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Etiquette in Japan: don’t freak out!

From groundbreaking technological innovation to stunning natural vistas to traditional Shinto shrines and Zen rock gardens, Japan has intrigued generations of visitors who come from near and far to experience the island-nation. While some aspects of Japanese culture have made dramatic and lasting breakthroughs into our global consciousness (think sushi, anime, video games, and movies), some things remain a mystery to those hailing from the west. And nothing can be more confusing than navigating Japan’s centuries-old tradition of social etiquette, which is both complicated and important.

But don’t let that scare you away! Like most places you visit on your travels, making an attempt to understand and take part in their traditions and culture is more than enough of a signal that you are trying to be a good guest in their country. But if you’re still worried, don’t be! We’re here to shed some light on the dos & don’ts before you take your next trip to the “Land of the Rising Sun.”

Women dressed in traditional attire greet one another with a bow.

Women dressed in traditional attire greet one another with a bow.

Take a bow.

Probably the most iconic Japanese custom, bowing is also one of the easiest to be unsure about! This greeting takes a lot of different forms, but generally speaking, it is divided into three categories: informal, formal, and very formal. The formality of the bow is determined by the relationship between the two individuals that are greeting one another. Young people bow longer and deeper when greeting elders and employees do the same when greeting the CEO. As a foreigner, a bow of the head is probably all you need to do as most Japanese don’t expect visitors to know all the rules!

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10 films to see before heading to Japan

For a relatively small island-nation, Japan’s impact on the world is impressively oversized. Sushi and sake are popular staples in cities across the globe. Japanese innovation in technology informs the way we communicate, travel, shop, and even chart the stars. And from a cultural standpoint, Japanese influence can be found from fashion to film, and everything in between! Before you head out on your trip to the Land of the Rising Sun, check out these ten films that will not only whet your appetite, but also expand your understanding of this fascinating culture.

<i>Spirited Away</i>

Spirited Away (2001)
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki, Studio Ghibli

You’ve probably heard of the Academy Award-winning animated film Spirited Away, but did you know that when the film was theatrically released in 2001 it became the most successful film in Japanese history? Anime (Japanese animation) is so prominent in the country that hundreds of thousands of people gather each year for festivals surrounding the characters, art, and stories.

Spirited Away tells the story of Chihiro, a young girl who wanders into a magical world ruled by witches and spirits, and where humans obsessed with worldly greed are transformed into beasts. The film is infused with a variety charming lessons steeped in traditional Japanese folklore. More importantly, Studio Ghibli films are well-known for depicting daily life in Japan in great detail—especially the often overlooked, quiet moments such as pouring tea, making offerings, or lighting incense. In one such moment, Chihiro sheds tears of relief having found joy in a gift of rice balls from a new friend.

If you’re in Tokyo, consider stopping by the Studio Ghibli Museum during some down time to get an insider look at all of the wonderful films made by this award-winning animation studio!

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10 Hauntingly Beautiful Cemeteries

What makes a cemetery special? Perhaps it’s the size, or the number of tombs? Or is it the age of the graveyard, or the famous people buried there? Are they architectural masterpieces in baroque style, or are they more whimsical? Find out for yourself below, as we celebrate Halloween with a list of ten of the most haunting and beautiful cemeteries from around the world!

Père Lachaise Cemetery © Alexander Baxevanis / Flickr

1 Père Lachaise, France

This one of a kind collection of burial sites located in the heart of Paris is known to be the most visited cemetery in the world. The Père Lachaise opened in 1804 and experts estimate that there are somewhere between 300,000 and 1,000,000 people buried on its grounds. Many celebrities are laid to rest among the grand tombs and mausoleums including Oscar Wild, Frédéric Chopin, George Seurat, and even the Doors’ Jim Morrison!

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“What’s the best place you’ve been to?”

As travel professionals, we get this question all the time, “Where’s the best place you’ve ever been?” So we asked one of our amazing Reservation Agents Liz to weigh in! See below for some of her personal travel favorites…. so far! 
Wat Rong Khun, Thailand ©Carlos Adampol Galindo/Flickr

5 Thailand (Wat Rong Khun AKA White Temple)

Bangkok is of course the favorite city of most visitors, but I also loved northern Thailand, especially Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. Among the tiered tea fields and charming villages, you’ll encounter treasures around every corner. One of my favorite memories was of Wat Rong Khun, AKA White Temple, en route to Chiang Mai. After seeing so many temples in Asia, this one stands out with its modern and incredibly detailed design. In 1996 the artist Chalermchai Kositpipat, using his own money, chose to completely rebuild this temple himself. Over a million dollars later, it’s still a work in progress, and is hoped to be completed by 2070. Aside from traditional Buddhist imagery, you’ll see movie references like the monster from Predator rising from the earth. Eliciting both smiles and serious thoughts, this stop on the tour was well appreciated.

