Japan – the Land of the Rising Sun – is an island nation, rich in culture and natural beauty, that has been an enigma to the West for as long as it’s been known. Shy and withdrawn from the world around it, managing to avoid the European colonisation that impacted so much of the rest of world history, Japan has kept itself unique, fascinating and relevant.
Although globalisation has meant that we can all now eat sushi while playing Mario on our widescreen Sony TVs, visiting Japan itself is still an experience that we are unprepared for, despite the ubiquity of these exports that we see every day.
Whether it’s the politeness and helpfulness of the locals in a small town, or the accurate-to-the-second punctuality of the train in the world’s busiest station, every moment in Japan has the ability to make you smile, appreciate life, and wonder out loud why our own countries can’t work this efficiently.
Food & Drink
It’s not all sushi and sashimi – though these are obviously some of the highlights! Japan excels in conjuring up a range of incredible foods to suit all budgets, tastes and (most) dietary requirements. Every region will have it’s own mouth-watering speciality, from Fukuoka’s tonkotsu pork ramen, to the layered okinomiyaki (Japanese savoury pancake) found on every street corner in Hiroshima. Whether your lunch is an onigiri (rice ball) from the 7-Eleven next to your hotel, or a melt-on-the-fork slab of Kobe beef that maxed out your credit card, Japanese cuisine will rarely disappoint you or your taste buds.
For strict vegetarians and vegans, finding food in the larger cities is no longer the problem it would have once been, even a few years ago. Smaller towns will prove more of a challenge though, as even ‘meat free’ meals such as vegetarian ramen may contain the ubiquitous dashi – a fish stock that is used as a base throughout Japanese cuisine. We can tailor itineraries and make suggestions though to ensure that no one in the party goes hungry – and even die-hard carnivores will enjoy the creativity and flavours of a vegan shojin ryori meal, the food of Buddhist monks throughout the country.
Japan has created some delicious beers that can be enjoyed cheaply everywhere, and imports more French wine than almost any other country – but there’s a greater range of tipples to appreciate while you are traversing the country. A Japanese whisky on the rocks in a Tokyo speakeasy is exactly as authentic as a warm sake in a Takayama brewery, so be sure to imbibe like the locals do – there’s no better way to get to know your fellow drinkers than over a few glasses… Kanpai!
When to Travel
Japan truly is a year round destination, but you also need to know what you’re letting yourself in for. Spanning from the cold ryuhyo (drift ice) of Hokkaido in the north, to the tropical beaches of Okinawa in the far south, it’s difficult to assign one rule to the ‘when to travel’ conundrum.
The most popular times to visit will coincide with the changing of the seasons – the arrival of the sakura (cherry blossoms) in spring, and the koyo (red and orange leaves) of autumn. While this can mean bigger crowds at key attractions, and hotels that book up quicker, it’s also when the country is at its most photogenic. If this is the time of year that suits you best, some careful planning and forethought will go a long way – and that’s what we’re here for. Travelling just outside of the peak weeks, or heading to quieter parts of the country, can make all the difference though – allowing you to enjoy the milder weather that these seasons offer without the risk of congestion.
On the flip-side, winters can be very cold, especially in the north, though this opens up winter sports options and also allows you to see iconic places covered in a postcard-perfect blanket of snow. Clearer skies and negligible rainfall do make these months a great option for those not averse to wearing a coat.
Summers will begin with a lot of rainfall, but things do clear up nicely by August when the sun blazes and the city-dwellers crank up their air-con or head to the beach. Heatwaves, high humidity and the occasional typhoon may affect the sorts of things you want to do, but the many matsuri (festivals) kicking off around Japan will be spectacular. Enjoy the fireworks and feasts, just remember to stay hydrated!
Whatever month you are free to make the journey to Japan, we can give you our first-hand advice on the best things to see, do and enjoy in that particular season.
Direct flights are available with British Airways to Tokyo and Kansai (for Osaka and Kyoto) from London Heathrow, and both the Japanese national carrier (Japan Airlines) and largest carrier (All Nippon Airways) have direct flights from Heathrow too.
Indirect flights can sometimes be much cheaper, and offer better choices from UK regional airports to Tokyo, or for those looking to fly into, or home from, other destinations – such as Sapporo in the far north or Fukuoka in the south.
Domestic flights can be essential for certain routes, but the comfort, value and ease of using the rail system locally means that this is not the necessity it would be in other parts of the world.
Due to the current Coronavirus outbreak across the world please check the latest summary, health and entry requirements on the FCO Travel Advice pages here: https://www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice.
Usual Advice: UK passport holders do not require a visa to enter Japan, providing they depart the country again within 90 days. Other nationalities should check entry requirements with the embassy. Passports need to be valid for the duration of your stay, and no further period of validity is required beyond the length of your trip.
You should contact your GP before travelling to all destinations. We can provide some general guidelines; however, we are not medically trained so it is essential that you speak to a medical professional well in advance of your trip.
No specific vaccinations are required for a visit to Japan, but it is recommended that you are up-to-date on immunisations as recommended for life in Britain: for example, seasonal flu, MMR, Tetanus, BCG (for TB). Malaria is not normally present in Japan, and no Yellow Fever certificate is required if flying from the UK.
