My knowledge of Japan, up until now, has been limited to hearing about Tokyo and Mount Fuji. Having recently traveled to Kyushu (pronounced “Q-shoe”), Japan’s third largest island, to visit family, my eyes have been opened to a whole new world.
Kyushu is a magical place, an island of grassy green hills, tunnels, waterfalls, volcanoes, and hot springs. But more than that, it is a “throwback” to another time. And by that I mean Kyushu is a wonderful example of Japan’s ancient culture and traditions, from ancient temples and sacred shrines to fighting spinning tops and world-acclaimed porcelain. What I found most unique about Kyushu is its people. They are friendly, hospitable, and excited to share a bit of their world with visitors.
A few memorable places in Kyushu were the Yukoto Inari Shrine, Sachihime Brewery (sake-tasting and tour), Shinsaikai Bridge, Ito Ichiba Fish Market, Tenkaiho Observatory, and Kujukushima (“99 Islands”). With so much to love about Kyushu, Japan, here are my eight favorite “unique” experiences on the island.
1. Sakurajima Volcano
One of the most unique and thrilling experiences is to spend the night on or near one of Japan’s most active volcanoes, Sakurajima (“Cherry Blossom Island”), located on Kyushu’s western tip in Kagoshima prefecture. Spending the night at the base of this smoking volcano has been described as “both a weird mix of serenity and a feeling of power.” If you’d like to visit Sakurajima, but would rather not stay so close to an active volcano, there are hotels in Kagoshima with amazing views of the volcano from across the bay.
Sakurajima has several volcano observation points, as well as historical shrines, to visit around the island. Be sure to stop in at the Sakurajima Visitor Center and volcanic museum near the ferry port. Admission is free and it’s right next to a lava trail and Yogan Nagisa Park Footbath (a hot spring) which is a unique experience on its own.
Pro Tip: Sakurajima is accessible by ferry from Kagoshima or via a narrow road on the opposite side, the easiest access point if traveling from Kirishima Kurozu (below).
2. Kirishima Kurozu (Black Vinegar)
A very unique experience in Kyushu is found in Kagoshima prefecture: Kirishima Kurozu or Black Vinegar (factory). The best place to experience Kirishima Kurozu is at Sakamoto Kurozu Tsubobatake Information Center. Strange black pots are visible from the road as is the smell of delicious vinegar as it wafts through the air. At the visitor and information center, there is a small museum, an exquisite restaurant, and a gift shop where you can buy hundreds of vinegar products as well as taste the different variations of vinegar produced at this factory.
The most unique highlight here, though, are the large fields lined with thousands of black vinegar jars — a centuries-old method of making black vinegar. On clear days, you’ll have a great view over the vinegar jars of Sakurajima Volcano smoking in the background.
3. Hirado Castle
Hirado City is located on Hirado Island in Nagasaki prefectureʼs western region. In the mid-16th century, Hirado became the international trading capital of Japan. The Hirado Dutch Trading House (established 1609), Japan’s first Western-style building, has been restored and is now a fantastic history museum open to the public.
High on the hill above the Dutch Trading House stands Matsura Historical Museum. It is housed in the residence of the Matsura feudal lord who reigned during the Kamakura period (circa 1185–1333). The museum contains remnants and historical artifacts from the reign of the Matsura.
Hirado Castle, built in the 18th century, is one of the unique castles in Kyushu. The current castle tower was fully restored in 1962. With five floors, Hirado Castle is part museum and part historical-site gallery with a theater and unique interactive experiences. The castle grounds are gorgeous with gardens, statues, and shrines. And you just might run into a samurai warrior or two.
Pro Tip: There are many steps to climb both inside Hirado Castle and to get up to Matsura Historical Museum.
4. Sasebo Spinning Tops
For a unique (only in Kyushu) experience, visit Sasebo Spinning Tops, also known as Sasebo Goma. See the ancient method of making “fighting” spinning tops and learn the art and sport of spinning them. Learn ancient traditions and the theory of “Yin-Yang and the Five Elements” (the colors used to paint the tops). In the workshop, visitors can paint their very own handcrafted spinning top, a very unique and special souvenir.
Sasebo Goma is rich in history; a traditional craft of the Nagasaki prefecture that is famous worldwide. Dating back to before the Heian period (circa 800–1200), spinning tops was a game played only by royalty. Today, spinning tops are made for everyone’s enjoyment and are still made in Sasebo by third- and fourth-generation spinning top makers.
Pro Tip: Spend as much or little time as you want at the factory. The owners are more than glad to spend several hours with visitors. There is also a gift shop to buy premade spinning tops of every shape and size.
