At the lip of southern Japan, facing the sea, is creased, cratered Kyushu Island, the historic gateway between Japan and the rest of Asia. Steaming onsen, time-honoured temples and formidable Japanese fortresses characterise its northern prefectures: Fukuoka, Saga, Nagasaki, Kumamoto and Oita.
In the south, the Kagoshima and Miyazaki prefectures are comparatively rugged with dense forests, gorges and vertiginous mountain villages. You could spend a month here and still only scratch the surface. In this article, we offer an itinerary (which is actually more of a guideline) for those with only four days to spare in this extraordinary region.
All tourist facilities take care to prevent the transmission of COVID-19 by asking visitors to wear masks, disinfect their hands and maintain social distancing. Accommodation facilities also take guests' temperatures.
Kyushu Island Day One: Kitakyushu – for sushi and wisteria tunnels
Kitakyushu (meaning ‘North Kyushu City’), located in Fukuoka Prefecture across the Kanmon Straits from Honshu, is the industrial pivot of the island. Facing the sea on three sides, it is the city of fresh seafood, especially sushi. Then there are its whimsical wisteria tunnels and trendy microbrewery.
Start the day in a rickshaw, touring Mojiko – a picturesque town along the strait, before jumping into a chartered car to Teruzushi. This world famous sushi restaurant is managed by third-generation sushi chef, Takayoshi Watanabe.
In spite of the restaurant’s unpretentious, mostly residential surroundings, Watanabe’s creative flair, expressed through his almost theatrical presentation of sushi, has propelled Teruzushi into the limelight, and taken the internet by storm, with many attempting to replicate his recognisable pose and confident cooking style.
Next, wander in the direction of the Kawachi Wisteria Garden. Here you will come upon a profusion of wisteria, plus two spellbinding tunnels cocooned in the woody vines. Wisteria blooms through the months of April and May, when the tunnels become a haze of purple, pink and white blossom perfuming the air with delicate scents.
Before checking into Sui-Sui Garden Ryokan – only a 10minute walk from JR Kokura Station – make a pit-stop at the Mojiko Retro Beer Restaurant. The fruity beer on tap is dangerously moreish. Kitakyushu's famous baked curry is also on the menu in case you need something to line your stomach with.
Back at Sui-Sui Garden Ryokan, you can wind down in the beautifully maintained Japanese-style garden to the sounds of trickling water.
Day two: Hiraodai – for picnics and bamboo crafts
Begin by gathering picnic food at one of the local shopping centres (Amu Plaza shopping centre or Izutsuya). The local specialty, kashiwa-meshi (minced chicken and rice) bento box, available at several shops such as FamilyMart JR Kokura Station Store, is especially good. Then, head over to Kitakyushu Quasi-National Park, only a 30-40-minute drive from the city centre.
Hiraodai Karstic Limestone Highland, located within Kitakyushu Quasi-National Park, is the site of one of three major karst formations in Japan. It is also designated as a national natural treasure. Mother Nature takes centre stage here. Tuck into your bento box from the limestone plateau and outcroppings, where you will be afforded sweeping panoramic views of the surrounding mountains.
For those with days to spare, Kitakyushu Quasi-National Park is marbled with many other trails besides Hiraodai, one from Mount Tonoue to Kishi, a moderate hike with views across the reservoir.
For beginners, the moderate hike from Mojiko to Mount Kazashi is a great option, while it's recommended that experienced hikers try a traverse route: Mount Adachi to Mount Tonoue to Mount Kazashi, then Mount Sarakura to Mount Fukuchi.
The vistas from the summit of Mount Sarakura are well worth climbing for.
The park’s other attractions include Senbutsu Cavern with an underground river, and Mejiro, the longest of Hiraodai’s caves and an area of archaeological importance.
From Kitakyushu Quasi-National Park, continue on to the Nagai Bamboo Factory in Beppu, Oita Prefecture, allowing 1 hr 40 mins for the car journey there. Here, you can watch skilled bamboo craftspeople at work, following a centuries-old process.
Resume your education in Beppu bamboo craftsmanship at the Beppu City Traditional Bamboo Crafts Center (formerly Beppu City Craft Institute). Here is where the celebrated Shono Shounsai, the first bamboo craftsman to be designated a living national treasure, refined his craft.
Finish up at Amane Resort Seikai. This ryokan has a simple, well-appointed interior, but with a natural setting so spectacular, they almost needn’t have bothered. Floor-to-ceiling windows recur throughout, offering sweeping views of Beppu Bay blending into the sky. A hot-spring-fed spa, one right on the bay, is accompanied by the sounds of the sea.
Also within the onsen complex is a restaurant serving fresh off-the-boat seafood and classic French fare.
Day three: Beppu Onsen – for hot springs and quirky trains
Built around more than 2,000 hot springs (with or without spa facilities), Beppu spends most of its time wavering in and out of billowing clouds of volcanic steam. Unsurprisingly, this city synonymous with onsen is designated as an International Tourism Hot-Spring Cultural City.
Of its eight hot spring areas, Kannawa occupies the large, centremost swathe of steaming ground. It’s famed for its mushiyu (steam) bath scented with sekisho (a Japanese herb) and jigokumushi (dishes cooked in hot spring steam). Some hot springs are safe for bathing, while others reach temperatures that could boil an egg.
