The complete guide to Japan

There's much more to Japan than Tokyo neon, techno frenzy and the tea ceremony. There are the Love Hotels, for a start, and the fugu blowfish, and courses on how to use a fridge


What does it look like?

What does it look like?

Japan is a string of geologically active islands delicately perched on the Pacific Ring of Fire. The Northern island of Hokkaido was, until recent volcanic eruptions, known best for its skiing, wildlife and hot springs. Just to the south is the main island, Honshu, which includes the capital Tokyo, graceful and elegant Kyoto, the unexpected charm of Hiroshima, the ski hills of Nagano, the hot springs of Hakone, the rural, rolling hills of Yamaguchi and the natural heart of Japan, Mount Fuji.

Most tourists never leave Honshu but to the south is Kyushu, another area of natural beauty with even more hot springs. And even further south are the tropical islands of the Okinawa chain, a spectacular group of islands with wonderful snorkelling and masses of culture (if you avoid the US Army bases).

What's its history?

Japan was originally settled by various migrant groups and one of the oldest, the Ainu, still live in Hokkaido. Having said that, Japan's early history is rather murky. Until 1945, it was official dogma that the Imperial family rule was founded in AD660 by a descendent of the sun goddess. More probable is that the country was made up of a range of tribal kingdoms which slowly coalesced into larger groups and then fought each other for imperial control. A feudal system developed and, between the 12th and the 19th centuries, Japan was under the rule of warriors, culturally influenced by China.

The Portuguese arrived in 1542, bringing in their wake the Dutch, various traders and priests. Within 50 years, the ruling shogunate had decided that foreigners were not all they were cracked up to be and they cut off all outside relations. In 1854, an American, Matthew Perry, showed up with warships and insisted that the Japanese open up to trade with the States. By 1868, the role of Westerners in Japan was controversial enough to play a role in the downfall of the shogunate and precipitate the Meiji Restoration, commonly considered the start of "modern" Japan. Feudalism was formally abolished in 1871 and efforts made towards "Westernisation".

Unfortunately, one of the things they learned particularly well was militarism. A series of wars of expansion followed and the Japanese took the Ryuku islands (now Okinawa), participated in the Sino-Japanese War, the Russo-Japanese War, annexed Korea in 1910, tried to make China a protectorate in 1915, took the lead in 1918 in an allied invasion of Siberia and, in the 1930s forcibly increased their hold over North China. With the start of the Second World War, the Japanese joined Italy and Germany and, on 7 December 1941, they bombed Pearl Harbor. These brutal years came to a terrible end with the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Japan was occupied by the Americans until 1952.

Since then, the country seemed to enjoy one economic boom after another - until last year, when the bubble finally burst.

Where should i start?

Tokyo is a sprawling beast of a city and perhaps the most obvious place to start a tour of Japan. It's an energetic landscape of train tracks, beautiful gardens, hastily slapped- together post-war housing, elegant temples, daring earthquake-proof high-rises and lots and lots of shops.

Most tourists stick to well-defined areas. High-tech fans head to Ginza to see the latest gear in fancy shops and the Sony Showroom before heading to Akihabara for bargain deals. Culture vultures catch a show at the Kabuki-za theatre (English translation available on headsets) or Shakespeare at the Tokyo Globe, a reproduction of the original. Historically inclined folk visit the Imperial Palace and the wonderful Edo-Tokyo Museum or, if you want to do the American thing, try Tokyo Disneyland or even baseball at the Tokyo Dome.

Basically, whatever you want, Tokyo has it - including accommodation. From "capsule" hotels, which are usually men-only, to "ryokans" or Japanese-style inns (try the Kimi Ryokan at 2-36-8 Ikeburo, Toshima-ku, which has doubles from around £40) to the sprawling Takanawa Prince Hotel complex (3-1, Takanawa 3-chome, Minato-ku, Tokyo, 00 800 3939 8686, www.princehotels.co.jp/english). Set in the middle of the city, it still boasts acres of quiet gardens, an ancient tea house and doubles from £110.

What if i want to stay somewhere, you know, special?

