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Japan is actually made up of an impressive 6,852 islands in total. It extends over 1,900 miles and is the fourth largest island country in the world, with a population of more than 126 million. 430 of its islands are inhabited, but it’s the four largest islands which around 98% of the Japanese population call home.
Hokkaido is the northernmost main island, with Honshu, the largest of the islands (also known as the mainland), just south of it. Then you have Kyushu and Shikoku as you move further south. Here we’ll take a look at each of the four islands and what unique things they have to offer. From the unspoilt national parks to the hustle and bustle of the illuminated cities. There’s an island to suit everyone, whatever you’re looking for from your next holiday.
Hokkaido is the second largest, and least developed of Japan’s four main islands. It’s covered with snow and surrounded by sea ice in the winter. Some houses even have a second entrance upstairs, just in case it snows too much! But it’s these conditions that see skiers flocking from all over the world, with some ski areas receiving up to 20 metres of snow each year.
Is considered the powder capital of the world and as such, is the most popular international ski destination in Japan. It’s not unusual for snow to fall constantly from December to February, so there’s always a scattering of fresh snow. You can also ski after dark so you can enjoy the fresh tracks under floodlights. Other famous ski resorts in Hokkaido include Rusutsu, Furano, Tomamu, Sahoro and Kiroro.
Summer in Hokkaido is a little different. Whilst temperatures are pleasant at around 20ºC, it doesn’t get as hot and humid as other parts of the country. Perfect for those who want to explore the island’s natural beauty without melting in the heat.
Is the capital of Hokkaido, and Japan’s fifth largest city. Its population has grown dramatically to just under two million, from just seven people in 1857. Sapporo became famous when it played host to the Winter Olympics in 1972, and visitors still flock for its annual Snow Festival in February, and its world-famous ramen and beer.
Is Hokkaido’s most famous hot spring resort. In volcanic crater Jigokudani (Hell Valley), steam rises from the mountains and hot water bubbles up from the Tessen Ike geyser. Its city centre is decorated by stone demon statues, and trails run between the oaks in the Noboribetsu Primeval Forest. Guided day tours are available so you can see some of Hokkaido’s most spectacular attractions in all its glory.
Furano and Biei
Are towns in central Hokkaido, known for their picturesque rural landscapes. Visit in July when the beautiful lavender fields are in full bloom. Or in winter if you want to go skiing.
Is a town just west of Cape Shirakami, Hokkaido’s southernmost point. The former home of the Matsumae Han, it has an Edo period castle, Matsumae Castle, which is the only one in Hokkaido.
Honshu is the largest and most populous island in Japan. Known as the mainland, it’s home to most of the country’s major cities and cultural sites, including its capital, Tokyo. It has a humid subtropical climate, with warm and wet summers and mild winters. Most of Japan’s tea and silk comes from Honshu, and Yamanashi is a major fruit-growing area, with Aomori being famous for its apples.
Is the highest volcano in Japan at 3,776m, and the seventh highest island peak in the world. Its symmetrical cone is snow-capped for around five months of the year, and it became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2013. It is one of Japan’s “Three Holy Mountains” along with Mount Tate and Mount Haku.
Stay at the Fuji Mountain Resort Hotel for a good base to explore the area. The hotel is around 2 miles from Lake Kawaguchi Ohashi Bridge, 2.3 miles from Fujiomuro Sengen Shrine and 3.7 miles from Kawaguchi Asama Shrine.
Is a Zen Buddhist temple in Kyoto. Formally known as Rokuonji, the temple was the retirement villa of the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, and its top two floors are completely covered in gold leaf. It has burned down numerous times throughout its history, and the present structure was rebuilt in 1955. But it is still one of the most popular buildings in Japan.
Is a broadcasting and observation tower standing at 634 metres, making it the tallest tower in the world. There are two observation decks which offer spectacular views over Tokyo. Skip the queue and get your tickets before you go.
