The Japanese archipelago’s geography is one of the world’s most contrasted and varied, shaping the character of its inhabitants, who have had to adjust to a difficult environment. It consists of about 3,500 islands and islets lying in a north-to-east chain, extending over 1,864mi/3,000km.
For Westerners, one of the great pleasures of visiting Japan is the discovery of the unique aesthetic that infuses all aspects of daily life. It touches everything, from gardening to bathing, from gastronomy to the formal Tea Ceremony – a great passion with the Japanese—and from the mundane to the highly intellectual, testimony to a thousand-year-old tradition.
Vast, sprawling, overpopulated… there’s no shortage of adjectives to describe the largest metropolis in the world. But there is far more to Tokyo than its size, although the city’s character is not so easy to pin down. It needs redefining every time you set foot in one of its many neighborhoods.
With seven prefectures on only 8.6 percent of Japan’s total surface area, the Kanto region holds a third of the country’s population and is the seat of the central government as well. It is no surprise that it is also the nation’s most economically productive. Kanto has an excellent infrastructure and a large workforce, supported by the best universities in the country.
Perhaps more surprising is that less than an hour’s train ride from this hyper-industrialized area will take you to regions with very different identities. Whether it is Kamakura (Kanagawa prefecture), the charming city of temples and gardens, the glittering lakes of the Izu Peninsula, or Nikko (Tochigi prefecture), or the beauty of which shimmers under a lofty canopy of ancient Japanese cedars – Tokyo has plenty of opportunities to escape from the hustle and bustle of the city
Hokkaido Island is Japan’s northernmost and largest region. The Ainu people settled here before the Jomon era (10,000-300 BC). Visit in February to see the celebrated Snow Festival and marvel at the talent of the artists who create gigantic ice sculptures in the open air. A “Genghis Khan” dinner of barbecued mutton and vegetables will ward off the deep chill of winter, while a foaming Sapporo beer from the local brewery cheers the soul. Even in the depths of winter, the hot water of Lake Shikotsu never freezes. It was formed in the crater of a volcano 40,000 years ago.
Northern Honshu (Tohoku)
Tohoku is Japan’s largest region after Hokkaido and one of the Ainu people’s original homelands. The view from the rugged coastline over the 260 pine-clad islands in the deep blue of Matsushima Bay is considered one of the country’s most beautiful. From here you can follow the trail to Mount Haguro and relax in a sauna lined with stone. Take a flat-bottomed boat through Gembikel Gorge, explore the ancient Buddhist temple of Chuson-Ji in Hiraizumi and the Samurai district of Kakunodate. Or take the waters in one of the onsens around Yamagata.
Japan’s smallest and least-populated region is Shikoku. Its tranquillity has long been a source of comfort and inspiration, with hundreds of tea houses where feudal lords performed the Tea Ceremony and composed haiku. In the surrounding, the garden of Ritsurin-Koen with twisted black pines have been shaped over five generations to suggest dragons or cranes in flight. You can hike the wild countryside of the lya Valley or watch the 100,000 dancers of the Awa Odori festival. Visit the 19th-century Dogo Onsen bathhouse, formerly frequented by the Imperial Family: choose between the Bath of the Gods or the Bath of the Spirits for your afternoon relaxation.
With its intense volcanic activity, Kyushu, “land of fire,” has been Japan’s main point of contact with other cultures. Learn about Japan’s own fine ceramic tradition in the “ceramic cities” of Imari, Arita, and Okawachiyama. In dynamic Fukuoka, you can see contemporary works of art at the Asian Art Museum, followed by an evening in Nakasu. Dine on the wooden bench of a Street yatai, eating noodles in thick pork broth. When you’re ready for a different pace, explore mist-shrouded Yakushima Island’s rainforest, or try a volcanic-sand treatment in Ibusuki.
Some 60 islands stretch in an arc across the East China Sea, each a tropical paradise of its own. On Okinawa-honto, spry old ladies may try to sell you fish and exotic fruits at the covered market. Embark on a boat trip to see humpback whales. Ishigaki Island is a short plane ride away, where you can dive the coral reefs and see manta rays, before heading to a small inn on the beach for dinner overlooking the blue-green sea.