7 mins

The Wanderlust guide to Kyushu, Japan

Kyushu is one of Japan’s lesser-visited islands: a place of hot springs, volcanoes and endless mountains. Here we give you our guide on everything you need to know about visiting...

The road to nowhere, Aso (Kyushu Tourism Board)

This autumn, the Rugby World Cup is heading to Kyushu – one of Japan’s lesser-visited islands. Here we give you a guide on everything you need to know about going...

Where is Kyushu?

The Aso valley, Kumamoto, on the west coast of Kyushu

The Aso valley, Kumamoto, on the west coast of Kyushu

The island of Kyushu is Japan’s most southerly main island. According to a UK-based survey for the Kyushu Tourism Board, less than 10% of people in the UK have even heard of Kyushu – yet it’s one of Japan’s largest islands.

It’s made up of seven prefectures (equivalent to ‘counties’): Fukuoka (the ‘capital); Saga, Nagasaki, Oita, Kumamoto, Kagoshima and Miyazaki. Together, they form a volcanic, mountainous landscape that wouldn’t be out of place in a Tolkien novel.

Here we introduce you to Fukuoka, Kumamoto and Oita...

Introducing Fukuoka

Fukuoka city is Kyushu’s easygoing capital, sitting on the north coast of the island beside the ocean. It’s a fun, friendly city with a laid-back cosmopolitan feel – thanks, in part, to its close proximity to mainland Asia (it’s actually closer to South Korea than Tokyo).

What to do in Fukuoka?

1. Eat at a yatai stand

Yatai stands in Fukuoka

Yatai stands in Fukuoka

Fukuoka is home to a rare occurrence in Japan: street-food stalls. These fun (usually alcohol-fuelled) ‘yatai’ can see around eight people on stools shoulder to shoulder. 

It’s very unusual in Japan to find a restaurant or bar with outside seating, so yatai are a bit of a treat. In the evenings, the beer is flowing and the fried food is sizzling, with everything from hot meaty bowls or ramen to chicken wings usually available – and of course, beer. There are lots of yatai found along Nakasu River, but those in the know head to the ones that line the streets around Tenjin Station.

The chefs work hard inside the stand

The chefs work hard inside the stand

Need to know

Most Yatai will have English menus available if you ask. 

They are usually open from 6pm until 2am, with many closed on Sundays. 

We recommend you try mentaiko – pollock roe – a local Fukuoka delicacy, which you can get inside dumplings, on omelettes, mixed with noodles, or just served in a spicy sauce to spoon into your mouth.

2. Explore Fukuoka’s temples and shrines

Tojida Temple in Hakata, home to a giant temple building, pagoda and Japan's largest seated Buddha...

Tojida Temple in Hakata, home to a giant temple building, pagoda and Japan's largest seated Buddha...

The 16m Buddha of Tojida Temple

The 16m Buddha of Tojida Temple

 

Fukuoka is one of the most underrated cultural regions of Japan. It’s home to more shrines and temples than Kyoto and Tokyo, with a designated walk in Hakata (taking roughly three hours) that loops you past the city’s most impressive structures.

Make sure you walk through Kushida shrine – 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.

Not far from Kushida shrine is Tojida Temple, home to a picturesque red pagoda that rises high above the nearby buildings, as well as an enormous temple building. This is where you’ll also find Japan’s largest seated wooden Buddha, at 16m.

Beneath the Buddha statue snakes a pitch-black tunnel that you can walk through, symbolising your movement from dark to light.

3. Visit Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine

The apprach towards Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine

The apprach towards Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine

Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine is located in Dazaifu city – about a 30-minute drive from Fukuoka city. The shrine, surrounded by a koi-filled pond, with red bridges, willow trees and over 6,000 plum trees, is dedicated to Sugawara no Michizane, a scholar, poet, and politician of the Heian Period of Japan.

The shrine is large for Japanese standards – 250 metres wide – with thatched roofing and ornate red and gold colouring. You approach along a cobbled street, lined with vendors selling everything from wooden luck trinkets to the Dazaifu-original umegae mochi — a local-style rice ball filled with azuki bean paste, grilled with the implant of a plum blossom.

4. Ride a boat through Yanagawa

Less than a 90-minute drive from Fukuoka city (or a 60-minute train ride) is the city of Yanagawa – the name deriving from the willow trees the hang like curtains over the city’s river (yanagi, meaning willow tree, and kawa meaning river). The city has over 470km of waterways; once the main means of transporting goods from the port to Fukuoka city. Today, you can take a wooden boat along the canals, punted by a local in a straw hat. If you’re lucky, he’ll sing you a song as he sails you gently beneath the willow trees. 

