This article is sponsored by Japan National Tourism Organisation (JNTO). Checkout www.jnto.org.au for information about tourism in Japan for Australians.
Crazy cities, insane crosswalks, temples, geisha, friendly people and culture at every turn.
That’s probably what most people think of when thinking about travelling to Japan. After all, Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka are famous for a reason.
However, for the adventurer who prefers to take the road less travelled, Japan has plenty of experiences to offer in its southwest most island and 3rd largest of its archipelago, Kyushu.
From Japan’s most active volcano, mountainous ranges, and fog - oh, lots of fog. To cities filled with steam from geysers, hidden gorges and an island shaped like a battleship, our 7 days exploring Kyushu from west to east was, in a word, diverse.
A string of diverse experiences that led us from one adventure to the next, adventures that were so different to your typical Japan experience as we travelled to Nagasaki, Kumamoto, Oita and Fukuoka and everywhere in between.
Day 1 - Nagasaki and an island shaped like a battleship
It all started in the beautiful harbour city of Nagasaki.
Although it’s the last city in the world to have suffered a nuclear attack back in World War II in 1945, walking through the streets, you could easily have never known.
It’s filled with life and beauty, with all the modern trimmings of a 21st century metropolis.
At the airport, the first thing we did was rent a car. Public transport throughout Kyushu is decent, but the areas that we were visiting are a whole lot less accessible, and buses don’t run as often as our hectic schedule would require them to.
Our first stop was to visit the battleship-shaped Island, Hashima Island (aka Gunkanjima to the locals).
It’s a completely abandoned island with a lot of history. Previously a coal mining island once full of life and prosperity, when the coal reserves deep underneath the island started to deplete, residents started to leave shortly after. What they left behind has now turned into derelict housing, and has since been approved as a UNESCO world heritage site.
Now, it’s only visited by tourists.
Completing the tour, we headed back to the city to explore a little of what the city had to offer at blue hour.
Day 2 - A day of shrines, a big boat ride, and Kumamoto
We started off the day bright and early.
A sunrise mission to Kyushu’s most famous shrine and one of the other great Inari shrines of Japan, Yūtoku Inari Shrine.
Dedicated to the Shinto god of harvest and prosperity, Yūtoku is the 3rd largest of all Inari shrines (Fushimi in Kyoto is the main and largest) and occupies a large area with its own unique architecture and it’s own mini pilgrimage up a big mountain.
It may not have as many torii as Fushimi, but with a huge courtyard, unique building structure and rows of torii scaling the mountain, this peaceful, quiet shrine is every bit as beautiful, with far less tourists too.
After a few hours at the shrine, we decided to continue on with the adventure, with our destination for the day being the city of Kumamoto.
On the way, we spotted another shrine that (as curious photographers) we just had to stop at.
A series of 3 floating torii, the Great Fish Shrine was used for people to pray for the safety of fishermen, and to bless them with bountiful catches for the day.
A local told us that this shrine changes with the tide. In fact, the water can rise or fall between 6 metres, so sometimes you can catch this shrine completely submerged in the ocean, and other times you can see it from base to top. Sugoi.
Reaching the Shimabara ferry port would involve us driving our car onto the ferry, and sailing across the water to Kumamoto.
The view back into the mainland supplies a view of Mt Unzen and its surrounding mountains. Tipped by lingering clouds, this type of scene turned out to be a very typical sight across our trip in Kyushu.
Arriving in Kumamoto with little daylight left, after our check in, the first thing we did was visit the castle.
Personally, I’m a sucker for castles.
Living in a western country means I don’t get to see them very often, and being a bit of an architecture and history nerd, I make a point to visit them whenever I can.
Kumamoto castle has quite a high reputation in Japan, however in 2016, suffered from a magnitude 7.3 earthquake that damaged some of the structures surrounding the keep.
Because repairs can take decades, when we visited, construction was very much underway. But even though it was surrounded by cranes and construction, but still beautiful.
Day 3 - Rice fields, Takachiho gorge and more shrines
One of the things I love doing when travelling is to stop in the smaller villages in-between your destinations.
