Separated from mainland China and Korea by the Sea of Japan, the nation of Japan stretches in an arc about 2,900km (1,800 miles) long from northeast to southwest, yet it is only 403km (250 miles) wide at its broadest point. Japan consists primarily of four main islands -- Honshu, Hokkaido, Shikoku, and Kyushu. Surrounding these large islands are more than 6,000 smaller, mostly uninhabited islands and islets. Far to the southwest are the Okinawan islands, perhaps best known for the fierce fighting that took place there during World War II and for their continued (and controversial) use as an American military base. If you were to superimpose Japan's four main islands onto a map of the United States, they would stretch all the way from Boston to Atlanta, which should give you an idea of the diversity of Japan's climate, flora, and scenery -- Hokkaido in the north is subarctic, while Kyushu is subtropical. Honshu, Japan's most populous island and home to Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka, is connected to the other three islands by tunnel or bridge, which means you can travel to all four islands by train.
As much as 70% of Japan consists of mountains. They are found on all four main islands and most are volcanic in origin. Altogether, there are some 265 volcanoes, more than 30 of them still considered active. Mount Fuji (on Honshu), dormant since 1707, is Japan's highest and most famous volcano, while Mount Aso (on Kyushu) boasts the largest caldera in the world. Because of its volcanic origins, earthquakes have plagued Japan throughout its history. In the 20th century, the two most destructive earthquakes were the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, which killed more than 100,000 people in the Tokyo area, and the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake, which claimed more than 6,000 lives in Kobe.
Japan is divided into 47 regional divisions, or prefectures. Each prefecture has its own prefectural capital and is comparable to the U.S. state or the British county, though prefectures vary greatly in size (greater Tokyo is one prefecture; all of Hokkaido is another). Japan's total landmass is slightly smaller than California in area, yet Japan has 41% the population of the United States. And because three-fourths of Japan is mountainous and therefore uninhabitable, its people are concentrated primarily in only 10% of the country's landmass, with the rest of the area devoted to agriculture. In other words, imagine 41% of the U.S. population living in California -- primarily in San Diego County -- and you get an idea of how crowded Japan is. For this island nation -- isolated physically from the rest of the world, struck repeatedly through the centuries by earthquakes, fires, and typhoons, and possessed of only limited space for harmonious living -- geography and topography have played major roles both in determining its development and in shaping its culture, customs, and arts.
Of the four main islands, Honshu is the largest and most populated. Because it's also the most important historically and culturally, it's where most visitors spend the bulk of their time.
Kanto District -- Located in east-central Honshu and comprising metropolitan Tokyo and six prefectures, this district is characterized by the Kanto Plain, the largest flatland in Japan. Although development of the district didn't begin in earnest until the establishment of the shogunate government in Edo (present-day Tokyo) in 1603, Tokyo and surrounding giants such as Yokohama make this the most densely populated region in Japan.
Kansai District -- Also called the Kinki District and encompassing seven prefectures, this is Japan's most historic region. Nara and Kyoto -- two of Japan's ancient capitals -- are here, as are two of Japan's most important port cities, Kobe and Osaka. Since the 1994 opening of Kansai International Airport outside Osaka, many foreign visitors opt to bypass Tokyo altogether in favor of Kansai's many historic spots, including Mount Koya with its many temples, Himeji with what I consider to be Japan's most beautiful castle, Ise-Shima National Park with Japan's most revered Shinto shrine, Nara with its Great Buddha and temples, and, of course, Kyoto, the former capital for more than 1,000 years with so many temples, imperial villas, and gardens that it ranks as Japan's foremost tourist destination.
Chubu District -- The Chubu District lies between Tokyo and Kyoto and straddles central Honshu from the Pacific Ocean to the Japan Sea, encompassing nine prefectures. Nagoya, Japan's fourth-largest city and home to an international airport nicknamed Centrair, is Chubu's most important city and a gateway to its other destinations. The district features mountain ranges (including the Japan Alps), volcanoes (including Mount Fuji), large rivers, and coastal regions on both sides of the island. It's popular for skiing and hiking, for quaint mountain villages such as Takayama and Shirakawa-go, and for tourist attractions that include the open-air Museum Meiji Mura (near Nagoya), the castle in Matsumoto, and Kenrokuen Garden in Kanazawa, considered one of Japan's finest.
The Japan Alps -- Spreading over central Honshu in the Chubu District, the Japan Alps are among Japan's most famous mountain ranges, especially since hosting the 1998 XVIII Winter Olympics in Nagano. Chubu-Sangaku National Park (also called the Japan Alps National Park) contains some of the nation's most beautiful mountain scenery and the country's best skiing, while destinations like Takayama and Shirakawa-go boast quaint historic districts and thatched-roof farmhouses.