 

 

One of the private rooms at Ohana restaurant

One of the private rooms at Ohana restaurant

TOP TIP

Top tip: After your boat ride, go for lunch at Ohana (ohana.co.jp), which serves the local speciality: sweet, sticky grilled eel. The boat can drop you off right outside, where you can then dine in a tatami-matted private room, overlooking Ohana’s picturesque gardens.

 

 

Sticky grilled eel - a local speciality

Sticky grilled eel - a local speciality

5. Soak up Yame’s green tea atmosphere

The green tea fields of Yame

The green tea fields of Yame

Yame is one of Japan’s premium green tea growing regions. The tea produced there consistently wins awards for its flavour, with Yame’s ‘gyokuro’ – shade-grown green tea – awarded the very best green tea in Japan. You can soak up some of the region’s tea history at Yabeya Konomi Honke – a 150-year old tea shop on the quiet streets of Yame. Order a gyokuro or sencha tea set for a sweet treat and a cup of their delicious green tea. After you’ve finished, drive 30 minutes to see the tea’s origins: the green tea fields extend for miles into the distance. You can drive up to the observation deck and look out at the tea fields, the neat lines of bushes like waves in an ocean.  

Top tip: Experience Kyushu’s festivals

Kyushu has a number of exciting festivals throughout the year, but this autumn is an extravaganza. To tie in with the Rugby World Cup, Kyushu is hosting over 50 festivals from Sep 20 to Nov 3. Visit matsuri.welcomekyushu.com for more.

 

Travel deeper

Introducing Kumamoto

Kumamoto lies on the western edge of Kyushu, stretching from the Amakusa islands in the west and the volcanic Aso caldera in the right. It’s a wild region of towering mountains and sandy coves, steaming craters and tumbling falls. In 2016, it was the location of a magnitude 7.3 earthquake, causing tragic damage across the prefecture. But the local people are resilient, and within three years the only visible sign that remains of the earthquake is the scaffolding that clings to the city’s castle keep.

What to do in Kumamoto?

1. Explore the grounds of Kumamoto Castle

The magnificent Kumamoto Castle

The magnificent Kumamoto Castle

Kumamoto Castle is ranked among the top three castles in Japan: an elegant black and white tiered tower on a hill above the city. You can walk around the castle grounds, which explode into colour during spring and autumn. Before the earthquake it was possible to climb the floors of the castle, but now the only areas accessible is the walkway that circles the keep. Rebuilding work will be underway until 2021, but the approach to the castle is expected to reopen in October 2019. Even though you can’t currently enter, the view from afar is an impressive sight.

2. Sip matcha in Suizenji Gardens

In the teahouse – wearing a yukata to visit Suizenji Gardens

In the teahouse – wearing a yukata to visit Suizenji Gardens

Suizenji gardens are exactly what you imagine a Japanese garden to look like: koi-carp filled ponds, bamboo trees, stone bridges and plum blossoms, each element carefully created and crafted with perfect precision. Built in 1636, the garden was designed to look like the route people once walked from Tokyo to Kyoto during the Edo period.

You cross a bridge that’s meant to represent Nihonbashi – a stone canal bridge in Tokyo – before heading past a green peak that resembles the shape of Mount Fuji. Finally you end at a teahouse that was actually moved from Kyoto itself. Here, you can stop for a tea set of matcha and a traditional sweet, with views from the tatami mats stretching across the colourful gardens.

As you approach Suzenji Gardens, you can visit Wa Collection (wa-collection.jp/english) to wear a Japanese yukata – a traditional summer outfit that you can stroll the gardens in. Choose from hundreds of colours and patterns, before they dress you and show you the best way to wear it.  

3. Pay a visit to Kumamon Square

Adoring fans look on in Kumamon Square as Kumamon performs

Adoring fans look on in Kumamon Square as Kumamon performs

 

If you haven’t heard of Kumamon yet, you will after spending time in Japan. Kumamon is Kumamoto’s ever-present mascot: a cuddly black bear whose red-cheeked face plasters everything from taxis to bags of rice.

Created in 2010 to attract visitors to the prefecture, Kumamon has taken Japan – and other parts of the world – by storm. Adoring fans eagerly crowd into Kumamon Square – his so-called ‘office’ – to watch him perform his famous ‘Kumamon dance’, which he does every day at 3pm.