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Four Seasons in the Land of the Rising Sun

CHECK IT OUT: Travelers often ask “when is the best time to visit Japan?” Everyone knows about the high and low season… but the truth is: Japan is amazing 365 days a year! From blossoms to snowfall (and every season in between!) there’s something unique to experience all year long.

Like a beautiful bonsai tree, we’ve spent years cultivating our classic Japan packages to give you the very best this ancient country has to offer—no matter what time of year you visit! Learn more about our packages.

Sakura along Chidori-ga-Fuchi, Tokyo in spring (more…)

The Way of Tea in Japan

Japanese tea ceremony

The Japanese Tea Ceremony, also known as the Way of Tea, is steeped in ritual and tradition, and can sometimes seem intimidating to the casual tourist. Luckily, we discovered this beautifully shot 3-minute video by Saneyuki Owada. It’s a presentation of the Way of Tea by Tea of the Men, a Japanese culture art performance group whose mission is to make the Japanese Tea Ceremony more enjoyable, more interesting, and easier to join for all.

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Even the familiar is foreign in Japan

Shinjuku, Tokyo
“The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.”
– G.K. Chesterton

Imagine holding up a mirror and reflected back at you is everything you’re not.

Well, Japan is like that—which is why it’s so irresistible for those of us who yearn for travel experiences that make us question everything we thought we knew.

For one, they speak Japanese in Japan. Imagine that. English is not a predominant second language. In fact, outside of Tokyo, you’ll be hard-pressed to run into people who can actually converse with you. If you’re like me, this is all the more reason to go. IMHO Westerners are spoiled with English everywhere. Japan presents an opportunity to stretch ourselves in ways that few industrialized countries demand of us.

Oh, and the street signs? The train system information? The packaging on the things you buy? All written in Japanese! Folks, this is as foreign as it gets. You’ll be completely out of your element, and that, for those of us who really travel, is what we’re after, anyway, right?

Another thing, Japan is mostly Japanese. In this homogeneous society of 125 million, you’ll be a minority. Regardless of your race, if you’re not Japanese, you’ll be far outnumbered. It’s a startling experience if you’ve never had it before. And if you’re tall, you’ll feel like a giant in Japan. If you’re of medium height, you still might feel like a giant in Japan. (Sometimes like a big lumbering oaf, too.)

If you’re still with me, if you’ve got a sense of humor about all of this, book your trip and pack your bags. Japan is about to show you who you’ve never been.

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10 Super Cool & Totally Affordable Things to Do in Tokyo

The Tokyo Tower & Rainbow BridgeSaturday night in Shibuya against a backdrop of flashing neon ads and music from up above, walls of Japanese pedestrians stand ten people thick at each corner waiting to cross forward, back and diagonally once the light turns. When it does, a moving mosaic of people mingles in a remarkably orderly fashion through the intersection, and you find yourself wondering—like so many other weirdly wonderful moments in Japan—is this for real? In Tokyo there are a lot of people. Like 13,000,000 or so. It’s the world’s most populous city ahead, even, of Delhi and Shanghai. And as far as global cities go, Tokyo is uber hip. It’s uber everything, really. So shake off your jet lag and get ready to take a juicy bite out of the Big Mikan*. Here are 10 super cool and totally affordable things to see and do in Tokyo:

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9 Reasons to Visit Japan

Japan is a country of contrasts. While the society is 98.5% Japanese, it nonetheless encompasses a diversity of subcultures. Japan is home to some of the most densely populated cities in the world, while the great majority of the landscapes remain rural. The culture is quite conservative in many regards, while simultaneously light-hearted in others. Japan’s contrasts and contradictions make it an ideal destination for those looking to have a truly unique travel experience.

Here are 9 reasons to visit Japan:

1. Cities

In many respects, Japanese society is the pinnacle of metropolitanism. From ancient temples to futuristic architecture, Japan offers amazing urban experiences for the curious traveler to behold.

Shibuya Crossing, TokyoMust-see examples include:

  • Kyoto: Japan’s ancient capital, a garden-laden dream boasting some of the country’s most beautiful temples and shrines.
  • Tokyo: Japan’s modern capital, a neon-lit metropolis boasting the world’s tallest tower, the Tokyo Skytree.

2. Landscapes

Cherry blossomsOne of the biggest surprises about Japan may be how rural it is. Almost 75% of the land is covered by mountains and another 13% is devoted to agriculture. Just a short drive or train ride away from Tokyo, you’ll enter a completely different world, with lush mountains, large agricultural fields, and scenic coastal villages.

