Japan is truly timeless, a place where ancient traditions are fused with modern life as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

Culture & History 

Present-day Japanese culture is a fascinating mix of tradition and modernity as is observed in all aspects of everyday life. One unchanging concept is the “loss of face,” an idea which embodies personal dignity and peer status. Any conflict, criticism, insult, or request which cannot be fulfilled causes loss of face, and must be avoided at all costs. In society as a whole, harmony is the premier philosophy, essential in both family and business. Children are taught to value peace above their own needs, and are trained to work together rather than to aspire to be independent. 

The resulting group-dependency relies heavily on body language in communication as words can have many underlying meanings. A passive facial expression is recommended for visitors, with eye contact discouraged as it invades the Japanese sense of privacy, invaluable in this crowded country. The hierarchy of status and age is important, with every person having his or her own place within the group. Formal greetings are standard (your name-san), and bowing the head is a sign of respect, although unwrapping a gift in the giver’s presence is not. 

If you’re invited to a Japanese home for dinner, there’s a minefield of protocols to follow, beginning with the removal of your shoes before entering. Arrive on time, dress appropriately and conservatively, and wait to be told where to sit. Don’t point or pierce your food with your chopsticks, and try whatever is offered. If you don’t want second or third helpings, leave a little food in your bowl or drink in your glass as it’s good manners to never leave the guest with an empty plate. Finally, conversation while eating isn’t polite, as your hosts prefer to savor the food. 


Wherever you are in Japan, it seems, you're never far from a great meal. Restaurants often specialize in just one dish – perhaps having spent generations perfecting it – and pay close attention to every stage, from sourcing the freshest, local ingredients to assembling the dish attractively. And as you'll quickly discover, Japanese cuisine has great regional variations. The hearty hotpots of the mountains are, for example, dramatically different from the delicate sushi for which the coast is famous. It's also intensely seasonal, meaning you can visit at a different time of year and experience totally new tastes. 

Restaurants in Japan tend to specialize in regional or specific dishes such as sushi and sashimi, hot or cold noodles, or seafood including the notorious, but delicious fugu blowfish―poisonous if not prepared by a specially-trained chef. In the big cities, entire streets are devoted to specialty eateries, including the ever-popular Korean cuisine.

For visitors, the best-known delicacies are sushi and sashimi, prepared on order at conveyor-belt sushi bars, as well as at upscale eateries famous for their masterful chefs. For a special treat in the spring, the beautiful cherry blossom trees bring sakura-flavored pastries and ice cream. 

Japanese dishes are based on seasonal availability, always using the freshest of ingredients, and lovers of fine cuisine will appreciate the difference. Favorites include the traditional Kyoto kaiseki ryori, based on ‘less is more,’ the vegetarian shojin ryori, the delicious obanzi ryori peasant dishes and even the thick, high-calorie hot-pot stews favored by Sumo wrestlers. This delicious dish can be found at the Chanko Tomoegata (2-17-6 Ryogoku, Tokyo) restaurant not far from the stadium in Tokyo’s Ryogoku district. 

Traditionally, seafood is the preferred protein in Japan, as eating meat was virtually prohibited until the late 1800s. Nowadays, pork is part of many specialties such as domburimono (rice topped with a grilled cutlet) and beef used in savory sukiyaki stews or cook-it-yourself shabu-shabu hot pots similar to fondue. A favorite in Osaka and Kyoto is okonomiyaki, a cross between an omelet and a pancake topped with vegetables, seafood, or meat and doused with special sauce. Another regional specialty in Osaka is takoyaki balls, deep fried octopus dumplings sold from street vendors. 

Ramen, thin wheat noodle soup, and udon, thicker flour noodles are served hot in winter and deliciously cold in summer. Tsukemen is another way of preparing soup, in which you dip the noodles in a separate bowl of broth and are provided with limes and seaweed to make a sandwich. In all local eateries, a bowl of miso soup comes as part of the meal.

 Most lunchtime and informal restaurants serve set bento box lunches on a tray, with the ceramic examples of the various meals on display, making it easy for non-Japanese speakers to select by pointing. Many of these restaurants are found in food courts in the basement of department stores and under railway stations. Kushinobu is just one of the options at the Kyoto Train Station. Another form of casual dining, yakitori (anything grilled on skewers and priced by the stick) is accompanied with sake or beer in bars and, for vegetarians, tempura deep-fried and battered vegetables are available alongside seafood.

 Chopsticks are universal, but most restaurants will also provide knives, forks, and spoons if requested. Soup is to be drunk straight from the bowl and it’s actually flattering to slurp your noodles.

 Urban Experience 

Japan is incredibly easy to get around: you can do a whole trip using nothing but its immaculate, efficient public transport. The shinkansen (bullet train) network now runs all the way from the southern tip of Kyūshū (the southernmost of Japan's major islands) up to Hokkaidō (its northernmost), and reasonably priced rail passes make it affordable. Major cities have subway networks that are signposted in English and these days we're seeing and hearing more English all over. But if getting off the beaten track and outside your comfort zone is what you're after, you can have that experience, too. 

If you’re visiting Tokyo in January, May, or September, you’re in for a uniquely Japanese treat as the three key Sumo tournaments take place during these months at the National Sumo Hall, Ryogoku Kokugikan. While you may have no idea what’s going on, watching one of these fascinating matches is a great way to immerse yourself in tradition. Tickets for Tokyo tournaments can be obtained through the Ryogoku Kokugikan Box Office, among other ticket brokers. 

Another not to miss Tokyo attraction is the Tsukiji Fish Market at 5:00 a.m. when the tuna auctions begin. If you’re not an early riser, head there once you wake for the freshest seafood sushi you’ve ever tasted literally straight from the source. Guided tours of the market are a great way to experience its 1,000-plus food establishments. Tokyo City Tour offers insight into the fish auctions, time to browse the stalls and a tasty breakfast. 

For vibrant nightlife in Japan before you leave the capital, the Roppongi district is the place to see and be seen. Exciting, slightly seedy, and packed with clubs, bars, music venues, and karaoke joints, this is where it all happens. There’s no dress code, even in the hostess bars (strip clubs), but you will need an ID or passport at most places. 

Outdoors & Adventure 

Japan is a long and slender, highly volcanic archipelago. It's over two-thirds mountains, with bubbling hot springs at every turn. In the warmer months, there is excellent hiking, through cedar groves and fields of wildflowers, up to soaring peaks and ancient shrines (the latter founded by wandering ascetics). In the winter, all this is covered with snow and skiing is world-class. (And if you've never paired hiking or skiing with soaking in onsen, you don't know what you've been missing.) Meanwhile, in the southern reaches, there are tropical beaches for sunning, snorkeling and diving. 

On the surface, Japan appears exceedingly modern, but traveling around it offers numerous opportunities to connect with the country's traditional culture. Spend the night in a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn), sleeping on futons and tatami mats, and padding through well-worn wooden halls to the bathhouse (or go one step further and sleep in an old farmhouse). Meditate with monks or learn how to whisk bitter matcha (powdered green tea) into a froth. From the splendor of a Kyoto geisha dance to the spare beauty of a Zen rock garden, Japan has the power to enthrall even the most jaded traveler.