The Simple Kyushu Travel Guide
Kyushu is Japan's southernmost island, and home to around 13 million residents. This subtropical region has not only some of Japan's most breathtaking natural beauty, but important historical sites, excellent shopping and nightlife, and unique tourist destinations - such as the Jigoku of Beppu - that make it an excellent spot for those wanting to see the real Japan.
I've personally spent two years living and working in Kyushu, and for those living in the region it's an amazing place for weekend trips. Those visiting Japan as tourists will also find much to enjoy here, as you can enjoy all the country has to offer at a more relaxed pace.
Fukuoka is the largest and most cosmopolitan city in Kyushu. As the region's most important city and a transportation hub, it makes for an excellent starting point for any Kyushu travels.
Fukuoka doesn't have the unique tourist draws of other prefectures in the region, but what it lacks in tourism it more than makes up for with its combination of urban excitement and laid back pace. It's an excellent place for shopping, nightlife, and eating, and the locals are among the friendliest in the country.
Nagasaki has the unfortunate distinction of being the second city to be hit by an atomic bomb during World War II. Those unfamiliar with Japan might not realize that even before then, Nagasaki had a rich history as a trading port, and the country's only area open to the outside world for hundreds of years.
Modern day Nagasaki is relatively small and provincial despite its more cosmopolitan history, and the contrast is fascinating to see as a tourist. The medium sized city - with a population of 400,000 - shows signs of wear and tear, as well as obvious signs of Japan's demographic crisis. It also lacks the nightlife of other major Kyushu cities such as Fukuoka (there are very few bars in Nagasaki), or even other mid-sized cities like Kagoshima.
But it is rich with history and unique tourist sites that you simply will not be able to find elsewhere in Japan. Nowhere else can you find traces of the country's troubled history with Christianity (Site of the Martyrdom of the 26 Saints of Japan, an important monument and museum, as well as the Oura Cathedral), learn about Chinese history (Koshibyo Confucious Shrine), and discover the lives of important European diplomats and traders in Japan (Glover Garden). All within a short train ride's distance from each other. That's not even getting into the harrowing World War II museums and monuments, such as the Oka Masaharu Memorial Nagasaki Peace Museum
Oita is famous for its onsen, or hot springs. In fact, the prefecture's nickname is the onsen-ken (hot springs prefecture). Unlike other prefectures in Kyushu, Oita's capitol does not offer much in the way of tourism. When I visited, my plan was to go to Oita City, then stop by Beppu the following day. I had plans that evening in Oita City, but arrived early and was dreadfully bored otherwise - there is simply not much of interest at all. It is, however, a pleasant enough city to live in.
Tourism in Oita really shines when you leave the city. By far the most interesting city in Oita Prefecture is Beppu, famous for its hot springs and Jigoku, pits of boiling water which are a sight to behold. Beppu also has a somewhat more international feel than other small Japanese towns, thanks to having an international University and lots of tourists; it shouldn't be hard to get assistance or information in English.
Kumamoto is home to one of Japan's most famous yura-kyara - or mascot characters - Kumamon. Even if you've never been to this prefecture, you've no doubt seen Kumamon at souvenir shops and other stores if you've visited elsewhere in Kyushu.
Kumamoto City is nice, but unlike other parts of Kyushu, it lacks its own unique identity. It doesn't have the history of Nagasaki or Kagoshima, and it isn't quite as relaxed as Miyazaki. It feels very much like Fukuoka Lite, which makes sense considering it's only a few hours away, and some sources consider it part of the same Metro area.
It doesn't offer much in the way of tourism aside from Kumamoto Castle, which not only is a great tourist destination in its own right, but provides an incredible view of the city below. Kumamoto Castle also overlooks the downtown area, so not only does it provide a great view of Kumamoto, but looking at it from the city below provides a fascinating look into the ways modern and ancient Japan co-exist with each other.
Visitors to Kumamoto Prefecture would do well to check out Aso Mountain, around a one hour drive from the city.
Miyazaki is a rural prefecture in southern Kyushu, bordering Oita, Kumamoto, and Kagoshima. Famous for its beaches and agricultural products, it used to be known as a premier honeymoon spot for young Japanese many years ago. These days Miyazaki is affected by severe economic depression and some of the grayest demographics in all of Japan. However, it makes a great choice for those wanting to see the best of Kyushu's natural beauty.
Miyazaki City's most notable attraction is Aoshima, a small island just off the coast of the city with a small shrine. Beyond that, most attractions will be spread out in other parts of the prefecture. Hyuga City in the north has some of the best beaches in Japan, and is in fact a popular spot for foreign and Japanese surfers alike. It also has plenty of rental car services, as well as a "tourist taxi" service sponsored by the city, making it relatively easy to get around. Finally, there's Takachiho Gorge, which is even further north than Hyuga and has a beautiful river and waterfall, but is more difficult to get to, with limited bus access and no trains. However this is one area of Miyazaki that can be reached easily from nearby Kumamoto.
Note that Miyazaki is wide and public transportation is extremely limited. As a rural area, it also doesn't have many English speakers - many young people leave the prefecture for college and jobs, and few return. It also lacks the amenities and convenience of other more urban areas in Kyushu. Still, those willing to put in the effort will find some of the best beaches in Japan outside of Okinawa.
As the most southern prefecture on Kyushu, Kagoshima has a lot of similarities with nearby Miyazaki. Like its eastern neighbor, Kagoshima is a largely rural prefecture which is famous for its agricultural products. The pace of life is also much slower than other parts of Kyushu. Unlike Miyazaki, however, its capitol is a far more urban place, with more opportunities for nightlife, shopping, and socializing with younger Japanese.
Still, even inside Kagoshima City there are some opportunities to see unique natural beauty. Kagoshima's famous Sakurajima, an island containing an active volcano, is within the city limits, though you do have to take a ferry to reach the island. Once there, even if you don't have a car, you can use a bus to tour the island - and several plans are available depending on how much you want to see.
Closer to the city center you'll find an array of museums and monuments dedicated to the city's unique history, such as the Kagoshima Prefectural Museum of Culture, which traces the area's history up to the Meijia Era. There are also numerous statues on display throughout the station area, each dedicated to important historical figures in Kagoshima.