From kimono-clad geishas singing karaoke in Kyoto to Buddhist monks whizzing around Tokyo on motorbikes, Japan is a fascinating land of contrasts, a heady mix of tradition and modernity that often bewilders but never bores.
Nowhere in the world blends the old and new quite like Japan. The speed of new technological developments here is matched only by the longevity of its ancient customs and traditions. The country is a pioneer in the fields of design, technology, fashion and cuisine. You can set your watch by the trains, eat meals that look like works of contemporary art and relieve yourself in the most technologically advanced toilets on the planet (some even talk to you).
Paradoxically, Japan’s embrace of the cutting edge is offset by its revered cultural traditions and celebrated historic achievements. Crumbling castles, atmospheric Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines and fascinating festivals are never far away, with historic highlights including the striking Himeji Castle and Kyoto’s iconic Temple of the Golden Pavilion. There’s also evidence of Japan’s dramatic recent history in cities like Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where the earliest nuclear bombs were dropped with devastating consequences during WWII.
If you love nature, you will adore Japan. This is a country swathed in natural beauty. Ski the powdery slopes of Hokkaido, revel in the springtime beauty of the sakura cherry blossoms, frolic in the sun-drenched beaches and turquoise waters of subtropical Okinawa, or climb up the iconic Mount Fuji. Wherever you go, good food is guaranteed – from fresh sushi and sashimi to robata-fired meats and sizzling sauces, Japan is a joy for gastronomes.
It is also a land of wild eccentricities, where you can buy used underwear from vending machines, watch men strip at the festival of Hadaka Matsuri and get amorous in one of the country’s many short-stay love hotels. These facets might jar somewhat with Japan’s polished image, but they help make it one of the most singular destinations on the planet.
377,915 sq km (145,913 sq miles).
126,323,715 (UN estimate 2016).
335.8 per sq km.
Emperor Akihito since 1989.
Prime Minister Shinzō Abe since 2012.
100 volts AC, 60Hz in the west (Osaka); 100 volts AC, 50Hz in eastern Japan and Tokyo. Plugs have two flat pins.
Last updated: 13 March 2017
The travel advice summary below is provided by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in the UK. ‘We’ refers to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. For their full travel advice, visit www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice.
Crime levels are low. It is generally safe to walk about at night and to travel on public transport, but you should maintain the same level of vigilance as you would at home and take sensible precautions.
Personal attacks, including sexual assault and rape, are rare, but do happen. Japanese law places a high burden of proof on the victim to demonstrate that the sexual relations were not consensual and committed through assault, intimidation or force. Reports of inappropriate touching or ‘chikan’ of female passengers on commuter trains are fairly common. The police advise that you shout at the perpetrator to attract attention and ask a fellow passenger to call the train staff.
If your passport is lost or stolen, you should report this at a police station and get a police report.
Tokyo’s entertainment districts, like Roppongi and Kabuki-cho (near Shinjuku station), are considered higher risk areas for crime, in particular at night. There are reports of foreign nationals being targeted for drink-spiking, credit card fraud, extortion, robbery, assault and sexual assault in clubs and bars.
British nationals have been arrested following disputes with bar staff and doormen. Some have been violently beaten leading to severe injuries after refusing to pay exorbitant bar bills. There have also been reports of drink spiking or deliberately giving customers drinks with much higher levels of alcohol than would be expected. Victims have described waking up, often in an unknown location, with no memory of the preceding hours and finding out that large amounts have been billed to their credit card.
Getting a police report, which may be required by credit card companies in order for any claim to be processed, can be very difficult in these circumstances. Make sure anything you drink can’t be tampered with. Be wary of accepting drinks from strangers and always have a trusted friend to keep an eye on any unfinished drink if you need to leave it for a period of time.
Prostitution and street touts are illegal but commonplace. Don’t accompany touts to bars and clubs under any circumstances. To encourage people into establishments, touts commonly misrepresent the services on offer, and/or wrongly suggest clients are free to walk away on arrival if they don’t wish to proceed.
In cases of emergency, dial 110 for the police and 119 for the fire or ambulance services. Calls are free of charge from any phone, including pay phones.
There are some exclusion zones around the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, which are clearly identified by the Japanese authorities. These exclusion zones are kept under review and have reduced in area over the past 5 years. Areas where evacuation orders are ready to be lifted (marked green on the map) are still subject to some restrictions – for instance visitors aren’t allowed to stay overnight. Follow local guidance.
The exclusion zone around the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant has been designated a restricted area. Anyone entering this area illegally is liable to a fine of up to 100,000 yen (£560) or detention.
The Japanese authorities are carrying out comprehensive checks to monitor radiation in the area surrounding Fukushima and to monitor possible contamination of water, and food and produce. They impose strict controls where necessary. There continue to be reports about leaks of contaminated water. These reports are being monitored by UK government scientists. Any significant change in the current situation will be reported on this page.
Although the situation at Fukushima will remain of concern for some time, the risks are gradually declining.
To drive in Japan, you must hold an International Driving Permit (IDP), a current UK licence and insurance. An IDP is only valid for use in Japan for one year regardless of its date of expiry. Check the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department website for further details. You must carry your driving licence with you at all times. Penalties for driving in Japan without the correct documents are severe.
If you intend to stay in Japan for longer than one year, you should apply for a Japanese driving licence. For more information and details of offices where you can apply for a Japanese licence, visit the Japanese Automobile Federation website
There are two types of driving insurance available in Japan: compulsory insurance (jibaisekihoken) and voluntary insurance (nin’i no jidoshahoken). The compulsory insurance on its own may be insufficient in cases of personal liability.
Roads are well maintained. Driving is on the left, as in the UK. Road rules are mostly the same as in the UK, but drivers should pay particular attention to: pedestrians crossing roads at green lights, especially at junctions; cyclists travelling on the pavements or on the wrong side of the road and without lights at night; and taxi drivers stopping suddenly.
There are severe penalties to deter drink driving, including allowing someone else to drink and drive (for example if you are a passenger in a vehicle being driven by a drunk driver). Legal limits are lower than they are in the UK and offences can attract a heavy fine or imprisonment.
In 2013 there were 5,152 road deaths in Japan. This equates to 4 road deaths per 100,000 of population and compares to the UK average of 2.8 road deaths per 100,000 of population in 2013 (source: Department for Transport).
Japan is a stable democracy. Civil disturbances and violent demonstrations are rare. Occasionally, demonstrations of a pro-nationalist kind can involve hostility to foreign countries. Keep yourself informed of developments and if you become aware of any protests, leave the area immediately.
Mobile phone networks
Only 3G and 4G capable UK handsets will work in Japan. GSM-only UK phones don’t work, as there’s no GSM network. If you plan to make lots of calls or use mobile data in Japan, SIM cards are available to hire online or in-store. WiFi zones are also increasingly available in coffee shops, hotels and other public spaces.