Discover the Four Primary Islands of Japan

Learn About Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, and Shikoku

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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 a lowercase 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 [3,776 m]), 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 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 is home to many national parks, including Shiretoko National Park.

During the winter, drift ice from the Okhotsk Sea creeps toward the northern coast, which is a sight to behold in late 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 7,516 feet [2,291 m]), 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 Honshu. This island is known for its semitropical climate, hot springs, and volcanoes, and the largest city on the island is Fukuoka.

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 homes 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 6,000 feet (1,828 m). There are no volcanoes on Shikoku.

Shikoku is home to a Buddhist pilgrimage that is known worldwide. Visitors can walk around the island 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
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Rosenberg, Matt. "Discover the Four Primary Islands of Japan." ThoughtCo, Jan. 26, 2021, Rosenberg, Matt. (2021, January 26). Discover the Four Primary Islands of Japan. Retrieved from Rosenberg, Matt. "Discover the Four Primary Islands of Japan." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 29, 2023).