"ONCE A YEAR,
GO SOMEPLACE YOU'VE
NEVER BEEN BEFORE."
From ancient times, the land and people of Japan have met in the morning sun to create a rich and varied culture with a vibrant and fascinating history. Japan today is a society composed of traditions and customs that is both hundreds of years old and as new as the microchips in a personal computer. Japan’s climate ranges from temperate to southern sub tropical lushness. Year-round, the Japanese landscape is subtly altered by the progression of four distinct seasons. The unique flavour of Japan’s traditional culture, from the language of haiku poetry to the patterns that make up a kimono’s fabric, has been shaped and matured by its seasons.
Stretching 3,000km north to south, Japan has a varied climate with icy Hokkaido in the north and the small sub-tropical islands in the south. The four distinct seasons allows the visitor to enjoy a wealth of scenic beauty at any time of the year.
The season for cherry blossom viewing is certainly one of the most popular times to visit Japan. From the first of March, when flowering plum blossoms emerge, to the last days of May, when the last flowering cherry blossoms are falling from the trees, spring is a time when families and friends from all over the country can be seen gathering in parks for flower-viewing parties known as Hanami. Spring is a favourite time of the year for young Japanese children. Hinamatsuri, Doll’s Festival is celebrated on March 3. Throughout Japan young girls display their dolls for all their friends to admire. Kodomo no Hi, Children’s Day is celebrated on May 5. This is a national holiday in Japan and is famous for the colourful carp shaped kites that fill with wind and appear to be swimming in the breeze. They are hung from flag poles outside schools, homes and shops throughout Japan.
The average temperature range during the spring months (March, April, May) is 8 to 15 degrees celsius.
With its long exposed seacoast, Japan’s seaside is the place to be during the summer months. Summer is school holiday time in Japan with many students enjoying activities such as hiking, climbing and beach activities. For the adventure seekers, summer is the ideal time for those interested in climbing Japan’s famous Mt. Fuji. The climbing season extends from July 1 to August 31. Professional baseball can be seen at many of the major cities during the summer months. Summer is the season of rice planting and is often called the ‘Season of Greenery’. Children set up bamboo branches throughout the streets to celebrate Tanabata Star Festival. This festival has been celebrated for more than 1000 years. Written poems, wishes and decorations are tied to the branches as an offering to the stars. In summer, fireworks are displayed at festivals throughout Japan with the grandest fireworks display on the Sumida River, Tokyo. The most noted summer festival in Japan is the Gion Matsuri of Kyoto. This festival lasts for a few days culminating in a gala parade of dozens of floats carried by happi-coated men and women.
The average temperature range during the summer months (June, July, August) is 23 to 31 degrees celsius.
Autumn in Japan brings swirls of changing leaves, in vivid hues of crimson, gold, bronze yellow. This is the season of harvest, as well as a time of sport's carnivals and festivals around the country. The Jidai Matsuri of Kyoto on 22nd October features a procession of more than 2000 people in colourful costumes from the 8th to the 19th century. The Autumn Festival of Toshogu Shrine in Nikko takes place on October 17th. This festival features troops of warriors in full samurai armour. In the heart of the Hida Mountains, is a traditional town known as Takayama. Each year in Spring and Autumn, Takayama appeases the gods with a spectacular festival which features carved wooden floats that are paraded day and night through the main streets of town. Many tourists flock to these areas to catch a glimpse of the vibrant autumn colours and colourful festivals. The cool, crisp autumn days are the ideal time to enjoy sightseeing in Japan.
The average temperature range during the autumn months (September, October, November) is 14 to 22 degrees celsius.
The Japanese celebrate 1st January as the start of the New Year. Most people visit shrines and temples to pray for good luck, visit friends and relatives to exchange greetings, eat special food and drink sake. Except for the extreme north, winter in Japan is not very severe, and is usually tempered by warm sunshine and blue skies. Winter sports are certainly popular and a full range is on offer in central and northern Japan. Japan’s ski resorts boast some of the best powder snow in the world. Winter in Hokkaido creates spectacular scenery, deep powder snow and superb snow skiing and snowboarding conditions. The world famous Sapporo White Illumination and Snow Festival attracts between 1 to 2 million people every year who come to view the elaborate snow sculptures. Another winter festival is the Kamakura Festival which features small igloo/snow huts built to enshrine the God of Water. Inside the huts the children set up Shinto shrine alters and decorate them with offerings of food and flowers. This festival is a popular past-time for children and families in snowy areas. Japan’s hot spring resorts known as onsen are also a popular place to visit during the winter months.
