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My itinerary in northern Kyushu

Takachiho gorge

Tenth trip to Japan, this time in Kyushu, from Nagasaki to Fukuoka: all you need to know

I didn’t expect at all Kyushu to be so beautiful. And I don’t even know why did it took me so long to come. Maybe I just thought it deserved time and no other distractions in the trip: no Tokyo or Kyoto this time. And I was right about this. But I had no idea to find so much and fall in love so deeply with this region, its landscapes, its history, its sincere and warm welcome.

I hope I will be able to inspire you to discover this region

The index

What to see in Kyushu

The southernmost island of Japan (except for Okinawa and other small islands) has interesting cities when it comes to architecture and landscape, history and gastronomy, such as Nagasaki, Kumamoto, Fukuoka and Kagoshima. But Kyushu is really an island of vast landscapes, powerful nature and fire emerging from the depths of the Earth. There are many volcanoes, including Unzen and Aso, whose ancient caldera is among the largest in the world and impressive thermal springs, the ‘hells’ for which the city of Beppu is famous. Crossing this region you will sometimes see columns of steam rising among the hills. And then forests, rivers, gorges. But you will also find memories of the samurai era and even older ones, like the beautiful and mysterious Buddha figures carved in stone in Usuki and in the Rokugo Manzan area.

In Kyushu I felt I was travelling into the heart of Japan.

A road close to Kokonoe, Kumamoto

A road close to Kokonoe, Kumamoto (photo by Patrick Colgan, 2018)

How to get there and around in Kyushu

The trip was planned at the last possible moment. We had just nine days and so we had to make choices and plan more than I really wanted.

We booked the flight just twelve days before departure: 615 euro each, travelling with British Airways and Jal from my hometown Bologna, Italy. The flight stopped in London and Tokyo and eventually arrived in Nagasaki. Departure, at the end of the trip, from Fukuoka. However, the region has other airports, such as Oita, Kagoshima and the island of Yakushima.

Kyushu by car

Kyushu has a good rail network that connects the main cities, but the journey we had in mind would have touched mostly mountain areas, where railways are few and buses are scarce: that’s why we decided to rent a car. We booked it directly from Italy, on the website of Orix, a Japanese company.

Driving a car in Japan

  • In Japan you drive on the left side of the road (like in England)
  • To drive an international driving permit is required (or a Japanese one, that is)
  • Speed limits are painfully low (50 km/h on normal roads, 100 but more often 80 km/h on motorways/highways. The name here is Expressways)
  • The expressways are very expensive (10,500 yen for a Tokyo-Kyoto drive, for example), but passes are available for foreign tourists
Our tiny car

Our tiny car

The rental of a compact car with the Japanese company Orix costed us about 37.000 yen for 100.5 hourse. Yes, it was by the our. This was including the excess reduction and the charge for a drop off in a different cityl. We also paid 7500 yen for the Kyushu Expressway pass but in the end we used mostly secondary roads. We probably lost a few thousand yen and I wouldn’t do it again, with this itinerary. If you are interested you can buy this pass when you rent the car. You have to cover with it the entire length of your rental. You can’t buy a 4 days pass if you rented for 5.

more on this topic on the always invaluable Japan Guide: renting a car in Japan – or on this page: driving in Japan

Trains in Kyushu

We opted for the car, but with different itineraries trains could be an excellent choice, either using the Japan Rail Pass (if you come from the north), or the local passes, which can be purchased on the same websites.

Kyushu rail pass is available in several formulas, valid for the whole island or just its north or south, for three or five consecutive days.

  • All Kyushu: 3 days (15,000 yen); 5 days (18,000 yen)
  • North of Kyushu: 3 days (8,500 yen); 5 days (10,000 yen)
  • South Kyushu: 3 days (7,000 yen)

* 50% for children 6-11 years, younger ones don’t pay. More insights on Japan Guide

Seven days in northern Kyushu: my itinerary

In the map our complete itinerary in northen Kyushu

We have chosen the north, but I have always dreamed of the South, of the island of Yakushima. I know I will be back.
Our itinerary started from Nagasaki: it is a beautiful city, pleasant and quiet, maybe a little too much. Our volunteer guide told us that the young leave for Fukuoka or Tokyo (although I wondered where are all the students of Nagasakai university were). It’s a pity as it looks like a nice, agreeable place, where I could live. Nagasaki’s name is often associated with that of the nuclear tragedy of August 9, 1945, shared with Hiroshima. The museum is touching, sometimes overwhelming and it’s definitely worth seeing. But the story of Nagasaki is much more. It’s ancient and is that of a meeting point with other countries (Europe, China, Korea) that have shaped it into a truly unique place.

