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Travelling to Japan for the first time? Here’s what you need to know

Travelling to Japan for the first time? Here’s what you need to know
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It may be hard to believe, but Japan wasn’t always the perennial bucket list topper it is now. According to the World Tourism Organisation, Japan was only the 31st most-visited country in the world in 2010, attracting a humble 8.6 million visitors. That figure soared to 28.6 million visitors in 2017, making Japan the world’s fastest-growing tourist destination.

So what changed? Surely not Japan, which has a deeply ingrained cultural identity that’s remained the same for hundreds of years. What has changed is our appreciation of it. After all, Japan is undoubtedly a stunning place: filled with ancient temples, majestic mountains, soaring skyscrapers and fascinating customs.

The best times to visit Japan

The best times to visit Japan
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To say Japan offers a wide range of climates is an understatement – neatly situated between the Asian continent and the Pacific Ocean, Japan is essentially a vast collection of islands stretching over thousands of kilometres. That means the northern island of Hokkaido is chillier than the southern subtropical island of Okinawa. It also means that there is somewhere in Japan worth visiting any time of year.

Not surprisingly, spring’s cherry blossoms and autumn’s golden-hued foliage make these two transitional seasons the busiest times to visit. Summers are typically hot, humid and wet – the rainy period in the southern regions takes place in June. Regions in the northwest of Japan receive snowfall between December and February. Overall, winters are the least busy time to visit but if you’re a skier, then you may want to head to the Japanese ski fields.

Consider the roads less travelled

Consider the roads less travelled
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Being a top travel destination does have one significant drawback: crowds. With 127 million residents packed into just 364,555 square kilometres, Japan is one of the most densely populated countries in the world.

While Tokyo is a tried-and-true destination that won’t disappoint, you can have an equally rich experience if you wander off the beaten track, such as Takayama in the the Gifu Prefecture whose narrow streets in the historic district are lined with wooden merchants’ houses dating to the Edo Period; Matsumoto in the mountainous Negano Prefecture, the serene castle town of Hagi (above) whose narrow streets are lined with samurai-era residences; and Ōtsu, the former imperial capital that’s home to Lake Biwa – the largest lake in Japan.

Are you a heavy packer?

Are you a heavy packer?
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Japan is best experienced by rail, which means a lot of walking up and down stairs to catch trains with limited storage space, so packing light would be to your advantage. If you’re guilty of overpacking however, skip lugging around your belongings and consider Japan’s Takuhaibin: a transport service that ships luggage nationwide. Your gear will be picked up at your hotel and delivered to your next destination the following day – service can be arranged at your hotel.

The railway system is super-efficient

The railway system is super-efficient
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With signage in English almost everywhere on Japan’s rail network, riding the metro and high-speed trains (150 lines and 2000 underground and aboveground stations in Tokyo alone) is not as daunting as it once was. The other good news is, you’ll always be safe and on time. In the 50-plus year history of Japan’s Shinkansen, the country’s bullet train system, there hasn’t been a single passenger fatality or injury due to train accidents. (Keep in mind, that stat encompasses the system’s 10 billion passengers in total!) If that isn’t impressive enough, the operators of the Tsukuba Express, a railway line operating in central Tokyo, gave a formal apology to riders in 2017 when their train departed 20 seconds early.

Travel tip: A Japan Rail (JR) Pass can save you big bucks! Unlimited passes give you access to the Shinkansen, JR-branded commuter trains, buses and ferries. Passes are valid for a certain number of days within a seven, 14, or 21-day period.

Vending machines are everywhere

Vending machines are everywhere
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Japan has the highest density of vending machines worldwide, with a grand total of five million across the country. (That’s approximately one vending machine for every 23 people.) Soft drinks, hot and cold coffee, tea, cigarettes, desserts, warm meals – if you can consume it, chances are there’s a vending machine selling it. Their enduring popularity isn’t surprising: the Japanese love automation and convenience. Plus, there’s very little vandalism in Japan, meaning that these machines are rarely ever broken into.

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There aren’t many public rubbish bins

There aren’t many public rubbish bins
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Following a series of deadly sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo Metro in 1995, most public rubbish bins were taken out of circulation. It isn’t as inconvenient as it sounds, however: Japanese residents typically bring a small plastic bag out with them for their rubbish. The lack of garbage bins hasn’t affected Japan’s streets, either. Because of a cultural emphasis on cleanliness, urban life in Japan is generally very tidy.

Japan is incredibly safe

Japan is incredibly safe
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Don’t worry about carrying large amounts of yen in your wallet or going for a walk late at night: Japan has very low crime rates. In fact, if you drop your wallet, don’t be surprised to find out it was delivered to the nearest police station or Koban (police box). Experts have pinned Japan’s relative safety on a low unemployment rate, strict gun control, and a society that reinforces concepts of honour and community.

Toilets are truly cutting-edge

Toilets are truly cutting-edge
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Japanese toilets have long been famous for their high-tech functionality: heated seats, various flush types, built-in rinse sinks, remote control technology and even music for those who want to, erm, hide their bodily noises. These features aren’t exclusive to the home either, and can be spotted in public places like restaurants, roadside petrol stations and department stores.

No tipping allowed

No tipping allowed
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The price on the bill is the price you pay. Restaurant employees usually get paid by the hour and don’t depend on tips. The same goes for taxi drivers. Two exceptions would be if you stay at a traditional Japanese inn, or have a tour guide.