The Rough Guide to Japan 2 (Rough Guide Travel Guides)

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9781858286990: The Rough Guide to Japan 2 (Rough Guide Travel Guides)
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INTRODUCTION For a country that lived in self-imposed isolation until 150 years ago, Japan has not hesitated in making up for lost time since the world came calling. Anyone who’s eaten sushi or used a Sony Walkman feels they know something about this slinky archipelago of some 6800 volcanic islands tucked away off the far eastern coast of Asia, and yet, from the moment of arrival in this oddly familiar, quintessentially Oriental land it’s almost as if you’ve touched down on another planet.

Japan is a place of ancient gods and customs, but is also the cutting edge of cool modernity. High-speed trains whisk you from one end of the country to another with frightening punctuality. You can catch sight of a farmer tending his paddy field, then turn the corner and find yourself next to a neon-festooned electronic games parlour in the suburb of a sprawling metropolis. One day you could be picking through the fashions in the biggest department store on earth, the next relaxing in an outdoor hot-spring pool, watching cherry blossom or snowflakes fall, depending on the season.

Few other countries have, in the space of a few generations, experienced so much or made such an impact. Industrialized at lightning speed, Japan shed its feudal trappings to become the most powerful and outwardly aggressive country in Asia in a matter of decades. After defeat in World War II, it transformed itself from atom bomb victim to wonder economy, the envy of the globe. Currently facing up to recession and rising unemployment after years of conspicuous consumption, Japan still remains fabulously wealthy and intent on reinvention for the twenty-first century, when, together with South Korea, it will become the first Asian nation to host soccer’s World Cup in 2002.

Japan is never going to be a cheap place to travel, but there’s no reason why it should be wildly expensive either. Some of the most atmospheric and traditionally Japanese places to stay and eat are often those that are the best value. Furthermore, the recession and tentative moves towards deregulation of the airlines, among other industries, have led to significant price-cutting in some areas.

In the cities you’ll first be struck by the mass of people. In this mountainous country, one and a half times the size of Britain, the vast majority of the 127 million population live on the crowded coastal plains of the main island of Honshu. The three other main islands, running north to south, are Hokkaido, Shikoku and Kyushu, and all are linked to Honshu by bridges and tunnels that are part of one of Japan’s modern wonders – its efficient transport network of trains and highways.

If you’re after the latest buzz, the hippest fashions and technologies, and a worldwide selection of food, head for the exciting, overwhelming metropolises of Tokyo and Osaka. The cities are also the best places in which to sample Japan’s traditional performance arts, such as Kabuki and NO plays, to catch the titanic clash of sumo wrestlers, and track down the wealth of Japanese visual arts in the major museums.

Outside the cities, from the wide open spaces and deep volcanic lakes of Hokkaido, blanketed by snow every winter, to the balmy subtropical islands of Okinawa, there’s a vast range of other holiday options, including hiking, skiing, scuba diving and surfing. You’ll seldom have to travel far to catch sight of a lofty castle, ancient temple or shrine, or locals celebrating at a colourful street festival. The Japanese are inveterate travellers within their own country and there’s hardly a town or village, no matter how small or plain, that doesn’t boast some unique attraction.

It’s not all perfect, though. Experts on focusing on detail (the exquisite wrapping of gifts and the tantalizing presentation of food are just two examples), the Japanese often miss the broader picture. Rampant development and sometimes appalling pollution are difficult to square with a country also renowned for cleanliness and appreciation of nature. Part of the problem is that natural cataclysms, such as earthquakes and typhoons, regularly hit Japan, so few people expect things to last for long anyway. There’s also a blindness to the pernicious impact of mass tourism, with ranks of gift shops, ugly hotels and crowds often ruining potentially idyllic spots.

And yet, time and again, Japan redeems itself with unexpectedly beautiful landscapes, charmingly courteous people, and its tangible sense of history and cherished traditions. Most intriguing of all is the opaqueness at the heart of this mysterious "hidden" culture that stems from a blurring of traditional boundaries between East and West – Japan is neither wholly one nor the other.

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About the Author:

Rough Guides are written by expert authors who are passionate about both writing and travel. They have detailed knowledge of the areas they write about—having either traveled extensively or lived there—and their expertise shines through on every page. It's priceless information, delivered with wit and insight, providing the down-to-earth, honest read that is the hallmark of Rough Guides.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

When to go

In an archipelago stretching over 3000km from north to south you'd expect the average temperature and weather patterns to vary greatly. The main influences on the climate on Honsh0 are the mountains and surrounding warm seas, bringing plenty of rain and snow. Winter weather differs greatly, however, between the western Sea of Japan and the Pacific coasts, the former suffering cold winds and heavy snow while the latter tends towards dry, clear winter days. Regular heavy snowfalls in the mountains provide ideal conditions for skiers.

Despite frequent showers, spring is one of the most pleasant times during which to visit Japan, when the weather reports chart the steady progress of the cherry blossom from warm Kyushu in March to colder Hokkaido around May. A rainy season (tsuyu) during June ushers in the swamp-like heat of summer; if you don't like tropical conditions, head for the cooler hills or the northern reaches of the country. A bout of typhoons and more rain in September precede autumn, which lasts from October through to late November and is Japan's most spectacular season, when the maple trees explode into a range of brilliant colours.

Also worth bearing in mind when planning your visit are Japan's national holidays. During such periods as the days around New Year, the "Golden Week" break of April 28 to May 6 and the Obon holiday of mid-August, the nation is on the move making it difficult to secure last-minute transport and hotel bookings. Avoid travelling during these dates, or make your arrangements well in advance.

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