Crash Course: Japan’s Main Islands

Japan may be a nation of nearly 4000 islands, but that doesn’t mean you need to visit them all! The “Big Four” are more than enough to keep you entertained for weeks on end … so how does one decide where to go? Here’s a brief breakdown of Japan’s main islands and what each has to offer:

  • Honshu (the main island) – This IS iconic Japan. When people say they’re visiting Japan, most of them mean Honshu and Honshu alone. And with the bulk of the nation’s major cities, unrivalled history and festivals year-round, there’s no reason for most travelers on a first-time trip to look anywhere else. Honshu boasts all four of Japan’s historical capitals (from ancient Nara to modern Tokyo), the inimitable city of Kyoto and a slew of smaller cities and villages all accessible via Japan’s fantastic transportation network. Perfect for: city lovers, foodies, history buffs, nature lovers
  • Hokkaido (the north island) – Only a two hour flight from Tokyo, Hokkaido is Japan’s great white north. In the summer, the sunlight stretches on forever and mountain peaks reflect on glacial lakes in postcard perfect glory. In winter, expect snow, more snow and … did I mention snow? The Sapporo Snow Festival in February draws a massive crowd but bundle up – temps fall well below freezing. Perfect for: hikers, outdoor enthusiasts, seafood lovers, skiers
  • Kyushu (the south island) – Kyushu is synonymous with volcanoes, but with these fire-spewers come the celebrated onsen (hot springs) for which Japan is deservedly famous. Kyushu is also traditionally the most international of Japan’s islands – the Dutch kept a trading post here even during Japan’s period of isolation and the Portuguese were instrumental in the spread of Christianity around the island. Perfect for: onsen enthusiasts, history buffs, nature lovers
  • Shikoku (the small island) – Poor Shikoku often gets overlooked in favor of its larger siblings but this small island, tethered to the mainland by a series of bridges, is the perfect place to investigate the rural Japan of old. You can tackle the 88 Temple Pilgrimage Route that circles the island or you can soak away your troubles in the Dogo Onsen. Perfect for: pilgrims, hikers, onsen enthusiasts
  • Bonus: Ryukyu Islands (Okinawa prefecture) – Not actually a part of the Big Four, these long overlooked islands are the perfect antithesis to the Japan of sakura (cherry blossoms) and shinkansen (bullet trains). With a laidback beach vibe and a culture influenced by China and other Pacific Island nations, Okinawa offers an atypical – but enjoyable – Japan vacation. Perfect for: beach bums, divers, snorkelers, history buffs

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