The island of Kyushu is a subtropical mix of Japanese tradition, rural culture and vibrant city life and with few travellers going beyond the capital, there's still a lot left undiscovered...
The island of Kyushu is a subtropical mix of Japanese tradition, rural culture and vibrant city life. It’s one of Japan’s four main islands, lying in the far south of the country, around a six-hour train from Tokyo. Few travellers make the journey down from the capital though, which means Kyushu still retains its traditional charm, where you can explore the temples, mountains and valleys with very few other travellers in sight.
But Kyushu is a large island – one that would take you weeks (even months) to see in full. Instead, it would be better to pick a section of the island to explore. North-west Kyushu is a great choice – easy to access from the main hub of Fukuoka, but wildly diverse: an area of forested mountains and white-sand beaches, quaint Dutch villages and Hidden Christian World Heritage Sites. The region is made up of the prefectures of Fukuoka, Nagasaki and Saga – each place worth visiting for their food, cultural heritage and spectacular scenery.
Read on for our ultimate guide to travelling the north-west of Kyushu...
North-west Kyushu is a year-round destination – cherry blossoms in spring, festivals in summer, beautiful red leaves in autumn and snow-capped peaks in winter. The temperatures can be extreme though: bitterly cold in winter and baking hot in summer, which makes spring and autumn the two most comfortable months to travel. Still, no matter what time of year you visit, there’s always something to see and do, from temple visits to cultural museums to hikes among the rice paddies.
Kyushu's main international airport is in Fukuoka City. You can fly with BA via Seoul, Finnair via Helsinki and ANA or JAL via Tokyo. You can also take a direct Shinkansen train from Tokyo, which takes around five hours.
Kyushu is best explored by car, giving you the ability to go where buses can’t go, and the freedom to detour into the mountains or around the rice fields. Hire a car from Fukuoka: the airport or Hakata station are good places to pick it up. Keep in mind that Japan’s highway tolls can be expensive, so set your sat-nav to avoid the toll roads. It might take you longer to get around, but you’ll see parts of the countryside that you’d miss if you were whizzing by on the highway.
The island is connected by a network of highway bus routes, so it’s possible to travel to all the major cities by coach. The journey is usually quite comfortable, with a TV at the front playing a film (albeit in Japanese) to keep riders entertained. You can get an English map of the bus routes and times from Hakata Bus Station in Fukuoka. Buses only go so far though, so if you want to visit the more rural areas, a car would be better.
Japan’s supersonic bullet train, the Shinkansen, connects Tokyo to Fukoka, then continues down the island to Kagoshima in the far south. Outside of this high-speed route, there are limited express trains, which often display a grand European-style design, with fancy buffet cars and comfy seats. You can reach most places by train and the view out the window is great – though just bear in mind that it will take you a long, long time.
The small but luxurious Garden Terrace Hotel in Nagasaki is perched on a hill, overlooking the glittering Nagasaki Bay. The hotel features in the Michelin Guide for its exceptional design and service. Rooms are modern and spacious, each featuring an outside terrace that offers soul-stirring views of the city below, ranked among the ‘top three night views of Japan’. Breakfast and dinner can be included in your stay, with both Western and Japanese options on the menu.
Nishi-tei is a traditional ryokan, or inn, located in central Fukuoka city. It was originally built as a private house in early Showa period, before the former owner reformed it into a Japanese-style inn in 1960. It still has all the attributes of a traditional Japanese house: wooden walls, tatami-floored rooms, inner courtyard inspired by zen aesthetics – rare for a city centre location. The rooms are compact but well-designed, with a wonderful Japanese breakfast – often featuring local Fukuoka delicacies – served each morning.
If you want to get even closer to nature, Ikenoyama Sou is also home to a camping ground, surrounding a natural lake known as Aso Pond. Unlike a traditional campsite, you can sleep in small huts here, with both an indoor and outdoor hot spring bath. You can relax in the thick, steaming water while gazing out over the mountains and the small village of Hoshinomura below.
At this traditional Japanese inn you can stay in a picturesque tatami room, some featuring their own private hot springs to spend an evening soaking in. Even if your room doesn’t come with its own bath, the ryokan has indoor and outdoor onsens, one of which has water infused with green tea for good health. Dinner, included in your stay, is delicious – a kaiseki-style meal featuring plate after plate of intricate, colourful dishes, including the famed local Saga beef.
