(CNN) – Surprisingly perhaps, less than 10% of the 6,852 islands that make up the Japanese archipelago are inhabited. But among those 400 or so, travelers are treated to a rich tapestry of natural treasures, deep-rooted mysticism, flourishing cultural assets, and expanses of sprawling urbanity.
Covid restrictions mean most of us can only dream of visiting them right now, but here are 10 of the best to help plan this post-pandemic trip.
The heart of Japan is said to be in the countryside, and in Hokkaido, at the northern tip of the archipelago, the countryside is abundant. Several national parks stretch out into the hinterland, from the lakes of the Akan Mashu caldera to the bear-infested Shiretoko revered by the indigenous Ainu population. Combining them with pit stops in small villages dotted with Hokkaido’s forests and wetlands makes for an epic road trip.
The island’s winter climates also attract large numbers of people during snow sports season, with resorts like Niseko, Furano, and Kurodake home to some of the coolest powder on the planet.
For the city life, head to Sapporo, where you can sip noodles in its scorching “Ramen Alley”, watch snow-capped Odori Park from the Sapporo TV Tower Observatory, or drink into the early hours of the morning. in the entertainment district of Susukino. While you’re here, visit the Sapporo Beer Museum and Brewery for mugs of lager beer and jingisukan lamb (“Genghis Khan”) served on hot stoves shaped like a Mongolian warlord’s headdress.
Honshu is the largest and most populous island in Japan.
Carl Court / Getty Images
If the heart of Japan is the countryside, then the main island of Honshu is its pacemaker. It is a region still embodied by the bubbling post-war economy; an era of materialism, decadence and massive urban expansion.
Most travelers come and go from Tokyo, and there is no better place to book your stay. Whether it’s the electrified Shibuya crossing, the hipster subcultures of Shimokitazawa, the entertainment district of Kabuki-cho, the center of pop culture Akihabara, or the city’s over 200 Michelin-starred restaurants. Mount Fuji is a few hours from the capital by train, perfect for day trippers or overnight hikers.
Other large cities occupy portions of Honshu further west. These include Kyoto, the ancient capital and a treasure of the world with 17 UNESCO World Heritage sites; Osaka, the gritty antidote to the more pretentious capital where gluttony and indulgence are in order, and Hiroshima, a bustling city that arose from the ashes of the atomic bomb atrocities of WWII.
Sado Island, the sixth largest in Japan, lies off the northwest coast of Honshu in Niigata Prefecture. Although unearthed pottery artefacts indicate that Sado has been populated since the Jomon period (14,000-300 BCE), it has spent much of the present era as an island of exile and imprisonment. .
Among the most famous exiles sent to the distant island were the poet Hozumi no Asomi Oyu (8th century), who criticized the emperor of the time, and the emperor Juntoku (13th century), for his role in the fomentation of the war. The latter’s remains were cremated at the mausoleum of Mano Goryo, which is now open to the public.
Sado also housed convicts in the Aikawa Detention House between 1954 and 1972. You can explore this odd wooden building contrasting against the backdrop of its lush surroundings.
Alternatively, if you’re in the mood for a hike, head to the rugged rock formations of Senkaku Bay or the grassy slopes of Mount Kongo and Mount Shiritate.
The Chichu Art Museum, created by “The King of Concrete”, Tadao Ando, celebrates the play between space, light and shadow (it also houses works by Claude Monet and Walter De Maria). For icons of local art, head to the Benesse House Museum, with pieces by Shinro Ohtake, Hiroshi Sugimoto, and Yukinori Yanagi. While the Museum Restaurant Issen is the go-to for elegant kaiseki (seasonal cuisine) in view of Andy Warhol’s originals.
Oshima means “big island” in Japanese.
There are few islands in the world like Oshima, Japan’s only island leprosy, an island almost entirely inhabited by leprosy victims.
Located off the coast of the town of Takamastu, Oshima owes its history to Japan’s much maligned and since dissolved leper segregation policy (which, incredibly, lasted until 1996); the leper colony still exists, however, simply because the remaining residents have nowhere to go.
