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Everything You Need To Know if you want to Travel Japan

By Yann, published on 14/05/2018 We Love Prof > Languages > Japanese > Your Guide To Visit Japan

To undertake a visit to Japan is probably the best way to learn this fascinating and unique language while experiencing why  Westerners qualify  Japanese culture as”strange”.

With more than 310,000 Britons visiting the Japanese islands last year, British citizens might only account for 1% of the tourists in Japan but they are the Europeans that visit this country the most, ahead of French and German.

The tourism industry in Japan shows no sign of slowing down. Despite the hit the industry took after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011, it only took the country a couple of years to recover and since 2012 the number of tourists flowing into the nation’s islands has increased by 343%.

This massive growth is mainly explained by the neighbouring countries such as South Korea and China whose economy has been boosted over the last decade and accounted for more than 50% of all tourists visiting Japan in 2017.

Japanese civilisation has always fascinated travellers. Today, Japan’s proclivity to combine millennia-old traditions, ultra-modern infrastructure and technology keep mesmerising its visitors.

Here is our complete guide to know how and where to travel in Japan.

Old spots and new spots to visit in Japan. Tokyo, a city mixing century-old temples and modern buildings (by Daniel Mennerich)

Getting Ready for Japan and Applying for a Japanese Visa

Japan is one of the most visited countries in the world every year. Travelling there is for most people a once in a lifetime experience.

For U.K. citizens, getting ready for this trip mainly is about saving up the money for it. Japan, despite or because of its popularity, is one of the most expensive countries on Earth to visit (and live).

E.U. citizens won’t need a visa for Japan for any stay not exceeding 90 days.  And it seems that Brexit won’t change that (the U.K. and Japan also have bilateral agreements allowing to extend your stay up to 6 months, though this will require you to visit an immigration office once in Japan).

Depending on how long you are planning to stay, buying your flight tickets to Japan might be the most expensive cost of the trip only topped by accommodation. However, with a bit of planning this cost could easily be reduced and return tickets can be snatched up for under £500 (if you buy them early).

Like any other destination, there are a few things you should do when getting tickets ;

  • Track your flight on skyscanner.co.uk: the website will let you know when the price of your favourite flight goes up or down. There’s usually a minimum price for each flight and if you think this is it, just buy them.
  • Book outside holiday period: airlines not being stupid will often increase the price of flights during holiday time given that a lot of people will want to buy those tickets anyway. Offer and demand rule the game.
  • Check the airlines’ website: this last advice, one that often paid off for me on my travels, is that, once Skyscanner found the cheapest flights for your favourite dates, check the airline company website. Often Skyscanner will forward you to a travel agent’s website. These are nothing more than middlemen and I often found that airlines offer slightly lower rates on the same flight. It probably won’t be much but even £10 will get you a super yummy ramen with a glass of sake.

The best restaurants in Japan will often be hidden in small streets and alleys (by umezy12).

Never overlook your travel insurance. While most banks got you covered with your credit cards make sure to check you are and if not, subscribing to a travel insurance will at least give you the peace of mind you need to enjoy all the beauties Japan has to offer (note that if you are traveling with some expensive gear such as cameras, laptops and such, you might want to get an extra insurance on top of your credit card one).

If you’re looking to stay more than 6 months (90 days visa-free + 90 days extension) for work, studies or to be with your family you will have to go Japan’s embassy in the U.K. and file a visa form prior to your trip.

Being a permanent resident (more than 6 months) or doing business in Japan – whatever it may be – will require you to obtain a visa according to your specific situation. There are 27 different type of visas in Japan so you will have to make sure that you are applying for the one that suits your case the best. Those visas can be divided into 3 main groups :

  • Working Visas: these are reserved for highly skilled workers (exception is the Working Holiday Visa)
  • Non-working visas: mainly for students, interns and volunteers.
  • Family-related visas.

If you are applying for any visa you will need to obtain a Certificate of Eligibility which will prove you’re application is lawful.

If you are interested in the Working Holiday Visa, note that only 1000 of those are granted to U.K. citizens each year. But if you’re lucky enough to get one you will be allowed to work in Japan during your entire stay if you wish so. However, this visa can’t be extended and if you wish to stay longer you will have to apply for a regular working or non-working visa.

One year is plenty to enjoy the Japanese culture, its thousands of temples, hundreds of thousands of restaurants but above all its (hundreds of million) people.

Last but not least of the things to get ready before you head to the land of the rising sun, the Japan Rail Pass.

