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.
Central Kyūshū is dominated by sparsely populated, grassy highlands, in places rising to substantial peaks, which offer some of the island’s most magnificent scenery and best walking country. These mountains are relics of ancient volcanic upheavals and explosions of such incredible force that they collapsed one gigantic volcano to create the Aso caldera, the world’s largest crater. Today the floor of the caldera is a patchwork of fields like many tatami mats, and the surrounding uplands form a popular summer playground, but the peaks of Aso-san at its centre provide a potent reminder that the volcano is still very much alive. Most people come here to peer inside its steaming crater, eruptions permitting, and then scale some of the neighbouring peaks or walk over the lush green meadows at its base.
All this subterranean activity naturally means a wealth of hot springs to wallow in, mostly within the caldera itself, although there are a few gems hidden deep in the highlands. One is the picturesque village of Kurokawa Onsen, squeezed in a narrow gorge on the Senomoto plateau, which makes a great overnight stop on the road to Beppu. The village lies a few kilometres off the Yamanami Highway, the main route between Aso and Beppu, providing a spectacular mountain ride through the Aso-Kujū National Park. Heading in the opposite direction, another dramatic road climbs over the crater wall and heads southeast to Takachiho. Perched above an attractive gorge of angular basalt columns, this is where the mythical Sun Goddess Amaterasu hid, according to legends about the birth of the Japanese nation. A riverside cave and its neighbouring shrine make an easy excursion, but a more compelling reason to stop here is to catch a night-time performance of the story told through traditional folk dances.
The train from Kumamoto changes direction twice as it zigzags up the formidable wall of the Aso Caldera. This ancient crater, measuring 18km from east to west, 24km north to south and over 120km in circumference, was formed about 100,000 years ago when a vast volcano collapsed. As the rock cooled, a lake formed, but the eruptions continued, pushing up five smaller cones, today known collectively as Aso-san (阿蘇山). At the eastern end of the chain lies the distinctively craggy Neko-dake (1433m), while the next peak west is Taka-dake (1592m), the highest of the five summits, and its volcanic offshoot Naka-dake (1506m). West of here lie Eboshi-dake (1337m) and Kijima-dake (1321m). Of the five, only Naka-dake is still active; it’s really just a gash on the side of Taka-dake, formed by a volcanic explosion which created a secondary peak. Naka-dake’s most recent eruptions occurred in the early 1990s, since when it has calmed down considerably, but it’s wise to treat the mountain with respect. Notices are posted in the train and bus stations when Naka-dake is closed, but if you plan to do any long-distance walks around the crater it’s wise to check at the information office. Anyone suffering from asthma or other respiratory problems is advised not to approach the crater rim because of strong sulphur emissions.
Seven daily buses shuttle visitors from the terminal outside Aso Station on a dramatic forty-minute journey up towards the peaks of Aso-san. As the road climbs up to the pass between Kijima-dake and Eboshi-dake, you look down on the perfect cone of Komezuka, the “hill of rice” – its dimpled top is said to have been created when Takeiwatatsu-no-mikoto scooped up a handful of rice to feed his starving people. Turning the other way, you get your first glimpse of Naka-dake’s gaping mouth across the grassy bowl of Kusasenri plateau, speckled with shallow crater lakes.
On the plateau, the bus stops outside the missable Aso Volcano Museum (阿蘇火山博物館), though you might want to get off here to climb Kijima-dake (杵島岳; 1321m), which rises behind the museum. The paved path from the far northeast corner of the car park takes you on an easy thirty-minute climb, rewarded with more views over the caldera, and then down into Kijima-dake’s extinct crater. From here, you can descend via a ski slope to join a path alongside the road to Naka-dake; the whole walk should take under ninety minutes.
Rather than backtracking, you could take a great hiking trail round the crater’s southern rim to the summit of Naka-dake, followed by a possible side trip to Taka-dake (高岳) and then down to the northeastern Sansuikyō Ropeway. It’s not too difficult as long as you’ve got good boots, plenty of water and you keep well away from the edge. To pick up the path, follow the boardwalks heading south round the crater across the Sunasenri plateau.
