With the country on the cusp of intense global attention, interest in Japan as a holiday destination has never been stronger. Rebecca Simpson visits Kyushu, the third-largest and least touristed island of Japan, and shares her five-day itinerary for must-see places to stay and visit on this beautiful island.
Japan is staring down the barrel of two epic international events – the Rugby World Cup in 2019 and the Olympic Games in 2020. If the country were a family, the mum would be walking around the house, pleading with the kids to tidy their rooms. “Get ready! They’ll be here any minute.” Her teenager would roll his eyes and quip, “Of course we’re ready; we’re Japan…” He’s right, Kyushu is definitely ready for international visitors. And it’s an absolute pleasure to explore.
The southernmost of Japan’s four main islands, Kyushu made up of eight prefectures, including Okinawa much further to the south (and a whole story of its own).
If you’re new to this part of the country, throw away all the bustling, high-density, high-tech images you hold in your head. Kyushu is a natural beauty. When the sun shines, the light is that special kind of bright we simply don’t get in other parts of Asia. Aesthetically, it has a lot in common with New Zealand – green and lush, with epic landscapes, and a coastline that’s rugged but accessible.
Other than ogling at its beauty, what else does Kyushu offer the visitor? In a word, lots. In the space of a single week you can visit volcanoes, trek through lush wilderness, explore historical sites that have become UNESCO World Heritage protected; and, when you’re tired from all that adventure, you can soak in some of the world’s most incredible natural hot springs.
You can also do all the unique things one does when in Japan – like shop for wacky, yet strangely effective, beauty products, or indulge in the country’s famed culinary delights. In fact, Kyushu is home to some of Japan’s most tasty morsels and mouthfuls: Chiran green tea, specialty vinegars and the country’s favoured shochu (a Japanese spirit made from sweet potato) originate from here. If you’re on a driving holiday, the region offers many “cellar door”-style gastronomic experiences; each one offers a tour of the facility before a meal featuring a menu inspired by the signature products. Two of our favourites were the Kirishima Shochu distillery and the Kakuida black vinegar village.
Getting to Kyushu
Kagoshima International Airport is a favourable entry point, with 12 direct flights a week from Hong Kong. It welcomes tourists not only with open arms but with a free mineralised foot bath to help promote circulation and reduce any swelling from your flight!
Kagoshima prefecture is an Insta-worthy location in itself, with active volcano Sakurajima providing an epic background from all angles. For centuries, this area was the country’s port to the outside world, so it’s an apt launching pad for foreign travellers. The museum at the Sengan-en Gardens is a nice way to kick off your time, especially if you enjoy history. You’ll discover Kagoshima’s past, rich in innovation and artistic pursuits like martial arts, music, and tea ceremonies. It’s a place famous for porcelain and glassware. If your passion is homeware, you’ll need to bring your credit card!
The region also boasts active volcanoes – there’s almost always something bubbling away in the background. These geological marvels work double time as the source of Japan’s famed onsen, plus as a super interesting tourist attractions for anyone from the age of three to 83.
Southern Kyushu Itinerary
We spent five days and four nights in the region, moving at a fast pace. There’s plenty to do; this itinerary could easily be spread across a full week.
The HK Express morning flight arrived at Kagoshima airport in the middle of the day. A quick soak at the airport foot bath was followed by lunch before we pushed on for an afternoon exploring Sengan-en Gardens. This is a must-do in Kagoshima; you could easily spend a half day here, exploring the gardens themselves, plus the museum and restaurants. Dinner was at Kagomma Furusato Food Village, where we wove through alleys of tiny restaurants, stopping to try small bites that highlight local ingredients. Then we took a night stroll around Kagoshima city, jumping on and off the trams and exploring beauty stores to discover local cosmetics and skincare products.
Stay: Richmond Hotel Kagoshima Kinseicho is a nice mid-level hotel with breakfast. For something at the higher end, Shiroyama Hotel has an outdoor onsen with a view of Sakurajima.
