Japan Country Information

Japan is separated from the Asian mainland by 160km (100 miles) of sea. About 70% of the country is covered by hills and mountains, a number of which are active or dormant volcanoes. There is much to see in the capital city of Tokyo. The Imperial Palace with its grounds set out as a park; Ginza, the shopping and entertainment area; Shinjuku, the western quarter with a national park, the Botanical Garden and the Meiji Shrine. There is a thriving nightlife with clubs, theatres, music and food from all over the world.

Japanese cuisine, now popular in the West, involves very sensitive flavours, fresh crisp vegetables and an absence of richness. Specialities include teriyaki (marinated beef/chicken/fish seared on a hot plate), sukiyaki (thin slices of beef, bean curd and vegetables cooked in soy sauce and then dipped in egg), tempura (deep fried seafood and vegetables), sushi (slices of raw seafood placed on lightly-vinegared rice balls very tasty and refreshing), and sashimi (slices of raw seafood dipped in soy sauce).

Tokyo has an abundance of cinemas, theatres, bars, coffee shops, discotheques and nightclubs. A wide range of bars is available, from the posh and stylish to cheap street stalls. In the summer, rooftop beer gardens are popular. Some clubs have hostesses who expect to be bought drinks and snacks. In bigger nightclubs and bars, a basic hostess charge is levied. However, there are thousands of other bars and clubs.

Quick Facts

AREA: 377,829 sq km (145,877 sq miles).

POPULATION: 126,182,077 (1999)

POPULATION DENSITY: 333.7 per sq km.

CAPITAL: Tokyo. Population: 7,967,614 (1995).

GOVERNMENT: Constitutional monarchy. Head of State: Emperor Akihito since 1989. Head of Government: Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi since 1998.

LANGUAGE: Japanese is the official language. Some English is spoken in major cities.

RELIGION: Shintoist and Buddhist (most Japanese follow both religions) with a Christian minority.

TIME: GMT + 9.

ELECTRICITY: 100 volts AC, 60Hz in the west (Osaka). 100 volts AC, 50Hz in eastern Japan and Tokyo. Plugs are flat 2-pin and light bulbs are screw-type.

COMMUNICATIONS: Telephone: Full IDD service. Country code: 81. Outgoing international code: 001. Fax: Sending and receiving can be arranged at any hour at major hotels. KDD (Kokusai Denshin Denwa Co Ltd) offers facilities in Tokyo, Osaka, Yokohama and Nagoya. Telegram: Telegrams can be sent from the main hotels and from the above company, also from larger post offices in major cities. Two rates are available. Overseas telegrams can also be sent from the Central Post Office in Tokyo until midnight. Post: Letters can be taken to the Central Post Office in front of Tokyo Station or the International Post Office, near exit A-2 Otemachi subway station, which provide English-speaking personnel. Airmail to Europe takes four to six days to arrive. All main post offices have Poste Restante facilities and will hold mail for up to ten days. Post office hours: 0900-1700 Monday to Friday, 0900-1200 Saturday. The International Post Office and Central Post Office are open weekdays until 1900 and until 1700 Saturday. Press: The English-language daily newspapers in Tokyo include The Asahi Evening News, The Daily Yomiuri, The Japan Times and The Mainichi Daily News.

Overview of the Country

Japanese NIHON or NIPPON country lying off the east coast of Asia. It consists of a great string of islands in a northeast-southwest arc that stretches for approximately 1,500 miles (2,400 kilometres) through the western Pacific Ocean. Japan has a total land area of 145,883 square miles (377,835 square kilometres). Nearly this entire area is taken up by the country’s four main islands; from north to south these are Hokkaido (Hokkaido), Honshu (Honshu), Shikoku, and Kyushu (Kyushu). Honshu is the largest of the four, followed in size by Hokkaido, Kyushu, and Shikoku. In addition, there are numerous smaller islands, the major groups of which are the Ryukyu (Nansei) Islands (including the island of Okinawa) to the south and west of Kyushu and the Izu, Bonin (Ogsawara), and Volcano (Kazan) islands to the south and east of central Honshu. The national capital, (Tokyo), in east-central Honshu, is one of the world’s most populous cities.

Japan is bounded to the west by the Sea of Japan, which separates it from the eastern shores of South and North Korea and southeastern Siberia (Russia); to the north by La Perouse (Soya) Strait, separating it from Russian-held Sakhalin Island, and by the Sea of Okhotsk; to the northeast by the southern Kuril Islands (since World War II under Soviet and then Russian administration); to the east and south by the Pacific; and to the southwest by the East China Sea, which separates it from China. The island of Tsushima lies between northwestern Kyushu and southeastern South Korea and defines the Korea Strait on the Korean side and the Tsushima Strait on the Japanese side.

