Article updated on May 14, 2020
Text: Claire Lessiau
Photos: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen
While the Japanese train system is excellent and allows to explore most of the country, driving is essential to explore the more remote areas of Japan, where public transportation is less practical.
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As rentals are great to reach more secluded areas, sometimes picking up the car at the rental office can be a challenge given the limited amount of English spoken. Your paperwork in order, pictures and sign language are good assets to get started! Most rental offices provide a pictogram guide to figure out the main pieces of information and rules:
- drive on the left,
- pedestrians always get priority,
- colour-coded signs for toll roads,
- colour-coded petrol stations to refuel: the regular unleaded pump is red, the diesel green and the high-octane yellow (even though many petrol stations in Japan are full-service),
- roads are very well maintained,
- speed limits are low (do not expect to be allowed to drive faster than 60 kilometres per hour (40 miles per hour) on roads).
Many cars come with a built-in GPS in English, and it is often helpful to read Japanese to be able to change the display language! Our first 45 minutes driving around Fukuoka were painful, listening to the very loud annoying female voice of our car’s Japanese GPS instructing us in English to go back to the rental office… After trying all possible combinations of buttons in Japanese, we could eventually stop the navigation! Instead, we used our efficient navigation application to drive smoothly out of Fukuoka towards the South-West, passing kilometres of suburbs before reaching a beautiful coastal road along the Sea of Japan.
Driving is stress-less as Japanese drivers are not pushy at all and very respectful of the rules. Even in remote areas, signage is abundant in both Japanese and Latin alphabets. The toughest part is to understand the metre to pay for parking in cities!
In this itinerary, we favour countryside roads over the highway to discover the hidden gems of Kyushu Island, starting in Fukuoka and driving counter-clockwise.
With an international airport, a major train station, and many car rental offices the largest city of Kyushu is the ideal starting point of any itinerary on the island. Fukuoka is worth checking out. Make sure to experience its yatai that are fast disappearing in Japan.
Karatsu Castle is famous for its architecture, and for its nearby historic pottery trade. In mountainous Kyushu, many villages such as Arita had a hard time growing rice and developed other industries to survive. Access to good clay, forests and streams made pottery crafting a natural choice. From the early 17th century, pottery was produced in this area by captive Korean potters and artists and their secrets were well guarded.
The city of Nagasaki is forever associated to the atomic bomb: on August 9, 1945, at 11:02 a.m. the “fat man” was dropped by the B-29 Superfortress Bockscar destroying the city, killing more than 85,000 inhabitants (out of 263,000). The Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum and Peace Park have become landmarks. But Nagasaki represents much more. It is where the first European ship, under the Portuguese flag, arrived in Japan in 1543 opening a new chapter in history. Back then, Nagasaki was the only city in the empire from where Japan and the rest of the world traded. However, Spanish and Portuguese missionaries were pushing Christianity in Japan. The shogunate grew wary of the impact of the new religion and in 1614 Christianity was banned, churches burnt, and missionaries and Japanese converts executed (like the 26 martyrs of Nagasaki who were crucified in 1597: the Oura Church (1864), the oldest in Japan celebrates them). With many nations competing for the profitable trade with Japan such as the British Empire, Portugal and China, it is eventually the Netherlands that were granted exclusive trading rights with Japan. Based out of the artificial island of Dejima in the bay of Nagasaki, for two centuries (1641-1859) trade took place, multidisciplinary exchanges happened in the field of language, culture and medicine, and mutual influences marked craftmanship. Nagasaki represented an opening on the world. In 1868 with the Meiji Period, Japan opened up to trade, signing the end of the specificity of the Dejima trading post.
Today, the beautiful bay of Nagasaki surrounded by green mountains, its laid-back atmosphere and the open-mindedness of its inhabitants make it the most pleasant city of Kyushu. On the slopes of the Minami-Yamate Hill, once reserved for foreigners, the Glover Garden is one of Nagasaki’s favourite attractions. The garden is named after Thomas Glover (1838-1911), a Scottish trader who settled and set up business in Nagasaki, having a long-lasting influence on the modernisation of Japan from coal mines, to shipbuilding and railroads. Colonial mansions of the 19th century were rebuilt in the peaceful garden with an amazing view on the bay of Nagasaki and its harbour. Glover’s house (1863, the oldest Western-style building in Japan) merges Western and Japanese elements, one of the most obvious examples being the demon-headed tiles intended to ward off evil next to British chimneys. Nicknamed “Madame Butterfly House” for no reason but to attract tourists, statues of Puccini and diva Miura Tamaki, famed for her role as main character Cio-Cio-san in the opera, stand in the park near the house.
Note that it is also from Nagasaki that the Gunkanjima Island (or Battleship Island), made famous by the James Bond movie Skyfall, can be visited. The former coal mining site was abandoned in 1974 and turned into a ghost island.
With its castle and restored samurai houses, photogenic Shimabara is also where the ferry to Kumamoto departs from. A few kilometres before entering Shimabara, the Unzen-Amakusa National Park is famous for its Fugen-dake mountain hike, the trail of hell, with great views on the lava flow from the summit and 30 vapor jets, while the traditional Unzen village is renown for with its onsens.
Part of the Kirishima-Yaku National Park, the Ebino Kogen Plateau is surrounded by volcanoes and lush forests. This is a great playground for hikers. Starting from the high lands at roughly 1,200 metres, to hike up to get a view on the crater lake is unique.
The coastal town houses a beautiful island shrine. Especially popular amongst young Japanese couples, Aoshima Shrine is where they tie up lucky charms to trees to wish for a fruitful marriage.
Close to the Takachiho-jinja shrine, a short canyon hike leads to a stunning waterfall. The nearby Kaeda Valley is great for swimming holes in an wilder terrain. Check it out!
Aso Volcano is one of the world’s biggest volcanoes. Due to volcanic activity, the cable car is often closed and hiking forbidden (check on the volcanic activity).
This traditional and scenic mountain village is an onsen paradise. Dip in!
Beppu is the second hot spring district in the world after Yellowstone in flowrate. Built amongst volcanoes, the steam rises up in the air out of almost every building and a recognizable smell of rotten egg lingers. Onsens and rotenburos (or thermal spas) attract visitors whom enjoy their warm and curing waters.
Some even use that natural thermal energy to cook. In Hell’s kitchen, dishes are steamed by the vapours of the springs. Whether you bring your own food or buy it onsite, the natural steaming keeps its flavours and adds a slight mineral taste. Unfiltered spring water can even be drunk close to the kitchen to enjoy its healthy benefits.
Be ready to explore a variety of landscapes in the remoteness of Kyushu: mountain passes amongst bamboos and cedars, the volcanic slopes of Mount Aso covered by grassland, rice fields amongst rolling hills, the secret crater lake of Ebino Kogen, coastal roads with dramatic views on the roaring Pacific Ocean by Miyazaki, mountain views with perfectly conical volcanoes, shrines, onsen villages, historical sites…
- Make sure you can drive in Japan! Check driver’s license details here.
- Check out this interactive map (quick tutorial) that includes a road trip itinerary ideal for a week in Kyushu! For what to see on this trip, click on the pins (the black ones refer to another article).
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