2020 Pre-Covid Trip in Kyushu, Japan20 Feb 2020
02/05/2020 - 02/15/2020
Fukuoka (福岡) - Hita (日田) - Beppu (別府) - Kitsuki (杵築) - Bungotakada (豊後高田) - Usa (宇佐) - Yufuin (由布院) - Kurokawa (黒川温泉) - Aso (阿蘇) - Takachiho (高千穂) - Hyuga (日向) - Miyazaki (宮崎) - Nichinan (日南) - Kirishima (霧島) - Kagoshima (鹿児島) - Ibusuki (指宿) - Kumamoto (熊本)
For this trip, I booked two return award tickets from Boston to Fukuoka for my wife and myself - one booked with Marriot Bonvoy points (transfered to Japanese Airlines mileage with some bonus), the other with Alaska Mileage directly. I’m not going into the details here, but booking with JAL miles directly has a few advantages, the top two being:
- You can book multi stop tickets with the same amount of miles as just flying to Tokyo (e.g. JFK - NRT - FUK costs the same amount of miles as JFK - NRT)
- You will have more available dates & seats for award tickets than booking with partner airlines
The business (aka Sky Suite) class comes with the 787 plane is pretty comfortable, but a bit dated. If you are based in New York, the first class suite in JL5 / JL6 will be much fancier and thus worthier of redemption.
Arriving at Fukuoka
We arrived around 9pm, picked up our sedan at Budget Car Rental Fukuoka AirPort, which was the only rental shop open after 8pm.
It was February, the coldest month in Kyushu so I added the extra snow tires, but it turned out to be not necessary. The road conditions were pretty good even in mountain areas in Kyushu and there was timely snow removal on all major roads.
I will probably skip snow tires in Kyushu next time to be able to book a wider range of rental car categories.
Hita (日田), a small city in Oita prefecture, is our first destination after a night’s rest in Fukuoka. We used it as our mid-day stop during our drive to Beppu. Traditional inns with hot springs sit beside Hita’s Mikuma River. There are Edo-era buildings in the Mamedamachi district and at the Kangien Academy Ruins.
We wandered on the streets of Hita for a bit after lunch of Unagi Bento, then hit on road again. Apparently we missed the opportunity to explore Hita area a bit more and enjoy the onsens here, so I think we would stay for at least one night when we return.
Some unique ryokans in the area:
Beppu and Kunisaki Peninsula
The drive to Beppu through Oita Expressway (大分自動車道) passes the scenic Mount Yufu, which will be introduced later in this post.
I uploaded some of my videos to YouTube and embedded them here so that I don’t need to host them on my own blog server.
Beppu is a famous onsen resort city in Japan. Not long before our arrival, it hosted Rugby World Cup 2019, which boosted its international fame as well as improved facilities to welcome foreigners.
Ocean cities with mountains in its back always tend to be charming, let alone Beppu is one of the biggest onsen resort towns in entire Japan. It is probably my favourate city in Kyushu. We stayed at two properties in Beppu to enjoy the different types of scenery (city view / ocean view).
Beppu is also very close to Kunisaki Peninsula (国東半島), a peninsula with rich history and many interesting sightseeing spots. During the second day at Beppue, we visited Kitsuki, Futago-ji (両子寺) (center of the penisula), Bungotakada (豊後高田) and Usa (宇佐), all short drives between each other. I referred to this note (written in Chinese) a lot when I made my travel plans for this area.
Kitsuki is a small quiet city in Oita that overlooks the Beppu Bay. It is famous for its Jōkamachi (城下町, “castle town”), which is a historic site very suitable for a walk.
After Kitsuki, we did a 30-minutes drive to Futago-ji (両子寺), the iconic temple at the center of Rokugo-Manzan (六郷満山, name of the mountain in the peninsula).
The best season to visit Rokugo-Manzan (六郷満山) is the fall, in which the temples and shrines will be decorated with lots of amazing foliage. Plus, it will be way less crowded than other famous foliage spots in Japan (Kyoto, for example).
After a respectful visit to Futago-ji, we headed to Bungotakada, a small city that became known because a famous movie was filmed there.
There weren’t much to see other than that shopping street, so we didn’t stay for too long in Bungotakada.
We visited this part of the peninsula also to avoid taking the same route back to Beppu. The prestigious shrine Usa Jingu (宇佐神宮) is only ~10 minutes drive from Bungotakada. We were the only visitors when we arrived at the shrine.
It is probably not necessary to stay overnight in Usa (especially if you travel by a rental car), but if you do, I found a local guesthouse that seems to be worth a try.
After a day trip to Kunisaki Peninsula, we returned to Beppu city and chose to stay at REX HOTEL Beppu for our second night. The property was stunningly new and clean - to an extent where all guests need to took off their shoes before entering the hotel building. Taking off shoes is somewhat common for traditional Japanese ryokans, but for a modern multi-level building? This was a first for me.
