Our Japan Travel Guide
Whether it’s your first time travelling to Japan or you’ve been there before, read our guide on the country’s history, etiquette, tipping culture, food, festivals and more.
At a glance
Enigmatic Japan is a place at once familiar and alien, traditional and futuristic, densely populated and wild, with a culture and
lifestyle that can be at once alluring and unsettling. Beyond the neon-lit pachinko parlours, high-rise blocks and consumer bling of Tokyo’s
frenetic streets, and the high-speed bullet trains that link one end of the country to the other, lies an old land with traditions to match. Shinto
temples, tea ceremonies, geisha culture, hot springs, Noh, Kabuki and Bunraku (puppet) theatre and the annual cherry blossom season are every bit as
striking as the modern trappings. Indeed, it’s the contrast between these quiet charms and the buzzing capital that makes a holiday in Japan so intriguing.
Tokyo is one of the world’s great cities, flourishing since Shōgun Tokagawa established his government at Edo to unite warring samurai factions in 1600, and taking its modern name on becoming the imperial capital in 1868. Today the city bustles with businessmen, kimono-clad women and fashionable teenagers, pulsating crowds and luxury boutiques. But even here you’ll find the Japan of old in tranquil backstreets, wooden houses, neatly clipped bonsai, ancient temples and shrines.
The quiet mountain town of Nikko, the tranquil seaside setting of Kamakura and the springtime blossoms of Mito are just a few of the highlights on Tokyo’s doorstep. Elsewhere on the main island of Honshū lies the central spine of the Japan Alps, famed for skiing and hot springs, the iconic Mount Fuji and Lake Ashi in Hakone National Park, the religious sites of Mount Takao and Mount Koya and the majestic cities of Kyoto, Osaka and Nagoya.
As the former capital for over a thousand years, Kyoto is filled with a wealth of cultural treasures including 1,600 Buddhist temples, 400 Shinto shrines and innumerable Zen gardens. Osaka was razed to the ground during World War II, but the sprawling, reconstructed castle and park is one of Japan’s major tourist attractions. Also suffering badly in the war, Nagoya’s main attractions are the vast and venerable Astuta Shrine and the rebuilt Nagoya Castle and gardens.
Hokkaidō is Japan’s largest prefecture, comprising the entire northern island and surrounding islets, and also its wildest. There are no ancient historical temples, and its urban centres are entirely modern almost to the point of blandness. The capital, Sapporo, though, is worth a visit en route to exploring the island’s great expanses of wilderness and numerous national parks, keeping an eye out for brown bears or red-crowned cranes, climbing steaming volcanoes, visiting small islands, hiking in the summer or skiing in winter.
Lush jungle, sandy beaches and coral reefs define Okinawa, a group of more than 100 subtropical islands extending across 700 kilometres of the South China Sea from Kyushu to Yonaguni-jima, almost within sight of Taiwan. In its captial Naha, Okinawan textiles and ceramics are made in the shadow of Shuri-jo, a modern reconstruction of the Ryukyu kingdom’s most important castle. On tiny Taketomi, buffalo-drawn carts trundle around a typical village of red-roofed bungalows. Other islands like Iriomote are covered in jungle, while palm tree-lined beaches and crystal-clear seas are the allure of Ishigaki.
Wherever you travel in Japan, you’ll be met with warmth, kindness, generosity – as well as reciprocal curiosity, humour and astonishment, and you’re sure to bring back memories that will last a lifetime.
Culture & etiquette
Japanese culture is driven by honour, respect and humility. A central concept is hansei (‘self-reflection’), which means to acknowledge mistakes and to pledge improvement. The code of etiquette is very important, and visitors can cause offence if they fail to follow some basic rules, so keep in mind a few generally accepted customs.
Bowing is the feature of Japanese etiquette best known outside the country. Basic bows are performed with the back straight and the hands at the sides (boys and men) or clasped in the lap (girls and women), and with the eyes down. Bows originate at the waist, and the longer and deeper the bow, the stronger the emotion and the respect expressed. When dealing with outsiders, many Japanese will offer to shake hands instead.
