Destination: Japan

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WHY VISIT JAPAN

A country of extremes, Japan cannot be ignored. You will experience one surprise after another: Tokyo with its shopping district, the fish market (the biggest in the world), diverse museums, the Senso-ji temple, Kabuki representations; Kyoto and its gardens, numerous splendid temples, the Imperial palace and the wonderful Himeji-jo castle, and of course, Mount Fuji with its symmetrical lines and its top surrounded by clouds. You can even climb it in summer!

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Visit the Daisetsuzan National Park, and go hiking among the mountains and forests with their peaceful lakes. Many people visit the Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima.

Japan will surprise you with its capacity to combine tradition and modernism: Geisha and manga, robots and samurais, Zen gardens and skyscrapers, everything seem paradoxical; however, it all creates a certain symbiosis. The home of bonsai and haiku,

Japan has a connection with time which often disconcerts westerners: You will probably need some patience to learn to enjoy the beauty of the moment, but you will certainly appreciate the countless gadgets conceived using advanced technologies.

WHAT TO SEE IN JAPAN

Top destinations in Japan are:

  • Tokyo
  • Kyoto
  • Nara
  • Takayama
  • Nikko
  • Kamakura
  • Hiroshima
  • Kanazawa
  • Ishigaki
  • Koya-san

WHEN TO GO TO JAPAN

The best period to visit Japan is from March to April.

Describing the climate of Japan is not easy: The archipelago, long and covered with mountains, does not has the same climate characteristics in the north as the south. In the north, the summers are short, winters last for months and snow is common, particularly in the West, whereas in the South, the weather is more hot and humid.

At the end of summer, it is not uncommon to suffer the onslaught of typhoons, accompanied by torrential rains. Autumn brings mild temperatures with beautiful colours in the vegetation. This is the ideal season to visit Japan. You will probably prefer this season to spring which, despite the undeniable charm of its flowering cherry trees mentioned by all the poets, sees Japanese tourists invading the most attractive places.

Following a list of typical festival and celebrations of Japan.

January

Ganjitsu (or Gantan): January 1. On the first day of the year, everyone heads for the shrines and temples to pray for good fortune. Public holiday.

Yamayaki: January 15. The slopes of Wakakusa-yama, Nara, are set alight during a grass-burning ceremony.

Seijin-no-hi (Adults’ Day): Second Monday in January. 20-year-olds celebrate their entry into adulthood by visiting their local shrine. Many women dress in sumptuous kimono. Public holiday.

February

Setsubun: February 3 or 4. On the last day of winter by the lunar calendar, people scatter lucky beans round their homes and at shrines or temples to drive out evil and welcome in the year’s good luck. In Nara, the event is marked by a huge lantern festival on February 3.

Sapporo Yuki Matsuri: February 5–11. Large snow and ice sculptures are built in the city’s centrally-located Odori Park during the Sapporo Snow Festival.

Yokote Kamakura Festival: February 15 or 16. Many igloo-like snow houses, called Kamakura, and hundreds of mini Kamakura are built at various locations across the city during this Yokote Kamakura Festival in one of Japan’s snow-richest regions.

March

Hina Matsuri (Doll Festival): March 3. Families with young girls display beautiful dolls (hina ningyō) representing the emperor, empress and their courtiers dressed in ancient costume. Department stores, hotels and museums often put on special displays at this time.

Cherry-blossom festivals: Late March to early May. With the arrival of spring in late March, a pink tide of cherry blossom washes north from Kyūshū, travels up Honshū during the month of April and peters out in Hokkaidō in early May. There are cherry-blossom festivals, and the sake flows at blossom-viewing parties.

Omizutori: March 1-14. Omizutori is a Buddhist religious service rather than a festival, held every year at the Nigatsudo Hall of Todaiji Temple. The most spectacular among its many ceremonies is the nightly burning of torches on the balcony of the wooden temple hall.

April

Hana Matsuri: April 8. The Buddha’s birthday is celebrated at all temples with parades or quieter celebrations, during which a small statue of Buddha is sprinkled with sweet tea.

Takayama Matsuri: April 14–15. Parade of ornate festival floats (yatai), some carrying mechanical marionettes.