Assisted by his Japanese-speaking side-kick (who can seemingly translate his every thought) Kumamon dances, jokes and messes around, his enormous tummy sways to the tune of mon, mon, mon, Kumamon. Get there at least 15 minutes early if you want to get in. 

4. Ride a helicopter over Japan’s largest active volcano

The steaming Mount Nakadake

The steaming Mount Nakadake

The region of Aso is only an hour from Kumamoto city, but it feels a world apart: a landscape of lime green hills, steaming volcanoes and forests too thick to penetrate. Very little beats the thrill of soaring over the steaming craters in a helicopter.

Whizz over thick pine forests, grassy hills where cows graze and up into the lunar-like landscapes of the Aso volcanoes.

As you approach Mount Nakadake – Japan’s largest active volcano, currently inaccessible any other way due to the 1km exclusion zone put in place as a result of its volcanic gasses – you’ll spot long plumes of steam and smoke rising up from within, bubbling like a giant witch’s cauldron. 

Top tip

Drive to Takamori Dangaku-no-Sato for lunch, tucked into some woodland just above the Aso valley. In this remote thatch-roofed restaurant, you wear flame-proof mittens to grill dengaku (skewers of Aso beef, fish, tofu and vegetables) over an open irori fireplace that’s embedded into the floor in front of you. The staff coat each skewer in a different flavour miso, which turns sticky and sweet under the hot flame.

Lunch over the irori fire at Takamori Dangaku-no-Sato

Lunch over the irori fire at Takamori Dangaku-no-Sato

5. Visit Nabegataki waterfall in Aso

The gliding Nabegataki waterfall in Aso

The gliding Nabegataki waterfall in Aso

This colossal wave of a waterfall is tucked into a neat pine forest just outside the main Aso caldera. The falls – 20m wide and 10m high – cascade over the entrance to a dark cave, allowing you to walk behind the water. It’s an impressive site – the sunlight spilling through the trees and catching on the water. Go early if you want to have the site to yourself.

Where to stay in Kumamoto?

Kurokawa Onsen Resort, in the mountains near Aso. This hot spring town is incredibly atmospheric, made up of thatched-roof houses along the banks of the river.

Nanjoen Ryokan is a great place to stay, perched on a slope overlooking the rest of the town. The hotel features outdoor rotenburo baths, idyllic tatami rooms and a feast for dinner and breakfast, serving up a spread of regional dishes, many cooked in onsen water.

The hot spring town of Kurokawa

The hot spring town of Kurokawa

Introducing Oita

Oita prefecture is the beating heart of Kyushu’s hot spring culture, home to the most onsen springs in Japan. In the onsen town of Beppu, the springs kick out more hot water per minute than anywhere else in the country, and the second most in the world after Yellowstone National Park in the US.

What to do in Oita?

1. Stroll the onsen town of  Yufuin

The mirror-smooth Kinrinko Lake in Yufuin

The mirror-smooth Kinrinko Lake in Yufuin

 

Yufuin is postcard pretty. The town is tiny – you can walk from one end to the other in ten minutes – but it’s crammed with artisan craft shops, from chopstick makers and patisseries to woodworkers and cake shops. At the far end of the town towards the mountains, you’ll find Kinrinko lake – an ice-smooth surface reflecting the colossal Mount Yufu that rises high above the town, fluffy clouds clinging to its bright green peak. Spend a night here at one of the traditional ryokans, soaking in the town’s famed hot springs.

The colossal Mount Yufu

The colossal Mount Yufu

Top tip

Drive up the hill heading east out of Yufuin towards Beppu. From here you can observe sweeping views of Mount Yufu. At sunset, the entire valley turns from green to gold.

2. Visit the hot spring wonderland of Beppu

The steaming city of Beppu

The steaming city of Beppu

Beppu is the epitome of hot spring heaven. Everywhere you look you’ll see steam swirling up into the sky – even from vents in the ground. The springs kick out more hot water per minute than anywhere else in the country, and the second most in the world after Yellowstone National Park in the US. 

Make sure you visit Kannawa Mushiyu while you're in Beppu: it’s the only place in the country where such an experience exists. Here you lie on herbal straw in a wooden room, the ceiling just high enough for you to crawl into (wearing a yukata). The steam reaches almost 80 degrees so you can't stay in for long: the staff time you and call you out after ten minutes. 

 

 

 

 

Top tip

Eat lunch at one of the local jikoku mushi (‘hell steaming’) – a technique used since the Edo period where you cook your food almost instantly in the 100-degree hot spring steam.

