Japan is known as an island country lying off the east coast of Asia — everyone knows this fact. It is one of Japan’s identifying factors on the world map. The question is, is the country made up of one single island or multiple smaller islands?
The collective island nation is actually made up of various islands. There are about 6,800 islands in total that make up the Japanese archipelago; listing them all will take a whole book to cover! There are four main islands, however — Honshu, Hokkaido, Shikoku and Kyushu — that come together to form the mainland of Japan. The remaining islands are considered independent and remote and they are scattered around the mainland islands. Even with a huge number of islands, each and every one of these islands are unique and has something special to offer.
Discover the various main islands that make up The Land of The Rising Sun — everything from its geographical location to what they can offer and are known for!
The Four Main Islands of Japan
This beautiful island country is surrounded by the Pacific Ocean, the Sea of Okhotsk, the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea. Located just east of the Eurasian continent, the entire Japanese territory is approximately 378,000 square kilometers. Even though there are about 6,800 islands, only a few of them are considered main islands.
Japan’s mainland 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, at nearly 228,000 square kilometers; Kyushu Island and Shikoku Island are down south with Kyushu located at the southernmost part of the mainland. Honshu Island is also the 7th largest island in the entire world!
Each main island has something special to offer that the other islands can’t — that’s what makes each area so unique. The temperature throughout the year is also different for each island. Let’s have an in-depth look at the four main islands and what they are known for individually.
Starting it off is Honshu Island, 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. Despite being an island, it is surprisingly very well-connected to the other primary islands as well as some of the remote islands via tunnels and bridges. Honshu 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 travelers 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!
Let’s not forget the other major mountains in the region including Mount Kita and Mount Hotaka, the second and third tallest mountains in all of the country.
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. Tons of other streams run through this island — Inawashiro Lake is one to have on your bucket list.
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.
The land of Honshu is not short of its traditional culture. Sites that are oozing the historical factor are also all throughout Honshu — buildings like the Osaka Castle and the Imperial Palace are still standing strong to this day.
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 — and everything about it exceeds expectations. Not to mention Universal Studios Osaka where there are various themed areas including the Harry Potter World.
The biggest island in Japan definitely does not disappoint!
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, separated from Honshu by the Tsugaru Strait but connected by the Seikan Tunnel, they are the ones getting the chillier weather. They still have four seasons, though, just that each season is extremely distinct from the next. Cherry blossoms cover the whole area during spring and a mixture of golden and red leaves take over the landscape in autumn. 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. Just like Honshu, its land is mostly mountainous with quite a few volcanoes that create a beautiful landscape. 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.
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 easy access 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; the pilgrimage starts at Ryozeji Temple and ends off at Okuboji Temple. 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.
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. 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…
Kyushu’s main attraction is their subtropical climate, but that’s not only it — the 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. If you’re a volcano adventurer, this is the island for you.
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 colors, some of the best-colored waters in the whole country! The glistening blue waters are great at Yufuin Onsen and Takenoyu Onsen. If you’re looking for redwater, 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!
Beaches are wonderful here too — some named beaches include Aoshima, Cape Hado and Keya.
The Other Smaller Islands
Even though the main four islands are full of anything and everything, let’s not forget about the smaller islands of Japan. You’ll be surprised at what you can find at these remote, tiny islands. Some of them are homes to the most preserved and untouched nature, presenting the best of what Mother Earth has to offer.
With over thousands of these remote islands in the Japanese archipelago itself, it would be impossible to name them all. However, there are a few that stand out more than the rest, especially when it comes to the tourism industry. Let’s briefly take a look at two prominent island areas: the one that is known as the Rabbit Island as well as the Ryukyu Islands.
Off the coast of Japan is a group of small, distant islands of over 150 islands. Collectively, they are known as the Ryukyu Islands. In this area, the water is glistening turquoise with the sand white and extremely soft. Not to mention the marine life — friendly sea turtles are just waiting to say hi beneath the surface.
While it’s great all year round because of its subtropical weather, the perfect time to visit the Ryukyu Islands is during summer where the beaches are drop-dead gorgeous — Nirai Beach boasts crystal clear waters and Busena Beach presents their colorful fish.
It’s not all about the beach life on Ryukyu Islands; the cultural aspect is as present as ever. This area is home to World Heritage Sites including castles like Nakijin Castle, Zakimi Castle and Nakagusuku Castle as well as other notable landmarks like Sonohyan-utaki Stone Gate and Shikinaen Royal Garden.
One of the more notable islands in this group of islands is Kerama Island; tourists and locals alike are seen visiting here year in and year out for whale watching and impeccable water activities like surfing, diving and snorkeling.
Another famous island in the Ryukyu Islands is the Okinawa Island collectively — a perfect getaway destination with a buzzing nightlife with the perfect amount of tradition and rich culture. Okinawa Island is also the main island of the Ryukyu Islands.
More famously known as the “Rabbit Island”, Okunoshima is near the vicinity of Hiroshima Prefecture, easily accessible by ferry. This island has quite a dark past; it was the main area of chemical weapons research and production during World War II. During the time, rabbits were used as test subjects to try out the various new chemical weapons like poison gas. The actual facility used for these testings is still on the island! Don’t worry — the rabbits that were used for testing are no longer there on the island, so any rabbit you see on Okunoshima is healthy and normal.
Currently, Okunoshima is home to over a thousand rabbits — that’s where the nickname of the island came from. The island itself doesn’t have much going on; there are various sites like The Poison Gas Museum and the Lighthouse, but the takeaway from the Rabbit Island — other than the rabbits — is the panoramic view of the beautiful scenic ocean and land from the summit of the island.
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 and then start making dents into the cluster of remote islands with the Ryukyu Islands and Rabbit Island. Once you’ve gotten these down, you’re set to tackle the rest of Japan’s remote islands full of treasures and undiscovered jewels.