Is one of Japan’s most famous landmarks, and it played a major role in the unification of Japan during the sixteenth century. Its main castle tower was struck by lightning in 1665 and burnt down, and it wasn’t rebuilt until 1931. It’s now home to a museum about the castle’s history.
Is Kyoto’s most famous geisha district. It’s filled with shops, restaurants and tea houses (ochaya), where geisha entertain. It attracts tourists worldwide with its traditional wooden machiya merchant houses, which are only five to six metres wide.
Miyagawacho is the perfect area to stay in Kyoto for spotting geisha without the crowds of Gion. The 3-star Rinn Miyagawacho Grande is well located. It’s set 0.8 miles from Samurai Kembu Kyoto, 1 miles from Sanjusangen-do Temple and 1.1 miles from Kiyomizu-dera Temple.
Kyushu, the southwesternmost of Japan’s main islands. An early centre of Japanese civilization, it offers many historic treasures, modern cities and natural beauty. It has a subtropical climate, and it’s known for its beaches, natural hot springs and active volcanoes.
Is Kyushu’s largest and one of Japan’s ten most populated cities. It’s home to museums, mega-malls and Kushida-jinja, an 8th-century Shinto shrine. The annual Hakata Gion Yamakasa festival is centred on the shrine.
Is a coastal city, known for its castle, the annual Karatsu Kunchi festival which takes place in November, and its local pottery. It was once a major stop for ships making the journey towards Korea and China.
Is the largest active volcano in Japan, and one of the largest in the world. Its peak is 1,592 metres above sea level, and the main crater can be accessed and viewed by tourists.
Is one of Japan’s most famous hot spring resorts, producing more hot spring water than anywhere else in the country. Visitors can bathe in nutrient-rich water, mud and sand. To the west, Mount Tsurumi is accessible by cable car.
Is a former castle town, famous for its stone Buddhas which are sculpted into the cliff walls and date back to the 12th century. In Japan, Buddha statues are usually made of wood or metal. Stone Buddhas are rare, and they were the first stone Buddhas to be selected as National Treasures of Japan.
Shikoku is the smallest of Japan’s major islands. It’s encircled by a 1,200km, 88-temple Buddhist pilgrimage route (henro) honouring the 9th-century monk Kukai. The island’s mountainous terrain has hiking trails and rivers with whitewater rapids. The laid-back Pacific coast is lined with surfing points and beaches. The best time to visit the island of Shikoku is from May until October, when the temperatures are pleasantly warm, with little rainfall.
Is the largest city on Shikoku, with the stunning Matsuyamajo castle standing at the heart. The castle’s hilltop vantage point offers a view of the city and a glimpse of the Seto Inland Sea.
Is the northeastern most city on Shikoku island, known for its swirling whirlpools. They can be seen in the Strait of Naruto underneath the Onaruto Bridge connecting Tokushima to Awaji Island. It’s also the starting point of the Shikoku Pilgrimage, which visits the 88 temples around the island.
Is one of the most famous historical gardens in Japan. It’s located in the city of Takamatsu and includes a tea house, as well as ponds, hills, historic trees and beautiful pavilions divided into a Japanese style garden in the south, and western style garden in the north.
Flows through Nishi-Awa and is considered to be one of the three greatest rivers in Japan. The Yoshino’s claim to fame is how beautifully crystal clear its waters are. It’s considered the best river in Japan for white water rafting, perfect for thrill-seekers.
Is an area filled with steep mountain slopes and gorges. Today, it offers visitors a unique look at the traditional lifestyle of Japan along with a natural atmosphere. You’ll find hot spring hotels and museums, along with many hiking popular routes.
With so much more to see and do in Japan, we’re sure you’ll want to go back again and again. Browse Made4Travel to compare the best travel deals and book tours and hotels to suit every budget.
For more inspiration, see also A Travel Guide to Japan: 11 Things You Have to Do