**Update: As most of you know by now Kyushu has been hit by numerous destructive earthquakes. My heart goes out to all those that have been affected or have lost a friend or family member. I can’t imagine the terror you must be living through right now. I can only hope that the aftershocks will stop and you can pick up the pieces of your life. Japanese people are very strong and well organized and I know will make it through this. If you feel inclined to help, you can donate money or volunteer**
Kyushu, an island in southwestern Japan, is a little off the beaten path. Most people who visit Japan stay on the main island of Honshu, visiting Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto, or opt for a winter themed vacation on the northern island of Hokkaido for skiing and the famous Ice Festival. But after living on Kyushu in the city of Kumamoto for over a year I think it has so much to offer. While living in Kumamoto I was able to explore a lot of Kyushu, and because there is so much information out there about visiting Honshu, I would like to give you some ideas of how to spend an amazing trip just on Kyushu.
How do you get around Kyushu?
Kyushu Rail Pass
A huge perk of visiting Kyushu is the Kyushu Rail Pass. The Japan Rail Pass, which is valid throughout all of Japan on JR trains, has to be purchased before leaving your home country, or before entering Japan. But anyone with a tourist visa can buy the Kyushu Rail Pass from any train station in Kyushu. Having a rail pass allows you to get anywhere on the island a lot cheaper, because although trains in Japan are amazingly fast, efficient, and clean, that comes with a price, and it can add up. There are two different passes: the Northern Kyushu Rail Pass and the Kyushu Rail Pass. You can check out the website with all the details on buying your rail pass.
There is a high-speed train (shinkansen) that runs from Kitakyushu all the way down to Kagoshima. To visit smaller cities around the island you can take local trains, which are still fast but not as speedy as the shinkansen. As for places that trains don’t go, you can easily take a bus to most destinations. If you have an international drivers license you can also rent a car. But I warn you that highways can be very pricey to drive on due to the many tolls.
Below is a list of my 10 favorite places in Kyushu. Most are accessible by train, with the exception of a few that must be reached by bus.
Most people who visit Kyushu will probably spend most of their time in Fukuoka. This is not a bad thing, as Fukuoka is an incredibly hip place. There is so much going on, from great food and cafes to sumo and kabuki theatre. If you make it to Fukuoka in November, make sure to get tickets for the Grand Sumo Tournament. I highly recommend seeing this ancient Japanese sport in action if you have the chance. (Learn more about buying Sumo Tickets)
But if you don’t come in November, there is still so much to do. If you want to dive into the local food scene, Fukuoka is known throughout Japan for it’s delicious ramen. Ramen is so popular here that they set up sidewalk eateries all over the city at night, especially around the Tenjin neighborhood and near Canal City. If you like ramen, and especially if you like rich broths, you will love the local ramen.
Other places of interest include Ohori Park, with the remains of the old castle. This is also a great place for viewing cherry blossoms in spring, and a nice place for a walk or picnic. In the middle of the park you will find a hot dog vendor with a stove inside the back of the van. According to my husband it is the best hot dog he has ever eaten.
There are also many festivals that happen in Fukuoka throughout the year. The most famous is the Hakata Gion Yamakasa Festival held in July. At the end of the festival there is a huge race between different neighborhoods where they push huge decorated floats down the street. I regret never making it to this festival as it is supposed to be a lot of fun.
How to get to Fukuoka: There are a few ways to get to Fukuoka. You can take a shinkansen from Tokyo (~ 6 hours) or Osaka (~3.5 hours). You can also fly into Fukuoka International Airport. If you are coming from Busan in South Korea you can take a 3 hour ferry.
The town of Nagasaki probably makes you think of one thing, the second atomic bomb that was dropped on Japan. That is a huge part of it’s history but there is so much more to the city. I do recommend going to the Peace Park and the museum. Even after visiting Hiroshima, I learned a lot about nuclear weapons, and specifically about the history of the bombing. I do warn you that it can induce some pretty strong emotions, but I think everyone should learn about it.
Nagasaki also has a thriving Chinatown. Along with getting your fix of chumpon, the local seafood specialty, you can also venture into the old Chinese quarters and see some old shrines built by Chinese settlers in Nagasaki. From there, a quick walk through some cute hillside neighborhoods brings you to the old Dutch settlement, creating a completely different feel than that of the neighboring Chinese settlement. A little further and you will come to Glover Gardens, offering amazing views of the city and the harbor. The view alone is worth the trip, but you can also learn quite a bit about it’s significance and history in the city. I suggest coming around sunset before heading down the hill to jump on the trolley back to the city.
Another famous attraction is the Megane Bridge, across the Nakashima River, build in 1634 by a monk residing at one of the local temples. The road next to the river is a nice place to walk, especially at night when all the bridges are lit up.
If you enjoy hiking and hot springs, head to Mt Unzen. There are many hot springs in this area. Some are too hot to go in and are just for viewing while others are onsen, or hot springs for soaking. Come in the fall to view the changing colors of the leaves. Down the mountain from Unzen you can also catch a ferry from Shimabara over to Kumamoto.
