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For a country that lived in self-imposed isolation until 150 years ago, Japan has not hesitated in making up for lost time since the world came calling. Anyone who's eaten sushi or used a Sony Walkman feels they know something about this slinky archipelago of some 6800 volcanic islands and yet, from the moment of arrival in this oddly familiar, quintessentially oriental land it's almost as if you've touched down on another planet.

Japan is a place of ancient gods and customs, but is also the cutting edge of cool modernity. High-speed trains whisk you from one end of the country to another with frightening punctuality. You can catch sight of a farmer tending his paddy field, then turn the corner and find yourself next to a neon-festooned electronic games parlour in the suburb of a sprawling metropolis. One day you could be picking through the fashions in the biggest department store on earth, the next relaxing in an outdoor hot-spring pool, watching cherry blossom or snowflakes fall, depending on the season.

Few other countries have, in the space of a few generations, experienced so much or made such an impact. Industrialized at lightning speed, Japan shed its feudal trappings to become the most powerful and outwardly aggressive country in Asia in a matter of decades. After defeat in World War II, it transformed itself from atom bomb victim to wonder economy, the envy of the globe. Currently facing up to recession and rising unemployment after years of conspicuous consumption, Japan still remains fabulously wealthy and intent on reinvention for the twenty-first century.

The vast majority of the 127 million population live on the crowded coastal plains of the main island of Honshū. The three other main islands, running north to south, are Hokkaidō, Shikoku and Kyūshū, and all are linked to Honshū by bridges and tunnels that are part of one of Japan's modern wonders – its super-efficient transport network of trains and highways. In the cities you'll first be struck by the mass of people. These hyperactive metropolises are the place to catch the latest trend, the hippest fashions and technologies, the most cutting-edge cuisine before they hit the rest of the world. It's not all about modernity, however: cities like Tokyo and Ōsaka also provide the best opportunities to view traditional performance arts, such as Kabuki and Nō plays, or track down the wealth of Japanese visual arts in the major museums. Outside the cities there's a vast range of travel options, from the wide open spaces and deep volcanic lakes of Hokkaidō to the balmy subtropical islands of Okinawa, and you'll seldom have to go far to catch sight of a lofty castle, ancient temple or shrine, or locals celebrating at a colourful street festival.

It's not all perfect. The Japanese are experts at focusing on detail (the exquisite wrapping of gifts and the tantalizing presentation of food are just two examples) but often miss the broader picture. Rampant development and sometimes appalling pollution are difficult to square with a country also renowned for cleanliness and appreciation of nature. Part of the problem is that natural cataclysms, such as earthquakes and typhoons, regularly hit Japan, so few people expect things to last for long anyway. There's also a blindness to the pernicious impact of mass tourism, with ranks of gift shops, ugly hotels and crowds often ruining potentially idyllic spots. And yet, time and again, Japan redeems itself with unexpectedly beautiful landscapes, charmingly courteous people, and its tangible sense of history and cherished traditions. Most intriguing of all is the opaqueness at the heart of this mysterious "hidden" culture that stems from a blurring of traditional boundaries between East and West – Japan is neither wholly one nor the other.

Japan is never going to be a cheap place to travel, but there's no reason why it should be wildly expensive either. Some of the most atmospheric and traditionally Japanese places to stay and eat are often those that are the best value. There's been significant price-cutting in some areas in recent years, particularly airline tickets which now rival the famed bargain rail passes as a means to get to far-flung corners of the country.

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Japan is one of the world's most ethnically and culturally homogeneous nations, but down the ages its culture and society have been greatly influenced by foreign ideas and institutions, art and literature.The wholesale importation of Chinese religious and political institutions during the sixth century was followed by a long and essentially 'Japanese' feudal period, which was to last until the 19th century.

The Meiji Restoration of 1868 brought to power rulers dedicated to the pursuit of national modernisation, under whose guidance Japan quickly became a world power. Although Japan's subsequent bid for empire ended in disaster, the years after 1945 witnessed an economic miracle which brought spectacular wealth as well as the westernisation of much of Japanese life.