May

Kodomo-no-hi (Children’s Day): May 5. The original Boys’ Day now includes all children as families fly carp banners, symbolizing strength and perseverance, outside their homes. Public holiday.

Aoi Matsuri (Hollyhock Festival): May 15. Costume parade through the streets of Kyoto, with ceremonies to ward off storms and earthquakes.

Kanda Matsuri: Mid-May. One of Tokyo’s top three matsuri, taking place in odd-numbered years at Kanda Myōjin, during which people in Heian-period costume escort eighty gilded mikoshi through the streets.

Tōshō-gū Grand Matsuri: May 17. Nikkō’s most important festival, featuring a parade of over a thousand costumed participants and horseback archery to commemorate the burial of Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1617. There’s a smaller-scale repeat performance on October 17.

Sanja Matsuri: Third weekend in May. Tokyo’s most boisterous festival takes place in Asakusa. Over a hundred mikoshi are jostled through the streets, accompanied by lion dancers, geisha and musicians.

June

Fuji Rock (wwww.fujirockfestival.com). This huge three-day event hosts a wide range of top-name acts covering musical genres from dance and electronica to jazz and blues on multiple stages. It takes place at Naeba Ski Resort in Niigata prefecture, easily accessible from Tokyo via Shinkansen. It’s possible to visit for a day, camp or stay in the hotels that in winter cater to the ski crowd.

Otaue: June 14. The ceremonial planting of rice seedlings according to time-honoured techniques at Ōsaka’s Sumiyoshi Taisha shrine, accompanied by dance and song performances.

Sannō Matsuri: Mid-June. In even-numbered years the last of Tokyo’s big three matsuri (after Kanda and Sanja) takes place, focusing on colourful processions of mikoshi through Akasaka.

July

Summer Sonic (wwww.summersonic.com), a two-day event held in Chiba, just across the Edo-gawa River from Tokyo. This festival showcases a good mix of both local and overseas bands and has both indoor and outdoor performances.

Rock in Japan (www.rijfes.jp), focusing on domestic bands, is usually held in August at Hitachi Seaside Park, north of Tokyo in Ibaraki-ken (accessible from Ueno Station).

Hakata Yamagasa: July 1–15. Fukuoka’s main festival culminates in a 5km race, with participants carrying or pulling heavy mikoshi, while spectators douse them with water.

Tanabata Matsuri (Star Festival): July 7. According to legend, the only day in the year when the astral lovers, Vega and Altair, can meet across the Milky Way. Poems and prayers are hung on bamboo poles outside houses.

Gion Matsuri: July 17. Kyoto’s month-long festival focuses around a parade of huge floats hung with rich silks and paper lanterns.

Tenjin Matsuri: July 25. The festival of Osaka’s Tenmangu Shrine, the Tenjin Matsuri is ranked as one of Japan’s three greatest festivals, featuring a lavish procession not only through the streets of Osaka but also on boats on the river that is accompanied by a firework display.

Hanabi Taikai: Last Saturday in July. The most spectacular of Japan’s many summer firework displays take place in Tokyo, on the Sumida River near Asakusa. Some cities also hold displays in early August.

August

Nebuta and Neputa Matsuri: August 1–7. Aomori and Hirosaki hold competing summer festivals, with parades of illuminated paper-covered figures.

Tanabata Matsuri: August 6–8. Sendai’s famous Star Festival is held a month after everyone else, so the lovers get another chance.

Obon (Festival of Souls): August 13–15, or July 13–15 in some areas. Families gather around the ancestral graves to welcome back the spirits of the dead and honour them with special Bon-Odori dances on the final night.

Awa Odori: August 12–15. The most famous Bon Odori takes place in Tokushima when up to eighty thousand dancers take to the streets.

Kanto Matsuri: August 3-6. Over two hundred long bamboo poles with up to 46 lanterns attached to each are balanced by the members of this popular festival’s nightly parades.

Earth Celebration: is an annual music festival by the internationally acclaimed Kodo taiko group which is based on Sado Island. Each year the festival features different guest artists who perform in collaboration with Kodo. The three-day event is held in mid to late August in and around Ogi Town.

September

Yabusame: September 16. Spectacular displays of horseback archery (yabusame) by riders in samurai armour at Tsurugaoka Hachimangū shrine in Kamakura.