The Japanese landscape is rugged, with more than four-fifths of the land surface consisting of mountains. There are many active and dormant volcanoes, including Mount Fuji, which, at an elevation of 12,388 feet (3,776 metres), is Japan’s highest mountain. Japan’s abundant rainfall and the generally mild temperatures throughout most of the country have produced a lush vegetation cover and, despite the mountainous terrain and generally poor soils, have made it possible to raise a variety of crops. Japan has a large and, to a great extent, ethnically homogenous population, which is heavily concentrated in the low-lying areas along the Pacific coast of Honshu.

Complexity and contrast are the keynotes of life in Japan–a nation possessing an intricate and ancient cultural tradition yet one that, since World War II, has emerged as one of the world’s most economically and technologically advanced societies. Heavy emphasis is placed on education, and Japan is one of the world’s most literate countries. Tension between old and new is apparent in all phases of Japanese life. A characteristic sensitivity to natural beauty and a concern with form and balance are evident in such cities as Kyoto and Nara, as well as in Japan’s ubiquitous gardens. Even in the countryside, however, the impact of rapid Westernization is evident in many aspects of Japanese life. The agricultural regions are characterized by low population densities and well-ordered rice fields and fruit orchards, whereas the industrial and urbanized belt along the Pacific coast of Honshu is noted for its highly concentrated population, heavy industrialization, and environmental pollution.

Humans have occupied Japan for tens of thousands of years, but Japan’s recorded history begins only in the 1st century BC, with mention in Chinese sources. Contact with China and Korea in the early centuries AD brought profound changes to Japan, including the Chinese writing system, Buddhism, and many artistic forms from the continent. The first steps at political unification of the country occurred in the late 4th to early 5th century AD under the Yamato court. A great civilization then developed in Japan, first at Nara in the 8th century and then at Heian (now Kyoto) from the late 8th to the late 12th century. The seven centuries thereafter were a period of domination by military rulers culminating in near isolation from the outside world from the 17th to the mid-19th century.

The reopening of the country ushered in contact with the West and a time of unprecedented change. Japan sought to become a modern, industrialized nation and pursued the acquisition of a large overseas empire. This latter policy led to confrontation with the United States and its allies and to defeat in World War II. Since the war, however, Japan’s spectacular economic growth–one of the greatest of any nation in that period–has brought the country to the forefront of the world economy. It now is one of the world’s foremost manufacturing countries and traders of goods and is a global financial leader.

The Japanese people are members of the Asiatic geographic race and are closely akin to the other peoples of eastern Asia; they constitute the overwhelming majority of the population. During the Tokugawa period, there was a social division of the populace into four classes (warrior, farmer, craftsman, and merchant), with a peer class above and an outcast class below. With the exception of the  burakumin (literally, “people of the hamlet”), the descendants of the former outcast class, this social-class system has almost disappeared. The burakumin, however, are still subject to varying degrees of discrimination.

Insofar as a social-class system does persist it does not have the ethnic basis that can exist in multiracial societies, since the Japanese regard themselves as belonging to a single ethnic group. The few exceptions include those classified as resident aliens (particularly Koreans ) and Japanese citizens of Ainu and, to a lesser degree, Okinawan origin. Japan also has a small population of Chinese descent.

Hundreds of thousands of Koreans migrated to Japan (a great many against their will) before and during World War II, when Korea was a Japanese colony, and worked mainly as labourers; those remaining after the war and their descendants, the latter born and raised in Japan, do not have Japanese citizenship and face considerable discrimination. Both Ainu and Okinawans are often relegated to a second-class status. The indigenous Ainu largely were assimilated into the general population centuries ago; a few small, scattered groups, however, have maintained their identity in Hokkaido. Before the war there was a tendency to distinguish the people of Okinawa from other Japanese because of perceived physical and cultural differences; this tendency has diminished but not disappeared. Okinawan culture, including its dialect and religion, is now recognized as sharing many traits with Japanese culture.Languages

Japanese is the national language, and Ainu is almost extinct. The Japanese language is generally included in the Altaic linguistic group and is especially akin to Korean, although the vocabularies differ. Some linguists also contend that Japanese contains elements of Southeast Asian languages. The introduction of the Chinese writing system and of Chinese literature about the 4th century AD enriched the Japanese vocabulary. Until that time Japanese had no written form, and at first Chinese characters (called kanji in Japanese) were used to write Japanese; by the 9th century two syllabaries, known collectively as kana (katakana and hiragana), were developed from them. Since then, a combination of kanji and kana has been used for written Japanese. Although some 3,000 to 5,000 kanji are in general use, after World War II the number of characters necessary for a basic vocabulary was reduced to about 2,000, and the writing of these characters was simplified. Tens of thousands of Western loanwords, principally from English, also have been adopted.

The distribution of Japanese nearly coincides with the territory of Japan. Standard Japanese, based on the dialect spoken in Tokyo, was established in the late 19th century through the creation of a national educational system and through more widespread communication. There are many local dialects, which are often mutually unintelligible, but standard Japanese, widely used in broadcasting, is understood nationwide.

