Understanding Japan: Key Places on the Map to See on Your Visit
Plan your next trip to Japan from one side of the map to the other with this handy travel guide.
Traveling to Japan is a fun and exciting experience, no matter which destinations you visit during your journey. Navigating this island country can be a little bit difficult, however, especially if you have never been there before! It is important when traveling to any new country that you do your research and try to understand the lay of the land before you arrive. This way, you can easily plan your excursions without having to backtrack, waste time, or get lost. Read on to learn about Japan, its layout, its major sightseeing destinations, and how you can best navigate this wonderful country on your next trip overseas.
Japan is made up of over 6,000 islands that range in size from tiny to large, but the nation is usually defined by its four main islands. Most of the smaller islands are considered a part of the larger island nearest to them, and so they are usually labeled by their proximity to these more noticeable chunks of land. Of the 6,000 islands that make up Japan, around 400 of them are occupied, while the rest remain uninhabited. Several of the smaller islands are man-made and serve various purposes for the country.
When it comes to travel, it is most important to focus on the four main islands and not worry too much about the smaller outliers. Some of the small islands can provide excellent travel options, but if this is your first time visiting Japan, you probably don’t want to spend too much time worrying about making it out to these lesser-known locales. With that said, some of the smaller islands (such as the famed Cat Island) do often make it onto lists of must-see tourist spots, so by all means, work them into your itinerary if you want to!
Japan’s four main islands include Hokkaido, in the north; Honshu, the central and largest island in the country; Shikoku, the smallest; and Kyushu, in the south. All four of the nation’s largest main airports are located on the biggest island, Honshu, and this is most likely where your tour of Japan will start. Although it is great to begin in such a centralized location, it can cause some backtracking if you aren’t careful with your itinerary planning. If you have the opportunity, consider flying into Fukuoka Airport on Kyushu rather than the airports in Tokyo, Nagoya, or Honshu. The price may be a little different, but it can provide you with a better starting point for a complete tour of the country.
Check out flights and connections at the Fukuoka Airport on its English language web site.
Kyushu is the second-smallest of the main islands of Japan, and it is located the furthest south. Known for being the most geologically active of the Japanese islands, Kyushu is home to a volcano that has caused small eruptions as recently at 2015, as well as many natural mineral and hot springs. The island consists of seven prefectures, as well as Okinawa, a separate, much smaller island on the southern side of Kyushu. The largest city on Kyushu is Fukuoka.
Although Kyushu is a small island, there are plenty of things to see and do here. If you begin your journey at the Fukuoka Airport, you will probably want to get started right away exploring the island you’ve landed on. If you are coming from Tokyo or Osaka, you have the choice between beginning on this southernmost island or heading north first. No matter when you visit Kyushu, there are a few must-see spots to remember.
Begin your tour of Kyushu with the city of Fukuoka, the largest city on this southern island. If you have flown into the Fukuoka Airport, you’re in luck! You’ll be right where you need to be to get started. This city is actually quite close to South Korea, and it has a lot of historical significance as well. While you’re there, be sure to visit the ruins of the ancient Fukuoka Castle, and don’t miss your chance to grab some of the best ramen in the country. Fukuoka is the birthplace of tonkatsu ramen, after all!
If shopping is more your speed, check out the Daimyo district, where you can peruse vintage thrift and consignment shops full of older Japanese fashions that you might not see on the streets these days. Finish your day of exploration at one of the many clubs, bars, and karaoke rooms on the street known as Oyafuko Dori, or listen to live music at the Brick Sound Bar. Last but certainly not least, if you are a cat lover, you won’t want to miss the two cat cafes located in Fukuoka. Enjoy your favorite drinks and light snacks with the company of felines in these unique eateries!
Huis Ten Bosch
Head to Huis Ten Bosch in Nagasaki and you will find yourself in the midst of the Netherlands -- more or less! This theme park is designed to look like a real Dutch settlement, and it is named after one of the residents of the Dutch Royal Family. The park is full of beautiful flowers, windmills, canals, and plenty of places to shop, eat, and sleep. There are also theaters and museums inside the park, so you won’t run out of things to do while you’re visiting. Be sure to give yourself plenty of time to explore all the nooks and crannies of this unique locale.
If you are looking for a place to stay for the night around the Nagasaki area, consider staying in the Henn-na Hotel, which is located within Huis Ten Bosch. This bizarre hotel is staffed almost entirely by robots. Although there are usually a few humans around to handle any issues, the vast majority of your stay at this hotel will be serviced by robotic employees.