It is common for Japanese shops and businesses to place a small tray near a cash register where customers can place their money rather than handing it directly to the cashier. If such a tray is provided, it is a breach of etiquette to offer payments hand to hand.
It is acceptable to lift soup and rice bowls to the mouth in order not to spill food. It is also appropriate to slurp certain foods, especially ramen or soba noodles. Miso soup is drunk directly from the small serving bowl, rather than with a spoon. It is polite to clear your plate down to the last grain of rice.
It is uncommon for Japanese people to eat or drink on the move. Vending machines generally have a recycling bin for used bottles and cans, so you can consume the drink while standing there, rather than walking off with it.
Blowing your nose in public is considered rude, especially at a restaurant; cloth handkerchiefs should never be used for this purpose and paper tissues should be disposed of after use. Conversely, sniffling is considered acceptable.
It is considered an honour to be invited into someone’s home. Shoes are not worn inside but removed in the genkan (mudroom or foyer), and often replaced with house slippers called uwabaki. Just wearing socks is acceptable in informal situations.
It is impolite to go to someone’s house without a gift, which should be presented using both hands, usually on the paper bag the gift was brought in. White flowers are inappropriate gifts as they are associated with funerals and bereavement. Items prominently displaying the numbers 4 or 9 should be avoided since the reading of 4 (shi) suggests death and one of the readings of 9 (ku) is suffering or torture. Clocks, scissors or knives are also inappropriate as they respectively symbolise time running out and severing a relationship.
Greetings are important in Japanese culture and are often delivered with surprising energy and vigour; a lazy greeting is regarded with the disdain that accompanies a limp handshake in parts of the West.
The most common greetings are ohayō gozaimasu (‘good morning’), used until about 11 am (or later if it’s the first occasion that day the two people have met); konnichiwa which is roughly equivalent to ‘good day’ or ‘good afternoon’; konbanwa (‘good evening’) and oyasumi nasai (good night).
Bathing is an important part of the daily routine. Baths (furo) are for soaking and relaxing in, and the body must be cleaned and scrubbed before entering the tub. Rather than being drained at the end of each bath, the water is kept warm for later use by other household members. In traditional Japanese inns (ryokan) customers are offered the use of a furo for bathing, either communal with bathing times scheduled in advance, or private.
Onsen are hot spring baths fed by geothermally heated springs, sometimes outdoors. Larger onsen have separate pools for men and women, and visitors normally bathe nude. As with home baths, bathers must clean and rinse thoroughly before entering the baths.
The Japanese drink green tea throughout the day and with meals, and many kinds of alcoholic drinks in the evening with friends and colleagues.
Tea (o-cha) is commonly provided free of charge with meals, hot in winter and iced in summer. The most popular types are sencha, the common green tea, matcha, a soupy powdered ceremonial green tea, hōjicha, roasted green tea, genmaicha, tea with roasted rice and mugicha, a brew of roasted barley.
Japanese teas are always drunk without any milk or sugar. Western-style black tea is called kōcha. Chinese oolong tea is also popular.
Coffee (kōhī) is usually brewed to the same strength as European coffee – weaker, watered-down coffee is called American. Canned, usually sweetened coffee (hot and cold) is widely available in vending machines. There are many coffee shops in Japan, including the ubiquitous Starbucks and local chains like Doutor and Excelsior.
If you’re looking for an evening of food and drink, go to an izakaya (Japanese-style pub), easily identified by red lanterns hanging outside marked with the character for alcohol: 酒. This is where office workers, students and seniors all hang out. Food is usually good and reasonably priced, and the mood is convivial. Pricier Western-style bars can also be found, often specialising in whiskies or cocktails. A common Japanese institution is the ‘snack’ (sunakku) where paid hostesses pour drinks, sing karaoke, massage egos – and sometimes more besides. Tourists tend not to now how to behave in there, and many do not admit non-Japanese customers.
A surprising quirk for first-time visitors is the proliferation of vending machines that sell beer, sake and spirits. Machines at stations in Tokyo even accept payment using a rail pass.
