It is only comparatively recently that Japan came out of the
shell of its isolation, but the country of pink cherry blossoms and
genteel geisha girls has made up for lost time. There are few
people in the western world who have not driven a Japanese car,
eaten sushi or played on a Nintendo or Sony game console.
The nation of Japan consists of an island archipelago stretching
from northeast to southwest off the coast of mainland China, Russia
and Korea, separated from its Asian neighbours by the Sea of Japan.
Between 1639 and 1859 Japan elected to cut itself off from trade or
traffic with the rest of the world, except for some marginal
contact through the southern Kyushu island ports. Since opening up
its doors once more, just 150 years ago, the densely populated
islands have developed in leaps and bounds and much of the country
is now covered by sprawling neon-lit cities and the world's most
sophisticated public transport networks.
Modern it may be, but Japan still retains plenty of its mystical
oriental charm. From the intricacies of etiquette demanded in
social situations, to the minimalist décor behind rice paper
screens, Japanese culture is alive and well and cannot be ignored,
which makes a visit to Japan a fascinating experience.
The modern metropolises are dotted with numerous ancient shrines
and temples; the countryside is riddled with hundreds of volcanoes
and hot springs overlooking pastoral paddy fields; parks are
festooned with rigidly raked white gravel Zen gardens or coated
with layers of lilac and cherry blossom.
Japan's islands are mountainous in the interior - 75 percent of
the country's landmass is made up of mountains - and most of the
people are tightly packed within the limitations of the coastal
plains, particularly on the main island of Honshu. Tokyo, the
capital and largest city, situated on Honshu's east coast, has a
population of 12 million. Despite this seething mass of humanity
Japan is well ordered. Everything runs on time, and crime levels
are almost non-existent. It is still possible to find beautiful
vistas and wide empty spaces in the countryside, and when you are
forced to mingle with the urban throngs you will find the Japanese
to be charming, courteous and friendly to foreign faces.