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Spellbinding Japan

Scratch beneath the surface of Japan and let your senses be aroused by the splendidly bizarre. From vivid cities that embrace the weird and the wonderful, to rural hamlets with enduring customs. Discover Zen gardens, oriental architecture, celebrated Geisha culture, and old-world traditions that will undoubtedly seduce your soul.

A pulsating city that marries the traditional with an insatiable passion for the avant-garde. Devour Michelin star delights or slurp delectable dishes meticulously crafted by street vendors. Wander down neon strips sprouting futuristic skyscrapers, and cobbled laneways where alluring aromas and sounds billow from century-old wooden shacks.

• Wander the atmospheric gardens of the once formidable Imperial Palace.
• High on the must see list of attractions of Tokyo is the infamous Senso-ji Shrine complex, with several structures that survived the 1945 bombings.
• North from Tokyo Station is Uneo Park that contains the largest concentration of museums in Japan. In April you can catch the magnificent cherry blossoms in bloom, simply stunning.
• Visit the wonderfully serene and austere Meiji Shrine.
• Experience contemporary Japan in the uber chic areas of Shibuya, Shinjuku and upmarket Ginza. Each of these areas has its own unique characteristics with the common thread being that they are bustling during the day, and by night they really come alive!
• If you are an early riser or a little jet lagged head to the Tsukiji Fish Market at catch the live tuna auctions.

Regional Highlights

  • High on the must see list of attractions of Tokyo is the infamous Senso-ji Shrine complex, with several structures that survived the 1945 bombings.
  • Wander the atmospheric gardens of the once formidable Imperial Palace.

Imagine a world of peaceful temples and perfumed gardens adorned in tradition. Spot Geisha’s shuffling to secret liaisons, browse market stalls selling curious specialities, stroll down bamboo groves, and take part in the national spring pastime of Hanami (cherry blossom viewing).

Regional Highlights

  • Splurge on a traditional Kaiseki – A multi-coursed meal that is as much a feast for the eyes as it is for the taste buds!
  • Relax in a Japanese Onsen. Today over 140 bathhouses remain in Kyoto.
  • Unlock the treasures of the Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion), Kyoto’s most elaborate zen temple.
  • Walk the narrow alleyways of the Geisha District of Gion.
  • Partake in a traditional tea ceremony.

With 8 UNESCO World Heritage sites this cultural hotspot is well worth exploring. Soak up the scenery at a leisurely pace alongside some rather friendly deer. Time your visit with dramatic Buddhist ceremonies involving fire and water.

Regional Highlights

  • Todaiji Temple reputedly the largest wooden building in the world, houses the colossal bronze Buddha Daibutsu that stands fifteen metres tall!
  • Don’t miss the incredible Kasuga Taisha, the city’s most celebrated shrine, famous for its massive collection of stone and bronze lanterns.
  • One of the great things about Nara is that most of its attractions are all together in Nara Park. Making your way through the forests, gardens and masses of Sika deer is beautiful.
  • Just outside of Nara you will find a treasure trove of early Japanese art at the nearby temple complex of Horyu-ji. This UNESCO World- Heritage site is one of Japan’s oldest temples and well worth a visit!

Head to the mountains for a taste of rural life and the scent of fresh alpine air. Visit the beautifully preserved old town, and travel in spring or autumn to take in splendid performances and artisanal parades during their spectacular festivals, Sanno Matsuri and Hachiman Matsuri.

Regional Highlights

  • Wander the narrow lanes of the old town, Sanmachi (Town of the Three) that have been immaculately preserved. Where lattice-bay windows will entice you in to sample some sake or take a closer look at the traditional handicrafts of the region.
  • Takayama Jinya is a sprawling, beautifully preserved government building that was used from the 17th century until the 1960’s. Here you will find exhibits of daily life of the Edo period including a 19th century toilet so well preserved they have had to put a ‘Do not use’ sign beside it!
  • Takayama Yatai Kaikan is where the centuries old floats that are still used in the festivals today are stored and displayed outside of festival time. The intricate detail and shimmering gold-leafed covered, ornate floats are incredible!
  • Daily Asa-ichi (morning markets) are a wonderful way to start the day and meet the locals. Here you can find everything from fresh produce to local handicrafts.
  • As well as the local sake, try some of the local cuisine. This region specialties are ramen noodles cooked in miso stock, famed Hida beef and the delicious mitarashi dango – rice balls dipped in soy sauce and roasted on skewers yum!

