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Japan is a fascinating land of contrasts: ancient and hyper modern, traditional and high-tech, peaceful and exhausting. Japan’s intriguing ancient history, dazzling natural beauty, energetic cities, rich culture and gracious people make it a travel destination to keep high on your list.
Humans inhabited Japan as far back as 30,000 years ago, but the first signs of civilisation and settlement appeared with the Jomon, a Neolithic hunter-gatherer group that experimented with rudimentary agriculture. Following this period, Japan was invaded by immigrants later known as the Yayoi people. It is believed they entered via the Korean Peninsula, bringing with them revolutionary rice farming, weaving, iron and bronze technology.
Japan later came into contact with China, whose influence persisted and is evident today. Under its expanding Qin and Han dynasties, China occupied Manchuria and the northern part of the Korean peninsula, where the Chinese established several colonies. These colonies provided bases through which Chinese culture could penetrate Korea and spread further to Japan. Japan’s first introduction to Buddhism came from the Baekje kingdom of southwest Korea, but is was Chinese influence that would see Japanese Buddhism flourish.
Japanese recorded history begins around 250 AD, with both Chinese and Korean records describing the Wo people during what is now known as the Kofun period. The Kofun era saw the rise of powerful military states ruled by warrior clans known as zoku. A subsequent blank period in the history books raises many questions as to how exactly these separate states came to be unified into a centrally administered nation under the Yamato court, but Japan had become a largely unified imperial nation by somewhere around the early- to mid- 4th century. By continuing to acquire farming lands, suppress the zoku clans and align with farming and occupational groups, the Yamato kingdom expanded its domain throughout the Japanese archipelago, establishing Japan’s tradition of imperial lineage.
Following the Kofun era was the Asuka period (552–645), during which the region underwent significant cultural and political transformation. Buddhism was introduced and a Confucian-style constitution was enacted, creating a Chinese-style central government structure. The agenda to spread Buddhism and Chinese cultural-political systems was greatly pushed by the influential regent Prince Shotoku, a member of the powerful Soga family and son of emperor Yomei. Buddhism and Chinese-style governance and administration were now deeply embedded in Japanese culture, and Japan’s earliest examples of Buddhist devotional architecture, sculpture and painting come from this period.
The Nara period of the 8th century marked the beginnings of a robust Japanese state and is regarded as a golden age. In 710, the capital city of Japan was moved from Asuka to Nara. The majority of Japanese society was village-dwelling and engaged in agriculture, and practiced the animist Shinto faith, worshipping nature spirits and human ancestors known as kami. This was the period during which Buddhism and the Chinese influence developed the most, with the flourishing of Buddhist faith, art and architecture, the study of Chinese language and literature, adoption of Chinese dress, replacement of existing native laws with Chinese legal structures and other major Sinicizing transformations.
The Heian period is considered the final chapter in Japanese classical history, noted for its continued refinement of arts and literature. It was also during this era that a truly Japanese culture developed, with the creation of the indigenous Japanese kana scripts for writing. The Heian period began in 794 with the establishment of a new capital in Heian-kyo (now Kyoto) and ended in 1185 with the triumph of the Taira and Minamoto warrior clans.
What followed was a feudal period that would last until the turn of the 17th century. The country was controlled by a ruling class of samurai (warriors), with regional power sitting with wealthy and well-connected families known as daimyo. The emperor remained as a symbolic figurehead, but true power sat with the shogun Minamoto no Yoritomo, the hereditary commander-in-chief and most powerful person in the country. Hereditary succession was to become another enduring trait of Japanese history.
It was during Yoritomo’s reign that the powerful Mongol Empire launched two invasions, in 1274 and 1281. The Mongols had nearly reached the zenith of their reach under ruler Kublai Khan, but Japan was saved largely due to a fortunately timed typhoon that destroyed half of the invading Mongols’ ships. Holding off the Mongol invasions had a ruinous effect on Japan’s purse, and as a result of the first two attempts, the shogun splurged rather recklessly on armed forces in order to remain ready for the expected third attack. This vast military expenditure would contribute to the eventual collapse of the Kamakura shogunate in 1333. After a brief return to a civilian government, the Ashikaga shogunate seized power in 1336. With a relatively weak shogunate, and in the absence of a strong centralised government, the country spiralled into civil war. Starting with the Onin War of 1467–77, the country entered a period of continuous war for the next hundred years, a time known as the Sengoku (Warring States) era.
The Portuguese were the first Europeans to arrive in Japan, being shipwrecked on an island off the coast of southern Kyushu in 1543. Japanese warfare was to be revolutionised by the arrival of the Portuguese and their muskets. From 1549, Jesuit missionaries began arriving, offering Portuguese goods and treasures to local daimyo families to help gain support for Christianity. But the Christian presence was ultimately seen as a threat, and dozens of Christian priests and converts were crucified toward the end of the 16th century. By the 1620s, the Jesuits were expelled from Japan amid blanket persecution. Many Christians went underground and lived in hiding, but their communities eventually died out. It was not until the 1870s that Christianity was re-established in Japan.
