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Gap Year In Japan

In this land of diversity, there is plenty for Gap year travellers to discover. From ancient temples and castles, to bustling cities and serene countryside, you'll be amazed at what you can explore.

Why visit Japan during a Gap year? 

One aspect of Japan which people find fascinating is the contrast between images of antiquity and modernity.

Visions of paper houses, ancient scribes creating a mysterious script, warriors in armour, posited against the bullet train, a space program and advanced consumer electronics.

All countries have a past and a present of course, but the images may be stronger because of Japan’s two centuries of isolation and its rapid development upon emergence towards the end of the nineteenth century.

In 1639 the ruling Tokugawa Shogunate cut links with wider world, other than limited trade through the port of Nagasaki.

In 1853 Commodore Perry of the United States Navy used gunboat diplomacy to force the opening up of Japan’s economy to international trade.

This intervention hastened the end of the rule of Shoguns and the re-emergence of imperial rule through the Meiji Restoration in 1868.

From there Japan embraced capitalism and, regrettably militarism, and became a modern developed nation.

Japan consists of four main islands: Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu and Shikoku.

It has a population of over one hundred and twenty six million; in terms of area, it is only slightly larger than Germany.

This is a land of many attractions and challenges for the visitor.

Where to go and what to see on your Japan Gap year

Tokyo is a crowded, bustling sea of modernity with sites of ancient Japan and areas of peace and tranquillity.

The Hama-Rikyu Onshi Teien Garden situated around the mouth of the Sumida-gawa River includes a tidal pond where you can contemplate the ebb and flow of change.

Edo Castle the residence of the Tokugawa shoguns [as above] is open to the public, as is the Imperial Palace East Garden which contains the only remaining Edo style garden (Edo is the government of the Tokugawa Shogunate).

A visit to the Tokyo National Museum would give you the opportunity to investigate some aspects of Japanese culture.

Within there are displays covering the two traditional forms of theatre: Noh and Kabuki.

In the former, actors wear masks to represent their characters, productions are basic in terms of their scenery and effects, and usually there is musical accompaniment.

Noh has been referred to as ‘Japanese opera’, but this is rather misleading as the music provides more of a rhythm to the play.

The format may consist of two Noh plays with a short comic piece called a Kyogen in between. 

Noh plays are often performed at a Buddhist or Shinto shrine rather than in a theatre.

In Kabuki the actors use makeup and productions are more elaborate. Plays are usually staged in a theatre; the most well known is the Kabukiza.

Alternative Tokyo theatres include the Shinbashi Enbujo.

This insight in to Japanese theatre might entice you to attend a Noh or Kabuki play. The language may be a barrier, but I don’t think that you will regret or forget the experience.

In the National Museum there are displays and information on the Japanese Tea Ceremony.

In fact on the tea ceremonies as there are several variations of teas and duration. The ceremonies have religious and cultural significance and provide an important backdrop to life in Japan.

There are tea houses known as Chashitsu located close to temples and museums and within some of the public parks.

The museum has information and displays on another Japanese icon, the Samurai.

Originally the name was given to a class of bureaucrats under the Taiho Code of AD702; however their role developed in to a powerful warrior class through the internal wars and external threats of Japanese history.

By the time we reach the Tokugawa Era their military role had decreased, but they retained the right to bear arms in public, and to execute any disrespectful commoner they came across.

The intervention of Commodore Perry and the creation of emperors under the Meiji Restoration lead to, amongst other things the creation of a national army, the Shizoku.

Some Samurai joined the army or went back to bureaucracy; in any event they lost the right to carry their swords, the Katana and the Wakizashi in public, and commoners were safe from summary justice or injustice. As a class the Samurai disappeared.

The museum has a display of Samurai weapons – a mark of the Samurai was the bearing of the Katana and Wakizashi known as Daisho which can be translated as ‘big, little’; which is odd because the swords were often the same size.

The end of Japanese isolation saw the wider world exposed to the cultural artefacts of a closed nation.

Japanese art had a profound influence of many artists and artistic movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and continues today in Manga and Anime.

The main European artistic movement of the nineteenth century, Impressionism, drew inspiration from the work of Japanese artists (this influence was even given a French name –Japonisme). In particular Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), whose ukiyo-e wood block prints including The Great Wave and Thirty Six Views of Mount Fiji are icons of Japanese art.

You can see examples of western and Japanese art at the numerous galleries in Tokyo including: the National Museum of Modern Art, the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, Bridgestone Museum of Art and the Sompo Museum of Art.

Websites are accessible via http://gojapan.about.com and other sites.

In 1814 Hokusai produced a series of prints called Hokusai Manga, showing that manga has a longer history than its recent popularity might suggest.

However, although the style of Hokusai might be early manga the prints are self-contained and do not tell a story.

Exhibitions of the genre are common in Tokyo and at Akihabara there is the Tokyo Anime Centre (www.animecenter.jp)

Manga translates as cartoon or whimsical drawing (though some are none too whimsical). Anime is animation; a Japanese style of animation which, like the elephant is hard to describe, but you know it when you see it.

This has become an immensely popular art form throughout the world, recognised in 2002 with its first Oscar for the film ‘Spirited Away’, by manga artist and film director Hayao Miyazaki.

Hopefully a visit to Japan will assist in understanding the culture and the history behind the culture that produced the art and artefacts mentioned above.

Before you go

The Japanese script is impenetrable to the untrained eye which can make identifying place names and facilities rather difficult.

Taking time to learn some basic phrases is something all visitors should give time to; however in many cases it is not going to bridge the communication gap.

Carrying round a notebook in which you have pasted pictures of places and facilities you may need is a way around this. Stopping a passerby and pointed at the appropriate picture may get you the information you need.

Learning English is part of the educational curriculum so more people than you think may understand what you are trying to say.

Hiring an English speaking guide is way of getting the most out of a visit to a particular area.

A visa is currently not required for a visit to Japan for the purpose of tourism so long as the visit is for less than ninety days.

As always, information is subject to change, therefore check the current situation at the planning stage.

Further information

For more advice on a gap year in Asia, please see: