Cherry Blossom © naitokz
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, about 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.