By the turn of the 19th century, the Tokugawa government was stagnant and corrupt. Foreign ships started to probe Japan's isolation with increasing insistence, and famine and poverty weakened support for the government. In 1868 the ruling shōgun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, resigned and Emperor Meiji resumed control of state affairs, seeing Japan through a crash course in Westernisation and industrialisation. In 1889 Japan created a Western-style constitution, the tenets of which seeped into national consciousness along with a swing back to traditional values. Japan's growing confidence was demonstrated by the ease with which it trounced China in the Sino-Japanese War (1894-5) and Russia in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-5). Under Meiji's son, Yoshihito, Japan sided with the Allies in WWI. Rather than become heavily involved in the conflict, however, Japan took the opportunity, through shipping and trade, to expand its economy at top speed. Emperor Hirohito ascended to the throne in 1926. A rising tide of nationalism was quickened by the world economic depression that began in 1930. Popular unrest led to a strong increase in the power of the militarists: Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931 and entered into full-scale hostilities against China in 1937.

Japan signed a tripartite pact with Germany and Italy in 1940 and, when diplomatic attempts to gain US neutrality failed, the Japanese launched themselves into WWII with a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. At first Japan scored rapid successes, pushing its battle fronts across to India, down to the fringes of Australia and out into the mid-Pacific. The Battle of Midway opened the US counterattack, puncturing Japanese naval superiority and turning the tide of war against Japan. By August 1945, with Japan driven back on all fronts, a declaration of war by the Soviet Union and the release of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it was all over. Emperor Hirohito announced unconditional surrender. Japan was occupied until 1952 by US forces who aimed to demilitarise the country and dismantle the power of the emperor. A recovery programme enabled the economy to expand rapidly, and Japan became the world's most successful export economy, generating massive trade surpluses and dominating such fields as electronics, robotics, computing, car production and banking.

With the arrival of the 1990s, the old certainties seemed to vanish: Japan's legendary economic growth slowed to a virtual standstill; the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) was swept out of power and then back in again the next year; a massive earthquake in 1995 brought Kobe to its knees (a disaster made worse by a government that was slow to react); and to top it off, a millennial cult with doomsday ambitions engineered a poison gas attack on the Tokyo subway system.

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As of 1 October 2004 Japan's population was 127.7 million, comprising 62.3 million males and 65.4 million females. Population density stands at 297 persons per square kilometre.

In that year the largest centres of population were Tokyo (8,397,000), Yokohama (3,560,000), Osaka (2,634,000), Nagoya (2,204,000), Sapporo (1,870,000), Kobe (1,521,000), Kyoto (1,464,000), Fukuoka (1,394,000), Kawasaki (1,307,000), Hiroshima (1,146,000), Saitama (1,069,000), Sendai (1,026,000) and Kitakyushu (1,000,000). Japan is one of the world's most ethnically homogeneous nations, with 99.4 per cent of the population made up of ethnic Japanese and just 0.6 per cent belonging to other ethnic groups.

While there continues to be much debate about the ethnic provenance of the Japonic-speaking peoples, their physical characteristics suggest that they belong to the Mongoloid group, with faint admixtures of Malayan and Caucasoid strains.The largest minority groups residing in Japan are ethnic Koreans and Chinese, Ryukyuan, Burakumin and Ainu. Numerous distinct expatriate communities are also resident in major centres of population.

The Korean community comprises migrants who are permanent residents of Japan, but hold North or South Korean citizenship. Most speak Japanese and use Japanese names in order to avoid discrimination.Ethnic Chinese living in Japan hail from both mainland China and Taiwan and, in contrast to the Korean community, continue to use their Chinese names and often live in Chinatown communities.