How to get to Nagasaki: Trains and busses leave Fukuoka’s Hakkata Station. The train takes about 2 hours and has some awesome coastal views. Or catch the ferry from Kumamoto and then get on a train heading to Nagasaki city.
Beppu is known throughout Japan for being a hot spring/onsen resort town. I was able to get away to Beppu twice during my time in Japan, and while both times were way too short, they were super enjoyable. I chose to stay in town as opposed to up the hill near the hot springs park. This park is has beautiful hot springs that are too hot for people, called “hells” in Japanese. Staying in town makes it easier to visit the smaller onsen near the train station. Some were local neighborhood onsen, but I was always welcomed and older ladies were always smiling and chatting with me.
Head to Takegawara onsen, with the hottest water in town, and it is over 100 years old. You can also choose to do a sand bath where someone pours hot sand on you and then you sit in it until it cools. This is just one type of alternative bath you can take here. Other kinds include mud baths and baths with different mineral content. Beppu also happens to have some of the best Japanese dumplings (gyoza) I had while in Japan. The restaurant is down a very unsuspecting alley, it only seats about 8 people, and all it serves is beer and dumplings.
Getting to Beppu: You can reach Beppu by train. From Kumamoto or Fukuoka it takes about 2 hours. Or you can fly into Oita airport and take a northbound train to Beppu station.
#4 Mt. Aso
This has been my back yard of sorts, as it’s about an hour train ride from my house. I have enjoyed seeing it in every season. I highly recommend coming in May because that is when the mountain is covered in flowers! Being a geography lover, I have enjoyed being able to learn from and see first hand an active volcano. Sadly, you can no longer walk around the rim of the volcano because over the past few years there have been a series of small eruptions, moving the safety zone further and further away from the rim. But you can still enjoy a nice walk and take some photos of the ash plume emerging from the crater. It also has a really nice onsen that is just a two-minute walk from Aso station. It costs a few hundred yen and has really amazing facilities: a big indoor pool, a covered outside pool, a cold water bath, and a sauna. Mt Aso also has a really neat fire festival held each year around Spring Equinox. Some years they even light the side of the mountain on fire.
How to get to Aso: You can travel to Aso via train. It takes about an hour from Kumamoto Station via express train, or about 2 hours on the local train. For a fun train ride reserve a seat on Aso Boy, a famous train that goes between Kumamoto and Aso station. From Beppu it takes about 2 hours. The scenery along the tracks from Kumamoto to Aso, and Beppu to Aso is very beautiful, passing mountains, small towns and even some waterfalls.
#5 Takachiho Gorge
Takachiho has more to offer than just the gorge, but the gorge is quite stunning and worth a visit. I visited in the fall, with amazing colors all around as the leaves changed. I would love to return on a nice sunny day, as photos show the water turning an amazing blue when the sun is shining down on it. There are also various shrines located all over the town. Transport is easy, as you can get a pass for the local tourist bus that has stops at all the popular destinations in town. I chose to walk, making for a very nice afternoon. And don’t miss out on the dance performances held every night from the main shrine near the entrance to the gorge. It costs only 800 yen and is very much worth it. For more information about visiting Takachiho check out my previous post.
How to get to Takachiho: This is one place that a rail pass will not help you get to. There used to be a train that serviced the area, but a large storm a few years back destroyed the tracks, and they haven’t been re-serviced. So you can either take a 3-hour bus from Kumamoto Kotsu Center, or you can catch the bus at the airport. An alternative route is taking the train to the Minamiaso area and then catch the bus into Takachiho.
Kagoshima is a very beautiful city. It was also a focal point of the Meiji Restoration, so there are museums and historical landmarks located around the city. In this way it makes for a nice place to learn about the history of Japan. A top activity in Kagoshima is to head to the harbor and take a ferry over to the nearby volcano, Sakurajima. Make sure to keep your eyes on the water because its possible you will see some dolphins when leaving the Kagoshima harbor. Once across the island you can hop on a bus that takes you to different stops around the island. Honestly, the bus wasn’t a highlight of the island, but it does take you to a nice lookout of the volcano.
I enjoyed the walk from the visitor center along the water up to the first lookout. This still allows for beautiful views of the plume coming out of the volcano, and is free. (Sadly, the second time I visited there was no ash plume, which makes the view less spectacular, though soon after that there was a significant eruption) If the volcano is spouting, watch out for wind changes as the ash will get on your hair and clothing.
Another top attraction in Kagoshima is the aquarium, which is located right next to the ferry terminal for Sakurajima. It is worth it as it displays many fish and animals that are found in the surrounding ecosystems.
Also, if you are a lover of Mexican food, I found the best tacos at a small hole in the wall place. The menu is all in Japanese, but everything I got there was really tasty. If you can’t read Japanese like me, there are some pictures, and I also just randomly pointed at a certain taco, and it ended up being the best one I tried. They also have a nice selection of Mexican beers and make a nice margarita.
Getting to Kagoshima: Kagoshima is at the end of the Shinkansen line. You can also take express trains from Miyazaki and neighboring towns. There is also an airport, but it is located rather far from the city. It can be reached by a bus or taxi. The bus station is right across from the train station.