One of the most popular hot-spring resorts in Japan, KUROKAWA ONSEN (黒川温泉) is made up of twenty-odd ryokan, which lie higgledy-piggledy at the bottom of a steep-sided, tree-filled valley scoured into the Senomoto Kōgen plateau (瀬の本高原), some 6km west of the Yamanami Highway. The village is completely devoted to hot-spring bathing and most of its buildings are at least traditional in design, if not genuinely old, while yukata-clad figures wandering the lanes add to its slightly quaint atmosphere. The village is particularly famous for its rotemburo: there are 24 different locations in total, offering rocky pools of all shapes and sizes. Out of the main tourist season, when the crowds have gone, it’s well worth making the effort to get here, and Kurokawa makes an excellent overnight stop, if you don’t mind paying a little extra for accommodation.
The small town of TAKACHIHO (高千穂) lies on the border between Kumamoto and Miyazaki prefectures, where the Gokase-gawa has sliced a narrow channel through layers of ancient lava. In winter, when night temperatures fall below freezing, local villagers perform time-honoured Yokagura dances in the old farmhouses, bringing back to life the gods and goddesses who once inhabited these mountains (see p.692). The main reason for visiting Takachiho is to see a few excerpts from this dance-cycle, but combine that with Takachiho gorge, a pretty spot whose strange rock formations are woven into local myths, plus a dramatic journey from whichever direction you arrive, and Takachiho becomes somewhere to include on any Kyūshū tour.
Takachiho’s famous traditional dances have their roots in local legend. The story goes that the Storm God, Susano-ō, once destroyed the rice fields of his sister, the Sun Goddess Amaterasu, and desecrated her sacred palace. Understandably offended by these actions, Amaterasu hid in a cave and plunged the world into darkness. The other gods tried to entice her out with prayers and chants, but nothing worked until, finally, a goddess named Ama-no-uzume broke into a provocative dance. The general merriment was too much for Amaterasu, who peeped out to see the fun, at which point the crowd grabbed her and hauled her back into the world. Takachiho locals also claim that nearby mountain Takachiho-no-mine – not the mountain of Ebino Kōgen – is where Amaterasu’s grandson, Ninigi-no-mikoto, descended to earth with his mirror, sword and jewel to become Japan’s first emperor.
A visit to Takachiho is not complete without viewing a sample of this dance at the Kagura-den. In one hour you see three or four extracts from the full cycle, typically including the story of Amaterasu and her cave, and ending with an explicit rendition of the birth of the Japanese nation in which the two “gods” leave the stage to cavort with members of the audience – to the great delight of all concerned. The performers are drawn from a pool of around 550 local residents, aged from 5 to 80 years, who also dance in the annual Yokagura festival (mid-Nov to mid-Feb). In a combination of harvest thanksgiving and spring festival, 24 troupes perform all 33 dances in sequence in private homes and village halls, lasting through the night and into the next day.
A fair proportion of travellers to Kyūshū find themselves in KUMAMOTO (熊本) at some point. Not only is the city handily located between Fukuoka in the north and Kagoshima down south, but it also lies within striking distance of Aso to the east and Unzen to the west. As well as making a good base or stopover, the city itself is reasonably attractive and boasts a couple of worthwhile sights. Chief among these is the fearsome, fairy-tale castle dominating the town centre, and Suizenji-jojuen, one of Japan’s most highly rated gardens, in the western suburbs. Wars and development have meant that little else of particular note survives, though you’ve got to admire a city which invented the endearingly offbeat “Kobori-style” swimming which “involves the art of swimming in a standing posture attired in armour and helmet”.
Kumamoto owes its existence to the Katō clan, who were given the fiefdom in the late sixteenth century in return for supporting Tokugawa Ieyasu during his rise to power. Katō Kiyomasa, first of the feudal lords, not only built a magnificent fortress but is also remembered for his public works, such as flood control and land reclamation. However, political intrigue resulted in the Katō being ousted in 1632 in favour of the Hosokawa clan, who had previously held Kokura. Thirteen generations of Hosokawa lords ruled Kumamoto for more than two centuries, during which time the city thrived as Kyūshū’s major government stronghold, until feudal holdings were abolished in 1871. Six years later, the final drama of the Meiji Restoration was played out here when Saigō Takamori’s rebel army was defeated by government troops, but not before destroying much of Kumamoto’s previously impregnable castle.
