With summer quickly approaching, why not try a destination off the beaten path of Tokyo-Kyoto for your next trip? Although it takes some time to get there, the island of Kyushu has a lot to offer: gorgeous natural scenery, delicious foods, and activities to satisfy anyone’s interests. Whether you aim to soak in an onsen, learn more about Japan’s history, or go out on the town (or a combination of the three), you can do so on Kyushu.
Eight prefectures make up Kyushu, seven of which are on the mainland; the eighth, Okinawa Prefecture, encompasses hundreds of islands south of Japan’s major landmass. Since Okinawa is a destination in and of itself, I will leave it out of my travel advice for this column—besides, I haven’t been there yet! (Neither have I had the chance to travel to Saga or Miyazaki Prefectures, so I will leave them out, too. If you have recommendations for any destinations in Kyushu, feel free to comment below!)
The most convenient way to access Kyushu from Ishikawa Prefecture is by plane. Regular ANA flights connect Komatsu Airport with Fukuoka Airport, where you can disembark and travel downtown within six minutes by subway. Flight times average about an hour and twenty minutes, with prices depending on the season and booking times. If you wish to fly directly into any other prefectures on mainland Kyushu, you will have to travel to Osaka to do so. Taking the train is another option; it’s a two-and-a-half-hour trip by shinkansen from Shin-Osaka Station to Hakata Station in Fukuoka (about ¥15000 one-way).
The weather in Kyushu is most favorable during fall and spring, with average temperatures slightly warmer than those on Honshu. In the summer, temperatures can rise to over 30°C with high humidity and rain. Winters are cool to cold, with lows in the single digits. Be sure to bring your rain gear, regardless of the season!
Fukuoka: Fukuoka Prefecture’s capital city, also called Fukuoka, is the largest city in Kyushu and a convenient launch point for trips around the island. The Sanyo and Kyushu shinkansen lines converge at Hakata Station in Fukuoka, and flights to Miyazaki Prefecture and Yakushima leave regularly from Fukuoka Airport. For a night in Fukuoka, I suggest fueling up with a bowl of the region’s famous tonkotsu ramen from Fukuoka’s yatai (food stalls), then walking along the Nakagawa River to see the city light up at night. From the riverbank you can easily venture into the Nakasu or Tenjin entertainment districts lining the east and west side of the river, respectively. For those wishing to travel to Fukuoka over the summer, the city’s oldest festival, Yamakasa, takes place in early July. The festival centers around a series of races run by groups of male representatives from Fukuoka’s seven districts…while carrying enormously heavy kazariyama floats.
Nagasaki: Nagasaki is an infamous name for many: the prefectural capital was the second and (so far) the last city in the world to experience an attack by nuclear bomb. The Fat Man plutonium bomb detonated over Nagasaki on August 9th, 1945. The city as it stands today is a testament to the extraordinary capacity of the Japanese people to overcome adversity and rebuild. Naturally, many places of interest in Nagasaki City reference this horrific historical event. The Nagasaki Atomic Bomb museum features a collection of fascinating and sobering photographs, survivor accounts, and other mementos from the bombing. Nagasaki Peace Park displays a number of sculptures and monuments donated to Nagasaki after the bombing as well as a huge statue of a titanic male figure, one hand pointing to the sky to warn of the impending blast.
Nagasaki has much to offer in the way of history outside the realm of World War II as well. Nagasaki Port was one of the only ports open to international trade during sakoku, Japan’s period of “closed country” foreign policy. As a result of Dutch traders’ influence during this time, the Japanese were introduced to badminton, coffee, and photography, among other Western products and inventions. Since 1996, Nagasaki City has endeavored to restore the artificial island of Dejima, which served as a trading post for the Dutch from the 17th to the 19th century. Nagasaki’s expansive Chinatown district lies adjacent to Dejima, if you’re hankering for some Chinese food.
The expanse of the city and Nagasaki Port is perhaps best viewed from Glover Garden, the site of the oldest surviving western-style house in Japan. Completed in 1863, the house and its surrounding gardens were owned by the Scottish merchant Thomas Blake Glover. Both the house and garden escaped the atomic bombing unharmed. The garden is especially beautiful during sakura season.