Yakushima is a place that fairy tales are made of. In fact it was the inspiration for parts of the anime Princess Mononoke. It is a small mountainous island south of Kagoshima. Luckily, there is a bus that services most parts of the island and can take you to the popular destinations. You can jump on the bus at both the ferry terminal and the airport. Make sure to head to an information center to grab a bus schedule. Use the English version to reference the Japanese one and you are set to explore the island. This island will not disappoint, especially if you like hiking and backpacking. The old cedar trees are beautiful, and there are monkeys and deer wandering through the forests. Yakushima can be very cold and rainy, so remember your rain gear and bring some extra layers to keep warm.
If you find you are there and its too rainy to go exploring, check out one of the many shochu distilleries for a tour and a sample of the local brews. The shochu here is known throughout Japan as being some of the best. I stayed in the town of Anbo because it was supposed to have more dining options and things to do than Miyanoura, where the ferry terminal is. There turned out to be several excellent places to eat in Anbo, the best one being a small restaurant across from Mos Burger right on the highway and near the bus stop. It was run by a group of older ladies and included local specialties like flying fish. This restaurant also makes set lunches (bentos) to take with you on your long hikes.
Getting to Yakushima: There are two ways to get to Yakushima. The first and most common is to take the ferry from Kagoshima. The other is to take a very short flight from Fukuoka or Kagoshima.
This is another onsen destination. If you have the chance to stay in one of the nice traditional Japanese inns (ryokans), I suggest staying for at least a night. When you arrive you will have to walk into town from the highway bus stop. Make your way to the information desk and pick up a hot spring pass. This pass allows you to visit three hot springs for a set price. Three is about the perfect number to visit if you are taking an early bus from Aso and expecting to catch the latest bus back. One of the popular onsen is a cave onsen that I thought would be a neat experience but it is just really claustrophobic and small, so save your pass for a different one.
If you choose to stay in Aso, I recommend staying at Aso Base Backpackers. The staff can give you great advise about your visit to Kurokawa and Aso. Also, make sure to stop by the bakery in Kurokawa near the temple in town. Their crème puffs are to die for, as they are super fresh and filled as you order them.
Getting to Kurokawa: You can only get to Kurokawa by bus or car. It is about a 45 minute bus ride from Aso station, so it’s a great day side trip while in Aso. You can also grab a bus from Kumamoto to Kurokawa.
Kumamoto has one of the three most admired castles in Japan after Osaka and Nagoya, making this a nice stopping point for a day or two. It is also the home of the most lovable prefecture mascot character throughout Japan: Kumamon! The city itself isn’t as exciting as Kyoto or Fukuoka but it does have more to offer than just the castle. Suizenji Park is another big tourist draw, and just a quick tram ride from the castle. Both could be done in one day. Suizenji is an amazingly manicured Japanese garden, with beautiful carp ponds and usually some waterfowl hanging around taking advantage of the spring water coming directly from Mt. Aso. I had lived in Kumamoto for over six months before I visited, and I was so surprised by how nice it was, since it is not nearly as famous as the castle.
For food, coffee, or a cocktail make sure to check out Kaminouradori Street, rated as one of hippest streets in Japan. I highly suggest the wine bar on this as the ladies who run it are super friendly and there are often fun activities such as trivia night and wine and cheese night. Check out their facebook page.
Getting to Kumamoto: You can take a bus or train from Hakatta station to Kumamoto. You can also fly into Kumamoto International Airport. Most flights will come within Japan, but it is possible to fly into Kumamoto from Seoul or southern Taiwan. From the airport you can hop on a bus that will take you to Kumamoto Kotsu Center right in downtown.
Dazaifu is a great side trip from Fukuoka, allowing you views of the southern parts of the city, and bringing you to a very cute little community with an amazing rock garden and beautiful shrine. If you are lucky enough to go when a festival is happening, you might glimpse some traditional attire, from kimonos to haoris, usually on little boys. There is so much to see and do in Dazaifu. If you find yourself in Kyushu in early February you might be able to catch the plum festival that happens in Daizafu. It’s a nice way to enjoy the first blooms of spring, and there is an umeshu (plum wine) festival with samples from all over Japan.
Getting to Daizafu: Daizafu can be reached in 20 minutes from Tenjin Nishitesu train station. Unfortunately, you can not use your JR pass to get to Daizafu, but the ticket is pretty cheap.
**Other places that are worth checking out, that I never made it to are:
-Miyazaki- known for good surfing and beautiful beaches
-Mt. Kirishima- north of Kagaoshima, is another great place for hiking, mountaineering and onsen
-Amakusa- This was right in my backyard, but I never made it. Known for old Christian churches and beautiful beaches, it should be included on your trip to Kyushu.
-Riding the Hisatsu Line from Kumamoto to Hitoyoshi City, known for its spectacular views.
-Eating raw horse in Kumamoto. Yes, this is a thing. Cooked horse I think tastes great, and raw horse is suppose to be delicious.