The average temperature range during the winter months (December, January, February) is 1 to 9 degrees Celsius.
Shopping is one of the great pleasures of a trip to Japan. It is not only the tourists who delight in the range of shops, but the Japanese themselves are avid shoppers. A clever shopper will find items to suit every budget. Japan has it all, from surprisingly inexpensive souvenirs to the latest in electronic wizardry, from traditional craft stalls to gigantic shopping malls and dazzling department stores. The call of irasshaimase welcomes shoppers into both the cheapest and the most expensive shopping outlets.
General business hours are from 9am to 5pm. Banks are open weekdays from 9am to 3pm. Post Offices are open weekdays 9am to 5pm and generally closed Saturdays and Sundays. Supermarkets and department stores are open 10am to 7pm or 8pm. Most are closed one day per week, with the closing day varying from store to store. Family run businesses and stalls are usually open daily, including Saturdays and Sundays. Convenience stores are open 7 days a week, 24 hours a day and sell a variety of essential items. Automatic vending machines are widespread throughout Japan, offering hot and cold drinks, snacks, food etc.
Most department stores have two major sales a year, a summer sale in July and a winter sale in December or January. Department stores also have a bargain floor with regular sales. Usually this is located on one of the top floors and may feature "theme" sales. The sales change weekly and may feature stalls from other regions of Japan, seasonal sales and festival sales. The big gift-giving seasons in Japan are chugen in July and seibo in December. Stores set up special departments and put gift packs on sale. Popular items include wine, whisky, sweets and packaged food. These can also make delightful souvenir gifts.
CASH, CREDIT CARDS & CHEQUES
Traveller's cheques and credit cards are accepted in large cities and most large hotels, restaurants and department stores. Most banks have a special foreign exchange section where foreign cash and traveller's cheques can be exchanged for yen. Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Diners Club and JTB Card are the most widely accepted credit cards. However, rural areas, small hotels and inns, youth hostels, local restaurants and shops usually only accept cash. Cash is by far the easiest method of payment in Japan. In most shops and restaurants a small tray is offered for payment. Money is placed in the tray and the change is returned without hand-to-hand contact. The unit of currency in Japan is the yen. Notes are ¥10,000, ¥5,000, and ¥1,000 yen. Most recently a ¥2,000 yen note has been introduced. Coins are ¥500, ¥100, ¥50, ¥10, ¥5 and ¥1. Japan has a 5% consumption tax which is often not included in the displayed price. The tax is added automatically when goods are paid for at the point of sale.
Japanese culture has been described as a wrapping culture. Women are beautifully wrapped in a kimono and then tied with an obi sash, sushi is rolled and wrapped in seaweed, special gifts such as lunchboxes and hand luggage may be wrapped and tied in a special wrapping cloth called a furoshiki. Most department stores and shops will gift wrap presents as a free service. At the time of purchase simply tell the sales assistant that the item is to be a present. The best gifts and souvenirs are obviously those items that are uniquely Japanese.
Many regions in Japan specialise in ceramics and pottery. There is a large variety in style, size and price. Large craft shops and department stores can also arrange to have your purchases packaged and shipped home. Tea ceremony was introduced to Japan in the 16th century. As demand for cups and utensils increased distinctive styles in pottery developed in various regions throughout Japan. Well known pottery regions include Arita on the island of Kyushu, which produces Imari porcelain. This features red enamel decorated porcelain with distinct patterns of flowers and birds. Also on the island of Kyushu is Satsuma ceramic ware. This is a cream coloured variety of pottery which is overglazed with enamels and gilding. Mashiko, north of Tokyo in Tochigi Prefecture, which features simple designed pottery with dark glazes and Kasama in Ibaraki Prefecture, which features a unique glaze made from ash and ground rocks.
