Japan is undoubtedly associated with more myths and preconceived ideas than any other. Some are correct and some are very wrong – but a journey there continues to be an experience with a capital E.
Firstly, it is vital to comprehend the scale of the country and its people. At 3000 km Japan is almost triple the length of Finland, at close to 130 million it has double the population of the United Kingdom and the Greater Tokyo area, with its 38 million people, is the most populous metropolitan area in the world. The noise and bustle of the mega cities dotted along the south coast of Japan’s main island, Honshu, contrast strongly with the serenity and relative emptiness of the countryside – almost 75% of Japan’s surface area is mountainous and unsuitable for agriculture or living.
Japan is traditionally a country of orderliness and good behaviour; people queue up neatly to board buses and trains, eating in the street is not acceptable, on trains mobile phones are set to silent mode, and every purchase – big or small – is handled with the utmost care and attention to detail and completed with an official receipt delivered with both hands. Street parking is virtually nil, owning a car obviously requires proof that you have somewhere off-road to keep it; dogs are absolutely forbidden from fouling the pavement. Go for a drink in a Japanese izakaya – krouvi – after work and you will be expected to pour sake into your friend’s glass before your own.
But Japan has also changed rapidly in recent years. At airports and stations, as well as in trains and even local buses, announcements and signs are in three languages: Japanese, Korean and English. Young people in particular are eager to communicate but whether in a restaurant, shop or in the street Japanese of all ages greet visitors with a warm smile and offer their help generously. Japan once had a reputation for being expensive but this is no longer the case. The prices of everything from travel and accommodation through to food, drink and other goods were at worst similar to and at best significantly below the level to which we are accustomed. Perhaps the only major challenge is finding vegetarian food.
Above all, Japan is a country of contrasts: it’s noisy and serene, traditional and high-tech, it’s a country of classical beauty and garish neon – but always, always fascinating.
Planning a visit to Japan? Here are a few tips:
* Travelling to and around Japan is easy and relatively cheap. Finnair and Japan Air Lines fly direct to Japan in under ten hours. Start your airline journey in Tallinn and your flight ticket may well cost a couple of hundred euros less than starting in Helsinki.
* For unlimited rail travel, buy a Japan Rail Pass in advance. A 7 day pass costs around 225 euro.
* To use buses, subways and local trains – as well as purchase from many drinks machines – a Suica or Pasmo card (contactless payment card that can be topped up) is ideal. Available from nearly all stations.
* Best times to visit Japan are spring (March-May) and autumn (September-November).