Uncover Japan’s heritage off the beaten track and be rewarded with this UNESCO City of Crafts and Folk Art. Wander age-old samurai and geisha districts, charming temples and vibrant markets. Don’t miss the 17th century Kenroku-en, in a world of tranquil gardens this is one of the best.

Regional Highlights

  • Without doubt the most significant highlight of Kanazawa is 230-year-old Kenrokuen, one of the Three Great Gardens of Japan. Once the outer garden of the city’s castle.
  • You can’t come to Kanazawa without trying its seafood! Head to the bustling warren of fishmongers, buyers and restaurants at the historical Omicho Market. In this region Zuwaiganis (snow crabs) are the undisputed king of seafood!
  • Wander long winding streets and centuries old earthen walls of the Nagamachi District, once inhabited by samurai. Here you can visit Nomura-ke, a restored samurai residence that takes you through the era when samurai were prosperous.
  • Another fascinating neighbourhood to visit is the famous Geisha quarter of Higashi-Chayagai. Some of the Geisha houses are still used for high-class entertainment, however the most famous, Ochaya Shima is open for all to see. An opportunity to experience utter elegance at its best!

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How to prepare for overland border crossings


Capital city: Tokyo

Population:  127.2 million

Language:  Japanese

Currency:   Japanese Yen

Time zones: GMT+09:00  (Osaka, Sapporo, Tokyo)

Electricity: Type A (North American/Japanese 2-pin) Type B (American 3-pin 100 Volts)

Dialing code: +81

Upon arrival in Japan residents of the USA, Australia and New Zealand will be granted a 90 day temporary tourist visa, while stays for up to 3 months are granted for residents of Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Iceland, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Singapore, Spain, Sweden and a number of other countries. Stays of up to six months are permitted for residents of Austria, Germany, Ireland, Mexico, Switzerland and the UK. Citizens of these countries will usually be given a 90-day temporary tourist visa upon arrival, which can usually be extended for another 90 days while in Japan.

You will usually need to present your onward travel plans/air ticket to be granted your tourist visa.

Please note some medicines are highly restricted (codeine, morphine) or illegal to import into Japan (Pseudoephedrine, Dexamphetamine). If you are taking special medication, it is a good idea to carry a letter from your doctor to show authorities if necessary.

Since some medications can also be affected by changes in temperature or require special care, we recommend you discuss this with your doctor before departure

Travel Insurance is mandatory for all group journeys and Sundowners Overland strongly recommends travel insurance for all other journeys. You must ensure that your insurance policy covers you for the entire duration of your journey, for all activities you will be participating in and that you have purchased the highest level of cover available to you for medical emergencies (including repatriation/evacuation cover) which are relevant to ALL the destinations that you will be visiting. Contact us for further information and quotes.

Average temperatures and weather patterns vary greatly across Japan, so the best time to travel is not necessarily consistent across the country.

During the winter months, parts of Japan become a ski and snowboarders haven. Think traditional steaming onsens surrounded pristine snowscapes and crisp mountain air. While other parts of Japan experience clear, dry winter days. The Sapporo Winter Festival is held every February and features hundreds of ice sculptures, snow slides and mazes, local cuisine and cultural performances.

Spring in Japan is world-famous for its spectacular Cherry Blossom Festival (late March – early May), while the summer months can be quite tropical with high humidity and heavy rainfalls, but is jam-packed with vibrant festivals across the country. Autumn is simply stunning when the maple trees explode into a range of brilliant colours.

The local currency is the Japanese Yen (JPY). Credit and debit cards are becoming more widely accepted in Japan, however it remains very much a cash society beyond the major cities, as well as for purchases from small vendors.  Cash advances may be obtained from most banks and ATM’s situated throughout Japan using VISA and MasterCard. In Japan both the Post Office and Seven Bank (whose machines are located in 7-Eleven stores and do not charge a fee!) operate ATM’s which accept foreign-issued cards.

