Japan: Temples, Traditions & Tea

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Japan

Japan is one of the most visited countries in the world and many tourists wax lyrical when they share their travel experiences. The landscape offers an interesting blend of beautiful nature, well kept religious shrines and temples, historical landmarks, modern cities and world heritage sites. The influence of Japan’s fascinating cultures and unusual subcultures have such an international impact that foreigners flock here to experience sumo wrestling, traditional tea drinking ceremonies, anime comic art, samurai legends and more. Japan is also known as the birthplace of sushi, aikido and calligraphy. A trip here would not be complete without experiencing the otherworldly music scene and diverse nightlife.


Banking and Currency

Currency

The unit of Japanese currency is yen. Coins are available in denominations of 1, 5, 10, 50, 100 and 500 yen and bank notes in denominations of 1,000, 2,000, 5,000 and 10,000 yen. You can buy yen at foreign exchange banks and other authorized money exchangers. At the international airports, currency exchange counters are usually open during normal office hours. The exchange rate fluctuates daily depending on the money market.

Banking

Banking hours: Monday-Friday 09h00-15h00.

American Express, Diners Club, MasterCard, Visa and other major credit cards are widely accepted in major cities and towns. A pin number may be required to process the transaction. It is advisable to check with your bank to find out if your card will be recognised in Japan. The Japan Post Bank, Seven-Eleven convenience stores and international banks typically accept foreign credit cards.

ATMs at Seven-Eleven stores also accept foreign cards and are accessible 24 hours a day. International banks accept foreign credit or debit cards, and these are hard to find outside of major cities. Bank ATMs are generally open Monday-Friday 07h00-23h00, Saturday-Sunday 09h00-19h00, though some only operate during normal banking hours and on Saturday mornings. Citibank machines are the most likely to have ATMs, and also to accept foreign credit cards (and are usually open 24 hours).

Japan has a strong cash culture, and it is usual to see people carrying large amounts of cash with them because of the low crime rate. It is only recently that credit cards have begun to become more popular. However, travellers may still encounter difficulties with foreign credit cards.

Travellers cheques can be exchanged at most major banks, larger hotels and some duty-free shops. To avoid additional exchange rate charges, travellers are advised to take traveller's cheques in Japanese Yen or US Dollars.


Travel, Transport and Getting Around

Japan has an efficient public transportation network, especially within metropolitan areas and between the large cities. Japanese public transportation is characterized by its punctuality, its superb service, and the large crowds of people using it.

All Nippon Airways (ANA) and Japan Airlines (JAL) maintain an extensive network of flights covering all of Japan and its islands. There are a few budget airlines too, such as Skymark, Air Do, Solaseed Air, IBEX Airways and Starflyer. Tokyo is serviced by two airports; Haneda (HND) which has both domestic and international flights, and Narita (NRT) for international flights.

Japan has a network of well-connected expressways linking major regions. However, expressway tolls are very high and there is major congestion during peak holiday seasons. Driving is convenient if you are planning to travel outside the major cities to the more remote and scenic regions. It’s important to be aware of weather conditions – heavy rain and snow can force road closures. International visitors must have an international license in order to hire and drive a car in Japan. The minimum driving age is 18, and it is advisable to take out car insurance.

Taxis can be expensive, particularly in rush hour (07h30-09h30 and 17h00-18h00) when traffic can be very slow. There is a minimum charge of ¥660 for the first 2km (1.2 miles) followed by ¥80 per 274m (900ft) thereafter, plus a time charge when the taxi is moving at less than 10kph (6mph).

Taxi drivers are very professional, but tend not to speak English, so it is advisable for tourists to have their destination written out in Japanese, together with the name of some nearby landmark. A map may also help, as Japanese streets can be complicated and some taxi drivers will get confused. Hotels can provide this service. 

Cycling is a pleasant way to enjoy exploring Japan, and is often faster than using public transport. Bicycle rental is available in all major cities, especially those with major sightseeing attractions such as Tokyo, Kamakura, Kyoto, Nara and Hiroshima.

There are regular long-distance bus services running between all the major regions and cities in Japan. Both daytime and overnight buses are available. It’s a cheap way to travel and sightseeing time during the day can be maximised by travelling at night.


Food, Drink and Cuisine Advice

If travelling to the area near the Fukushima nuclear accident it is advisable to take supplies of food and water. Produce from the area near the Fukushima nuclear accident, which is still being sold in some supermarkets nationwide, should be avoided due to the lack of a centralized testing system in Japan for radioactive contamination in food, and discrepancies between Japanese and international standards for safe levels of radioactive substances in food.