Japanese is broadly divided linguistically into the two major dialects of Hondo and Nanto. The Hondo dialect is used throughout Japan and may be divided into three major subdialects: Eastern, Western, and Kyushu. The Eastern subdialects were established in the 7th and 8th centuries and became known as the Azuma (“Eastern”) language. After the 17th century there was a vigorous influx of the Kamigata (Kinai) dialect, which was the foundation of standard Japanese. Among the Western dialects, the Kinki dialect was long the standard language of Japan, although the present Kamigata dialect of the Kyoto-Osaka region is of recent origin.

The Kyushu dialects have been placed outside the mainstream of linguistic change of the Western dialects and retain some of the 16th-century forms of the latter. They extend as far south as Tanega and Yaku islands. The Nanto dialects are used by Okinawa islanders from the Amami Islands in Kagoshima prefecture to Yonaguni Island at the western end of the archipelago. Long placed outside the mainstream of linguistic change, they strongly retain their ancient forms.


In Japan, the indigenous religion, Shinto , various sects of Buddhism , and Christianity exist together with some ancient shamanistic practices and a number of “new religions” (shinko shukyo) that have emerged since the 19th century. Not one of the religions is dominant, and each is affected by the others. Thus, it is typical for one person or family to believe in several Shinto gods and at the same time belong to a Buddhist sect. Intense religious feelings are generally lacking except among the adherents of some of the new religions. Japanese children usually do not receive formal religious training. On the other hand, many Japanese homes contain a Buddhist altar (butsudan), at which various rituals–some on a daily basis–commemorate deceased family members.

Shinto is a polytheistic religion. People, commonly major historical figures, as well as natural objects have been enshrined as gods. Some of the Hindu gods and Chinese spirits were also introduced and Japanized. Each rural settlement has at least one shrine of its own, and there are several shrines of national significance, the most important of which is the Grand Shrine of Ise in Mie prefecture. Many of the ceremonies associated with the birth of a child and the rites of passage to adulthood are associated with Shinto. After the Meiji Restoration (1868), Shinto was restructured as a state-supported religion, but this institution was abolished after World War II.

Buddhism, which claims the largest number of adherents after Shinto, was officially introduced into the imperial court from Korea in the mid-6th century AD. Direct contact with central China was maintained, and several sects were introduced. In the 8th century Buddhism was adopted as the national religion, and national and provincial temples, nunneries, and monasteries were built throughout the country. In the early 9th century the Tendai and Shingon sects . These sects have continued to exert profound influence in some parts of Japan. Zen Buddhism, the development of which dates to the late 12th century, has maintained a large following. Most of the major Buddhist sects of modern Japan, however, have descended from those that were modified in the 13th century by monks such as Shinran , who established an offshoot of Pure Land (Jodo) Buddhism called the True Pure Land sect (Jodo Shinshu), and Nichiren , who founded Nichiren Buddhism.

Christianity  was introduced into Japan first by Jesuit and then by Franciscan missionaries in the mid- to late 16th century. It initially was well received both as a religion and as a symbol of European culture. After the establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate (1603), Christians were persecuted, and Christianity was totally banned in the 1630s. Inaccessible and isolated islands and the peninsula of western Kyushu continued to harbour “hiding Christian” villages until the ban was lifted by the Meiji government in 1873. Christianity was reintroduced by Western missionaries, who established a number of Russian Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant congregations. Practicing Christians account for only a tiny fraction of the total population.

The great majority of what are now called the “new religions” were founded after the mid-19th century. Most have their roots in Shinto and shamanism, but they also were influenced by Buddhism, Neo-Confucianism, and Christianity. One of the largest, the Soka Gakkai (“Value Creation Society”), is based on a sect of Nichiren Buddhism. Another new Nichiren sect to attract a large following is the Rissho Kosei-kai. New Shinto cults include Tenrikyo and Konkokyo.


The Japanese archipelago assumed its present shape around 10,000 years ago. Soon after, the era known as the Jomon period began and continued for about 8,000 years. Its people were hunter-gatherers. Gradually, they formed small communities and began to organize their lives communally. They also began to use earthenware objects. Rice cultivation reached Japan from the Eurasian continent around 300 BC during the Yayoi period, and settlements grew larger.

Japan can be said to have taken its first steps to nationhood in the Yamato period, which began at the end of the third century AD. During this period, the ancestors of the present Emperor began to bring a number of small states under unified rule from their bases around what are now Nara and Osaka Prefectures.

In 604 Prince Shotoku laid down Japan’s first constitution. Also from this time, Buddhism that was introduced from the Eurasian continent began to take root in Japan. The Nara period began at the beginning of the eighth century with the establishment of the country’s first permanent capital in Nara. Toward the end of the century, the capital was transferred to Kyoto, launching the Heian period, during which noble families predominated and a distinct national culture blossomed.

