Its eight prefectures – which includes Okinawa – still boast external influences throughout. Here are nine reasons to get you started on your exploration.
1. Totoro land
Fans of the popular 1988 fantasy anime film My Neighbor Totoro – produced by Studio Ghibli, with auteur Hayao Miyazaki – will love traditional onsen town Yufuin. The tiny local train station, the misty Lake Kinrinko in the mornings, the twin-peaked Mount Yufu in the backdrop – it’s like walking onto the film set. If in doubt, drop into Donguri no Mori (below), a Studio Ghibli shop, to get Totoro souvenirs.
2. Sightseeing trains
One of the best ways to take in Kyushu’s scenic sights is on board one, or all, of its sightseeing trains – and collecting their commemorative tickets along the way. SL Hitoyoshi (below), a century-old steam locomotive with classy observation lounges and a mini museum, chugs past the Kuma River on a round trip from Kumamoto to Hitoyoshi, while luxury sleeper train Seven Stars takes you around the island in two or four days. Miyazaki’s coast and mountains are best enjoyed aboard the resort-like Umisachi-Yamasachi, whose interior and exterior feature local obisugi wood.
3. Unique dishes
Each prefecture in Kyushu boasts a unique signature dish, as the climate and soil are different in every one. Kagoshima, for instance, is known for its black pork, while Fukuoka – where tonkotsu ramen originated – is famous for Hakata ramen (below): thin, straight noodles in creamy pork-bone broth. Over in Kumamoto, try local speciality ikinari dango, a mochi-like steamed bun stuffed with thick slices of sweet potato slathered with red bean paste.
4. Secrets to longevity
Okinawa’s rural north is brought to life by Ogimi village (below), which is famous for its residents, most of whom are centennials who are eager to share their dietary tips and secrets to living a long life. Instead of stopping by for just a tour or a chat over a traditional lunch, opt for a homestay to get the full experience.
Often featuring large floats, energetic dances and a sea of participants, most festivals are organised by local shrines, either to commemorate religious events or to give thanks after a good harvest. One of the most interesting is Hakata Gion Yamakasa (July 1 to 15; above), held in the Hakata district of Fukuoka, where participants race 5m-tall Kakiyama floats along a 5km course in the early hours.
6. Seasonal blooms
Flock to Fukuoka’s Nishi Park in spring for hanami season or wander through the light purple arch at Kumano Shrine in Mitsuhashimachi Nakayama, created by the 300-year-old giant wisteria of Nakayama. Come early November, Mifuneyama Rakuen (below) in the Saga prefecture is painted with the warm colours of autumn foliage that reflects off the garden’s mirror-like pond.
7. Spectacular night views
Nagasaki’s night views are definitely some of Kyushu’s best. The most memorable has got to be that enjoyed from the observation deck (below) at the summit of the 333m-high Mount Inasa, which you can ascend in a glass-panelled gondola – the ride takes all of five minutes. The twinkling panorama of Nagasaki’s city centre and harbour that greets you at the top is among the Three New Great Night Views of the World named by the Night View Summit in 2012. Go during the Minato Matsuri festival, held every July, and you can also feast your eyes on a brilliant fireworks display.
8. Coloured hot springs
Where there are active volcanoes, there will be hot springs (below). Unique to Kyushu are onsens that come in bold hues of red, yellow, blue, green, white, brown and black, due to the presence of various minerals such as sodium, magnesium sulfate, sulphur and chlorides. A dip in these is said to be beneficial for those with skin disorders, rheumatism and neuralgia.
Once homes and military defence structures owned by feudal lords, these grand fortresses remain standing today following a string of restorative efforts in the 1960s. They act as museums, housing countless artefacts, weaponry and more, and offer stunning views of the surroundings. Karatsu Castle in Saga, for instance, affords sweeping views of the Genkai-nada Sea, while Kokura Castle (below) in Fukuoka has an interactive zone where you can ride a daimyo kago (a traditional Japanese carriage).
PHOTOS: GETTY IMAGES (SL HITOYOSHI TRAIN), KYUSHU TOURISM PROMOTION ORGANIZATION (HAKATA RAMEN), 123RF.COM (DONGURI NO MORI, MIFUNEYAMA RAKUEN, KOKURA CASTLE, HOT SPRING), ALAMY (CLICK PHOTOS; OGIMI VILLAGE, HAKATA GION YAMAKASA FESTIVAL, MOUNT INASA OBSERVATORY DECK)
This article was originally published by Singapore Press Holdings.