A number of bank machines are also connected to the Cirrus and Maestro networks – Please contact your card issuer for information regarding using these or your other credit cards in these destinations.

In Tokyo:

  • One hour of internet access USD$2.50
  • 2 course meal & a drink in a decent restaurant USD$40+
  • Bottle of local beer USD$2.00
  • A Coke USD$1.00
  • Short taxi ride USD$20.00
  • Litre bottle of water USD$1.00
  • A bowl of ramen, soba or udon noodles USD$5.00

*Prices are approximate average costs based on prices at 11/03/2017 and are based on the equivalent amount of local currency.

Border procedures are very straightforward in Japan. When leaving Japan via ferry immigration procedures commence no earlier than 2.5 hours prior to your ferry’s departure time. It is a simple process – just present your passport to immigration officials and you will receive your exit stamp out of Japan.

  • Respect and manners go a long way in Japanese culture, as they do in any culture.  Learning a little of the language, reading as much about the history and culture of the region and observing local gatherings is a great way to start.
  • Japan is a strictly hierarchical society where men generally take precedence over women.
  • Pushing to get on public transport is not uncommon. Never respond by getting angry or showing aggression, as this is considered a complete loss of face.
  • Blowing your nose in public is considered rude. Do it in private.
  • Sitting cross-legged or tucking your legs to one side on Japanese tatami mats is fine. Sitting on your knees can be agony for those not used to it.
  • A usual greeting between locals will consist of numerous bows. Foreigners aren’t expected to do this, but you will eventually find its contagious will be participating before you know it.
  • It’s a rare honour to be invited to someone’s home in Japan, and if this happens you should always take a gift, which should always be wrapped.
  • It’s customary to change into slippers when entering a Japanese home or a ryokan, and not uncommon in traditional restaurants, temples and occasionally in museums and art galleries. If you come across a slightly raised floor and a row of slippers, then use them; leave your shoes either on the lower floor (the genkan) or on the shelves (sometimes lockers) Also try not to step on the genkan with bare feet. Once inside, remove your slippers before stepping onto tatami mats, and remember to change into the special toilet slippers kept inside the bathroom when you go to the toilet. Wherever you’re required to remove footwear, this is non-negotiable you must oblige.
  • Taking a traditional Japanese bath, whether in an onsen, a sentō or a ryokan, is a ritual that’s definitely worth participating in. Key points to remember are that everyone uses the same water, the bathtub is only for soaking and to never pull out the plug. It’s therefore essential to wash and rinse all soap off before you enter the bath. A number of onsens will provide a modesty towel however no one takes any notice of full nudity. Baths are typically segregated for males and females.
  • The biggest food faux-par you can make while here is to stick your chopsticks upright in your rice – it’s considered bad luck. Also don't lick your chopstick, point them at another person or use them to spear food.
  • When eating noodles in Japan, it’s standard practice to slurp them. Eat in any noodle restaurant and you’ll be surrounded by fellow diners noisily, and unabashedly slurping away.
  • It is considered rude to speak on your mobile phone while on public transport and people tend not to speak loudly to avoid disturbing other passengers.
  • Drinking sake in Japan comes with rituals and is a fundamental way of life in Japan. When receiving sake you should hold up your cup holding it with one hand and supporting it with the other. When the sake is served take a little sip first. Never pour your own. Remember the Japanese like to look after you well. If you have any empty cup it will be refilled – you have been warned!
  • Karaoke is a favourite pastime of locals, lose your inhibitions and get involved.
  • Do play with every button on the toilets and listen to music, bird calls, and get a wash or two for free, where you least expect it if you play with too many buttons at the one time.
  • Experience a Japanese Tea Ceremony (sado) that has been an integral part of the traditional Japanese culture for centuries and is considered a time to focus on the present moment.

Mobile phone coverage is excellent in Japan. Most hotels offer Wi-Fi in their rooms, however it may incur a charge. When you are staying in a Roykan there is usually a shared computer or Wi-Fi access in the lobby. In remote areas internet access may be minimal or unavailable.

If your global roaming fees are exorbitant you can purchase a SIM card on your arrival in Japan. They are available at airports, selected retailers or via the Internet and can be delivered to your hotel. Japanese SIM cards will only work in an unlocked device.