NEED TO KNOW
Capital City: Tokyo
Population: 127.4 million
Area: 146,000 square miles
Telephone Calling Code(s): 81
Electricity: 100V, 50/60 Hz
Currency: As of Nov 22, 2011:
1 Japan Yen = $0.01 US Calculate Other Amounts
Japan does not require visas for citizens of the United States. A valid passport is sufficient for a three-month stay.
GOOD TO KNOW
Books and Movies
The world's first novel, The Tale of Genji, was written by a Japanese woman in the 10th century and tells the story of love and life in aristocratic circles. Memoirs of a Geisha, the recent bestseller and 2005 movie, is the saga of a young woman's escape from 16th-century village life into the Kyoto pleasure industry. Famed author Junichiro Tanizaki provides a funny and fascinating rumination on Japanese cuisine, lacquerware, theater, racial identity, and the design of the Japanese toilet in the pamphlet-sized In Praise of Shadows.
Seven Samurai, by Akira Kurosawa, Japan's most beloved filmmaker, chronicles the quest of a band of disgraced warriors to save a poor village. A more modern tale of the samurai tradition is Akira, a violent cartoon romp through futuristic neo-Tokyo that started the anime revolution. The Oscar-winning animated film Spirited Away presents the history, culture, and philosophy of this enigmatic nation through a story of a young girl lost in a mythic bathhouse for the gods. For an amusing American view of Japan, rent the 2003 hit Lost in Translation.
Japan, a nation full of epicures and aesthetes, elevates eating to an art form. Sushi, expertly prepared throughout Japan, is the most recognizable of Japanese cuisines, but it's only one of many—noodles (udon and soba), fried foods (tempura and katsu), stews (shabu shabu and sukiyaki), and grilled meat (yakitori and hibachi) are all popular. Kaiseki (formal meals, often served at posh ryokan, or inns) are the most lavish expression of Japanese cuisine. They involve numerous tiny courses artfully prepared to reflect the season. All sorts of Western food is also readily available.
Japan's traditional drink is sake, served hot or cold. An intriguing unfiltered milky variety of sake, called Nigori, offers heady aromas and a supple finish. If you are someone's guest, the host will pour your glass to the top. And while you may fill your host's glass, it is considered uncouth to fill your own. Shochu (a strong white spirit) and plum wine are also traditional Japanese drinks, but beer, such as Kirin and Sapporo pilsner, has also become extremely popular.
Mega department stores take up whole Tokyo blocks, and you can purchase rare sake, Italian designer clothing, and gadgets in a single store. You can also explore Japan's rich artistic tradition in more personal venues. Distinctive products like antiques, noh theater masks, calligraphy scrolls, and silk kimonos can be found tucked into side street shops and outdoor markets rarely visited by Westerners.
Tips are never given in Japan. A service charge is always added to hotel and restaurant bills. If you wish to show your appreciation for service above and beyond the norm, put a significant quantity of crisp cash into one of the beautiful hand-made paper envelopes the Japanese adore and hand-deliver it.
Etiquette + Culture
Japan can be a bewildering country for the unprepared. True, it is a thoroughly modern industrial nation, helping to lead the world in science and technology. But don't expect Nara to be anything like Topeka. Here are some helpful observations:
There is one vending machine for every 20 people in Japan. They sell soda, cigarettes, alcohol, toiletries, flowers, live lobsters, and magazines, but rarely candy.
In public, it is socially acceptable to pick your nose but unacceptable to blow your nose.
People in Japan will rarely refuse a request outright, but a vague "yes" often means "no."
January: 1-3, Japanese New Year; second Monday, Coming-of-Age Day
February: 11, National Founding Day
March: 21, Vernal Equinox
April: 29, Greenery Day
May: 3, Constitution Memorial Day; 5, Children's Day
July: Third Monday, Marine Day
September: Third Monday, Respect for the Aged Day; 23, Autumnal Equinox
October: Second Monday, Health and Sports Day
November: 3, Culture Day; 23, Labor Thanksgiving Day
December: 23, Emperor's Birthday