From the Kamakura period, which began at the end of the twelfth century, to the close of the Edo period in the latter half of the nineteenth century, Japan was ruled by samurai, or warrior class. Order broke down around the middle of the fifteenth century, and Japan was torn by civil warfare for nearly 100 years as samurai lords of different domains fought one another. The agent of pacification and national unity was Toyotomi Hideyoshi.

At the beginning of the seventeenth century, Tokugawa Ieyasu set up a government in Edo (now Tokyo), and the Edo period began. The Tokugawa regime adopted an isolationist policy that lasted for more than 200 years, cutting off exchange with all countries except China and the Netherlands. But with the arrival of American Commodore Matthew Perry in 1853, the nation began to open itself up to the United States and European powers. The age of the samurai came to an end with the Meiji Restoration of 1868, and a new system of government centered on the Emperor was set up. The new government promoted modernization, adopted Western political, social and economic systems, and stimulated industrial activity. The Diet was inaugurated, and the people began to enjoy limited participation in politics.

From around 1920 a democratic movement gained strength. But amid a global economic crisis, the military came to the fore, and Japan eventually marched down the road to war.

With the end of World War II in 1945 Japan put into effect a new Constitution, committed itself to becoming a peace-seeking democracy, and succeeded in relaunching its economy. In 1956 the nation’s entry into the United Nations was approved. Since then, Japan has contributed to world peace and prosperity as a member of the international community.


GDP: US$3926 billion
GDP per head: US$31,451
Annual growth: 0%
Inflation: 2%
Major industries: Motor vehicles, office machinery, chemicals, electronics
Major trading partners: USA, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, Germany, China


Contemporary Japanese society is decidedly urban. Not only do the vast majority of Japanese live in urban settings, but urban culture is transmitted throughout the country by a mass media concentrated in Tokyo. Young urban Japanese, in particular, increasingly are known for their conspicuous consumption and for their penchant for trends and fads that quickly go in and out of fashion.

Modern (usually Western) popular music has gained a strong foothold in Japan. Jazz, rock, and the blues are enjoyed by the younger generation, along with half-Westernized or half-Japanized folk and popular songs. Many basically Japanese songs are sung to the accompaniment of Western musical instruments; at the same time, many basically Western subjects are treated in Japanese-style drama or song.

The two orbits around which family life typically revolves are the workplace and school. Role specialization between men and women is widespread, though changing. Men traditionally are the family breadwinners, while women are responsible for home finances, child rearing, and care of the extended family; an increasing number of women, the majority of them married, work outside the home, although often in part-time jobs. In rural agricultural areas, women have growing responsibilities in running agricultural operations, since many male heads of household are engaged in full-time employment in manufacturing facilities often at some distance from the family farm.

Most entertaining is not done at home, in part because of the small size of most Japanese homes. The commercial landscape of most Japanese cities is among the most diverse and service-oriented in the world, where all manner of food, Japanese or otherwise, can be found. Japanese cuisine, which often is served raw or only lightly cooked, is noted for its subtle and delicate flavours.

Japanese cuisine, now popular in the West, involves very sensitive flavours, fresh crisp vegetables and an absence of richness. Specialities include teriyaki (marinated beef/chicken/fish seared on a hot plate), sukiyaki (thin slices of beef, bean curd and vegetables cooked in soy sauce and then dipped in egg), tempura (deep fried seafood and vegetables), sushi (slices of raw seafood placed on lightly-vinegared rice balls – very tasty and refreshing), and sashimi (slices of raw seafood dipped in soy sauce). The best place to try sushi is a Kaiten Sushi Bar, where many varieties pass the customer on a conveyor belt allowing complete choice over which delicacies to try, at more reasonable prices than a traditional Sushi Bar. Fine Oriental food (Korean – very hot – and Chinese) is served in restaurants. An amazing number and variety of international restaurants are also available, which cater for every possible taste and budget, from French and Italian to Chinese, Indian and Thai. Western dishes in expensive places are good, but cheaper restaurants may be disappointing. Restaurants have table service and in some places it is customary to remove footwear. Drink: Sake, hot rice wine, is strong and distinctively fresh-tasting. Shochu, a strong aquavit, is an acquired taste. Japanese wines are worth trying once, and beer – similar to lager – is recommended. Popular brands are Kirin, Sapporo, Suntory and Asahi. Waiter service is common in bars. The Japanese are very fond of original Scotch Whisky, but this is both very expensive and highly sought after; therefore Japanese versions of this drink are often consumed. There are no licensing hours. Drinking is subject to long-standing rituals of politeness. The hostess will pour a drink for the visitor, and will insist on the visitor’s glass being full. It is also appreciated if the visitor pours drinks for the host, but it is bad manners for a visitor to pour one for himself.

Social customs

Especially in the more anonymous world of the city, the traditional arranged marriage (miai-kekkon) is being replaced by the love match. It is still common for a family friend, relative, or mentor to act as a go-between (nakodo), even if the marriage is a love match. The wedding ceremony itself often consists of a curious blend of East and West: a traditional Shinto ceremony, in which the bride and groom wear elaborate kimonos, typically is followed by a Christian-style observance, with the participants in formal Western attire.

