Japan has long drawn tourists from around the world with its perceived mystic, its food, traditions, and its history of Samuari and the like. Japan is an island nation with 4 main islands. Knowing something about these islands is one of the things one should do when planning to prepare for a trip to Japan.

If one is going to Japan, it will be helpful to learn some basic phrases in Japanese for first-timers. It is also useful to earn some of the basic etiquette for what and what not to do while in Japan.


Japan and Its Islands

Japan is one of the most populated countries in the world with a population of around 125 million. Its size is 377,975 km2 or 145,937 sq miles - around the same size as the state of Montana.

  • Name In Japanese:日本, Nippon or Nihon
  • Capital And Largest City: Tokyo

Japan is made up of some 6,852 islands of which around 260 are inhabited. The four main islands (discounting Okinawa) are:

  • Hokkaido: The Northernmost And Second Largest Main Island
  • Honshu: The Largest and Most Populated Island
  • Kyushu: The Third Largest Main Island
  • Shikoku: The Smallest Main Island

Related: Japanese Food Etiquette: The Dos And Don'ts Of Dining In Japan

Hokkaido - The Northern and Newest Island

Hokkaido is something of a different island of Japan. It has the lowest population density of the Japanese islands, despite being the second largest island (22% of the land area), it only has around 3 or 4% of the country's population. Historically it always had a very low population and was peripheral to Japan.

  • Size: 83,423.84 km2 or 32,210.12 sq miles
  • Population: 5.2 Million

Hokkaido has only (relatively speaking) recently become a part of Japan proper. The native people of Hokkaido are the Ainu and not the ethnic Japanese.

The official estimates for the present-day population of the Ainu is around 25,000 with unofficial estimates going as high as 200,000 or more. They are fast assimilating into Japanese society.

Due to the Japanese colonization of Hokkaido, the number of Ainu speakers has decreased, and now Ainu is considered a moribund language and likely to go extinct.

  • Ainu Language Family: Language Isolate Not Related to Any other Language
  • Number of Speakers: 300 Native Speakers In 1966, 100 Native Speakers In 2008, Reportedly 2 In 2012

All this means that Hokkaido has a very different history from the rest of Japan.

Honshu - The Big Island

Honshu is the largest island (its very name means "main province). It is the largest and most populous island of Japan and is home to most of Japan's main cities like Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka.

  • Size: Seventh Largest Island In The World
  • Population: 104 Million (81.3% of Japan's Population)
  • Home Of: Mount Fuji, Tokyo, Kyoto,
  • Climate: Humid and Mild

Honshu is linked to the other three major islands by a network of bridges and tunnels.

In the north, one will find skiing and hiking wonderland and national parks with thick mountain forests, volcanoes, and coastal marshes. One can enjoy year-round outdoor activities. There are numerous feudal-era remnants to be explored (like Hiraizumi and Kakunodate).

Central Honshu is the heartland of Japan and includes the world's largest metropolis of Greater Tokyo. One can see the Japanese Alps and all but one of Japan's 30 highest peaks.

While here visit the Jigokudani Monkey Park. It is famous for its large population of wild Japanese macaques (also called snow monkeys) who go to the valley and sit in the warm waters of the onsen (hot springs) in the winter. There are heavy snowfalls here during the winter.

  • Japanese Macaques: In The Nagano Prefecture of Honshu

Related: Visit Japan's UNESCO-Listed, Most Popular, And Largest Castle (With Nine Lives)

Shikoku - Island of Sacred Temples

Shikoku is the smallest of the main islands (excluding Okinawa) and is 225 kilometers or 140 miles long and between 50 and 150 kilometers or 31 and 93 miles wide.

The island is home to 88 sacred temples and is revered as the birthplace of the Shingon Buddhist sect Kōbō Daishi (774–835).

Shikoku is known to have kept the original characteristics of Japan for a longer period of time due to being historically more isolated.

  • Population: 3.8 Million

Lonely Planet says that Shikoku is a stunning island with awe-inspiring landscapes of rugged coastlines and mountain ranges just made for hiking. They say rather poetically:

"Your physical incarnation will feast upon the remote temples, historic castles and gardens, excellent regional cuisine and modern pleasures of Tokushima, Kōchi, Matsuyama and Takamatsu."

Kyushu - The Southernmost Island

Kyushu is the southernmost of the largest islands and is the second most populated. It is known for its volcanoes and is a land full of energy. It is the warmest and is perhaps the most beautiful of the islands. It boasts active volcanos, lush near-tropical coastlines, and Japan's iconic onsen (hot springs) almost everywhere.

  • Population: 14 Million
  • Size: 36,782 Square Kilometers or 14,202 sq miles

One can see Jomon ruins and Kumamoto's castle - one of Japan's finest fortresses.

Next: Imperial Palace: How To Visit The Main Residence Of Japan's Emperor