Too many travelers only dream about Kyushu—home to an extraordinarily distinct cultural and historical background, dramatic scenery, and many hot springs (or onsen)—and not enough actually go. But that’s to its credit. The rewards are reaped only by those who venture to the southernmost of Japan’s four main islands’ wide-open spaces. And with subtropical regions, as well as landscapes percolating with active volcanoes, secret onsen, fairytale forests teeming with colorful birds, monkeys, and miles of hiking trails leading from mossy cedar groves to arid highland plateaus, it’s easy to see why. The historic gateway to Japan, it often changes visitors’ perceptions of the country and shatters the misconception that Japan is a densely populated urban nation.
Lay of the (lava) land
Kyushu, which offers some of Japan’s most remote wilderness, is bigger than Sicily but smaller than Switzerland. Historically it was called Kyūkoku, meaning Nine Countries, but today it’s divided into seven prefectures with names that ring familiar—Fukuoka, Kumamoto, Nagasaki, Saga, and Oita in the north, and Kagoshima and Miyazaki and their various islands further south.
Forming a fortified green ridge in the island’s center is the mighty Kuju Mountain range, home to several onsen town, mountain hamlets, reserves, green spaces, and parks, including Aso-Kuju National Park, which can be experienced on the ground or increasingly by helicopter and scenic flight tours. It’s here where you will find both the island’s highest peak, Mount Nakadake at 5,875 feet and Japan’s most active volcano, the 5,223-foot high Mount Aso, one of Japan’s most sacred and famous mountains. The latter’s vertical silhouette is described as resembling a sleeping Buddha while the sapphire blue caldera atop it, one of the world’s largest, has a 75-mile circumference.
Hiking trails for all levels and seasons
Maintained paths designed for all levels of walkers abound, and popular ones include the five-hour round-trip hike to Kuju Peak, a medium-level excursion noted for its excellent open vistas, fall foliage, and wildflowers. Slightly more challenging and about an hour longer is the Hossho Peak trail, a detour from the main trail lined with wild fissures and fumaroles belching steam and a reminder of the rumbling lava that bubbles underneath this active volcanic island.
While the area’s arid summits are above the tree-lines, Kyushu’s mountains dazzle with their four seasons. Autumn hosts a crisp, brisk season of glorious reds, oranges, and yellows peaking from late October to mid-November, depending on altitude and microclimates. From December to March the mountains are covered in snow, with underrated skiing in full-service ski resorts like Gokase Highlands and Kujumachi. Or swap carpets of white snow for colorful flowers at Kuju Flower Park where you can ogle over 500 species of flowers bloom under the watch of Mount Kuju.
Blossoms, birds, and monkeys
Winter whites give way to gloriously vivid spring awakenings in the form of wildflowers and blossoms, like red ume (plum blossom), pastel sakura (cherry blossom), and brilliant pink azalea called “Miyama Kirishima” which carpet the slopes from May through June. Summer typhoon season is downright hot and the mountains and woodsy ryokan draw locals and tourists attempting to cool down. But Kyushu’s beaches swell with surfers, who come year-round for Miyazaki’s swells, and the paddleboarders who glide over the reflection of Sakurajima, another active volcano, on glassy Kinko Bay.
If the seasons weren’t technicolor enough, birdwatchers flock to Kyushu for the arrival of migrants and rare endemics like fairy pitta, blue and white flycatchers, and hooded and white-napped cranes. For more wildlife, plan on seeing Japanese Macaques (snow monkeys) in the wild. More discreet than monkeys in other parts of Asia, snow monkeys can be seen all over Japan and are present but elusive on many of Kyushu’s hiking trails. For a closer look, head for Mount Takasaki Wild Monkey Park in Oita, home to the world’s largest troop of wild monkeys numbering 1,500 monkeys. Or if you want to focus on the geology, there’s no shortage of breathtaking natural sites like Marou, a thermal waterfall in Kirishima, or the blood-red baths of Chinoike Jigoku created from concentrations of hematite iron in the water.
Finding your just-right onsen
To really know Kyushu is to know onsen. Visiting just one onsen is an amateur’s mistake. Soaking in a few to discover your favorite is part of any Kyushu visit. After all, Kyushu is nicknamed Onsen Island for its proliferation of hot springs. In raw numbers, there are more than 21,000 of them found across the island, so there’s no shortage. But Kyushu offers more ways to soak than most. There are sunamushi (sand onsen) lining Ibusuki’s grey sand beaches, rustic rotenburo, (outdoor onsen baths) found across Kyushu, and carbonated onsen with high concentrations of circulation-improving carbonic acid like the ones at Nagayu.
There are also excellent super sento, giant public bath complexes in cities like Fukuoka’s Namiha-no-Yu. Perhaps the most romantic are semi-wild onsen like Yakushima’s Hirauchi Kaichu, a rocky tidal pool accessible for two hours before and after low tide, and ofuro, deep soaking tubs typically made of cypress. Because most onsen are segregated by gender, there’s been an uptick of private onsen offerings in recent years, so you can soak with family, spouses, and friends of the opposite sex. They’re also great for travelers bearing ink, since tattoos are forbidden in many Japanese onsen.
The 8th-century hilltop city of Beppu, home to 2,909 onsen, is Kyushu’s most famous onsen town, and home to excellent value ryokan and soaks. But lesser-known onsen include the pine forest-shrouded village of Kurokawa, Kirishima’s tranquil rotenburo and delightful Yufuin, located 30 minutes from Beppu or a two-hour drive from Fukuoka.
Yufuin is an especially rewarding onsen town because it’s a town, not a city—with pottery, ceramics, wooden crafts shops, and even small, cute cafes, locals hawking citrus and local food, and bustling izakaya. The twin peaked Mount Yufu, (it’s a 120-minute hike to its green summit) guards sentinel over the town and makes a contemplative backdrop for meditative soaks.
Yufuin is also home to Lake Kinrin, famed for its morning mists. Its perimeter is walkable in just over a half hour, surrounded by a hiking path, and marked with a Shinto shrine and public and private bathhouses.
The town is not as well known to international tourists but remains a beloved under-the-radar spot by locals, meaning day-tripping here is extremely popular. To absorb the town’s nuances, plan on overnighting at one of the many ryokan where midweek deals can be easily scored.
Two highlights include Musoen a ryokan located about a 20-minute walk from town. Its baths are located on a southern ridge with awe-inspiring views of Mount Yufu and are rumored to be the best views. So too are its kaiseki meals, 10 to 13 dishes prepared with seasonal vegetables, fire-roasted river fish, sashimi, Kyushu-raised chicken, and wagyu beef. Opposite town is another ryokan, Tsuka no Ma, the source of gossamer steam clouds emanating from the overflowing source of onsen all over the town. The ryokan’s outdoor baths are filled with a natural blue water that’s rich in metasilicic acid and sodium chloride and ideal for warming up.
If they’re booked, forge on to discover another from the numerous other ryokan and baths to choose from. It’s hard to go wrong. The biggest mistake is to not visit at all.