Kyoto is old Japan writ large: quiet temples, sublime gardens, colourful shrines and geisha scurrying to secret liaisons. Cuisine Few cities of this size offer such a range of excellent restaurants. Work your way through the entire spectrum of Japanese food, from impossibly refined cuisine known as kaiseki to hearty plebeian fare like rāmen.
Japan's heartland in both geography and outlook, Central Honshū (本州中部, 'Honshū Chūbu') stretches out between the sprawling leviathans of Greater Tokyo and Kansai. The awesome Japan Alps (日本アルプス) rise sharply near the border of Gifu and Nagano prefectures before rolling north to the dramatic Sea of Japan coast.
Travellers to Western Honshū (本州西部) will find a tale of two coastlines. San-yō (literally 'sunny side of the mountains'), looking out over the Inland Sea, boasts the bigger cities, the narrow-laned portside and hillside towns, ceramic history and the fast train. This is the coast that holds the region's big name – indelibly scarred, thriving, warm-hearted Hiroshima.
With ancient sanctuaries, hot springs, mountains and beaches, the region surrounding Tokyo is a natural foil for the dizzying capital. Really, you couldn't design it any better if you tried. Authentic country ryokan, regional cuisines and cedar-lined trails are all within two hours of central Tokyo, as well as the symbol of Japan itself, alluring Mt Fuji.
Hokkaidō (北海道) defies the image of Japan as a crowded nation. It's a different world up here, or at least it feels like it, with 20% of Japan's land area but only 5% of its population. Japanese identify this northern land with its wildlife and mountains, greenery and agriculture, snowy winters, temperate summers and arrow-straight roads disappearing into the horizon.
The birthplace of revered Buddhist ascetic Kōbō Daishi (774–835), Shikoku (四国) is synonymous with natural beauty and the pursuit of spiritual perfection. It's home to the 88 Temple route, Japan's most famous pilgrimage, even if some henro (pilgrims) today bus it rather than hoof it.
Japan's third-largest city, ultra-urban, hard-working Osaka (大阪) is an unabashed antidote to the fashion-forward frenzy of Tokyo and the prim propriety of Kyoto. This longtime capital of commerce is filled with down-to-earth citizens speaking colourful Kansai-ben (Kansai dialect) and neon-clad streetscapes bursting with over-the-top 3D signage.
A busy, prosperous, attractive city, Hiroshima will be remembered for that terrible instant on 6 August 1945 when it became the world’s first atomic-bomb target. Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park is a constant reminder of that tragic day and it attracts visitors from all over the world.
The northern prefecture of Fukuoka will be the arrival point for most visitors to Kyūshū, whether they cross over by road or tunnel from Shimonoseki or fly straight into Fukuoka city’s international airport. The city of Kitakyūshū (population 1, 000, 150) is northernmost, but most travellers will want to head directly to less industrialised areas, starting with Fukuoka.
Fukuoka (福岡) is Kyūshū's largest city (and Japan's sixth largest) and still growing. It's made up of two former towns, the Fukuoka castle town on the west bank of the Naka-gawa and Hakata on the east. The two towns merged in 1889 as Fukuoka, though the name Hakata is still widely in use (for instance, it's Fukuoka Airport but Hakata Station).