The Ryukyuan people of the Ryukyu Islands (which include Okinawa) speak a language which, though unintelligible to many Japanese people, is believed to be a branch of the Japonic languages.The Burakumin are a social minority group with no distinct ethnicity from other Japanese, but a low social status derived from policy introduced in the Edo period. Discrimination against Burakumin is still practised in some quarters.

Japan's only indigenous ethnic group are the Ainu, just over 150,000 of whom live mainly in the interior of Hokkaido, whose presence in the Japanese archipelago predates that of the Japanese majority. During the Meiji era (1868-1912) the government attempted to assimilate the Ainu, outlawing their language and restricting them to farming on government-provided plots. During the same period an official policy of settling ethnic Japanese in Hokkaido left the Ainu increasingly marginalised. There are now estimated to be less than 20,000 racially distinct Ainu people; most of the remainder are of mixed ancestry. Unfortunately many Ainu customs and traditions have been lost and the Ainu language now has so few surviving speakers that it is in danger of falling out of use.

Japan is a modern, technologically-advanced society with a generally high standard of living. Throughout history the sinitic influence on Japanese culture has been profound and Confucian codes of conduct may be ascribed to many aspects of modern Japanese life, including the dictates of loyalty and obligation, deference to elders and superiors and emphasis on 'face'.

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Japanese are proud of their four seasons (and a surprising number believe the phenomenon is unique to Japan), but the discerning tourist should try to aim for two of them.

Spring is probably the best time of year to be in Japan. The temperatures are warm but not hot, there's not too much rain, and March-April brings the justly famous cherry blossoms and is a time of revelry and festivals. Just watch out for Golden Week (April 27 to May 6), the longest holiday of the year, when everybody travels and everything is booked full.

Summer starts with a dreary rainy season in June and turns into a steam bath in July-August, with extreme humidity and the temperature heading as high as 40°C. O-Bon (mid-August), when everybody is on the road again, is probably the worst possible time to visit. Avoid, or do as the Japanese do and head to northern Hokkaido or the mountains of Chubu and Tohoku to escape.

Autumn - Fall, starting in September, is a close second to spring. Temperatures become more tolerable, fair days are common and fall colors can be just as impressive as cherry blossoms.

Winter is a good time to go skiing or hot-spring hopping, but as the Japanese have yet to figure out the wonders of central heating, it's often miserably cold indoors. Heading south to Okinawa provides some relief. Also watch out for New Years (December 29 to January 3), the only days of the year when everything in the country shuts down.

There's no question that the most appealing seasons in Kyoto are spring and autumn. Summers are too muggy; the surrounding mountains keep the air from moving around, making things stifled and sticky and producing ample rain. Winter is cold but not devastatingly so, and aesthetically speaking it's quite pretty. However, spring cherry blossoms and autumn amber leaves are just too good to miss.

Weather-wise, spring and autumn are probably the best times to visit Kyoto, although they're also popular times for tourists and school groups. Having said that, although the summers (June-Aug) can be muggy, it's still a nice time to be there. If you're really out to avoid crowds, winter (Dec-Feb) - though very cold - might be just your ticket. Holidays and festivals are celebrated with crowded gusto in Kyoto, so cherry-blossom season in April and Golden Week (late April/early May) are great times to be in the city

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Any foreign visitor who wishes to enter Japan must have a passport, which will remain valid during the period of stay.

Nationals of many countries are eligible to enter Japan without a visa unless the purpose of the visit is to reside in Japan, to obtain employment or to otherwise engage in remunerative activities.
The following is a list of nationals of countries that have "Reciprocal Visa Exemption Arrangements" with Japan:

For a period of 6 months or less.

Austria, Germany, Ireland, Liechtenstein, Mexico, Switzerland and the United Kingdom (UK citizens only)

For a period of 3 months or less

Argentina, Bahamas, Belgium, Canada, Chile, Costa Rica, Croatia, Cyprus, Denmark, Dominican Rep., El Salvador, Finland, France, Greece, Guatemala, Honduras, Iceland, Israel, Italy, Lesotho, Luxembourg, Macedonia, Malta, Mauritius, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal (except when the passport was originally issued in present or former Portuguese colonies), San Marino, Singapore, Slovenia, Spain, Surinam, Sweden, Tunisia, Turkey and Uruguay.

