If you are an onsen aficionado, you definitely need to visit Kyushu.
Oita and Kagoshima are ranked #1 and #2 in Japan for having the most number of hot spring sources. There are dozens of onsens waiting to be discovered in renowned onsen resorts such as Beppu, Yufuin, Kurokawa, Kirishima. In short, ample choices to suit any budget and preference.
The Island of Many Names
Kyushu 九州, sometimes called the land of fire because of its numerous geothermal hot spots, was also known by other names of which their original meanings have been lost: Chinzei 鎮西, Tsukushi-no-shima 筑紫島 and Saikaidō 西海道 (more of a geographical classification).
During the Meiji Era, the 9 prefectures were merged into 7 but the name stayed. In 1972, Okinawa, 640km away, officially joined Kyushu as the 8th prefecture after it was returned to Japanese rule.
Kyushu has a long tradition of “exchanges” with foreigners. The Mongols attempted their invasion of Japan in 1274 from Kyushu (Tsushima, Iki, Hakata Bay). The Europeans made first landfall in Japan at Tanegashima in 1543; Nagasaki was the first port to receive foreigners and the only one that remained open during the isolation period (from 1633 to 1853). The Meji restoration was championed by a group of European-educated-modernists who hailed from Kyushu. You will find quite a fair bit of foreign influence in Kyushu today in its cuisine and architecture (think Champon and Turkish rice).
Kyushu is easy to navigate. If you can, drive! If you can’t, you can still move around fairly easily using a combination of buses and trains. Use the JR pass for train rides and reserve bus tickets online especially for popular routes (collect tickets 2 days beforehand). You can consider the Sun-Q Pass for unlimited bus rides if you plan to be on the move daily.
Here’s how you can spend 12 eventful days in Kyushu.
Day 1 – Singapore/Fukuoka Airport/Hakata/Dazaifu
SQ has 1 direct flight daily, from Singapore to Fukuoka (prefecture). If your first stop is Hakata 博多, take the Nishitetsu bus from bus stop #2 just outside the International Terminal to the JR Hakata station (260¥, 15 mins, pay on board). The JR Hakata station is a neatly designed metro-hub-city that connects the train station, subway, bus terminal, shopping centres seamlessly, under one roof. Have a traditional Japanese breakfast at Uchino Tamago (near west gate 2) then take a bus from the Hakata Bus Terminal to Dazaifu 大宰府 (platform 11, 45 minutes, 600¥/way).
The bus terminal is organised into 3 levels: level 1 serves buses doing local city loops, level 2 is for disembarking and level 3 is for express, long distance buses (to other prefectures in Kyushu).
Dazaifu is known mainly for its Tenmangu Shrine 天満宮, the biggest of its kind in Kyushu. Founded circa 663, Dazaifu was also the ‘capital’ of Kyushu from the 7th to the 12th century. The ruins of its illustrious past still remain.
Alight at the Dazaifu station and make your way towards the Torii gate. For about 100 metres, you will be accosted with shops of all kinds, beseeching you to part with your moolah. Many of them will be selling the Umegae mochi 梅ヶ枝餅 (120¥), a kind of mochi pastry filled with red bean paste with a plum flower imprinted on it. Every 17th of each month, they will also sell Umegae mochi made from Kodaimai 古代米 (ancient rice, coloured, mix-grain, unpolished etc). Try them, they are delicious.
The Tenmangu Shrine pays homage to Sugawara Michizane, a 9th century poet-scholar-bureaucrat who was exiled to and passed away in Dazaifu. He was subsequently deified as the God of Learning, Tenjin 天神 and is the most popular god during exam times.
At night, return to Hakata and tuck into one of its specialties – Mizutaki 水炊き (chicken hotpot) or Motsunabe もつ鍋 (innards hotpot). Mizutaki was said to be invented in Fukuoka during the Meiji era. Try it at the traditional Hakata Ajidokoro Iroha 博多味処いろ, (reservation required) or Hakatarou 九州の旬 博多廊.
Wrap up the night with a visit to the Yatais 屋台 along the canals (similar to pop-up stalls) or take a walk to Nakasu 中洲, Fukuoka’s bright and shiny red-light district.
Uchino Tamago: Hakata Station, 1-1 Hakata-eki Chuogai, Hakata-ku, Fukuoka-city
Hakata Ajidokoro Iroha (Main): 14-27, Kamikawabata machi, Hakata-ku, Fukuoka-shi
Hakatarou: 1-1-38 Daimyo Chuo-ku | South SideTerrace 5F, Chuo, Fukuoka 810-0041, Fukuoka Prefecture
Day 2 – Hakata/Nagasaki
Nagasaki can be covered in a day trip if you don’t intend to visit Unzen onsen 雲仙温泉. Its 2 key attractions are the Atomic bomb museum and the Mt Inasa 稲佐山 night view. The Inasa night view is one of top 3 night views in Japan, the other 2 being Kobe’s Rokko and Hokkaido’s Hakodate.
