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Japan is a land forged by fire and ice, as well as what happens when the two of them meet – mainly lots of water!
Formed by volcanic activity at the merger of four tectonic plates, Japan is the product of massive forces – forces that have awed humans for thousands of years. An archipelago of over 6,800 islands with around the land area of California or Germany, the country stretches over 3,000km (1,900mi) and several climate zones. That’s why snowy Hokkaido in the North is known for exceptional skiing, while the small, tropical islands of Okinawa in the South are perfect for kayaking through mangrove swamps and SCUBA diving.
Japan’s four main islands – Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, and Shikoku – are largely temperate and extremely mountainous. Despite popular impressions, the country is hardly end-to-end cities – in fact, the urban “sprawl” covers just 11%. The reason lies in the vast expanses of peaks and valleys which cover over 70% of Japan’s surface area – areas which are neither easy to develop nor do they exactly stay still.
Japan famously lies along the Pacific “Ring of Fire”, an active lasso of tectonic uplift and subduction zones which largely follows the outline of the Pacific Ocean. Along these faults lie more than three-quarters of the world’s volcanoes, and of that number, Japan is home to astonishing 110 of them – 10% the world’s total!
While the vast majority of Japan’s volcanoes are not erupting (or likely to so in any major way), there are those who make their presence, well, let’s say known. Sakurajima, which sits in the centre of Kagoshima Bay at the southern tip of Kyushu regularly erupts – residents often wake to their yards and cars covered in a dusting of snow-like ash. In Tohoku – the northern region of the main island of Honshu – the gorgeous hike up Mt. Chokai offers sweeping views over a lightly seeded lavascape from an eruption in the 1970s (though today the peak is considered safe to hike). Even stately Mt. Fuji, the symbol of Japan, may not be as quiet as once believed, and its famous “perfect cone” might come to look different within our lifetimes.
That said, the side effect of all this activity beneath the ground becomes one of the best parts of travel as it bubbles to the surface. Well before Japan became an international travel hot spot, travel to literal hot spots – hot springs – was one of the pillars of domestic tourism for hundreds of years or more. Scattered around the country there are more than 3,000 hot spring sources bubbling up to the surface. To this day, the abundance, variety, and quality of these onsens remain a coveted highlight of travel here.
But hot water isn’t the only way liquid has shaped Japan. Snowcapped mountains and steep granite valleys have channelled strong snowmelt and rain into rushing rivers, as well. The abundance of water and rich soils have long fed Japan’s forests, which today cover an incredible 67% of the country compared to 15% in the UK, 36% in the USA and 17% in Aus. Lush Chubu Sangoku National Park, centred on the crown jewels of the Hida Mountain Range and spread across four prefectures, is just one of a series of stunning national parks that preserve this wild beauty. Other areas of Japan are equally famous for forests and nature without being National Parks, such as the iconic Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route.
And, though they garner less attention in our world of planes, cars, and trains, there are the miles and miles of coastlines along Japan’s edges which are deeply woven into the warp and weft of Japanese culture. From the sculpted rocky cliffs of the Sanriku Coast on the eastern edge of Tohoku to the rugged windswept edges of the Noto Peninsula to the nearly Mediterranean coasts and island-bejewelled turquoise waters of the Seto Inland Sea, these areas are whole environments unto themselves. The currents and tides which shaped them also provided food enabled travel and trade, and occasionally brought disaster.
Connecting all these incredible parts of Japan and the latent power for both creation and disasters is awe. It is a feeling well summed up and idealized in Japan’s not-quite-religion, Shinto, which reveres nature and considers natural objects of power (like mountains) to be the homes of sacred “kami” or spirits/ gods. In this, I think, lies an accessible doorway into understanding Japanese culture. The interest into how and why Japan’s culture ended up so seemingly different, is perhaps given new insight by turning the idea around and following the impact the country’s geology, climate, and nature on forging Japanese culture.
The natural disasters, steep mountains, copious water, and intense weather are direct factors in the incredible cooperation, teamwork, and efficiency which has emerged from Japanese culture.
The mountainous terrain meant that people could more easily build, farm, and travel in the 30% of the area that was relatively level. Over tens of thousands of years, Japan’s geography funnelled the human population into areas which have evolved into the dense urban centres we know today – the names are unlikely to surprise you; the Tokai Plain (Tokyo), the Nobi Plain (Nagoya), the Osaka Plain (Osaka and Kyoto), and the Fukuoka Plain (Fukuoka City).
Dear reader, please make no mistake – I unabashedly want to convince you that the wild ends of Japan are its best bits. Japan’s culture is deep and rich, and one could easily spend a lifetime exploring just the human elements of this country. But I’d argue that not getting well off the beaten path is a crime, and hopefully, inspire you to make tracks for more distant corners of the country when you visit – it will serve to deepen your understanding of the country and culture alike.
There are many incredible places to experience the wild “heart” of Japan, but the important part is to go looking for it. Along the way, you may just get a little time in nature, meet some new friends, and support some local businesses well off the beaten path.
LINKS & RESOURCES
Why Japan’s Geography Sucks – great overview of geology, gets a little down and dark @ end
100 most beautiful mountains? 21 mountains over 3,000m. Holy Trinity Haku, Tateyama, & Fuji