Moving around the city is easy with it  excellent network of cheap trams. Or on foot, which I always love.

The bridge of spectacles, you see why in the reflection, built in early XVII century

The bridge of spectacles, you see why in the reflection, built in early XVII century (photo by Patrick Colgan, 2018)

day 1: we arrived at the airport (an hour by bus, 40 km). Then we visited the Atomic bomb museum and the Peace park

day 2: we visited the abandoned island-city of Gunkanjima (i will write about it, but Offbeat Japan wrote some great posts on this place); in the afternoon we visited Teramachi with a local, helpful and incredibly nace volunteer guide (contact Nia association at least three weeks in advance, although they were very kind and found one for us in about one, but please avoid asking at the last minute if possible)

Shimabara Peninsula

Day 3: Nagasaki – Unzen Onsen – Shimabara – Kumamoto (by ferry)

This was our first impact with the landscape of the region and its powerful forces: volcanoes, steaming pools and a scary mountain pass (scary during a storm, that is). We traveled with our small car, restless, but accompanied by the constant wonder of discovery. This peninsula east of Nagasaki is famous for its volcanoes and its hot springs as well as for its turbulent 17th century with the famous Christian rebellion.

Our idea was to get on the cable car and then hike to the top of the Fugendake volcano, but due to extremely forbidding weather conditions we were forced to give up. Instead we explored at a slower pace the Unzen Onsen area, with its famous hot springs, and then the sleepy town of Shimabara before taking the ferry to Kumamoto. And I am happy we did it.

⇒⇒ I wrote about this day here: The Shimabara peninsula in one day

Unzen 'hell'

Unzen ‘hell’ (photo by Patrick Colgan, 2018)

close to the peak of mount Unzen

Close to the pass at around one thousand metres of altitude: everything is frozen (photo by Patrick Colgan, 2018)

Takachiho and Mount Aso

Day 4: Kumamoto – Takachiho Gorge – Monte Aso – Kokonoe

In pictures, Takachiho gorge looks like a place of a pure, enchanted beauty. And it doesn’t disappoint when you get there. But on a sunny weekend in March you should add to this postcard  a crowd of families and couples. It made it look like a country fair. The gorge was created 90.000 years ago by a huge eruption of mount Aso. And our following stop (unfortunately we don’t have time to visit the famous shrines nearby) was precisely the culprit of all this, mount Aso.

Its ancient extinct caldera is huge: the perimeter is 100 km. Today tens of thousands of people live inside it. It’s a strange and moving panorama.

Inside the caldera stand the silhouettes of several volcanoes, one of which, the Nakadake is still definitely active. Unfortunately when we arrived there was volcanic activity and the ascent to the crater (there is also a ropeway) had been stopped, as often happens. But the sight of the vapor column was still an arresting view. The area is obviously rich in thermal springs.

The night in Kokonoe

We had originally planned to visit the renowned Kurokawa Onsen but we gave up for two reasons. The first  were the prohibitive prices applied on weekends (over 45.000 yen for a night with half board). Moreover one of the top reasons to visit the place are the onsen. The Kurokawa onsen pass lets visitors enter many different public baths for just 1300 yen. Unlike Kinosaki onsen which has recently allowed tattooed foreigners (I have a couple on one arm) access to all the public baths, Kurokawa onsen has no such policy (only Wakaba ryokan is tattoo friendly) and got some puzzling answers when I asked: I am not criticizing, but there wasn’t really any reason to spend all that money for me.

Therefore we opted for a nice ryokan among the mountains of Kokonoe, an isolated, welcoming and charming place, Kanno jigoku. There we used three wonderful private family baths and the price was much more reasonable. Another place that I would love to visit again.

Kannojigoku can be booked here

Takachiho gorge

Takachiho gorge (photo by Patrick Colgan, 2018)

Aso Caldera

Aso Caldera (photo by Patrick Colgan, 2018)

Ryokan di montagna, Kannojigoku nei pressi di Kokonoe

Mountain ryokan Kannojigoku (photo by Patrick Colgan, 2018)

Yufuin and Beppu

day 5

“Don’t go to Yufuin on a weekend”, says the guidebook. But I had no idea, really. Yufuin is a famous spa town on the slopes of the beautiful Mount Yufu. But on Sundays the town centre is completely overrun with tourists (of which we were part, of course) which crowd the long lines of shops, ranging from your typical cheap souvenirs stall to fancy boutiques and craft shops. And, apparently, cat cafes (there are many ads). At the beginning it looked pleasant, but the only lasting impression that Yufuin left me with was the crowd.

