Kansai (関西) is the heart of Japan, where much of modern-day Japanese culture originated. Its highlights read like a greatest-hits list. Looking for a vibrant dining and drinking scene and the vivid colour that Japanese cities are famous for? Head to Osaka. Want to get out into remote mountains and hike for days? Follow the ancient trails of the Kumano Kodō.
Central Honshū (本州中部; Honshū Chūbu) is Japan's heartland, stretching out between the sprawling metropolises 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. World-class skiing, hiking and onsen can be found in the region's stunning alpine uplands.
Travellers to Western Honshū (本州西部) will find a tale of two coastlines. San-yō (literally 'sunny side of the mountains'), looking southwards out over the Inland Sea, boasts the bigger cities, the narrow-laned portside and hillside towns, ceramic history and the fast train. This coast holds the region's big name – indelibly scarred but thriving and warm-hearted Hiroshima.
Once you've succumbed to Tokyo's manifold pleasures, and the capital has chewed you up, Godzilla-style, worry not: there's a whole other world out there, where spiritual sanctuaries, invigorating hot springs, and idyllic natural scenery awaits; and most of it is less than two hours away from the city.
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 Prefecture, a skiing and hiking wonderland that also includes the rugged and remote island of 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. Osakans take pride in shedding the conservatism found elsewhere in Japan, and this spirited city – Japan's third-largest – is a place where people are a bit brasher and interactions are peppered with playful jabs.
Okinawa & the Southwest Islands
Collectively known as the Southwest Islands, the Nansei-shotō (南西諸島) comprises several chains of semitropical, coral-fringed isles far removed from the concerns of mainland life, where the slow pace and unique cultural heritage of the former Ryūkyū kingdom endures, offering a vibrant contrast to Japan's obsession with modernity, technology and homogeneity.
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 southernmost island. Fukuoka is the largest city, yet still retains an appealing 'small town' feel.
Firmly on the visitor map for its towering mountains, active volcanoes, grassland plateaus, river-cut chasms and coral-reef-fringed coast, beautiful Central Kyūshū also boasts historic towns and world-class sightseeing. The region is perhaps best known, however, for the city of Nagasaki, on which the United States dropped the second atomic bomb at the end of WWII.
It's easy to beeline it to Miyajima for a glance at the floating torii gate, or to Hiroshima's Peace Memorial Park to witness how locals have transformed an infamous tragedy into a firm call for peace. Yet there are other quiet wonders worth exploring in the region around Hiroshima.