Sake, often inaccurately called ‘rice wine’, is a fermented drink brewed from rice with an alcohol content of around 15%. Confusingly, the Japanese word sake can refer to any kind of alcoholic drink, and Japanese use the word nihonshū (literally ‘Japanese liquor’) to distinguish it.
Sake is around 15% alcohol, and can be served hot (atsukan), at room temperature (jo-on), or chilled (hiya). It can be dry or sweet and is brewed in several grades and styles that depend upon how much the rice is milled, and if water or additional alcohol is added. If you are curious to know more visit the Sake Plaza in Shinbashi, Tokyo to taste a flight of different sakes.
Shōchū is a stronger drink, typically around 25% alcohol, distilled from rice, yam, grain or sometimes potatoes. It can be served straight, on the rocks, or mixed with hot or cold water. Once solely a working-class drink, it can cost as little as ¥1000 for a litre bottle – though a resurgence in popularity has led to finer shōchū fetching prices as high as the best sake.
Umeshu , falsely called ‘plum wine’, is prepared by soaking Japanese ume plums (actually a type of apricot) in white liquor and has a distinctive, penetrating nose of sour dark plum and sweet brown sugar. At 10 to 15% alcohol, it can be drunk straight, on the rocks or mixed with soda.
There are several large brands of Japanese beer (biiru), including Kirin, Asahi, Sapporo and Suntory. Microbrewed beers are also starting to appear in Japan, with a few restaurants and bars offering their own
Whisky is the spirit of choice among many Japanese, and there are some good local blends and malts, all made in the Scottish style (and therefore, controversially, omitting the ‘e’ normally added outside Scotland). Suntory’s aged single malts are frequent prizewinners, and Suntory was named ‘distiller of the year’ at the International Spirits Challenge in 2010, 2012 and 2013.
Japanese wine is decent but costs about twice as much as comparable imported wine. One of Japan’s largest wine areas is Yamanashi Prefecture, where Suntory has a winery and offers tours. Most wine, whether white or red and including a fine Bordeaux, is usually served chilled.
There are many uniquely Japanese soft drinks and trying random bottles or cans from vending machines is a peculiar pleasure. You may want to try the famous isotonic drink Pocari Sweat, if only for the photo opportunity, while other drinks of note include the yoghurt-based Calpis and Ramune, a lemon-and-lime soda that comes in an unusual bottle which you open by pushing a marble into an open space below the neck. The bottle, and the drink, were originally imported from the UK by Scottish entrepreneur Alexander Cameron Sim in the late 19th century.
In Japan, the term ‘juice’ is applied to any kind of fruity soft drink, so if you’re after something freshly squeezed, ask for kajū. In stores and at vending machines, you can check the fruit content on the label.
Traditional national festivals ('matsuri'), celebrated throughout the country include:
3 or 4 February - Setsubun (Bean-Throwing Festival)
3 March - Hina-Matsuri (Doll Festival)
8 April - Hana-Matsuri (Floral Festival)
7 July - Tanabata (Star Festival)
July - O-Bon (Lantern Festival)
15 November - Shichi-Go-San (Children's Shrine-Visiting Day)
For more details and a comprehensive listing of regional festivals throughout the year or during your proposed travel dates, visit the Japan National Tourism Organization website: www.jnto.go.jp/eng/location/festivals/
Food & drink
Japanese cuisine is built around white rice (the word gohan means both ‘rice’ and ‘meal’) or noodles and fresh, seasonal ingredients. Soya beans are a key source of protein (in the shape of tofu, miso, edamame and nattō – a breakfast dish of fermented soya beans; very much an acquired taste). Seafood and seaweed also feature heavily. A meal usually includes a variety of sauces and pickles.