Sakurajima is the star of our second day; she’s been continuously erupting and bubbling away for more than 61 years. You can drive around the foot of the volcano in about an hour, or walk up to the viewing platform (Arimura Lava Lookout) – even be buried in the hot sands at her base. Away from Sakurajima, we stopped at a black vinegar distillery for lunch and learnt how the vinegar is made, before spending the afternoon at Kirishima Shrine. This important and sacred place is notable for its delicious-smelling cedar trees. Dinner was at Kirishima Factory Garden, where we learnt how shochu, Japan’s ultra-popular sweet potato spirit, is created.
Stay: Kanpo no Yado Nichinan is a mid-level hotel with a large public onsen, a communal bathing facility with natural hot springs. Part of it is open air, allowing you to sit in the hot spring water and watch the stars.
Our early morning drive to Udo Shrine, built inside a cave on the side of a cliff, was stunning. As was the low sunlight filtering through the cave; it made for incredible photos. Next stop was Aoshima Shrine, which is one for the lovers; stay a while and write a love note to hang in the garden. And don’t miss lunch at the Rainforest Café – kids will love the sprawling lawn. We then visited Amanoiwato Shrine, an important place for Japanese people; the sun goddess is said to have hidden here in a cave before being lured out by other gods. Three shrines in one day is a lot; however, all are historically noteworthy, and our visits were beautifully punctuated by seeing Takachiho Gorge, an old-school moment of romance served up in a row boat and framed between two glorious gorge walls.
Stay: Hotel Grateful Takachiho is another neat and clean mid-level hotel with breakfast, while Phoenix Seagaia Resort offers more luxe accommodation.
Time to get up close and personal with Mount Aso, Japan’s largest active volcano. We drove right to its barren top and watched the steam rise out the crater’s mouth. Wow. The surrounding area has lots of natural terain to explore; it phases rapidly from desert-like to luscious. (Check locally before you head up, as sometimes Aso is closed for safety.) Nearby Aso Shrine was significantly damaged by the 2016 Kumamoto earthquakes and is under reconstruction, but its surrounding streets are gorgeous; take the “Mizuki Stroll” to explore fascinating local shops; be sure to have lunch at Teppanyaki Aso Mabo, and check out the antique clock shop on the hour. You’ll also find delicious coffee and pastries here for afternoon tea. Finish at Daikanbou, the main viewpoint of Mount Aso, offering great close-of-day views of the volcano’s craters and peaks.
Stay: Kikuchi Hot Spring, Seiryuso, is a traditional Japanese hotel with the warmest of hospitality – it feels like a homestay. The adjacent onsen offers private rooms for solo or family use. For a more international feel, opt for the Hotel Nikko Kumamoto or New Sky.
Kumamoto Castle is great for people of all ages. The castle itself was badly damaged in the earthquake but the surrounding grounds are full of history, with markets to explore and food to try; plus, the museum has a fab costume experience and a bunch of fun interactive displays. Speaking of costumes, in Kumamoto’s Suizenji Garden you can rent a traditional kimono and wander around the manicured grounds feeling beautiful. If you take a liking to your particular garment, explore the markets around the gardens and find the vintage stall selling beautiful and affordable silk kimonos. A lunch at Sakuramichi, at the foot of the castle, is a lovely local experience that tastes as good as it looks.
Flights: Both Hong Kong Airlines and Hong Kong Express fly to Kagoshima direct, with daily flights from as little as HK$1,500. We flew with Hong Kong Express and back with Hong Kong Airlines for a four-night stay.
Land transport: Book a car online from one of the many hire companies and collect at the airport. Ask for an English GPS and an ETC (electronic toll collection) card when you book.
Not a driver? Japan has an amazing public transport system. Buy a JR Kyushu Rail Pass (jrkyushu.co.jp/English/railpass/railpass.jsp) or a SUNQ Pass for the buses (sunqpass.jp/english/index.shtml).
Planning and information: To get planning, head to Kyushu’s official website, welcomekyushu.com.
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