The tropics meet tradition here in Kyushu’s southernmost major city. Sandwiched between the Kirishima Mountain range and the East China Sea, what Kagoshima may lack in hustle and bustle, it makes up for in a pleasant climate, stunning views, and restorative escapes.
Wander the historic entertainment street of Temmonkan in downtown Kagoshima, stopping for a local dish at one of their 25 unique stalls, or make your way up to Mt. Shiroyama Park for a spectacular sunset spot.
Be sure to keep an eye out for regional specialties and like Tosenkyo ‘Soumen’ Noodles, Satsuma-Imo (sweet potato that’s often baked or made into an ice cream or imbibed as the alcoholic spirit imo-jochu), and Kurobuta (black pork, a juicy, fatty meat that can be deep fried, steamed or sliced into ramen).
What To Do
While Kyushu is famous for its geothermal activity and volcano national park, Sakurajima stands out as one of Japan’s most active peaks. A mere 2.5 miles (four kilometers) across the bay from Kagoshima City, this perpetually smoking giant—known to have minor eruptions throughout the day that cover cars and homes in a light layer of ash—is impossible to miss and well worth a visit.
Grab one of the daily ferries from the Kagoshima Port to Sakurajima Ferry Terminal for around $2. From there, you can wander around to the nearby Laval Trail, Nagisa Park Foot Bath (relaxing foot baths, free of charge, with a great view of the bay looking back toward Kagoshima.)
For those interested in seeing this fiery titan a bit closer, catch the hourly Sakurajima Island View Bus (around $5 for a day pass) up to Yunohira Observation Point, the highest point on the volcano open, and free, to the public.
For those travelers enticed by traditional Japanese architecture and garden design, add a trip to Sengan-en to your list. A Unesco World Heritage site, Sengan-en (also called Isotein) was built in 1658 by the powerful Shimazu Clan, a wealthy feudal clan that ruled what is now present day Kagoshima for close to 700 years.
The complex features a bamboo grove, stream filled gardens, and the Iso Residence, which was the primary home of the Shimazu family starting around the 1870s. The preserved rooms of this residence and tranquil gardens are only enhanced by the sweeping views of Sakurajima just beyond the complex’s walls.
For an additional fee, visitors can tour the interior of the residence and observe the craftsmanship of its construction. The Garden complex can be reached via the Kagoshima City View bus leaving from Chuo Station, for around $2 each way.
Chiran Peace Museum and Samurai Gardens
Dedicated to the lives and deaths of the 1,000-plus young kamikaze pilots who trained at the flight school in Chiran, this museum offers a fascinating, albeit at times controversial, look into this unique aspect of Japanese warfare history.
Visitors can spend an hour or two checking out intact fighter planes and poring over photos, personal records, and effects from the pilot’s lives, presented in chronological order. A note: photography is forbidden at the museum and English translations are at a minimum (translation apps will come in handy here).
Be sure to spend some time walking around Chiran’s nearby Samurai District and Gardens, accessible via a short taxi ride. During Japan’s Edo period, around 40% of the Satsuma region (now present day Kagoshima) was made up of samurai, compared to only around 10% elsewhere in the country, dispersed between 100 or so districts.
Far from urban development, this particular samurai district is well preserved; visitors can enjoy a peaceful meander through the stone-walled streets of their residences and seven manicured gardens, all of which were designed by gardeners from Kyoto during the 17th century.
Ibusuki Sand Baths
Nestled at the southern tip of Kagoshima’s Satsuma Peninsula, Ibusuki is a charming onsen town that’s perfect for both day trips and overnight stays.
Ibusuki’s claim to fame is arguably the opportunity to try sand bathing–a popular beauty treatment that involves being buried up to your neck in sand, which is naturally heated by the geothermal springs under the beach. With the ocean lapping waves in front of you and heat rising from below, it’s a deeply relaxing (and refreshing) activity.
Take the JR Ibusuki Makurazaki line from Kagoshima-Chuo to Ibusuki Station (70 minutes) and the sand baths are easily accessible on foot from the station. For a more scenic ride, hop on one of Kyushu’s historic lines, Ibusuki no Tamatebako (nicknamed “Ibutama”) which offers comfortable seats and excellent views of the coast. For overnight trips, the Ibusuki Hakusuikan provides both Japanese and western style sleeping arrangements, a small ceramics museum, and a spa.
Tucked away in the forested slopes of the lower Kirishima Mountains lies Kirishima Onsen Town. Due to its proximity to numerous active volcanoes, this geothermal oasis is one of the country’s leading hot springs resorts.
The sulphuric springs are frequented by those seeking relaxation and restoration—soaking in these mineral rich waters are thought to detoxify the body and bring relief to countless aches and pains. With over a dozen separate hot springs in the area, visitors have a few options on how to enjoy the outstanding bath facilities Kirishima has to offer, from spa hotels like the Kirishima Hotel to public baths at Maruo Onsen to private ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) stays like at the Shinyu Onsen or Sakura Sakura (offering a special mud bath).
