It’s been a few weeks since we got back from our mini vacation in Kyushu and it’s still giving me the warm fuzzies just thinking about it. Seriously, Kyushu was AMAZING! I know what you’re thinking, ‘Only five days in Japan? That’s not enough!’ But maybe you’re forgetting something: After eight trips to Japan, I’m pretty much an expert when it comes to planning Japan holidays. With the right timing and a bit of prior research, you’d be surprised how much you can fit into five days!
Our plan was to fly into Fukuoka and pick up a rental car, then spend most of our trip driving around the countryside in search of some cool cars, tranquil scenery and weird foods. And that is exactly what we did!
On Saturday night we landed in Fukuoka – less than a three hour flight away from Hong Kong which is where I currently live. Getting there was the easy part, but we had a slight delay trying to find our rental car company we’d booked through, as it turned out to be not actually at the airport like I’d thought; it was a 10-minute drive away! Oops… my bad. We eventually figured out how to get a free shuttle bus there, so it was all good.
Once we got our hands on our little rental kei car, we headed into central Fukuoka. By this stage it was getting pretty late, so we went for a walk around the city and found some street food stalls, which are known as ‘yatai’. The ramen was amazing, but I really had to try not to drink too much beer (I kinda failed though) as we had an early start the following morning…
On Sunday morning we checked out of our hotel and hit the road to AUTOPOLIS in Ōita Prefecture for a Shōwa car meeting/drift day that was taking place there. Along with Suzuka, Fuji, Motegi and Sugo, Autopolis is one of Japan’s biggest motorsports facilities and similar to many of its peers, it also has a smaller short course which is perfect for a bit of casual drift action.
Some crazy cars showed up and there was actually a much bigger turn-out than I’d expected! Between us both, Pedey and I took thousands of photos and I’ll be doing a full event coverage post on here soon (once my coverage story in the next New Zealand Performance Car magazine comes out!) plus we’re in the process of putting together an awesome video – look out for it on the Japan Car Culture YouTube Channel later this week!
Later that afternoon we headed to our next hotel, which we were both pretty excited about as after a hectic day of covering a busy car event in the hot sun, we were in desperate need of some downtime! To get there we took some back-roads and eventually crossed into Kumamoto Prefecture. This is actually what a good chunk of our trip looked like – just driving through random villages in the countryside.
Welcome to Kurokawa Onsen, one of Japan’s most famous hot spring villages! Before I share some more photos though, I have to let you in on a kind-of embarrassing secret – I actually don’t really like using Japanese onsen as I’m totally not down with bathing in the nude with other random people! Call me prudish but it’s just not really my thing. Our hotel didn’t have a private bath (many do, but they’re generally really expensive and we were on a budget). Seeing as Kurokawa was so close to Autopolis though I thought we better go check it out, and I’m so glad we did as it was so beautiful.
Our ryokan was so cool and the rooms had balconies overlooking a koi pond surrounded by lush greenery. We sat here and drank a few beers and relaxed for a bit – it was pure bliss.
Kurokawa is quite unique in that the whole village has a strict building ‘dress code’ where everything has to be presented in natural materials and neutral colours. There are no bright flashing signs or colourful buildings – even the phone booths (yes, phone booths) blend into the surroundings.
While Kurokawa was more about unwinding and enjoying nature than car culture, we still spotted this amazing Suzuki 4×4 kei-car parked up outside a local store. I can imagine this being the perfect run-around vehicle for the often steep and skinny roads around the region. I want one of these so bad!
After plenty of relaxing foot spas and some super weird dining experiences involving a 60-minute+ wait for our dinner and eating some absolutely mouthwatering freshly-made cream-puffs for breakfast down by the river, our time at Kurokawa was over and it was time to hit the road again. Where to next?
We decided to take a bit of a spontaneous detour en route to our next destination, so we headed in the direction of an area called Beppu next. We stopped at a Parking Area on the way and I had an amazing katsu curry – how is the cheapest curry in Japan still so damn delicious?
We drove back through Ōita Prefecture once again and I had zero complaints about this, because it has to be one of the most beautiful areas in all of Japan. We passed through valleys filled with bright green rice paddy terraces, tiny villages and deep blue lakes surrounded by tall pine forests. It got me thinking how you could easy just visit a central area in Japan and never get to see this side of the country, which would be a huge shame. I’ll take the country over the city any day.
Beppu is another area in Kyushu which is famous for its mineral-rich hot springs, but once again we bypassed the onsen for something different – the Beppu Ropeway. This would involve taking a giant cable car up to the top of Beppu’s Mount Tsurumi, and for one of Kyushu’s top attractions it was surprisingly quiet – another thing I loved about Kyushu.
The view from Mt Tsurumi was mind-blowing, especially with the bright pink rhododendrons in full bloom. We couldn’t have asked for better weather while we there; we had blue skies like this almost every day!
There are a few different bush walks you can do while you’re at the top, with different vantage points overlooking Beppu city and little gardens dotted around the place – it was really cool!
