Geography of Japan

Japan is an island archipelago and one of the world's most geographically diverse countries.
Japan is an island archipelago and one of the world's most geographically diverse countries.

An island archipelago similar in size to California, Japan is one of the world's most geographically diverse countries. From its massive mountain ranges to tropical islands such as Okinawa, there's no shortage of variety in Japan's landscapes.

Despite its relatively small size – Japan's total land area is similar to that of Germany and California – the country is home to an incredible amount of geographical variation. Most of the country's cities are built on its flat and geologically stable regions, with the nation's mountainous and volcanic inner center housing only small towns and minor cities.

While Japan itself is made up of several thousand islands, there are four which form the backbone of the country itself. These four major islands, known to the Japanese as 'home islands,' are called Hokkaido, Honshu, Kyushu, and Shikoku. Reaching north to south off the coast of continental Asia, they form the largest and most popular part of Japan – the country's mainland.

However, while the country's four home islands form its major geographical regions, its divided by regional lines into eight separate political regions. These eight regions are divided into forty-seven individual prefectures, which form the basis for Japan's political system and play an important part in the country's transportation system. As such, they're of interest for visitors.

Two of the country's biggest cities, Tokyo and Osaka, are located on the island of Honshu, Japan's largest by area and by population. Home to over 100 million people, it's regarded as Japan's only 'mainland' area, both in population and due to its economic importance. For most visitors to Japan, Honshu is their home base, housing the country's two largest airports and its two biggest cities.

Beyond Tokyo and Osaka, there are several other cities of interest located in Honshu. The important political hotspot of Kyoto is located in the island's southwestern corner. Close to Kyoto is the city of Kobe, one of Japan's internationally known culinary hotspots. Kobe is also known for its incredible natural scenery, including the Mount RokkĊ area, which is popular with Japanese vacationers.

At the extreme southwestern end of Honshu is Hiroshima, the capital of Hiroshima Prefecture and one of the country's most historically important modern cities. Almost completely destroyed during the first live use of an atomic bomb, the city is home to Japan's largest nuclear peace shrine, and is one of the country's most important industrial cities, housing the multinational Mazda Corporation.

Immediately south of Honshu is Shikoku, the country's smallest 'home island.' Most of the island's economic strength and population is centered on Matsuyama, the region's capital. While not a huge tourist draw alongside cities like Tokyo and Kyoto, Matsuyama remains a popular destination for Japanese visitors, who flock to the city for its historic castles and famous 'onsen' hot springs.

West of Shikoku, and southwest of Shikoku, is Kyushu, the second-smallest 'home island' and home to over thirteen million people. With a humid semi-tropical climate, Kyushu is the warmest island in Japan, aside from smaller outlying islands such as Okinawa. Known for its comfortable year-round climate and love of sports, the island is home to the cities of Nagasaki, Fukuoka, and Kumamoto.

At the other extreme end of the country is Hokkaido, the northernmost 'home island' of Japan and certainly the country's coldest region. Famed for its winter sports and annual snow festival, it's the nation's second-largest home island. Hokkaido's capital city, Sapporo, is amongst Japan's top tourist destinations due to its pretty architecture and proximity to the island's winter sky resorts.

Along with its four 'home islands,' Japan is made up of several thousand smaller islands. For the most part, they're visited infrequently, offering little more than small towns and minor cities. The one exception, however, is Okinawa, a tropical island destination located far south of the country's major islands. Famed for its diving and warm temperature, it's a popular destination for visitors.

Despite its small land area, Japan covers almost every climate zone imaginable, making it one of the world's most varied and interesting countries for visitors. Whether you travel the well-visited central and southern parts of Honshu or venture to its outlying islands and far extremes, you'll experience a country that's truly unique and unmatched, and one that offers incredible variety in a small package.