As mentioned above, Beppu is a city known for its natural hot springs - more interestingly - its hells (地獄). The Hells of Beppu are only for viewing rather than bathing, and they are a must see if you visit the area.
Time didn’t allow us to visit all of the famous seven hells of Beppu (each of which is considered to be unique), but you probably get the idea. At the noon of our third day in Beppu, we headed south to Yufuin (由布院), another famous onsen town in Oita prefecture.
Some unique hotels in Beppu city:
- 界 別府 Kai Beppu
- Amane Resort Seikai (潮騒の宿 晴海)
- Amane Resort Gahama Terrace
- Sanso Kannawaen (山荘 神和苑)
- Terrace Midoubaru (テラス御堂原)
- InterContinental - ANA Beppu Resort & Spa
The drive from Beppu to Yufuin (Prefecture Route 11) is very relaxing and scenic - you either drive in a wooded area with trees on both sides, or you drive on a wide open road with mountains in your eyes.
Even in winter, the scenery was quite amazing. If you decide to take a train, make sure to take the Yufuin no Mori (ゆふいんの森) JR train to enjoy the ride.
Yufuin is a hot springs resort town surrounded by rich variety of nature. The most prominent feature of Yufuin’s skyline is the twin peaked Mount Yufu, which hovers over the town and serves as the backdrop for many scenic views.
The ryokan and hotels of Yufuin are spread out around town, and not clustered along the main street like in many other resort towns. Instead, the main street is lined with cafes, boutiques and small museums, giving Yufuin an atmosphere more like a trendy shopping area than a traditional onsen town. Nonetheless, there is a large number of lodgings with hot spring baths, some of which open their baths to non-staying guests during daytime. 1
We had our lunch in a handmade Soba noodle shop near Kinrin Lake (金鱗湖), which is a small pond famous for its morning mists. I was not able to take a very impressive photo of the lake though.
On the streets of Yufuin, A lot of local shops were open to sell souvenirs, dessert and all kinds of art pieces, so a walk there would be really nice.
We didn’t spend a night in Yufuin, unfortunately - even though hours were spent on hotel researching in Yufuin, I decided to stay in Kurokawa due to our tight schedule. That was a pity, of course, just imagine laying down in a private open-air bath with a Mount Yufu view… It would be a memorable stay.
Some recommended ryokans in Yufuin:
Yet another onsen resort town - Kurokawa is located in the middle of Kyushu about 20 kilometers north of Mount Aso. The drive to Kurokawa took longer than I expected, and we were late to check in at our ryokan at Kurokawa.
The townscape is dominated by natural colors and materials, wooden buildings, earthen walls, stone stairs and a river flowing through. The town center, located in a forested valley, is compact and easily explored on foot, except for a few ryokan which are located less centrally (like ours).2
Like many old onsen towns in Japan, Kurokawa’s narrow streets can barely allow a car to pass through. Luckily, the town is quite small so it’s perfectly accessible by foot.
Due to limited space, I will introduce the ryokan we stayed at, Takefue, in a standalone post. After a luxury stay at Takefue, we left Kurokawa and continued heading south into Aso.
Some recommended ryokans in Kurokawa:
Mount Aso (阿蘇山, Asosan) is an active volcano in the center of Kyushu. Its caldera ranks among the world’s largest, with a diameter of up to 25 kilometers and a circumference of over 100 kilometers.3
We decided to have lunch in Aso city, and our route would pass Shiroyama Viewpoint, a famous lookout that offers nice views of the flat rice fields of Aso. Regretfully, for some reason I forgot to stop at the viewpoint, missing a great opportunity for some breathtaking photos.
The must-see attraction in the area is definitely the Aso-Kuju National Park (阿蘇くじゅう国立公園), however due to our tight schedule (again), I decided to skip it for our next Kyushu trip, and save the time for other spots instead. Winter is not the best season to enjoy the volcano national park anyway, I said to myself.
We hiked in Kamishikimi Kumanoimasu Shrine (上色見熊野座神社), a shrine that requires visitors to walk up a long staircase decorated with moss covered stone lanterns through a cathedral like forest of cedar trees. We also visited Shirakawa Suigen (白川水源), a famous fountainhead offering ultra clear mineral water that bubbles up from underneath the earth.
There are many choices of lodging in the area. After a luxury night in Kurokawa Onsen, and with frugality in mind, we chose to stay at Wakka, a family-owned guesthouse that overlooks Mount Aso in Minamiaso (南阿蘇).
