The Golden Week holiday in Japan is the perfect time to get out of the city and explore the country. A few years ago, I spent early May on a road trip around Kyushu, Japan’s southern main island. I was lucky to have the trip planned for me, but that also meant I had no idea what sights we were going to see. I’m usually the one planning, so it was nice to just sit back in the passenger seat and enjoy the ride… I was in for a lot of unexpected sights.
Palm-lined streets of Miyazaki
Far from the busy streets of Tokyo, life in Kyushu seems to move at a leisurely pace. Similar to my home country, Australia, the main cities are dotted around the coast, leaving the centre of the island fairly void of people or buildings. Inland roads take you past farmlands, around gorges, through dense forests and over mountains. It’s a beautiful area to explore, though you do need a car to get to the lesser-known spots—and trust me, there are many!
Delicious sashimi in Ibusuki
The first day of our road trip took us to Miyazaki, Japan’s surfing prefecture. Driving through Hyuga city and onto Miyazaki city, I got glimpses of the sea from the car window. It was the first time I’d seen swell of any size in Japan. The waves weren’t enormous but it was such a thrill to see barrels… if only I could surf!
Laid-back Miyazaki city was lined with palm trees that soared higher than all of the surrounding buildings. Craning forward in my seat, my cheek pushing against the windshield, I couldn’t help but stare up at these trees in amazement. Had I hit my head and woken up in Hawaii? California? Add a few mansions and it could have been Beverly Hills! We were only a few hours into our trip and already I’d had two wow-moments.
From Miyazaki city, we headed south to a strip of coast called Nichinan-kaigan, then continued all the way to the bottom of Kagoshima Prefecture. It was a wonderful trip exploring places I’d never even heard of and seeing the diverse landscape and the hidden stories they hold. These were some of the highlights…
Sun Messe Nichinan
A familiar sight with a twist. Seven sculptures in the most unlikely (WPC) location in the world. The vast turquoise Pacific Ocean behind them. Rolling green hills in front of them. Who knew there was a version of Easter Island in Miyazaki?!
Thanks to efforts made by three Japanese men who formed a Moai restoration committee and helped Easter Island gain UNESCO World Heritage status in 1995, special permission was then granted for them to erect seven exact replicas of the mysterious statues in Japan.
Sourced from Fukushima prefecture, volcanic rock—the same as is found on Easter Island—was used to create the Moai. They are around 4m tall and each weigh 18-20t… about 10 times as heavy as a car. Believed to house Japanese spirits, these reproductions have become like shrines. Offering a coin is said to give you good luck in either work, health, love, general life, marriage, wealth or studies. Which would you choose?
Located in a hair-raising cliffside cave, Udo Jingu is one of the most unique shrines I’ve ever visited. As you pass through the traditional shrine gates and descend the rocky cliff, the swirling waves below get louder and louder. You can really feel the powerful natural energy of the sea all around you.
Inside the cave are a few religious buildings where people can buy fortune slips and offer their prayers. Seawater seeps down from curious ‘breast stones’ and is supposedly used in making special candies which if eaten help women to produce milk after childbirth and ensure their baby is healthy.
Outside, the waves angrily rush up between the rocks, then gently draw back into the ocean, staying calm for just a few seconds before the cycle starts again. The rocks are all various shapes and sizes but one in particular stands out. The kame-ishi looks like a turtle climbing out of the water (depending on the angle). On its ‘shell’ is a small crater, believed to hold good fortune. Visitors can buy five small ceramic balls to try throw into the crater. All but one of mine bounced off into the water – does that mean I get a little bit of luck?
Landing your ball in the hole brings good luckShrine inside a coastal cave
Kagoshima is Kyushu’s southernmost prefecture. It’s most famous for its active volcano which sits across the bay from the city centre. It only takes 15min by ferry to get to the island. Sakurajima has a constant cloud of smoke spewing from its craters and there has been many ash explosions over the past decade. I heard there are even ‘ash forecasts’ that residents check to find out when it’s safe to do things like hang out the washing, or to know when they need to take their ash-resistant umbrella. The last major eruption was back in 1914 when there was so much lava it joined different islands together and connected to the mainland!
Atmospheric streets of Kagoshima cityYakiniku BBQ – yummy and fun!Smoke coming from Sakurajima
Famous for its warm sandy beaches, Ibusuki is a surprisingly popular place despite being so far away from… everywhere. Special facilities offer sand baths where basically you lay on the beach in a yukata and get covered in sand. Steam from natural hot springs rise up and before you know it you’re sweating like a pig. It cleanses the pores and makes your skin glow!
I didn’t get the chance to try the bath but did enjoy squishing my toes in the sand at a beach near Ibusuki. The water was crystal clear and very chilly. The sand may not be beautiful and white like back home, but it was so nice to just be at a beach again.
Inland from Ibusuki city is Kyushu’s deepest lake, Ikeda, and the dormant volcano, Kaimondake. Ikeda is a crater lake and with no way in or out, it’s home to some strange/creepy animals. One are the giant eels that get to an enormous 2m long and 50cm wide. Another is the legendary Isshi, Japan’s equivalent of the Loch Ness Monster. With the deepest point of the lake reaching 233m, who knows what else lurks in the dark depths…
Poppies, Lake Ikeda and Mt. Kaimondake
A beautiful sunset to end our Golden Week road trip! Southern Kyushu—and all of Kyushu for that matter—is packed with amazing, unusual, thought-provoking places. From surfing in Miyazaki to volcano-watching in Kagoshima, it’s a part of Japan best enjoyed outdoors. Add to that all of the great food, the seemingly always good weather, the long history and happy-go-lucky people, it’s a great destination for people who are looking for something beyond the tourist trail. My next goal is to visit Yakushima, an island south of Kagoshima covered in an ancient mossy forest (think Princess Mononoke, for any Ghibli fans).
Have you ever been to Kyushu before?