Untouched and Underrated
Kyushu, home to farmers and surfers alike, is the southernmost of Japan’s four main islands, and easily its most overlooked. From smoking volcanoes and lush farming valleys to craggy coastlines and ancient cedar forests, Japan’s ‘onsen island’ is a veritable paradise that’s well worth a visit—despite it being a bit far for a day trip from Kyoto.
While it lacks the robust rail lines of Honshu, there are a handful of unique trains from wacky to luxurious that run along scenic routes and offer a glimpse at life outside of the city. The remote nature of Kyushu is both what gives the island its charm, and keeps it off of most itineraries. But fear not! Car rental is a viable, albeit expensive, option.
Anyone over 18 with a driver’s license can get an international driving permit (IDP) for Japan and will be able to rent a car at the airport or near major train stations. You’ll want to nab that a few weeks before your trip—they can be acquired at places like AAA and the process is usually completed in a day.
A Few Driving Notes
Most highways (called the IC) are tollways and can cost a pretty penny (think $20 to $60 depending on the distance) and you’ll want to factor that into your budget. While you can set your GPS or Google Maps to avoid toll roads, Kyushu is quite mountainous and the rural highways and backcountry roads are often tight and winding.
Speaking of GPS, consider grabbing one from your rental company—cell service can be spotty for SIM cards and pocket Wi-Fi devices alike through the wooded peaks, and police are quite strict about any phone use by drivers.
Mind the rain gutters on the shoulder of the road, especially in smaller towns and farming communities—these are wide and deep enough to total a car should you slip into one. While driving on the opposite side of the road is often a concern for Americans, it could be argued that parking in cities can be just as stress inducing. Most city paid parking lots, aside from those near train stations, will be incredibly small compared to those in the States, and drivers are encouraged to back into their parking spot.
Gas is rarely self-serve in Japan, so you’ll want to make sure you have enough cash on hand (a good rule of thumb, especially in rural areas) to hand to the attendant when they approach the window.
Bonus tip: If someone lets you merge into traffic or turn in front of them, flash your hazards for a moment as a friendly “thank you” signal.
While you can still find a guesthouse or two through sites like HostelWorld or Booking.com, these become a little more difficult to find as you move into the more rural parts of Kyushu. All of the major cities will have a range of hotels, from affordable to high end, and the island has countless ryokans (traditional inns) where you can reserve a private room. Book at least a few days in advance to ensure a reservation.
Stop #1: Fly into Fukuoka or Kagoshima
Hosting one of Japan’s busiest airports and close proximity to nearby Korea, this port city serves as an excellent jumping off point for the rest of Kyushu, one of Japan’s most underrated islands. And though it may not have Tokyo’s endless choices or the cultural charm of Kyoto,
Fukuoka is known for its food and its friendliness; locals are keen to share both a smile and a drink with all who visit. The city is also a great destination for those who are traveling on a budget.
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.
Stop #2: Kirishima Kinkowan National Park
Driving time: 2 to 3 hours From Fukuoka, 30 minutes from Kagoshima
An excellent option for year round hiking, this national park was one of Japan’s first and offers a handful of trails around the volcanoes and their crater lakes.
Hikes range from easy loops around Lakes Byakushi and Rokannonmiike to the 7.5-mile (12-kilometer) Kirishima Ridge Trail—a six-hour hike featuring otherworldly terrain like the smoking Shinmoedake peak and steep inclines up the slopes of Mount Karakunidake and Mount Takachiho-no-mine. Don’t forget to step into the Ebino Eco Museum and Kogen visitors center and cafe for refreshments at the end of your jaunt.
Spring through fall are the best times to check out a hike, but there is a small ice skating rink set up during the winter months on the plateau for the enjoyment of visitors and locals alike. Autumn is an especially stunning time in this area featuring fall foliage saturated in deep reds and fiery oranges.
