A Very Brief History of Japan and an Introduction to the Four Main Islands

At first glance, Japanese history seems a terribly bloody affair, full of vicious samurai warriors with swords forged to an unearthly sharpness. There again, history often looks that way. Although we have now seen over sixty years of peace, belligerence and in-fighting tend to characterize the history of these islands as they do the history of our own. Out of centuries of turmoil has emerged, though, like a phoenix from the ashes, a culture of genius and great fortitude.

Once upon a time, Japan was full of trees, and people who made flutes and figures of people from clay. Before that, in the Ice Age, Japan (when it wasn't Japan) was actually part of China (before it was China). There was a land bridge, over which tribes roamed in search of plants to gather and animals to hunt. Intrepid folk also came to Japan across the ocean from Polynesia and the Pacific Northwest. During the 20th century, the Ainu people, who lived mainly in the north of Japan, and who were darker and more hairy than most of their compatriots, died out along with their culture.

Having refined their skills at making pots, flutes, and figurines, the idea of a unified state began to occur to the more imaginative, and ambitious, tribal leaders. The Yamato state was born and emperors and empresses established their authority, claiming descent from the sun no less. They built humongous, key-shaped tumuli that were bigger than the pyramids in Egypt.

Soon emissaries, monks, and traders, were going to and fro between China and Japan, via the kingdom of Paekche, as the Korean peninsula was then known. Art and culture flourished, and powerful Buddhist priests were told not to meddle in politics. The capital, originally in Nara, was shifted to Kyoto, where it remained for over a thousand years. An imperial palace was built in Kyoto and a huge temple, called Todaiji, was built in Nara, housing a massive bronze and gold buddha image. The temple is still there, and is the biggest wooden structure in the world.

At about the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066, the imperial court in Kyoto was reaching unknown heights of elegance and refinement. Lady Murasaki wrote what some consider the first novel ever, The Tale of Genji. Art and literature flourished around the Heian period. Powerful families, such as the Fujiwara and Minamoto began to dominate the political scene, however, and emperors became something of an irrelevance for the next few hundred years. Instead we had a warring period that ended in two hundred and fifty years of feudalism under the Tokugawa shogunate. This time of complete seclusion from the rest of the world is known as sakoku. Christians were persecuted, but a few Dutch, Korean and Chinese traders, were allowed into the port of Deshima.

In 1853, an American naval squadron under Commodore Perry demanded that Japan open its doors to foreign commerce. Subsequent missions eventually encouraged the Japanese to accept the 'barbarians', and to open the doors to the closed country. The rest is history.

The emperor was restored to the throne in 1868, to be followed by 'westernization' - industrialization, militarization, empire building. war, and phenomenal economic growth. Japan is a liberal democracy today, one that remains dominated by strong political factions and big corporations. Hit hard by the earthquake and tsunami in March 2011, and the Fukushima nuclear disaster, possibly the greatest challenge that Japan faces now is an energy policy that is acceptable to the people. An economic giant, but a dwarf on the global political stage, the people are slowly moving into a new, and possibly more enlightened, era.

The Four Main Islands - Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu

Hokkaido

Hokkaido, a manta ray-shaped island, floats above the rest of Japan, with its tail trailing south into the Tsugaru Straits, and its nose - formed by the remote Shiretoko Peninsula - poking out into northeast Pacific in the direction of Kamchatka and the Aleutian Islands. The island, formerly called Ezo, is Japan's second largest. In fact, there is an indigenous species of deer called the ezo shika. The indigenous people, the Ainu, were a Northern people. Hokkaido was annexed following the Meiji Restoration in 1868, however, and this led to the final assimilation and eventual demise of the people and their culture. The Hokkaido Museum of Northern Peoples in Abashiri shines a little light on the ingenuity of the Ainu, and other northern peoples, and how they managed to survive extremely cold winters.

With its big skies, mountains, and forests, Hokkaido has a decidedly Scandinavian feel. There are no less than six national parks (one of them, the Shiretoko National Park, being designated a natural World Heritage site in 2005), five quasi-national parks, eleven prefectural natural parks, and a dozen or so important wetland areas. This all makes the landscape very different to that of the other Japanese islands. There is magnificent mountain hiking from early summer through to autumn. The extraordinarily beautiful summer alpine flowers alone make a trip to Hokkaido worthwhile. In winter, the powder snow skiing attracts not only locals, but skiers from overseas, particularly Australia and New Zealand.

Another major attraction of Hokkaido is the fine food, particularly the seafood. The finest fish, crabs, oysters, and scallops are landed at ports such as Kushiro, Hakodate, Abashiri, and Rausu. There are also many good local beers and sake, and there is an excellent malt whisky distillery - the Nikka Yoichi distillery - where the stills are heated by finely powdered coal.

