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 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) is the Japan of wide-open spaces, with 20% of the country's land area but only 5% of its population. There are large swathes of wilderness here, with primeval forests, tropical-blue caldera lakes, fields of alpine wildflowers and bubbling, in-the-rough hot springs. In the summer, all this (plus the cooler, drier weather) draws hikers, cyclists and strollers.
The birthplace of revered ascetic and founder of the Shingon Buddhist sect Kōbō Daishi (774–835), Shikoku (四国) is synonymous with natural beauty and the pursuit of spiritual perfection. It's home to the 88 Sacred Temples of Shikoku, Japan's most famous pilgrimage. In Japan's feudal past, the island was divided into four regions; hence the name shi (four) and koku (region).
Stretching out above Tokyo is the fabled Tōhoku (東北; 'northeast') – starring Miyagi, Yamagata, Iwate, Fukushima, Akita and Aomori prefectures – where ice monsters and river imps inhabit the imagination (but hopefully not the onsen). Hugging the west coast is Niigata-ken, a skiing and hiking wonderland that also includes rugged and remote Sado Island (Sado-ga-shima).
If Kyoto was the city of the courtly nobility and Tokyo the city of the samurai, then Osaka (大阪) was the city of the merchant class. Japan's third-largest city is a place where things have always moved a bit faster, where people are a bit brasher and interactions are peppered with playful jabs – and locals take pride in this.
Matsumoto & the Northern Japan Alps
Boasting some of Japan's most dramatic scenery, the Northern Japan Alps (北日本アルプス) of Gifu, Toyama and Nagano Prefectures, accessed from Matsumoto, contain stunning peaks above 3000m, accessible even to amateur hikers. Also called the Hida Ranges, the most spectacular scenery is protected within the 174,323 hectare Chūbu-Sangaku National Park (中部山岳国立公園).
Northern Kyūshū comprises all of Fukuoka (福岡), Ōita (大分) and Saga (佐賀) Prefectures, plus northern Nagasaki Prefecture (長崎県). For many visitors, it will be the first entry into Japan's southern-most island. Fukuoka is the largest city, yet still retains a lovely 'small town' feel.
The Central Kyūshū area is comprised of the majority of Nagasaki Prefecture (長崎県), all of Kumamoto Prefecture (熊本県), the Shimabara Peninsula (島原半島) and the northern tip of Miyazaki Prefecture (宮崎県). To the northeast is lovely Takachiho, mythical home of the sun goddess Amaterasu.
Understated and under-appreciated Nagoya is the jumping off point for trips to the mountains and the sights of surrounding Aichi and Gifu prefectures. Inuyama and the nearby area has some excellent historical attractions, including a wonderful original hilltop castle, while Tokoname is a must for pottery lovers.