For a country that lived in self-imposed isolation until 150 years ago, Japan has not hesitated in making up for lost time since the world came calling. Anyone who's eaten sushi or used a Sony Walkman feels they know something about this slinky archipelago of some 6800 volcanic islands tucked away off the far eastern coast of Asia, and yet, from the moment of arrival in this oddly familiar, quintessentially Oriental land it's almost as if you've touched down on another planet.
Japan is a place of ancient gods and customs, but is also the cutting edge of cool modernity. High-speed trains whisk you from one end of the country to another with frightening punctuality. You can catch sight of a farmer tending his paddy field, then turn the corner and find yourself next to a neon-festooned electronic games parlour in the suburb of a sprawling metropolis. One day you could be picking through the fashions in the biggest department store on earth, the next relaxing in an outdoor hot-spring pool, watching cherry blossom or snow flakes fall, depending on the season.
Few other countries have, in the space of mere generations, experienced so much or made such an impact. Industrialized at lightning speed, Japan shed its feudal trappings to become the most powerful and outwardly aggressive country in Asia in a matter of decades. After defeat in World War II, it transformed itself from atom bomb victim to wonder economy, the envy of the globe. Currently facing up to recession and rising unemployment after years of conspicuous consumption, Japan still remains fabulously wealthy and intent on reinvention for the twenty-first century, when, together with South Korea, it will become the first Asian nation to host soccer's World Cup in 2002.
You don't want to wait until then to visit, though. Given the devalued yen and lower prices, Japan is now more attractive than ever to anyone keen to see just what makes this extraordinary country tick. It's never going to be a cheap place to travel, but there's no reason why it should be wildly expensive either. Some of the most atmospheric and traditionally Japanese places to stay and eat are often those that are the best value.
In the cities you'll first be struck by the mass of people. In this mountainous country, one and a half times the size of Britain, the vast majority of the 126 million population live on the crowded coastal plains of the main island of Honshu. The three other main islands, running north to south, are Hokkaido, Shikoku and Kyushu, and all are linked to Honshu by bridges and tunnels that are part of one of Japan's modern wonders - its efficient transport network of trains and highways.
If you're after the latest buzz, the hippest fashions and technologies, and a worldwide selection of food, head for the exciting, overwhelming metropolises of Tokyo and Osaka. The cities are also the best places in which to sample Japan's traditional performance arts, such as Kabuki and No plays, to catch the titanic clash of sumo wrestlers, and track down the wealth of Japanese visual arts in the major museums.
Outside the cities, from the wide open spaces and deep volcanic lakes of Hokkaido, blanketed by snow every winter, to the balmy sub-tropical islands of Okinawa, there's a vast range of other holiday options, including hiking, skiing, scuba diving and surfing. You'll seldom have to travel far to catch sight of a lofty castle, ancient temple or shrine, or locals celebrating at a colourful street festival. The Japanese are inveterate travellers within their own country and there's hardly a town or village, no matter how small or plain, that doesn't boast some unique attraction.
It's not all perfect, though. Experts on focusing on detail (the exquisite wrapping of gifts and the tantalizing presentation of food are just two examples), the Japanese often miss the broader picture. Rampant development and sometimes appalling pollution is difficult to square with a country also renowned for cleanliness and appreciation of nature. Part of the problem is that natural cataclysms, such as earthquakes and typhoons, regularly hit Japan, so few people expect things to last for long anyway. There's also a blindness to the pernicious impact of mass tourism, with ranks of gift shops, ugly hotels and crowds often ruining potentially idyllic spots.
And yet, time and again, Japan redeems itself with unexpectedly beautiful landscapes, charmingly courteous people, and its tangible sense of history and cherished traditions. Most intriguing of all is the opaqueness at the heart of this mysterious "hidden" culture that stems from a blurring of traditional boundaries between East and West - Japan is neither wholly one nor the other.