While in the area, consider spending a night at a ryokan in nearby Kirishima Onsen Town (like the Shinyu Onsen) and making a stop at the Kirishima Jingu Shrine or lunch at the Kirishima Onsen Market. It is possible to get here by a bus that runs from Maruo Onsen, however the best option to check out various trailheads is to rent a car at the Kagoshima Airport.
Stop #3: Nichinan Coast (Cape Toi, Udo Jingu, Sun Messe)
Driving time: 3 to 4 hours
From Kirishima, head east for the tropical Nichinan Coast, a rugged but stunning coastline peppered with beautiful beaches and high cliffs. Stop at Cape Toi, Sun Messe, and Udo-Jingu as you make your winding way up towards Miyazaki City for the night.
As cliffs begin to rise up from the shore and the road starts to twist into what feels like impossibly narrow curves, you’ll reach Cape Toi. The southernmost cape of the Miyazaki Prefecture, this area is popular for its breathtaking drop-offs, charming candela lighthouse, and wild horses.
Known as Miyazki-uma, this rare breed is said to be descendants of samurai army horses. The story goes that around 300-or-so years ago, samurais in the Takanabe area released their horses to graze and, when never collected, the animals soon turned wild. This is one of the only areas in Japan where wild horses exist and can be seen living and roaming freely.
While the animals spend most of their time shifting from one grazing area to the next, combined with sweeping views of the sea and the indigenous Sago palm trees, they maintain some of their majesty. This is a great spot for lunch or a scenic snack.
Head further up the coast and you’ll think you’ve been transported from Japan to Easter Island. With the clusters of palm trees and the ocean as a panoramic background, Sun Messe operates as a laid back amusement park, with easy walking paths that wind uphill through gardens to various art installations and Pepto-Bismol pink buildings that house rotating exhibits. The main attraction, however, is its giant replica Moai figures.
A few decades ago, in response to a popular documentary about the Rapa Nui people, Japan took it upon themselves to restore the original statues as a way to promote world peace. After three years of collaboration between the Tadano Corporation, the Nara National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, and the Institute for Easter Island Studies of the University of Chile, their successful restoration project on Easter Island achieved Unesco World Heritage Site status.
Although this attraction seems to fall under Japan’s penchant for gimmicky tourism and replicas, these imitation statues are instead meant to express gratitude for Japan’s involvement in the project. However, they certainly don’t hurt tourism in the area, as visitors come from all over Japan to take selfies with the serious, and ever mysterious monolithic statues.
Set into a cliffside cave along the Nichinan Coast, the beauty of this shrine is immeasurable. The bright colors of the fences and buildings at Udo-Jingu seem to almost vibrate against their blue ocean background. Located in the southern part of the Miyazaki Prefecture, the site faces true east and—for the early risers—the sunrise views do not disappoint.
Make your way through an impressive gate at the entrance and continue walking parallel to the sea, following vibrant red-orange fences toward the caves. Scattered along the path you’ll find numerous rabbit statues. The Udo shrine has a close relationship with the rabbit, which is said to bring tidings of good luck, promotion, and even healing.
This shrine even hosts a festival annually, celebrating the rabbit during the first day of February, which is the Rabbit month according to the Chinese Zodiac.
Beyond a small arched bridge, visitors descend a long flight of steep stairs towards the caves and a terrace overlooking the rocky ocean below. The main shrine is set back into the cave, though even in the early morning light there is enough sun to illuminate its brilliant colors and exquisitely carved designs.
Aside from its association with rabbits, young couples and newlyweds often travel here to see the breast-shaped rocks along the cave wall, which are said to have nourished the famous Emperor Jimmu as a baby. It is believed that drinking the water that drips from these rocks will bring fortune in pregnancy, childbirth, and nursing for those women wishing to bear children in the future.
Visitors can also purchase a lucky ceramic stone (called an undama) at the shrine, which is then thrown at a target on the rocks below the ocean view terrace for good luck. The sense of wonder surrounding this shrine is hard to deny.
