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A Beginner's Guide To Japan's Major Islands

by Moderator September 2011 - last edited November by Community Manager

Autumn is without a doubt one of the best times to visit Japan, with mild temperatures, low rainfall and an explosion of golden fall foliage to rival the beauty of spring's cherry blossom season.

Few countries of similar size can rival Japan for sheer diversity of landscape, history and culture and today we're delighted to highlight the best of Japan's four main islands with popular travel blogger and freelance writer Andy Jarosz of 501 Places, who is currently travelling the length and breadth of the land of the rising sun…

An island nation

It’s easy to be fooled by Japan’s apparently modest size on a world map. It might appear small next to its giant neighbours Russia and China, yet well over a thousand miles separate the sub-tropical south-west and the remote northern coastline. In fact you could quite easily enjoy a morning’s skiing in the north of the country and a short flight later be lying on a warm southern beach.

Although Japan is made up of thousands of islands, there are four main ones on which almost the entire population lives. Each island has its own distinctive feel and can boast its share of natural and manmade highlights. Here’s a brief look at Japan’s four principal islands:

Honshu

Almost all visitors arrive in Japan on Honshu and then spend most if not all of their time on the largest of the Japanese islands. To be fair, it is home to many of the country’s main attractions.

The sprawling metropolis of Tokyo offers high and low brow culture, rich history and an inexhaustible variety of food and drink along with shops that cater for every whim and taste.

You can find pretty much anything in the markets of Tokyo © Maxine Sheppard

You can find pretty much anything in the markets of Tokyo © Maxine Sheppard

Most visitors to Japan head south when they leave Tokyo. Kyoto is the undisputed tourist centre of Japan and its temples and backstreets not only provide a taste of old Japan but are geared up to accommodate the needs of its millions of visitors (think shrines and Starbucks, geishas and 7-11s).

Kyoto © Maxine Sheppard

Kyoto © Maxine Sheppard

Hiroshima will forever be known for its atomic bomb legacy and most visitors will head for the Peace Museum and the A-Bomb dome. While in Hiroshima it’s worth taking the short trip by boat to explore the nearby island of Miyajima, a popular day trip with thousands of Japanese families.

The A-Bomb dome in Hiroshima © Andy Jarosz

The A-Bomb dome in Hiroshima © Andy Jarosz

There are many good reasons to take the time to visit the north of Honshu. Using the lively modern city of Sendai as a base you can enjoy the scenic views at Mitsushima Bay, head inland to the historic hillside temple in the picturesque town of Yamadera or visit a beautiful volcanic crater above the winter resort and spa town of Zao Onsen.

Okama Crater Lake at Zao Onsen © Andy Jarosz

Okama Crater Lake at Zao Onsen © Andy Jarosz

Travelling around Honshu is very easy with the bullet trains (shinkansen) whizzing travellers between cities in double-quick time.

Hokkaido

Heading north out of Honshu by train through the Seikan tunnel (at 53.85km the longest underwater tunnel in the world) the first place you’re likely to stop in Hokkaido is the historic city of Hakodate. Once Japan’s main trading port with the outside world, now you can wander around the old British consulate, buy a genuine Paddington Bear and even enjoy real scones in the Victorian tea room.

Hokkaido’s main city Sapporo is known for having the best nightlife outside of Tokyo and it really comes alive in the winter when the Yuki Matsuri ice sculpture festival hits town. Visitors from around the world brave bone-chilling temperatures to come and admire the most incredible ice figures.

Yuki Matsuri Ice Festival by RageZ on Flickr.com

Yuki Matsuri Ice Festival by RageZ on Flickr.com

Hokkaido boasts vast areas of wilderness and offers arguably Japan’s best environment for outdoor activities. There are many excellent hiking trails open in the summer months, while in winter visitors from other parts of Japan and beyond come to enjoy the island’s excellent ski resorts. The Shiretoko peninsula in the north-east is home to black bears and is a popular place for whale-watching in the summer months.