In the afternoon we arrived at Beppu, which is something like the ‘capital’ of onsen, the Japanese spa. Here the water is really hot and comes to light sizzling from thousands of springs around the city, then conveyed to ryokan and spas. It could be a great natural wonder, but Beppu actually looks something more like a decadent theme park or a seaside resort lined with bizarre old hotels that had seen better days. The ‘hells’, the natural hot springs shooting out water at 100 degrees, have been partially tamed and presented in a touristy ‘theme park’ fashion, with what an old article from the Japan times describes as ‘hideous gimmicks’. One can only imagine what was before.

To writers who described it in early Edo Period travel pieces, it seemed an apocalyptic landscape. Pools of savage, boiling mud lie just 10 minutes’ walk away from the still depths of a blood-red pool. These jigoku (hell) pools, as they are known, have been the scenes of torture by boiling, yet they have also been loved for their medicinal, beautifying and utterly relaxing powers (Heaven in Beppu’s hot spring hells, published in 2000 by The Japan Times, by Stephanie Gartelman)

After seeing two hells we had enough (though Umi Jigoku was rather nice). Luckily we where staying in a delicious ryokan (Sennari) and we found a tiny izakaya (Kintarou, not far from the station) where we had one of the best dinners of the trip.

Yufuin on sunday

Yufuin on sunday (photo by Patrick Colgan, 2018)

And this is the Umi Jigoku in Beppu (sea hell).

Kunisaki peninsula

Day 6: Beppu – Usuki – Kitsuki – Kumano Magaibutsu – Aki

This is a Japan that I deeply love, that of deep forests of huge cryptomeria trees, moss-covered rocks, rice paddies, ancient mountain temples and old samurai houses overlooking delicate gardens. Many who don’t know the country often have no idea that this Japan exists. But it isn’t rare or difficult to find. Here I feel at home.

⇒⇒ I wrote a post about the Kunisaki peninsula
We have done all this in one day but two would have definitely been better. First we went to Usuki, southeast of Beppu, to see the ancient, beautiful, stone Buddhas. It’s a place that I recommend visiting, an absolute marvel. Then we headed back north towards Kitsuki (of which I had read on Michela’s blog), a charming town famous for the two neighborhoods of ancient samurai houses and gardens that can be visited by wearing a kimono rented for the occasion (3.000 yen and you get all visits free with it).

The Rokugo Manzan

Afterwards came what was one of the great highlights of the trip, the mountain area of Rokugo Manzan, in the heart Kunisaki peninsula, known for its temples immersed in the forest, for its peculiar spirituality that combines in syncretic cult Buddhist elements, Shinto  and mountain worship (see this article from The Japan Times). The Kumano Magaibutsu is a mysterious Buddha, six metres tall, carved into a mountainside. It dates back to the 11th century. And to reach it one needs to walk about twenty minutes in a forest of huge Japanese cedars and climb steep stone steps. Many steps. But it’s worth it.  After the climb I could enjoy, in total solitude, one of the most beautiful, moving places I have been to in Japan.

I wrote here about the Kunisaki peninsula.

In the evening we slept a few miles away, in the heart of the peninsula. Our accommodation was a beautiful organic farm set up by a family who left Tokyo to start a new life in the countryside. I will tell you soon about it in a post(but this is the place, Maruka farm).

Kumano Magaibutsu, Kunisaki peninsula

Kumano Magaibutsu, Kunisaki (photo by Patrick Colgan, 2018)

Tempio Futago-ji, penisola di Kunisaki

The entrance to Futago-ji temple (photo by Patrick Colgan, 2018)

⇒⇒ To learn more about the area I recommend as always Japan Guide

From Kunisaki to Fukuoka

Day 7: towards Fukuoka

We spent the morning discovering the surrounding countryside with miss Fusako from the farm (I really wish I had a whole day), we headed for Fukuoka. After an almost three hours drive, in the big city we met our friends Danilo and Yumiko. It was a pleasant day and I really liked Fukuoka. We ended with one of the best ramen I ever had (at Ramen Oigen). Soon more on this too.

Going to pick up some shiitake mushrooms

Going to pick up some shiitake mushrooms (photo by Patrick Colgan, 2018)

Una foto un po' stupida a Fukuoka

A silly picture of me in the Tonkotsu ramen capital

 

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Yap #

    Konichiwa Patrick,
    Happy to read you had a wonderful time exploring Kyushu. It’s different from Tokyo-Kyoto in many ways, but the main it’s lacking the crowds.
    Good you decided to take your own wheels.
    Maybe next time you might even consider a camper van, what we ourselves always use.

    And keep Yakushima in mind. That’s really a charm.

    Sayonara,
    yap
    hikefukuoka@gmail.com

    April 4, 2018

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