Stop #4: Aoshima/ Miyazaki City
Driving time: 30 minutes to 1 hour
Once in Miyazaki City for the night, spend the next day exploring the Aoshima shrine, trying your hand at surfing in Japan, or enjoying the beach. The Land of the Rising Sun might not be the first place you think of when picturing the beach, but as an island nation it’s bordered on all sides by the sea, which results in some stunning oceanside gems.
The Miyazaki Coast, which lies on the southeastern side of Kyushu, sees the country’s most temperate climate and is well-known to locals as one of Japan’s surfing havens. Due to typhoon swells, this area has waves year-round, with the warmest sea temperatures occurring from August to November.
And on top of pristine waters, the backdrop to the sea is a one of impressive beauty—mountains rising and falling along the coast, long rows of palm trees and flora blooming all around, and vibrant sunrises. As a result, Miyazaki has become a hotspot for beach resorts and international surfing competitions.
While the numbers of visitors have wavered in the past few years, this area remains a lovely ocean paradise, especially during the sweltering heat of Japanese summers. Past an arcade of surf shops and food stalls, the white sand beaches of Miyazaki’s resort spots are rampant with vendors, selling anything from ice cream and mango smoothies (mangos are the official fruit of this prefecture) to floaties and inflatable animals.
For those not wading in the warm waters, you could find most people picnicking under the resort’s rows of umbrellas—pastel pops of color lining the beach in perfectly uniform formation.
Aoshima Shrine + Ogre’s Washboards
Just beyond the resort beaches lies Aoshima, a tiny island (less than a mile—1.5 kilometers—in total) that was designated a national monument of nature back in 1934, and whose shrine is dedicated to the God of Matrimony.
Crossing a bridge that connects Aoshima to the mainland, you’ll get your first look at the bizarre rock formations that surround the island. Oni no Sentakuita in Japanese, it is usually referred to as the ‘devil’s washboards’ or the ‘ogre’s washboards’, depending on who you ask (the local surfers seem to prefer ‘devil’s’ due to the scars it’s given them.)
These repeating ridges create a surreal landscape and it’s common to see figures wandering their jagged edges at low tide in search of shells or other seaside treasures. The Aoshima shrine itself is small but vibrant, and the colorful building is frequented by married couples, newlyweds, and young couples to pray for prosperity in their relationships.
Just off of the main temple, through dense foliage, there is an even smaller shrine where visitors can purchase clay plates and throw them at a target for good luck. This area originally became popular for honeymooners due to local folklore concerning a royal son who dove deep into the waters in search of his brother’s fishing hook. Upon seeing the God of the Sea’s daughter, he fell in love and married her.
Besides the lore, two of Japan’s princesses spent their honeymoons here in the 1960s, bringing the Miyazaki coast nationwide attention as a prime spot for newlyweds.
Stop #5: Takachiho
Driving time: 2.5 hours
Continue up the coast towards Hyuga, either stopping for lunch by the sea or heading straight to Takachiho. As the more popular sites of the two, plan your Takachiho Gorge visit earlier in the day to try and beat the crowds, before heading to the Amanoiwato Shrine.
Be sure to stop into Chiho no Ie to try some traditional Nagashi Somen—white somen noodles that are served in cold water from a bamboo chute and caught with chopsticks. The dish is usually eaten during humid Japanese summers. Consider booking a guesthouse or ryokan in the Aso-shi area, to be closer for hiking purposes.
With sheer walls rising up over 65 feet (20 meters) on either side of the Gokase River, the Takachiho Gorge is a sight to be seen. Basalt columns line the gorge walls in layers, intermingling with the dense foliage above. Then there is the Minainotaki waterfall at one end of the gorge, which falls from at least 50 feet (15 meters) to the river below.
The two ways to see the gorge are by walking the path that runs parallel to it (well paved, with stairs and railings), or by renting a rowboat and traversing the waters yourselves. Judging by the frequency of rowboat collisions that seem to occur this may be best experienced as a voyeur rather than a participant.
