The Japanese Islands have been inhabited for at least 15,000 years. From the first Jomon hunters, gatherers and fishers through to the celebrated shogun period, Japan has a rich and unique culture. Japan has undergone a number of periods of intense contact with the outside world, where it has been influenced variously by the Chinese, Koreans, Europeans and Americans. These periods were interspersed with times of insular withdrawal, where Japan isolated itself from the rest of the world. During these times, outside influences were morphed and changed to become "Japanese". Japan's involvement in WWII continues to have impacts on the country today, with the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and widespread destruction of infrastructure and long-held beliefs necessitating a rebuilding into "modern Japan". Today, Japanese culture remains unique and seems to resist the homogenisation many others succumb to. Japan is a super-modern and developed country with highly cosmopolitan cities that feature cultural elements from all over the globe. Yet, a Japanese aesthetic prevails as past and present cultural influences continue to interweave in one of the most powerful engines of popular culture on earth.
Japan's population is around 130 million, with 13 million of these people living in Tokyo. Japan is an extremely ethnically homogenous country, with over 98% of the population being ethnically Japanese. Shinto, the native Japanese religion melded happily with Buddhism when it was introduced in Japan in the 4th century BC, and most Japanese would consider themselves Shintoist, Buddhist, or both. Japan is widely known for its traditional arts as well as its contemporary pop culture. Today in Japan it is still possible to see kimono-clad women or oversized sumo wrestlers next to young black suit-clad business people on the bullet train. A sophisticated cuisine, unique social customs, and refined performing and visual arts also contribute to an attractive and unique culture. Many aspects of the traditional Japanese mindset are different to Western values - the concept of wa, or group harmony; the concept of the common greater good being more important than one's own needs; the importance of omote, the public, formal, and conventional aspects of behaviour; and the importance of social status and ranking are all examples of this.
Sake and Sashimi
Japanese food is based on rice or noodles with soup and other dishes, each in its own utensil, with an emphasis on seasonal ingredients, and beautiful presentation. Seafood is common, often grilled, but it may also be served raw as sashimi or in sushi. Foreign food, in particular Chinese food in the form of noodles in soup called ramen and fried dumplings, gyoza, have been incorporated into Japanese cuisine over time. Tokyo has more Michelin-starred restaurants than almost any city in the world, and if you want to treat yourself, there are hundreds of world-class restaurants to choose from. However, even the humblest yakatori bar serves great food. Eating out anywhere is a cultural experience in itself. Food tastes great and is of wonderful freshness and quality and in addition, it is always beautifully presented and served by exquisitely polite and friendly staff. Sake (rice wine) is a prefect accompaniment to Japanese food, and like European wines, comes in a great variety of styles and quality. Interestingly, sake itself is seen as the rice component of the meal, and is not traditionally served with rice. Tea, especially green tea, is very important to Japanese culture, and the elaborate tea ceremony, rich with symbolism and meaning, has evolved around the serving and drinking of matcha (powdered green tea).
Japan has quite a small landmass, the islands Japan covering an area smaller than the state of California. Japan is situated in a volcanic zone on the Pacific Ring of Fire. Frequent low intensity earth tremors and occasional volcanic activity are felt throughout the islands. Destructive earthquakes, often resulting in tsunamis, occur several times a century, the most recent major quakes being the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. This geological activity means hot springs are numerous and have been developed as an important part of Japanese culture. Landscapes are valued for their aesthetic and cultural value, with mountains, waterfalls, lakes, rivers and onsen (hot springs) all seen as beautiful and important.
Earthquakes - the 2011 Tsunami
Since 11 March 2011, one cannot mention Japan without the devastating earthquake and tsunami that struck northeast Japan coming up. Yet, rather than focus on the immediate horrors and lingering fears of the tragedy, one should focus on the beauty and accessibility of Japan today. One should note how the Japanese people, resilient and steadfast, behaved after the waters receded: they gathered calmly in evacuation shelters, set off bravely on rescue missions, began the task of rebuilding. Every image from those first weeks reflects some of the culture’s highest virtues: the ability to gambaru (do their best) and to gaman (bear suffering without complaint). They also capture the famous Japanese thoroughness and civility, virtues that make travelling in Japan such a joy. There is no need to fear visiting Japan. The March 2011 disaster was of once-in-a-lifetime proportions, and even at the height of the crisis most of Japan was perfectly safe for travel. JNTO has some more information with regards to the after-effects of the disaster for tourists in their pamphlet "For Safe Travel in Japan" (see the link at the bottom of the section).
Plants and Animals
Plants and Animals The latitudinal spread of the islands of Japan makes for a wide diversity in flora and fauna, from the subtropical Okinawan archipelago in the far south to subarctic Hokkaidō in the north. Japan is famous for it's gorgeous formal gardens, as well as the phenomenon that is cherry blossom season. Hanami, the centuries-old practice of picnicking under a blooming sakura (cherry) tree is enjoyed throughout Japan. Cherry blossoms symbolize clouds due to their nature of blooming en masse and are also an enduring metaphor for the ephemeral nature of life, as well as a symbol of the country itself. Despite it's large population, large areas of Japan are still forested, largely uninhabited and home to diverse wildlife. Bears, racoon dogs, flying squirrels, wild boar and cats, sable, deer, and the famous snow monkeys (which enjoy bathing in onsen hot springs as much as humans do!) are all found in the wild. Red crowned crane (another symbol of Japan, and renowned for their graceful courtship dances), green pheasant, giant salamander, fireflies and giant spider crab can also be found.
Scheduled tours 2015
Japan is a land of contrasts - futuristic Tokyo versus the traditional beauty of an ancient formal garden; the breathtaking speed of a bullet train versus the precise calm of a tea ceremony. Your fascinating journey "off the beaten track" begins on Kyushu island, home to the samurai tradition and historic Nagasaki. See Mount Aso's volcanic peak and stay overnight in a traditional ryokan, then journey on to the thriving port city of Beppu and its "hells". Visit gorgeous Miyajima island with its floating torii gate, one of the “great sights”. Honshu, the main island, is next where you will spend time in Hiroshima and Kyoto, with its living traditions of geisha and teahouses. Finally, head to crazy, wonderful Tokyo via the spa resort area of Odawara, with its onsen baths and views of Mt Fuji. Along the way, enjoy local food and hospitality as you learn about this captivating country.
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