Some must-see examples include:

  • The Arashiyama bamboo forest: a dense green jungle of towering bamboo trees.
  • The Japanese Alps: a world-class skiing and hiking destination.
  • The Tottori Sand Dunes: massive rippling sand dunes that will make you feel like you’re in a distant desert, not southern Japan.
  • The islands of Okinawa: a tropical break with coral reefs, turquoise water and white sand beaches.
  • Hot Springs (known as “onsen”): Created from water heated naturally under the ground. There are over 3,000 hot springs in Japan. Animal lovers will especially appreciate Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park to see snow monkeys bathe in the steamy natural springs.

3. Animals

Macaques at Jigokudani hotspring in Nagano Photo by YosemiteFrom the snowy mountains to the tropical beaches, Japan claims a great diversity of habitats for a wide variety of wildlife species. Japan hosts approximately 130 species of mammals (including bears, foxes and wild cats) and 600 species of birds.

Here are some examples of some of the most interesting:

  • The Macaque: a snow monkey that lives further north than any other primate (except for humans).
  • The Wild Tanuki: a kind of racoon dog known for their mischievous nature. Statues of the Tanuki are often placed at temples to bring good luck.
  • The Green Pheasant: a large black and green bird found only in Japan. The green pheasant and the red crowned crane unofficially compete for the title of “Japan’s National Bird”.

4. Temples & Shrines

Kinkaku-ji Temple, KyotoMany important traditions in Japanese culture have grown out of the Shinto and Buddhist religions. Shintoism and Buddhism exist side by side in Japan, and the practices of both faiths are deeply ingrained in Japanese culture.

One way to learn about these traditions is to explore some of Japan’s (Buddhist) temples and (Shinto) shrines. There are over 100,000 temples and shrines across the country, and they differ wildly in size and design.

Some examples include:

  • Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto: this Shinto shrine features 10,000 crimson torii gates donated by business owners and shopkeepers in a bid for financial success.
  • Kinkaku-ji -Temple of the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto: this Buddhist temple features the top two floors covered with pure gold leaf.

5. Festivals & Celebrations

Haari Boat Festival in Okinawa © JNTOThousands of festivals are held each year across the country celebrating seasonal changes, the natural world, and the annual harvest. Wherever you are and whenever you go, you’re likely to find a festival happening nearby.

Some examples include:

  • Rice Crop Art Festival in Inakadate Village: locals use different colored varieties of grain to skillfully depict giant images using rice paddies as their canvas.
  • Saporro Snow Festival: at the core of the festival is hundreds of sculptures made from snow and ice.
  • Miyako Odori in Kyoto: this geisha dancing festival translates literally as “Capital City Dances” as Kyoto used to be the capital. In English, the dances are often referred to as “The Cherry Blossom Dances”, because they take place in April when the cherry blossoms are in bloom.

6. Kawaii & Anime

KumamonWhile Japan may seem like a serious culture, they also have a soft spot for “cute”.

Kawaii is the word for a Japanese artistic and pop culture style that emphasizes all things “cute” using bright colors and animated mascots.

Anime is a Japanese style of film, TV, and video game animation. There are some magical anime films out there that are so creative that they impress even the serious adult (such as Howl’s Moving Castle and Spirited Away).

Across the country, animated mascots adorn everything from food products to local monuments and even government agencies. One of the most famous mascots is Kumamon, a cheeky black bear who symbolizes a bullet train line in the city of Kumamoto.

7. Cuisine

Japanese sushi © JNTOJapanese cuisine (known as washoku) is so special that it’s been added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List, and it’s so diverse that it deserves its own blog post. The country offers a wealth of culinary experiences from the finest high-end restaurants to rustic food stalls, bustling seafood markets, and creative local sweets. Soup lovers will want to check out the Shinyokohama Raumen (Ramen) Museum.

8. Rail System

Shinkansen bullet train & Mt. FujiFor more than 50 years, Japan’s impressive network of high-speed moving bullet trains (called shinkansen) has zipped travelers and commuters from one corner of the country to the other. The network is incredibly well-functioning, with no accidents involving the bullet train network, even though trains operate at speeds of over 200 miles per hour. The trains are also known for being on time, rarely having delays of more than 50 seconds per train.

All travelers to Japan should take advantage of this rail system at least once. The Japan Rail Pass makes this an affordable option to quickly get around the country.

9. Hospitality

Mother & daughters in traditional KimonosThe Japanese may seem reserved at first, but soon you’ll find them to be kind, considerate and warm, even to those they don’t know. They are hard-working, meticulous, proud of their cultural history, and always eager to help. In fact, the more you learn about Japanese customs (start with a friendly, respectful bow), the more quickly you’ll be welcomed into this amazing culture.

For a traditional take on Japanese hospitality, stay at a Ryokan (inn). Dating back to the 1600’s, a typical ryokan is constructed using traditional Japanese methods, has a communal entrance hall where guests and owners can sit and talk, and most also feature a communal bathing area using water from hot springs.

