What Was It Like Traveling To Japan 100 Years Ago? A Handbook for Travelers in Japan (1899)

    Ever wish you could travel back in time and see what Japan was really like back in the day? Fortunately, you don’t have to wait for future, continuity-bending technologies – there are ways you can check out Japan of the past without a flux capacitor.

    I recently stumbled upon a travel guide to Japan published in 1903. It provides a glimpse of Japan right at the beginning of the 20th century; post-Meiji Restoration, pre-WWII, and before the postwar “economic miracle.”

    It’s called A Handbook for Travellers in Japan, Including The Whole Empire From Yezo To Formosa, and was written by an Englishman named Basil Hall Chamberlain, F.R.G.S, a man whose name was more British than a corgi wearing the Union Jack being walked by Queen Elizabeth during her Diamond Jubilee.

    What Was Different?

    Sepia-toned photograph of a street going up a hill in a Japanese village

    1903’s Japan was radically different than today. Japan had no electricity, no cars, no Tokyo Tower, let alone Tokyo Skytree. Today, there are 127 million people living in Japan – 100 years ago, there were only 44 million.

    Aside from the obvious stuff (no computers, cars, nightmarish robots), there was a lot that was different in 1903’s Japan.


    Just from the name of the book, you wonder what the hell our pal Chamberlain is talking about when he says "from Yezo to Formosa". Turns out a lot of places in and around Japan have gone through some name changes in the last 100 years.

    It’s partly changes from the Japanese, and partly changes in how the rest of the world romanizes Japanese words. People used to add the letter “Y” to the beginnings of Japanese words that we now think of starting with the letter “E.”

    That’s why you’ll sometimes hear “Edo,” the old name for Tokyo referred to as “Yedo,” and why the Japanese call their money “en,” but the rest of the world calls it “yen.” In this case, “Yezo” is what the Japanese call “Ezo,” an old name for the north part of the country.

    Other times, names just change. People used to call Taiwan “Formosa,” but that changed after WWII.


    One thing I didn’t really expect to change was Japan’s holidays. Turns out which holidays were celebrated and when they were celebrated have changed a whole lot.

    Japanese calendar from an aquarium
    Source: icoro.photos

    The biggest change in Japanese holidays in the last century was probably the “Happy Mondays” system, a effort by the government to consolidate national holidays to Mondays. That way, people get a three day weekend instead of disrupting their normal five day work week.

    Japan has only been working on the Happy Monday system since the late 90s, so the poor schmucks of 1903 had to deal with presumably sad Mondays.


    Before Japan moved over to the metric system, it had its own unique way of measuring things.

    Chart showing equivalents of Japanese ri and chou in English miles

    A Handbook For Travellers In Japan helps out the hapless traveler by providing conversion charts for cho 町 and ri 里, measurements of length, to proper English imperial measurements.


    Nowadays, you wouldn’t bat an eye at US companies like McDonald’s, KFC, and Pizza Hut opening up franchises in Japan. Western foods have had a big presence in Japan for a lot of the postwar era. Going back further than that is a different story:

    Except at some of the larger towns and favourite bill or sea-side resorts, meat, bread, and other forms of European food are unknown.

    Promotional image for Japanese Pizza Hut showing a pizza with corn, sausage, ground meat, mayonaise, and other toppings

    It’s amazing to think of what that would be like – imagine only being able to get western-style foods in the big cities! You would certainly get more of a chance to try out uniquely Japanese foods, but would miss out on culinary delights like Salty Watermelon Pepsi and weird Pizza Hut Japan creations.

    What Is The Same?

    When I first found this guide, I expected Japan to be completely unrecognizable to me; and given, there has been a lot that has changed. Strangely enough though, a lot of things in Japan today are more or less exactly the same as they 100 years ago.

    I guess, as the saying goes: “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”


    100 years ago, the Japanese really weren’t used to the types of western food that are so common now, but you can be sure that the beer was more or less the same.

    Check out Chamberlain’s beer suggestions for 1903 Japan:

    . . . beer is to be met with in most towns, the Kirin Beer brewed at Yokohama being excellent, as are the Ebisu Beer of Tokyo and the Asahi Beer of Osaka. Beware of spurious imitations.

    Each of these breweries is still going strong today, 100 years later. Sure, Japanese beer today might be lighter (and drier) than it was back then, but you still get it from the same companies.

    Vintage Kirin beer label with no color and old-fashioned text
    Source: Photo by C. Jacob Paulk

    Maybe this shouldn’t be too surprising – both Budweiser and Coors, two of the biggest American breweries, have been around since the 1800s, and other Japanese companies have been around for hundreds more years than these breweries (the soy sauce company Yamasa has been around since 1645).

    Foreigners Hating On Foreigners

    Sometimes people get worried about standing out in Japan as a foreigner and being unfairly targeted by Japanese people because of it. Most of the time though, it’s foreigners who are the most judgmental of other foreigners in Japan.

    Foreigners in Japan have been known to construct a hierarchy for themselves, accusing other foreigners of coming to Japan for the wrong reasons, acting incorrectly in the country, or having a bad attitude about Japan. A Handbook For Travellers In Japan shows us that foreigners have squabbled about these kinds of things for a long time:

    Many travellers irritate the Japanese by talking and acting as if they thought Japan and her customs a sort of peep-show set up for foreigners to gape at.

    Soccer argument between two caucasian players
    Source: Anders Vindegg

    You could argue that this just meant that Japan was full of stupid foreigners, or that people thought that Japan was a weird place, but I think it goes beyond that.

    The implication here is that a lot of travelers bother Japanese people, but not the author. Chamberlain seemed to think that he, unlike other foreigners, blended in to Japanese society, but everybody else bugged the hell out of Japanese people.

    I’m sure there’s certainly a grain of truth to Chamberlain’s accusations, especially since this was still during an era of colonialism and imperialism; but I do wonder how critical the author is of himself.


    The Japanese language has gone through a lot of changes in the last hundred years. The written language has changed a lot, and there’s a lot of words that have been added and changed around.

    But at its heart, Japanese is still very much the same. A Handbook For Travellers In Japan has a whole section for useful phrases and words in Japanese that could have been taken out of any Japanese phrasebook published today:

    Yellowed page with the heading ‘Useful Sentences’. Sentences include ‘Konnichi wa’ and ‘Ohayou'

    Sure, the translations might be different now, but it’s kind of cool to think you could time travel back to the turn of the 20th century and still do pretty okay with the Japanese knowledge you have today.

    Touristy Parts Of Japan

    Most of the tourist destinations in Japan are the same today as they were in 1903. Chamberlain’s guide maps out different routes for travelers, all going to popular cities like Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto.

    This isn’t all that shocking, because a lot of what draws people to these places – temples and shrines – are still around, and their historical significance are just the same as ever.

    Yellowed map of Nikko in Tochigi

    I was kind of surprised when I saw this map of Nikko – I’ve actually stayed in the Kanaya hotel at the bottom of the map. I guess that’s just one more testament to how little some things in Japan have changed.

    Since it’s well in the public domain, you can browse through the entirety of A Handbook For Travellers In Japan for free on the Open Library. Take a look at it and let me know if you find any other interesting, strange, or funny differences or similarities between the Japan of 1903 and the Japan of today. You might just be amazed at what you find!