For the best hiking and outdoor exploration on Kyushu, check out Mount Aso, the very active volcano that this region is known for. It features one of the largest volcanic calderas in the world, on which several towns and farms have been settled. Begin your tour of the volcano by popping into the nearby train station and grabbing a brochure or reading up on the tourist information provided there. Once you have arrived at the base of the mountain, you can take a cable car on the east or the west side and ride up to the summit. Alternatively, it is possible to drive on a toll road to the crater itself.
Mount Aso is a great place to hike, if you don’t mind the occasional sulfurous gas getting in the way. If the day is very windy, you might not be able to go to the top of the volcano, due to potentially dangerous gas situations. Always hike at your own risk, and don’t be afraid to skip this stop if it looks like the volcano might be more active than usual!
If you want an outdoor experience but prefer not to take your chances at Mount Aso, try visiting Yaskushima instead. This beautiful cedar forest includes ancient trees, many of which are over a thousand years old. One such tree, known as Jomon Sugi, has been estimated at being over 7,000 years old, and is largely responsible for the forest’s designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
While visiting Yakushima, consider staying overnight at one of the many inns, camp sites, or huts that can be found throughout the area. The huts provide a truly unique camping experience along the streams that flow through the area. They are all fitted with toilets, and can sleep anywhere from 20 to 40 people at a time, on a first-come, first-served basis. The two huts that are located higher up the mountain (Takatsu and Shintakatsu) are located nearer to Jomon Sugi. If you are planning to take a day or two to backpack through the area, don’t miss out on the opportunity to stay in communal quarters with your fellow explorers!
If you plan to visit Huis Ten Bosch while in Kyushu, be sure to check out its English language web site.
Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands, may be lacking in size, but it is still an excellent place to visit. Shikoku only contains four prefectures, and it is not as densely populated as its three counterparts. The island is separated by a mountain chain that runs horizontally throughout it, leaving the northern and southern parts of Shikoku somewhat cut off from one another. Most people live in the northern part of the island, with the southern section devoted to farming.
Beginning your journey through Japan in the southern island of Kyushu, your next stop will inevitably be Shikoku. You may want to give yourself a few days to explore what this island has to offer, but bear in mind that it will not fill up your itinerary quite as much as the other three islands will, as there simply aren’t quite as many sightseeing spots of note here. With that said, Shikoku is nevertheless an excellent hub of culture, so don’t skip it!
Naoshima is a great place to begin your tour of the tiny island of Shikoku. This location is actually another small island in itself, located in the Seto Inland Sea. If you are an art buff or even just someone who enjoys looking at unique sculptures, be sure to stop by and see the beautiful creations that are located on this island. Naoshima is warm, relaxing, and usually has great weather, so give it a try especially if you are looking for a relaxing break from a lot of stressful running around.
While on Naoshima, visit the Chichu Museum to check out some modern art in an indoor setting, and then head to the Art House Project, where you can find sculptures and other works of art scattered throughout a small town near the sea. You can also visit the Ando Museum, which is designed to look like a traditional Japanese home, but is instead another example of modern art dedicated to well-known architect Ando Tadao. Check out the 007 Museum before you leave.
Dogo Hot Springs
Dogo Hot Springs are the oldest traditional hot springs still in existence in Japan. They are known as the best of the best, and even the Japanese Imperial Family has visited the springs located at this historic site. Although there are plenty of public bath houses all over Japan, if you can only manage to visit one, make it this one. You won’t be sorry.
The main building at the Dogo Hot Springs location is the Onsen, or public bath house, which dates back to the late 1800s. Depending on the amount you would like to pay, you can join other bathers in the more crowded and common bath, or in the quieter bath that is generally reserved for nobility and other important guests. The Emperor of Japan has his own bathing facilities at Dogo Hot Springs, and you can pay to tour this room as well, if you like.
This very old town dates back to the Edo period, which came into being in the early 1600s at the time Yokaichi Gokoku was known for its wax production, and it soon began to thrive and prosper with its local export. After that, it became well-known as an important town where major highways crossed each other, giving it yet another reason to be frequented by guests. Today, the town is not quite what it used to be, but it still draws in tourists and locals alike who want to know what life was like in the olden times on the island of Shikoku.
It may not take you very long to tour Yokaichi Gokoku, but at least set aside a few hours to explore this old city. Walk along the streets and admire the wooden houses that still serve as residences for many. Check out the beautiful stucco on the walls of the warehouses, and don’t leave without stopping by the Omori Candle Shop. This shop dates back to the days when Yokaichi Gokoku was known for its wax production, and the candles you can purchase there are far more beautiful and lovingly crafted than those you can find anywhere else.