The guest room was basic but had everything necessary. The owners of the guesthouse, a Japanese couple in their 50s, were super welcoming and kind. The price was very reasonable and it also included a homemade dinner and breakfast, which was nice. After this countryside stay, we took national route 325 (国道 325 号) to explore west Kyushu, instead of going further south into Kumamoto.
Recommended hotels in the Aso area:
Takachiho Gorge (高千穂峡, Takachiho-kyō) is a narrow chasm cut through the rock by the Gokase River. The nearly sheer cliffs lining the gorge are made of slow forming volcanic basalt columns which resemble the scales of a dragon where the stone twisted and flowed as it formed.4
Before Takachiho Gorge though, we had a quick stop at Kunimigaoka Viewing Platform (国見ヶ丘展望台) - an observation deck to see the sea of clouds. Unfortunately the weather was not cooperative, so there was not much to see here.
Visitors can enjoy the gorge from two perspectives. The first is from below which is done by rowing down the river. Rental boats are available at the south end of the gorge, and the water is calm and easy to navigate. This highly recommended route offers a close up view of the cliffs and waterfall.
The second perspective, from above, is done by walking the paved path that runs along the edge of the gorge. There are beautiful views all along the way and at some points on the trail you can look practically straight down to the river below. The trail continues for about one kilometer, eventually leading to the Takachiho Shrine.
The gorge was very pretty even in winter, but I think it will be much more colorful in other seasons.
Takachiho, or rather Miyazaki Prefecture in general, is famous for many local products, including Wagyu.
After a very delicious A5 Wagyu BBQ lunch, we headed to another tourist attraction in Takechiho, Amano Yasukawara (天安河原).
It is said to be the cave where the gods and goddesses met to discuss their strategy of luring Amaterasu out of hiding. The natural beauty of the cave and river lined by countless stacks of stones make Amano Yasukawara a place not to miss. 5
Follow the walking path by the Iwato River in Amano Yasukawara, you will reach Amano Iwato Shrine (天岩戸神社), where neat little piles of stones stacked along the river by previous visitors to mark their pilgrimage to this “power spot”. Further along, the stacks become more numerous until you are surrounded by literally thousands of them as far as you can see.
Again, as sacred as the shrine was, I think this place would be much more beautiful if visited in a season other than winter.
After a relaxing walk in Amano Yasukawara, we started the engine to drive onto National Route 218 (国道 218 号) to further east, in the direction of our next stop - Hyuga.
Recommended hotels in the Takachiho area:
Hyuga is a small city in the east coast of Kyushu in Miyazaki Prefecture. As a relatively quiet and undisturbed area, it lets you see the rocky cliffs, crashing waves, and historical sites without the crowds. It is recommended for surfers too, as it is much less crowded than Miyazaki City.
Our first stop in Hyuga is Umagase, a local tourist attraction where a 70 m-high precipitous cliff that has cracked into hexagonal columns offers a magnificent view. Although, we didn’t make it - because we were running late for check-in at our Airbnb and didn’t have time to stop… Nevertheless, we did a drive along the coast and found a great photo spot.
The airbnb we stayed at, Le Lodge 美々津, was a very well-maintained cabin in the suburb of Hyuga. I will describe the place in details in another post.
We had our breakfast at Stairs of the Sea, a local shopping market with gorgeous ocean view. It’s a perfect place to buy some local products before leaving.
Hyuga is a quiet place famous for surfing (you can see in the video above that people even surf in February here). We had a totally undisturbed, wonderful stay here and will probably visit again in the summer some day.
Miyazaki City is a resort spot on the south side of Kyushu. A beautiful coastline stretches out here. The mild climate makes it easy to spend time here all year round. Fans from all over the world visit the leading golf courses and surf spots of Japan. Legends of ancient Japan remain and the shrines are also a highlight.6
You will also find plenty of tasty foods here. These include Miyazaki beef (宮崎牛) - one of the best beef in Japan - as well as charcoal grilled chicken (地鶏の炭火焼き) and ripe mangos.
We mostly went shopping and eating around in the city, so there weren’t many good photos for the city itself. Our next stop is Aoshima Island (青島, Aoshima), a small, beautiful island just off of the coast of the resort beaches south of Miyazaki City.
The shallow water around the island has a geological phenomenon known as Oni no Sentakuita, or devil’s washboard. Visible at low tide, these perfectly straight rows of basalt rock look as if they must be the remnants of something manmade. They are natural formations, however, which can be found farther south along the Nichinan Coast as well.7
We spent a wonderful evening walking in the Aoshima area, and returned to Miyazaki city for a delicious dinner with fresh Wagyu beef and charcoal grilled chicken.
For our stay in Miyazaki city, I was glad to be able to utilize my Marriott member status (Platinum at the time) and booked a stay at the Sheraton Grande Ocean Resort. The hotel was built in 1994 and a large renovation was completed in 2016, so the facilities were pretty new and clean. It is the tallest building in entire Kyushu according to this. The staff were nice too - we were fortunate to get our room upgraded to a Suite Room, which is a two-bedroom family suite with a panoramic view of the ocean.
