Did you know?
- Japan is made up of approximately 3,000 islands, with 4 main islands (Honshu, Kyushi, Shikoku and Hokkaido) making up 97% of its total land area.
- Japan's world-renowned shinkansen (nicknamed the "bullet train") first went into operation in October 1964, just in time for the Tokyo Olympics, and reaches speeds of 300 kilometres per hour, making the 600 kilometre trip from Tokyo to Osaka only 2 ½ hours.
- How to distinguish a Shinto shrine from a Buddhist temple? Shrines almost always have gates known as torii (or "bird perch") – two pillars topped by two horizontal beams. In contrast, Buddhist temples often have gateways with tiled roofs that look like miniature versions of the temple itself.
- You will see Samurai castles perched on hilltops around the country, but only 12 are original. Others, including the famous Osaka Castle, are modern concrete replicas, due to the damage done during World War II.
- In Japan, the Emperor is the head of state and the Prime Minister is the chief of government.
- The highest mountain in Japan is an active volcano, Mount Fuji. Approximately 10% of the world’s active volcanoes are in Japan.
- It is estimated that Japan has an average of 1,500 mild earthquakes per year – that makes approximately 4 per day!
- Japan had the highest life expectancy rate in the world and also the highest literacy rate – almost 100%. On the other hand, its crime rate is one of the lowest in the world.
Visas & Passports
Australian passport holders travelling to Japan do not need a visa at this time.
We require that your passport is valid for travel for at least six months from the date you are planning to return to Australia. Your passport must be valid to travel internationally and must be machine-readable. You also need to carry a valid return ticket on you.
Whether travelling on an Australian passport or the passport of another country, all travellers require visas for a number of countries, and it is your responsibility to secure what may be required before departing Australia. You can consult with your travel agent, but it is also recommended that you check the foreign embassy website for your respective destination as it can also provide you with useful information.
Australian Embassy in Japan:
2-1-14 Mita, Minato-ku
Tokyo 108 8361
Ph. +81 3 5232 4111
Fax. +81 3 5232 4057
The official currency of Japan is the Japanese Yen (JPY; symbol ¥). Notes come in denominations of ¥10,000, 5,000, 2,000 and 1,000. Ensure you change a small amount into small denominations.
Advise your bank of your travel plans so that they can make a note of it, otherwise they may cancel your credit card as a safety measure due to the overseas transactions. Also make a note of the 24-hour emergency contact number of the bank or building society which issued your credit card in the unlikely event that your card is lost or stolen.
Whenever possible use ATMs when the banks are open (Mon – Fri) so that if a machine ‘eats’ your card you can then deal with it straight away. It is always advisable to carry a supply of cash in addition to your credit card.
If you don’t have Japanese Yen with you on arrival, we advise you to exchange some money into the local currency at the airport even if the exchange rate is not the best, this way you’ll have money to get a drink, snack or give a tip during those first few hours of arrival. Your guide will be able to advise you on the best places to exchange money.
Small change is also useful for paying for toilets while on tour which is customary in many places outside of Australia.
- The price of a cappuccino in Tokyo is approximately ¥390.
- The price of an inexpensive lunch is approximately ¥800.
- The price dinner in a moderate restaurant is approximately ¥2,500.
- The price of a beer in a local pub is approximately ¥550.
As would be expected, the sushi and sashimi (small blocks of raw fish) are excellent. Other specialties include Kobe beef served as steak (very expensive) or in sukiyaki; cooked salt- and freshwater fish (often served whole); miso soup; and a wide variety of vegetable dishes. Tempura and teriyaki are two popular ways of preparing seafood and vegetables. Chilled mori soba (cold buckwheat noodles) are refreshing in the summer, and hearty nabe hot pots are warming in the winter. If you're feeling a little adventurous, try broiled eel – it's delicious. Tofu is commonly eaten, either chilled with a simple dip, cooked in soups and stews, or basted and grilled (dengaku).
For those on a budget, noodle shops offer meals that are simple, quick and satisfying. Ranging from basic stand-up counters on station platforms to more sophisticated places serving a range of side dishes, these are Japan's original fast food outlets (feel free to slurp – in Japan it means you are enjoying the dish). Yakitori, a very popular dish, is made from chunks of chicken or squid on skewers, grilled over charcoal and served with a sauce made from soy and sake.
Japan is not an easy country for strict vegetarians to visit, as most of the soup stocks and dipping sauces are made with fish extracts. You can find the ever popular gyoza potstickers and quality ramen noodles. In Hiroshima, why not try Okonomiyaki, a pancake filled with cabbage, meat, seafood and sometimes noodles which is absolutely delicious! Following your meal, try some refreshing green-tea ice cream. There are several varieties, and it's available in Japan's numerous convenience stores.