Last but not least, no trip to Shikoku would be complete without enjoying the sights and sounds of the wilderness that thrives on the island. Iya Valley is off the beaten path, and it is much more often frequented by Japanese locals than by tourists, so it can be a welcome change of pace from many of the other suggestions on this list. Iya Valley is known for its beautiful, but very steep, mountainsides that are covered in foliage.
Iya Valley is not the place to go if you have a fear of heights! Several of the gorges throughout the valley can be crossed by use of the traditional vine bridges that ancient residents constructed, and which are still widely used to this day. They may be very old, but they are kept up well, and provide a safe way to get through the valley. While you are exploring, be sure to check out the Wild Monkey Bridge, which is actually a rope and pulley system that was used for moving supplies from one side of the river to the other.
If you plan to visit Dogo Hot Springs, remember that they are open from 6am-11pm daily.
Honshu is where the magic happens. This is the largest island in the country, and most of the nation’s inhabitants live on Honshu, populating the bottom two-thirds of the island more densely than the top third. Around 25% of the total population of the island is concentrated in and around Tokyo, which is located more or less in the center of Honshu. Honshu is comprised of five different regions, which are in turn made up of 34 different prefectures, some of which include small islands as well.
If you start your trip to Japan at the airports in Osaka or Tokyo, then you will be on Honshu to begin with. You might choose to explore the bottom half of the island on your way to Kyushu and Shikoku, or to check out the northern half on your way to Hokkaido. If you begin in the north or the south, take note that exploring Honshu will require much more time than the other islands will, so budget your time proportionately.
Tokyo is the main draw of all Japanese tourism, and whether this is your first time visiting the country or you have been there countless times before, you will probably be stopping by this incredible city at some point during your travels. Situated about halfway through the island of Honshu, it provides a great midway point to your main island travel plans, and is sure to give you a jolt of excitement that will spur you on throughout the rest of your journey.
There is so much to do in Tokyo that it would be impossible to narrow it down to a few suggestions. Even so, there are always the must-see spots that make it onto any list about Tokyo tourism. If you love geeky and nerdy things, like anime and electronics, be sure to check out the Akihabara district. On the other hand, if you prefer shopping and style, head to Shibuya or Shinjuku, both of which have tons of great stores to check out. Your destinations in Tokyo will largely depend on your own preferences, so learn as much as you can about the area before you go.
Kyoto & Osaka
Kyoto and Osaka are two different cities, but they are close enough to each other that you can make a trip to both in just a few days. Kyoto is known as one of the best places to see the combination of ancient traditions and modern lifestyles in all of Japan. You can spend your morning touring the incredible Kyoto Station, then head to Gion in the afternoon to see if you can spot some geisha in full dress. Visit any or all of the amazing temples and shrines in the city, including the Kinkaku-ji Temple, the Fushimi Inari Shrine, and the Ryoan-ji Temple, just to name a few.
Osaka is much more modern than Kyoto, for the most part, and it can provide you with a fun day or two of shopping, dining, and entertainment that is quite different from what you might find in Kyoto. Visit Universal Studios Japan to enjoy some roller coasters and other rides, or check out the Osaka Aquarium, which includes the largest aquarium tank in the world.
Sendai is located in the northern part of Honshu, and you might be close by if you plan to visit the Cat Island in this part of the country. Although Sendai may not be one of the more commonly recommended tourism locations in Honshu, it is still well worth your time to stop by. This city was founded by a well-known samurai, and there is a lot of history to be discovered among its many streets, as well as at the Sendai City Museum. Stop by the Rinno-ji Temple or the Osaki Hachimangu Shrine to get a little more of the traditional culture of this city. Bear in mind that this city was one of the hardest hit by the 2011 tsunami, so there may be some areas that are still not quite back to their normal functions yet.
Spend your evening in the Kokubuncho district of Sendai to enjoy the best in bars, clubs, and entertainment that the city has to offer. Although this part of town isn’t exactly kid-friendly, it is quite safe, and it can be a great place to find a good shopping deal, too. Before you leave Sendai, be sure to sample gyutan, which is a grilled beef tongue dish that the area is famous for.
If you plan to visit Universal Studios Japan, you may have better luck during the winter months. The park is usually open from 9am-10pm, with some slight variations.
Hokkaido sits in the northernmost part of Japan, and it is the second-largest island in the chain. This island is close to Russia, and it is an incredible place full of rich Japanese history that dates back to the 700s. Although it is an island, it is also its own prefecture, and unlike the other three islands, Hokkaido is not separated into several smaller prefectures. To ease the political burden in the area, it was divided into nine sub-prefectures in 2010.
