Discover the Four Primary Islands of Japan

Learn About Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, and Shikoku

Mitsui Sumitomo VISA Taiheiyo Masters
Sports Nippon / Getty Images

Japan's "mainland" consists of four primary islands: Hokkaido, Honshu, Kyushu, and Shikoku. In total, the country of Japan includes 6,852 islands, many of which are very small and uninhabited.

When trying to remember where the major islands are located, you can think of the archipelago of Japan as the letter "j." 

  • Hokkaido is the j's dot.
  • Honshu is the long body of the j.
  • Shikoku and Kyushu make up the j's sweeping curve.

    The Island of Honshu

    Honshu is the largest island and the core of Japan. It is also the seventh largest island in the world.

    On the island of Honshu, you will find the majority of the Japanese population and most of its major cities including the capital of Tokyo. Because it is the center of Japan, Honshu is connected to the other primary islands via undersea tunnels and bridges. 

    Roughly the size of the state of Minnesota, Honshu is a mountainous island and home to many of the country's active volcanoes. Its most famous peak is Mt. Fuji.

    • Major Cities: Tokyo, Hiroshima, Osaka-Kyoto, Nagoya, Sendai, Yokohama, Niigata
    • Key Mountains: Mount Fuji (Japan's highest point at 12,388 feet/3776 meters), Mount Kita, Mount Hotaka, Hilda Mountains, Ou Mountains, Chugoku Range
    • Other Key Geographic Features: Lake Biwa (Japan's largest lake), Mutsu Bay, Inawashiro Lake, Tokyo Bay

    The Island of Hokkaido

    Hokkaido is in the northernmost and second largest of the main Japanese islands.

    It is separated from Honshu by the Tsugaru Strait. Sapporo is the largest city on Hokkaido and also serves as the island's capital.

    The climate of Hokkaido is distinctly northern. It is known for its mountainous landscape, a number of volcanoes, and natural beauty. It is a popular destination for skiers and outdoor adventure enthusiasts and Hokkaido is home to many national parks, including Shiretoko National Park.

    During the winter, drift ice from the Ohotsk Sea creeps toward the northern coast and this is a popular site starting in January. The island is also known for its many festivals, including the popular Winter Festival.

    • Major Cities: Sapporo, Hakodate, Obihiro, Asahikawa, Obihiro, Kitami, Shari, Abashiri, Wakkanai
    • Key Mountains: Mount Asahi (highest point on the island at 7516 feet/2291 meters), Mount Hakuun, Mount Akadake, Mount Tokachi (active volcano), Daisetsu- zan Mountains
    • Other Key Geographic Features: Sounkyo Gorge, Lake Kussharo, Lake Shikotsu

    The Island of Kyushu

    The third largest of Japan's big islands, Kyushu is to the southwest of Honchu. The largest city is Fukuoka and this island is known for its semi-tropical climate, hot springs, and volcanoes.

    Kyushu is known as the "Land of Fire" because of its chain of active volcanoes, which include Mount Kuju and Mount Aso.

    • Major Cities: Fukuoka, Nagasaki, Kagoshima
    • Key Mountains: Mount Aso (active volcano), Mount Kuju, Mount Tsurumi, Mount Kirishima, Sakura-jima, Ibusuki
    • Other Key Geographic Features: Kumagawa River (largest on Kyushu), Ebino Plateau, multiple small islands

    The Island of Shikoku

    Shikoku is the smallest of the four islands and is located to the east of Kyushu and southeast of Honshu.

    It is a picturesque and cultural island, boasting many Buddhist temples and the home of famous haiku poets.

    Also a mountainous island, Shikoku's mountains are small in comparison to others in Japan as none of the island's peaks is higher than 6000 feet (1828 meters). There are no volcanoes on Shikoku.

    Shikoku is home to a Buddhist pilgrimage that is known worldwide. Visitors can walk around the island - either clockwise or counter-clockwise - visiting each of the 88 temples along the way. It is one of the oldest pilgrimages in the world.

    • Major Cities: Matsuyama, Kochi
    • Key Mountains: Mount Sasagamine, Mount Higashi-Akaishi, Mount Miune, Mount Tsurugi
    • Other Key Geographic Features: Inland Sea, Hiuchi-nada Sea, Bingonada Sea, Iyo-nada Sea