
- Take a Bath – bathing is quite an enjoyable ritual in Japan. With the abundance of hot springs and public bath houses, the opportunity will arise on more than one occasion;
- Hiroshima and Nagasaki – for WWII buffs, a trip to Japan would not be complete without visiting one or both of these sites. The controversial decision to drop atomic bombs here effectively ended the war in the Pacific;
- Climb Mt. Haguro – pilgrims and curious visitors alike travel up some 2,446 stone steps to reach the shrine at the top of this mountain;
- Nightlife – major metropolitan cities, like Tokyo, are known for their wild nightlife. Hit the dance floor and party until the morning; you’re only young once, right?
- The 88 Temple Pilgrimage – this traditional, nearly 750 mile-long trek around the island of Shikoku can take over six weeks on foot. As the name suggests, it involves visiting 88 temples on your circular journey;
- Ritsurin Park – gardening in Japan has a very clean aesthetic, completely different than that of Western countries. A visit to Japan would not be complete without a stop in one of their larger, public gardens.
How to Get Cash
Japan is very much a “cash society”. The larger hotels and tourist attractions take credit cards from travelers, but most places only accept cash. It is not uncommon to carry large amounts of cash, which is perfectly safe. If you need more, you have several options.
- Major Banks: Most will exchange your dollars to yen, however, be aware that a 30 minute wait is not unusual for this service.
- Post Office: Oddly enough, the Japanese post offices can also exchange money and even offer a better exchange rate than the banks. If you are trading in large amounts of traveler’s checks, be sure to bring picture I.D. with your name, physical address and birthdate printed on it.
- ATM: Japan does have ATM machines, which locally are called “cash corners”. They do not, however, generally accept foreign credit and debits cards. The main exception is 7-Eleven stores. Transaction fees can be up to $2, in addition to your own bank’s fees.
- CD: This type of ATM machine,called a “cash dispenser”, is strictly for credit card advances. Like ATMs, CDs do not always accept foreign cards. It is also important to note that both ATMs and CDs are only accessible during regular business hours.
- Western Union: This service can be tricky to use as most banks and post offices require a local address in order to have funds wired to you.