When you want to get away from it all and enjoy some wildlife and beautiful scenery, Hokkaido is the place to do it. The island is home to six national parks, including one World Heritage Site, as well as several more prefectural national parks and quasi-national parks. Tourism on Hokkaido may not be as fast-paced as it is on the other islands, but it should definitely not be missed.
Shiretoko National Park
Many visitors and locals alike would argue that there is no place in Japan (or possibly on Earth) as beautiful as the unspoiled majesty of Shiretoko National Park. This park is located on the eastern side of the island, and it is known as a World Heritage Site. During the summer, the park provides a chance for visitors to take speedboat cruises to see the sights along the coast, or to hike to one of the many waterfalls in the area. In the winter, the area is known as one of the southernmost places to find drift ice.
If you have time, take a hike to Kamuiwakkayu Falls, which has historically been noted as one of the best hot springs locations in Hokkaido. Although the falls themselves have been closed to the public because of the danger of loose rocks in the area, the lower section of the runoff is still available for exploration. If you prefer to see a waterfall a little bit more closely, try the Furepe Waterfall, which is easy to reach via a short walking path from the visitor center.
A trip to Furano provides a type of sightseeing unlike any you might find in the rest of the country. If you are able to do so, schedule your visit to Furano during July, when the incredible lavender fields that the city is known for are sure to be in full bloom. In other months of the year, Furano provides a much different flowery landscape. If you visit in August, you might catch fields of sunflowers or cosmos in bright color throughout the city, or if you are in the area in May or early June, you might get a chance to view poppies or lupins.
In the wintertime, Furano transforms into one of the most popular ski resorts on Hokkaido. Visit Furano’s Family Snowland to participate in snow activities that are fun for all ages, or take a trip to the top of one of the two mountains in the area to show off your snow sports prowess on the slopes. There are plenty of B&Bs in the area that can provide you with cozy accommodations if you prefer to stay away from the more expensive lodge-like hotels.
Mount Asahidake is the highest mountain on Hokkaido, and it is situated in beautiful Daisetsuzan National Park. This is a park site, so there isn’t a lot of dining or shopping, but it is another beautiful place to explore the wilderness of Japan’s northernmost island. From the base of the mountain, visitors can ride the Asahidake Ropeway cable car to the station on the top of the mountain, which is situated at 1,600 meters above sea level in the midst of a tundra. There is an easy walking trail around the upper station, which should only take about an hour to complete and is great for families or beginning hikers. Hiking to the summit of the mountain takes about two days and is recommended for more advanced hikers.
While visiting Asahidake, plan to stay in the small village at the base of the mountain. It is actually just a hot spring resort, made up of about 10 buildings, but there is a youth hostel as well as a few hotels located there. This village is a great place to enjoy some of the area’s natural hot springs at the Asahidake Onsen (public bath), provided you have the time. Nothing beats relaxing after a two-day-long hike up a mountain in a traditional Japanese bath house. Plan your trip in the late autumn or early winter, to enjoy the beautiful fall foliage or the first snowfalls in the country. Snow remains on the higher parts of Asahidake well into May most years.
Sapporo is perhaps the best-known city on the island of Hokkaido, and it is the fifth-largest city in Japan. Unlike many of the ancient cities that Japan is known for, Sapporo has actually only been populated since the late 1800s, making it quite young in comparison! The 1972 Winter Olympics saw Sapporo as their host city, and since then, tourism in the wintertime has increased steadily.
The Sapporo Snow Festival is easily the best attraction of this great city. Visit during this ongoing festival to explore the snow and ice sculptures that crop up all throughout the city, and to take part in the celebrations as well. If you can’t make it during the Snow Festival, still try to plan your trip to Sapporo for the winter if you can swing it. The sightseeing and skiing are all incredible here in the coldest part of the year! While in town, be sure to visit the Sapporo Beer Museum and try samples of the company’s many different varieties after your tour.
If you plan to visit the Sapporo Snow Festival, take note of the dates, times, and locates of the main events, which can all be found on the festival’s English-language web site.
By now, you should have a much better working knowledge of the layout of Japan, as well as the major points of interest on each of its islands. Use this information to help plan your tour the next time you visit Japan. By focusing on the map itself, you can identify the key spots you want to explore and choose a navigation plan that best suits your needs. Have a safe and happy trip to Japan, and be sure to explore as much as possible while you are there!
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