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Japan's Climate, Geology, Geography and Wildlife

Find articles on the geology, geography, climate and wildlife of the Japanese Archipelago including UNESCO World Heritage sites listed for their natural, cultural and historical importance.

Japan's Geology

Japanese geology.

Japan's Geology. Japan is situated in a zone of tectonic turmoil.

Japan is located on the edge of the Eurasian Plate, making it largely continental in origin, yet is also located on the Pacific Ring of Fire, and not just where a single plate dips beneath the Eurasian Plate, but where four different plates meet, the Philippine Plate, and the Pacific Plate meet each other and subduct beneath the eastern rim of the Eurasian Plate and the western extent of the North American Plate, making this a particularly unstable area of the Earth's crust.

One of the iconic landscape features of Japan's geology is its tallest mountain, an almost perfect volcanic cone, Mt Fuji (3,776 m).


Japan's Geography

Japanese geography.

Japan's Geography. The long string of islands that make up the Japanese archipelago, extends more than 3,000 km from latitude 24°N to 45°N along the Pacific coast of Asia, but four of these islands are dominant, from north to south: Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu. In size these four are ranked: Honshu (230,455 sq. km.), Hokkaido (78,460 sq. km.), Kyushu (42,010 sq. km.) and Shikoku (18,755 sq. km.).

In addition, there are at least another 1,000 islands, though not all of them are inhabited. Several subsidiary groups of islands are involved, the Izu, Ogasawara and Iwo islands stretching out into the Pacific south of Tokyo, and the Nansei Shoto stretching between Kyushu and Taiwan, are the most notable.



Japan's Climate

Japanese climate.

Japan's Climate. Few visitors to Japan can imagine how extreme the climatic variation is around the country. As an example, just consider one day in February, let's take Valentine's Day, 14th February, as an example, on that day, you and your loved one could choose to: go snow-boarding in fabulous powder snow in the Niseko region of western Hokkaido, don dry-suits and frolic amongst sea-ice on the Sea of Okhotsk off northeast Hokkaido, or choose flippers and snorkels for a swim off a coral sand beach in Okinawa in the Ryukyu Islands located between Japan and Taiwan.

The variation in the climate of Japan hinges on a number of very significant factors.


Wild Japan I: Hokkaido

Wildlife in Hokkaido.

Wild Hokkaido. Hokkaido, the rough-cut diamond of northern Nippon, has, despite a population of about six million, the important reputation as Japan's wild frontier. Hokkaido is a frontier land that used to be connected to Sakhalin and the Asian continent to the northwest.

Consequently, it shares many of its natural characteristics with that Okhotsk coastal region, and from a natural history perspective is very different from the rest of Japan that lies to the south. Many northern species reach their southern limits in Hokkaido, as they have been unable to cross the deep marine barrier to the south in to Honshu.

Conversely, many species range north to the northern tip of Honshu, but have been unable to cross in to Hokkaido. Therefore, from a natural history perspective, Hokkaido is a very special place.


Wild Japan II: Honshu & Kyushu

Wildlife in Honshu and Kyushu.

Wild Honshu & Kyushu. History tells us that the settlement of Japan proceeded by means of waves of ancient settlers arriving via the Korean Peninsula into Kyushu and then in to Honshu. Hokkaido, that wild frontier land at the northern end of Japan, was different and most likely settled from the north.

Millennia of agriculture of cultivation, of regional warfare and refined civilization, have all left extensive marks across Kyushu and most particularly Honshu, the island that supports the bulk of Japan's current population. Despite that long settlement and enormous human impact there remains a wildness to Japan that is there for the adventurous to explore.


Wild Japan III: Nansei Shoto

Wildlife in Nansei Shoto.

Wild Japanese Islands. Japan is truly the ultimate when it comes to island countries, with archipelagos within archipelagos, and with islands and islets galore. Japan's southern extension is a separate archipelago in its own right - the Nansei Shoto. Justifiably defined as Asia's answer to the Galapagos, the numerous islands in the warm waters between Japan's southern island of Kyushu and the island of Taiwan are fascinatingly different from the rest of Japan.

