Japan’s southern belle, Kyushu is a treasure trove of Japanese mythology, volcanoes, and hot springs, with historical sights, natural beauty, and genial weather in abundance.
Located southwest of Japan’s main island of Honshu, Kyushu is Japan’s third largest island after Honshu and Hokkaido. However, it is actually relatively compact, taking around 3.5 hours to traverse its length by bullet train or around 5 hours by road. Steeped in Japanese mythology, Kyushu was an early centre of civilization in Japan and has been a handily placed gateway to Asia over the centuries.
Today, visitors who venture south and get off the Japanese mainland are rewarded with historical, religious and cultural treasures and sites of ancient and awe-inspiring natural beauty sitting comfortably alongside modern cities and attractions.
What to do in Kyushu
Coming by bullet train from Honshu, bright and breezy seaside city Fukuoka will be many people’s jumping off point for Kyushu. From here, it it 2 hours by express train to historic port city Nagasaki, which should be high up - if not top - on your Kyushu bucket list.
From Fukuoka, the bullet train continues directly south to castle town Kumamoto and volcanic port town Kagoshima (from where the ferry departs for Yakushima). Or, follow the coast round clockwise by regular train to reach hot spring territory in Oita. At any point, you can also head deep inland to visit active volcano Mt. Aso.
Best known as the second city (after Hiroshima) to be targeted by atomic bomb during World War II, a cluster of facilities in the center of the city commemorate the tragedy on 9 August, 1945 which can all be visited at once. Make your way around the Hypocenter Cenotaph, which marks the spot where the bomb landed, Nagasaki Peace Park, with memorials to the bomb victims, and the sobering and informative Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum.
Historically, Nagasaki has been at the centre of Japan’s dealings with the outside world due to its proximity to mainland Asia. In the 16th century, Portuguese priests introduced Christianity to Japan, turning Nagasaki into such a hub of Christianity that it earned the nickname “the Rome of Japan”. Visit Christian edifices such as Urakami Cathedral and Oura Church, juxtaposed with native Japanese and Chinese architecture in Nagasaki’s Chinatown, to experience this intriguing history for yourself.
Later, during Japan’s self-imposed period of isolation from the 17th to 19th centuries, Nagasaki was one of only a handful of ports nationwide to remain open to foreign trade, transacting with the Dutch. Follow in their footsteps at the Dejima Dutch Trading Post, a manmade island designed to keep the “barbarian” traders under wraps, now recreated as a living museum.
The Dutch connection finds a quirky manifestation in Huis Ten Bosch, a theme park on the outskirts of Nagasaki which aims to recreate the townscape of a Dutch town, from canals and windmills to the eponymous Dutch palace itself. Spend a night in Hen-na Hotel and dine in Robot Kingdom, the world’s first hotel and restaurant staffed by robots.
For another unique Nagasaki experience, take a ferry tour to Hashima Island, also known as Gunkanjima, or “battleship island”, an abandoned former coal-mining colony
that was the inspiration for the villain’s hideout in James Bond’s Skyfall.
Pock-marked by both volcanoes and hot springs, Kyushu is a veritable hotbed of tectonic activity. Take a sidetrip to Oita, on the island’s northeastern shoulder, to visit the famous hot spring town of Beppu, with its eight multi-coloured “hells” - boiling hot pools for viewing rather than bathing - and Yufuin, its more well-heeled neighbour, dotted with cafes, boutiques and art museums.
While you’re in the area, don’t forget to visit Mt. Aso. Equidistant between Oita and Kumamoto, it is the largest active volcano in Japan and one of the largest in the world. Follow your hike up it with a soak at nearby Kurokawa Onsen, an attractive hot spring town known for its well-maintained traditional townscape and the quality of its bathing waters.
Coastal Kagoshima is a further hop south on the bullet train to its terminus. Kyushu’s southernmost city, it is often compared to Naples due to its balmy climate, active volcano - and hot-tempered residents!
With a height of 1,117 metres and a circumference of 50 metres, volcanic Sakurajima dominates the landscape in Kagoshima Bay. Kagoshima’s answer to Vesuvius, the volcano smokes constantly, and there are multiple minor eruptions occurring on most days.
Get fabulous views of the volcano from a respectable distance at stately house and garden Senganen - built in the 1650s by the Shimazu family, a wealthy and powerful feudal clan - before catching a ferry across the bay to the semi-island housing the volcano for an up-close and personal encounter of the volcanic kind.
Yakushima and Tanegashima
From Kumamoto, take a ferry journey south overnight to subtropical jungle island Yakushima to trek through its ancient cedar woodlands. Forested ravine, Shiratani Unsuikyo, carpeted with moss-covered trees and rocks, is a great place for an atmospheric hike.
Neighbouring Tanegashima is where guns were first introduced to Japan in the 16th century as well as the site of Japan's most advanced space base.
The first gun ever made in Japan, called the Tanegashima teppo gun, is on display in the island's exhibition centre, and the every summer the island hosts the Tanegashima Teppo Festival, during which matchlock guns are fired and floats parade the streets in the Nanban Parade.
Meanwhile, the Space Center is home to a control tower, the centre's Yoshinobu rocket launch sites, and the Space Museum, where visitors are welcome to enjoy outer space experiences through models and simulations.
How to get to Kyushu
From destinations in western Japan such as Osaka and Hiroshima, it’s an easy ride by bullet train to Fukuoka’s Hakata Station. The ride takes about 60 minutes from Hiroshima, or 2.5 hours from Osaka’s Shin-Osaka Station. Fukuoka, Kumamoto and Kagoshima are then all linked by the Kyushu bullet train line. The Kodama and Sakura bullet trains are covered by the JR Pass, but the Nozomi and Mizuho are not.
From destinations in eastern Japan such as Tokyo, airplane is quicker. Fukuoka, Kagoshima, Kumamoto, Nagasaki and Oita (for Beppu) all have their own airports covered by domestic flights within Japan. Flight times are 55-80 minutes from Osaka and 85-120 minutes from Tokyo.