Guide to Japan's Main Regions

Japan is roughly the size of California, with thousands of islands offering a huge variety of things to see and do. You can experience some of the world's best powder skiing in the north of the country or bask on tropical beaches in southern Okinawa. Top it off with its unique traditional culture and fabulous transportation system, and you're sure to have the trip of a lifetime.

Overview

Japan has four main islands: Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu from north to south. Okinawa is a chain of tropical islands at the southern end of the country. There are 80 active volcanoes in Japan and it is one of the most densely forested developed countries in the world, with more than 70% mountains. There are large cities in the flat lowlands, primarily in Honshu, surrounded by sparsely populated mountainous areas.

Extensive domestic air/rail/road infrastructure make traveling around Japan efficient and comfortable. You should give yourself at least a week for each region that you wish to explore. Depending on your interests and when you're visiting Japan, you can piece together a perfect Japan adventure for you.

Hokkaido/Northern Honshu

Lake Mashu, Eastern Hokkaido
Lake Mashu, Eastern Hokkaido (© Yuri Awanohara)

If you love hot springs, nature, great food and like avoiding crowds, the far north island of Hokkaido is the perfect choice. The island has a large amount of agricultural land, untouched forests, lakes, hot springs, and coastline. Hokkaido is famous for seafood and agricultural products, and the perfect way to experience this is by staying in an onsen ryokan, a traditional hot spring inn with included banquets. There are endless opportunities for outdoor activities, such as hiking, kayaking, and skiing. It's the perfect place to escape crowded cities but you can head to Sapporo if you need a dose of city life.

Weatherwise, Northern Honshu is more similar to Hokkaido than to central/southwest Honshu and also offers plenty of nature and outdoor activities.

Best known for: Outdoor activities, winter sport, hot springs.

Central Honshu

Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pavilion, in Kyoto
Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pavilion, in Kyoto (© Yuri Awanohara)

Central Honshu has the highest concentration of iconic Japanese sights, with the urban centers of Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka and more. If you want to experience traditional Japanese arts and culture, Central Honshu is a must. 

Kyoto, the ancient capital with over 2000 temples and shrines is not to be missed. Tokyo is the center of the world's largest metropolitan area, and there are unlimited options for shopping, dining, and nightlife. There is also an older, more traditional side to the fascinating city.

For those that want to stay in Honshu, there are possibilities to explore rural areas, hot springs, and mountains within a few hours of the major cities. The legendary bullet trains of Japan run along the coast from Tokyo southwest to Fukuoka, the northern tip of Kyushu.

Central Honshu is also the most densely populated part of Japan, so try to fit another region into your trip to experience the serenity that Japanese culture is famous for.

Best known for: Tokyo, Kyoto, amazing temples.

Western Honshu / Shikoku / Kyushu

Atomic Bomb Dome, Hiroshima
Atomic Bomb Dome, Hiroshima (© Yuri Awanohara)

Hiroshima in Western Honshu is famous as the site where the first atomic bomb was dropped. The bullet train takes only two hours from Kyoto to Hiroshima, and it is possible to visit as a day trip although spending a few nights to take in the city and surrounding sights such as Miyajima island are very worthwhile. In general, Western Honshu is less crowded, more relaxed and warmer than further east on the island. 

Shikoku is rural and traditional, with small towns in the mountains, and great for a quiet retreat. It is famous throughout Japan for the best udon (wheat) noodles.

Kyushu is diverse with approachable, friendly cities, plenty of volcanoes (including Sakurajima which can be accessed as a day trip from Kagoshima), hot springs, and fantastic food. Transport takes longer on Shikoku and Kyushu, but the journeys are pleasant with incredible views along the way.

Best known for: Hiroshima, rural island life, relaxed pace, great hospitality.

Okinawa

Iriomote beach
Ida-no-hama beach, Iriomote Island, Okinawa (© Yuri Awanohara)

Okinawa has a fascinating blend of Japanese and native island culture, with plenty of sun and unique local cuisine. Okinawa is Japan's own tropical island getaway, comprised of hundreds of islands. There are many domestic flights from all over Japan to a few different airports in Okinawa. Naha is the largest city on the main island with plenty of dining and nightlife options, but the real appeal of a visit to Okinawa is the outer islands. Frequent ferry services between islands make traveling around the islands enjoyable and accessible.

There are plenty of snorkeling and scuba diving options throughout the islands, with Miyakojima (Miyako Island) being famous for beautiful coral and larger creatures such as manta rays.

Iriomote island is a wildlife haven, with many endemic and native species of flora and fauna. Surfing, kayaking, canoeing, and stand-up paddle boarding are easy to arrange and suitable for all ages and levels.

Best known for: Tropical islands, beaches, watersports.