The islands of Japan stretch down the Asian mainland


The islands of Japan stretch down the Asian mainland from latitude 45° to 25°, almost exactly the same as the east coast of the USA. The distance from the tip of Hokkaido in the north to Okinawa in the far south is about the same as from Halifax to Miami. 

It is equivalent to going from Bordeaux to the Canary Islands. In winter, icebergs come down from the Bering Straits and the sea freezes in northern Hokkaido. In Okinawa (off the map to the south-west) the weather is still hot and balmy. The main island of Honshu has the sort of weather normally associated with continental climates. Snow is not unusual in Tokyo in winter and uncomfortably hot conditions are the norm in summer. The history of Japan has similarities with Europe. Just as Europeans derived much of their culture from Rome so the Japanese took a lot of theirs from the Chinese. 

This shows in the written language. Japanese is totally different from Chinese. As a consequence, Chinese characters have to be supplemented by a syllabary (sort of alphabet) when used to write Japanese. The result is a complicated mess that has become even messier with the use of the Roman (ABC) alphabet in recent years. Written Japanese is a language in itself and this is a major obstacle to reform. The Chinese characters often convey subtle meanings which cannot be expressed in words. Reading Japanese is (even for Japanese) a bit like doing a translation job. More than one reading is possible.

Japan sits on the Pacific Rim of Fire and owes its very existence to volcanoes. It is situated slightly to the west of the junction of the Asian tectonic plate and the Pacific plate. The latter dips down as it makes its way northwards and pushes under the Asian plate. A lot of melting takes place when this happens and lava forces its way to the surface. Japan is mainly mountains. To borrow a phrase from Mark Twain: Japan would be a mighty big country if it were ironed flat. No matter where you go, you will find volcanoes. They stick up along the spine of the country and have created a mountainous landscape with few flat areas suitable for habitation. 

Japan is an immensely crowded country in some places and sparsely populated in others. As you travel around, you will see small paddy fields kept alive by government subsidies. Elsewhere, highly efficient market gardens are using the latest technologies to produce fruit and vegetables. Ancient shrines and temples dot the countryside. The "English garden" with flowers is becoming more common but many people stick to the traditional garden of shrubs and manicured trees. Forests cover the mountains.

 Many are plantations. Others are natural. The display of autumn colours is spectacular and city folk flock out to admire it. The mountain roads are often very crowded at that time of year. A few old castles survive from the past. Where they have been destroyed, concrete replicas are often built and used as museums. Modern urban life is vibrant in Japan. You will find museums, art galleries and workshops specialising in arts and crafts. Dining out is an everyday experience for many inner city folk and whole areas of the larger towns are given over to restaurants. The youth culture is alive and well. Japanese girls love to dress up and parade with their friends. Fashions change from week to week.

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