Vacationing in Japan reveals a fascinating destination that simultaneously baffles, charms, delights and sometimes frustrates—for this is a country of contrasts, where medieval mores seamlessly blend with ultra-modern sparkling cities that with their trademark cleanliness, efficiency and frantic pace have few rivals.
On the surface, Honshu, Hokkaido, Shikoku and Kyushu—the four principal land masses comprising Japan—seem alike, but scratch a little deeper and each island emerges as having wide gulfs between one another with distinct traits, cuisine, accents, history and traditions that make each stand on its own.
Kyushu, the southernmost of the four, just might be the most distinctive—and the one sure to delight discriminating travelers itching for a taste of everything Japanese. It likes to call itself “The Wondrous Side of Japan,” and it may not be far off the mark.
Ultra-modern cities like Nagasaki and Fukuoka add an urban flair to traditional villages where Japanese culture glows. Hot springs and hiking trails beckon nature lovers and the awesome natural surroundings give it an alluring zest.
According to Shuichi Kameyama, director of international tourism at the Japan Tourism Agency, Americans make up less than 3 percent of visitors to Kyushu and that makes the island ripe for those who want to get off the well-trodden paths like Kyoto, Tokyo, Nagoya and other tourism hubs in Honshu—Japan’s largest and most visited island, familiarly called “The Mainland”—where the American tourist market climbs to nearly 12 percent.
Says Hiroyosu Konishi, manager of the overseas division for the Kyushu Tourism Promotion Organization, “Anyone who wants to see a little paradise and enjoy our onzen (traditional Japanese bath houses) and other purely Japanese treats will delight in Kyushu. You see, although Kyushu is only 10 percent of Japan’s land area, we have more than 30 percent of the country’s onzen. It’s very compact, yet our list of activities is long. We offer nature, hiking, history, food and thrilling cities. You’ll find everything from amusement parks to desolate fishing villages. Kyushu is one of a kind.”
Of course, tourism to Japan took a hit immediately following 2012’s earthquake, tsunami and nuclear plant meltdown, but all indications are that the concentrated effort of its tourism infrastructure is providing positive results for turning the Land of the Rising Sun into the land of rising tourism.
Even travelers wary about journeying to unseen Japan will feel at ease in Kyushu. It’s far removed from the hectic Honshu lifestyle and its charms have all the patented Japanese appeal that has lured foreigners for more than 150 years when the early arrivals returned home with exotic tales about a majestic destination and its captivating culture.
Today’s arrivals come directly from Tokyo to Fukuoka, Kyushu’s charming and sparkling city. Fukuoka, gateway to Kyushu, is a sprawling urban center that for centuries was Japan’s most important harbor. Its proximity to the Asia mainland—it’s actually closer to Seoul than to Tokyo—has placed it on the top tier of Japan’s most visited destinations for Asians. In fact, the large numbers of Asian visitors gives the city an appealing trans-Asian flavor.
Traditional visitors will find that Fukuoka has no lack of attractions. With 2.5 million residents, it consistently ranks as among the world’s most livable cities, featuring a disproportionate number of parks and quiet retreats. It has the largest number of temples and Shinto shrines in the country after Kyoto and Nara and, overall, is a delightful destination. There are even castle ruins (from the 17th century) located right in the middle of the city in Maizuru Park. The best time to visit the castle ruins is usually between late March and early April, when the park turns into the city’s most pleasant spot for cherry blossom viewing.
The Canal City shopping complex, meanwhile, astounds with its size and outdoes most establishments of its kind in a country known for its excesses when it comes to shopping malls.
At night, the city puts on a fabulous show with everything from packed riverside food stalls to Tenjin’s cool jazz clubs.
where to stay
Built with a nod to the city’s international flavor, the 98-room Luigans on Hakata Bay—20 minutes from central Fukuoka in the Umi no Nakamichi Kaihin National Park and surrounded by ocean and greenery—is a luxury resort hotel with ocean views from every room.
It offers premier accommodations and oozes warmth. Relaxation and pampering are in abundance. The place looks like it was brought lock-stock-and-barrel from Mexico’s Riviera Maya and indeed, its design and concept is the work of Luis Barragan, a Mexican architect, who used abundant natural light to create an airy and tender atmosphere. Its bright and cheery colors blend pleasantly with the surroundings, and the Luz del Sol spa (“sunlight” in Spanish) has set new standards for such amenities in the region. Rates run from about $300 per night dbl for a room in the spa floor, to approximately $1,200 for a suite overlooking the bay.
Closer to the city-center, the Hilton Sea Hawk is an ideal location from where to explore Fukuoka. With 1,000 rooms and excellent restaurants, the property is adjacent to a manicured park and near one of the largest underground shopping areas in Kyushu. Rates start at about $140 per night dbl for a standard room.