We thought Mt Tsurumi was pretty, but that turned out to be just a warm-up for our next stop, Takachiho Gorge in Miyazaki Prefecture. In all truthfulness, I actually felt disappointed when I was there because it was just impossible to capture the beauty of this place in pictures. Our photos didn’t do it justice and that frustrated me. We didn’t have much time there though, so I had no choice but to get over it pretty quickly!
The highlight of the small township of Takachiho and the reason so many tourists (a lot of which are actually Japanese residents) go there is to see Takachiho Gorge, a small yet impressive ravine filled with bright turquoise green water. You can actually hire small boats from a little shack nearby, and head out onto a section of the river where you can get up close to the waterfalls and huge towering rock walls that line the gorge on either side. The downside to this was that you had to wear these old ugly lifejackets – lol.
Takachiho is what is known as a ‘power spot’ – a place of religious importance, steeped in Japanese mythology. According to one local legend, a sun goddess hid in a cave here until she was lured out. People from all over Japan travel to Takachiho to soak up the good vibes, and even if you’re not a religious person, I guarantee that you’ll still feel something if you go there.
From Miyazaki we headed back to Kumomoto yet again, but this time we actually passed through central Kumamoto for a quick lunch and a walk around. If you think Kumamoto sounds familiar, it might be because this area suffered a series of big earthquakes earlier last year. Since then, communities (including the automotive community) in Japan and overseas have launched various ‘Pray for Kumamoto’ campaigns – you’ll see a lot of cars in Japan sporting stickers with this slogan. There were many fatalities and over 44,000 people were evacuated from their homes during this time. I was in Japan when it happened and I remember waking up and seeing it on the news – it was so devastating seeing the extent of the damage and the huge landslides it caused.
Many buildings were damaged, including Kumamoto’s main tourist attraction and one of Japan’s ‘top three’ castles, Kumamoto-jō. Because the castle is closed and still undergoing repairs, we did the only other thing there was to do in Kumamoto: eat.
I couldn’t quite find the appetite for Kumamoto’s speciality of ‘horse sashimi’ so instead we settled for real-fruit ice-creams and a killer ramen.
Next location: Sekia Hills. Now, if you’re a mega drift nerd (or if you watched my Instagram story!) you’ll know why we decided to stay here…
Sekia Hills is a HUGE complex in rural Kumamoto Prefecture, centred around the ginormous Hotel Sekia. Built in the ’90s (can you tell?) by a wealthy property developer, it has 186 rooms and multiple swimming pools, restaurants and huge grounds, which we explored on foot. Strangely this was one of the coolest experiences of our Kyushu trip; I think because it was just so weird being there. I’ll be putting together another post soon with some more photos of the hotel, plus the main reason for our visit: sneaking into the old Sekia Circuit. That’s right, Sekia Hills used to have an awesome race track too.
After three solid days of countryside exploring, it was time to head back into Fukuoka city and go hunting for some more cool car stuff. There were two local workshops that I wanted to pop into and check out…
The first was Auto Service Kishimoto which is known in Japan for its crazy Hakosuka race car!
I took a lot more photos at both of these workshops and I’ll have to include them in another post soon (as there are so many!) but as you can see, there were definitely some interesting cars hanging around the place. Our next stop was another shop which again specialised in old kyusha modifications and restorations…
Racing Serice Aoyagi. Seeing their Fairlady Z race car in the flesh was super cool, although I’d rather have seen it in action at Autopolis! Maybe next time.
They had some amazing cars there and I promise I’ll share more photos soon.
On our final day in Kyushu we mixed things up and went on another road trip to find some beaches. I’d actually never been to a beach in Japan before (although there are many nice ones) and I’d read about Fukuoka’s Itoshima Peninsula and its cute cafes and picturesque white sand beaches, so we decided to go and check it out!
The ‘shima’ in Itoshima means island, but Itoshima isn’t actually an island – it’s more of a peninsula and it’s only around a 40-minute drive from central Fukuoka. Honestly, there doesn’t seem to be a lot to do out there, but if you know where to go, if you go during the right season and you’re not in a hurry, it’s actually pretty cool.
We stopped at a bunch of seaside cafes and restaurants and just drove around and walked along a heap of empty beaches like this one. It had to be the least ‘Japan-like’ experience I’ve ever had in Japan. The vibe was so relaxed and different out there, but the weirdest part was that it was such perfect weather – 25°C or 77°F – and technically it was the start of summer, but many of the local shops and cafes were all closed as they only opened during summer – or perhaps only on weekends.
Before packing up and heading back into town for our last night, we visited the wedded rocks known as ‘Meoto Iwa’ at Futamigaura beach. Again, another main tourist attraction that we had all to ourselves. Sigh… I wish this would happen in Hong Kong!
So there you have it: 5 days, 4 prefectures, 1 crazy car event and over 600km travelled. Kyushu turned on some serious magic for us during this trip, and I’m so glad we decided to give it a chance because it was amazing!
Because this post turned out to be so long, I’m going to be putting together a more detailed Kyushu guide containing plenty of travel tips, recommendations and more information about car events and workshops, which will be available soon. So look out for that, along with some other Kyushu-related posts coming up shorty.
Original post from June 20, 2017 by Taryn Croucher