The appropriately named Jigoku Meguri (‘Beppu Hells’) are capable of doing just that. Although off-limits to bathers, they are every bit as evocative, and as varied in colour, ranging from aquamarine to deep crimson red. Five of which can be found in the Kannawa area: Umi Jigoku (Sea Hell), Oniishibozu Jigoku, Shiraike Jigoku (White Pond Hell), Kamado Jigoku (Cooking Pot Hell) and Oniyama Jigoku (Monster Mountain Hell).
The others — Chinoike Jigoku (Blood Pond Hell) and Tatsumaki Jigoku (Spout Hell) — are situated nearby in Shibaseki.
Traditional jigokumushi food, Beppu, Kyushu Island
One of the great things about Beppu is that you can tailor the experience to be what you want it to be. You can be as active or as relaxed as you want, whether that’s spending your morning exploring the hot springs at your leisure or being taken on a guided tour. Tranquillity and adventure are offered in equal measure, thanks to the many guides who’ll craft your experience into exactly what you wish.
After floating around the onsen or being taken on a tour, stop by Steamed Tea House "Mushicharou", a restaurant that serves food prepared in the steam of the hot springs and Chinese cuisine. Alternatively, Otto a sette Oita (a restaurant specialising in jigokumushi food and Italian cuisine) dishes up a feast for the eyes. For something light, try Tea Room Cozy Corner, offering a miscellany of cleansing brews.
Once you’ve checked out of your hotel, catch a train from Beppu Station to Kumamoto. A host of novelty trains serve the line, including the exuberant Aso Boy, a limited express train splashed with illustrations of its canine mascot ‘Kuro’. The colourful seats and bright-white seating for families heighten its appeal even in spite of the fact that it only ventures out on the weekends and public holidays.
The red-coloured Trans-Kyushu Express, with wood-panelling and black seats, transects the central part of Kyushu – connecting Beppu, Mount Aso and Hitoyoshi – and operates throughout the working week.
Once your train has pulled into Kumamoto Station and you’ve checked into Hotel Nikko Kumamoto (a hotel offering views of Kumamoto Castle), amble over to Aoyagi. This Japanese restaurant stood close to Kumamoto Castle specialises in local cuisine. Dishes ranging from kamameshi (kettle rice) to sashimi are made using fresh seasonal ingredients and served on tatami mats.
Day four: Kumamoto City – for sake and a castle
Kumamoto city is the capital city of Kumamoto Prefecture, an area it shares with one of the largest active volcanoes in Japan: Mount Aso. The city is home to a seventeenth-century hilltop-style castle and Momoyama-style Suizenji Park, spanning 7.3 hectares.
The jokamachi (or castle town) is intersected by the Tsuboi River, which once fed its castle moat. It is split between two districts: Furumachi (Old Town), which lies south of the river, and Shinmachi (New Town), positioned north.
Its medley of furrowed streets flanked by characterful town houses is complemented by its stone bridge (Meihachi Bridge), designed by Kangoro Hashimoto, who worked on the Tsujunkyo Bridge in Kumamoto and the Nihonbashi Bridge in Tokyo.
Both Furumachi and Shinmachi came under attack in the siege of Kumamoto Castle in the 1877 Satsuma Rebellion, destroying much of its earlier architecture. Adding fuel to the fire, the Kumamoto Earthquake in 2016 prompted further repair work. Locals, however, view the resilience of the city as a symbol of coexistence with nature.
On your way there, try karashi renkon: battered lotus root stuffed with Japanese mustard and miso paste. Apparently the dish was prepared for a sickening daimyo (feudal lord) in the Edo Period. The lotus root texture and miso is a popular combination across the country, enjoyed with a glass of beer or sake. You’ll find this one at Ganso Mori Karashi Renkon.
Don’t pass up the opportunity to try suizenji nori (edible blue-green algae) at Okumura, the Japanese restaurant in the castle town Shinmachi.
The traditional Japanese sweet shop, Kitagawa Tenmeidou, originating over 200 years ago, is a prerequisite for those with a sweet tooth. Here, confectioners shape white bean paste, mixed with sugar and glutinous rice flour, into Nerikiri – one of the traditional type of Japanese wagashi sweets. Typically, these are enjoyed with matcha green tea.
After lunch, visit Suizenji Jojuen (Suizenji Park), a garden with origins in the Momoyama period. It was designed by Hosokawa Tadatoshi around Suizenji Temple, but later became a tsukiyama (mountain garden). The garden has been open to the public since the late nineteenth century. Over 100 cherry trees inside the garden come into full bloom between March and April.
Also in the park is the Kokin-Denju-no-Ma teahouse. Its arrival from Kyoto Imperial Palace in 1912 coincided with the appointment of Hosokawa Fujitaka (a preeminent Sengoku scholar), who taught tanka (Japanese poetry) to Emperor Go-Yōzei’s younger brother, Prince Hachijō Toshihito.
Finally, sample Zuiyo’s nectarous sake: ZUIYO Junmai Ginjo-shu Sukun. Zuiyo was founded in 1867. Its award-winning liquor is made from sake rice cultivated by natural farming methods, which some say enhances the overall character of the sake by imparting a taste unique to the area.
Akasake (red sake) is the local sake of Kumamoto and is used in local cuisine. In Kumamoto Prefecture, Akasake is also drunk on special occasions, such as New Year's Day.