Traditional Japanese noodles are the thin buckwheat soba and thick wheat udon. They are typically served in soup, which costs only a few hundred yen at standing-room-only noodle bars. Chinese egg noodles or rāmen are also popular
Japan’s most famous dishes are sushi, usually raw fish over vinegared rice, and sashimi, plain raw fish. The main types are nigiri – rice with fish pressed on top, maki – fish and rice rolled up in nori seaweed, temaki – fish and rice rolled up in a large cone of nori, gunkan – like nigiri but with nori wrapped around the edge to contain the contents and chirashi – a bowl of vinegared rice with seafood scattered on top. The most commonly prepared seafoods are maguro (tuna), sake (salmon), ika (squid) and tako (octopus). More exotic options include uni (sea urchin roe), toro (fatty tuna belly) and shirako (the seminal fluid of fish such as cod, anglerfish or monkfish). Hokkaidō crab and lobster sashimi are less challenging local delicacies.
If you have an aversion to raw fish but somehow find yourself in a sushi restaurant, alternatives include tamago (egg), inari (rice in a sweet wrap of deep-fried tofu) or kappa maki (sliced cucumber rolled up in rice and wrapped in nori).
Fugu (puffer fish) is considered a delicacy despite being highly poisonous. It can be pricey due to the skill required to prepare it, completely removing the internal organs in which the poison is found. Although you are unlikely to be harmed by it, the Japanese Emperor is traditionally banned from eating this dish.
A more common dish is tempura – light-battered prawn, fish or vegetables quickly deep-fried and served with a dipping broth. Other fishy specialities include unagi (grilled eel), which is reputed to give strength and vitality, and of course kujira (whale), served both raw and cooked, but actually shunned by many Japanese due to its associations with school lunches and wartime scarcity. Many visitors choose not to eat it either, for ethical reasons.
The Japanese hardly ate meat before the Meiji era, but they have picked up the habit and even exported a few new ways to eat it since – notably the fiercely expensive marbled Kobe beef. Other options include yakitori – grilled skewers of chicken, teppanyaki – meat grilled on a hot iron plate, tonkatsu – deep-fried breaded pork cutlets, yakiniku – Japanese-style ‘Korean barbecue’, cooked by yourself at your table, and shabu-shabu – a bubbling pot of light broth in which you cook very thin slices of beef, pork or seafood before dipping in a flavoured sauce, slurping up the soup you made along the way to finish.
Japan is an archipelago of four large and many smaller islands separated from the Asian continent by the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea, and bordered to the east by the Pacific. The four main islands, in size order, are Honshū, Hokkaidō, Kyushu and Shikoku. The coastline is varied, with long stretches of sandy beaches, steep cliffs and a number of peninsulas, inlets and offshore islands.
About three quarters of Japan’s land surface is mountainous. The highest peak is Mount Fuji, on the border of Yamanashi and Shizuoka prefectures at 3,776 metres, followed by Kitadake in Yamanashi and Hotakadake between Nagano and Gifu, each at around 3,190 metres.
There are around 80 active volcanoes, and hot springs abound in areas such as Nikko, Hakone, and the Izu Peninsula. Japan is prone to earthquakes, with about 1,000 registered annually. The devastating quake and tsunami of 2011 killed almost 19,000 people, caused the meltdown of three reactors at the Fukushima nuclear power plant and damaged over a million buildings as well as roads, railways and a major dam.
The many rivers descending from mountainous areas have created valleys, basins and fan-shaped deltas where they flow into the sea. The longest river is the Shinano at 367 km, which winds through Nagano and Niigata and flows into the Sea of Japan. The largest freshwater lake is Lake Biwa, northeast of Kyoto.
The largest area of flatland covering about 13,000 sq km, is the Kanto Plain, which includes Tokyo and parts of Tochigi, Ibaraki, Gunma, Saitama, Chiba and Kanagawa prefectures. Other flatland areas are the Echigo Plain in Niigata Prefecture, the Ishikari Plain on Hokkaidō and the Nobi Plain which crosses Aichi and Gifu.
The lack of habitable land has prompted significant human modification of the terrain. For many centuries, land has been reclaimed from the sea and from river deltas by building dykes and drainage, and rice paddies built on terraces carved into mountainsides. In modern times shorelines have been extended and artificial islands built for industrial and port development, such as Port Island in Kobe and Kansai International Airport in Osaka Bay. Hills and even mountains have been razed to create areas for housing.