Dolls hold a special appeal in Japan. Many types are available, ranging from small, inexpensive paper dolls to those which have been handmade by famous doll makers and have become collector items. Kokeshi dolls are long, cylindrical, wooden dolls with no arms or legs. They originated in Northern Japan and are now made in distinctive painted forms in various parts of the country. Each shape being the specialty of the area. Some are made in one piece, whilst others have a ball-shaped detachable head. Hakata dolls are made in the southern island of Kyushu, in Hakata City. These are clay dolls depicting traditional Japanese figures, such as geisha or samurai.
There are many souvenir and folk craft shops in Japan selling traditional paper crafts such as origami paper and handmade paper decorations, mobiles, calligraphy items and paper fans. Origami is the traditional Japanese art of folding paper into various shapes - birds, animals, flowers and many other things - without using scissors or paste. Square, coloured pieces of paper are used and these can be bought in a multitude of colours, thickness and price. Traditional handmade Japanese paper is called washi and is often embedded with petals, leaves or coloured flecks for texture. A folding fan is called a sensu. It is made of paper on a bamboo frame with a picture or artistic calligraphy on it. A flat paper fan is called an uchiwa and is used in summer and during festivals. Fans make a perfect souvenir gift as they are used not only for fanning oneself in summer, but also are given as a symbol of friendship, respect or future happiness. The method of writing with a Japanese brush and ink is called shodo. It is regarded as an art form as well as a means of writing. Special calligraphy paper, inkstone, brushes and ink can be purchased separately or as a boxed calligraphy set.
Woodblock prints developed in Japan from the 17th through to the 19th centuries. The subjects include pictures of women , the world of pleasure quarters and landscapes. The greatest artists include Ando Hiroshige for his 53 views of the Tokaido Highway, Katsushika Hokusai for his views of Mt Fuji, Kitagawa Utamaro for beautiful Japanese women and Toshusai Sharaku for Kabuki actors. Antique and original prints are sold in speciality shops, with inexpensive reproductions widely available. Woodblock prints, known as ukiyo-e, make unique Japanese mementoes.
WOOD AND BAMBOO
A large range of wood and bamboo items are available in Japan. Lacquerware is known as nurimono or shikki. Lacquerware trays, bowls and boxes have been produced since the 16th century and can be expensive but make excellent souvenirs. Famous ones include Wajima lacquerware of Ishikawa Prefecture, Shunkei lacquerware from Hida and Aizu lacquerware from Fukushima Prefecture. Aizu lacquerware is characterised by a method of undercoating with a substance made from persimmons and then sprinkled with gold dust. Kamakura style lacquerware is produced around the town of Kamakura in Kanagawa Prefecture. Rough designs are carved on hard wood which is then finished with many layers of lacquer in black and vermilion. Bamboo instruments used for tea ceremony and traditional umbrellas made from bamboo and paper make popular and unusual souvenirs.
Japanese lucky charms are often sold at temple and shrine stalls. These are enormously popular in Japan and there is a large range from which to choose. Good luck charms may vary depending upon region, temple, shrine and even season. Maneki-neko is an ornamental cat usually made of porcelain, clay or wood. It is in a beckoning pose with its left paw raised to its left ear. It is used as a charm to draw in customers to shops and restaurants. The daruma is a red, paper maché doll representing the Buddhidharma who sits cross-legged in silent meditation. It is a symbol of good luck in business and used also for special wishes. Upon purchase one eye is coloured black and a wish is made. When the wish comes true the remaining eye is coloured. This doll has a weighted bottom so that it always returns to an upright position when it is tipped over. People wish on this doll in the hope that they too can rise again an eighth time even if they fall down seven. An o-mamori is a small good luck charm that is made of paper or cloth. It is blessed by Shinto priests to invite good luck and ward off evil spirits. They can be purchased for many different purposes, such as safety from traffic accidents, good health, school examinations, childbirth etc.
Cloisonne ware is known as shippoyaki and is the art of enamelling objects on a metal base of copper or silver. Shippo literally means "seven stones" ie. gold, silver, coral, agate, emerald, crystal and pearl. Vases, plates and other decorative items are made to have a gem-like surface of various colours by this enamelling art form.