Japan has 12 national holidays. New Year’s Day is traditionally regarded as the most important of these holidays, with millions of people engaging in a kind of pilgrimage to shrines and temples starting at midnight of December 31. For three days thereafter, people visit shrines and temples, their families, and the homes of friends. In addition to the 12 national holidays, there are also such nationwide festivities as the Doll Festival, or Girls’ Day (March 3), which is comparable to Boys’ Day (May 5), now celebrated as Children’s Day (a national holiday). May Day (May 1) is celebrated by many workers. The occurrence of multiple holidays in late April-early May (popularly called Golden Week) is one of the most popular vacation times for the Japanese, as is the week of the Bon festival in mid-July or mid-August. Many temples and shrines celebrate their own specific festivals, attracting large numbers of people. City, town, and village authorities, as well as local communal bodies, often organize local festivals.

The Japanese have a great fondness for seasonal blossom- and leaf-viewing. Most popular are the cherry blossoms of spring (in many areas, around Golden Week). Each year, the entire country is captivated by the northward progress of the trees–the so-called “cherry blossom front.” This is mirrored in the fall, to a lesser degree, by the southward progress of the turning maple leaves.

Basic Traveler Info

Visas: US passport holders, most EU residents and visitors from Australia and New Zealand don’t require a visa if staying in Japan less than 90 days. South African residents are among those who are required to get a visa. This changes regularly, so check before you go…
Health risks: None
Time: GMT/UTC plus nine hours
Electricity: 100V; 50 Hz (Tokyo and eastern Japan), 60 Hz (western Japan).
Weights & measures: Metric…can you remember? 🙂

Money & Costs

Currency: Yen 
Relative costs:

  • Cheap meal: US$7-10
  • Moderate restaurant meal: US$15-40
  • Expensive restaurant meal: US$40-70 and up…way up 🙂
  • Cheap room: US$18-25
  • Moderate hotel: US$35-70
  • Expensive hotel: US$100-200

Where to Stay

By Matt Malcomson

Minshuku & Ryokan | Business hotels | Love Hotels | Camping | Homestays

Youth hostels:
Japanhas a vast network of well-placed hostels. The basic price is around ..2,700 per night. They follow the same pattern as in the West, but usually have an early ‘closing time,’ prohibiting late-night forays. Many are in or near national parks, catering to hikers and school parties. Since they can be booked up by large groups, it’s wise to check in advance if they have vacancies.
I’ve tried to list youth hostels for each area in the destinations section.

Minshuku & Ryokan:
Both commonly referred to as Japanese inns, Ryokan are the Japanese equivalent of Western inns or hotels, and minshuku are more like pensions or B&B’s. Ryokan provide classic Japanese surroundings, attentive service, a full-course meal, and are usually located in tourist areas. Their price varies greatly, from around the ..4-5,000 mark to ten times that, but the average is probably around ..10,000. Minshuku, on the other hand, are usually run by a single family, with simple home-like accommodation. Prices again vary greatly on location, but average about ..6,000-8,000 per person. The ‘per-person’ bit is important to remember, because most prices in Japan for accommodation are quoted per person, not per room. Even if you tell them your group is two or three people, they will still repeat the per person price. It’s not a bad deal, though, when you consider that you’re getting two meals included. Personally I prefer Minshuku, as they are often in the less traveled back streets or quieter rural areas. The Ryokan are definitely more stylish, some going back hundreds of years, and are well worth the extra money.

Business hotels:
In down-town areas these can be your only option. They are mostly cheerless, with rooms not much larger than the bed, but even in downtown Tokyo you can get an affordable rate. Look for them on back streets near train stations or entertainment areas in all larger towns or cities. Prices are about ..6,000-8,000 per person, but don’t include meals.

‘Love hotels’:
After 10 o’clock at night most ‘love hotels’ accept ‘stay’ customers as well as ‘rest’ customers. For as little as ..6,000, you and your partner can get a room with ‘interesting’ decor (look for the ceiling mirrors and oddly-shaped beds). Because they charge per room, it works out at a great deal. They are also very easy to spot, with flashy neon signs, gaudy architecture, and suggestive names like ‘Hotel With,’ ‘Dream’ and so on. In cities you can find them near entertainment areas, and in rural areas near highway interchanges and tourist spots. You enter by a small door, into a subtly lit lobby, and choose a room from a lit display. You take the key, and ascend to your chosen room with the aid of flashing lights. It’s all very kitsch. The idea is to keep everything very anonymous. It works.

