Japan's lost island
Beauty and history collide on the oft-forgotten Japanese island of Kyushu. Audley specialist Layla Ramsay guides you to the best places to soak up the island’s ancient culture.
The volcanic landscape of Aso-Kuju National Park in Japan
Despite being only a short hop from Honshu, the largest and most visited of Japan’s many islands, Kyushu is often bypassed when people visit Japan. However, as our Japan specialists will tell anyone who listens, Kyushu has just as much – if not more – to offer any traveler, whether they’re first-timers or return visitors.
An island of staggering natural beauty, with numerous hiking trails, active volcanoes, relaxing onsens (baths) and plentiful gardens, museums, galleries and memorials – not to mention the magnificent Kumamoto Castle – Kyushu’s variety has long inspired our Japan specialists. Below is a small selection of what keeps them returning to this fascinating island.
Volcanic mountains, verdant gorges and forested hillsides dot Kyushu’s landscape, and Aso-Kuju National Park (1) in the northeast is the best place to see the island’s natural scenery. Active Mount Aso lies at the centre of this national park, which is the only place in Japan where visitors can explore a ‘live’ caldera. The area is replete with impressive mountains, the slopes of which vary from starkly volcanic to a blanket of forest that transforms into a magnificently vivid display of colour each autumn.
Just south of the Aso-Kuju park lies Takachiho Gorge (2), a dramatic ravine of sheer limestone cliffs and tumbling waterfalls. A 600m walking path trails through the gorge, lined by mountain cherry blossoms and Japanese azaleas. Alternatively, you can hire boats to gently drift along the river below.
For those hoping for some time to relax, Kyushu has much to offer. Its volcanic landscape lends itself to a number of onsen resorts, using the natural hot springs in the area. Chief among these are the towns of Beppu and Unzen, although those visiting the hot springs of Beppu would do better to base themselves in the small and picturesque village of Kurokawa (3) rather than the busier Beppu, to enjoy a more complete relaxation experience.
Unique to Kyushu is an acclaimed geothermal sand-bathing experience (sunamushi) in the Ibusuki area (4) in the southwest of the island. Visitors who fancy it can be submerged up to their necks in sand that is heated by subterranean geysers, an experience that is purportedly excellent for the skin.
Arts & gardens
Although it is the Honshu towns of Kyoto and Kanazawa that are traditionally famous for their beautiful gardens and arts and crafts respectively, Kyushu’s prolific spread of both is largely unknown. However, the island is rich with art galleries, museums, pottery workshops and attractive gardens.
The tiny town of Okawachiyama (5) in Saga prefecture in the north grew around its porcelain production, which began hundreds of years ago and continues today using traditional methods, earning it the name of ‘the home of the secret kilns’. Porcelain from Okawachiyama was so highly prized that emperors and shoguns ordered wares from here, and in the Edo period much was exported to Europe.
Yufuin, a small town close to Beppu, is home not only to various art museums and galleries, but also a ‘folk art village’ where local artisans can be seen producing paper, glassware, toys and ceramics.
Gardens are so engrained in Japanese culture that beautiful examples are found across the width and breadth of the country. However, gardens of particular note in Kyushu include the Chiran Gardens in Kagoshima prefecture (6), which are known as the ‘Little Kyoto’, while the Glover Garden in Nagasaki (7) is visited not only for its beauty and historical import but for the views it offers across Nagasaki Harbour.
With so much else to focus on when traveling around Kyushu it would be quite easy to skip over the island’s historical side. However, that would be a mistake – it is truly fascinating and has been very well displayed in the various museums and monuments.
From Kagoshima you can visit the ancient Samurai residences among the gardens of Chiran and also the Peace Museum for Kamikaze Pilots, which tells of those infamous airmen whose exploits in the closing stages of WWII destroyed 47 allied vessels.
The most poignant sites of Kyushu, however, are the Atomic Bomb Museum and Peace Park of Nagasaki, which documents the terrible devastation caused by the second atomic bomb to hit Japan in August 1945.
Those wanting to see a traditional element of Japanese theatrical art should watch a kagura dance show, such as those performed at the Takachiho Shrine.
Kagura dancing is an ancient ceremonial art derived from god worshipping, which has evolved over the years to relate more closely to agriculture. Dancers wear costumes and masks, and performances are vibrant folk dances that have remained popular throughout the centuries. It’s the perfect way to end a day exploring the beautiful landscape of Takachiho Gorge.