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We have been visiting Japan for over twenty years and built up a store of information about how the country works for casual, independent travellers like us. Japan works differently to many other countries and, despite having spent quite a lot of time there, it still takes us 24 hours or so to get back into the swing of things – whether it is the transport systems, accommodation, food or just being there and getting around. Hence this summary as a reminder for ourselves and, hopefully, any others who come across it.....
Sake barrels

As such it is not intended to be a comprehensive and 100% accurate guide to everything Japanese. There are plenty of decent guide books (Lonely Planet, Rough Guide etc.) out there that do a good job. Rather this is a personal perspective from our own experiences. We much prefer to organise and discover things for ourselves and, being retired now, we are far from being backpackers but still retain a sense of adventure and discovering things for ourselves.   And there is much to discover in these four islands (we haven't yet visited Okinawa).

Like many countries with a non western culture Japan has changed much in 20 years with easier visitor access and the arrival of the Internet. Back then you visited Japan on its terms - few signs or announcements were in English, even fewer people spoke another language and overseas visitors (Gaijin) were expected to conform to Japanese rules and norms of behaviour. With the rise in mass tourism most countries now welcome visitors on their visitors’ terms and while Japan has tried to resist this to some degree it is becoming hard to see how, in the larger cities at least, the Japanese way of life can survive mass tourism. Japanese newspapers have carried reports local government efforts to try and educate visitors to respect local customs and behaviour and even gone as far as suggesting prohibiting non-Japanese visitors to certain locations.
An early Series 200 bullet train, now no longer in service

For many people I guess, visiting Japan is going to be a one-time event so you pretty much have to do the Tokyo, Kyoto, Hiroshima route with visits to Fuji, Nikko, Nara, and Miyajima and taking in a garden, castle, and post town/route along the way. These days you will be accompanied by throngs of other tourists, often in groups and this is going to be largely unavoidable. My advice would be that however it is organised – by you or an agent then do travel alone or in a very small group rather than a large one. You will experience much more and enjoy some of the sense of otherness you get from visiting this country.

If you decide to return for a second or third visit you will be in a position to discover more of (and a different) Japan. And don’t be put off by all of the common misconceptions. Getting around on public transport is easy, the food is fantastic, you don’t have to bathe in public and driving, far from being the nightmare others may tell you, is the easiest we have experienced in any other country. Some of our most memorable experiences have occurred while driving around and stumbling upon something unexpected.
Mt Fuji

Orientation. The principle parts of Japan for easy visitor access are the four 'home islands' of Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu and Shikoku. Honshu, the central one is the largest and most heavily populated with the best known sights - Tokyo, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Nara, Nikko, Mt Fuji and the Japanese Alps. Being long and thin the shinkansen can whisk you from one end to the other in a few hours. Hokkaido, to the north is wilder and feels very different and home to the Ainu people and the red crowned Crane.
The rare red crowned Crane on northern Hokkaido

Kyushu to the south is the warmest of the four islands and has some of the most active volcanic and geo thermal areas. Finally Shikoku, although not being particularly remote, actually feels like that because it is very hilly with a small population and very traditional ways.

For us, the main things to remember are all about getting around, food & drink, the quintessentially Japanese temples, gardens, castles & volcanoes, other sights & things to do, accommodation and cultural differences.

There are no links because they change frequently and everything mentioned is just an internet search away.

Post COVID update Spring 2023. Happily we can report that travelling in Japan, post the pandemic, is largely unchanged from before and most things operate much as they did pre pandemic. Having been closed for almost three years it seems that tourism is enjoying (?) something of a boom.

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Copyright to all pictures (except as marked) on this page retained by Chris Bennett