The Japanese archipelago was designed by someone delighting in complexity. The islands have a total area roughly the same as the US state of Montana, but whereas Montana is very neat with square corners, Japan is scattered about in four main islands – Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu. Japan extends about 3,000 kilometers from subtropical seas (Okinawa) to sub-arctic climes (northern Hokkaido) and takes up less than 0.3% of the earth’s surface.
The land is very up and down, with lots of up. Plains account for only 13% and plateaus for 12% of the total land area; the rest is mountainous, and the mountains are steep. The graceful curve of Japan’s highest mountain, Mr. Fuji (3,776 meters) is an exception. In Japan, 532 mountains are over 2,000 meters high. The landform that is today’s Japan began its history 400 million years ago. There are three continental plates that intersect under Japan, and these are responsible for what the islands look like and how they behave.
In fact, they do not behave terribly well. There are 67 active volcanoes in Japan and thousands of hot springs, the latter being the source of much pleasure and one of Japan’s greatest sports – sitting in hot water. Japan has a population of around 123 million people (7th largest in the world) and 75% of this population is concentrated in urban centers. Areas such as the Tokyo-Yokohama-Kawasaki conurbation are so densely populated that they have almost ceased to be separate cities, running into each other and forming a huge urban sprawl, which, if considered as a whole, would constitute the world’s largest city.
The biggest topic of conversation here in Japan is the weather. Japan experiences 4 seasons that go unmistaken. Late autumn and winter generally are dry. Spring is a bit disappointing, being often hazy and vague, but May picks up this slack. Then comes the Rainy season, or tsuyu, when the islands become soggy for about a month. Tsuyu is a kind of limbo, emphasized by the gray skies, gray faces, and green-gray mildewed shoes in the entryway.
When the rain stops, it’s summer. High humidity (97%) and high temperatures (30+ C). At this point one realizes that the earth’s equator has snarled itself around Tokyo Tower (where it stays for about 6 weeks). In early September, Japan is back where it belongs in the temperate latitudes, experiencing comfortable temperatures. Generally winters are mild and dry, with light snows likely from mid January to early March. October and early November are considered, with May, to be the best times for traveling in Japan and the best times to invite visitors from abroad.
The islands of Japan are located in a volcanic zone on the Pacific Ring of Fire. They are primarily the result of large oceanic movements occurring over hundreds of millions of years from the mid-Silurian to the Pleistocene as a result of the subduction of the Philippine Sea Plate beneath the continental Amurian Plate and Okinawa Plate to the south, and subduction of the Pacific Plate under the Okhotsk Plate to the north. Japan was originally attached to the eastern coast of the Eurasian continent. The subducting plates pulled Japan eastward, opening the Sea of Japan around 15 million years ago.
Japan has 108 active volcanoes. Destructive earthquakes, often resulting in tsunami, occur several times each century. The 1923 Tokyo earthquake killed over 140,000 people. More recent major quakes are the 1995 Great Hanshin earthquake and the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake, a 9.0-magnitude quake which hit Japan on March 11, 2011, and triggered a large tsunami.