Kyushu may not the first place that you think of when visiting Japan, however it is a destination that holds its own. Known as the land of fire and volcanoes, the island of Kyushu has all the core elements you could want from a trip to Japan.
The third largest of the Japanese islands, Kyushu is located on the southwestern tip of Japan. The mainland consists of seven prefectures: Fukuoka, Saga, Nagasaki, Oita, Kumamoto, Miyazaki and Kagoshima and dotted throughout the island are immense mountains, waterfalls, shrines and castles. Touring Kyushu gives you insight in to a place steeped in history, culture and nature that has been untouched and undiscovered by mainstream tourism. Accommodation can be as varied as you want it to be. However, ryokans are a great way to immerse yourself in Japanese culture. They can be found throughout the country and are more prolific in hot spring areas. More than a place to rest your head, they are a great way to experience the traditional way of living with tatami floors, futon beds, in-house onsens and local cuisine.
Kyushu is well known throughout Japan for the quality of its fresh food. There is an emphasis on locally sourced ingredients, with each area of the island having a signature dish and their own unique way of preparing the food.
On our recent trip to Kyushu, we were lucky enough to travel through the top third of the island and below are my top experiences I recommend you include in your Kyushu itinerary.
Pottery and green tea
The Saga prefecture is known for its ceramic and pottery industry and we were lucky enough to try our hand at the potter’s wheel, followed by some time to explore Arita Porcelain Park. We then moved on to Ureshino, a hot spring town that is known for its green tea. The Japanese are passionate about their green tea, from serving a freshly brewed pot at every meal to folk songs composed entirely about picking and brewing tea.
Kyushu is abundant with onsens (naturally heated volcanic hot springs), which means you are able to incorporate regular onsen visits throughout your tour of the island. Hotels and ryokans often have in-house onsens and the rooms are fully equipped with the essentials to make the most of your experience. Particular places of interest are Unzen Onsen and Beppu.
Unzen Onsen is a hot spring resort known as “the hells” that can be explored via paved nature trails. The area is a striking contrast between the natural beauty of the forest, the hot springs and macabre monuments dedicated to the Christian martyrs who were executed in the hells.
Beppu, in the Oita Prefecture, has the greatest hot spring flow in Japan and is well known for a wide selection of onsens situated between mountains and the sea. The air is rich with steam from the natural hot springs making it a great place for a complete onsen experience.
Gardens, castles & volcanoes
Japanese gardens, known for their precision, elegance and spirituality, are a must-see. Suizenji Garden, located near Kumamoto Castle was built over a period of 80 years and covers an area of 64.6 hectares. It is a lovely place to stroll around and pay a visit to the garden shrine.
Kumamoto Castle is an impressive castle that is currently being rebuilt after the earthquake in April 2016 and sections are slowly being opened to the public. With around 800 cherry trees, the castle grounds are magnificent during the cherry blossom season.
Mount Aso is the largest active caldera in Japan. You can get incredibly close to this ancient and vast crater and the sight is impressive and domineering. The area is closely monitored for poisonous volcanic gases and volcanic activity.
A rickshaw ride around Yufuin
A picturesque hot spring town, the best way to see this town is via a rickshaw ride. The rickshaws are kitted out with modern comforts (such as heated seats and blankets in the winter) but are pulled manually making it a unique experience. The rickshaw drivers are very knowledgeable and give you a guided tour of the city as they pull you along. The town is full of unique craft and souvenir shops along with little cafes making it a great place to stroll around and take in the scenery.
Kimono fitting experience combined with a walk around Kitsuki
A trip to Japan would not be complete without a Kimono experience and a kimono experience in Kitsuki is highly recommended. Once you have chosen your kimono from a selection of hundreds the experienced staff expertly fit and dress you. You can then wander the castle town in full dress. The castle town itself is beautiful, with a lane of samurai houses that are free of charge to visit when wearing a kimono.
Temples and shrines in Usa
Monjusenji Temple is a secluded and quiet Buddhist temple in the Kunisaki area of Orita. After an incredible drive up a winding mountain road you arrive at a parking lot in the middle of nowhere from which there is a walk up long steep steps to reach the temple. Once there, we were lucky enough to experience Gomadaki, the Bhuddish prayer ritual involving the burning of wooden wishing sticks.
The Usa shrine is one of Kyushu’s most iconic. This head shrine built in the 8th century is painted in a striking vermillion. The structure itself is impressive and is credited with shaping the local mountain worship religion.
Kyushu is definitely off Japan’s beaten track. If you are looking to experience the natural beauty of Japan and its varied culture, Kyushu is highly recommend.