The Tokugawa period (1603–1868) was the final chapter in Japan’s traditional period of military-led government. Based in the city of Edo (modern Tokyo), the Tokugawa shogunate managed to unify Japan for more than 250 years with its combination of political stability, social engineering and rapid economic growth. Social mobility between the four classes (samurai, farmers, artisans and merchants) was forbidden, but it was largely a time of peace and prosperity.
Beginning in 1868, Japan underwent a political, economic and cultural transformation, emerging as a unified and centralised state—the Empire of Japan. Japan became an imperial power, colonising Korea and Taiwan. Starting in 1931 it began invading Manchuria and China, in defiance of the U.S. and the League of Nations. It was this mounting tension—and western control of Japan's crucial oil supplies—that led to Japan's involvement in World War II. After launching a number of successful attacks on U.S., British and Dutch territories—including an attack on the American naval base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii—America officially joined the war and retaliated by drawing Japan into a series of large-scale naval battles. U.S. troops destroyed the Japanese naval fleet and began a devastating campaign of air raids and nuclear attacks. Many of Japan’s cities were destroyed by air raid, and in the last stages of the war atomic bombs were used to destroy the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing hundreds of thousands of civilians. Japan surrendered in August 1945, relinquished its overseas holdings in Korea, China, Taiwan and elsewhere, and was occupied and demilitarised by the U.S. thereafter.
The American occupation officially ended in 1952, as the U.S. was engaged in another war, this time on the Korean Peninsula. Japan’s recovery from post-war financial ruin was extraordinary. The economy grew exponentially from the 1950s, most likely as a result of its role as a UN military base during the Korean War, and Japan swiftly caught up to the West in terms of economy, manufacturing, trade relations and living standards. Only in the late 1980s, with the bursting of Japan’s so-called “bubble economy”, did its exploding economy finally come down to earth. Regardless, Japan’s export economy became the world’s most successful, with the country becoming a world leader in electronics, robotics and car manufacturing.
On the heels of a 12-year recession and the severe economic downturn brought on by the 2008 global financial crisis, Japan suffered the devastating effects of the massive 2011 Pacific Ocean earthquake—the strongest earthquake in Japan’s recorded history. Regardless of economic downturn and setbacks in recent decades, Japan has successfully transitioned to a powerful high-tech urban industrialised nation, with more than 90% of the population living in high-density urban centres. Quality of life has risen dramatically for most since the 1970s, but a major social concern for Japan is its declining birth rate, caused by a combination of social factors including an increase of women in the workforce, a trend towards delaying or avoiding marriage, and the high cost of living and raising a family in Japan.
Shintoism 83.9%; Buddhism 71.4%; Christianity 2%; Other 7.8%
Spirituality plays an important role in in the Japanese psyche, but the majority of people combine beliefs and rituals from the country’s major faiths. The latest census data reports that 83.9% of people adhere to the animist Shinto faith, but 71.4% of people are also practice Buddhism. Elements from Christianity, Confucianism, Taoism, Baha’I and other faiths are also often embraced
Japanese society is based on respect, politeness, modesty and group harmony, with complex rules governing polite language and conduct. With such a high-density population, harmonious teamwork and a ‘selfless’ group mentality is what greases the wheels of Japanese society, rather than the ‘selfish’ individualism that is at the heart of many Western cultures. It’s all about ‘fitting in’ rather than ‘standing out’
Japanese people are extremely hardworking and conscientious. People dedicate themselves to study or work from a very young age. Words often associated with the Japanese include polite, well mannered, agreeable, respectful, modest, shy, reserved, refined, conservative, studious and law-abiding
Japan is an incredibly well connected, high-tech urban society, with almost everyone in the country having access to a mobile phone, computer and the internet
Japanese society is based on group harmony, respect, politeness and cleanliness, with complex rules for language and conduct. People are generally extremely polite and understanding, however there are a couple of important points that you should definitely follow
Firstly, the Japanese never wear regular shoes inside. Your shoes should always be removed before entering someone’s home or before walking into any kind of tatami mat room, including restaurants, inns and some hotel rooms. When entering someone’s home you may simply remove your shoes and leave your socks on, but a pair of soft slippers (called ‘house slippers’ or ‘room shoes’) will usually be provided (which you must then also remove to walk on tatami mats). One thing to remember is that there will always be separate slippers to be worn in the bathroom and toilet only. You should swap your house slippers for bathroom slippers and then switch back again immediately after leaving the bathroom. It is a major faux pas to wear ‘toilet slippers’ anywhere but the bathroom!