Most camp sites are simple affairs. They usually have just a clear, flat area for erecting tents, and a small reception, with toilets, washing and cooking facilities. Many don’t even have showers. What’s more, almost all are only open in summer, or from April to November in popular areas. Rates are cheap for simply putting up your tent, but renting a bungalow or log cabin can be expensive. Be careful with older maps, many smaller camp sites have closed in recent years. I personally find camping in the summer too hot, except in Tohoku or Hokkaido, or at high altitude, when most Japanese go camping. Camping out of season is fine, usually, if you are careful about who’s land you are on, and don’t make a nuisance of yourself. The downside is that the water supply and all electricity will invariably be turned off. The plus side: tranquillity.

The Home Visit System, designed to offer the foreign visitor a chance to visit a Japanese family at home, operates in 14 cities, including Narita, Tokyo, Yokohama, Nagoya, Otsu, Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe, Kurashiki, Okayama, Hiroshima, Fukuoka, Kumamoto and Miyazaki . In these 14 cities, there are about 1000 families in total, voluntarily receiving foreign guests into their homes for visits without any monetary compensation. Home visit is not a home-stay program. Usually dinner will not be served. Most host families invite their guests in the evening time after dinner, and they accept up to four or five guests at one time. English is spoken by most of the host families and some of the family members also speak French, German and other languages.

How to Apply
First of all, you, as an applicant, are requested to call or visit the application office run by the local administrative authority or private organization. After contacting the host families for approval, the office will inform you of the name of the host family and the time and day to visit. Depending on the city, you may be asked to appear in person at the application office to obtain detailed directions and sometimes a visitor’s card, or the office may just call you to give the directions. Note that most application offices are closed on Saturday afternoons, Sundays and national holidays. It is impossible to make reservations from abroad. And please understand that you can apply only once during your stay in Japan.

If you wish to visit a family of a particular occupation, the office will try to meet your request. Since it usually takes a full day for the application office to complete the arrangements, it is necessary for you to make contact with the office at your earliest convenience. In most cities, the deadline for the application is one day in advance of your visit.
When you have found that you are going to be delayed for the appointment, please be sure to call the host family to explain your situation. And you are particularly requested to keep your appointment, except in the case of an emergency.

*Homestay information courtesy Japan National Tourist Organisation



Most foreigners enter Japan at either Tokyo (Narita) or Osaka (Kansai), so it makes sense on shorter trips to base yourself on one of those cities, and make side trips to Kyoto and Nara for a glimpse at Japan. s ancient heritage. With longer than a week, it is really worth exploring a little, and visiting a Japanese hotspring  can be a wonderful experience. If you have longer, Japan has some extremely beautiful scenery to explore. Hokkaido is best in summer, and Yakushima, south of Kyushu, is an enchanting island whose highlight is a 3-day hike through temperate rain forest. If you are the outdoors type, then Japan has many beautiful mountain areas, and a highly developed network of trails. Here are a few suggestions for your travels around Japan.

1 week:
It. s best to concentrate on one region if you have little time. Tokyo, Kyoto and Nara are the most popular cities for first-time visitors, and can be easily visited in one week. Nara is an easy day-trip from Kyoto, but if you are entering Japan through Kansai Airport, then it. s also easy to base yourself in Osaka and visit Kyoto and Nara as day trips.
Tokyo (3 days) Kyoto (2 days) Nara (1 day)
And interesting side trip would be to spend one night at a hot spring town such as Atami, near Tokyo.

2 weeks:
With two weeks, you have enough time to see the cultural heritage of Kyoto and Nara, the bright lights of Tokyo or Osaka, and also get a little off the beaten track.
The difference between Japanese cities can be insignificant, and unless there is a particular aspect of a town that you want to visit, use your precious time to discover some of Japan. s beautiful nature, so often ignored by visitors. In summer, Tohoku (the north-east), offers stunning scenery, plenty of small, rustic hotsprings, but is very cold in winter, while Kyushu offers the fabulous Aso, Kuju, and Kirishima range of volcanoes, and plenty more hotsprings.
Tokyo or Osaka (4 days) Kyoto/Nara (3 days) Ryujin or Atami Onsen (2 days) national park usch as Aso-Kuju, Bandai-Asahi (in summer) (4 days).

3 weeks:
As with two weeks, but you could (depending on the season) travel north to Hokkaido, possibly taking in Sado Island (by ferry from Niigata), or Hokkaido. s Shiretoko Peninsula. Or you could head south to the islands that spread south-west from Kyushu, such as Yakushima, Miyako-jima, or Iriomote-jima. As above plus 7 days in either Hokkaido or Kyushu and its islands.

4 weeks:
If you are lucky enough to have 4 weeks to travel in Japan, then you will be able to do some substantial traveling around the country if you want. It would probably be best to do something similar to the 3-week plan, but give yourself more time in each place. You could visit Kyushu, central Honshu, Tohoku, and even Hokkaido, but even with 4 weeks, there is a risk of spreading yourself too thinly. Each of these areas has so much to explore, that it is still worth doing an . eastern Japan. or . western Japan. trip, depending on the season.