5. Seven Hells Of Beppu
Beppu’s Jigoku, also known as the “Seven Hells of Beppu,” sounds somewhat ominous but it is a very unique Kyushu experience in Oita prefecture. Its name comes from the mysterious geothermal springs (boiling water and gas bubbling up from below the ground). Each of the seven hells have different characteristics, including Oniyama Jigoku, an animal preserve where 80 alligators live. Four of the hells are designated National Places of Scenic Beauty. Umi (“sea”) is a gorgeous cobalt-blue color and the boiling clay of Chinoike (“blood lake”) is blood-red, the oldest of Japan’s hells.
These Jigoku are for viewing, not for bathing in, as they can reach temperatures of about 99 degrees Celsius (210.2 degrees Fahrenheit).
However, there are many hot-spring bathing facilities that you can soak in. Many hotels and vacation rentals offer public and private onsens.
Pro Tip: A must-visit picturesque onsen town near Beppu is Yufuin Floral Village (a local’s favorite “mini theme park”). Visitors delight as they walk through the quaint village of Cotswolds, England-style cottages, shops, eateries, and lanes filled with flowers.
The largest city on Kyushu, Fukuoka actually has a laid-back vibe. Known as a foodie destination, Fukuoka has all the draws of a big city — museums, sporting and cultural events, etc. However, for a truly unique experience, visit the Reclining Buddha at Nanzoin Temple. The reclining pose is a rarity in Japan and this one is an impressive 134 feet long and 36 feet high. Be sure to rub his feet for good luck.
Another stunning location, and in my opinion a unique must-see, is less than an hour drive from Fukuoka in Itoshima: Sakurai Shrine Futamigaura Torii and Couple Stones. It’s a short walk (and some stairs) from parking down to the beach but well worth it for the amazing photos you’ll capture.
7. Ceramic Treasure Hunting
Saga prefecture is the birthplace of Japanese porcelain. For over 400 years, the most well-known and collected porcelain throughout the world was, and still is, from the small Kyushu towns of Arita and Imari.
For a most-unique experience involving porcelain and ceramics, try “treasure hunting.” There are several places that offer treasure hunting. I recommend Kouraku Kiln in Arita. Visitors “buy” a shopping basket and enter a very large warehouse stacked with thousands of crates full of ceramics — bowls, plates, saki cups — everything you could imagine. You are issued gloves (the ceramics may be very dusty) and are given 90 minutes to scavenge and fill your basket. Whatever fits in your basket, you keep.
Pro Tip: There is a children’s play area inside the barn for when the littles get tired of searching for treasures. Outside is another family-fun adventure — Samurai Archery.
While in Saga, learn about Japanese porcelain history at Arita Ceramic Museum or the much larger Kyushu Ceramic Museum. There are many ceramic kilns and shops in the prefecture open for tours and to buy wares. Two must-stops are Zwinger Palace at Arita Porcelain Park and Ookawachiyama Village (“Village of the Secret Kilns”), a national historic site.
8. Huis Ten Bosch
Sasebo is home to one of Kyushu’s most unique experiences — Huis Ten Bosch — Japan’s largest amusement park by area (yes, larger than Tokyo’s Disney). Located on Osaka Bay in Nagasaki prefecture, Huis Ten Bosch (“House In The Forest”) is an exquisite replica of a Netherlands town and countryside (complete with windmills, tulips, castles, and a canal). It was built to pay tribute to the importance of early Dutch trade in 16th-century Japan.
Not your typical amusement park — there are no screaming roller coasters — there is plenty to do for the whole family here. Visitors will find virtual reality and digital gaming along with more traditional activities. The nights are spectacular at Huis Ten Bosch as the entire park lights up with over 13 million lights. There are several light shows at the castles. One day is not enough to see and do all the park has to offer.
Pro Tip: The train stops at Huis Ten Bosch from Nagasaki and Fukuoka. There are several hotels on site and nearby.
Getting Around Kyushu
There are airports in all the major Kyushu cities. However, it may be best (cheaper) to fly to an international airport then transfer to domestic and hop down to Kyushu. We found that flights to Narita (NRT) in Tokyo were least expensive and the airport very easy to navigate.
Kyushu Railway Company is a great way to get around the island with trains to all major cities, including a bullet train (another unique experience). Driving around Kyushu is pretty easy after getting used to driving on the left-hand side of the road. Be prepared for the cost of toll roads to add up.
Pro Tip: If you plan on renting a car and driving yourself, you must obtain a Japanese driver’s license before arrival.