Bathing is an extremely important ritual in Japan, but there are specific rules with regard to etiquette. Bath water is for having a relaxing soak in, NOT for washing in. Therefore, you must scrub your body clean BEFORE entering a bath, regardless of whether you are in a private home tub, onsen (hot spring) or sento (communal bathhouse). Soap and showers/buckets of water are always provided so that you can scrub yourself clean before you hop in, so that many people can enjoy a soak in the same clean bath water
The exchange of business cards is very important in Japan. It is polite to use two hands when presenting or receiving cards, accompanied by a slight bow of the head. Ditto for presents or important documents
Be careful not to lose your temper, raise your voice in anger or embarrass someone. To do so will mean a loss of ‘face’ for all involved, something to be avoided at all costs
Dress modestly if you plan to enter the grounds of a temple, shrine, sacred place or a main hall
Japan does not have a tipping culture, and to offer someone cash is seen as crass and awkward, regardless of your polite intentions. Also, when paying in a store or restaurant, you should place your money in the small tray next to the cashier, rather than passing cash directly to the hand of the cashier attendant
Japan’s calendar is jammed-packed with colourful festivals and celebrations, many of which are religious in nature (both Shinto and Buddhist) and attract public holidays
Unlike many other Asian countries, Japan does not celebrate the Lunar New Year, although Japan’s Chinese communities still do so. Shogatsu is Japan’s New Year celebrations (1-3 January), during which people visit temples and shrines, eat, drink and party with friends and family
Seijin-no-hi is a special ‘coming-of-age’ day celebrating boys and girls who have turned 20 (January)
Setsubun celebrates the last day of winter and coming of spring (February)
Hanami is Japan’s springtime blossom season, starting with plum (February), then peach (March) and cherry blossoms (late March-April)
Golden Week combines four different public holidays in one busy week, with many businesses closing and transport and accommodation being booked well in advance (29 April - 5 May)
Winter sees the arrival of many snow festivals, with Hokkaido’s Sapporo Snow Festival being particularly exciting
Thousands of other matsuri (local festivals and holidays) occur in each region throughout the year—some modest and some huge events. Matsuri are fabulous opportunities to experience Japanese culture, so check ahead to see what’s on when you’re planning to visit
Other public holidays include National Foundation Day (11 February) and Labour Thanksgiving Day (23 November)
Total population is 128.1 million (2010 census), making Japan the 11th most populous country in the world. Japan’s low birth rate means that the population is actually declining at an annual rate of 0.13%
The median age is 46.1 years, with 13.2% aged 0-14 and 24.8% aged 65+
Sex ratio is 0.95 males to 1 female
91.3% of the total population live in urban areas (2011), with an average annual rate of urbanisation at 0.57%
Japanese 98.5%, Korean 0.5%, Chinese 0.4%, Other 0.6%
Japan’s climatic conditions vary considerably from north to south, owing to the mountainous spine than runs through the islands and the archipelago’s deep latitudinal span. Main moderating influences on Japan’s weather are its mountains, surrounding oceans, proximity to the Asian mainland and the effects of monsoons, in which alternating wet/dry periods are caused by the seasonal reversal of prevailing winds.
Japan’s prevailing summer and winter conditions are the result of interactions between two huge air masses: the moist tropical air mass coming off the Pacific Ocean and the cold continental polar air mass coming mainly from Siberia.
The summer monsoon (April to early September) brings rains and warmer temperatures, often causing cyclones, typhoons and storms in later summer. The winter monsoon (late September to early March) brings cold air that picks up moisture in the Sea of Japan, depositing rain and heavy snow along Japan’s western side and bringing cold, dry winds to the eastern side.
Japan is wettest in the early summer and driest in the winter, with the exception being the Sea of Japan coast, which receives heavy snowfall in winter. East Asia experiences a summer rainy season commonly called the “plum rains”, or baiu in Japanese, bringing hot, humid weather, typhoons and torrential rain during June and July.
Japan has some of the world’s best and heaviest snowfall, and is naturally a haven for skiers and snowboarders. The main island of Honshu receives snow in many parts, but it is the northern-most island of Hokkaido that is world-renowned for heavy powder snow during its ski season of December to March.
As a general rule, the coldest month is January, and the warmest month is August. The transitional seasons of autumn and spring are generally shorter, and temperatures are generally lower, in the north compared to the south.
In Tokyo, average daily temperatures vary from a minimum of 2.5°C (36.5°F) to a maximum of 9.9°C (50°F) in January; to a minimum of 24.5°C (76.1°F) to a maximum of 31.1°C (88°F) in August.
In Sapporo, average daily temperatures vary from a minimum of -7°C (°F) to a maximum of -0.6°C (°F) in January; to a minimum of 19.1°C (°F) to a maximum of 26.4°C (°F) in August.
