Sample Japan's significant cultural and historic highlights
This page provides brief background information on Japan. For more practical information about our trips to Japan please see our page Booking with Oku Japan – FAQs. We also have a page about Practical tour information.
While the image of modern Japan in the West is of large cities and heavy industry, 75% of the country is mountainous forest and the country offers terrain ranging from sub-tropical islands to alpine peaks.
The Japanese landscape - the rivers, trees, mountains, natural hot springs - are at the heart of Japanese culture and religion. Japan's Shinto religion worships Kami sacred spirits which have taken the form of things such as rain, trees, mountains, rivers. This belief formed an intrinsic link for the Japanese between their everyday lives and the natural world.
While Shinto lost its status as Japan's official religion after World War II, Japan's mountain peaks are still often crowned with a Shinto shrine, and in the deep valleys of the Kii Peninsula or the mountains of Yamagata mountain priests known as Yamabushi still perform feats of endurance such as praying under cold waterfalls or making a pilgrimage over the lofty peaks.
Japan's earliest historical period is the Jomon from about 10,000 - 300 BC, during which time the first evidence of civilisation appeared. Clay vessels from around 3,000 - 2,000 B.C. are surprisingly intricate. The Yayoi period from 300 BC to around 250 AD saw the influx of new practices such as wet cultivation of rice, shamanism, and the development of bronze and iron implements. The Kofu period from 250 AD to 710 AD saw the partial unification of the country through conquest by strong military states.
The classical era of Japanese history began in the 6th century with the arrival of Buddhism in Japan from China via Korea, and then the adoption of the Kanji Chinese writing system. In 710 Nara became the capital, and in 794 Kyoto took on this role with the start of the Heian era, the golden period of Japanese history in which poetry and literature flourished.
From 1185 the Kamakura period began after the defeat of the Minamoto family by the Taira clan. In 1274 and 1281 the Mongols were repulsed by the Shoguns with the help of typhoons - interpreted as divine winds or Kamikaze. The Muromachi period lasted from 1333 to 1576, in which the country gradually slipped into the era of the 'warring states' or Sengoku period.
In the 16th century the first Western missionaries reached Japan from Portugal bringing with them Christianity. Increasingly active trade and cultural exchange with the west was brought to an abrupt halt in 1600 with the establishment of the Tokugawa Shogunate, and the pursuit of an isolationist policy that lasted for 250 years known as the Edo period, named after the capital as Tokyo was then called. In 1854 Commodore Matthew Perry of the US Navy forced Japan to open its doors to international trade, and Japan soon entered the Meiji period. During this time the Emperor moved back from Kyoto to Tokyo; Japan adopted many Western institutions, built railways and quickly modernised.
Japan soon set itself on an expansionist course. It became the first Asian nation in modern time to defeat a European power when it won the Russo-Japanese war in 1905. It subsequently invaded and colonised Korea and then Manchuria in 1931. In 1937 it invaded China proper, which it held until 1945. Following World War II, Japan was occupied by US forces and became a constitutional monarchy. It achieved spectacular economic growth through a determined policy of industrial development.
Japan's rich and varied culture has its roots in the Confucian and Buddhist influences that came to the country from the Asian mainland, as well as its indigenous Shinto religion. Distinctive poetry and literature were developed during the Heian period (794-1185), but the most famous is perhaps the Haiku, a 17-syllable verse consisting of lines with 5, 7, and 5 syllables. A famous example was written by the 17th traveller Matsuo Basho:
Never settled long in one place
Like a portable fire
Japanese culture has some fundamental differences with Western culture, one of them being that fact that important decisions are reached by consensus. Japanese culture idealises people who sacrifice themselves for the good of the group, while people who are individualistic are frowned upon. The concept of shame is much stronger than guilt in Japan - much in evidence in Japan's many political corruption scandals.
Modern Japanese culture has become famous for its anime (animated cartoons) and manga (serial comics), which are read by millions in the country.
The Japanese people often refer to themselves as an island-nation, and the uniqueness this has contributed to the Japanese people and their culture. Japan today is 99% ethnic Japanese. This homogeneity has been an important factor in the way many of the intricate social customs such as gift-giving have persevered.
Japan's life expectancy is currently 85.2 years for women and 78.3 years for men, and the birth rate is 1.3 children per woman, leading to a declining population. By 2100 if current trends continue, Japan's population will decline from the current 128 million to 64 million.
There are four main islands in the Japanese archipelago. From north to south these are Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu. In addition there are the Ryukyu islands that spread south from Kyushu towards Taiwan, and about 3,000 other smaller islands.
Japan sits on the Ring of Fire, a ring of volcanoes that encircles the Pacific Ocean. It experiences frequent low-intensity earth tremors and there are numerous volcanoes, some active. About 75% of the country is mountainous forest.
Japan is host to about 600 species of birds, amongst them to Red-Crowned Crane, Hooded Crane, and Stellar's Sea Eagle. The Japanese Macaque is the only primate in Japan, and can be found in Honshu and on Yakushima Island. There are several species of bear in Japan, including the black, brown and red. Deer are common in some of Japan's national parks, and there are weasels, mink, and even a flying squirrel.
Japan has twice the biodiversity of New Zealand or the UK, mainly since it has such as wide variety of climactic zones, stretching from sub-tropical in Okinawa to sub-arctic in the north of Hokkaido.
Walking in Japan
Japan will surprise you with its wealth of stunning landscapes. Walking is an ideal way to see Japan’s cultural heritage too, with a series of historic trails between attractive villages. Few people visit Japan just to walk or hike, but it will give you a privileged insight into a side of the country and its people that few visitors manage to see.
For further reading, you may want to consider the following books:
- The Making of Modern Japan by Marius B. Jansen
- Japan: Its History and Culture by W. Scott Morton and J. Kenneth Olenik
- A Traveller's History of Japan by Richard Tames
- Bending Adversity, Japan and the Art of Survival by David Pilling
- Japanese Garden Design by Marc P. Keane and Haruzo Ohashi
- Japan, a Traveler's Literary Companion by Jeffrey Angles
- A Dictionary of Japanese Food - Ingredients & Culture by Richard Hoskings
- Japanese Culture. Fourth Edition by Paul Varley
- The Making of Modern Japan by Marius B. Jansen
- Kyoto: A Cultural History by John Dougill
- Walking the Kiso Road: A Modern-Day Exploration of Old Japan by William Scott Wilson
- Sacred Koyasan: A Pilgrimage to the Mountain Temple of Saint Kobo Daishi and the Great Sun Buddha by Philip L. Nicoloff
- The Life-Giving Sword: Secret Teachings from the House of the Shogun by Yagyu Munenori - Translated by William Scott Wilson
- Anthology of Japanese Literature: From the Earliest Era to the Mid-Nineteenth Century by Donald Keene
- The Unknown Craftsman: A Japanese Insight into Beauty by Yanagi Soetsu