Oshima’s unspoiled sandy shores and towering shrubby forests are juxtaposed against the gray, squat buildings that once imprisoned lepers. To avoid gloomy tourist voyeurism, it is recommended to visit only during the Setouchi Trienniale. This festival presents contemporary works of art on the island every three years, both to commemorate Oshima’s dark past and to celebrate its renewed freedom.
On the small island of Aoshima, off the coast of Ehime Prefecture in Shikoku, cats outnumber humans at least six times, although some estimates say this is still a much bigger factor. As such, the approximately one mile long island has long been the object of the desires of cat enthusiasts across the country.
That said, there isn’t much to do on Aoshima, other than watch the hundreds of felines lounging, strutting, purring, and occasionally fornicating, their paths. But if you like cats, it’s quite likely.
Shikoku includes four prefectures: Ehime, Kagawa, Kōchi and Tokushima.
Takumi Harada / AP
Shikoku is the smallest of Japan’s four main islands, but is now well and truly on the traveller’s radar.
The Iya Valley should be your first stop; a series of rugged gorges in Tokushima Prefecture presented to the world by japonophile author Alex Kerr. In the 1970s, Kerr renovated a thatched-roof house in the hamlet of Tsurui, called Chiiori, where visitors can stay and volunteer.
The Henro Buddhist Pilgrimage, connecting 88 temples once visited by monk Kobo Daishi, is another great way to experience Shikoku’s embarrassment of natural riches. This circular (ish) trail traverses 750 miles through the island’s four prefectures and guides pilgrims through forests resonating with birdsong, cobblestone passes and bustling coastal towns. It may take several weeks to complete on foot, but graduates will be rewarded with a cleansing of mind, body and soul.
Cycling enthusiasts can also embark on one of Japan’s great two-wheeled road trips from Shikoku. The Shimanami Kaido meanders along the islets and suspension bridges connecting Shikoku and Honshu, never straying from the panoramic views of the Seto Inland Sea.
Kyushu, Japan’s third largest island, is one of the bustling cities juxtaposed with still-smoking volcanoes.
Fukuoka and Nagasaki sit to the north. The former is a cosmopolitan hub of arts, entertainment, and startups, and the birthplace of tonkotsu ramen. The latter is a city for history buffs; visited by Jesuit priests in the 1500s, Dutch traders during the Edo period (1603-1868) and an atomic bomb during WWII.
Mount Aso, a volcano located amidst the rolling grasslands of central Kyushu, is surrounded by Japan’s largest caldera; the path that winds around its outer edge is a road triper’s dream. While Kagoshima, a southern subtropical city, is renowned for its laid-back atmosphere, surf culture, and love of satsumaimo, the Japanese sweet potato, and shochu (a Japanese distilled alcohol).
Yakushima has a subtropical climate.
The biodiversity-rich subtropical island south of Kyushu is one of the last stretches of Japan where industrialization has barely left a mark. The primeval Yakushima forest, covered with moss, dissected by bubbling rivers and covered with ancient Yakisugi cedars, is the embodiment of traditional Japanese animist beliefs. The forest is not only the abode of the kami (spirits); it is their earthly incarnation.
The UNESCO-protected forest should be the focus of your trip to Yakushima: trek to the 7,000-year-old Jomon cedar, survey its misty valleys from the Taiko-iwa (drum rock) and spy on macaques sneaking among the boscage above.
Okinawa (main island)
Formerly known as the Ryukyu Kingdom, Okinawa was watched with wandering eyes by the imperial powers of Japan and China for centuries, before the first annexed it in the late 1800s. hui the signature of these two cultures, with Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines and garish Chinese iconography dotting the island.
Its sunny setting, adrift in the subtropical Pacific, makes it an ideal summer getaway. Head to the sandy shores of Manza Beach for a salty swim and sparkling views of the seascape from nearby Cape Manzamo. The man-made Emerald Beach is one of the most stunning in Okinawa and is just a short walk from Okinawa’s famous Churaumi Aquarium. While the haunt of isolated divers, Sesoko Beach is connected to the main island by a road bridge to the northwest.
Okinawa is also Japan’s premier scuba diving region, thanks to sea turtles, manta rays, whale sharks, and tropical fish gliding through its deeper waters. Discover Honu Honu divers in the capital Naha, for English dive guides.