Japan Travel Basics

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Japan: Modernistic Tokyo Meets Ancestral Kyoto on the Web

Japan is often thought of as the most modern country in the world, and in many ways it is. Yet behind the glitz and glamour of the neon lights and robot dogs, you’ll find a deeply traditional culture that changes at a glacial speed. This guide features the best Web sites to aid you in planning and implementing your trip to Japan, including resources to introduce you to Japanese culture and sightseeing, tools for finding and booking transportation and accommodation, advice to help you stay safe and healthy overseas, and blogs and forums to put you in touch with other travelers.

Japan Travel Basics

Japan may be instantly and endlessly intoxicating, but the country’s complex mix of old and new may take quite a while for newcomers to grasp and appreciate. Get a head start online with sites offering a spectrum of information on the country, as well as details of specific cities and attractions.

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  • Japan comprises four main islands and thousands of smaller islands. The country is divided into eight regions (Hokkaido, Tohoku, Kanto, Chubu, Kinki, Chugoku, Shikoku, and Kyushu), which are further divided into 47 prefectures.
  • Many tourists head directly to larger cities like Tokyo or Osaka, the two international flight hubs. If you want to escape the pop culture and bright lights in favor of a lower-key experience steeped in tradition and authenticity, try venturing outside of these hot spots to places like, for example, Okinawa; you’ll find fewer crowds and a calmer lifestyle.
  • For vibrancy and cutting edge excitement, Tokyo is the place to be. Even if you’ve had the pleasure of visiting the city before, you may find new buildings, revitalized neighborhoods, renovated museums, and incredible technological advances. A June 2007 article from Wired News called Tokyo a living laboratory.
  • For a much more subdued Japanese experience and a real taste of the country’s breathtaking topography, consider what some call a hidden place: Teuri Island off the coast of Hokkaido. In stark contrast to frenetic cities in Japan, Teuri is an isolated home to fishermen—a Japanese version of Nantucket, according to the author of this essay on the travel site Matador.
  • Sumo wrestling is Japan’s national sport but baseball is just as popular, if not more so. A couple of things to note: women are not allowed inside Sumo wrestling arenas; baseball games in Japan can get rowdy, with intense whistling and cheering, especially during the seventh-inning stretch.

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Travel Requirements for Japan

Japan has its share of cultural quirks and distinct specifications regarding manners and public behavior, in addition to some intense weather issues. Below are sites to help you cope with some of the uniquely Japanese obstacles and issues you will encounter, as well as information about the basic practicalities of entering and exiting the country safely.

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  • Manners in Japan can be complicated and nuanced, even challenging natives, according to a July 2007 International Herald Tribune article. Newcomers are not expected to know every custom and rule of etiquette; showing a bit of extra courtesy and reserve should suffice in most situations.
  • In Japan, it’s especially important to learn and use at least a bit of the native language, says this October 2007 article discussing “5 Ways You Can Be More Japanese in Japan,” in the online travel magazine Vagabondish.
  • You probably won’t be able to use an American phone in Japan, no matter what SIM card you buy. However, you can easily buy prepaid and rental mobile phones in airport booths when you arrive. The major providers are AU, Vodafone, and Docomo.
  • Japan’s length north to south is comparable to California’s, which accounts for the country’s varied climate across its eight regions. In Hokkaido, the chilly northernmost island, winter snowstorms are common; while further south in Okinawa, winter temperatures typically remain above 40º F.
  • Japan experiences its share of extreme weather: typhoons in the rainy, early summer season and frequent earthquakes across the country year-round, most of which go undetected by the general public.

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Getting to Japan

A highly developed country, Japan is easily accessible to travelers worldwide. Use the sites below to get there by sea or air.

