Japan is comprised of a string of islands off the east coast of China and Russia. The four most important islands are Honshu, Hokkaido, Shikoku and Kyushu. The capital, Tokyo, is located on Honshu. Americans are often familiar with the island of Okinawa because of the historically large US military presence there following World War II.
Japan's mainly mountainous terrain offers many points of interest, including the contrast of small farming villages and ancient Shinto and Buddhist shrines with a handful of mid-sized and major cities such as Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe, Nagoya, Hiroshima, Yokohama. Tokyo offers the Imperial Palace, the Ginza shopping and entertainment center and Western-style nightlife with clubs, theaters, music and international cuisine.
Japanese manners and customs differ vastly from the West. Politeness and formality characterize Japanese behavior. Japanese do not expect visitors to be thoroughly familiar with Japanese customs, but they expect courteous and polite behavior.
The weather is mostly temperate, except for the Hokkaido area and subtropical Okinawa region. Winters are cool and sunny in the south, cold and sunny around Tokyo (which occasionally has snow), and very cold around Hokkaido, which is covered in snow for up to four months a year. Summer, between June and September, ranges from warm to very hot, while spring and autumn are generally mild throughout the country. Rain falls throughout the year, with June and early July the rainiest. Hokkaido, however, is much drier than the Tokyo area. Typhoons are possible in September or October, and rarely last more than a day.
Japanese is the official language. English is taught in schools but proficiency is low except in hotels and commercial establishments that cater to Westerners.
Tourists and visitors will find a large variety of options. The culture, arts, music and dance of Ancient Japan and elements of the Samurai society are still widely seen in modern Japan. Tours are available offering sightseeing and participation in traditional Japanese tea ceremonies, complete with beautiful traditional Japanese kimonos. The elegant style and beauty of traditional Japanese gardens can be seen throughout the country. Sports are an important part of Japanese society and visitors can view everything from a baseball game to sumo wrestling.
Japan's telecommunications infrastructure is modern, and international direct dialing is available throughout the country. Internet service is widespread (Yahoo Japan, MSN Japan and Google Japan are available as is EBay Japan). The Japanese postal system is very reliable and major international package delivery services are available throughout the country.
Dependable and efficient public transportation serves large cities and most visitors will have little need for taxis. Major cities are linked by rail and air. Japan Air is the major international carrier. Fast trains provide the easiest connections between cities on the main island of Honshu and domestic air transport connects Honshu with the other islands. Japan has excellent roads and highways that link Pacific-coast cities but driving can be complicated because the road signs are in Japanese and traffic drives on the left.
Japan is the most expensive destination in Asia. All major credit cards are accepted at hotels, businesses and restaurants, and ATMs are available.
Japan's crime rate is low. Exercise normal security precautions and protect personal property in crowds, especially when using public transportation.