A quick little meander around the road less travelled gives you a better sense of what a place is really like and solidifies your appreciation for the culture there.
On the way to Takachiho gorge, during a sunrise mission, we stopped at a little village called “Yamato” in Kumamoto.
Totally by random and totally on the way to our destination, we were in a period of great light and those classic Kyushu low clouds.
Exploring the town by car and drone, what we saw was what I would describe to be the real Kyushu. Rice paddies, local community, surrounded by mountains in the clouds.
After our sunrise pit stop, we arrived at Takachiho gorge super early.
Acting on a tip we received before leaving on this trip, we wanted to ride the boat through the gorge with the least amount of people possible.
Costing about 2000yen for 30 minutes (which is enough time, the paddle isn’t actually that far), the boat rental service opens at 8:30am. Getting there at 8:00am will still have you 20 meters at the back of the line.
But actually, if you’re optimising for trying to get as few other people in your shots as possible, I’d actually recommend getting there a tad later. The first ‘run’ of boats goes out on the water at pretty much the same time. That means up to 25 boats will head straight for the gorge all at once (which isn’t that pretty of a sight). It’s actually a little smarter to let it die down a little bit for like 30 minutes to an hour, where the boats start to dribble in and out of the gorge in lesser numbers.
Regardless if what you’re trying to optimise for though, every angle of Takachiho gorge is beautiful. From the boat views, the bridge views, and even the short walk up the back of the gorge, this little gem created from the nearby Mt Aso’s volcanic activity should be near the top of your list when coming to Kyushu.
After getting our fill of the gorge, we visited two shrines. The first of which was a stones throw away, just 20 minutes drive north east to a place called Amanoiwato Shrine.
Amanoiwato Shrine has legend in Japanese mythology. The Shinto sun goddess, Amaterasu, was said to have hid in a cave nearby here after being abused by her brothers bullying, and in doing so, also hid the light she provided to the world.
An interesting story, for sure.
When you get to the shrine, you can see this cave for yourself.
After a short walk down into the valley, we reached the cave/shrine called Amano Yasukawara. In it, there are countless amounts of stone stacks made by previous visitors to mark their pilgrimage here. It’s a wonderful and surreal experience.
Because I can’t get enough of shrines and the cultural experiences and history they contain, of course, we went to another shrine after Amanoiwato.
Less than an hours drive from there lives a gorgeous shrine in the woods called Kamishikimi Kumanoimasu Shrine.
It’s a bit hard to find, as the entrance is very unassuming and the forest protects it from being seen from the outside as you approach. There’s a carpark about 40 metres away from it though, so that may help you when punching it into your GPS.
Kamishikimi Kumanoimasu Shrine is a place of atmosphere and spiritual ambience.
The only thing you can really hear are the sounds of trees rustling in the wind.
The pilgrimage up the 200 metres worth of steps is not only a physical endeavour, but the environment makes you feel like it’s a very spiritual one too.
Day 4 - Daikanbo, a foggy Mt Aso and disappointment
The day started out with yet another sunrise mission. This time, to Daikanbo. A common viewing spot for photographers, campers and motorbike riders alike, due to its twisty bends and nice roads up the pass, and plenty of wide open space at the top to hang out.
It’s always a serene experience at the top of a mountain. Even with almost 100 people all doing their own thing, we enjoyed a relatively quiet, colourful sunrise entertained by fast-moving mountainous fog rolling through Mt Aso and surrounds.
Our next destination was the massive mountain itself and Japan’s most active volcano, Mt Aso.
The caldera around Mt Aso is huge. So much so that we stopped quite a few times on the drive to the top. The landscapes are gorgeous. Rugged, textural, massive, and of course, covered with rolling clouds.
You might even spot the occasional cow or horse on your journey there.
Unfortunately when we arrived at the top, the fog was so thick that we weren’t able to see even 5 metres in front of us, and as such, access to the crater was closed.
I’d show you a picture of what that looked like, but it would literally just be white.
Disappointed, we turned around and left to check in to our hotel at the onsen town of Kurokawa.