KIMONO AND YUKATA
The kimono is Japan's traditional costume with wide sleeves, worn usually with a broad sash, called an obi. The kimono worn by women is designed with beautiful patterns and in many colours, while that for men is usually in dark, plain colours. The kimono was established as normal wear in the 12th century, however, today they are usually only worn on special occasions such as weddings or graduations. They are usually made of silk and can be extremely expensive if purchased in department stores or specialised stores. Secondhand or antique silk kimono vary greatly in quality and price. Bargains can often be found at local flea markets and antique markets. Cotton yukata are a more affordable alternative. These are informal, light kimono which are worn in summer and are available in many attractive colours and patterns. It is used for summer festivals, general relaxation, as sleep wear and after bathing.
Japan remains one of the best places in the world to purchase quality pearls. The first really good cultured pearls were produced by Kokichi Mikimoto in 1893. Since then, the name Mikimoto has become associated with the highest quality in pearls. Always ensure you purchase expensive pearls from a reputable dealer, specialty store or department store.
Surrounded by oceans, Japan’s consumption of fish is among the highest in the world, however contrary to popular belief there is more to Japanese cuisine than raw fish. The typical Japanese cuisine consisting of rice, miso soup, fish and pickled vegetables, which was once commonplace in Japan, has been replaced with tasty meals consisting of chicken, beef and seafood dishes. Rice is still commonly served with most meals in Japan. Along with the large variety of Japanese dishes, foreign cuisine is also readily available which includes the enormous amount of fast food restaurants which can be found in all parts of Japan. It is not uncommon to see more than one McDonalds store in the same street.
Japan can be an expensive place to eat, however, with a little knowledge of the types of restaurants you can enjoy a tasty meal for as little as 600yen. Ordering in a Japanese restaurant can be quite daunting to the foreigner who speaks little or no Japanese. Most restaurants in Japan display wax models of the food they serve which can assist with the ordering process. When entering a Japanese restaurant you will be greeted with ‘Irasshaimase’ which means welcome and will be handed a hot towel ‘oshibori’ and a cup of tea or a glass of iced water.
Inexepensive places to eat are known as ‘shokudo’ and can be found near train stations and tourist areas and usually serve a variety of Japanese and western foods. Look for the wax food models usually displayed outside the restaurant.
‘Izakaya’ is the place to go if you are after a casual meal and a cold beer or sake. This is like our pub however instead of bar stools be prepared to be seated on the tatami mats on the floor. In this lively atmosphere you can order small menu items such as ‘yakitori’ - chicken skewers, sashimi (raw fish) or western meal items like salad and hot chips. This is usually an inexpensive place to eat in Japan. Look for the red lanterns in front of these establishments.
Other affordable Japanese restaurants can be found in department stores, underground malls of railway stations and in office building basements. Noodle stands, coffee shops, fast-food outlets and vending machines are other inexpensive options and can be found just about anywhere in Japan.
For a true Japanese experience be sure to purchase an ‘Obento’ lunch before leaving Japan. An obento is a boxed lunch popular with people travelling on the bullet train. An obento lunch can be purchased from most convenience stores, railway stalls and on the bullet train. Why not enjoy an obento lunch in one of the many parks and gardens in and around Japan. There are a variety of obento lunch boxes available many consisting of rice, meat, vegetables, sushi and pickles.
EATING JAPANESE STYLE
Most foreigners nowadays are quite familiar with using chopsticks however if you are invited out to dinner there are some rules to remember;
Don’t spear food with chopsticks as if they were a fork
Don’t place your chopsticks upright in your rice.
Don’t pull the dishes towards you using the chopsticks.
Don’t wave your chopsticks around over food, trying to decide what to eat next.
You may lift the rice bowl from the table, but not right up to your mouth.
DRINKING JAPANESE STYLE
There are a variety of places to drink in Japan from the inexpensive Izakaya to the well known ‘Hostess Bars’ or cocktail lounges. Beer, sake and whiskey are widely available in most drinking places with the sale of imported wines gradually increasing.
When in a group do not begin to drink until everyone is served.
Pour for each other but not for yourself.
When raising your glass to drink call ‘Kampai’ meaning cheers.
If you drink sake, and someone offers a drink from his/her carafe, drink what remains in your cup before holding it out.