Less expensive restaurants and those in department stores often have window displays of the foods they serve – the plastic food in the displays is amazingly realistic. Sometimes this display takes the place of a menu. If you cannot understand a printed menu, you can discreetly look at the dishes on the other tables and discreetly point out to the waiter what looks good to you. Generally, Japanese food is made from fresh ingredients and is not highly seasoned (though soy sauce is used throughout).
The appearance of a meal is an important aspect of the art of Japanese food preparation, so take a moment to appreciate the visual presentation before you dig in. Try a Japanese breakfast – at least once. Even if you don't prefer cooked rice, fish and miso soup for breakfast, it's an adventure and the presentation will brighten your day.
Green tea is the preferred beverage with many meals, but you can still find alternatives like soft drinks. Don't expect to find decaffeinated coffee, however as the Japanese drink real coffee – and really strong. You should sample some sake while in Japan – the famous rice wine is more akin to a liqueur than a wine, and can be an acquired taste, but it's an essential part of the Japanese experience.
The temperature varies widely over the country on any given day. In general, the best times to visit are in October and April, when the foliage is changing, and the temperatures are mild during the day and cool at night. Cherry Blossom season is typically from mid-March through to mid-April and the contrasting autumn leaves shine through in October. May, June and July are the rainiest months, yet June, July and August are considered hotter and more humid. Layered clothing is the key when travelling to Japan.
Want to get out and explore on your own?
Japan is famous for its highly efficient public transport systems. Trams, subways, and trains are the easiest for foreign travellers to navigate and you will find subway networks in Kyoto and Tokyo. They are usually the fastest and most convenient way to get around the city. Buses are more challenging as the destination names are written in kanji and often there are no numbers to identify which bus you want.
When catching taxis, make sure you have small change on you and choose one with a meter, if it doesn’t have one then negotiate the price before getting in. We recommend you ask your guide or hotel staff the names of reputable taxi companies.
So, you’d love to bring home a special souvenir from Japan…
Shopping in Japan is something of a shopper’s paradise offering a wide range from traditional souvenirs such as lacquer ware, silks, paper lanterns, and handicrafts, to the most stylish fashion and advanced electronic pieces on the market. The fashion in Japan is considered to have its own quirky and unique style while at the same time the traditional threads exist and are still highly sought after. The black pearls from Okinawa and Imari porcelain are favourites to purchase for that special someone or to treat yourself!
You can purchase good luck charms usually covered in silk brocade from the gift shops of many of the shrines. Be careful not to assume you're going to get bargains on electronic goods, pearls or silks and familiarise yourself with sale prices of these items prior to leaving home so as to get the best value for money.
Lacquer ware known as shikki or urushi are plentiful throughout Japan especially in traditional bowls, boxes and trays. Look carefully before you buy as these days, the so-called lacquer ware can be synthetic varnish on plastic, rather than real lacquer applied over the wood.
It is always an interesting experience to take the time to visit one of the department stores in Japan. They sell everything from rice paper to pressed flowers to a dozen kinds of stuffing for pillows and everything in between. If you are wanting comic books or a quirky gift to give to someone back home, you will find success at a department store in the big cities of Tokyo and Kyoto for instance making it a fun and enjoyable process.
- Status and rank have played a very important role in Japanese society from the days of the shoguns, and they still do today. Even the Japanese language is stratified, and different forms are used with people of different rank. As a result, much of the country's business and social etiquette revolves around determining the rank of an individual and behaving accordingly. Negotiating Japanese traditions and customs is both fascinating and challenging.
- You will be expected to remove your shoes when visiting a restaurant, a home, a traditional inn otherwise known as a ryokan and many of Japan's attractions. And don't, under any circumstances, walk into a temple wearing shoes!
- Please use hashi (chopsticks) when eating Japanese food and ensure to use Western utensils when eating Western food. It is frowned upon to use hashi to eat your French fries or burger!
- The moist towelette you get in restaurants should be used to wipe off your hands before you eat.
- Buy a colourful handkerchief (they're sold everywhere) as you may need it to wipe your hands after washing in the restroom – towels are generally not provided.
- Try to learn some basic phrases to get you by, including "thank you" (arigato), "good morning" (ohayo), "good day" (konnichi wa), "good evening" (konban wa) and "goodbye" (sayonara).
- Don't expect to find escalators in every subway or train station. Although they are becoming more common, many stations are not yet equipped with them so being fit and able to climb some stairs is essential.
