Cherry Blossom © naitokz
Japan is an isolated archipelago 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 marginal contact through the southern Kyushu island ports.
Since reopening up its doors around 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, traditional Japanese culture is alive and well, making a visit to Japan a fascinating experience.
The modern metropolises are dotted with numerous ancient shrines and temples, while 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 huge 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.
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