Tap water in Tokyo was declared not safe for consumption after the accident, although the government has since stated otherwise. Nevertheless, if travelling with children it is advisable to take precautions. The Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare website (www.mhlw.go.jp) has updates on contamination levels in tested food. In other parts of Japan, food and drink are generally considered safe.

Only eat raw fish, seafood and meat from recognised establishments, and be aware that there is a risk of parasitic infection and toxins if these foods have not been prepared properly. E-coli food poisoning outbreaks tend to occur in Japan during the warmer months (June-September), and it is advisable to take precautions when consuming perishable foods at outdoor summer festivals, where refrigeration may be an issue.

Japanese cuisine involves fresh, delicate flavours based on seasonal ingredients. Rice, miso (fermented soy bean) soup, tofu (soy bean curd), pickled vegetables and fish are the traditional staples of daily Japanese cuisine. Traditionally, meat was not eaten because of Buddhist beliefs. However, beef, chicken are now also staple ingredients. Fresh seafood is highly valued and Japanese will travel far to eat crab in winter, for example, and unagi (eel) in summer. The variety of ingredients, the intensive preparation methods, and the meticulous presentation found in Japanese cuisine is highly impressive.

Sushi, pieces of raw fish on vinegared rice, has become synonymous with Japanese cuisine. The easiest place to try sushi is at a kaiten-zushi restaurant, where many varieties pass on a conveyor belt and diners can pick up what they fancy without any language difficulties, and at reasonable prices. More traditional sushi restaurants serve higher quality fish but also charge much higher prices.

The most luxurious dining in Japan is kaiseki cuisine – a multi-course banquet that was originally intended to accompany the tea ceremony. Kaiseki cuisine is exquisitely presented, reflecting the aesthetics of the seasons and traditional ceramics. A typical banquet will begin with light appetisers and soups before progressing to various steamed, grilled and fried dishes, and ending with a simple rice dish.

A variety of international restaurants are also available, catering for every taste and budget, from French and Italian to Chinese, Indian and Thai. Western dishes in expensive places are usually excellent, but cheaper diner-style restaurants may disappoint. While sake (rice wine) is still regularly served, beer is by far the most popular alcoholic beverage.

Tips are never expected. In some upmarket places, a 10 to 15% service charge will be added to the bill. In some bars, there may be a table or "charm" charge too, which can be quite steep; it's best to enquire in advance if you're in any doubt.


Climate and Weather

The climate varies widely from one region to region. Basically, Japan has four distinct seasons. Spring months are March, April, and May. Summer months are June, July, and August. Autumn months are September, October, and November. Winter months are December, January, and February. Summer is hot and humid in general. During the winter, it snows a lot on the Sea of Japan side, and it is dry on the Pacific Ocean side. 


Clothing and Dress Recommendations

The Japanese dress as Westerners do and are quite conservative on the whole, but the youngsters are very daring and you'll see some mad outfits in Tokyo. Pack comfortable shoes for walking that can be slipped off easily when you need to. Holes in socks are not recommended, as you spend lots of time without shoes on - visiting temples, shrines and traditional restaurants etc. As the Japanese are very petite, finding clothes to fit in the popular stores can be difficult - so take everything you will need with you.  In Japan tattoos are associated with the mafia, and are banned in many places - even a tiny mark may mean you are refused entry. So if you have any, keep them covered with clothing, plasters or special concealer products.


Internet Availability

There are a variety of ways to stay connected to the internet while traveling in Japan. The majority of hotels in Japan offer free internet in their guest rooms. A few hotels, typically the higher end Western chains, charge for internet access based on 24 hour periods. Access is usually provided as wired internet via LAN cable or as a wireless network. At older hotels you may have to borrow and install some hardware in order to connect to the internet in your room. Both paid and free wireless (Wi-Fi) hotspots are available in Japan. Laptops and mobile devices can connect to publicly accessible hotspots found around airports, train stations, hotels, restaurants, coffee shops and bars.



Electricity and Plug Standards

In Japan the standard voltage is 100 V. The standard frequency is 50/60 Hz. The power sockets that are used are of type A / B.

Japanese power outlets are identical to ungrounded (2-pin) North American outlets. While most Japanese outlets these days are polarized (one slot is slightly wider than the other), it is possible to encounter non-polarized outlets in some places.

The frequency of electric current is 50 Hertz in Eastern Japan (including Tokyo, Yokohama, Tohoku,Hokkaido) and 60 Hertz in Western Japan (including Nagoya, Osaka, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Shikoku,Kyushu); however, most equipment is not affected by this frequency difference. A possible exception are timing devices such as clocks.


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