Those who visit Kyushu searching for more traditional accommodations will delight in Kamenoi Besso, an elegant ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) that’s a pure Japanese jewel with graceful rooms of rich woods and sliding papered shoji screens.
Once the estate of a wealthy industrialist, Kamenoi Besso is in Yufuin in eastern Kyushu, 45 minutes by train from Fukuoka. It’s a collection of 1921-vintage cottages linked by a thatched walkway and it’s all authentic and traditional.
This is, in fact, where old Japan remains alive with fresh tatami mats, meals that are works of art and served by maids in kimonos, and 15 rooms with garden views. Beds are fluffy futons on the floor and the hot baths are exquisite.
There are flower arrangements and tea ceremonies, and every cottage features a huge bathing area with tubs carved from cedar. Since Yufuin is a hot spring resort, Kamenoi Besso also offers large communal baths that are a must for anyone who wants to experience traditional Japanese bathing.
With its unparalleled natural beauty and alluring culture, Kyushu is a sure hit for travelers who want to experience Japan’s peerless culture. Rates start at about $300 to $400 per night dbl.
getting there & around
Fukuoka has one of the most convenient airports in the world, only five minutes from the city’s center and accessible by bus for the astounding price of about 75 cents.
American Airlines offers fares from the U.S. west coast to Tokyo for as low as $990 pp roundtrip, while All-Nippon Airways offers same for about $800 with an additional $100 premium economy upgrade. Japan Airlines offers regular flights to Fukuoka from Tokyo’s two major airports, Narita and Haneda (approximately $180 pp roundtrip).
Some independent travelers favor rental cars while others find bus service to be impeccable and, of course, there’s always the allure of traveling in the country’s gleaming trains.
In fact, Japan’s esteemed JR Group rail company offers daily service to Fukuoka from most of the country and will launch a tour of Kyushu in October 2013 through a train called Seven Stars. This is a journey designed to pay homage to more elegant times. The Seven Stars promises to be Japan’s first sleeper train exclusively designed for sightseeing. Its cars are made up of 14 compartments, including Japanese-style rooms with tatami mats for sleeping. Two are designated as “deluxe suites” with wider beds and more extravagant decorations. The 7-car train will have an observation car with a bar, plus an elegant dining car.
All services will feature ultra-plush accommodations and will offer a 1-night, 2-day plan and a 3-night, 4-day journey beginning and ending in Fukuoka. The tour will stop on the island’s most important destinations. Prices will start at about $1,900 pp.
Japan has long attracted Americans, but although the country is known for its modern amenities and progressive flair, the destination presents something of a challenge for those wishing to venture off the tourist path because it’s a relatively insulated society that’s not very English friendly.
Tours to Japan abound and Westerners are seen in practically every island and resort, but far off places like Kyushu are still relatively “unexplored” when it comes to American tourism.
Says Steve Adelsman, owner and president of Adventures in Japan, an Arizona-based tour operator, “Kyushu is off the beaten track for most foreigners, therefore it offers the
opportunity to experience fascinating and less-familiar aspects of Japanese life and culture. It is one of the safest, cleanest places you will ever visit. The people are courteous, the food is amazing and the culture—with its ancient roots—is fascinating and unique.”
Adventures in Japan, has a well-proven track record of leading private tours exclusively to Japan for more than 10 years, and Adelsman says that Kyushu is custom-made for “the traveler who wishes to go beyond a traditional tourist visit and desires a deeper and more intimate exposure to this amazing culture.”
He adds that Kyushu is not huge, so visitors can see the highlights efficiently. “The place is varied enough to give a great sampling of the cultural aspects they’ll find most intriguing, such as unusual geography (hot springs, grand vistas and mountains), history (including the unique ways foreigners impacted Japan), wonderful and delicious cuisine, or the pleasures of relaxation (beaches and spas).”
Although there are very few large guided tours of Kyushu in most itineraries, Adelsman leads private land-only tours ranging from about $3,200 to $6,000 pp dbl, depending on the number of travelers in the group.
He considers Kyushu one of the great destinations in the country—a place that must be seen, if one wants to experience a “hidden” Japan. For more information, visit adventuresinjapan.com.
Archived related articles (available on recommend.com/magazine/supplement-archive):
Asia Travel Planner (February 2012)
Hilton Sea Hawk: (800) 445-8667; hilton.com
Japan National Tourism Organization: jnto.go.jp/eng
JR Group: japanrailpass.net
Kamenoi Besso: yufuin-kagiya.com/online/English
Kyushu Tourism Promotion Organization: welcomekyushu.com
Luigans on Hakata Bay: luigans.com