Japan has an extensive and efficient public transport network. Rail services are among the best in the world, ranging from small local lines to the shinkansen ‘bullet trains’. Japan Railways is a series of separate private rail systems providing a linked service throughout the country and local services around major cities such as Tokyo and Osaka. Shinkansen lines are totally separate from the regular railway system, and in some cases, such as Osaka, the station is a long distance from the main JR station. JR also operates buses and ferries, and combined tickets are available.
Japan’s network of long-distance buses is little used by visitors. A two-hour shinkansen journey between Tokyo and northern Honshū takes up to 8 hours by bus (or 4 hours by regular express train).
Osaka and Tokyo have mass transit rail systems looping around the city centre and radial lines into the central stations and the subway. Subway systems also operate in Fukuoka, Kōbe, Kyoto, Nagoya, Osaka, Sapporo and Sendai, while Nagasaki, Kumamoto and Kagoshima on Kyūshū, Kōchi and Matsuyama on Shikoku, and Hakodate on Hokkaidō have an extensive network of tramlines.
Driving is relatively easy as the major roads are signposted in English as well as Japanese. Motorway tolls can be paid by credit card or by a discounted prepaid ‘highway card’.
Ferry routes vary from short hops between neighbouring ports and islands to long-distance trips between Okinawa or Hokkaidō and Tokyo, which can work out more costly than the corresponding internal flight.
Outside the big cities, there is a good cycling infrastructure and stunning cycling or hiking routes around Mount Fuji and the lake region and on Hokkaidō.
The rich ecosystem of the Japanese archipelago has fostered human development since the last ice age. The earliest-known pottery found in Japan belongs to the Jōmon period of hunter-gatherers (12,000 to 300 BC). The first written reference to Japan is a brief mention in the Chinese Twenty-Four Histories in the 1st century AD, and the earliest cultural and religious influences came from China.
The first permanent capital was founded in 710 at Nara, which became a centre of Buddhist art, religion and culture, and supported the current imperial family as absolute rulers. The Heian period, lasting from 794 to 1185, is considered the peak of the Japanese imperial court and noted for its art, especially its poetry and literature. The Kokin Wakashū collection of poetry was compiled by four court poets at the beginning of the 10th century, and in the early 11th century Lady Shikibu Murasaki wrote Japan’s oldest surviving novel, The Tale of Genji.
The medieval or ‘feudal’ period of Japanese history, dominated by the powerful regional families (daimyō) and the military rule of warlords (shōgun), stretched from 1185 to around 1600. The emperor remained but only as a figurehead, and the power of merchants was weak. By the mid-16th century political power was subdivided into several hundred domains controlled by local daimyō, each with a formidable force of samurai warriors. When the Shōgun Tokugawa Ieyasu came to power in 1600, he set up his feudal government at Edo (now Tokyo). The Tokugawa period was internally prosperous and peaceful as Japan terminated Christian missions and cut off almost all contact with the outside world.
The 1860s saw the beginning of the Meiji era, when a new national leadership systematically ended feudalism and transformed an isolated, underdeveloped island country into a world power closely following Western models. Japan entered World War I on the Allied side and declared war on the Central Powers. Though its role was limited to seizing German colonial outposts in East Asia and the Pacific, it took advantage of the opportunity to expand its influence in Asia and its territorial holdings in the Pacific. Japan went to the peace conference at Versailles in 1919 as one of the great military and industrial powers of the world and received official recognition as one of the ‘Big Five’ in the new international order.
Having colonised neighbouring Korea and Taiwan, the military moved into China in 1931, declaring all-out war in 1937. Japan controlled the coast and major cities and set up puppet regimes, but was unable to bring China to submission. Its attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941 led to war with the US and its World War II allies. After a series of naval victories by mid-1942, Japan’s military forces were overextended. Even with his navy sunk and the main cities destroyed by air, the Emperor Shōwa (Hirohito) held out until August 1945 when the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and a pending Soviet invasion forced a surrender.
