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.
A short ride away from Fukuoka on the Kyushu bullet train is castle town Kumamoto. Combine a visit to magnificent Kumamoto Castle (parts are currently undergoing repairs due to damage caused by the April 2016 earthquake) with visits to the town’s historic residences and garden, all while keeping an eye out for the town’s most famous resident, friendly apple-cheeked bear mascot, Kumamon.
High-class samurai mansion Hosokawa Residence, Hearn Residence the former residence of the author Lafcadio Hearn, and Suizenji Garden, which produces the 53 post towns of the Tokaido road - an important old highway connecting Kyoto and Tokyo (then called Edo) - in miniature, including a mini Mt. Fuji!
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.
Kagoshima and Yakushima
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!
Get fabulous views of Mt Sakurajima, Kagoshima’s answer to Vesuvius, from a respectable distance at stately Sengan-en Garden before catching a ferry across to the little almost-island housing the volcano itself for an up-close and personal encounter of the volcanic kind.
Take a ferry journey south overnight to subtropical jungle island Yakushima to trek through its 7,000 year-old ancient cedar woodlands. Forested ravine, Shiratani Unsuikyo, carpeted with moss-covered trees and rocks, was the inspiration for the backdrop in Studio Ghibli’s masterpiece Princess Mononoke.
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.