While in the area, be sure to stop by Kirishima Jingu Shrine—the majesty of which is rivalled only by Shimane’s ancient temple. Autumn is an especially stunning time in this area featuring fall foliage saturated in deep reds and fiery oranges. Swing by this sweet little shop for local confectionaries and fresh apple donuts and don’t forget to try sulphur spring steamed snacks at the Kirishima Onsen Market (eggs, buns, and local produce to name a few.) Outdoor enthusiasts may want to spend a day traversing some trails in nearby Kirishima National Park.
A note for tattooed visitors: Unfortunately tattoos are still taboo and very much associated with crime, especially outside of major Japanese cities, and are not allowed at most public bath houses. As nudity is the standard practice at onsens, it can be difficult to hide any tattoos, but if your ink is small enough to cover with a bandage, that is an option. For those with larger artwork, never fear! Booking an overnight stay in a ryokan will allow you to enjoy the hot springs from the privacy of your room without risk of conflict.
Wakoen Tea Farm
If visiting in April or May, pencil in a visit to Wakoen Tea Farm for a tour (English options are available) of one of the largest family owned tea factories where you’ll learn about Japan’s rich matcha history—from planting through processing.
Off the Beaten Path
For anyone looking to truly immerse themselves in the countryside, consider spending a few days at a home stay at an Izumi farm. For around $100 (for two people) a night, visitors can learn about harvesting (anything from rice to green tea to tropical fruits), help out with chores around the farm, and enjoy field-to-fork meals with your host family.
For Studio Ghibli Fans, nature enthusiasts, or anyone visiting Kyushu for a week, this wild and mysterious island in the East China Sea is a veritable paradise. As one of Japan’s first Unesco World Heritage destinations, Yakushima is home to the ancient misty forests that served as inspiration for Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke.
These cedars are some of the oldest living trees on earth in one of the oldest evergreen forests in the world. The remote aspect of the island, with a lack of tourists and development, makes this pristine first an otherworldly one.
While the interior is mountainous and dense, the island is ringed by a single road and can be reached by ferry from Kagoshima or by plane (though you’ll want to rent a car in order to get to trailheads and see Yakushima in full.)
There are a few different options for getting to Yakushima from Kagoshima, the fastest being a jetfoil speed boat, which takes around two to two-and-a-half (around $150 to $170 depending on the season.) A car ferry travels between the two ports once per day, leaving Kagoshima at 8:30, and returning from Yakushima at 13:30 and will take about four hours each way (around $90 roundtrip.)
The guesthouses on Yakushima are made to accommodate hikers and travelers on a budget, but another option is Soyotei, a family-run guesthouse with private units and ocean views. If you’re looking for a quaint cottage getaway, check out Umi-no Cottage, with sweet seaside cabins, and one of the best restaurants on the island.
Be sure to stop by Shiosai, and keep your eyes out for restaurants with some local specialities: tobiuo (flying fish, usually served sashimi, salt cured, or fried) and kame no te (turtle hand barnacles, which must be cracked open and resemble crab meat.)
Walk Among Giants
For casual strolls among ancient branches, head to Yakusugi Land Course, which is suitable for children and beginners. With four courses of varying lengths to choose from, you’ll cross well constructed bridges and clear pathways through the peaceful forest.
Beginner to intermediate hikers should add Shiratani Unsui Gorge course to their list. With three different trail options with hikes ranging from three to six hours, this ethereal moss forest most closely resembles scenes from Princess Mononoke and easily feels enchanted.
For intermediate to serious hikers, check out the Jomon Sugi Round Trip Trail. With a total distance of 13 miles (22 kilometers) and over 2,300 feet (700 meters) of elevation, this difficult course takes about nine hours to complete. It’s well worth it, though, as you amble below cedars that range from 2,000 to 7,000 years old.
Still looking for a challenge? Try your hand at summiting Mt. Miyanoura, Kyushu’s tallest peak, via the Yodogawa trailhead. But be prepared, this route takes about 10 hours.
A Seaside Soak
For one of the most unique onsen experiences in Japan, make a pit stop at Hirauchi Kaichu Onsen—three small hot spring bathing pools mere inches from the Sea of Japan. Payment operates on an honor system, but visitors can leave 100 to 200 yen in a designated box near the entrance.
The pools are only accessible twice a day at low tide and the sulphuric onsen waters mix with the sea as the tides come in; the views at sunset are absolutely unmatched. A word to the modest: swimsuits are frowned upon and nudity is expected.
And for folks looking to soak in an onsen with a little more privacy, head over to Onoaida Onsen. This centuries old bathhouse is simple but refreshing, especially after a day spent hiking around Yakushima.
From pristine beaches and unique bathhouses to tea farms and samurai gardens, Japan has plenty to offer any type of visitor. For more about this magical destination, read our Japan Travel Guide.
This content was created in partnership with the Japan National Tourism Organization and Japan Airlines.