The US occupied Japan until 1952. The Empire was dissolved and Japan was stripped of its overseas possessions: Manchuria and Formosa were returned to China, and Korea was occupied and divided by the US and the Soviet Union. After 1955 the country enjoyed very high economic growth rates, especially in engineering, car manufacture and electronics. But since the 1990s economic stagnation has been a major concern, and spiralling public debt has hampered competitiveness, while the earthquake and tsunami of 2011 caused massive economic disruption and a loss of nuclear power supply. Current prime minister Shinzo Abe, now in his second term in office, is an outspoken populist, pushing for a more assertive foreign policy, a greater role for Japan on the world stage, a law requiring the teaching of patriotism in schools and a referendum on revising the country’s pacifist constitution, at the same time as trying to stabilise the economy.
Japan has a wealth of stores selling everything from traditional souvenirs and local food to the latest electronic gadgets and leading domestic and international fashions. Large cities such as Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka have several shopping districts, often with their own unique character, usually grouped around major train stations and featuring covered arcades and extensive underground malls.
Shinjuku is one of Tokyo's foremost shopping and entertainment districts, Shibuya is the centre of youth fashion, Harajuku combines high fashion with youth trends and counter culture, while Ginza features high-end department stores, boutiques, art galleries and designer brand stores, extending into nearby Yurakucho.
Akihabara is the electronics mecca and centre of Otaku culture with dozens of shops devoted to anime, manga, collectibles and games, the Roppongi district has had a recent facelift with the opening of the Roppongi Hills and Tokyo Midtown complexes which brought in hundreds of new upscale shopping and dining choices, and other spots to be seen flashing the plastic include the Odaiba mall and entertainment centre on a manmade island in Tokyo Bay, and Tokyo Solamachi at the base of the Tokyo Skytree.
Other specialised shopping districts include Jimbocho, north of the Imperial Palace, which has a high concentration of book publishers and book stores, and Ochanomizu (one stop from Akihabara), which is a haven for shoppers looking for musical instruments and sports equipment.
Popular souvenir items such as yukata robes, kokeshi dolls and woodblock prints can be found in large department stores like Takashimaya, typically of good quality and at high prices. Sensoji Temple in Asakusa and the Oriental Bazaar in Harajuku offer a wide selection of souvenirs. For one-stop souvenir shopping, also consider the Kyoto Handicraft Center just north of Heian Shrine.
Japanese service is a matter of great pride, and tips are not generally expected for waiting staff or hotel porters. High-end ryokan and English-speaking tour guides are exceptions, and some restaurants include a 10% service charge.
Where to eat
Most Japanese restaurants have lunchtime teishoku (set menus) typically consisting of a meat or fish dish with a bowl of miso soup, pickles and rice, which can cost as little as ¥600. For the most part, menus will be in Japanese only, although many restaurants have highly detailed plastic models of their meals in their front window, and many menus include pictures you can point at to make your choice.
Restaurants will present you with the bill after the meal, and you are expected to pay at the counter when leaving – so don’t leave payment on the table and walk out.
Another option is the bentō-ya which serves takeout boxes (o-bentō) or the railway station equivalent ekiben (‘station bento’). You will also encounter the ubiquitous karē raisu (curry rice) – a thick, mild, brown paste that Indians or Brits would hardly recognise.
During the summer months, many bars and hotels have restaurants on their rooftops where they serve dishes like fried chicken and french fries and lighter snacks. Japanese fast food restaurants offer decent quality at reasonable prices. Chains to look out for include gyūdon (beef bowl) specialists Yoshinoya, Matsuya, and Sukiya, tendon (tempura and rice) outlet Tenya, MOS Burger, which offers burgers with a twist such as grilled eel between rice buns, and Ootoya, with a good range of home-style Japanese dishes.
If you’re in a rush, convenience stores such as 7-Eleven, Lawson and Family Mart have instant noodles, sandwiches, meat buns, and small prepared meals that can be heated up in a microwave in the store. Supermarkets also have a wide variety of ready-to-eat meals, bentō boxes, sandwiches and snacks. A more traditional option when on the move is the noodle bars near train stations.