We recommend purchasing comprehensive travel insurance as soon as you have booked your holiday, and declare any pre-existing medical conditions to your insurer – some may be able to provide cover for these conditions for an additional premium.
Japan is a very safe country with almost no petty crime, but (as with anywhere) it is recommended that you exercise the same caution and vigilance that you would at home, especially in busy nightlife areas or late at night.
As a country that straddles tectonic plates, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions are par for the course. At certain times of year, typhoons and cyclones are commonplace – sometimes causing nothing more than travel disruptions, but occasionally being severe and devastating. Centuries of dealing with these natural disasters though has given Japan an edge when it comes to preparing for, and giving advanced warning of, such events. Skyscrapers are built to withstand most major tremors, emergency exits are always well-labelled in hotels, train stations and malls, and coastal cities will have tsunami evacuation routes well laid-out and signposted.
Always familiarise yourself with the procedures given by local authorities, and stay informed of events via reputable sources such as the Foreign Commonwealth Office (FCO) in the UK, or the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA) locally.
MONEY & TIPPING
Somewhat surprisingly, Japan is a cash-based society – although slowly but surely, the modernity of credit cards and cashless payments is taking hold. In the larger cities you will be able to pay for travel, snacks and even ‘coin-lockers’ in train stations using your IC card (similar to the Oyster card) which can be topped up readily and easily… though, of course, you will need to have the cash in the first place. Luckily ATM’s are everywhere, but whether they work or not is a gamble. Machines in Post Offices and 7-Eleven convenience stores are the most reliable option, but be sure to inform your bank prior to travel so that they know to expect your withdrawals.
Tipping is not customary in Japan. Leaving a tip can sometimes result in bemusement, refusal of the money, or (in some cases) be taken as a slight insult. It’s not unheard of for waitstaff to chase after a patron to return their money to them. Giving outstanding service in Japan is the norm: your bartender, taxi driver and hotel receptionists are genuinely being this nice and courteous due to pride in their work, rather than to earn a few extra Yen.
The slight exception to the tipping rule is for personal tour guides or interpreters, who will not expect tips, but may accept them – though it is best to give an envelope containing the money, rather than hand it to them straight from your wallet or purse. Almost always though, a small gift is a better and safer choice – especially a token or food item from your home country – if you wish to ‘reward’ their hard work.
An International Driving Permit (IDP) is required to rent a car in Japan, and drivers need to be aged 18 or over. Japan drives on the left, which makes things a bit easier for UK visitors, and most signs on major roads are in Japanese as well as English and follow international standards. Driving in big cities can prove very difficult though, as Japanese addresses are rarely intuitive and many streets are unnamed. Parking charges can also be prohibitively expensive, so public transport is almost always a better choice for visitors than driving.
The exception to this will be the parts of the country that are not served as well by rail, such as the vast island of Hokkaido in the north of Japan. In these parts, having your own vehicle could be invaluable, and big empty country roads are a lot easier to navigate than the sprawling streets of Greater Tokyo. Somewhat annoyingly, the speed limits on these roads will seem painfully slow, so don’t underestimate the time required to get from A to B.
Travellers Code of Conduct
– We provide all of our clients with a “Travel Facts” document upon confirmation of your booking. This details useful facts and travel advice for your chosen destination, including restaurant recommendations, reading tips, basic language, cultural traditions, climate information and brief historical overviews. We feel that this offers a useful insight into the country you are visiting, and can help you interact with local residents in a more sensitive, well informed manner. Please try to take the time to read this information before your visit, if at all possible.
– A number of the countries in which we operate holidays are religious societies with a widely observed set of customs. Always respect these norms, particularly when visiting religious buildings.
– To the best of our knowledge, all of the hotels, lodges and camps within our portfolio operate stringent measures to minimise water usage. All of our destinations have issues with water supplies to a certain extent so feel free to raise any possible wastage should you encounter it during your stays, either with the accommodation or with us upon your return.
– Please ask before taking photographs of people, and respect their wishes should an individual not be happy to be photographed. We find that friendly requests and a smile are usually met with assent.
– Strive where possible to make your own contribution to environmental practices within the destination you are travelling. This might include minimising your electricity usage, avoiding smoking in protected areas, avoiding coral while snorkelling and safely disposing of all litter (recycling where possible).
– Where possible, try to purchase from local suppliers. This includes shopping for souvenirs, eating out in restaurants and booking further excursions during your free time. In areas where haggling is an accepted part of daily life, don’t become angry or offended if you are unable to obtain what you perceive as a fair price for an item. We emphasise to local suppliers that our clients should never be taken on unsolicited shopping trips, but if this does happen, try to retain your sense of humour, provide a firm refusal to participate and tell us about this on your return. We pass on all feedback from every trip undertaken with Holiday Architects to the relevant local suppliers, who share our commitment to travelling with sensitivity.
– Please don’t remove any indigenous items from their natural habitat and attempt to bring them back as a souvenir. This particularly applies to coral, shells, plants and food in the natural world, and to cultural artefacts and antiques.
– If you are unsure about anything relating to the above, please feel free to ask our local suppliers or your Holiday Architects specialist. All of these people either live or have travelled extensively in the country you are visiting and will be more than happy to offer their considered advice.