The Japan Rail Pass, which is issued by the JR (Japan Railway) Group, offers travellers excellent value for money and convenience. The Rail Pass enables the almost unlimited use of JR trains and its affiliated bus and ferry services within various areas of Japan.

This pass is available in 7, 14 and 21 days version (£195, £310, £397). Just as a reference here is a simple round trip from Tokyo to Hiroshima through Kyoto.

  • Tokyo > Kyoto = £90
  • Kyoto > Hiroshima = £74
  • Hiroshima > Tokyo = £124
    • Total = £288

It then becomes clear that if you intend to move around, the JR Pass will quickly pay itself off and even save you (a lot of) money.

The bullet train: Shinkansen, reaching 320kph (by Michael Mortola)

The Japan Rail Pass is available only to people from abroad who wish to come to Japan as “temporary visitors” for sightseeing. It is usually necessary to purchase an Exchange Order through a travel agency abroad so that the Exchange Order can be exchanged for a Japan Rail Pass after entering Japan. It is now possible, at extra cost, to purchase your JR Pass once you arrive in Japan.

However, you will only be able to get your JR Pass at one of the designated Japan Rail stations, showing your Exchange Order AND a “temporary visitor” stamp on your passport.

At the station, you will also be able to book all the train tickets you will need. A very handy service that allows you to just go on with your travels and not worry about it anymore.

Note that depending on your bank you might want to change your pounds into yens.

Urban Japan: the 10 biggest Japanese cities

Heading to Japan? You got your flights booked, your travel insurance confirmed, JR Pass confirmed and visa if needed.

Where to go now?

Japan is so unique in its ways, customs and lifestyle that any first-timer is guaranteed a certain shock.

There are 127 million people in Japan, mainly spread on the 4 biggest islands of the country (Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku & Kyushu). With roughly 378,000 km2, Japan is about 1,5 time bigger than Great Britain.

Just like the United Kingdom, the country is a cluster of islands but with around twice as many people Japan can feel a little bit crowded.

More than a dozen cities in Japan are over a million inhabitant, for only 2 in the UK. And we’re not talking about urban areas but cities.

Just to compare London Greater Are counts just under 8.8 million people but Tokyo Metropolitan area, with its 38 million people, is the most populated area in the world.

Strictly talking about inner cities, here are the 10 biggest in Japan.

10 Biggest Cities in Japan by Population

CityPopulationDensity
(ppl. per km2)
Island
Special Wards of Tokyo (Greater Tokyo Area)8,637,09813,890Honshu
Yokohama3,697,8948,500Honshu
Osaka2,668,586 11,900Honshu
Nagoya2,283,2896,860Honshu
Sapporo1,918,0961,699Hokkaido
Kobe1,530,8472,772Honshu
Kyoto1,474,5701,800Honshu
Fukuoka1,430,3714,195Kyushu
Kawasaki1,373,6309,626Honshu
Saitama1,192,4185,483Honshu
Japan127,235,176336x

Japan’s capital is one of the biggest metropolia in the world. Tokyo is famous for being deafening, astonishing, mind-blowing and each of its famous neighbourhoods, Shibuya, Akihabara or Asakusa just to name a few, will show you a different facet of the 900 years old city.

In Tokyo, you will have to find the historical sites amongst the skyscrapers. (by B Lucava)

Do not forget to head to Mount Fuji just 100kms west of Tokyo, this national symbol, culminating at 3,776m is worth the detour.

Kyoto, the former imperial capital, housed the emperor from the end of the 8th century to 1868 when the capital was moved to Edo, today known as Tokyo. This city full of treasure will keep you busy for a while.

If you fancy going outside of Tokyo, speaking a bit of Japanese will be more than useful. Most Japanese are actually really good at writing in English but speaking it is another story.

However, if you’re staying long enough in Japan, there are many schools specialising in teaching Japanese to gaijins (literally “outside person”, understand foreigner).

Japan is also infamously known for its earthquakes. The island seating on the Pacific and Philippines plates as well as being on the Pacific Ring of Fire, see almost daily earthquakes and tremors. The latest major one occurred on the 11th of March 2011 in the region of Sendai, north of the Honshu island, and struck Fukushima with the consequences we all know.

This tsunami wiped out whole towns like Minamisanriku, where 10,000 people lost their lives. In total this natural disaster resulted in the deaths of almost 20,000 Japanese.

The History Of Japanese Emperors: Rich And Troubled

The history of the country has a lot to do with the current culture of the island. It influenced its social order, cuisine, economy, and arts.  With an historical importance spanning over more than 30,000 years, Japan has known many different eras, often troublesome but always fascinating.