Lastly, you can visit Hashima, nicknamed “Gunkanjima,” an abandoned island off the coast of Nagasaki and a relic of industrial Japan (not to be confused with Mitsukejima here in Ishikawa, also called “Gunkanjima.” The nickname means “Battle Ship Island” due to the shape of the islands). Gunkanjima functioned as a coal mine until 1974, when petroleum began to overtake coal as an energy source in Japan. The coal mine shut down and the residents of the island abandoned their large concrete apartment buildings, schools, shops, and public bath house, leaving the buildings entirely intact. Subsequent exposure to the elements has transformed Gunkanjima’s structures into an eerie concrete jungle, said to have inspired the lair of Bond villain Raoul Silva in the latest James Bond movie, Skyfall. For many years the island was closed to visitors and visible only from tour boats that circled the island; as of 2009 visitors can set foot on and tour Gunkanjima. Gunkanjima makes the perfect setting for post-apocalyptic photo shoots and is accessible via 30-minute ferry ride.
Kumamoto: If you think Kumamon, Kumamoto’s prefectural mascot, is prevalent outside of Kyushu, just wait until you get to his birthplace. You can buy pretty much anything with Kumamon’s likeness on it here, including Kumamon panties.
Although the name Kumamoto translates as “origin of bears,” the region is perhaps more famous for its horses: Kumamoto is renowned for basashi, raw horse meat, first consumed when real-life “Last Samurai” Saigo Takamori commanded his starving troops to butcher their horses for food during the Satsuma Rebellion of 1877. Sometime between the late 19th century and the present day, raw horse became an exalted prefectural delicacy. Ba-yu, a line of bath products containing “the natural ingredient horse oil,” is also popular here. Extract of horse, according to one bottle’s label, is said to be “even better for your hair than mutton fat!”
Kumamoto’s most popular tourist destination is Kumamoto Castle, the site of the aforementioned campaign of Saigo Takamori against Meiji government troops, who entrenched themselves within the castle walls. The castle is considered one of the mightiest and most historically significant castles in Japan for its survival during this time. Another majestic sight, albeit of a different kind, is the volatile Mt. Aso volcano which rests within the world’s largest volcanic caldera. Although certainly out of the way, Mt. Aso is worth a visit. Depending on the season, you can walk, take a bus, or ride in a cable car up to the top of the mountain and look directly into the active crater (although if you have asthma or other breathing problems I would not recommend exposing yourself to volcanic fumes). The eerie, almost Martian landscape surrounding the volcanic crater makes for great hiking, and you can view the expanse of the surrounding caldera from the crater’s highest points.
Oita: Oita Prefecture is the site of some of Kyushu’s most famous onsen resort towns. In Beppu, pungent sulphuric steam rises from vents in the earth every few yards and from the flues of those fortunate enough to have personal hot-spring baths in their own homes. The streets are lined with stands selling corn, sweet potatoes, and eggs steamed in the hot spring vents. The city’s hot spring facilities are numerous and usually charge about ¥1000 to ¥2000 for entry, depending on whether it’s a weekend or weekday. Apart from the onsen, Beppu’s most prominent attractions are the so-called “Hells,” eight geothermic hotspots including vibrantly colored pools of hot water and a geyser. The Hells, considered viewpoints of scenic beauty, have unfortunately become quite touristy—you have to pay admission at each of the Hells separately and you often have to walk through a gift shop in order to see the Hell itself. Furthermore, many kitschy sites have sprung up around the Hells to draw visitors, and a few of them (a gloomy zoo and a crocodile exhibit) keep their featured animals in pretty appalling conditions. My advice is to visit only one or two of the hells and save your money. The Sea Hell (Umijigoku), is striking and features a spacious walking area to boot.
Just 10 kilometers inland from Beppu lies the trendy and scenic onsen resort district of Yufuin, said to be the most famous hot spring resort town in Kyushu. Yufuin offers a peaceful, secluded atmosphere, cute boutiques, and museums in addition to hot springs. Some of the rotenburo (open-air baths) here include a lovely view of Mt. Yufu.