This spot is easily accessible from multiple parking lots (all of which have matcha ice cream for those in need of motivation on the way back.) As a result, it’s definitely subject to over-tourism. Do your best not to get caught behind one of the copious tour groups filing through the gorge’s walkway.
Takachiho is also well-known in Japanese mythology as the site where Amaterasu, the Shinto Sun Goddess, hid herself away in a cave to escape her brother’s cruel pranks. Legend has it that all the other gods and goddesses joined forces here in an effort to draw the Sun Goddess and her life-giving light out from the darkness.
None of their efforts worked, that is until one goddess performed an incredibly lewd dance. This left the other deities rolling in laughter so loud that Amaterasu ventured out of the cave to see what the commotion was, thus returning light to the world.
The Imano Awata Shrine rests in one of the caves that is said to have housed the gods and goddesses while they strategized how to lure Amaterasu out. Passing through the torii (gate) and past the temples, head towards a small path towards the back of the site. Down some cobblestone stairs, and a moss-covered path alongside a babbling river, we ended at a cave on its banks.
The cave is modest in size, but the ground and the river bank adjacent are covered by hundreds, if not thousands, of stacked rocks. The sheer number of rock structures and the natural beauty of this otherwise simple shrine, gave it a particular air of mythicism. This shrine seems to be less frequented than the gorge, and is well worth a visit.
Stop #6: Mount Aso
Driving time: 1.5 hours
For folks looking to come in by hike, head to Aso’s north side parking lot to an overlook with views of the smoldering crater below. Otherwise follow a serpentine road up the low mountainside toward a more touristy area with guaranteed access to the crater.
If Kyushu’s moody weather is in full swing, pastures of serene cows and herds of horses will fade in and out of the fog along the drive. Before you arrive at the top, you’ll come to a plateau field where you’ll find lines of horses available for jaunting around the grassy peaks. This is also a great place to stretch your legs for a leisurely stroll along the trails.
Heading up to Nakadake crater you’ll notice a now defunct ropeway that sits in an epic state of disrepair; the crater can still be reached by toll road and a small fee. As part of the Ring of Fire, Japan is home to 10% of the world’s volcanoes; Mount Aso remains the largest active volcano in the country, and one of the biggest across the globe.
Standing at the caldera’s edge, you can watch plumes of gas curl upward, occasionally clearing long enough to catch a glimpse at the vibrant blue liquid boiling inside. Mount Aso’s rusty, jagged landscape feels nothing short of otherworldly.
Stop #7: Yufuin + Beppu
Driving time: 1.5 hours
From Aso, head towards Yufuin and Beppu for the night and consider a traditional ryokan stay. Even on an island covered in geothermal springs, the onsen in Beppu and Yufuin are quite remarkable.
Beppu produces more hot spring water than any other area in all of Japan, making it one of the country’s most famous resort towns. From the affordable public bathhouses (around $7) to family onsen and the private ryokans with sweeping ocean or mountain views, visitors have endless options.
If you’re tattooed and have had to miss out on the public bathhouse experience so far, you’re in luck—there are dozens of tattoo-friendly onsen in the area.
About six miles (10 kilometers) away is Yufuin, which, on top of also having lovely onsen options, offers a number of museums, restaurants, cafes, and boutiques along its main walking corridor, Yunotsubo Street.
Wander over to Yufuin Floral Village—a small section of town made to resemble the English town of Cotswolds, built by a local businessman in 2012. The cobbled streets, stone houses, and quaint shops feel as if they were lifted from a scene in Harry Potter; don’t forget to pop into Kiki’s bakery for a snack. Spend your last few days in Kyushu restoring your body and relaxing your mind before heading back to Fukuoka.
Whether you’re keen on exploring some of Japan’s lesser-known islands or finding the hip and trendy spots in its towns and cities, our Japan travel articles will give you all the information you need to plan your trip.