How to road-trip in Kyushu, Japan

Siobhan Warwicker

written by
Siobhan Warwicker

updated 08.04.2024

Rough Guides’ Siobhan Warwicker shares her tips for an action-filled and culturally rich adventure on Japan’s island of Kyushu

Kyushu, Japan’s third-biggest island, is like a miniature version of the country. Quirky villages with their specialist markets, serene forests that conceal shrines, and rivers that spill into enchanting seascapes, all flank volcanic ranges. Geothermal activity shapes daily life: you’re bound to find yourself wallowing in mineral-rich hot water practically every day. 

Kyushu is about a two-hour flight from Tokyo. Spend a couple of days in the world’s biggest city then jet to this most southern island for an epic contrast. The best way to get into Kyushu’s rural corners is by hiring a car for a spectacular road trip. Here’s how to do it:

Culture and heritage in Tokyo

Touch down in Tokyo and base yourself in Asakusa, the centre of the city’s Shitamachi district, for an older, traditional side of the city - as pockets survive from pre-WWII.

The jewel in Asakusa’s crown is the Buddhist temple of Senso-ji, a place of worship. Two giant red paper lanterns hanging from its Kaminarimon Gate have become an emblem of the city. 

Senso-ji is also surrounded by cloud-brushing buildings. This includes the world's tallest tower, TOKYO SKY TREE, which dominates the skyline at 634m (2,080 ft). From TOKYO SKY TREE’s viewing platform, this behemoth city looks like a toy town in the shadow of conical Mount Fuji. 

To dip back into Tokyo old, take the 20-minute bus ride to Yanesen, a neighbourhood where food and craft artisans keep traditions alive.

Traveller’s tip: Dine at a teppanyaki restaurant for a sizzling introduction to Japanese cuisine (try the intimate 20-seat Tsurujiro in Asakusa). Chefs cook everything on a hot plate in front of you.

Where to Stay

Our pick is the Asakusa View Hotel Annex Rokku. This hotel is chic and modern, with a top-floor lounge for twinkling skyline views. 

Tokyo skyline with Mt Fuji and Skytree, Japan © mapman/Shutterstock

Tokyo skyline with Mt Fuji and Skytree, Japan © mapman/Shutterstock

Visit the island shrine of Miyazaki 

Take the internal flight from Tokyo to Miyazaki, on Kyushu’s east coast - then pick up a car and let the adventure begin. Miyazaki is one of seven prefectures in Kyushu, forming the east coast with miles of golden sand. 

It’s also rich in spirituality: shrines have been built in the most beautiful places, including the tiny island of Aoshima where subtropical vegetation inhabits. A causeway runs above a plane of grooved rock, named the Devil’s Washboard, and leads to a torii gate where you might be greeted by Shinto priests.

Traveller’s tip: The traditional Amimoto restaurant reflects the Japanese ethos of washoku (“harmony” and “to eat”) with its banquets featuring platters of sashimi.

Where to stay

 The Miyazaki Kanko Hotel is a fabulous introduction to Kyushu’s ubiquitous hot springs (onsen). Be prepared to bare it all – communal bathing is always nude and single-sex. 

Aosima shrine Miyazaki, Japan © Shutterstock

Aosima shrine Miyazaki, Japan © Shutterstock

Pack raft through Takachiho Gorge

 Drive north for a couple of hours, into Kyushu’s interior, to Takachiho. Make a stop at the Takachiho Amaterasu Railway, where a novelty open-air train ride stops atop the gaping valley on the Takachiho Iron Bridge, once the highest railway bridge in Japan at 344ft (105m). 

Up the adrenaline with a pack rafting in Takachiho Gorge. A guide will hand you a deflated kayak in a backpack and you’ll hike parallel to the rushing river, to the water’s entrance point. An electric pump means you’ll soon be paddling among spraying waterfalls in a canyon of lava rock.

Traveller’s tip: After the train ride, ask for a tour of the vintage carriage on the track. It’s still set up to move, so you can don a driver’s hat and have a go.

Where to stay

While here, you’ll want to check into the CORASITA. Run by a family of tomato farmers, they’ve reinvented their home into an auberge (a traditional townhouse converted into a modern inn). The chef was trained at a culinary school in Italy. 

Packrafting in the waterfall-dotted Takachiho Gorge, north Miyazaki © Yu Fukushima of Takachiho Adventure Tourism Association

Packrafting in the waterfall-dotted Takachiho Gorge, north Miyazaki © Yu Fukushima of Takachiho Adventure Tourism Association

Hunt for treasure in Saga

 Now that you’re deep inland, in the northwest corner of Miyazaki, cross the rest of the way to the island's west side. A three-hour drive will bring you to Arita, a small town wrapped by forest in the Saga prefecture.

