Java is Indonesia's main island, home to just over half the country's total population of 240 million people and dominating the nation politically and economically — sometimes stoking serious resentment from some of the other large islands among the thousands that make up the archipelago.
The island's history is something of a greatest hits of the world's big religions. The eighth century Mataram kingdom was the first substantial fiefdom on the island, and produced the temples of the Dieng Plateau. The Buddhist Sailendra dynasty came next, constructing the temple of Borobudur. After an interlude of several others, the great Majapahit kingdom, which claimed sovereignty over Java and Bali, rose to power around the 14th century and with its decline, Islam rose to prominence. The Dutch took control of most of Java by the end of the 18th century (at a stretch we could call this Christianity's main appearance, though missionaries have long traipsed to remote areas of the archipelago seeking souls) and stayed in power until Indonesian independence in 1945.
Java hosts the teeming, messy capital of Jakarta, the special administrative district of Yogyakarta, and the provinces of East Java, West Java, Central Java and Banten. Three main ethnic groups live on the island: West Java hosts the Sundanese, the Javanese are spread across West and Central Java, and the Madurese come from the island of Madura (a part of East Java).
Getting around the island is fairly easy, with a reasonable if aging train, bus and plane network. The Javanese are keen domestic tourists, so much of the island's tourism infrastructure is geared toward locals, but it's easy enough for keen foreign travellers to tap into the network. Having said that, there's also a well-trodden foreign tourist trail that means non-adventure travellers can get around quite a bit without wandering too far outside their comfort zone.
Many travellers fly in to the mega-city of Jakarta to begin their trip. The city tends to either enthrall or repel, with its traffic congestion, polluted waterways, ill-functioning public transport and dirty streets; the flipside of this urban nightmare is glittering malls and intriguing markets; fashionably-clad, friendly people; ever-trendier restaurants and bars; interesting historical sites and a vibrant, if smog-choked, street- and night-life.
Escape from Jakarta and the picture is quite different. Java remains a predominantly agricultural island, peppered with volcanoes whose eruptions have left fertile soil in their wake, allowing the land to feed such a huge population.
Bogor just outside Jakarta is a popular green and cool escape from the city — and next stop on the well-worn tourist trail, followed by Bandung. This major city hosted the 1955 first-ever Asian-African Conference, or Bandung Conference, a high-profile affair of its era that triggered a wave of nationalist and anti-colonialist movements around the world.
Java offers some good beaches and surf breaks. In West Java, Pangandaran is the most popular beach resort area; lashed by a tsunami in 2006 that killed more than 500 people, the town has since regenerated and bounced back. West Java's best surf breaks include Pelabuhan Ratu and Panaitan Island.
The self-governing city of Yogyakarta is one of Java's top attractions. The cultural and artistic capital of the island manages to hold on to tradition while also making nods to modernity. In the old city lies the kraton, an 18th-century built walled area with the sultan living at the very centre.
Yogyakarta is the spot to catch a wayang kulit (shadow puppet) show, hear some gamelan, browse batik stores and learn a little about traditional and contemporary Javanese art. The Indonesian language courses on offer in this city are renowned as being the best on the island, if not all of the country.
Thanks to the number of university students living here, Yogyakarta has a vibrancy: think many cheap but decent restaurants, good market shopping featuring young local designers, decent live music and other varied cultural attractions.
A short distance from Yogyakarta — and usually visited on day trips from here — are Indonesia's two most famed archaeological sites. The first is the beautiful ninth century Buddhist temple complex of Borobudur. This UNESCO World Heritage site is one of the few Javanese tourist attractions that really draws big crowds, so be prepared for a less-than-deserted experience. It's worth arriving at sunrise to see the hundreds of Buddhist statues amid the muted pinks and yellows of dawn.
The second site is Prambanan, another UNESCO World Heritage site. Built possibly in response to Borobudur in the ninth century, it's the largest Hindu temple in Indonesia and one of the largest in Southeast Asia.
In Central Java, Dieng Plateau boasts Java's oldest Hindu temples from around the eighth century. Over 400 temples once dotted the area but today just eight remain. Located high above sea level, the spot is worth a visit more for the interesting trip itself than the temples, with mists descending in the afternoons adding to the atmosphere.
Another Central Java attraction is the small Karimunjawa archipelago north of the city of Semarang. The coral-fringed islands remain mostly undeveloped for now and boast lovely beaches, good snorkelling and diving.
East Java's Surabaya is Indonesia's second city. Though the main port and commercial centre of the east, it's not quite on the scale of Jakarta, but is still a congested, hectic city with charms that are not easily uncovered.
From here, an overnight trip to Gunung Bromo, an active volcano, is a popular and worthwhile excursion. Ride on a horse across a sweeping empty plain reminiscent of a Tibetan plateau or traipse across on foot to witness the peak at sunrise.
Lying just off East Java is the rugged island of Madura, famed for its bull races; other regional attractions include the former royal capital of Solo or Surakarta, as well as Malang, home to cooler weather, apple orchards and crowds of domestic tourists.
From East Java, it's just a short hop over to Bali — but that's another section.
20 destinations in Java