As you can see in the above map (gotten from Google Maps), Japan is much more than a single island. In fact, Japan is spread across five large islands and thousands of smaller ones (though most aren’t inhabited). Today we’re going to take a quick look at each of the five large islands and what they’re known for.
Honshu is Japan’s main island. It’s also the largest, stretching 810 miles from North to South. All of Japan’s most famous locations such as Tokyo, Kyoto, Nara, and the Japanese Alps can be found there. Because it’s so long, the weather can vary considerably depending on where you are. The Japanese Alps (for example) have many famous ski areas and were the site of the 1998 Winter Olympics. Meanwhile, Tokyo tends to stay in the low forties to mid-fifties on winter days and hardly ever receives any snow.
Because Honshu is such a large and diverse place, and home to most of Japan’s international airports, it’s also the only island that most tourists ever see. And while there’s no end to interesting places to visit there, the other islands shouldn’t be sold short either.
Situated in the far North, Hokkaido has one thing that much of the rest of Japan lacks. Lots of empty space. Famous for its national parks, hiking, and skiing, Hokkaido is the place to go if you want to get back to nature and avoid the hustle and bustle of the big cities and popular tourist sites on Tohoku. Though, the lack of development means that its train system is far less extensive than that on most of the other islands, so you may need a car to see many of its sites.
Hokkaido is also home to the Ainu, and indigenous non-Japanese group who bare many similarities to the American Indians or Eskimos. While the Ainu population has shrunk considerably since the Japanese started seriously colonizing Hokkaido in 1300’s, there are still places to go to see Ainu villages and purchases traditional Ainu crafts.
Shikoku is set off Japan’s East coast down near Hiroshima. Although it’s a separate island, there are numerous bridges connecting it to Tohoku so you can get there not only by plane but by train, car, bus, and even bike as well.
While there are many things to see on Shikoku, including one of Japan’s best known onsen (hot springs), it’s most famous for its 88 Buddhist temples associated with the priest Kukai. Devout believers will expound the benefits of making a pilgrimage to visit every single one (which, thanks to the modern train system) only takes about two weeks instead of the two months that it used to. Non-Buddhists, however, are better off just stopping at a couple of the most famous ones and then moving on to the region’s other attractions.
Kyushu is to the South between Honshu and Okinawa. It played an important role in history as the small island port of Dejima off of Nagasaki is the only place in which foreigners were allowed to dock and stay during Japan’s period of isolation, which lasted from 1635 - 1853. When Perry forced Japan to open its door to foreign trade, the area quickly grew into a prosperous entryway for merchants and visitors alike. As such, it’s one of the most Westernized parts of Japan and features far more Western style buildings than you’ll see in any other part of the country.
Okinawa is the name of not only an island (which is admittedly a bit too small to call one of Japan’s “large” islands) but an entire island chain in the extreme South of Japan. It’s semi-tropical and, as such, is the beach resort of choice for Japanese travelers who can’t make it all the way to Hawaii on their vacation. It’s also the home of the U.S. military base (built there after World War II) so you’ll find a bit more English than in other parts of Japan. However, some of the locals still harbor resentment towards Americans over the base, so its presence isn’t entirely beneficial to travelers.
Okinawa was actually its own kingdom before the Japanese took over in 1609 so the food, culture, and life style is all a bit different than you’ll find elsewhere in Japan. Like Hawaii, Okinawa tends to be slower paced and more relaxed that much of the rest of the country. It’s also home to some excellent diving and snorkeling locations and a variety of rare plants and animals.
So that, in a nutshell, is the main Japanese islands. While I would recommend that first time visitors stick to Honshu due to its ease of access and many famous destinations, anyone making a return visit would do well to do a bit of research on the other islands and see if one of them might make for an appealing trip.