Travel to Japan to immerse yourself in a land of ancient and modern, warm hospitality, delicious cuisine, delightful natural wonders, and exquisite art and architecture found nowhere else in the world.
The historic villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama, UNESCO World Heritage Sites, welcome visitors with a unique architectural style known as gassho-zukuri, characterized by thatch-built gabled roofs resembling a monk’s praying hands. Some of these large houses are four stories tall and can accommodate up to 50 people. Spend a night here to experience life in a traditional village.
Marvel at Japan’s 15 other UNESCO World Heritage Sites including Himeji Castle, the Todai-ji Temple—home to the world’s largest Buddha statue—and the city of Kyoto, with superb examples of Japanese garden design and wooden temples. At the Hiroshima Peace Memorial you can view the only structure left standing after the first atomic bomb explosion.
Birders can witness the entrancing greeting ceremonies and courtship dances of the red-crowned, or Japanese crane. With flocks of 100 cranes or more gathered, dozens at time will leap, pirouette and trumpet in thrilling display. Other avian species include the hooded crane and white-napped crane—sometimes found in flocks exceeding 10,000—and the Steller’s sea eagle, one of the largest raptors on earth.
Other wildlife includes the Japanese macaque, also known as the snow monkey. Living further north than any primate in the world, with the exception of humans, the snow monkey ranges from Japan’s tropical lowlands to its subalpine regions. At the Jigokudani hot spring in Nagano, they have become the primary residents in the area, soaking and basking in the thermal springs.
Nearly 70% of Japan is covered in mountains, including over 100 active volcanoes. Mount Fuji is Japan’s tallest mountain and one of three “holy mountains.” Experienced climbers can summit this majestic peak.
The country’s delicious cuisine ranges from sushi to traditional monks’ dishes and fresh fare from lively markets. Your lodging might include a stay at a Ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn, where you’ll wear a traditional robe called a Yukata and sleep on a futon placed on straw mat flooring. Throughout your stay, you will be warmly welcomed by hospitable locals who will make you feel like an honored guest.
Japan is composed of four main islands—Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, and Hikoku—and thousands of smaller islands (only 425 of which are inhabited). Most of the landscape is covered in mountains, including over 100 active volcanoes. The country offers varied habitats for diverse wildlife—from snow monkeys to sea lions. The brackish Sea of Japan between the Asian mainland and Japan has almost no tides and is home to varied flora and fauna including 800 species of aquatic plants and more than 3,500 animal species.
As an island nation, Japan enjoyed relative isolation and protection from outside invaders for much of its history. As a result, it was able to develop a stable government and rich culture. A few outside influences permeated its borders. For example, Buddhism arrived from Korea in the 6th century and continues to exist alongside Japan’s native Shinto religion. Chinese characters known as kanji have been integrated into the Japanese writing system. During the 1500s, Dutch and Portuguese settled the island of Kyushu and engaged in trade with Japan.
When the shoguns established military rule in the early 1600s, Japan cut itself off entirely from the rest of the world. During more than 250 years in isolation, Japan developed arts like kabuki theater, woodblock printing and haiku poetry.
In 1854, the United States and Japan signed a treaty that opened Japanese ports to American ships and established trade relations between the two countries. This treaty marked the beginning of Japan’s modernization, as the country was now open to outside influence. Soon after, Japan was united under an emperor. Values like universal education and strong familial obligation became commonplace during this time.
The last shogun resigned in 1867. Under Emperor Meiji, modernization and industrialization continued. Increased nationalism led to aspirations of regional domination, resulting in the Sino-Japanese War in 1895 and the Russo-Japanese War in 1904-1905. During World War I, Japan assumed a secondary role, profiting from wartime trade and the zaibutsu clique of industrialist bankers. In 1931, Japan invaded Manchuria and later launched a full-scale war on China in 1937. Now the dominant power in Asia, Japan signed a pact with Italy and Germany in 1940 and entered World War II.
At the end of World War II, Japan was left with millions dead, a suffering economy and much of its cities destroyed—including Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which suffered near-total devastation by atomic bombs. Despite its dire straits, Japan was determined to rebuild. The 1960s and 70s were years of growth and expansion. Machines replaced human workers in the cultivation of rice, a staple crop. As a result, many young people relocated to city centers for higher-paying jobs. By the 1980s, Japan was a booming producer of automobiles, steel and electronics.
Japan’s current population tops 127 million people—that’s about half the population of the United States squeezed into an area roughly the size of California. Because of the country’s mountainous interior, most of the population is concentrated along the coastal regions. Tokyo and its surrounding metropolitan area is the world’s most populous urban area with a staggering 35 million inhabitants.
Today, Japan continues to hold a place as a world power on the cutting edge of business, technology and industry.
Photos: © WOLFGANG KAEHLER