Day 5 - Mt Aso, Kusasenri and a lot of steam in Beppu
After the previous day’s defeat, we looked up the possibility of trying again. The weather forecast said it was going to be cloudy with heavy fog the next morning, but when it comes to landscapes, Kyushu’s crown jewel - the most compelling reason to come here if you’re a landscape lover - is Mt Aso.
So late in the night previous, we decided to risk it, even though the forecast was against us.
After all, if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. That’s how the saying goes, right?
So we did.
…and this time, we won. We were blessed with clear skies and fantastic conditions.
All 5 peaks of Mt Aso were visible, and entire caldera around it was surrounded by a sea of clouds. It was breathtaking.
We settled in at Kusasenri - a green, grassy prairie in front of Mt Eboshi - a picturesque scene with the smoking crater of Mt Nakadake in the background.
The return was worth it.
Triumphant and stoked with the experience, we then travelled to our next destination; the hot spring city of Beppu.
Beppu is a city with a lot of volcanic activity. It has 8 major geothermal spots and the locals have used these natural geysers and turned them into hot springs (onsens).
Because of that, everywhere you look in Beppu, there’s some steam action going on. It’s really quite something.
We visited one of its most famous hot springs, Umi Jigoku, or “Sea hell” due to the blue colour of boiling ponds. Of course these hot springs are too hot to bathe in - at 100+ degrees Celsius you’ll literally cook - but they’re great for viewing.
Day 6 - Usa Shrine and rest
You know, 5 sunrises in a row gets pretty tiring!
After a bit of a sleep in, we made a side-trip up to Usa Shrine.
It was really out of the way based on where we would stay in Oita, but we were keen to visit.
This particular shrine is the largest of all in Japan dedicated to Hachiman, the god of war and warriors. Pretty badass, right?
Usa shrine is an amazingly large compound that we didn’t get a chance to entirely explore, but we got enough to get a sense of just how large it actually is. It literally is the size of a small town.
After Usa Shrine, we headed back to Oita for some rest and recovery, as the next and final day involved a lot driving.
Day 7 - Roadside sunrises, Fukuoka, and a white torii
Our last day involved travelling from Oita to Fukuoka - pretty much the entire length of what we had previously travelled from Nagasaki to get to Oita.
We started before the sun got up, again.
While we were driving, we were blessed with great colours, and stopped roadside to fly our drones near a town called Kokone.
A beautiful, classic sight to sum up the rugged Kyushu landscape on our last day.
Our intention was to drive to Yanagawa to visit some of the riverside boat cruises they had to offer there, only to find out part way through that they were closed on that day.
Instead, we decided to check in to our hotel and spend the morning hanging out at Ohori Park.
Ohori park is a big, serene lake with a skinny bridge path through the middle of it with cute pagoda stops, set within the heart of the city.
We hung out on the lake, watching ducks, turtles and birds, with your classic pigeon man arriving to feed a flock of pigeons.
Our last stop of the day and last stop of the trip was Sakurai Futamigaura of Meotoiwa.
Yeah, kind of a mouthful. It’s beautiful though.
This huge seaside torii gate is white - something you don’t often see. But it’s what’s between it that’s interesting.
Two ‘wedded rocks’ tied together by a Shinto rope sit behind the torii, offering what I’m told is a fantastic sunset experience.
Unfortunately the weather didn’t play nice with us on our last day in Kyushu. Instead delivering us a cloudy, featureless transition into the night.
Closing out an epic adventure
But on that beach, it didn’t stop us from appreciating what we had just gone through the past 7 days.
Wild weather, 6 sunrises, 1000+km’s of driving and 3 tanks of petrol later made our Kyushu experience a memorable one - a high page to add to the adventure book.
Japan gets a lot of tourists. About 30 million per year. Of that, a super small percentage come to see Kyushu. That’s a shame, considering how much it has to offer. If you’re after epic landscapes and an abundance of culture, consider adding Kyushu to your next Japan travel plans. It’s epic and I can sincerely say it’s worth it.