Traveling Around

Hitch-hiking | Ferries | Planes | Trains | Japan Rail Pass

Japan doesn’t have to be an expensive country to travel in. With a little patience and flexibility, one can travel the length and breadth without laying out a fortune. The two major factors in the cost of any trip are transport and accommodation. While the methods I have used may not be everybody’s taste, they have taken me from Okinawa to Hokkaido safely and have given me a better insight into the country than I would have seen from the window of an aeroplane.


This depends a lot on how flexible you are with time, and the number of people traveling. Hitch-hiking is not commonly practised by people in Japan, and you are likely to get a lot of attention, but it can be great fun, help improve your Japanese, and let you get to speak with people of the region you are traveling in. The same do’s and don’ts apply to hitching in Japan as they do in other countries. Women should hitch in pairs, you shouldn’t carry too much luggage, stand in places where it’s dangerous for cars to stop, or hitch on highways (it’s illegal, you can stand before the toll gates). It’s also not a good idea to hitch in the rain, or be sloppily dressed. Clearly state your destination, it’s surprising how easily mistakes can happen! A hand-written cardboard sign (covered in a clear plastic folder for protection from rain) helps. The biggest barrier to most people stopping will be the fear that you don’t speak any Japanese. A kanji sign will help dispel that notion. If you are heading out of a big city, take a train to the nearest on-ramp for a toll highway towards your destination.
I have had best luck on mid-sized rural roads. On average, I have waited 5-10 minutes for a ride. Of-course that will depend on many factors, and I have waited up to an hour in crowded suburban areas. I have also had rides from all kinds of people, including truck drivers, housewives, businessmen, young girls in Minis (cars, not skirts!), and so on. The majority were middle-aged men with some sort of interest in things ‘foreign.’ If they wanted to speak English, I obliged. They were giving me a ride, after all. I have been put up on many an occasion, taken out to dinner, and been delivered to my destination even though it was a considerable detour for them. Don’t expect this to happen, but it might. Good luck!

Ferries can be significantly cheaper than any other form of public transport, especially on longer routes, and they are often quicker and more comfortable than long-distance buses or trains. Major routes are from Tokyo/Kawasaki to Tohoku (Sendai) and Hokkaido, and Osaka/ Kobe to Shikoku, Kyushu and Okinawa. For example it costs about ..16,000 return from Osaka to Miyazaki in southern Kyushu (12 hours), half the price of the train or plane, and about 30% cheaper than the bus. Facilities are usually spartan compared to the luxurious Channel and North Sea ferries of Europe, but there are carpeted areas with free blankets and pillow, where one can bed down for the night.
Ferries do not offer a saving if you take a car with you, though. They usually work out the same as taking the highway and paying for the petrol and tolls.

Recently various advance discounts have been introduced, with up to a 50% discount on some routes. These have to be booked around a month before departure, paid for at the time of purchase, and cannot be changed or refunded. Unfortunately, these discounts are usually only available if you are booking from within Japan. ANA and Japan Air Lines have deals whereby if you fly to Japan with them, they give you special rates on domestic fares. Contact them directly for more information.

If you plan to do any extensive traveling, the Japan Rail Pass (now available in several new varities, see below) is one way of saving money. It is available in one, two, and three week versions, allows unlimited travel on all trains throughout Japan including shinkansen, the only exception being beds on over night services (quite rare). The pass must be purchased overseas, and is limited to foreigners not resident in Japan, and Japanese nationals who have permanent resident status or have lived abroad for more than ten years. You will receive a coupon that can be exchanged upon arrival in Japan at main train stations. Prices are ..28,300, ..45,100 and ..57,700 for one, two and three weeks respectively.

As of April 1998, there are three new types of pass, the JR-West Rail Pass, and the JR-East Rail Pass.
The JR-West pass comes in two varieties, the Sanyo Area Pass, and the Kansai Area Pass.

The Sanyo Area Pass is valid on all services of the Sanyo Shinkansen running from Osaka via Kobe, Okayama and Hiroshima to Fukuoka (Hakata), as well as on all JR lines in the Osaka metropolitan area (inlcuding Kansai International Airport).

PeriodAdult (12+)Child (6-11)

The Kansai Area Pass covers all JR-West lines between Kyoto in the east, and Himeji in the west, including Nara, Kansai International Airport, Uji and Hozu Gorge.

PeriodAdult (12+)Child (6-11)

The JR-East Pass is valid on all JR-East services including five shinkansen lines and 67 conventional lines. It is valid on the Narita Express linking Tokyo with Narita Aiport, and the Yamanote (loop) and Chuo (central) line in Tokyo. The Shinkansen lines include the brand-new Akita Shinkansen linking Morioka with Lake Tazawa and Akita, and the Hokuriku Shinkansen, linking Tokyo with Nagano.


*12-25 years old.

Best value of all is the 4-day flexible pass, costing the same as the 5-day pass. It is valid for one month and does not require journeys to be made on consecutive days.

