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Travel Questions on Japan

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Banzai! Travelling on a budget in Japan is far from easy. But third degree culture shock can set in when you realise that the country might not be the same place you heard about back at home...

Forget about the revolving sushi bars and manga-inspired images of techno-cities - for the most part Japan means bad suburban planning, uncovered drains, and endlessly dull highways flanked by pachinko parlours and love hotels.

And lose any exotic ideas of ninja castles, tip-toeing geisha and wooden rice-farming villages. About ninety-eight percent of modern-day Japan is nearly as far removed from the rural images adopted by romantic orientalists as it is from the futurist apocalyptica of anime fans.

Just about the last thing Japanese society does is revolve in harmony around elusive zen principles. Most of the country is cluttered with telegraph wires and convenience stores, the rail network is overrated, the cities overcrowded and nobody in the countryside speaks English. Welcome to the rather less than serene reality of 21st century Nihon.  

"It should be understood that the sea in which the Island of Zipangu is situated is the sea of Chin, and so extensive is this eastern sea... it contains no fewer than 7,440 islands, mostly inhabited... It is impossible to estimate the value of gold and other articles found in these islands."
The Travels of Marco Polo,
Marco Polo, 1300 AD

Japan: East of the Orient?

© Alan Lansdowne, Joetsu City, May 1999

First time arrivals in Japan, might be forgiven for expecting the country to feel oriental in the same way as China or Vietnam. But Japan warily stands apart from the East Asian countries it eyes across the cold waters of the Nihonkai (Sea of Japan).

Even in the newspapers or on television occasionally, there is a debate amongst the Japanese themselves over whether their country can be accurately described as "asian". That said, any unifying concept of Japanese national identity is evasive.

The Japanese archipelago is a patchwork of separate, insular cultures with strong regional loyalties which the central government in Tokyo attempts in vain to unite. Travelling around Japan is likely to challenge the way you think about the country. It may leave you wondering if there could ever be any place more difficult for an outsider to get to grips with.

Discovering a different Japan

© Alan Lansdowne, Joetsu City, May 1999
A bridge over the castle moat in the small town of Takada in Niigata Prefecture
Takada Park

Beyond the hi-tech city sprawl along the Pacific coast, Japan conceals an astonishingly beautiful volcanic hinterland. Here, away from the neon hum of crowded shopping malls, you can discover beautiful retreats like the castle town of Matsumoto in Nagano-ken, only two hours from Tokyo by Shinkansen.

But even further from the urbanised Pacific coast there is a poor, unseen Japan. Hidden away on the northern side of the Alps, farming villages and small ugly, industrial towns stretch out in a thin ribbon along the shore of the Japan Sea.

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