Take the Limited Express Kamome to Nagasaki (around 2 hours). Grab a 1 day tram pass (600¥) from the little travel bureau just after the ticket gates. Have ‘Turkish rice’ for lunch at Nagasaki’s oldest cafe, Tsuru-chan ツル茶ん(circa 1925). Turkish rice is a bona fide Nagasaki invention: rice pilaf+pork cutlet+spaghetti. Round off the meal with another Nagasaki-specialty: ice milkshake.
After lunch, walk down Hamano-Machi Arcade 浜町アーケードfor some light shopping then visit the Spectacles Bridge. It may not look like much but it was constructed in 1634 and is the oldest stone arch bridge in Japan.
Take the tram to the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum (200¥ per entry). The Atomic Bomb Museum is a spacious, 2-storey building dedicated to the recounting of events that led to that fateful day on 9 Aug 1945. There is a life-size replica of Fat Man, the atomic bomb meant for Kokura 小倉市 but dropped over Nagasaki instead because the Americans needed an unclouded target. Fat Man detonated in midair (500m) over Nagasaki on 9 Aug 1945 at 11:02am.
Return to Nagasaki station after the Museum and make your way up Mt Inasa for the night view. You can either take a tram+furnicular+walk, walk all the way or take a taxi. We scrapped this because the weather was bad (heavy rain, thick clouds) and returned to Hakata for dinner at Hakata Issou.
Tsuruchan: 2-47 Aburayamachi Nagasaki-shi Nagasaki-ken
Hakata Issou: 3-1-6 Hakataekihigashi Hakata-ku Fukuoka
Day 3 – Hakata/Kagoshima
Kagoshima, is choke-ful of history and good food. Formerly known as Satsuma-han 薩摩藩, it was the base of the powerful Shimazu clan, one of the few independent (or outside) clans during the Tokugawa era. Satsuma is also the hometown of Saigo Takamori, a key figure during the Meiji Restoration. Kagoshima is known for kurobuta (black pork), black vinegar, sweet potato, Shochu and satsuma-age (deep fried fish cake).
Take the Shinkansen to Kagoshima-Chuo station and have lunch at Ichi-Ni-San in Amu Plaza (linked to station). Try its #1 don, the Special black pork Mille-feuille Katsudon which cost about 980¥ (only available during lunch).
After lunch, visit the Shirakane Ishigura Museum 白金酒造 for the Shochu experience. Kagoshima is renowned for Shochu distilled from its Satsuma Imo or Satsuma sweet potatoes. Take the JR Nippo Line, get off at Shigetomi Station 重富駅 (20 mins). Exit the station, turn right upon reaching the main road and walk for 4 minutes to the Museum.
On the first floor, you will see the earthen vats used to ferment the raw ingredients: rice, yeast, water (stage 1); sweet potatoes will be added later (stage 2). The end product is then filtered and distilled using wooden pot stills but nowadays stainless steel pot stills are more common. The alcohol is then collected and left to mature before bottling.
On the second floor, you can sit through a VR video (with headsets), then walk through the exhibits detailing the history of sweet potatoes came to Satsuma and how Shochu developed. Finally, head down to the shop for a free tasting of the top Shochus. There are at least 20 to choose from but always try the good ones first.
At night go for a wonderfully delicious (and affordable) Tonkatsu dinner at Tonkatsu Kawakyu とんかつ川久. The sets each cost 1200¥ or less. Black pork sets will cost more ie 1900¥.
Yushokutonsai Ichi-ni-san: Kagoshima-shi Chuo-machi 1, 1 Amu Plaza Kagoshima 5th Floor
Tonkatsu Kawakyu: 21-13 Chuocho Kagoshima-shi Kagoshima-ken
Day 4 – Sakurajima
Sakurajima 桜島 (literally Cherry Island) is an active volcano-island located in the middle of Kagoshima Bay. As the volcano still spews ash on a daily basis, you will come back dusted with fine-ash. The island can be accessed by ferry from Kagoshima city or from the Osumi Peninsula on the eastern side by car.
From Kagoshima-Chuo ekimae 鹿児島中央駅前駅 tram stop, take the red line to the Suizokukanguchi 水族館口駅 tram stop (13 mins) then walk 7 mins to the Ferry Terminal. There is a ferry departing every 15 minutes (160¥, pay cash upon disembarking) and the ride itself is only 15 minutes.
