Formed from an archipelago of nearly 7,000 islands, the four largest – Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, and Shikoku – make up most of the land mass of this country of 128 million people. Because Japan is so mountainous, most of the population centres are located in the coastal regions, giving Japan extremely densely populated areas and cities. While Japan is considered to have a temperate climate, there is a considerable difference in the temperatures and biodiversity of Hokkaido (to the north) and Kyushu (in the south).
Honshu, often called the main island, is the country’s most populous island and home to Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, and Hiroshima. The northernmost of the four main islands, Hokkaido is the second largest and its capital, Sapporo, is the fourth-largest city in Japan. The southernmost main island, Kyushu, has Nagasaki as its capital, is the third-largest island, and has the dubious honour of having the most active volcano, Mt Aso, while the smallest and least populous of the four main islands is Shikoku. Tunnels, bridges or a combination of both connect all the main islands, allowing you to travel by Japan’s effortlessly efficient train system right around the country.
While Japan’s status as the world’s second largest economy after the United States (by GDP) has been taken by China, the country is still an economic powerhouse. The earthquake and tsunami that struck the northeast on 11 March 2011 had a huge short-term effect on the economy (including tourism), but its fast recovery really proved how stoic the Japanese people are.
Japan is now more open than ever, offering a breadth of experiences, from sleeping in a ryokan (Japanese inn) to experiencing the white-glove service of a five-star hotel, from downing drinks with locals in an izakaya bar to quietly savouring sushi at temples to gastronomy with three Michelin-stars. Discovering that Japan isn’t a complete mystery has never been so much fun.