Japan is an archipelago of islands with no international land borders. The chain of islands is surrounded by Russia to the northwest and north; the Sea of Okhotsk to the northeast; the North Pacific Ocean to the east and south; the East China Sea and South Korea to southwest; China and Taiwan to the far southwest; North Korea and the Sea of Japan to the west
377,915 sq km/145,914 sq mi (62nd largest country by total area)
Japan is ranked 26 out of 178 countries (with an improving trend) on the Environmental Performance Index (2014), which quantifies and benchmarks performance of government environmental policies and outcomes
Environmental issues include air pollution, pollution of lakes and reservoirs, acid rain from power plant emissions and significant depletion of tropical timber and fish stocks due to heavy Japanese consumption
Japan also faces ongoing international pressure to stop its controversial whaling practices. The Japanese government and pro-whaling groups claim Japan’s whaling is purely for scientific purposes, but the high number of whales killed each season, and the fact that whale meat is a traditional food that is still available across Japan, point otherwise
Natural hazards include volcanic eruptions, significant seismic activity (ranging from thousands of small tremors annually to occasional severe earthquakes), tsunamis, typhoons and landslides
Japan is a signatory to various international environmental and conservation agreements
Japan’s different climatic zones and elevations support a wide variety of plant and animal life
Semitropical rainforest, tree ferns and small ferns, and forests of camphor and oak are found in the Ryukyu and Bonin islands
Evergreen, broad-leaved forests of laurel, camphor, Japanese evergreen oak, pasania and holly grow from lowlands of northern Honshu down to the southwest islands
Japan’s deciduous zone covers the higher elevations of Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu. Magnificent deciduous forests of maple, oak, birch and katsura are admired for their vibrant colour changes in autumn
Hokkaido, along with the higher elevations of Honshu and Shikoku, is home to forests of conifers such as spruce and fir mixed with deciduous species such as maple, oak and birch and an undergrowth of lichens and mosses
Ficus and fan palms grow in Kyushu, Shikoku and western Honshu, with pines dominating the coastal dunes
Yaku Island, south of Kyushu, is home to majestic Japanese cedars, some of which are more than 2,000 years old
Japan’s most famous and celebrated plant is the cherry tree (sakura), which bears glorious blossoms of white and pink in spring
Japan’s remote forests provide sanctuary for bears, foxes, deer, antelopes, wild boars, tanuki (raccoon dogs), monkeys, hares and weasels. Other wildlife includes snakes (including the Japanese rat snake), lizards, amphibians, the Japanese giant salamander, insects and a huge range of bird species
Aquatic life includes whales, dolphins, porpoises, sea snakes, turtles, tortoises, molluscs and many fish species including salmon, tuna, mackerel, trout, cod and carp (koi)
Japan is a volcanic archipelago of 6,852 islands containing many separate island chains. The majority of the country’s population and development is centred on the four major islands of Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu. The largest of the islands, Honshu, contains the major cities of Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Nagoya, Kobe and Hiroshima and is regarded as ‘the mainland’
Around 70% of Japan’s land area is rugged and mountainous. The Japanese archipelago is part of the “Pacific Ring of Fire”, containing 10% of the world’s active volcanoes and being heavily prone to earthquakes and tsunamis
Mount Fuji (Fuji-san or Fujiyama in Japanese) is Japan’s highest peak, standing at an elevation of 3,776 m (12,388 ft). Situated 100 km southwest of Tokyo, and visible from there on a clear day, it is an active stratavolcano that last erupted in the early 18th century
Lake Biwa in central Honshu is Japan’s largest lake, with all other major lakes being found in the northeast. The country’s most significant rivers are the Shinano, Tone, Kitakami, Kiso and Tenryu in Honshu; the Teshio and Ishikari in Hokkaido; and the Chikugo in Kyushu
Buddhist Monuments in the Horyu-ji Area (1993)
Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto (Kyoto, Uji and Otsu Cities) (1994)
Historic Villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama (1995)
Hiroshima Peace Memorial (Genbaku Dome) (1996)
Itsukushima Shinto Shrine (1996)
Shrines and Temples of Nikko (1999)
Gusuku Sites and Related Properties of the Kingdom of Ryukyu (2000)
Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range (2004)
Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine and its Cultural Landscape (2007)
Hiraizumi – Temples, Gardens and Archaeological Sites Representing the Buddhist Pure Land (2011)
Fujisan (Mount Fuji), sacred place and source of artistic inspiration (2013)
Tomioka Silk Mill and Related Sites (2014)
Ogasawara Islands (2011)
World Youth Adventures can tailor make a school expedition to Japan to your school’s budget and curriculum requirements.
Talk to us about your next school expedition, or if you need some ideas check out the trips below.