Loads of other attractions, including the Sapporo Ice Festival, the red-crowned cranes in the Kushiro wetlands, great cycling, and excellent natural hot spring onsen, make Hokkaido a top destination for outdoor lovers. But if you're looking for more traditional Japanese culture, look further south.

Highly recommended hiking: Asahidake in the Daisetsuzan National Park, Akan National Park, the Shiretoko National Park and Shari, Rishiri and Rebun Islands, Niseko-Shakotan-Otaru Kaigan Quasi-National Park

Honshu

Honshu is the largest island of the four islands. Covered by mountains, most of the population is crammed into the metropolitan sprawls covering the Kanto Plain (Tokyo) in the east, and the Kansai Plain (Osaka and Kobe) in the west. Most other flat land is cultivated as rice fields. The rather dull landscape seen from the bullet train from Tokyo west to Nagoya and beyond is characterized by factories, prefabricated houses, rice fields, tunnels, prefabricated houses, rice fields, tunnels prefabricated houses, Mount Fuji, factories, prefabricated houses, rice fields, tunnels, prefabricated houses, rice fields, tunnels prefabricated houses... and, in the distance, seductive mountain ranges.

Those who understand and love Japan know that the culture has largely been shaped by mountains. They have always been considered sacred. The most sacred are the three 'holy' mountains: Mount Fuji, Hakusan, and Tateyama. To discover Japan one really has to travel on foot. The North and South Japan Alps, in particular, offer exceptionally fine hiking. The North Japan Alps are the jewel in the crown, the Koh-i-Noor diamond in the smoldering necklace of peaks that lie along this northwestern rim of the Pacific Ocean's ring of fire.

Many of the 'must see' cultural highlights are in and around the old capital cities of Kyoto and Nara. The first capital of the unified state known as Yamato was in Asuka in the 7th century. Many visitors to Japan get as far as Nara, but sadly miss Asuka, and the historically important hilltop village of Yoshinoyama a little further south. Both are quite easy to get to, and worth the trip.

Further along the shinkansen bullet train line are Himeji, with its great feudal castle, and the pleasant city of Hiroshima and nearby Miyajima with its floating torii gateway and vermilion Shinto shrine. The Sanyo or Pacific coast of Honshu is where most people live and most industry is located. The Sanin on the opposite, Japan Sea Coast side, across the mountains, is less developed, and more peaceful. To get there takes a little time, but the investment can be amply rewarded!

Highly recommended hiking: The North Japan Alps, South Japan Alps, Yoshino-Kumano National Park, Joshin-Etsu Trail, Hakusan National Park, Hakkoda, Shirakami Mountains, Dewa Sanzan, Yatsugatake

Shikoku

Shikoku is predominantly rural, and viewed by many Japanese as a place to do a pilgrimage around in the footsteps of the great monk Kobo Daishi, and by some westerners as the 'Lost Japan'. Mountains form the heart of this mild island, and whether it's serious hiking, or working on your karma, Shikoku has all sorts of hidden secrets waiting for the more adventurous traveler to discover.

Highly recommended hiking: Mt Tsurugi (1,954m), the Shikoku Henro Pilgrimage Route, Ishizuchi Quasi-national Park, Walks in the Iya Valley

Kyushu

Perhaps the island that's got it all. Mountains, volcanoes, abundant hot springs, fine food and drink, vibrant cities, an interesting history, wonderful neighboring islands, and warm, friendly people. For those who've done the main, must-see sites on Honshu, Kyushu and the lovely, forested island of Yakushima to the south, are highly recommended. It should be on everyone's list of destinations in Japan.
Whilst few visitor seem to have heard of it, Kyushu is famous for shochu, a drink as widely enjoyed in Japan as sake.

Highly recommended hiking: Kirishima-Yaku National Park (Japan's oldest), Mount Aso (1,591m), Kuju Highlands

For more about hiking and walking Japan -
Hiking in Japan (Lonely Planet, 2nd edition June 2009)

Outer islands

Japan is an archipelago made up of over 6,800 islands. It stretches north to south over an area, if superimposed over Europe, would stretch from Finland to the Sahara Desert. The volcanic islands of Rishiri and Rebun in the Japan Sea north of Hokkaido, covered in alpine flowers in summer and deep arctic snows in winter, feel a million miles from the sub-tropical, southwestern island of Ishigaki, which lies 410 kilometres south of the main island of Okinawa, closer to Taiwan than Japan. Travel the twenty eight hours or so by ferry one thousand kilometres south from Tokyo, and youfre in Japanfs Galapagos, the Ogasawara or Bonin Islands. The diversity of island environments in Japan is incredible, and just waiting to be discovered.
Islands which are not that difficult to get to, and well worth the effort, include Yakushima, Sado, and Oshima (sub-prefecture of Tokyo), as well as Ishigaki, Rishiri, and Rebun.