(CNN) – Perhaps surprisingly, less than 10% of the 6,852 islands in the Japanese archipelago are inhabited. But among these 400 or so visitors, travelers are pampered with a rich carpet of natural treasures, deeply rooted mysticism, flourishing cultural assets and extensive urbanities.
Covid restrictions mean most of us can only dream of visiting for now, but here are 10 of the best to help plan that post-pandemic trip.
It is said that the heart of Japan is in the countryside, and that Hokkaido, on the northern tip of the archipelago, is rich in land. Several national parks stretch across the hinterland, from the caldera lakes of Akan Mashu to the bear-infested Shiretoko, worshiped by the indigenous Ainu people. Combine it with pit stops in the tiny villages dotted around the forests and wetlands of Hokkaido, making for an epic road trip.
The island’s wintry climate draws many visitors even during the snow sports season, with resorts like Niseko, Furano, and Kurodake home to some of the freshest powders in the world.
If you want to live in the city, head to Sapporo, where you can sip noodles in the steaming “Ramen Alley”, explore the snow-capped Odori Park from the Sapporo TV Tower Observatory, or drink until the wee hours of the morning in the Susukino entertainment district. During your stay, visit the Sapporo Beer Museum and the brewery for beer mugs and Jingisukan (“Genghis Khan”) lamb served on hot pans in the shape of the headdress of the Mongolian warlord.
Honshu is Japan’s largest and most densely populated island.
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If the heart of Japan is in the countryside, then the main island of Honshu is its pulsating pacemaker. It is a region that is still characterized by the bubbling post-war economy; an era of materialism, decadence and massive urban expansion.
Most travelers fly to and from Tokyo, and there is no better place to book your stay. Be it the electrified Shibuya Junction, the hipster subcultures of Shimokitazawa, the Kabuki-cho entertainment district, the Akihabara pop culture center or the city’s over 200 Michelin-starred restaurants. Mt. Fuji is a couple of hours by train from the capital, perfect for day trippers or night hikers.
Other major cities occupy more western parts of Honshu. These include Kyoto, the former capital and a treasure of the world with 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites; Osaka, the gritty antidote to the more ostentatious capital, where gluttony and indulgence are the order of the day, and Hiroshima, a vibrant city resurrected from the ashes of the atomic bombing of World War II.
Sado Island, Japan’s sixth largest island, is located off the northwest coast of Honshu in Niigata Prefecture. Although excavated ceramic artifacts suggest that Sado has been around since the Jomon period (14,000-300 BC).
Among the most famous exiles sent to the remote island were the poet Hozumi no Asomi Oyu (8th century), who criticized the then emperor, and Emperor Juntoku (13th century) for his role in instigating the war. The remains of the latter were cremated in the Mano Goryo Mausoleum, which is now open to the public.
Sado also housed convicts at the Aikawa Detention House between 1954 and 1972. You can explore this eerie wooden building contrasted with its lush surroundings.
Alternatively, if you fancy a hike, head to the rugged rock formations of Senkaku Bay or the grassy slopes of Mt. Congo and Mt. Shiritate.
The Chichu Art Museum, created by “The King of Concrete”, Tadao Ando, ââcelebrates the interplay of space, light and shadow (it also houses works by Claude Monet and Walter De Maria). For local art icons, head to the Benesse House Museum, with works by Shinro Ohtake, Hiroshi Sugimoto, and Yukinori Yanagi. The museum restaurant Issen, on the other hand, is the go-to place for elegant kaiseki (seasonal cuisine) in view of the originals by Andy Warhol.
Oshima means “big island” in Japanese.
There are few islands in the world like Oshima, Japan’s only island prasarium – an island that is almost entirely inhabited by leprosy victims.
Located off the coast of Takamastu City, Oshima owes its history to Japan’s much maligned and since defunct policy of leper segregation (which, incredibly, lasted until 1996); However, the leprosarium still exists simply because the remaining residents have nowhere else to go.
