Introduction

This island nation is not just one single island — There are about 6,800 islands in total that make up the Japanese archipelago!

Japan’s mainland, however, is made up of four big islands: Hokkaido Island is the northern part of Japan mainland; Honshu Island is at the center of the mainland and is also the largest island out of the four; Kyushu Island and Shikoku Island are down south with Kyushu located at the southernmost part of the mainland. 

Each main island has something special to offer that the other islands can’t — let’s have an in-depth look at the four main islands and what they are known for individually.

Hokkaido

Moving up north of Honshu Island is the Hokkaido island, the second largest of the four main islands — its area covers 83,000 square kilometers! It holds the title of being the 21st largest island in the world. The largest city on this island is Sapporo at 1,121 square kilometers and serves as the capital city of Hokkaido island. Following Sapporo is Hakodate city at almost 678 square kilometers.

In its northernmost geographical location, they are the ones getting the chillier weather. They still have four seasons, though — just that each season is extremely distinct from the next. Summer is generally cooler than the rest of Japan, but with that said, the winter is colder as well.

Hokkaido Is Known For…

Hokkaido island wins at effortlessly combining nature and city. The highest point of this island is Mount Asahi, standing at 2,291 meters. Because of the hilly aspect of Hokkaido combined with the cooler weather, most people head up north to Hokkaido for winter sports like skiing and snowboarding. 

Outdoor adventure enthusiasts also have a splendid range of choices for the picking in Hokkaido as there are tons of preserved national parks like Shiretoko National Park. You can’t miss out on the drift ice from the Okhotsk Sea in Abashiri — one of the most famous attractions in all of Japan!

Even though the winter does get drastically cold, the people of Hokkaido know how to make great out of a mediocre situation; winter festivals don’t get any better than at Hokkaido. None can beat them. Look out for Sapporo Snow Festival and Asahikawa Ice Festival where they go all out in celebration of the cold weather.

Honshu

Honshu Island is the largest island in Japan and also the 7th largest island in the whole world, at about 227,000 square kilometers in size. This island is where you’ll find the majority of the Japanese population of approximately 104 million people as well as the major cities — including the capital city Tokyo and the ancient capital city Kyoto. Other major cities include Hiroshima, Niigata and Nagoya.

Honshu is right smack in the middle of the mainland. This island connects to Hokkaido and Shikoku with tons of bridges, and has underground tunnels that connect to Kyushu.

Honshu Is Known For…

Being the most bustling and hustling island of them all, Honshu has tons of activities to do — both in the city and in nature. In fact, the areas of Honshu are the most mountainous of all of Japan; it has the Japanese Alps!

The famous and popular Mount Fuji, standing at 3,776 meters tall, can be found on this main island. This active volcano and also the highest point of Japan has been attracting travellers and climbers from all over the world of about 250,000 visitors in a year — that’s an average of 4,000 climbers a day!

This island’s nature is not just mountains; Honshu is also home to Japan’s largest lake, Lake Biwa, as well as the famous Lake Kawaguchiko which is just around the vicinity of Mount Fuji. 

The Honshu island is full of national parks that are extremely well preserved with rich wildlife; Nara Park is scattered with wild sika deer and is one of the most famous tourist attractions because of that. The Arashiyama Bamboo Forest is exactly what it sounds like — a natural forest full of bamboo trees that will make you feel like you’ve teleported to a whole different universe.

And of course, who can forget the entertainment parks that bring in the thousands and thousands of people from all around the world; Tokyo Disneyland’s reputation is unwavering to say the least, and its counterpart, Tokyo DisneySea, is only one of its kind. Not to mention Universal Studios Osaka where there are various themed areas including the Harry Potter World.

Shikoku

 

Source: jeff~ from flickr

The smallest of the four main islands is Shikoku island, located just southeast of the big Honshu island. The island has an area of 18,800 square kilometers with the highest point being Mount Ishizuchi at 1,982 meters tall. The biggest city on Shikoku island is Matsuyama at 429 square kilometers, and other prominent cities include Kochi, Naturo and Takamatsu.

While the island does have a few mountains, unlike Honshu and Hokkaido, Shikoku has no volcanoes at all. The whole area oozes culture and the epitome of what Japan stands for. It’s not as well-connected as some other islands but there are bridges that connect it to Honshu — making it accessible to the majority of locals.

Shikoku Is Known For…

This island oozes culture on top of its picturesque landscape. There’s all the nature you can ever ask for here. Shikoku has an abundance of Buddhist temples and tons of famous haiku poets — a type of poetry originated from Japan — proudly call this area their home. 

Rivers are one of Shikoku’s nature’s highlights; the Omogo Gorge is one of the most popular national scenic sites near Mount Ishizuchi, at the Omogo River; Niyodo Blue is named after the blue waters of the Niyodo River — the aqua reflects so beautifully you won’t even believe it’s real.

There’s one very popular reason why people — locals and tourists alike — visit Shikoku, and that is the Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage experience. This journey is one of the oldest pilgrimages in the whole world and covers about 1,200 kilometers of ground all around the island to visit the various 88 temples. Originally a journey undergone for religious and pious purposes, now it has become one of the highly-rated tourist attractions.

The culture trip doesn’t stop there — Shikoku’s castles are worth the visits. Kochi Castle has been so well preserved that this Japanese castle has the original structure from when it was first created. If you’ve never seen a water castle, Shikoku has one of the three water castles in Japan called the Takamatsu Castle.

Kyushu

Source: Tim Franklin Photography from Flickr

Last but definitely not least, Kyushu takes the title of Japan’s third-largest island after Honshu and Hokkaido, with an area of about 36,000 square kilometers. It’s in the southernmost part of Japan’s mainland. Because it’s located further south, it has a warmer climate — a subtropical climate. For those who prefer the warm sun instead of the cold Hokkaido weather, Kyushu is just for you. 

The largest city in Kyushu island is Fukuoka, at approximately 343 square kilometers. Other prominent cities include Nagasaki — the city with tragic historical incidences and is now a symbol of peace — and Arita, the city of potteries.

Kyushu Is Known For…

This mountainous island is full of wonderful hot springs and volcanoes that are still very active to this day. In fact, Kyushu is even called the “Land of Fire” because of the chain of active volcanoes including Mount Kuju, Mount Sakurajima and Mount Aso.

For the less adventurous and more relaxation enthusiasts, hot springs would be what attracts you to Kyushu. It’s nothing like what you can possibly imagine — Kyushu has baths that come in all colours, some of the best coloured waters in the whole country! The glistening blue waters are great at Yufuin Onsen and Takenoyu Onsen. If you’re looking for red water, Yumigahama Onsen and Ondake Onsen are your best options. Kojigoku Onsen and Myoban Onsen are popular for their white water. If you’ve never seen yellow water, Ukenokuchi Onsen has it the best!

Conclusion

With thousands and thousands of islands, a lifetime wouldn’t be enough to explore every single inch of every one of them — but one can try. Start off with the four mainland islands of Honshu, Hokkaido, Shikoku and Kyushu. Once you’ve gotten these down, you’re set to tackle the rest of Japan’s remote islands full of treasures and undiscovered jewels.