Japan is revered for many things: Buddhist temples, breathtaking Geishas, bustling metropolises, and the freshest, most far-out fish markets. But it also has thousands of spectacular islands, beyond the four main ones that make up a majority of the country’s 142,000 square miles — who knew? In fact, thanks to the north-south extension of the country from 20° to 45° latitude, Japan’s islands are among the most beautiful places on Earth, ranging from lush tropical paradises in the south to dramatic snow-capped volcano peaks in the north.
With this diversity of climate and landscape, Japan’s islands are home to stunning ecosystems that are little worlds unto themselves. Coral reefs, bottleneck dolphins, and loggerhead turtles? Head to the remote Ogasawara archipelago. Volcanic peaks surrounded alternately by plush powder snow and vibrant alpine flowers? The northern island of Rishiri is your spot. There are rock formations formed millions of years ago by contracting lava, primeval cedar forests that feel like a Tolkien fantasy, and sloping fields of technicolor flowers. It’s practically an embarrassment of natural beauty, begging the question: which island will you visit first?