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Exploring Northern Kyushu Island
The city of Fukuoka sits on the northwestern corner of picturesque Kyushu Island, Japan’s southernmost isle. With clean streets, green spaces and fresh seafood, this port city is considered one of the most livable metropolises in the world. But it would be a crime if you didn’t venture out of the city and into Kyushu’s famed countryside—acclaimed for its stunning sakuras and steamy onsens.
Imagine a quaint little village with twee boutiques, the aroma of baked goods pouring from local bakeries, and the twin-peaked Mount Yufu overlooking the whole scene. If that has you cooing, then head to Yufuin—about two hours’ drive towards the eastern coast. This adorable little hub is spilling over with lovebirds out to explore the countryside, visit Lake Kinrin (which is more like a really pretty pond) and stroll along narrow Yunotsubo Street, scooping up local treats such as chrysanthemum cookies from bakery chain Goemon. If you’re visiting in late March or early April, then you can also count incredible sakura (cherry blossom) sightings among the Yufuin Valley’s charms.
Where to Stay: Splurge on the Kamenoi Bessou ryokan (from ¥35,640 ($2,719) per person), a historic 1930s address that is considered one of the best ryokans—traditional Japanese inns—in the country.
If you just want to kick back and let some hot water soak away your every worry, then Beppu is the place for you. Situated on the east coast of the island, just about a half-hour’s drive from Yufuin, this town is smoking hot. Literally. You can see steam rising up from the streets, because of the high concentration of onsen hot springs—aka “hell springs.” If you’re visiting in autumn or during sakura season, take the Kintetsu Beppu Ropeway cable car up to the 1,300-meter-tall Mount Tsurumi for an incredible view of the foliage and the coast.
Then unwind at Beppu’s most famous public bath house, the Takegawara Onsen (from ¥100 (US$1); 16-23 Motomachi, Beppu, (+81) 977-23-1585), a beautiful, traditional style building that was built in 1879. For something a little different, try an oddly enjoyable hot sand bath (¥1,300 (US$11)) at Beppu Beach Sand Bath Municipal Hot Springs, (Shoningahama, Beppu-shi) which is meant to help your circulation. Warning: it’s not for those with heart problems or high blood pressure, as it really makes your blood pump. The sandy retreat is right on the ocean, so you can listen to the waves lapping while you’re a foot under.
Continue the trend with a dinner at Jigoku Mushi Kobo Kannawa, a restaurant near Beppu Center that specializes in dishes cooked with geothermal steam, and also has a free foot steam bath next door (5-Kumi Furomoto, Beppu, (+81) 977-66-3855). Need to cool off? Take the Beppu Hatto Walk (www.beppu-navi.jp), a free tour conducted by a local guide who will show you the city’s old-school charm.
Where to Stay: If you’re after a little back-to-basics relaxation, Hanabishi Hotel (from ¥4,740 (US$40) per person) is a great bet. This seaside hotel is old-school Japanese, with simple tatami rooms, views of the bay, rooftop hot spring baths and a fantastic kaiseki set dinner. 2-12-21 Kitahama, Beppu, (+81) 977-24-3939, www.beppu-hanabishi.co.jp.
What’s more exciting than one of the world’s largest caldera volcanos? How about Japan’s most active volcano? The Aso Volcano is both. You can either drive, take a cable car, or hike up to this scenic spot, which is approximately 100 kilometers in diameter and consists of seven separate craters and five peaks. All of the craters pump out fumes, so it’s not recommended for those with asthma or physical limitations. Be sure to check the website (www.aso.ne.jp/~volcano) before arriving, as the summit closes if the wind direction is too dangerous. But that’s OK, as the grasslands below are equally beautiful—stop off at the viewing platform below Mount Eboshi, which is one of Aso’s five peaks and home to its own double-crater. You can ride on horseback around the valley to get a closer look at the traces of past explosions.
A History Lesson
Trying to travel through time? You’ve come to the right place—Kumamoto is home to one of Japan’s coolest castles. Kumamoto Castle (entry ¥500 (US$4); 1-1 Honmaru, Chuo Ward, Kumamoto, (+81) 96-352-5900) dates back to 1467, a masterpiece with 49 turrets and 18 turret gates. The beautiful gray-and-white façade was built to be invincible, using “musha-gaeshi” curved stone walls meant to repel invaders and a first-of-its-kind “kuragari-tsuro” underground passage. Sadly, this supposedly impregnable structure ultimately fell to a fire in 1887. Today, there’s a mix of original structures and reconstructions, plus a model depicting the interiors at their peak.
Next door is an interesting, albeit touristy, Edo period-inspired shopping and dining area called Sakuranobaba Johsaien. There’s a quirky ”virtual reality” museum (entry ¥300 (US$2.50); 1-1-1 Ninomaru, Kumamoto City, (+81) 96-288-5600) that tells the story of Kumamoto Castle, and has a slew of local treats on offer. Look for the little store selling Aso milk and frozen yogurt—it’s made from cows that have been grazing on volcanic soil, and it’s amazing.
The port city of Fukuoka is a gourmand’s playground—even within Japan. If you’re peckish, head to the row of yatai stalls (open-air micro restaurants) along the Naka River where you can sample bites of tempura and yakitori while throwing back a few cheap pints. You can’t leave without trying Fukuoka’s most famous creation: tonkotsu ramen. The city is crazy about this rich dish, made with fatty pork bone broth and packed with pork slices, egg and pickled bits. Try it at Ippudo Tao Fukuoka (1-13-13 Tenjin, Chuo-ku, Fukuoka, (+81) 92-738-7061), a ramen joint that has stood the test of time. And for dessert? Dig into the famous sweet red bean soup at Kawahata Zenzai Square (10-254 Kamikawabatamachi, Hakata-ku, Fukuoka, (+81) 92-281-6223)—the restaurant is located along Kawabata shopping street, the oldest shopping district in the city.
Where to Stay: Check out trendy design hotel With the Style Fukuoka (from ¥28,896 (US$241), which is a strangely named yet lovely place to digest all that ramen. 1-9-18 Hakataeki-Minami, Hakata-ku, Fukuoka, (+81) 92-433-3900, www.withthestyle.com.
Though Japan is home to one of the world’s most efficient railway systems, some parts of Kyushu are still not hooked up to this zooming network. You can see lots of the island by train, but the most flexible way to see northern Kyushu is by renting a car—the tourism department recommends Toyota Rent a Car, which has several branches in Fukuoka (from ¥9,180 (US$76) per day; www.rent.toyota.co.jp).