This traditional Japanese guesthouse is located beside Hoshino river, considered the cleanest river in Fukuoka prefecture. Meals served here feature the colourful abundance of local produce, from fresh river trout and locally-reared beef to wild vegetables that can only be found in the surrounding mountain villages. From the hot spring bath, you can peer up at the starry night’s sky – the refreshing chill of the mountain air caressing your shoulders.
This traditional restaurant is nestled among the forested mountains, with a healthy menu of local produce that changes with the seasons. The wooden dining room features large tables with a coal hearth in the centre, where a small cast-iron cauldron heats seasonal vegetables ready to be shared among the guests. All of the ingredients come from the local area – some are even picked from the surrounding forests. In autumn, the location is particularly spectacular as the foliage bursts into deep red and vivid orange.
This 3 Michelin-star sushi restaurant might leave a big dent in your wallet, but if you’re going to splurge, this is the place to do it. The ‘sushi master’ is the owner of the restaurant and also one of the most in-demand young chefs in Japan. His grandparents also own a sushi restaurant and he has been training in the art of sushi since he was five years’ old. With perfectly precise gestures, he slices and prepares the fish in front of you, serving immaculate dish after dish. The restaurant setting for the experience is also beautiful, with tableware and crockery that looks as if it has been plucked out of a museum.
At Yamanoterra Yuukyo, you can also try a local experience called ‘nagashi somen’, where somen noodles glide down a shoot in cold water as you sit waiting near the end. As the noodles whizz past, you use your chopsticks to try and pluck out as many as you can before they fall into the waiting basket at the bottom.
The town of Arita is known for its beautiful porcelain and pottery, with streets lined with pretty stores and pottery workshops. At AritaHuis – a restaurant at the heart of the town – the region’s artisanal craftsmanship comes to life, with every dish served using local porcelain. The cuisine is a Japanese-French combination, where European dishes take on a Japanese flavour using seasonal produce and locally-sourced meat and dairy. The restaurant is open-plan, allowing you to watch the chefs hard at work.
The Karatomari Ebisu Oyster Hut, run by Karatomari’s fishermen's association, can cater for up to 320 customers in a large market hall resembling something of a fish market. Here, you can grill fresh seafood for yourself on a small barbecue set up at the centre of every table. There is a wide variety of seafood on offer, but the biggest lure is the oysters: cheap, delicious and kept super fresh by storing them in large trays of water fitted with ultraviolet rays. Grilled over an open flame, with a dash of soy sauce, the taste of the oysters is rich, salty and very moorish. Note, the hut is only open from November to March, depending on how well the oysters have grown.
At the Fukuoka City Tourist Information Centre, you can buy a ‘yatai ticket’ for JPY1,000 (£6). The ticket can be used at one of nine affiliated yatai food stalls in the city to have a drink and a local dish. It’s an easy way to experience yatai food culture if you’re worried about the language barrier.
Ramen is usually served in a meat-based broth, but not at the tiny, atmospheric Ramen Toride in Sasebo, Nagasaki Prefecture. Here, the specialty is seafood, reflecting Nagasaki’s local fishing industry. The rich, creamy broth is full of flavours of the sea, packed with noodles and vegetables for a satisfying meal. At the end, the restaurant gives you a bowl of flavoured rice to dunk into your remaining broth – an unusal way to finish a ramen dish, but an innovative way to soak up all the remaining flavour.
In Fukuoka city you’ll find a collection of street food stalls known as yatai – a rare treat in a country where street food is far from the norm. You’ll sit shoulder-to-shoulder with the locals as you tuck into delicious food and plenty of cold beer; a great opportunity to strike up a conversation with your neighbour. Usually the dishes are regional specialities, but not at Heureux 8, where a unique blend of French cuisine is the plat du jour. The owner of the stall only speaks Japanese, but thanks to a helpful smartphone app, the menus can be read and ordered in a variety of different languages.