Ise-Shima -- Shima Peninsula, in Mie Prefecture, juts into the Seto Inland Sea and is famous for Ise-Shima National Park, noted for its coastal scenery and Ise Jingu Shrines. Toba, birthplace of the cultured pearl, is popular for its Mikimoto Pearl Island and the Toba Aquarium. Shima Peninsula also boasts two theme parks, one fashioned after Japan's Warring States Era and the other an amusement park with a Spanish theme.
Chugoku District -- Honshu's western district has five prefectures and is divided by the Chugoku Mountain Range. Industrial giants such as Hiroshima and Okayama lead as the major cities, drawing tourists with reconstructed castles, Korakuen Garden, and the sobering Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima, dedicated to victims of the world's first atomic bomb. Kurashiki is a must for its photogenic, historic warehouse district, while Miyajima, part of the Seto-Naikai (Inland Sea) National Park, is considered one of Japan's most beautiful islands.
Tohoku District -- Northeastern Honshu, with Sendai as its regional center, encompasses six prefectures. Known as the Tohoku District, it isn't nearly as developed as the central and southern districts of Honshu, due in large part to its rugged, mountainous terrain and harsh climate. Matsushima, about halfway up the coast between Tokyo and the northern tip of Honshu, is the district's major tourist destination; with its pine-clad islets dotting the bay, it's considered one of Japan's most scenic spots. Kakunodate, located inland, is a former castle town offering preserved samurai houses and, during cherry-blossom season, a stunning show of pink flowers to travelers willing to take a road less traveled. Towada-Hachimantai National Park, which extends over three prefectures, boasts scenic lakes, rustic hot-spring spas, hiking, and skiing.
Japan's second-largest island, Hokkaido lies to the north of Honshu and is regarded as the country's last frontier with its wide-open pastures, evergreen forests, mountains, gorges, crystal-clear lakes, and wildlife, much of it preserved in national parks. Originally occupied by the indigenous Ainu, it was colonized by Japanese settlers mostly after the Meiji Restoration in 1868. Today it's home to 5.7 million people, 1.9 million of whom live in Sapporo. With a landmass that accounts for 22% of Japan's total area, Hokkaido has the nation's lowest population density: about 4.5% of the total population. That, together with the island's cold, severe winters but mild summers, and its unspoiled natural beauty make this island a nature lover's paradise.
Shikoku, the smallest of the four main islands, is off the beaten path for many foreign visitors. It's famous for its 88 Buddhist temples founded by one of Japan's most interesting historical figures, the Buddhist priest Kukai, known posthumously as Kobo Daishi. Other major attractions are Ritsurin Park in Takamatsu, Matsuyama Castle in Matsuyama, and Dogo Spa, one of Japan's oldest hot-spring spas. For active travelers, the Shimanami Kaido route offers 70 scenic km (43 miles) of dedicated biking trails that connect Shikoku with Hiroshima Prefecture via six islands and a series of bridges in the Seto Inland Sea.
The southernmost of the four main islands, Kyushu boasts a mild subtropical climate, active volcanoes, and hot-spring spas. Because it's the closest major island to Korea and China, Kyushu served as a gateway to the continental mainland throughout much of Japan's history, later becoming the springboard for both traders and Christian missionaries from the West. Fukuoka, Kyushu's largest city, serves as the rail gateway from Honshu, dispersing travelers to hot springs in Beppu, Unzen, and Ibusuki and to such major attractions as Kumamoto Castle in Kumamoto and Sengan-en Garden in Kagoshima. Nagasaki, victim of the world's second atomic bomb, is one of Japan's most cosmopolitan cities.
Okinawa is comprised of 160 islands stretching 400km (248 miles) north to south and 1,000km (620 miles) east to west. Part of the Ryukyu Island chain, Okinawa developed its own languages, culture, cuisine, and architecture under the Ryukyu Kingdom, which traded extensively with both Japan and China before being annexed to Japan after the 1868 Meiji Restoration. Okinawa Island, the largest Ryukyu island, is home to Naha (Okinawa Prefecture's capital), large U.S. military bases, war memorials, and natural attractions, including white sandy beaches and coral reefs popular with divers and snorkelers. Other popular destinations include the laid-back, mostly rural Kume Island and Iriomote Island, 80% of it protected in state and national parks and boasting dense forests, mangroves, and pristine beaches.
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