Vacation in Japan: where the sun always rises

For a singularly great vacation, plan a trip to the Land of the Rising Sun. This island nation of bullet trains and towering pagodas showcases the best of the ultra-modern and a wide ranging past. Snow-capped mountains, Zen gardens, cherry blossoms, and haunting forests all frame this beautiful country.

 

Getting into Japan

 

You do not need a visa to enter Japan for any vacation that will last less than 90 days. A passport that will remain valid for the duration of your stay is all that is needed. Unless you are a millionaire, bringing cash into Japan isn’t a problem. If you bring in more than 1 million dollars, however, you will have to declare it.

 

Expect to have your fingerprints and a photograph to be taken upon entry. Except with certain exceptions, if you’re traveling with a diplomatic visa or transiting to another country through Japan, you will have to submit to these requirements.

 

If you have plans to work in Japan during your stay, you will need to apply for an appropriate visa. Traveling visa-free with only a passport makes you ineligible to work while you are in Japan. Like many other countries, changing your visa status while in Japan is impossible, so if your journey includes plans other than vacationing, you should prepare accordingly before you land.

 

While there are no required vaccinations for entry into this country, you should make sure you are up to date on all the common vaccinations, such as the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella), chicken pox, polio, and the diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis vaccines. Optional vaccines include Hepatitis A and B, Japanese Encephalitis, and the rabies vaccine. You should consult your doctor before a trip to determine which vaccines, if any, would be appropriate for you based upon your travel plans and activities.

 

The traveler’s tongue

 

Even though many young Japanese learn English in school, the education system emphasizes written English. Consequently, fluent English speakers are few, especially outside of areas heavily frequented by tourists. If you find yourself in a situation where you need to be understood in English, you may have better success writing down what you want to communicate, given the Japanese educational emphasis on the written form of English.

 

The national language in Japan is Japanese, even though there is no official language of the country. While there are numerous dialects throughout the country, almost everyone will understand the Tokyo style of Japanese that most travelers learn. As a good rule of thumb, you should carry your hotel’s business card with you. In case you get lost or need to clarify your destination for a taxi, this business card can come in handy.

 

Written Japanese uses a mix of the Chinese derived kanji mixed with other more local systems such as hiragana and katakana. The latter can be particularly helpful because it is the syllable system used to incorporate foreign words. Since it consists of 50 symbols it is much easier to learn than kanji, which can take a lifetime. Complicating matters is the fact that the same words written in kanji in China and Japan have different meanings. Knowing Mandarin Chinese can give you the jump on learning Japanese, but be prepared to run into unexpected differences.

 

Naming conventions in Japan are entirely different from what we practice in the US. Unless you are close friends with someone, it is considered rude to use their given name. Instead use their family name followed by the suffix –san, which is the equivalent to Mr. or Mrs. in English. However, you must also remember that the Japanese use their family names first, followed by their given names. Instead of “John Smith,” to use an English example, the Japanese convention would be “Smith John,” and if you are not close friends with this person, than it would be polite to call them “Smith-san.” This is an Anglicized example and would not occur as such in Japan. It is given here only as an example of the concept.

 

Is Japan expensive?

 

A vacation in Japan is going to be on the pricey side. A single traveler on a moderate budget who plans to stay in mid-level hotels and to eat at reasonably priced restaurants a couple of times a day should plan for a daily budget of around 15,000 yen, the Japanese unit of currency. This translates to roughly around $150 a day and includes the costs of transportation, lodging, eating, and sightseeing.

 

Backpackers can get by in Japan on a tight budget of around $75 a day; however, you will need to plan on eating inexpensively at fast food restaurants or convenience stores (of which there are plenty), stay in hostels (a good resource for finding exceptional deals on hostels and dormitories is www.hostelworld.com), and travel by bus using a Japan Bus Pass.

 

Regardless of your budget, if you plan on traveling to multiple cities in Japan during your stay, a Japan Rail Pass is great investment. This allows unlimited travel on the main Japan Rail for a fixed period, either 7, 14, or 21 days. These trains only run until 9 PM, so plan accordingly.

 

Japan is a cash culture, meaning that most businesses will not accept credit cards. The few who do take credit cards charge an additional service fee for doing so. Most banks can convert your cash from dollars to yen, but you will find better rates at post offices. Withdrawing cash with your debit card can be a challenge as well. Most Japanese ATMs do not accept foreign debit cards. 7-11 convenience stores are exceptions to this however, and they are numerous. It is a good idea to carry a reasonable amount of cash with you in case you have trouble finding a suitable ATM to make cash withdrawals.

 

Do not tip! When you are in Japan do not even tip your change. The Japanese value hospitality and good service as a matter of course and conceive of tipping as a bribe for what is given naturally. It’s considered rude to tip.

 

When to go and what to see

 

The Japanese are proud of the fact that their country has four distinct seasons. Spring and autumn are the best times to visit and take advantage of the mild climate with little rain. Summer time can be troublesome because of a month long rainy season followed by hot and humid conditions. Winters can be cold, which is well suited for some activities in the mountains, such as skiing, but can also be uncomfortable since many buildings lack central heating.

 

Here are some of the highlights for a vacation in Japan:

 

  • Cherry blossom festivals occur throughout Japan in the spring, typically from April to May. There are numerous parks where you can experience these festivals, which are usually replete with grand celebrations.
  • The island of Yakushima is a World Heritage Site famous for its forests that consist of trees that are thousands of years old. Shiratani Ravine was the model for the forest scenes in the famous anime Princess Mononoke. For the best experience of these beautiful forests, travel there in autumn.
  • Japanese castles are unique architectural marvels. Although many of them were damaged or destroyed during World War II, some have since been restored with fidelity to their original forms. Many of the castles, such as Osaka Castle in the city of the same name, house museums that give travelers a glimpse of medieval life in Japan.
  • The city of Kyoto features numerous Buddhist and Shinto temples, which are often free to enter. The Todaji Temple in Nara is famous for its towering statue of Buddha.
  • Japanese gardens are the envy of the world. Ritsurin Park in the city of Takamatsu is one of the largest and most popular with travelers. Royanji Temple in Kyoto houses one of the most famous Zen rock gardens, which demonstrates the Japanese affinity for finding beauty in simplicity.
  • The mountains of Japan are great places to hike, climb, and, in the case of the world famous resorts on Hokkaido, ski. Mount Fuji is an iconic symbol of Japan, and in the late summer is a perfect destination for climbing. The holy Haguro mountain is also a great place to hike with numerous steps carved into paths that stretch through dense forests, and since it is open year round, you don’t have to worry about being there “in season.”
  • Karaoke bars are staples of Japanese night life throughout the island. Westerners pronounce it wrong, which can be confusing to non-English speakers. Be sure and ask for kah-rah-ohh-keh instead of the English mispronunciation, keh-ree-ohh-kee.
  • Somber but necessary destinations include the World War II museums in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Since these are the only two cities in the world to ever have a nuclear bomb dropped on them, they provide excellent insight into the horror of atomic warfare.

 

All of these suggested sites are merely the tip of the iceberg for a fulfilling vacation to Japan. For even deeper explorations into Japanese culture, learn the national Japanese game, Go, but do not be alarmed if you get beaten handily. In Tennoji Park in Osaka, it’s not uncommon to find large crowds gathered around two Go masters engaged in a game. The Gion district in Kyoto is another area where you can immerse yourself in traditional Japanese culture. While somewhat expensive, a stay in a Ryokan inn in Japan can give you the flavor of Japanese living. The unique culture of Japan and nearly infinite variety of activities will keep you coming back to the Land of the Rising Sun for years to come.