Tucked into a hillside above the rice fields of Yame stands the picturesque Reiganiji Temple. It was founded in 1423 by Eirin Shuzui, a Zen Buddhist monk, who brought back 20 Chinese tea seeds from a monastery he visited in China. The monks at Reiganji began cultivating them, and within a few years the temple became the base for a variety of green tea cultivation and processing techniques. This is commemorated every 88 nights, as the monks of the temple make a ritual offering of the finest green tea Yame has to offer to the gods in recognition for their blessing. Outside the temple, you’ll also find an unusual 12-metre high rock, known as ‘Oiwa’ – considered to be one of the ‘three mysterious rocks of Japan’.
During the 1600s, Christianity swept through the countryside of Kyushu — something the Edo period leaders fiercely rejected. Today, you can explore the Hidden Christian Sites in the Nagasaki Region that dot the cities and countryside, from cathedrals tucked into hillsides to old churches among the rice fields, now protected under UNESCO World Heritage.
Oura Church Basilica is one such place, considered the oldest church in Japan. Also known as the Church of 26 Martyrs, it was built in honour of the European and Japanese priests that were crucified in Nagasaki in 1597. Another place worth visiting is the Immaculate Conception Cathedral, also known as Urakami Cathedral. It was completely destroyed by Nagasaki’s atomic bomb explosion in 1945, but was then rebuilt, integrating into the new building the statues that had survived the bombing.
The town of Yame, in Fukuoka, is renowned for its green tea, thanks to its favourable climate and high-quality mountain water. Start by visiting the Tea Culture Hall, where you can sample Gyokuro, considered one of the finest green tea varieties in the whole of Japan. At their on-site restaurant, Yame Saryo, you can tuck into all kinds of green tea dishes, including green tea noodles and green tea flavoured ice cream. You can also make your own Matcha powder to take home by grinding tensha tea in a stone mill, as well as take part in a traditional Japanese tea ceremony.
Once you’ve had your fill of green tea, head over to the nearby Yame Central Tea Garden, where you can see the tea production in action. Green tea fields extend for miles across the rolling hills, the vibrant bushes contrasting against the deep blue mountains in the distance.
Did you know?
Yame’s Gyokuro tea has been voted the best tea in Japan for 18 years in a row. The tea gets its distinct flavour by being grown in the shade, before each leaf is carefully picked by hand.
Karatsu City is a vibrant place in the far north-west of Kyushu. It’s home to a number of fascinating cultural buildings, including the former Takatori Residence, once home to a coal magnate known as Koreyoshi Takatori who managed a massive network of mines across Kyushu in the Meiji Period. This residence is now registered as a National Important Cultural Property, showcasing the architecture and history of the region when it flourished from its booming coal industry.
Another spot worth visiting is the Hikiyama Exhibition Hall – an impressive cultural museum located near the coast of Karatsu City. The hall houses the 14 Hikiyama festival floats that are used in the Karatsu Kunchi Festival, which takes place every autumn. Each float weighs over two tons each, and the sight of them lined up together makes for a very impressive sight.
You’ll feel like you’re walking through Kyoto as you explore Fukuoka’s Hakata Old Town area. There are countless temples and shrines, including Tochoji temple, which enshrines the tallest wooden statue of Buddha in Japan. Beneath the Buddha statue snakes a pitch-black tunnel that you can walk through, symbolising your movement from dark to light. You’ll also find Kushida shrine nearby – a simple but ornate structure that acts as the starting place of the Hakata Gion Yamakasa festival; Fukuoka’s best festival, which takes place at the start of July each year.
The 140-year-old beer brewery of Suginoya has been awarded numerous plaudits for its great tasting beer at the Asia Beer Cup (a beer championship). You can take a tour of the brewery before a generous tasting, sometimes hosted by the owner himself who used to be a sake producer before turning his hand to beer. There’s also an on-site cake shop, with sweet treats made using beer yeast.
In the small town of Hama-Machi, the white-washed buildings of Sakagura Street are home to several sake breweries, with wood-fronted shophouses that make you feel like you’re stepping back in time. Hop between the breweries to sample their local treats. At Fuchiyo Brewery, for instance, you can get a bottle of sake that won ‘Champion Sake 2019’ at the annual International Wine Challenge awards, while at Minematsu Brewery, you can taste fermented sake cheese. The breweries hold an annual sake festival each spring, with sake tastings held under the cherry blossom trees.