Oshinkoshin Waterfall in Shiretoko National Park, Hokkaido by nakae on Flickr

Oshinkoshin Waterfall in Shiretoko National Park, Hokkaido by nakae on Flickr

It takes around six hours to reach Hokkaido by train and there are several airports offering short flights to Tokyo. To see the best of Hokkaido you really need to hire a car as the rail lines do not reach many of the more remote areas.

Kyushu

Visitors to Japan’s southernmost island can enjoy (or endure) hot and steamy summers and relatively mild winters. Transport connections in Kyushkyotou are the best of the three ‘outer islands’, with the bullet train running the full length of the island and connecting easily with the main cities of Honshu.

View of Nagasaki © Hikariphoto

View of Nagasaki © Hikariphoto

Most visitors to Kyushu will head over to Nagasaki, the second A-bomb site. The Peace Museum is not an easy place to visit but offers perhaps a more intimate portrayal of the horrors of the atom bomb than its counterpart in Hiroshima. For a complete contrast head to the trendy harbour district with its range of bars, restaurants and shops to see how Nagasaki is very much a city looking to the future.

Kumamoto Castle © Andy Jarosz

Kumamoto Castle © Andy Jarosz

No trip around Japan would be complete without exploring a Japanese castle. One of the finest examples can be found in Kumamoto. Although now a reconstruction (fire and war damage has left very few of Japan’s original castles intact) you can still see how the feudal lords lived in their heyday.

Andy enjoying the Ibusuki hot sand baths

Andy enjoying the Ibusuki hot sand baths

For something completely different head to Ibusuki near the southern city of Kagoshima. Here you can pay to be buried under piles of hot sand and left to cook for 10-15 minutes on the beach. This unusual experience is meant to provide many health benefits to its willing victims.

Shikoku

Shikoku is known for its gentle pace of life and slow is the word when travelling along the single track railway that skirts the island’s coastline. Yet despite a lack of well-known attractions Shikoku does the best job of all the islands in promoting its distinct identity, with specialist shops selling Shikoku foods and locally-produced handicrafts.

Mount Tsurugi, Shikoku © Tristan Tufnell

Mount Tsurugi, Shikoku © Tristan Tufnell

Head out to Naruto to see incredible tidal whirlpools formed twice a day. Check the tide times before you go to make sure you arrive for the peak viewing time. Oboke Gorge is one of the natural treasures of Japan and you can take a gentle boat trip to enjoy the scenery or head upriver to ride the rapids.

A trip to the onsen (hot spring baths) is a big deal in Japan. One of the finest bathhouses in the country is found at Dogo Onsen in the suburbs of the western city of Matsuyama. Take the chance to experience this slice of Japanese tradition but take time to learn the etiquette surrounding a visit to the onsen.

Dogo Onsen @ Andy Jarosz

Dogo Onsen @ Andy Jarosz

Shikoku is easily reached by train, with the port city of Takamatsu only an hour away from the main shinkansen line. While the railway lines cover much of the country do consider renting a car on Shikoku as train services can be infrequent and connection times long.

Virgin Atlantic operates a daily flight from London Heathrow to Japan. For the best fares visit www.virginatlantic.com.

For more info, check out our first-timer's Japanese etiquette article with more about visiting a Japanese onsen.

Many thanks to Flickr photographers RageZ and nakae.


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Sophie September 2011
Good information and really nice photos. I especially like the one of the A-bomb dome in Hiroshima. Seems an even more evocative monument in the dark.
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JapanAustralia September 2011
Some beautiful pictures of Japan and really helpful information. Autumn is one of my favourite times of year in Japan with its cooler temperatures and the beautiful fall colours which can be seen in the mountains.
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About the author: Maxine

Maxine Sheppard

Maxine is the editor of the Virgin Atlantic blog. Travel and music are her joint first loves, and despite having written for Virgin for more years than she cares to remember she still loves nothing more than jumping on a plane in search of new sights and new sounds.