You can steam anything from vegetables to pizza –  plunging it into the hot spring holes (with the staff carefully helping and timing for you so the food is cooked just right).

3. Explore Beppu's 'hells'

Umi jikoku - 'sea hell'

Umi jikoku - 'sea hell'

Not only is Beppu famous for bathing, it's well-known for its seven hot spring 'hells'. These enormous steaming ponds – filled with vibrant liquid from blight blue to blood red – were formed hundreds of years ago as a result of the region's geothermal activities. 

Some of the hells are named after their colour: Umi Jigoku or 'sea hell', 'Chonoike Jogoku' or 'blood hell' and so on. At four of the hot springs – Umi Jigoku, Kamadao Jigoku, Ishionibozu Jigoku and Chinoike Jigoku – there are 'ashi yu' baths where you can soak your feet.

All of the hot springs are located in two distinct areas: the Kannawa district and the more remote Noda Shibaseki district, around 3km apart. Within each area you can walk between the hells, but catch a bus to link up both districts. 

 

4. Climb to Kumano Magaibutsu

The older of the two stone carvings

The older of the two stone carvings

The site of Kumano Magaibutsu is one of the largest carvings on a rock wall in Japan at 8 metres. There are two carvings, dating back to the 10th and 11th century, at the top of a steep flight of stone steps. It's said that there are 100 steps, put there to test a devil who tried to climb them over the course of a night, but when I countered there were over 300. 

The ascent leads you through a magical forest, where white butterflies dance, cicadas sing and sunlight falls through the trees, sparkling on the cobwebs that loop across the trail. It feels like a scene from Tomb Raider. If you continue past the stone statues, you'll find a small temple at the top in a flat clearing.

5. Walk around Usa Shrine

The impressive red Usa Shrine

The impressive red Usa Shrine

The ruby red Usa Shrine in Oita’s north is considered the most important of Japan’s 40,000 'Hachiman shrines', dedicated to the Shinto god of war, Hachiman. Stroll the colourful shrine complex before paying your respects at the main building.

Delicious chicken karage

Delicious chicken karage

Top tip

Make sure you try Usa’s karaage – a kind of delicious deep-fried chicken. It was the first place in Japan to create a shop solely dedicated to karage, styling itself after the USA’s love of fried-chicken. Even the city’s mascot, Usakara-kun, is a white chicken with a fried leg for a head. 

Where to stay in Oita?

Sally Garden Beppu (beppu-yanagiya.jp/english). This ideally located hotel features tatami rooms with both futons and western-style beds. They have their own steaming holes where you can cook your own food, as well as an Italian-Japanese restaurant, where the 10-course set menu features treats like   locally made ricotta wrapped in seaweed and sea urchin, and pasta coated in seaweed butter. At breakfast, enjoy a basket of bread, vegetables and eggs that have been steamed in the hot springs on site.

Dinner is served: a Japanese Italian fusion at Sally Garden

Dinner is served: a Japanese Italian fusion at Sally Garden

Need to know

A samurai at Kumamoto Castle

A samurai at Kumamoto Castle

How to get to Kyushu?

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. 

 

Rub the bull's head for luck in Dazaifu

Rub the bull's head for luck in Dazaifu

Getting around Kyushu

Kyushu is prime driving country. While you can take the local highway buses or the JR Kyushu around the island, driving is by far the easiest way to explore. Hire a car from Fukuoka – the airport or Hakata station are good places to pick it up – and discover the wild beauty of Kyushu island for yourself. 

A boat captain from Yanagawa

A boat captain from Yanagawa

Useful links

Looking for more information? Head to these sites...

Kyushu island: welcomekyushu.com

Fukuoka: crossroadfukuoka.jp/en

Oita: discover-oita.com

Kumamoto: kumamoto.guide/en

 

Want to explore further afield? 

Hop aboard the Hankyu Ferry. Only in Japan would a ferry have an open-air hot spring bath to can soak in as the ocean glides by. The overnight Hankyu Ferry connects Kansai and Kyushu in around 12 hours, meaning you can set off from either Kobe or Osaka in the evening and arrive in northern Kyushu the next morning (or vice versa). Private, comfortable rooms are available on board, with large windows and western-style beds. Prices start from 6,470JPY (£47) but if you book your ticket through directferries.com you can get 30% off. 

Please note: All images shot by Olivia Lee or courtesy of the Kyushu Tourism Promotion Organisation

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