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Made up of four main islands – Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, and Shikoku – and several thousand smaller ones, Japan is a land of buzzing metropolises, rural seaside villages, and much more besides. Becoming familiar with each region will help when planning your trip to this sprawling country


 Japan’s capital may be rooted in the past but it is also a vision from the future. Traditional low-slung houses sit beside sleek skyscrapers, and historic Ueno Park is a few streets away from the Akihabara Electronics District. This city really comes alive after dark when serious-faced businessmen and giggling teenagers caterwaul beside each other in karaoke booths, and the glowing lanterns outside cozy, hole-in-the-wall izakaya tempt passersby. On top of this, Tokyo’s restaurants have garnered more Michelin stars than any other city in the world, but there also many cheap eats to sniff out here.


Although it is home to the charming cities of Kamakura and Kanazawa, Central Honshu is best known for its breathtaking scenery. This stunning region is home to both Mount Fuji and the sprawling Japanese Alps, making it the perfect destination for those who yearn to explore the great outdoors. Despite being well-connected, parts of Central Honshu are still remote enough to have kept their traditional rural lifestyles, buildings, and festivals, making it seem far away from Tokyo.


To truly understand Japan, you must spend time in its old imperial capital, where scores of the country’s famous monuments are preserved within a lively modern city. Kyoto is home to graceful parasol-carrying geisha, beguiling temples and towering bamboo groves. Life here is still largely tied to nature’s rhythms. Kyo-ryori, Kyoto’s celebrated cuisine, for example, makes much of seasonality, and the city’s exquisite gardens go through striking seasonal transitions, from fall’s bright-red maple leaves to spring’s blush-pink cherry blossom.


Osaka, western Japan’s largest city, is the cultural counterweight to the economic dominance of Tokyo. With its unique dialect, rough-and-tumble streets, and superlative foodie scene, it’s one of Japan’s unmissable cities. Away from Osaka, Western Honshu has many allures, including heavenly Himeji-jo and thought-provoking Hiroshima, as well as some of the country’s most stunning scenery. The giant Otorii gate of Miyajima, which seems to float above the waves, is a must-see for any visitor, while Yoshino is the best place to walk beneath pink blooms during sakura season.


 Isolated for centuries, Shikoku still feels like a backwater, and is all the more charming for it. The least explored of the Japanese islands, it offers a glimpse of the country as it used to be. The charming castle town of Matsuyama, with its clattering trams and ancient hot spring, is a great base from which to explore the island, while the more adventurous might attempt to master the famous 745-mile- (1,200-km-) long 88 Temple Pilgrimage.


Active volcanoes, rolling grasslands, bubbling hot springs, and outgoing locals combine to give this island a very different feel to the rest of the archipelago. City-wise, bustling Fukuoka and beautiful Nagasaki are two of Japan’s most cosmopolitan metropolises, showcasing Kyushu’s historic role as Japan’s gateway to the rest of the world. The menu on the island reflects this cultural melting pot: unctuous Hakata ramen or crisp lotus roots satisfy hungry tummies, while shochu, made from sweet potatoes, leaves a fiery taste.


More than 1,242 miles (2,000 km) south of Tokyo lies a tropical paradise. Okinawa’s pristine beaches, spectacular diving, and slower pace of life have made it the local’s favorite holiday destination. Although it could be easy to just flop on the sand here, the islands reward a deeper look. Naha, the main city, is a heady mix of refined civilization and neon glitz. Here, traditional red-tiled Okinawan houses, topped with ceramic shisa lions, stand alongside pulsating karaoke bars. Outside the city, you’ll find poignant war memorials, sacred groves, and brimming craft stores to explore.


This part of Japan’s largest island is steeped in myth and legend. Home to sacred mountains, dense forests, and vibrant folk traditions, Tohoku – as the Japanese call it – is a rugged and remote wonderland. The region overflows with literary connections, most famously to the haiku poet Basho, who chronicled his intrepid journey into the region in The Narrow Road to the Deep North. These days, with easy transport to the capital, this poem no longer holds true, and this tranquil region is as well connected as anywhere else in the country.


The northernmost of Japan’s major islands, and the country’s largest prefecture, Hokkaido is a land of fire and ice. Characterized by fertile plains, perfect skiing conditions, and looming volcanoes, this spectacular island sometimes feels like a different world. The gateway to Hokkaido, Hakodate is famed for its bounteous morning market, supplied by the fertile seas that surround the island, while Sapporo – the capital – is best known for the intricate ice sculptures that take over the city during its annual snow festival.


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