- Take along an inflatable pillow to support your back on the bullet train, especially if you are tall. The seats were designed for shorter people. Tall people also need to watch out for the height of doors: some are very low, especially in older establishments. Train doors are especially unforgiving – if you are not careful you may end up wishing you'd brought a helmet!
- The Japanese sense of personal space is different than that of Westerners and crowding and jostling are considered perfectly acceptable behaviours.
Celebrations & Public Holidays
Japan has more festivals known as matsuri than almost any other country in the world. The festivals exude colour and tradition in spectacular form often with intricately decorated portable shrines or floats and processions of participants dancing and chanting. Every year in early February, the Sapporo Snow Festival known as Yuki Matsuri takes place for a week-long celebration in three main sites: Odori Park, Susukino, and Tsudome. The festival originated in 1950 when some high school students built some snow statues in Odori Park and has since blossomed into a spectacular event featuring snow and ice sculptures attracting over 2 million visitors annually. The sheer size of the sculptures is something to behold as one sculpture can scale up to approximately 25 metres wide and 15 metres high!
One of the most traditional festivals in Japan is Jidai Matsuri in Kyoto held annually celebrating the Heian Shrine and the founding of Kyoto the former capital of Japan. After Tokyo was announced as the new capital city in 1868, the Heian Shrine was built some 30 years later to revive the city of Kyoto and with it the Festival of the Ages commenced showcasing the city’s rich traditions and imperial heritage. Today, a 5-hour long parade starts at the old Imperial Palace and ends at the site of Heian Shrine with volunteers in traditional and historical dress from the Meiji era. Warriors, princesses, politicians, merchants, and priests all are represented in the procession signifying the cultural history of Kyoto itself.
Other national public holidays to be aware of include:
- New Year’s Day
- Coming of Age Day (January, second Monday)
- National Foundation Day (February 11th)
- Emperor’s Birthday (December 23rd)
- Spring Equinox (March 20th / 21st)
- Showa Day (April 29th)
- Constitution Memorial Day (May 3rd)
- Greenery Day (May 4th)
- Children’s Day (May 5th)
- Sea Day (July, third Monday)
- Sports Day (October, second Monday)
- Mountain Day (August 11th)
- Respect for the Aged Day (September, third Monday)
- Autumn Equinox (September 23rd)
- Culture Day (November 3rd)
- Labor Thanksgiving Day (November 23rd)
One of the world’s main economic centres, Tokyo is the capital city of Japan and a city that presents a different view of itself at every turn. Starkly modern, it becomes a jewel box at night with a glittering display of neon and fluorescent lights. But you can retreat to quiet residential back streets and sculpted gardens and still find the harmony, scale and simplicity the Japanese have prized for centuries. Look down one street and you’ll see nothing but neon and concrete, but around the corner, you may find yourself in the bonsai-lined courtyard of a traditional inn. You’ll find an amazing hodgepodge of old and modern architecture, often side by side, and a maze of streets where even taxi drivers have to consult their maps.
This almost perfectly conical volcano is a familiar symbol of Japan and located approximately 100 kilometres southwest of Tokyo. Mount Fuji known as Fuji-san is 3,776 metres high and beautifully snow-capped in winter. Considered as one of Japan’s 3 sacred mountains it has been a known pilgrimage site for centuries. To have the opportunity to view Mount Fuji on a clear day its best to visit during the colder seasons of the year than in the summer months and in the early morning or late evening. Other scenic areas close to Mount Fuji include Hakone, small mountains with hot spring resorts, forest hiking, the Open-Air Sculpture Museum, and a large lake.
When the first atomic bomb exploded over Hiroshima on 6 August 1945, the city became an immediate symbol for the horrors of war. Today, Hiroshima has several moving reminders of that day of utter devastation. The centrepiece is called the A-Bomb Dome; it is the skeleton of a domed building that survived the blast. Across the street is Peace Park, where you’ll find the Cenotaph for the Victims (it contains all of their names) and the Atomic Bomb Museum. The most moving monument is the Children’s Peace Memorial, which celebrates the desire for long life and happiness, traditionally expressed in the folding of paper cranes. You may see groups of schoolchildren adding more paper cranes, strung together in rainbow garlands, to the millions that already surround the base of the memorial.
The island of Miyajima lies just off the coast from Hiroshima, which is a short ferry ride from the end of the streetcar line. The main reasons to go there are the solitude, the view and the Shrine of Itsukushima, which is built on wooden piers over the water. The shrine’s torii (the huge gate at the entrance to a Shinto shrine) is out at the head of a bay – its orange paint, stunning against the blue water, has made this one of the most photographed places in Japan. The original shrine was constructed in the 6th century to honour the fishing gods, and for centuries boats coming to the island had to pass under the enormous torii.
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