The Japanese are not overly bound up by traditional constraints on sex. Even good girls and boys do it. But most people in Japan live in tiny apartments with loads of relatives so, as a result, Love Hotels are everywhere. Unlike the rest of Japanese architecture, which is either achingly beautiful or heartlessly functional, Love Hotels are flights of Disney-esque fancy with buildings shaped like UFOs and the QEII. Even those that look relatively normal probably offer themed bedrooms: how about a Seventies Disco Room complete with a mini- dance floor and a mirror ball suspended from the ceiling?

In an overpopulated country, it is the one place you can be alone with someone. Check-in often consists of an empty lobby and a lit panel displaying photos of available rooms. Push the button corresponding to the room you want and a key-card slides out of the slot next to the panel. After using the room of your choice, you simply pay a vending machine that controls the door lock (if you don't pay, you don't leave).

Most Love Hotels work on a four-hour pricing plan (for the businessman and office lady on the go) but if you get there late at night and leave early in the morning, they are actually a good deal at around £50 for the night.

What about outside the city?

An hour and a half from Tokyo by fast train is Hakone, a massive hot- spring resort area inside an extinct volcano crater. This is a real family escape and has been for more than a century. The venerable Fujiya Hotel in Miyanoshita (tel 00 81 460 222 11, www.j-hotel.or.jp/member/kanagawa/fujiya_hotel) was founded in 1878 as one of the first Western hotels in Japan, and has photos of a young Charlie Chaplin playing tennis in his whites on their court. Doubles cost from £150 and it's the sort of place that serves high tea on the verandah, cream and all.

Another spectacular place is Ichinoyu, the first hot-springs hotel in Hakone. Opened in 1630 and still run by the same family, the food is phenomenal and some rooms have private outdoor hot springs. Doubles cost from £60 (00 81 460 5 5331, www.ichinoyu.co.jp/english).

Hakone also has a natural history centre that explains why there are so many hot springs (1251 Sengokuhara, Hakone-machi, 00 81 460 49149, admission £2.40), an Open Air Museum (Ninotaira, Hakone-machi, 00 81 460 21161, admission £10) with astounding Picasso, Henry Moore and Medardo Rooso collections, and a museum devoted solely to the Little Prince (Sengokuhara, Hakone-machi, 00 81 460 63700, admission £7).

It is also a main pilgrimage spot for those Japanese who believe they have to see Mount Fuji before they die. And, on a clear day, the sight of Fuji-San is truly spectacular. But the real attraction in Hakone is the hot springs and some hotels let non-guests use them for a fee. One such place is the spa at Pension Okada in Hakone Yumoto, which has seven different types of outdoor hot springs (00 81 460 56711, www.hakone.or.jp/okada). Almost all are segregated by sex, since you bathe nude (after scrupulously scrubbing yourself in the communal washing room).

The best way to visit Hakone is to use the services of Odakyu Sightseeing Service Centre in the Shinjuku train station. It provides an itinerary and a support line if things go wrong (00 81 3 5321 7887, www.odakyu-group.co.jp/english).

And further afield?

For a break from the normal tourist route, head to Yamaguchi prefecture in South Honshu and its wooded hills, quiet villages, and hot springs. Its old castle towns, 500-year-old temples, splendid potters and hot- spring resorts have been famous since the 14th century.

Two particularly good resorts are Yumoto Kanko Hotel Saiko (1051 Yumoto, Fukagawa, Nagato-shi, 00 81 837 25 3111) and Hotel Matsumasa (3-5-8-, Yuda Onsen, Yamagushi-shi, 00 81 839 22 2000, www.kcn.ne.jp/kre/matsumasa). Both offer a range of on-site facilities and are great for families.

Will I fit in?

In her quiet way, Michi Ogawa, founder and manager of the Women's Association of Kyoto (WAK), is changing the world, one tea ceremony or kimono-fitting at a time. It started when her kids were growing up, her husband was working out of town and she found that, even as an educated, well-travelled woman, she simply couldn't get a job.

Mrs Ogawa saw that older women couldn't find work other than making riceballs for train-station lunch boxes, so she formed WAK in 1997. The core activities of the group are courses for foreigners - staples like the tea ceremony, flower- arranging and koto-playing but also How to Shop for Souvenirs, How to Use a Japanese Toilet/Fridge/ Stove, Japanese Home Cooking, How to Wear a Kimono, Japanese Table Manners, and Does The Japanese "Yes" Really Mean Yes.