Japan is a country of contrasts. From ancient culture to modern innovations, from the cities to the natural lands, and from serious cuisine to cuteness and hospitality, a visit to Japan will almost certainly be an experience of a lifetime.

Japan Tours and Packages with Friendly Planet Travel

 

 

 

Japan: A Top Destination for Foodies

Japan. Beyond sushi: foodie heaven

SushiIf you live to eat and enjoy exploring food culture around the world, Japan should be at the top of your travel wish list.

In Japan, cooking is an art guided by centuries-old culinary traditions, but there are also modern chefs adding new twists to longtime favorites. The country offers a wealth of culinary experiences from the very high end to inexpensive day-to-day treats. Whatever you prefer, there are foods to excite every kind of eater.

Japanese chef © JNTOJapanese chefs train for decades to perfect the work that they do. And this dedication pays off: Tokyo has more Michelin-starred restaurants than any other city in the world, more than Paris and New York combined. Food is so important to Japanese culture that the United Nation’s cultural organization, UNESCO, recently added traditional Japanese cuisine (washoku), to its Intangible Cultural Heritage list. It was only the second national cuisine to be given this honor, after France.

Japanese chefs use only seasonal and top-quality ingredients. Simplicity is key, and they do as little as possible to fresh ingredients to bring out the color and flavor. Umami, the rich flavor profile prized in Japanese cooking, is enhanced by using just a few ingredients including miso, soy sauce, mushrooms, seaweed, and bonito (fish) broth. The food is carefully plated and the finished dish often looks like a work of art.

In Japan, seafood is king and sushi lovers should take advantage of some of the freshest fish you will ever eat. But there is a lot more to Japanese food than sushi. Here are a few examples:

  • Yakitori © JNTORichly marbled Wagyu beef, often considered the finest in the world
  • Yakitori, chicken and vegetable skewers grilled over hot coals
  • Tonkatsu, deep-fried pork cutlet rolled in bread crumbs
  • Okonomiyaki, a batter pancake topped with meat, squid, shredded vegetables and garnished with sweet brown sauce, mayonnaise, seaweed and bonito flakes
  • Soba, udon, and ramen noodle soups

Japanese sweets © JNTOIf you have a sweet tooth, you’ll feel right at home in Japan. Each region has different styles of traditional sweets, known as wagashi. These delicate creations are often sold in convenience stores and train stations, and come in beautifully wrapped boxes because they are customarily given as gifts to friends and family. In the Kyoto area, look for yatsuhashi—thin, triangle-shaped sweet rice wrappers filled with red bean paste. Northern Japan’s Miyagi Prefecture is known for soybean production, so you’ll find edamame used in many local sweets, including ice cream and even Kit Kat bars!

Wine lovers will love trying sake, or Japanese rice wine. Sake has been brewed for over 2,000 years and the flavors vary greatly based on where it is made and the natural characteristics of the rice and water. Spirit and beer lovers should try local whiskey and craft beers, both growing in popularity.

Here are some unique food experiences to add to your list:

  • Kaiseki Ryori © JNTOKaiseki Ryori, a refined multicourse meal with a focus on fresh, seasonal ingredients. This is best experienced in a ryokan, a traditional Japanese hotel where the meal is served in your room.
  • Kawadoko ryori, a unique summer dining experience where you enjoy your meal seated on a platform built over a flowing stream.
  • Shojin ryori, the traditional cuisine of Buddhist monks served in a Zen temple.
  • Traditional Japanese tea service, to learn the ceremonial ritual and art of hand-grinding matcha green tea
  • Visiting local markets: Tokyo’s Tsukiji Market is the world’s largest wholesale fish market that sells over 700,000 tons of seafood each year. In Kyoto, check out Nishiki Market, a centuries old gourmet market that lets you sample all the local specialties.
  • Browsing the food stalls in a Japanese department store. The lowest levels are dedicated to specialty foods and offer many unique items, including beautifully packaged sweets and prized varieties of fruits, including melons fetching over $200 each!
  • Mingling with locals after work at the neighborhood izakaya, a casual bar that serves small plates of food.
  • Sampling international cuisine and foods you know from home—Japanese chefs often find ways to put their own unique touch on international classics.
  • The most adventurous eaters can try fugu, a poisonous blowfish. The dish has to be expertly prepared to be safe to eat, but it’s one of Japan’s finest delicacies.

Kaiseki Ryori © JNTODishes vary across the regions of Japan, but wherever you go you are sure to find something unique and delicious. So pack your appetite and a willingness to try something new on one of Friendly Planet’s tours to Japan — you won’t be disappointed!

Cassie Kifer is a freelance travel & food writer from the the San Francisco Bay Area. She’s the founder of Ever In Transit, an adventure & culinary travel blog offering travel tips, stories, and photography from destinations around the world. Connect with her on Twitter, Facebook, or Pinterest.

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