The Nansei Shoto are astonishingly rich in natural history and provide opportunities for snorkeling, diving, wind-surfing and whale-watching. These though are not the only southern islands of Japan, for head south from Tokyo, out into the Pacific and there lie the Izu, Ogasawara (Bonin) and Iwo islands, the most remote parts of this widespread country.


UNESCO World Heritage Listed Natural Sites in Japan

UNESCO World Heritage Natural Sites in Japan.

UNESCO World Heritage Natural Sites in Japan. Japan's Natural World Heritage Sites (WHS) include Yakushima, the Ogasawara Islands, Shirakami-sanchi and the Shiretoko Peninsula.

Yakushima's uniqueness includes the fact that its central mountains rise to over 1,800m, and its surviving ancient Japanese Cedars, some of which may date back more than 3,000 years. The flora of the subtropical Ogasawara Islands is a unique combination of Southeast Asian and northwest Asian species, while the waters around the islands are particularly rich in corals, fish and cetaceans.

Shirakami-sanchi is a montane site in northern Honshu, supporting the last remaining virgin stand of Japan's climax temperate forest consisting of such species as the Brown Bear, the Blakiston's Fish Owl and Steller's Sea Eagle.


UNESCO World Heritage Listed Cultural Sites in Japan: Buddhist Monuments in the Horyu-ji Area and Itsukushima Shinto Shrine

UNESCO World Heritage Cultural Sites in Japan.

UNESCO World Heritage Cultural Sites in Japan I. Buddhist Monuments in the Horyu-ji Area and Itsukushima Shinto Shrine. In Nara Prefecture, the Buddhist Monuments in the Horyu-ji Area World Heritage Site encompass not only the earliest Buddhist monuments in Japan, dating back to the late 7th or early 8th century, but also some of the oldest surviving wooden buildings in the world.

The island of Miya-jima, in Hiroshima Prefecture, also goes by the name Itsukushima, and it is the Shinto shrine of that name that is the focus of this site. In terms of its inspiring location, on the shore of the Seto Inland Sea between Honshu and Shikoku, its dramatic construction out over the inter-tidal zone of Itsukushima, so that at high tide it appears to be floating, and its historical and cultural significance as an ancient centre of Shintoism, Itsukushima Shinto Shrine not surprisingly ranks in Japan's top three scenic sites.


UNESCO World Heritage Listed Cultural Sites in Japan II: The Shrines and Temples of Nikko, Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range, and Hiraizumi Temples & Gardens

UNESCO World Heritage Cultural Sites II in Japan.

UNESCO World Heritage Cultural Sites in Japan II. The Shrines and Temples of Nikko, Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range, and Hiraizumi - Temples, Gardens and Archaeological Sites Representing the Buddhist Pure Land. The temples and shrines of Nikko have been sacred for centuries, and part of their visual appeal is not only their stunning Edo Period architecture and decoration, but also their harmonious landscaped setting on a hillside within mature Cryptomeria forest.

The Kii Mountains include wonderful forested landscapes with streams, waterfalls and lush greenery. The area contains shrines dating back to the early 9th century, and sacred sites fusing the ancient tradition of Shinto with the 'modern' (since the 8th century) influences of Buddhism. The gardens in Hiraizumi on sacred Mt Kinkei reveal the on-going fusion between Shintoism and Pure Land Buddhism through their symbolic use of water, rock, plantings and their incorporation of landscape beyond the garden, elements that were to influence gardens elsewhere in Japan.


UNESCO World Heritage Listed Cultural Sites in Japan III: The Temples of Kyoto & Nara

UNESCO World Heritage Cultural Sites III in Japan.

UNESCO World Heritage Cultural Sites in Japan III. Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto, Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara. Is any visit to Japan complete without a visit to Kyoto? Certainly no journey to experience the highlights of Japan's World Heritage Sites would be complete without visits to Kyoto and Nara. When Japanese people refer to traditional elements of their own culture, they are, perhaps unconsciously referencing the crucial role Kyoto played during its long period as the seat of the Imperial court, in creating, establishing then refining those traditions.

