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Japan is considered a land of extremes. But then again, it always has been. Japan is a pioneer in advanced technology, yet it keeps a tenacious grip on its past and traditions.

Visitors may feel as if they've strayed into a land of startling contrasts - urban noise interrupted by the serenity of a centuries-old temple, heated toilets in villages where sewer systems are more than 300 years old.

The same dichotomy applies to the Japanese attitude towards foreigners especially Westerners. On the streets, the locals may stare and point, calling you "gaijin," meaning "outside person," and never dare to approach you. But the Japanese courtesy will always be generous, even if the locals are shy.

When visiting Japan, discard your preconceptions, keep an open mind and enjoy the surprises. But first, get a guidebook and don't be afraid to visit the tourist offices. Most are located in the big cities.

BRIEF HISTORY

The first recorded signs of civilization in Japan date back to 10,000 B.C., the beginning of the Jomon period, when hunters and gatherers inhabited the country. This period was gradually superseded by the Yayoi period (300 B.C. to 300 A.D.) when rice cultivation, metalworking and pottery were introduced from China and Korea, and local settlements began to form political units.

During the Kofun or Yamato period (300-710), settlements banded together, and a loosely unified nation emerged under Yamato leaders, establishing an imperial dynasty. Prince Shotoku began to shape the Japanese government, pushing for a centralized state under a single ruler. He established Buddhism as the state religion.

The Nara period (710-794) began with the imperial court's establishment of Japan's first capital in Nara. The capital was then moved to Kyoto, launching the Heian period (794-1195), during which aristocratic families dominated and a native culture blossomed.

From the Kamakura period (1185-1333) to the end of the Edo period (1600-1867), Japan was ruled by "samurai," the warrior class. In between these periods, Japan was torn by civil warfare as samurai lords, "shoguns," clashed in bitter territorial disputes. But peace and national unity returned in Japan during the Momoyama period (1576-1600), and a government was set up in Edo (now Tokyo), starting the Edo period.

After centuries of bloodshed and social upheaval as warlords battled for control, Japan was shut tight during the Edo period under a policy of "sakoku" or "national seclusion". In 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry and his squadron of "black ships" demanded that Japan open its doors to trade. Other countries followed Commodore Perry's suit, and in 1868 the doors to Japan were flung open, and the country emerged from isolation.

World War II left Japan's economy in ruin, yet the country bounced back to become an economic superpower. Japan became the world's most successful export economy, dominating in electronics, robotics, computer technology, car production and banking. But the economic giant faltered in the 1990s as its economic growth slowed to a standstill. Now, at the beginning of the millenium, Japan is still trying to regain the superior economic status it once enjoyed.

GEOGRAPHY
Japan consists of a chain of islands, stretching from about 25 degrees north latitude (comparable to Miami or Cairo) to 45 degrees north (comparable to Montreal or Milan). The four major islands of Japan are: Honshu (the largest), Kyushu (the southernmost), Hokkaido (the northernmost) and Shikoku (the smallest). Eighty percent of Japan is mountainous.
CLIMATE

The combination of mountainous terrain and the length of the archipelago makes for a complex climate in Japan. The climate of northernmost island, Hokkaido, which has short summers and long winters with heavy snowfalls, contrasts sharply with the southern islands, which enjoy subtropical weather. Winters and summers in Japan reflect the country's reputation as the land of extremes.

In the winter months (December to January), expect heavy snowfall not only in the North but also in the West. The eastern side of Japan receives less snow. Nonetheless, pack your heavy winter gear if visiting Tokyo in January because the cold can be harsh.

The summer months (June to August) can be just as extreme due to high temperatures and humidity in most of Japan. Expect heavy rain. The designated rain season lasts only a few weeks at the start of the summer, but as the summer wanes, the rains pick up, producing torrential downpours and powerful winds, especially on the coasts.

In contrast to the extremes of summer and winter, spring and fall are comparatively mild with usually clear skies, which explains why tourists are advised to visit during spring or fall. Additionally, the spring cherry blossom season is a good draw.

MONEY

Avoid converting Japanese yen (¥) into your country's currency. Otherwise, you'll realize how expensive it is to travel in Japan. A bare-bones daily budget, including accomodations, food and short-distance travel, can run you about ¥12,000 (about $100). Check exchange rates before visiting.

Always carry cash. The use of credit cards is becoming more widespread in Japan, but outside of the major cities, cash reigns supreme. Be advised, finding a bank or ATM machine that allows cash advances on your credit card can be challenging.

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