This 200-year-old sake and shochu brewery in Yame is run by a 7th generation sake master. The brewery creates 28 different types of sake and 20 brands of distilled shochu, with around 12% of its products exported to countries like USA, Hong Kong and China. You can take an English tour of the factory, before tucking into a selection of their delicious sakes.
This wonderful farm – positioning itself as an ‘agricultural theme park’ – is a place where visitors can get hands-on with the local farmers, harvesting fruit and vegetables and learning how to use the produce to make local dishes. One of the best activities at the farm is learning to make soba (buckwheat) noodles – rolling and cutting the dough, under the guidance of an English-speaking instructor – before tucking into your creation at the on-site restaurant.
Yame Traditional Craft Centre showcases handicrafts from around the area, showcasing the town’s long heritage of paper-making, lanterns and bamboo weaving. Situated in a two-storey former train station, the centre holds a gift shop as well as Japan’s largest Buddhist alter and a huge stone lantern at the entrance. Nearby, Unagi no Nedoko is a craft business that supports local craftsmen and raises awareness of the region’s products. Visit their shop and learn about the 100 local businesses they support while enjoying a locally-sourced coffee at their café.
At Sanui Textile Workshop, you can experience a textile tradition that has survived for 770 years. Part museum, part workshop, there are magnificent historical tapestries on display, alongside traditional wooden looms and smaller artworks. You can tour the workshop, watching the workers create their beautiful fabrics, before finishing in a shop full of intricate woven art that you can buy to take home.
Just a short walk down the road from the Yame Traditional Craftwork Center is Unagi no Nedoko; a business set up in 2012 to bring economic benefits to local craftsmen in Kyushu. They have two shops; one that specialises in products from Kyushu and the other specialising in bringing products from other parts of Japan to Kyushu. There is a coffee shop with locally-sourced coffee and a bicycle rental available.
The scenery of Okawachiyama pottery village is like stepping into a painting. Tucked away in the mountains, this remote spot – often referred to as the Village of Secret Kilns – was once an exclusive pottery hub producing porcelain for Japan's elite, though today it makes beautiful works of art for the rest of the country too. You can explore the 30-or-so kilns and workshops that line the cobbled streets, witnessing a traditional way of life that is hard to find in other parts of Japan.
Located in Arita town, this museum houses the largest collection of ceramics from Arita, Karatsu and Nabeshima. There are thousands of items on display, charting the change in style of ceramics in the local regions over the years. There are permanent exhibitions, as well as temporary displays, and you can take a tour with a guide to learn more about the history. The complex is modern and spacious with a beautiful plaza in front of the building dotted with orange Japanese maple trees.
This picturesque collection of islands is considered one of the most beautiful bays in the world. In Japanese, Kujukushima means ‘99 islands’ – a misleading name for the bay given there are actually 208; each one covered in green forest, scattering the aquamarine water. There are various observation points where you can enjoy 180-degree views of the scenery, though you can also enjoy a boat trip if you want to get closer to the action.
The city of Itoshima in Fukuoka Prefecture is famed for its two curved rocks that jut out of the ocean side-by-side like island. The rocks are linked by a braided rope, symbolising a happy marriage. The scene is considered one of the most beautiful places in Japan to watch the sunset – especially in summer when the sun passes directly between the two rocks before it sinks into the ocean.
The private garden of Misojien, only open during autumn, is one of the best places in Japan to witness momiji (red maple leaves). The garden explodes into colour every year, with more shades of red and orange than you knew existed. You can stroll the quiet paths beneath the maple trees in a scene that looks as if it’s been plucked from a painting, the ground scattered in a sea of auburn leaves as more twirl in the air around you.
As you stand in this peaceful park, it’s hard to believe you’re at the centre of a metropolis. The park is designed around a small lake, with twisting paths and bridges that criss-cross the still water. This was once the site of Fukuoka’s castle, but today it is the domain of joggers and dog walkers, who come day and night to enjoy the peace and quiet. On the bank of the lake, you’ll also find Fukuoka Art Museum, which is worth a visit
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