For a period of 90 days or less

For a period of up to 14 days

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Drinking water


established so that you can expect to receive a high standard medical treatment, should you have a problem with your health during your stay.


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You are required to make either an oral or a written declaration about your belongings when you enter Japan. Two copies of a written declaration are required if you have unaccompanied baggage. Customs declaration forms are available on the plane, the ship, or at the Customs office.

Personal effects and unaccompanied baggage that are for personal use, are free of duties and/or taxes within the allowance specified below. If you have both personal effects and unaccompanied baggage, please consider them together when referring to the allowance.
Clothes, toiletry articles, and other personal effects that are for personal use, as well as professional equipment
that will be used during your stay in Japan, are all free of duties and/or taxes, if they are considered quantitatively appropriate and are not for sale.

The quantity of pharmaceuticals and cosmetics, including both prescription and non-prescription drugs and some food supplements, including vitamin and mineral supplements, which a visitor can bring into Japan at one time may be limited.

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Japan is one the most expensive countries in Asia, if not the world for travel, but there are ways of keeping the outlays to a just-about bearable level. A skeleton daily budget, assuming you stay in the cheapest hostels, eat modestly and travel short distances, would work out to US$60.00 . Add about US$10.00 for extras like snacks, drinks, admission fees and entertainment. Staying in business or deluxe hotels and eating in pricey restaurants can easily have the ticker tipping US$200.00 . Long-distance travel is a real budget buster in Japan - if you intend to travel around to different places, it's well worth investing in a Japan Rail Pass. At the other end of the spectrum, high rollers will have no problems off-loading their cash. Japan specialises in establishments catering to the ostentatious flattery of business accounts - the higher the bill, the greater the prestige of the guests.

You can buy yen at foreign exchange banks and other authorized money exchangers. At the international airports, currency exchange counters are usually open during normal office hours. The exchange rate fluctuates daily depending on the money market.

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Duty-Free Guide

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There are two different phone numbers to dial in an emergency - 110 to call the police or 119 to report a fire or to call an ambulance. These emergency numbers can be dialled from a public telephone without paying for the call by pressing the red button that is located on the front of the phone.

Medical Services

Lost and Found

Useful Phone Numbers

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train train boat

Japan has an efficient public transportation network, especially within metropolitan areas and between the large cities. Japanese public transportation is characterized by its punctuality, its superb service, and the large crowds of people using it.

High quality Japanese Translation services provided by Japanese born and educated Japanese translators living in Australia. Mi Marketing Pty Ltd (The publishers of Japanese Lifestyle) specialise in Japanese Translation and business services for companies wishing to do business with Japan.

We have reviewed some of the most popular online free Japanese translation sites. These free Japanese translation sites use machine translation systems and have their limitations.

Currently none of the free Japanese translation sites/tools even come close to providing an adequate quality of translation. It is unlikely that machine translation software will ever be able to replace human translators as there will always be the difficulty of determining the context or cultural aspect that a particular sentence or phrase is in.

Where the current free Japanese translation sites can be handy is in translating single words or a very simple phrase. Most of the time the translation of a single word is reasonably good, however this really means they are closer to a dictionary than a translator.

Japan Railways (JR)

Japan Railways (JR Group) is the successor of the national JNR (Japanese National Railways), which was privatized in 1987 due to huge debts.

The JR Group is made up of six regional passenger railway companies (JR Hokkaido, JR East, JR Central, JR West, JR Shikoku, and JR Kyushu) and one nationwide freight railway company (JR Freight). Together they operate a nationwide network of urban, regional and interregional train lines, night trains and bullet trains (shinkansen).

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Map of Japan



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