Arita’s chalky, cream-coloured rock is used to make top-quality porcelain. Find out more at the Kouraku Kiln centre, founded in 1865. These makers of exquisite crockery run a “Treasure Hunt” experience in their warehouse: pay a flat fee and fill your basket with anything you like. 

Traveller’s tip: Take a break at Gallery Arita, where hundreds of unique, exquisitely decorated cups adorn the shelves. When you’ve decided on a hot drink, help yourself to your favourite cup, and they’ll serve you in the chosen vessel. 

Where to stay

Capture the awe of Saga’s beauty at the Mizuno Ryokan in Karatsu City. The Princess Room is traditionally designed but a panoramic window looks out to an island-dotted bay. 

Mizuno Ryokan © Siobhan Warwicker

Mizuno Ryokan © Siobhan Warwicker

Embrace the squid theme of Yobuko

 A journey half an hour north delivers you to Yobuko, a fishing port on a northward-thrusting peninsula of Saga. This town takes deep pride in its squid, from morning market squid sellers to the squid-shaped tourist boats in the harbour. Board a “squid” and stand on the deck to enjoy the sun and the breeze as you sail towards the freestanding basalt Nanatsugama Caves.

En route to the hotel, visit the Takeo Shrine to see a camphor tree that’s 3,000 years old, towering above a hushed bamboo grove.

Traveller’s tip: Shop for green tea and matcha at Kiritsu Kosho Kaisha company – their original branding was designed by Vincent Van Gough at a trading co in Paris.

Where to stay

Move on to Ureshino to spend the night at the nostalgic, Western-themed Hamilton Hotel. At the Italian restaurant, drinks (including sparkling wine) are included and unlimited. 

Yobuku squid cruise © Siobhan Warwicker

Yobuku squid cruise © Siobhan Warwicker

Walk into the gates of “hell’ in Unzen

 Onward bound to the last prefecture of the road trip, Nagasaki, which lies south of Saga and is formed by 594 islands. An hour’s drive from last night’s hotel will bring you to the hot spring resort town of Unzen Onsen, gateway to the Shimabara Peninsula, where a volcanic range known as Mount Unzen lies. 

Unzen Onsen is the best place to witness geothermal activity first-hand: steam rises in a bubbly soup from the ground in an area called Unzen Jigoku (Unzen Hell), named for its afterlife-like atmosphere. Learn about the legends of the place on a tour into “hell”, on walkways that pave a trail above the spluttering ground.

Traveller’s tip: In the local Izakaya restaurant’s private dining room, you can add to your order by shouting through a hatch into the kitchen – if your Japanese is good enough!

Where to stay

Check into the Tsutaya Ryokan. That abundant natural hot water is harnessed in private rooftop pools, which you can book for 50-minute slots. 
 

Unzen Jigoku © Siobhan Warwicker

Unzen Jigoku © Siobhan Warwicker

Hike the volcanoes of Unzen-Amakusa National Park

Thanks to its dramatic geography of mountains and rivers brushed with every season and the turquoise bay, Unzen-Amakusa National Park is a hub for hiking, biking, rafting and other outdoor pursuits.

In a day’s hiking, you can cover three peaks: Mount Myoken at 1,333 metres (4,373 feet), up a little to Mount Kunimi at 1,347 metres (4,419 ft), and Mount Fugen at 1,359 metres (4,459 ft). Mount Fugen last blew in 1990, birthing a new mountain on its slope - the still-smouldering lava dome of Mount Heisei-Shinzan. Hike with local guide Yuto Ichiki (“Ichi”) and, if you're lucky, you may be able to sample his home-cooked local noodles.

Traveller’s tip: Bring climber’s gloves - some scrambling is involved on this route.

Where to stay

A budget-friendly alternative to a hotel (and handy for guiding services) is to book a dorm bed at Ichi’s cosy hostel, Unzen Tsudoi

Hiking in Unzen © Siobhan Warwicker

Hiking in Unzen © Siobhan Warwicker

Cycle down Mount Unzen

 Smooth roads thread the slopes where the mountains meet the coast, so if you set off from the Mount Unzen Tourism Center at about 700 metres (2,297 ft), it’s a freewheeling ride all the way to the sea. Aim for the Kunisaki Peninsula: at this working harbour, if the timing is right, you can tour the Tenyo Maru Sardine fishery, run by local fishermen.

Start your journey home in Nagasaki City and transfer via Tokyo. This little regional airport can check in your bags all the way home. Now that’s Japanese efficiency for you.

Continue your exploration of Japan with our practical tips on what you need to know before travelling to the country.

Supported by TokyoTokyo
 #KYUSHUxTOKYO

Siobhan © Siobhan Warwicker

Siobhan in Japan © Siobhan Warwicker

Siobhan Warwicker

written by
Siobhan Warwicker

updated 08.04.2024

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