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  • Most international flights to Japan land at one of the following airports: Narita International Airport just outside of Tokyo, Kansai International Airport in Osaka, or Central Japan International Airport near Nagoya. Look for these when booking your flight.
  • Many Asian airlines, including Japan Airlines (JAL) and All Nippon Airways (ANA), are widely regarded by experienced travelers as luxurious when compared with their western counterparts. Traveling to Asia on an Asian airline also allows you to begin the experience the moment you lift off, with flight attendants, entertainment, and food from your point of destination.
  • For more information on making travel arrangements no matter where you’re headed, including links to and advice for using flight search engines, see the findingDulcinea Travel Web Guide.

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Japan Hotels

If you’ve got money to spend and a penchant for high-tech hotels, you’re in luck. However, if you’re on a tight budget, you’re also in the clear. Japan’s lodging options are as varied as its climate and cultural practices. The Web sites we recommend in this section show you the range.

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  • Most hotels and other accommodation options in Japan (including hostels) can be booked online. Take advantage of the Web by booking early; it may save you some cash.
  • Japan is the originator of the pod hotel: somewhat coffinlike rooms that were first built in the 1970s, according to World Hum. However, today people in Japan looking for a cheap place to catch a nap have been settling for reclining chairs at Internet cafes. Rest assured that basic hotels and hostels are also readily available.
  • Ryokans are accommodations unique to Japan. Although these traditional inns tend to be more expensive than regular hotels, they’ll give you a taste of ancient cultural features such as tatami (straw mats), communal baths, and yukata (kimono-style robes).

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Getting Around Japan

For such a far-flung country, Japan is surprisingly easy to navigate. It boasts the most advanced train system in the world, as well as many local travel options and a friendly populace to help you on your way.

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  • Japan is known for its trains, but it also has an extensive and well-maintained system of highways and roads. An international driver’s license is required to legally drive in Japan, and can be obtained through the Krascar International Travel Club.
  • If you plan on staying in Japan longer than a year, you will eventually have to apply for a Japanese driver’s license, which can be difficult and expensive to obtain for an American. JapanDriversLicense.com may be able to help.
  • The Japanese government discourages car travel and prefers that people use public transportation. As such, tolls on Japanese roads can be prohibitively high.
  • Think about making your inter-Japan plane reservations before you get to the country. Japanese travel agents have been known to routinely charge foreigners more than they charge locals.
  • The popular Japan Rail Pass can be used for local trains and most JR (Japan Railways) trains traveling all over the country, but only be bought by foreigners outside of the country.
  • Taxis are extremely expensive in Japan, and the driver very often requires a map or directions from you. Also, don’t tip the driver (it’s considered rude), and remember that car doors are automatic and can be opened only by the driver.
  • Japan is one of the safest countries for hitchhiking. Though you won’t see many Japanese people hitching, most drivers find hitchhiking foreigners amusing and are quick to pick them up. If you’re planning to do any hitching, we recommend Will Ferguson’s books: “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Japan” and “Hokkaido Highway Blues.”

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Japan Travel Blogs and Forums

Japan is immensely popular among travelers of all ages, interests, and budgets, and is vigorously discussed in online blogs, forums, and travel essays. This is where you’ll find the good stuff that the professional guidebooks leave out—the frank opinions and wise words of your fellow wanderlusters.

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  • There’s a sizeable community of Americans who have recently lived or currently live in Japan. Several maintain personal Web sites or blogs that offer travel advice, and these sites tend to be rather basic in design but nonetheless quite useful. We’ve highlighted one such site below, and you’ll encounter several more expatriates in our recommended travel forums. Keep in mind, however, that the needs and experiences of someone living in Japan can be quite different from those of someone visiting for a short time.
  • Try a blog search engine like Technorati or BlogPulse to find blogs on specific topics such as “eating in Japan.”
  • Consult several blogs and forums before deciding to take advice from any particular one. You may find differing viewpoints or feel compelled to pose your own question.
  • If you find a blog you like, check to see if the author has included a blogroll. This list of like-minded blogs or general favorites of the author is typically located in the sidebar.

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