Sakurajima is best explored by car (allowed on ferry as well). If taking public transport, there is the Sakurajima Island View Bus (500¥ day pass) or the Sakurajima Regular Sightseeing Bus (1,800¥; departs 0940 from the ferry terminal bus stop).
The Island View Bus runs in 2 loops: 1 covers half of the northern arc, the other covers half of the southern arc. But the bus does not cover the eastern part of the island.
The Sightseeing Bus is a half-day tour. You have the option of getting on at the Kagoshima-Chuo station (2,300¥, 0855 -1235). If boarding at Sakurajima, it follows this route: Sakurajima Port -> Yunohira Observatory -> Fujino Ako grave -> Kurokami Buried Shrine gate -> Tabino Sato -> Arimura Lava Observatory -> Fumiko Hayashi Literary Monument -> Sakurajima Port.
Take the ferry back to Kagoshima and have a good Tonkotsu ramen lunch at Tontoro. Then spend a free and easy afternoon shopping and sipping coffee at Tenmonkan 天文館. Visit the Terukuni shrine 照国神社 nearby which pays homage to the one of the last Shimazu clan leader Shimazu Nariakira. Look out for big bird.
Walk further in and you can climb up to Shiroyama Park for a panoramic view of the city and Sakurajima. Shiroyama was where Saigo Takamori made his final stand.
Tontoro: 9-41 Yamanokuchichō, Kagoshima-shi, Kagoshima-ken 892-0844
Day 5 – Kagoshima/Kirishima
Kirishima is where you find onsens in rustic settings. We stayed at the beautiful Myoken Onsen, which was sited next to a river.
If time and fitness permits, set aside 1 day to hike the 12 km Kirishima Ridge Trail (Ebino Kogen->Karakunidake->Shinmoedake->Nakadake->Takachiho-gawara Visitor Center) or ascend to Mount Takachiho-no-mine from the Visitor Centre.
Myoken Ishiharaso: 4376 Kareigawa, Hayato-cho, Kirishima-shi, Kagoshima-ken
Day 6 – Kirishima/Kumamoto
From Kirishima Onsen, return to Kagoshima-Chuo station for the Shinkansen transfer to Kumamoto. Kumamoto is the gateway to many scenic sights in northern Kyushu such as Mt Aso, Takachiho, Kikuchi Gorge and Kurokawa onsen.
In Kumamoto itself, the main attraction is the Kumamoto Castle.
The Kumamoto Castle took a bad hit during the 2016 earthquake but the grounds remain open to public. Despite pretty extensive damage at some parts, the Castle still wowed. Take Shiromegurin Bus (160¥ per ride, 400¥/day pass) to the Sakuranobaba Jousaien 桜の馬場 城彩苑 (lit. Cherry Blossom Horse Stable Castle Gay Garden). The name sounds fanciful but it’s just a gimmick to make Jousaisen sound more interesting than it is. Jousaisen is simply, a pseudo historic-themed shopping area for Castle-visitors who need some retail therapy to balance all that history.
After the Castle, take a bus or walk to the nearby Shimotori Shotengai (sheltered shopping street). If coming from Kumamoto Station, take the A-line tram towards Kegummachi and get off at Torichosuji. If you are collecting bus tickets, the bus terminal is a 10-minute walk away.
For good eats, go for Katsuretsutei (Tonkatsu) or Kokutei (Ramen).
Katsuretsutei: 8-18 Shinshigai Chuo-ku Kumamoto
Kokutei: 2-1-23 Nihongi Nishi-ku Kumamoto Kumamoto
Day 7 – Takachiho Gorge
Takachiho 高千穂峡 is the place where supposedly, Ninigi no Mikoto, the progenitor of the Japanese first descended to earth. Despite its mythological connection, it was underwhelming. A more interesting alternative will be Kikuchi Gorge which was more rustic, more pristine.
Takachiho is in Miyazaki but is often accessed from Kumamoto. Take the butt-splitting 3-hour bus ride from JR Kumamoto Station (0911 hrs) to the Takachiho Bus Centre (1224 hrs) then either take a taxi or walk to the Gorge (30-40 minutes). Do a short hike through the Gorge (20-30 mins) then walk back to the bus station from the end point. Drop by the Takachiho shrine en route but be sure to take the 1700 hrs bus back. Expect to arrive back at JR Kumamoto at 2007 hrs (bus ticket 4110¥ return).
Getting to Kikuchi Valley is trickier. Take a bus from JR Kumamoto station to Kikuchi City then take a taxi. Alternatively, stay a night in one of its onsens and let the ryokan make the arrangements for you.
