Japan comprises a long row of islands (approximately 6,850 islands in a span of 3,000 kilometers!) in the northwestern part of the Pacific Ocean. There are 5 main islands where most people live. Check out the basic geography of Japan and expand your itinerary for your Japan trip!
Table of Contents
- Japan as an Island Country
- The Five Main Islands of Japan
- Transportation Between Islands
- Go Island-hopping
Japan is the largest archipelago in East Asia. It is composed of five islands that are considered mainland Japan and around 6,850 other smaller islands. This string of islands covers a total combined land area of 377,727 square kilometers but most of this area - almost 96% - is taken up by the five main islands in the country. As of 2021, there are a total of 6,852 islands in Japan, 416 of them are inhabited.
※ MLIT Japan, "Japan’s Island Structure" ※ Statistics Bureau of Japan, "1 Land and Climate," p.19
As a whole, Japan is very mountainous and volcanic, as well as generally humid across the country in the summer months. But another interesting element about the Japanese archipelago is its diverse climate. Because of the country’s geographical location, each of the main islands has climate and features that are distinct from the other islands.
For more specific weather information, check out our article:
The Weather Forecast of Japan Across Seasons and Cities
That’s why it’s important to know them before traveling to each location, as you could have vastly different experiences at each of them depending on the season and at which end of the country you're in.
Honshu is the central island of Japan, often referred to as the mainland of mainland Japan, located between the islands of Hokkaido and Shikoku. As such, it has a lot of #1s to brag about:
Largest in area AND population among the five main islands (it has Tokyo after all)
Has the most prefectures out of all the main islands (34 out of 47 prefectures adding up to about 3/4s of all prefectures)
Has the highest mountain in Japan, Mount Fuji
Has the longest river in Japan, Shinano River;
Has the largest lake in Japan, Lake Biwa.
Because it’s so large, the climate in the northeastern half is more mild, whereas the further south east you go, the more subtropical it gets.
※ Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., "Honshu"
On most people’s first trips to Japan, they tend to stay within Honshu, as it has the major cities of Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto and Nara, as well as Nagoya and Hiroshima. The options are endless.
Hokkaido is the northernmost main island of Japan as well as the largest prefecture in the country. It is also the second largest island in Japan after Honshu, covering around one-fifth of the total area of the country.
※ Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., "Hokkaido"
Hokkaido is a popular summer destination, thanks to its cooler climate, and is famous for its national parks, zoos, lakes, greenery and so on. But it also gets super cold in the winter because of its location, but the ensuing snow means it has some of the best winter events, recreation and sports facilities in the country, including the world famous Sapporo Snow Festival.
Check out our #Hokkaido tag for more!
Kyushu is right in the middle of the 5 main islands in terms of size. It is also closest to mainland Asia, making it a popular access spot to travel to places like Korea.
The island has 7 prefectures - Fukuoka, Kumamoto, Nagasaki, Oita, Saga, Kagoshima and Miyazaki. The island is considered subtropical and gets a lot of rain every year.
Kyushu has some of the world’s largest and most active volcanoes, Mount Aso and Sakurajima. Thanks to this, it also has a lot of onsen hot springs, a huge part of its tourism, such as places like Beppu.
※ Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., "Kyushu"
The region also boasts magnificent beaches that are perfect for summer getaways. There are many historical places and treasures as well in the region. Some of the most famous tourist destinations are Fukuoka, Nagasaki, Arita, and Kumamoto.
Shikoku is nestled between the islands of Honshu and Kyushu. It is connected to Honshu by three bridges: the Seto Ohashi Bridge, the Onaruto Bridge, and the Kurushima Strait Bridge.
Shikoku has 4 prefectures, as the literal translation of its name, four countries, suggests. They are Kagawa, Kochi, Ehime and Tokushima.
Shikoku is known for its luscious forests and beautiful rivers. It is also the location of the Ohenro, the 88 Temple Shikoku Pilgrimage, making it a popular religious destination. Other top go-to places in Shikoku are Matsuyama, Naruto, as well as the Shimanami Kaido.
※ Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., "Shikoku"
Okinawa Island is the largest island in the Ryukyu Islands, a group of islands located in the southwestern most corner of the country. Okinawa has a subtropical climate, making it one of the most popular summer destinations.
It is also surprisingly known for its elderly population, recognized for having the healthiest and happiest residents in the world with the longest life expectancy. According to BBC World News, there are 68 centenarians in every 100,000 residents in Okinawa.
※ Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., "Okinawa" ※ BBC, "A high-carb diet may explain why Okinawans live so long" ※ National Geographic, "This island unlocked the secret to long life—and knows how to get through tough times"
Some of the popular tourist spots on Okinawa Island are Shuri
Castle, Churaumi Aquarium, and the various gorgeous beaches and delicious places to eat.
How does one travel between islands? The recommended way is by plane. While the shinkansen bullet train, or even local trains, may be convenient to travel within each island itself, when traveling from one main island to another, it’s best to fly unless you’re already close to the border to begin with.
But no worries! Japan has top quality airports and airlines across the country ready to accommodate all passengers.
Check out our article: A Look at Japan’s Local and International Airports
For more information about transportation within each area, please check the tag #transportation.
All the islands in Japan, big or small, have unique and interesting things to offer. Some of these places are already popular for tourists, while others are still yet to be discovered. So, broaden your horizon and visit as many islands as possible in Japan. Because one thing is for sure - each island will be memorable.