In 1637, exorbitant taxes and the oppressive cruelty of two local daimyō sparked off a large-scale peasant revolt in the Shimabara area, though the underlying motive was anger at the Christian persecutions taking place at the time. Many of the rebels were Christian, including their leader, a 16-year-old boy known as Amakusa Shirō, who was supposedly able to perform miracles. His motley army of 37,000, which included women and children, eventually sought refuge in abandoned Hara castle, roughly 30km south of Shimabara town. For three months they held off far-superior government forces, but even Shirō couldn’t save them when Hara was stormed in April 1638 and, so it’s said, all 37,000 were massacred. Rightly or wrongly, Portuguese missionaries were implicated in the rebellion and soon after all foreigners were banished from Japan as the country closed its doors.
To scores of adventurous young Japanese, Miyazaki prefecture is inextricably linked to surfing. These are Japan’s best and warmest waters, and though few foreigners get in on the action, this makes a trip here all the more appealing. The peak season runs from August to October, when most weekends will have a surfing event of some description.
There’s decent surfing in the waters immediately west of Aoshima – protected by the island, these smaller swells are perfect for beginners. Nagisa Store, between Kodomonokuni Station and Grand Hotel Qingdao, rents boards (¥3000) and wetsuits (¥2000), while a few minutes’ walk north of the same station similar prices are on offer at Wellybird. A little further towards Miyazaki is Kisaki-hama (木崎浜), a decent beach popular with surfers, and a ten-minute walk from Undōkōen Station. Equipment here can be rented at Blast Surf World, frustratingly located behind the Mos Burger just about visible from the station exit.
Experienced surfers with their own equipment should head instead to the reefs and reef breaks south of Aoshima, though these can be hard to get to without a local friend. Far to the north of Miyazaki, there are similarly ferocious waters surrounding Hyūga (日向), just south of Nobeoka.
Craggy mountain peaks; wave after wave of dripping, subtropcial rainforest; towering cedar trees which predate the Roman Empire; the all-pervasive scent of moss and flowers. If this sounds a little like the setting for an anime, rather than real-life Japan, you’d be half-right – Miyazaki Hayao was said to have taken his inspiration from Yakushima’s lush forests when creating Princess Mononoke. Mystical deer are sadly off the agenda (though there’s no harm in looking), but the aforementioned natural charms of Yakushima (屋久島) are usually enough to knock the socks off the few foreign travellers who make it to this island, which climbs steeply from the sea some 60km off Kyūshū.
Pray, however, that the weather cooperates – locals joke that it rains “35 days a month”. Yakushima greedily gobbles up almost every passing cloud, resulting in an average annual rainfall of at least 4m on the coast and a staggering 8–10m in its mountainous interior. This feeds tumbling streams and a lush, primeval forest famous for its magnificent Yaku-sugi cedar trees, the oldest of which are well over 2000 years and honoured with individual names (trees under 1000 years are known as ko-sugi, or “small cedars”). Jōmon-sugi is known to be at least 2300 years old and thought to be the oldest; it grows high in the mountains. Logging companies worked Yakushima’s forests until the early 1970s, but much of the island is now protected within the Kirishima-Yaku National Park, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Yakushima’s population of around 13,600 is concentrated in the two main towns of Miyanoura and Anbō or scattered in small settlements around the coast. An increasingly popular tourist destination, Yakushima now boasts a number of swish resort hotels in addition to simpler accommodation. Most people, however, come to hike and camp among the peaks, where the older cedars are found. For the less adventurous, Yaku-sugi Land contains a few more accessible trees and can be reached by public bus. Otherwise, there are a couple of good local museums, a seaside onsen and several beaches, two of which – Isso and Nakama – offer decent snorkelling. There are no dry months here, but the best time to visit is May or during the autumn months of October and November. June sees by far the highest rainfall, though this is when the rhododendrons are at their best, followed by a steamy July and August. Winter brings snow to the peaks, although sea-level temperatures hover around 15°C.