Courses can be provided for individuals or groups. For more information, contact WAK at 4 6 67 Kaguraoka-cho, Yoshida, Sanko-ku, Kyoto (00 81 75 752 9090, www.ky.xaxon.ne.jp/~wakjapan).

What's the food like?

Japan is a seriously foodie nation and texture is considered almost as important as taste, so dishes that Westerners might think twice about eating are big draws.

One of these is fugu, the potentially lethal blowfish that is a speciality of Shimonoseki city in Yamaguchi prefecture. This town loves its fugu so much, it even has fugus emblazoned on its manhole covers. If properly caught, killed and cleaned, only the innards are dangerous. Top end, 20-year-old fish can go for as much as £290 per kilo, but some restaurants in Shimonoseki, including those run by Toshio Hagiwara, an acknowledged fugu-guru, will offer a set meal for about £20. And yes, it tastes like chicken.

If you'd rather not eat raw, deadly fish, head out to Kapabashi district in Tokyo. Here you will find shop after shop selling the plastic food displayed in restaurant windows.

How do i get there?

Easily the best-value way to reach the Japanese capital is on an air ticket to Australia. Numerous discount agents are offering flights to Sydney, Brisbane or Cairns, with an optional stopover in Tokyo or Osaka, for around £600-£700 if you travel within the next six weeks.

If you are not able to travel to Australia, four airlines compete for your custom with daily non-stop flights to Tokyo: All Nippon Airways, British Airways, Japan Airlines and Virgin Atlantic. ANA and JAL also fly non-stop to the space-age airport of Kansai, serving Osaka, and JAL has flights to Nagoya. ANA and JAL allow the opportunity of flying in to one city and out from another; this so-called "open-jaw" arrangement can save backtracking within Japan. Through a discount agent, the cost of a return flight is likely to be around £900 on one of these non-stop airlines.

Cheaper deals are available with one-stop flights on a range of airlines such as Aeroflot, Cathay Pacific and Finnair, starting at around £600. The inclusive packages available through companies such as Jaltour (020 7495 1775) or The Japan Experience (01703 730888) are excellent value, particularly for a first, short visit, with prices for flights plus hotels at well below what you would pay if you arranged it independently. A typical package offering non-stop flights plus five nights accommodation in Tokyo costs around £900.

What about tour packages?

Companies offering packages to Japan include the following: Ace Study Tours (01223 835055, www.study-tours.org), from £2,975 for 16 days in Kansai, Kyoto, Nara and Takayama, including everything except lunches and insurance; Imaginative Traveller (020 8742 8612, imaginative-traveller.com), from £1,435 for 14 days, including everything except flights and some meals; Motor Racing International (01304 612424) from £1,299 for five days watching the Japanese Grand Prix in October, including everything except race tickets; Kuoni (01306 740500, www.kuoni.co.uk), from £899 for four nights in Tokyo or from £1,873 for a 10-night tour through Osaka, Kyoto, Tokyo and Hong Kong; Airwaves (020 7616 1010), from £785 for five days, including flights and accommodation; Reliance Tours (020 7439 2651), from £599 for five days, including flights and accommodation; Asian Journeys (01604 234855, asianjourneys.com), from £2,850 for 17 days fully inclusive, and Jaltour (020 7495 1775, www.jaltour.co.uk), from £1,060 for 10 days, including flights and accommodation.

Where can I find out more?

Contact the Japan National Tourist Organisation for excellent, free pamphlets or to arrange a home visit in order to drink tea and chat with a Japanese family. It can also hook you up with one of the country's 40,000 Goodwill Guides who will take you around their area for free, if you pay their expenses and let them practise their English. If you plan on moving around a lot, JNTO can also give you information on the Japan Rail Pass, which covers all the main islands except Okinawa.

The JNTO is at Heathcoat House, 20 Savile Row, London W1X 1AE (020 7734 9638, www.jnto.go.jp) and, in Japan, there is also a 9am to 5pm free-phone tourist information service (00 88 22 4800).

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