October

Okunchi Matsuri: October 7–9. Shinto rites mingle with Chinese- and European-inspired festivities to create Nagasaki’s premier celebration, incorporating dragon dances and floats in the shape of Chinese and Dutch ships.

Nagasaki Kunchi: October 7-9. The festival of Nagasaki’s Suwa Shrine, the Nagasaki Kunchi features Chinese style dragons and floats shaped like ships.

Kawagoe Grand Matsuri: October 14–15. One of the liveliest festivals in the Tokyo area, involving some 25 ornate floats and hundreds of costumed revellers.

Jidai Matsuri: October 22. Kyoto’s famous, if rather sedate, costume parade vies with the more exciting Kurama Matsuri, a night-time fire festival which takes place in a village near Kyoto.

November

Shichi-go-san (Seven-five-three): November 15. Children of the appropriate ages don traditional garb to visit their local shrine.

December

Chichibu Yomatsuri: December 2-3. The Chichibu Night Festival is considered one of Japan’s three best festivals featuring large festival floats (yatai). The festival’s highlight takes place on the evening of December 3.

Ōmisoka: December 31. Just before midnight on the last day of the year, temple bells ring out 108 times (the number of human frailties according to Buddhist thinking), while people all over the country gather at major shrines to honour the gods with the first shrine visit of the year.

HOW TO REACH AND TRAVEL THROUGH JAPAN

Various airlines serve Japan on a regular basis. A valid passport is required and a visa is required to stay for more than three months.

You can also travel by air within the country, it will not cost you more than by train which is also a comfortable and efficient means of transportation, although a little expensive. Buses are much cheaper but also slower. In large cities, the subway is perfect.

by plane, the main airports are:

by train:

by car

GENERAL INFORMATION ON JAPAN

health tips & vaccination: none

local currency: Japanese Yen

local time zone: GMT+9

electricity: type A and type B (100 V, 50-60 Hz)

mobile phone operators:

WHAT TO DO IN JAPAN

typical food in Japan

  • Teriyaki: Beef, chicken or fish marinated in a soy sauce and mirin wine, and seared on a hot plate
  • Tempura: Seafood and vegetables deep-fried in a light batter
  • Sushi: Slices of raw fish and vegetables placed on cooked vinegared rice
  • Sashimi: Thinly sliced fresh fish served uncooked with soy sauce, pickled ginger and wasabi
  • Ramen: Noodles in meat, fish, soy or miso-based broth with toppings such as sliced pork, spring onions and a boiled egg
  • Soba: Buckwheat noodles often served cold with a dipping sauce or in a hot broth
  • Kushikatsu: Crumbed fish, meat and vegetables deep-fried on skewers
  • Yakitori: Skewers of bite-sized grilled chicken
  • Okonomiyaki: A grilled savoury pancake made with shredded cabbage, seafood, pork and noodles
  • Champuru: Okinawan style stir-fry featuring goya bitter melon and tofu
  • Shojin-ryori: Known for its delicate flavourings, this traditional Buddhist cuisine is made using grains, vegetables, tofu and rice
  • Matcha: A bitter green tea used in tea ceremonies
  • Sake: Dry or sweet rice wine served hot or cold
  • Shochu: A strong vodka-like spirit often mixed with soft drinks
  • Asahi and Sapporo: Crisp, dry lagers served in most Japanese bars and restaurants
  • Whisky: Japanese distilleries such as Suntory and Nikka are winning plaudits around the world with their fine, Scotch-style malts

souvenirs from Japan

  • fans
  • kimonos
  • prints
  • porcelain objects
  • kites
  • folk toys
  • Kyoto silk
  • paper lanterns
  • ceramics
  • lacquerware
  • rice straw sandals
  • teapots
  • religious articles, Shinto and Buddhist artefacts, small bells
  • cameras and electronic equipment

SIMPLE DICTIONARY

Hello: こんにちは (Kon’nichiwa)

Goodbye: さようなら (Sayōnara)

How are you?: お元気ですか? (Ogenkidesuka?)

Thank you: ありがとうございました (Arigatōgozaimashita)

What is your name?: お名前は何ですか? (Onamaehanandesuka?)

How much is it?: いくらですか? (Ikuradesu ka?)

Sorry: ごめんなさい (Gomen’nasai)

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