I regretted to have breakfast at the Sheraton CLUB lounge though - the food was completely western style and there wasn’t much to choose from. Lounges are probably a better choice for business travelers who seek quiet and privacy, maybe alcohol as well. We were a group of leisure travelers, so the breakfast buffet for regular guests would have much broader choices of food and beverages.
Further driving south on National Route 220 (国道 220), we entered Nichinan and arrived at another interesting site on the coast of Miyazaki - Sun Messe Nichinan (サンメッセ日南), Japan’s own replica Easter Island.
Built in 1996, it’s said that each of the seven Moai statues embody some sort of fortitude, whether it be a blessing for good health, love, leisure, marriage, money, fruitful business, or academics. As such, visitors can regularly be seen praying in front of the statues.8
Besides the Moai statues, the park also offers other interesting scrultures and art work. Chairs and swings are setup for visitors to sit and enjoy the view.
I admit that the way the Moai statues were put together (also the grass in front of them) felt a bit artificial, nevertheless it was a great spot for sightseeing and some selfies.
Udo Shrine (鵜戸神宮) is a unique cave shrine very close to Sun Messe Nichinan. Unfortunately we were running out of time again, so we decided to leave it for the next time!
Recommended hotels in Miyazaki and Nichinan area:
From Nichinan to Kagoshima, one has to pass Kirishima, where the Kagoshima airport is located. But Kirishima has more to offer, the top one being Kirishima Kinkowan National Park.
It was raining at the time, and we figured we could use a stay near the gate of the national park. Nothing could beat a bath at an onsen hotel on a cold rainy night in winter.
Eeven though we didn’t actually have the time to visit the park itself, there were nearby attractions that are worth some sightseeing.
Kirishima Shrine (霧島神宮, Kirishima Jingū) was built during the Muromachi Period on a different site from where it stands today. Since then it has been destroyed numerous times by volcanic eruptions, but always rebuilt. The current shrine was constructed in 1715 where it survives to this day. Its large, beautiful buildings are surrounded by forest and have been declared important cultural property. 9
Having stayed at a series of traditional Japanese ryokans, I decided it’s time for a little exotic luxury. We chose LA VISTA Kirishima Hills, a spanish style spa resort with some Japanese garderns and hot springs for the night.
At this point, COVID-19 was already a big thing in Japan. Thanks to the reduced volume of visitors, I got to enjoy different types of the hot spring baths alone.
Some unique hotels in the Kirishima area:
Finally, we arrived at Kagoshima, the famous volcano city in southern Kyushu. The first stop we had was Shiroyama Park Observation Deck (城山公園展望台), a popular view point from which you can overlook the city with the Sakurajima volcano in the background.
There are many interesting spots around Kagoshima, but we only had one night, so we took a quick day trip to Ibusuki (指宿) - another onsen town located on the southern part of the Satsuma Peninsula.
Some recommended hotels in Kagoshima city:
Besides its famous sand bath, what really makes Ibusuki interesting is Mount Kaimon (開聞岳), a volcano which rises to a height of 924 metres above sea level. The volcanoe has an impressive near-complete cone shape, a bit like Mount Fuji, so it is sometimes called “Satsuma-Fuji”.
The drive to Ibusuki took about 90 minutes. As we got close to the destination, we could see the volcano from different angles and it was fun.
That day was pretty overcast, and I suspect there was volcano cash in the air, so the photos were not as clear as they could be. Nevertheless, we took some great shots here and went back to Kagoshima with satisfication. We will try the sand bath here next time!
Some recommended hotels in the Ibusuki area:
One night for Kagoshima was just too short, we missed a lot of experiences. A drive around Sakurajima, a sand bath, a trip to Yakushima Island (屋久島) etc…These will be on my plan for our next Kagoshima trip.
Kumamoto was our last stop in Kyushu. Upon arriving at this second largest city in the island, we returned our rental car, and started shopping mode. It was also my most nervous time during the entire trip, because I had to use a lot of public transportation in the city, and masks were not a common thing at that time.
The famous Kumamoto Castle would have been a must-see, but it was serverely damaged in the 2013 earthquake, so we didn’t visit it this time. We did take a walk at Suizenji Jojuen Garden (水前寺成趣園), a tranquil garden features traditional Japanese landscaping & historic landmarks in miniature.
In the next day, we took a flight back to Tokyo’s Narita, then boarded our return flight (JL8) back to Boston. This marked the end of our 2020 pre-COVID trip to Japan.
Note: All photos and videos in this post were taken by the author, unless stated otherwise.