Note: Neither of the new passes are valid on the Tokaido Shinkansen linking Tokyo with Kyoto and Osaka, or any other lines operated by Central Japan Railway Company (JR Tokai), JR Hokkaido, JR Kyushu or JR Shikoku.

Keep in mind that a journey from Tokyo to Fukuoka is about ..20,000 one way, so the original JR Pass is only effective if you are planning to go a long distance. Also be aware of the ‘I’ve got to get my money’s worth’ syndrome. Decide where you want to go, then decide which ticket is best. It’s easy to be tempted to go as many places as possible just because it won’t cost you any more. I’ve made that mistake a few times, and my dominant memories are of railway platforms, timetables, and un-appetizing ‘eki-ben’ (station boxed lunches). Allow yourself at least a few days in each place. Also remember that many of the railways in the Tokyo and Osaka areas are private, and will not accept the pass. Even with the new passes, you have to do a lot of travelling to get value for money. With simple Kyoto-Osaka journeys for example, you’re probably better off taking the private Keihan line. In Osaka and Tokyo, the private lines are usually cheaper when buying individual tickets.
Having said that, the Japan Rail Pass is an excellent way to meet up with far-flung friends, get to the more extreme parts of the archipelago, or just satisfy your wanderlust. (see JTB’s Rail Pass page for detailed information.)

Japan National Tourist Organisation Overseas Offices: 
U.S.A.: New York One Rockefeller Plaza, Suite 1250, New York, NY 10020 Tel: (212) 757-5640 Fax: (212) 307-6754 Chicago 401 North Michigan Ave., Suite 770, Chicago, IL 60611 Tel: (312) 222-0874 Fax: (312) 222-0876 San Francisco 360 Post St., Suite 601, San Francisco, CA 94108 Tel: (415) 989-7140 Fax: (415) 398-5461 Los Angeles 515 South Figueroa St., Suite 1470, Los Angeles, CA 90071 Tel: (213) 623-1952 Fax: (213) 623-6301 Canada: Toronto 165 University Ave., Toronto, Ont. M5H 3B8 Tel: (416) 366-7140 Fax: (416) 366-4530 Brazil: Sao Paulo Av. Paulista, 509-S/405, 01311-000, Sao Paulo, S.P. Tel: (011) 289-2931 Fax: (011) 288-5738 U.K.: London Heathcoat House, 20 Savile Row, London, W1X 1AE Tel: (0171) 734-9638 Fax: (0171) 734-4290 France: Paris 4-8, rue Sainte-Anne, 75001 Paris Tel: (01) 42-96-20-29 Fax: (01) 40-20-92-79 Germany: Frankfurt Kaiserstrasse 11, 60311 Frankfurt am Main Tel: (069) 20353 Fax: (069) 284281 Thailand: Bangkok 19th fl., Ramaland Bldg., No. 952 Rama 4 Road, Bangrak District Bangkok 10500 Tel: (02) 233-5108 Fax: (02) 236-8356 China: Beijing Chang Fu Gong Office Building, Rm. 610, No. 26, Jianguomenwai Dajie, Chaoyang-qu, Beijing 100022 Tel: (010) 6513-9023 Fax: (010) 6513-9221 Hong Kong: Suite 3704-05, 37/F., Dorset House, Taikoo Place, Quarry Bay Tel: 2968-5688 Fax: 2968-1722 Korea: Seoul 10th fl., Press Center Bldg., 25 Taepyongno 1-ga, Chung-gu, Seoul Tel: (02) 732-7525 Fax: (02) 732-7527 Australia: Sydney Level 33, The Chifley Tower, 2 Chifley Square, Sydney, N.S.W. 2000 Tel: (02) 9232-4522 Fax: (02) 9232-1494 Taiwan: Taipei Japan Tourist Association, Taiwan Office 15F-3B, No.49, Min Sheng E. Rd. Sec 3., Taipei Tel : (02) 2506-4229 Fax : (02) 2506-4235 Domestic Offices of Japan National Tourist Organization  Head office : 2-10-1, Yurakucho, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo 100-0006 If you have message or questions, please send mail to the Tourist Information Center. Tourist Information Center (TIC) Tokyo Office: B1 fl., Tokyo International Forum, 3-5-1, Marunouchi Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo 100-0005. Tel.(03)3201-3331 Open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (on weekdays) Open from 9 a.m. to 12 noon (on Saturdays) Closed on Sundays and national holidays Also closed from December 29 to January 3. Tourist Information Centers (TIC) Kyoto Office: 1st fl., Kyoto Tower Bldg., Shichijo-Karasuma sagaru, Shimogyo-ku, Kyoto 600-8216 Tel.(075)371-5649 Open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (on weekdays) Open from 9 a.m. to 12 noon (on Saturdays) Closed on Sundays and national holidays. Also closed from December 29 to January 3. Source: Japan National Tourist Organisation