One of the best things you can do to have Japanese like you is to take some interest in their culture, especially their History.

A little overview of the archipelago’s History 

Japan, just like the United Kingdom, is a constitutional monarchy and has been so since 1889 and the adoption of the Meiji constitution and the creation of the Diete, Japan’s parliament, in 1890. At the time a constitutional-absolute monarchy, the Emperor lost all but ceremonial functions after World War II with the creation of the three branches of the government (executive, legislative and judicial).

The Emperor remains the head of state but all powers lie in the hands of the Cabinet, made of the Ministers of State and the Prime Minister. They are the one controlling and directing the government.

The current Cabinet is the 98th since the Meiji Period and is headed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who started his fourth term as PM after the 2017 snap elections.

Going back in time, the foundation of the Japanese Empire is shrouded in mystery. Its first Emperor, according to Japanese legend and folklore would have been Jinmu, he would have reigned from 660BC to 585BC. Legend also has it that he was the descendant of the Sun goddess Amaterasu and the Storm-god Susanoo. It is believed he would have lived until his 126 birthday.

For the next thousand years, modern historiography hasn’t been able to assign verifiable date until the 29th Emperor of Japan, Kinmei who’s reign started in 539.

Ancient and Classical Japan periods span from 10,000BC to 1185 which is when historians have Medieval Japan starting. This date matches with a shift in power on the island. The governing power so far laid in the hands of the Imperial court but after years of conflict that saw Minamoto no Yormito rise to power, the governing influence shifted to Kamakura where Yorimoto installed his headquarters.

This marked the beginning of feudal Japanese History and was the start of the samurai era. Those warriors were the pinnacle on which, Yorimoto, the first Kamakura shogun and all the daiymōs (lesser feudal lords), asserted their power. At that time Japan reopened relations with China and amongst other things, Buddhists monks brought with them the Zen religion which was followed by the flourishing of the traditional Japanese gardens.

During this period that lasted until 1600,  32 emperors succeeded at the imperial court and the struggle of powers with the different Shogun dynasties spanned over these 400 years.

Only Tokugawa Ieyasu succeeded in establishing a lasting peace. After the famous battle of Sekigahara, the Tokugawa clan would be ruling Japan, keeping a tight grip on all the daiymōs, the clan would be ruling uninterrupted for 268 years.

The founder of the Tokugawa shogunate dynasty that rules Japan for more than 200 years (by jpellgen)

This reign would only be coming to a halt in 1868, when, after 683 years of military dictatorship, governing power would finally be restored in the hands of the Emperor. At the time Emperor of the Japanese Empire, ruling through divine right, the Empire ended in 1945 with the Japanese surrendering to the Allied Forces and General MacArthur.

Despite their defeat, the Japanese Emperor kept a major role in the country. General MacArthur thought that keeping the Emperor in place as a symbol of the continuity and cohesion of the Japanese people would ensure the stability of the country and help with the efforts necessary to rebuild the nation.

The imperial family of Japan is the longest reigning dynasty on Earth and their popularity with the Japanese people remains strong even today as much as the Windsors are liked in Britain.

What are the famous landmarks in Japan not to miss?

Amongst all the touristy spots that Japan harbours, many of them are of historical importance for the country and should definitely be visited.

  • The Imperial Palace of Tokyo
  • Tokyo Skytree
  • Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building
  • Senso-ji
  • The Golden Pavillion
  • The Imperial Palace of Kyoto
  • Fushimi Inari Taisha
  • Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park
  • Osaka Castle
  • Himeji Castle

Being on your first trip to Japan, something you will quickly realise is that one time will never be enough to visit everything.

This list only features the most famous sites to visit. Although strolling around Mount Fuji or even climbing the legendary mountain is definitely worth it after visiting the capital.

The Majestic Mount Fuji is a national symbol (by VisualHunt).

Itsukushima could also be on the list. This famous 12th-century floating shrine is one of the major Shinto sites in the country. It represents the border between the secular world and the sacred island of Miyajima, off the coast of Hiroshima.

Also worth a detour, Nagoya castle, built in the early 16th century, housed the Tokugawa ruling clan until 1868.

UNESCO has inscribed on the World Heritage List 17 cultural sites and 4 natural spots throughout Japan. Kyoto alone boasts more than 2,000 Buddhist temples and Shintoist shrines. Needless to say that there’s little chance you will ever get bored and even less chance to visit all of those sites in one trip alone.

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