Kagoshima: Kagoshima is the southernmost prefecture of Japan’s main islands. I have had the opportunity to visit this wonderful place three times through a sister-city-like connection with my hometown, so of all the places in Kyuushu, I know this one the best. In the prefectural capital of Kagoshima, I recommend the aquarium, which has a large host of fish as well as exhibits featuring the local fauna of Kagoshima Bay. (And who doesn’t enjoy hearing Japanese visitors exclaim “Oishisou!” when observing aquatic exhibits?) Within the city you can also sample kurobuta, specialty pork from black pigs, and other regional delicacies: sweet potatoes, daikon radishes, tiny tangerines, and shochu, liquor distilled from sweet potatoes. For an unparalleled view of the city, ride the Amuran Ferris Wheel on top of the Amu Plaza shopping center or bathe in the rotenburo at Shiroyama Kanko Hotel for an admission fee of about ¥1350.
Kagoshima City faces another one of Kyushu’s stunning active volcanoes, Sakurajima, which frequently belches ash and soot from its main crater. Although living within proximity of an active volcano is certainly dangerous, people in Kagoshima seem to take it in their stride. It’s not uncommon to see the citizens of Kagoshima sweeping soot from their storefronts and wearing masks to prevent the inhalation of the fine gray ash that occasionally descends on the city. About 20,000 people even live on the volcanic island of Sakurajima, and you can pay a visit yourself by taking a trip on one of the regular ferries from Kagoshima Port. On the island, you can rent bicycles and visit Sakurajima’s volcanic museum, hot spring foot baths, an ancient stone torii gate buried in volcanic ash from the volcano’s major eruption in 1914, and a volcanic observatory with a view of Kagoshima City across the bay.
If you’re looking to spend some time on the beach, travel an hour south of the main city along the Satsuma Peninsula to Ibusuki. Underground geysers heat Ibusuki’s black beaches, and burying oneself in the hot sand is said to promote blood circulation (it definitely promotes perspiration). Also worth visiting in Ibusuki is the Flower Park, a botanical garden with over 400 varieties of plants, some of which are downright alien in appearance. A hike to the top of the garden yields an awesome view of Kagoshima Bay. Lastly, be sure to try some nagashi somen, Ibusuki’s famous “swimming noodles.”
Kagoshima Bonus: Yakushima About 3 hours south of Kagoshima by ferry, Yakushima is an absolutely gorgeous subtropical island forested with ancient cedar trees. The island is accessible by two types of ferry: a fast but expensive Jetfoil that leaves seven times a day (two and a half hours, ¥13000 round trip) or a slow but cheap car ferry departing twice a day (four hours, ¥7900 round trip). Driving the circumference of Yakushima, it seems there is a breathtaking view around every bend. After visiting the island in November, I can assure you it is a must see, as long as you fulfill these conditions:
1) Rent a car. One main road encircles the island, with smaller interior roads. It is easy to drive on Yakushima and worth it to rent a car to avoid having to wait for infrequent buses. Scooters are also available for rent, but if you have substantial luggage you’d do better to rent an enclosed vehicle to keep your belongings out of the rain; the cost is almost the same as that of a scooter if you split the cost between multiple travelers. One of the best ways to see the island is to drive the entire length of the main road, which takes only a few hours depending on how frequently you stop to take pictures.
2) If you don’t speak Japanese well, travel with someone who does. I encountered few English speakers on Yakushima, and renting the car in particular required comprehension of Japanese. The elderly gentleman with whom I negotiated had such a strong accent, it was hard to comprehend if he was even speaking Japanese.
3) Although certainly not necessary, I recommend that you travel to Yakushima during the off season. It makes you feel as though you have the whole island to yourself, and you may even be the only guests in your whole hostel (as my travel buddy and I were!).
4) Bring a raincoat and rain gear. It rains a lot on Yakushima, but don’t let that stop you from exploring the extraordinary natural beauty this island has to offer.
Have any additional tips for destinations, lodging, or restaurants in Kyushu? Add your comments below!
Close acquaintances have described Karin as “a loose cannon cop on the edge who doesn’t play by the rules.” When not on the run from bounty hunters, she enjoys listening to public radio, eating ice cream, and challenging herself with ambitious cooking projects.