Kyūshū (九州), Japan's southern- and westernmost main island, is arguably its warmest and most beautiful, with active volcanic peaks, rocky, lush and near-tropical coastlines, and great onsen (hot springs) virtually everywhere. History and legend were made here: Jōmon ruins, Shintō's sun goddess, wealthy trading ports, cloistered foreigners, samurai rebels and one of the earth's greatest wartime tragedies all loom large.
Today, burgeoning Fukuoka is a multicultural metropolis. In sweet, picturesque Nagasaki, tragedy contrasts with a colourful trading history. Kumamoto's castle is one of Japan's finest fortresses, and volcanic Aso is the world's largest caldera (both were heavily damaged in earthquakes in 2016). Saga Prefecture boasts three legendary pottery centres. Steam pours from the earth in Unzen and Beppu, Miyazaki's Nichinan coast boasts vistas, monkeys and Japan's best surfing, while Kagoshima, heart of the Meiji Restoration, smoulders with active volcanoes. Peppered throughout are hot-spring towns, trekking trails and family-friendly fun.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Kyūshū.
A still, serene and deeply moving place, Nagasaki's Peace Park commemorates the atomic bombing of the city on August 9, 1945, which reduced the surrounding area to rubble and claimed tens of thousands of lives. Together with the Atomic Bomb Museum and National Peace Memorial Hall (both a short walk away), this is an essential stop for any visitor who wants to understand how the disaster shaped the city. The green, spacious park is presided over by the 10-tonne bronze Nagasaki Peace Statue, designed in 1955 by Kitamura Seibō. It also includes the dove-shaped Fountain of Peace (1969) and the Peace Symbol Zone, a sculpture garden with contributions on the theme of peace from around the world. Practically adjoining the park to the south is the smaller Atomic Bomb Hypocentre Park, with a monument marking the epicentre of the deadly blast. On 9 August a rowdy antinuclear protest is held within earshot of the more formal official memorial ceremony for those lost to the bomb.
On 9 August 1945, the world's second nuclear weapon detonated over Nagasaki, and this sombre place recounts the city's destruction and loss of life through photos and artefacts, including mangled rocks, trees, furniture, pottery and clothing, a clock stopped at 11.02 (the time of the bombing), firsthand accounts from survivors, and stories of heroic relief efforts. Exhibits also include the post-bombing struggle for nuclear disarmament, and conclude with a chilling illustration of which nations bear nuclear arms.
Adjacent to the Atomic Bomb Museum and completed in 2003, this minimalist memorial by Kuryū Akira is a profoundly moving place. It's best approached by quietly walking around the sculpted water basin, commemorating those who cried for water in their dying days. In the hall below, 12 'pillars of light', containing shelves of books of the names of the deceased, reach skyward. Listen to survivors' messages and leave your own digital message for peace at 'peace information counters'.
Dominating the skyline, Kumamoto's robust castle is one of Japan's best, built in 1601–07 by daimyō Katō Kiyomasa, whose likeness is inescapable around the castle (look for the distinctive tall pointed hat). From 1632 it was the seat of the powerful Hosokawa clan. Unfortunately, the castle, many outbuildings and much of the grounds are closed indefinitely due to earthquake damage, but the site is still worth seeing from the street.
In 1641 the Tokugawa shogunate banished all foreigners from Japan, with one exception: Dejima, a fan-shaped, artificial island in Nagasaki harbour. From then until the 1850s, this tiny, 15,000-sq-metre Dutch trading post was the sole sanctioned foreign presence in Japan. Today the city has filled in around the island and you might be tempted to skip it. Don't. Seventeen buildings, walls and structures (plus a miniature Dejima) have been painstakingly reconstructed.
The Five Mountains of Aso are the smaller mountains within the Aso-san caldera's outer rim: Eboshi-dake (1337m); Kijima-dake (1321m); Naka-dake (1506m); Neko-dake (1408m), furthest east; and the highest, Taka-dake (1592m). Access roads were damaged in the 2016 earthquakes and at the time of writing were in the process of being repaired, although some areas may be closed due to toxic gas emissions.
One of Shintō's loveliest shrines honours the cave where the goddess Amaterasu hid. The cave itself is off-limits, but Nishi Hongū (the shrine's main building) sits right across the Iwato-gawa. Ask a staff member to show you the viewpoint behind the honden (main hall). Local 'Fureai' buses leave approximately hourly (¥300, 20 minutes) from Takachiho's Miyakō bus centre.
Among the countless visitors to the grand, sprawling Tenman-gū – shrine and burial place of poet-scholar Tenman Tenjin – are students making offerings and buying amulets in hopes of passing college entrance exams. The hondō (main hall) was rebuilt in 1591. Behind the shrine is the Kankō Historical Museum, with dioramas showing Tenjin's life (an English leaflet provides explanations). Across the grounds, the Dazaifu Tenman-gū Museum has artefacts from his life, including some excellent swords.
In 1658, the 19th Shimazu lord laid out his pleasure garden on this hilly, rambling bayside property of groves, hillside trails and one of Japan's most impressive pieces of 'borrowed scenery': the fuming peak of Sakurajima. Allow 45 minutes for a leisurely stroll through the garden, and 30 minutes more for a self-guided tour of the 25-room Goten ('the house' on signage), the Shimazu clan's former villa. As sprawling as it is, the villa is now only one-third of its original size!