Capital City: Tokyo
Japan, known as Nihon or Nippon (日本) in Japanese, is an island nation in East Asia.
Autumn colors in Kofu, YamanashiThe Japanese are proud of their four seasons (and an astonishing number of them are firmly convinced that the phenomenon is unique to Japan), but the tourist with a flexible travel schedule should aim for spring or autumn.
Spring is one of the best times of year to be in Japan. The temperatures are warm but not hot, there's not too much rain, and March-April brings the justly famous cherry blossoms (sakura) and is a time of revelry and festivals.
Summer starts with a dreary rainy season (known as tsuyu or baiu) in June and turns into a steambath in July-August, with extreme humidity and the temperature heading as high as 40°C. Avoid, or head to northern Hokkaido or the mountains of Chubu and Tohoku to escape. The upside, though, is a slew of fireworks shows (花火大会 hanabi taikai) and festivals big and small.
Autumn, starting in September, is also an excellent time to be in Japan. Temperatures and humidity become more tolerable, fair days are common and fall colors can be just as impressive as cherry blossoms. However, in early autumn typhoons often hit the southern parts of Japan and bring everything to a standstill.
Winter is a good time to go skiing or hot-spring hopping, but as some buildings lack central heating, it's often miserably cold indoors. Heading south to Okinawa provides some relief. There is usually heavy snow in Hokkaido and northeast Japan due to the cold wind blasts from Siberia. Note that the Pacific coast of Honshu (where most major cities are located) has milder winters than the Sea of Japan coast: it may be snowing in Kyoto while it is cloudy or sprinkling rain in Osaka, an hour away.
As an island nation shut off from the rest of the world for a long time (with mild exceptions from China and Korea), Japan is very homogeneous. Almost 99% of the population is of Japanese ethnicity. The largest minority are Koreans, around 1 million strong, many in their 3rd or 4th generations. There are also sizable populations of Chinese, Filipinos and Brazilians, although many are of Japanese descent. Though largely assimilated, the resident Chinese population maintains a presence in Japan's three Chinatowns in Kobe, Nagasaki and Yokohama. Indigenous ethnic minorities include the Ainu on Hokkaido, gradually driven north during the centuries and now numbering around 50,000 (although the number varies greatly depending on the exact definition used), and the Ryukyuan people of Okinawa.
The Japanese are well known for their politeness. Many Japanese are thrilled to have visitors to their country and are incredibly helpful to lost and bewildered-looking foreigners. Younger Japanese people are often extremely interested in meeting and becoming friends with foreigners as well. Do not be surprised if a Japanese person (usually of the opposite gender) approaches you in a public place and tries to initiate a conversation with you in somewhat coherent English. On the other hand, many are not used to dealing with foreigners (外人 gaijin) and are more reserved and reluctant to communicate.
Visibly foreign visitors remain a rarity in many parts of Japan outside of major cities, and you will likely encounter moments when entering a shop causes the staff to seemingly panic and scurry off into the back. Don't take this as racism: they're just afraid that you'll try to address them in English and they'll be embarrassed because they can't understand or reply. A smile and a Konnichiwa ("Hello") often helps.
As Japan has undergone periods of openness and isolation throughout its history, Japanese culture is if anything unique. While heavy Chinese influences are evident in traditional Japanese culture, it has also retained many native Japanese customs, resulting in a seemingly seamless blend.
There are multitudes of books written on Japan. Some great, some amazingly un-great. A good place to begin is one of the many recommended reading lists such as this one on Amazon or sites like The Crazy Japan Times, Japan Review or Japan Visitor. Some recommended books include:
Untangling My Chopsticks (ISBN 076790852X), by Victoria Abbott Riccardi. Set mainly in Kyoto.
My Mother is a Tractor (ISBN 1412048974), by Nicholas Klar. A former English teacher with a witty and informative take on Japanese society. Written from the depths of the Japanese countryside.
Hitching Rides with Buddha (ISBN 1841957852), by Will Ferguson is about a Canadian English teacher who hitches rides across the country, following the blooming cherry blossoms. At times hilariously funny and deathly serious, it gives a very honest evaluation of all sorts of aspects of Japanese culture.
Culture Shock: Japan (ISBN 1558688528). A part of the 'Culture Shock' series, this is an excellent overview of the culture and lifestyle of the Japanese. A good resource for a long or work-related stay in Japan or even for interaction with Japanese people.