Seiryuso 清流荘: 1587-17 Waifu, Kikuchi, Kumamoto 861-1331, Japan
Day 8 – Kumamoto/Kurokawa Onsen
Kurokawa Onsen 黒川温泉is a secluded onsen village nestled at an altitude of 700m in the Aso Mountains. The buildings deliberately adhere to a similar design style to give it a furusato feel (lit. old village, native, hometown) so it is at once rustic, nostalgic, charming.
There are 29 ryokans, of which 16 are cloistered within the main village and the rest best accessed by car. The village is perched on a hill which make it fun to explore. It is small so you can finish walking it within an hour, longer if you take your time to shop or eat. The restaurants are generally pretty mediocre (since most guests eat in the ryokans) but the snack shops are great (ice-cream, cakes, matcha).
Kurokawa Onsen is best enjoyed with an overnight stay but if you are on a day jaunt, you may want to purchase the Tegata Bathing Pass for 1300¥ (choice of 3 open-air onsens) from the tiny information bureau at the top of the hill. There are also lockers for your luggage.
Get to Kurokawa Onsen by bus, either from Kumamoto (2470¥) or Hakata. You can book express bus tickets here. If you have time, visit the dramatic Nabegataki Falls nearby.
We stayed at Ryokan Sanga which is away from the village but the ryokan will send a shuttle to pick you up.
Ryokan Sanga 山河旅館: 6961-1 Manganji, Minamioguni-machi, Aso-gun, Kumamoto-ken
Day 9 – Mt Aso (1592 m)
First, you need to get to Aso Station which is a challenge if you live in Kurokawa Onsen as you need to depend on the scant bus schedule. They are only 20 km apart but that 20km includes a mountain pass. Thus, taking a public bus is not only expensive but time-consuming and it can be difficult to time the buses in order to maximise your time on Aso.
It is best to seek help from your ryokan. Ours dropped and picked us from the Minami-Oguni bus stop to help us catch the earliest morning bus.
From Minami-Oguni 南小国 (lit. small southern town), take the local bus to Aso Station (890¥ per trip). If you plan to visit Kusasenri 草千里, it is better to purchase the unlimited bus ride day pass (1500¥ which includes the Magic Rim show, maybe cheaper if without). From Aso, take the bus to the Crater Rim Station. At the Crater Rim Station, you need to pay for another bus to take you to the Nakadake crater rim (750¥/way, 1200¥ return). This crater rim bus is a replacement for the ropeway which was damaged by the eruption in 2016.
There are many trails leading from the crater which you can do if you are fit. You can even hike all the way down to Kusasenri.
At the Crater Rim Station, enjoy the Magic Rim show which is a 3D digital/laser show of the geology of Mt Aso. Then, take a bus down to Kusasenri for lunch (New Kusasenri ニュー草千里 restaurant). After lunch, walk on grassy plateau or do a horse ride if that appeals.
Day 10 – Kurokawa/Yufuin
Yufuin is touristy, is expensive. But also makes the tourist feel at home.
Take a bus from the Kurokawa bus stop to Yufuin (2000¥). Deposit the bag at store next to bus terminal (cheaper than using lockers) then explore the streets of Yufuin, all the way to Kinrin lake (20 minutes). Expect it to be busy and crowded. The street on both sides are lined with shops that appeal to visitors: restaurants, patisseries, Ghibli memorabilia etc.
The onsens here are expensive but many boast good views of the mountain. We stayed at Musoen which is a 7-minute car ride from the Yufuin station.
Hotel Musoen 山のホテル 夢想園: 1243 Yufuincho Kawaminami, Yufu, Oita 879-5103, Japan
From Yufuin, you can do day trips to Beppu to see the hell worlds, to Kokone Yume (entrance fee 500¥) or to Chojabaru Visitor Centre. Kokone Yume and Chojabaru can be done together because they are in the same direction.
Take a train from Yufuin station to Bungo-Nakamura Station then transfer by bus (600¥) to Kokone Yume. Cross the bridge. Trek further up to a little plateau for a birds’ eye view of the bridge. Take same bus for Kuju mountains at Chojabaru Visitor Centre Park (300¥). Explore the valley via the board walks. Lunch at Montbell shop. Then take the long distance/express bus (from Kurokawa) back to Yufuin (1000¥).
Day 12 – Yufuin/Hakata
Take bus back from Yufuin to Hakata Bus Terminal (2570¥). Try not to sleep as the views are excellent. Back at Hakata, explore the Tenjin precinct. Marvel at the seamlessly integrated subway, railway, bus, interchange and the retail options contained inside.
Day 13 – Hakata/Fukuoka Airport/Singapore
Prepare to go home. If you are taking an early morning flight, go and queue at the bus terminal early to ensure you get a spot on the bus. Be prepared for morning rush hour traffic which may stretch the usual 15 minutes to 40 minutes.