The spectacular array of natural attractions on KYŪSHŪ makes this, Japan’s third-largest island, a feasible holiday destination on its own, providing a thrilling alternative to the regular Kanto and Kansai circuits. Here visitors can find themselves hiking the rim of the world’s largest caldera, taking a lonesome onsen dip in the forest, surfing Japan’s gnarliest waves, tracking down moss-coated cedar trees that predate Christianity or being showered with ash from a live volcano. It’s perfectly possible to just scoot round the main cities in a week, but you’ll need more like two to do the region justice, allowing time for the splendid mountainous interior and a few of the more far-flung islands.
Closer to Korea than Tokyo, Kyūshū has long had close links with the Asian mainland, and its chief city, Fukuoka, is an important regional hub. An energetic city on the island’s heavily developed north coast, Fukuoka is worth a stop for its museums, modern architecture and vibrant nightlife. If you’ve only got a couple of days on Kyūshū, however, Nagasaki represents the best all-round destination. Though its prime draw is the A-Bomb museum and related sights, the city also has a picturesque harbour setting, a laidback, cosmopolitan air and a spattering of temples and historical museums. From here it’s a short hop east to Kumamoto, famous for its castle and landscaped garden, and the spluttering, smouldering cone of Aso-san. This is great hiking country, while hot-spring enthusiasts will also be in their element – from Kurokawa Onsen’s delightful rotemburo to the bawdy pleasures of Beppu on the east coast. The mountain village of Takachiho requires a fair detour, but it’s worth it to see traditional dance performances depicting the antics of Japan’s ancient gods. The island’s southern districts contain more on the same theme – volcanoes, onsen and magnificent scenery. Highlights include Sakurajima, one of the world’s most active volcanoes, which looms over the city of Kagoshima, while the lush island of Yakushima, roughly 100km south of Kyūshū, sports towering, thousand-year-old cedar trees.
The ancient chronicles state that Emperor Jimmu, Japan’s legendary first emperor, set out from southern Kyūshū to found the Japanese nation in 660 BC. Though the records are open to dispute, there’s evidence of human habitation on Kyūshū from before the tenth century BC, and by the beginning of the Yayoi period (300 BC–300 AD) the small kingdom of Na (as it was then known) was trading with China and Korea. Local merchants brought rice-farming and bronze-making techniques back to Japan, while in the twelfth century monks introduced Zen Buddhism to northern Kyūshū. Less welcome visitors arrived in 1274 and 1281 during the Mongol invasions under Kublai Khan. The first ended in a narrow escape when the Mongols withdrew, and the shogun ordered a protective wall to be built around Hakata Bay. By 1281 the Japanese were far better prepared, but their real saviour was a typhoon, subsequently dubbed kami kaze, or “wind of the gods”, which whipped up out of nowhere and scattered the Mongol fleet on the eve of their massed assault.
Three hundred years later, in 1543, the first Europeans to reach Japan pitched up on the island of Tanegashima, off southern Kyūshū. Finding an eager market for their guns among the local daimyō, the Portuguese sailors returned a few years later, bringing with them missionaries, among them the Jesuit priest Francis Xavier. Within fifty years the Catholic Church, now also represented by Spanish Franciscans and Dominicans, was claiming some 600,000 Christian converts. The centre of activity was Nagasaki, where Chinese, Dutch and British merchants swelled the throng. In the early 1600s, however, the government grew increasingly wary of the Europeans in general and Christians in particular. By fits and starts successive shoguns stamped down on the religion and restricted the movement of all foreigners, until eventually only two small communities of Dutch and Chinese merchants were left in Nagasaki.
This period of isolation lasted until the mid-1850s, when Nagasaki and Kagoshima in particular found themselves at the forefront of the modernizing revolution that swept Japan after the Meiji Restoration. Indeed, it was the armies of the Satsuma and Chōshū clans, both from Kyūshū, which helped restore the emperor to the throne, and many members of the new government hailed from the island. In 1877, however, Kagoshima’s Saigō Takamori led a revolt against the Meiji government in what became known as the Satsuma Rebellion. Saigō’s army was routed, but he’s still something of a local hero in Kyūshū.