In Tokyo in particular, organic or macrobiotic food restaurants known as shizenshoku are increasingly popular, and offer a rare range of vegetarian options. There are also restaurants (often run by temples) offering the purely vegetarian shōjin ryori cuisine developed by Buddhist monks.
The latitudinal spread of Japan supports a wide diversity of flora and fauna. The Nansei and Ogasawara archipelagos in the far south are subtropical, and flora and fauna in this region are similar to those found on the Malay peninsula. Mainland Japan (Honshū, Kyūshū and Shikoku) shows more similarities with Korea and China, while subarctic northern and central Hokkaidō have their own distinct features.
About 130 species of land mammal occur in Japan. The largest are the Ussuri brown bear of Hokkaidō and the Asian black bear in the mountainous areas of Honshū, Kyūshū and Shikoku. Smaller carnivores include the red fox, raccoon dog and Japanese marten. The leopard cat occurs on Tsushima Island while the Iriomote cat is unique to the eponymous island. Grazing mammals include the sika deer, Japanese serow and wild boar. Among Japan's most famous mammals is the Japanese macaque, the world's most northerly monkey.
Marine mammals include the dugong, finless porpoise and Steller’s sea lion.
Over 600 bird species have been recorded in Japan. Endemic birds include the Japanese woodpecker, copper pheasant and green pheasant, Japan’s national bird. Species unique to the smaller islands include the Okinawa rail, Izu thrush and Bonin white-eye. Most of the non-endemic birds are shared with China but a few originate in Siberia or Southeast Asia.
Large numbers of migrant birds pass through Japan in spring and autumn including many waders. In winter, several sites are important for swans, geese and cranes.
Reptiles and amphibians
Japan has 73 species of reptile of which nearly half are endemic. The mamushi and the tiger keelback are the only venomous snakes on the main islands. The deadlier habus are found in the Ryukyu Islands. Sea turtles and sea snakes occur in the warmer waters of the south.
There are over 40 amphibian species including the Japanese giant salamander. The Asiatic salamander family is well represented, including many unique species.
Over 3,000 different types of fish have been recorded in Japanese waters. Important freshwater fish include the ayu, crucian carp and common carp – ancestor of the domestic koi carp – and six species of salmon. Small freshwater fish include the pale chub, Japanese chub and several species of bitterling including the endangered rosy bitterling.
Important among saltwater fish is the red sea bream, mudskippers are found in warmer areas, and the coral reefs of the Ryukyu Islands support many species typical of tropical waters such as parrotfish and anemonefish. The little-known goblin shark and frilled shark have been recorded in deep waters.
Japan has about 300 kinds of butterfly including several milkweed butterflies in the Ryukyus. There are around 190 dragonflies including the primitive Epiophlebia superstes. Other well-known insects in Japan include cicadas, crickets and fireflies. Firefly viewing is a popular tourist attraction in some areas.
Up to 6,000 species of plant occur naturally in Japan. In the subtropical south, mangroves, cycads and tree ferns can be found. In the warm-temperate climate of Kyūshū, Shikoku and southwestern Honshū, the dominant vegetation is broad-leaved evergreen forest including many oaks. The cool-temperate climate of north Honshū and southwest Hokkaidō supports broad-leaved deciduous trees including Japanese beech and oaks like the konara. Conifers are dominant on much of Hokkaidō and in the mountains of central and northern Honshū. In the highest mountains there is a zone of Arctic–alpine plants including the low-growing Siberian dwarf pine.
Conifer plantations have replaced natural forest in many areas. Common trees include the hinoki cypress, Japanese red pine, Japanese black pine and Japanese red cedar, Japan’s tallest conifer which can reach 40 metres.
Bamboo grows abundantly in Japan with around 500 different species including dwarf bamboos known as sasa and taller kinds called take which can reach 20 metres.
Many plants have been introduced to Japan from mainland Asia including rice crop varieties and garden plants such as the chrysanthemum. Since the Meiji Restoration, increasing numbers of plants were introduced from Europe, North America and elsewhere. Native food plants include the water dropwort (Japanese parsley), Japanese wild celery and wasabi.