Pre-dating Kyoto as Japan's capital from 710 to 784, Nara can be seen as the source of the culture that Kyoto was to refine. Of overwhelming significance today is the survival of the great temple of Todai-ji, built by Emperor Shomu in 745. This reconstructed building, arguably the largest wooden building in the world at 48m high, is also the site of the largest (15 m tall) gilded bronze statue of the Buddha in the world.


UNESCO World Heritage Listed Historical Sites in Japan

UNESCO World Heritage Historical Sites in Japan.

UNESCO World Heritage Historical Sites in Japan. The Historical Sites Himeji-jo, Historic Villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama, Hiroshima Peace Memorial (Genbaku Dome), Gusuku Sites and Related Properties of the Kingdom of Ryukyu, and Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine and its Cultural Landscape.

Must-see historical sites include Himeji Castle for its inspirational architecture, Hiroshima for its exposé of the true horrors of nuclear war, and Shirakawa-go and Gokayama for opening a wonderful window onto past life in a remote rural area of Japan. The Gusuku Sites and Related Properties of the Kingdom of Ryukyu World Heritage Site celebrates 500 years of history in the Ryukyu Islands (that chain of islands between Kyushu and Taiwan now the modern Japanese prefecture of Okinawa ) from the 12th to the 17th centuries.


Yuki-gakoi & Yuki-tsuri

Yuki-gakoi and Yuki-tsuri.

Yuki-gakoi & Yuki-tsuri. Each autumn the urban and suburban landscape of central and northern Japan sprouts strange new 'sculptures' Yuki-gakoi and Yuki-tsuri.

To the uninitiated, it is as if some courtesy wrapping service at a department store has gone crazy and broken out into a cross between landscape wrapping and art, with a sculptured theme. To understand the significance of this seasonal wrapping frenzy (no it's not related to Christmas or year end gifts) you need to understand the extremes of the Japanese climate. Particularly in the central regions of Honshu, the Sea of Japan coast, northern Honshu and Hokkaido, the annual range in temperatures is dramatic and these regions trade hot, humid summers for cool, cold, or even frigid winters with varying amounts of snowfall.


Omi-watari

Lake Suwa Omi-watari.

Omi-watari. As the ice begins to expand on Japan's northern lakes during the relative warmth of daytime, the great cracked sheets meet again and are forced together by expansion, their edges collide and rise upwards, cracking and breaking into a jumble of jagged ice fragments that form a ragged ridge across Lake Suwa that may continue for many kilometres in a form known as Omi-watari. Omi are gods, and the name Omi-watari relates to the gods of Lake Suwa in Nagano Prefecture.

When the god Takeminakata-no-kami of the Upper Suwa Shrine, walks across the frozen lake to visit Goddess Yasakatome-no-kami of the Lower Shrine in winter, he leaves behind a trail of his passing - the Omi-watari. The presence of Omi-watari was considered a sign by local people, indicating that if it was safe for a god to cross, then it was safe for them too and they went out on to the ice for ice fishing.


Cape Soya

Cape Soya, Hokkaido, Japan.

Cape Soya (Soya Misaki) is firmly on the tourist route and sees a steady stream of visitors arriving and departing by bus, car or motorcycle, braving the elements for obligatory souvenir photographs 'kinnen-shashin' before dashing into the local outlets for tasty soft icecream or souvenirs such as dried fish. Some are lucky, and on fine days they are able to see the ex-Japanese territory of Sakhalin on the horizon just 43 km away to the north.

While most visitors take in the view in minutes, and perhaps spend longer over their shopping, those who linger longer find that the geographical novelty of Soya Misaki is just a small part of its significance. Hokkaido's Cape Soya, the northernmost tip of Japan, could as well be dubbed the 'Cape of Monuments,' as it is rich in history much of which is commemorated there.

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