The more than 6,850 islands that make up Japan are spread from the tropical island of Okinawa to the near arctic conditions of Hokkaido. The four main islands - Kyushu, Shikoku, Honshu and Hokkaido - make up 98% of the land mass and are the economic powerhouses of the nation. Although only slightly smaller than Canada in overall landmass, about 70% of Japan's population are squeezed into a narrow corridor running down the eastern coast of the main islands.
The population of Japan measures around 127 million, with Tokyo's 12 million inhabitants making it one of the densely populated cities in the world. Other major cities include Tokyo's neighbor Yokohama, Osaka, Nagoya, Kobe and Kyoto in the western part of the country, Hiroshima in the far west and Fukuoka and Sapporo in the southern and northern islands of Kyushu and Hokkaido respectively
There are still relatively few non Japanese in Japan, with the majority gathered in the big metropolitan areas, so a visit to the countryside will still produce stares although foreigners are generally treated with a great deal of respect.
The Japanese language is a reflection of society with completely different words and phrases being used depending on the social positions of the speaker and the listener, their personal or professional relationship and the subject they are discussing. The written language is made up of Kanji (Chinese Characters), which have an intrinsic meanings on their own and another when mixed with other characters, plus the phonetic alphabet of Hiragana which is used for spelling native Japanese words and katakana which is used for spelling foreign or loan words.
English is taught at all middle and high schools throughout the country and most Japanese, especially the younger generation, have the ability to read English, although often their conversational abilities are somewhat hesitant and lacking. The majority of train stations and public places have some English signs and maps and English is the language of business in most large foreign corporations. Japanese speakers of other languages can be found, even if somewhat rare, and there are publications and social groups centered around most of the world's major languages.
Japan has a highly efficient if somewhat over crowded bus and train service, that is both clean and safe. For long distant travel the high speed 'Shinkansen' or 'Bullet Train' gives an excellent alternative to the equally efficient air service, and runs to most major towns and cities. Taxis are expensive but reliable (no need to tip), however often you will need to direct the driver to your destination.
Driving on the left-hand side, the roads in Japan are often horrendously congested. This is due in part to the narrowness of the streets and large numbers of cars parking on the side of the roads, but also due to the Japanese propensity to all go to the same place at the same time. The highways are generally toll-roads and can also be the scene of queues stretching for many miles, especially during rush hour and holiday periods.
Tokyo's Narita airport is one of the main world 'hubs' and has direct flights to destinations all over the globe. Japan's other major international airport is Kansai Airport, which has been built on a man made island and serves the western part of the country. There are numerous other airports around Japan providing a mixture of domestic and international flights.
* Known as 'Golden Week'
i. Generally companies close for New Year from around 30th December - 4th January.
ii. Many companies will close for a few days around mid August for the traditional 'O-Bon festival' or 'Festival of the dead'.
In any Japanese town, no matter how small, you will find an amazing array of restaurants, bars and coffee shops plus the ubiquitous and noisy pachinko halls. Tokyo boasts an excellent entertainment scene, with many foreign restaurants to add to hundreds of more traditional Japanese bars and eateries - plus the (in) famous district known as Roppongi, where it seems half the foreign population seems to party on any given night of the year.
Culture is well represented with an array of museums, galleries and theatres, and most cinemas show films in their original language with Japanese subtitles. Opening hours vary from place to place, so it is always worth checking before hand. Queuing for several hours and then having to stand to watch the movie is not uncommon for popular new releases.
Most towns have a few parks spread around the metropolis and either the sea or the mountains are always within easy reach, however they tend to get crowded at weekends and holiday periods.
Japan provides a wide choice of sporting entertainment, including soccer, rugby, golf, tennis, baseball and skiing plus such local sports as Sumo and the martial arts. If you wish to partake in any particular sporting activity there is usually a club or organization nearby, often held at the local government facility. There are a large number of fitness centers in Japan too, but like everything else they tend to be crowded and a little expensive.