Oshima’s pristine sandy beaches and towering forests dotted with bushes juxtapose the squat, gray buildings where the lepers were once imprisoned. To avoid dark tourist vyeurism, it is recommended to visit only during the Setouchi Triennial. This festival showcases contemporary art on the island every three years, both to commemorate Oshima’s dark past and to celebrate its renewed freedom.
On the tiny island of Aoshima off the coast of Shikoku’s Ehime Prefecture, cats are at least six to one superior to humans – though some estimates say that’s an even bigger factor. As such, the roughly a mile long island has long been the object of desire by cat lovers across the country.
However, there isn’t much to do on Aoshima other than watch over a hundred cats lounge, strut, purr, and occasionally indulge in fornication. But if you’re a cat person, that’s probably enough.
Shikoku consists of four prefectures: Ehime, Kagawa, KÅchi and Tokushima.
Takumi Harada / AP
Shikoku is the smallest of the four main islands in Japan, but is now on the radar of travelers.
Iya Valley should be your first stop; a series of steep canyons in Tokushima Prefecture introduced to the world by japanophile author Alex Kerr. In the 1970s, Kerr renovated a thatched-roof house called Chiiori in the hamlet of Tsurui, where visitors can stay overnight and do volunteer work.
The Henro Buddhist Pilgrimage, which connects 88 temples once visited by the monk Kobo Daishi, is another great way to experience Shikoku’s embarrassment of natural riches. This circular route traverses 750 miles through all four of the island’s prefectures, leading pilgrims through forests with chirping birds, paved mountain passes, and bustling coastal towns. It can take several weeks to complete on foot, but completists are rewarded with a cleansing of the mind, body, and spirit.
Cycling enthusiasts can also go on one of Japan’s great two-wheeler road trips from Shikoku. The Shimanami Kaido meanders along the islets and suspension bridges that connect Shikoku and Honshu, never deviating from the panoramic view of the Seto Inland Sea.
Kyushu, Japan’s third largest island, offers vibrant city life alongside glowing volcanoes.
Fukuoka and Nagasaki are in the north. The former is a cosmopolitan center for arts, entertainment and startups and the birthplace of Tonkotsu Ramen. The latter is a city for history buffs; Visit of Jesuit priests in the 16th century, Dutch traders during the Edo period (1603-1868) and an atomic bomb during World War II.
Mt. Aso, a volcano in the middle of the rolling grasslands of central Kyushu, is surrounded by Japan’s largest caldera; the trail that winds around the outer edge is a roadtripper’s dream. While Kagoshima, a sub-tropical city in the south, is known for its laid-back atmosphere, surfing culture and love of satsumaimo, the Japanese sweet potato and shochu (a distilled Japanese spirit).
Yakushima has a subtropical climate.
The subtropical and species-rich island south of Kyushu is one of the last sections of Japan where industrialization has left hardly any traces. Yakushima’s jungle, covered in moss, cut by foaming rivers and incubated by ancient yakisugi cedars, is the embodiment of traditional Japanese animistic beliefs. The forest is not just the abode of the kami (ghosts); it is her earthly incarnation.
The UNESCO-listed forest should be the focal point of your Yakushima trip: hike to the 7,000-year-old Jomon cedar, look out over the misty valleys from the taiko-iwa (drum rock), and watch macaques lurking among the boscage.
Okinawa (main island)
Once known as the Ryukyu Kingdom, Okinawa was watched with wandering eyes by the imperial powers Japan and China for centuries before the former finally annexed it in the late 19th century. Okinawa today bears the signature of these two cultures, with Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines and garish Chinese iconography scattered across the island.
Its sun-drenched surroundings in the subtropical Pacific make it an ideal summer vacation. Cruise the sandy shores of Manza Beach for a salty swim and glistening ocean views from nearby Cape Manzamo. Man-made Emerald Beach is one of Okinawa’s most beautiful and is just a stone’s throw from Okinawa’s famous Churaumi Aquarium. While the lonely snorkeler meeting point Sesoko Beach in the northwest is connected to the main island by a road bridge.
Okinawa is also Japan’s number one diving destination, thanks to the sea turtles, manta rays, whale sharks, and tropical fish that slide through the deeper waters. Check out the divers at Honu Honu in the capital, Naha, for English dive guides.