Japan’s Hot-Spot Kyushu – Volcanoes, Fireworks and Onsen

Part I of our 2014 trip to Japan

Kokura, Fukuoka, Kumamoto, Aso, Shimabara, Obama Onsen, Unzen, Nagasaki

We arrived at KIX in August, just before Obon. Customs went smoothly, although the officer was amused/taken aback by the roll of toilet paper on top of my luggage, leftovers from a . As we stepped out of the airport, we were hit by the intensely humid heat. We collected our one-week JR passes to be activated the next day, but couldn’t make any reservations as it was Obon. Taking the Haruka Express, using our cute Hello Kitty ICOCA+ package, was a breeze. From Shin-Osaka station, we walked to our hotel, which took longer than expected. Passing market alleys and lots of love hotels. Check-in would have been much more complicated without speaking some Japanese, as the clerk went through the rules and listed the services. Our love hotel room was great, lots of lighting options, tons of amenities and a whirlpool hot tub. Highly recommend this sort of accommodation, there is nothing seedy about it, in general. We were too tired for karaoke or games, though.

The next day, we took the first shinkansen to Kokura in northern Kyushu. There were many empty seats in the non-reserved carriages. We leisurely strolled through the city, visiting Tanga Market, Kokura Castle and the temple next to it, slowly realizing that we were finally in Japan now, after so much planning and dreaming. In the afternoon, we made our way by a very retro local train to Mojiko port for the annual hanabi fireworks. We secured a good spot early on, tried some festival snacks – I would never have imagined that I’d pay 3€ for a piece of chilled cucumber, ever – and waited for hours… The fireworks were totally worth it. Afterwards, thousands of people streamed to the train station in the most civilized manner imaginable, though it took 2 hours for what might be a 10 min walk. We continued on to Fukuoka, where we had some tasty Ramen (alas, not vegan) without the meat slices by the river before checking in to our business hotel. The clerk seemed very flustered by having to deal with foreigners and came across as rude – but that was just his insecurity showing. We were tired and hot, so it didn’t matter at all.

Again, we took the first shinkansen to Kumamoto, having some delicious deluxe vegetarian bento (no egg) en route. We caught a Ltd. Express train to Aso, wonderful retro style – this is how I’d image the Orient Express to look like; they even handed out postcards to stamp. The scenery and Aso itself were wonderful – cows grazing peacefully on lush green meadows, gently sweeping hills in the distance… The Mt. Nakedake crater was very impressive with all those colorful layers and the sulphuric steam rising up. The “4D experience” at the info center made for a weird and boring detour, with digital volcanoes erupting in true anime fashion. At the souvenir shop, we bought a Kumamon towel, which would come in handy later on. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to do any hiking, although we walked down a path from the parking lot, it ended abruptly. Back in Kumamoto, we enjoyed a little guided (Japanese) tour of the Castle by the Omotenashi Bushotai group. With the help of a delivery guy, we found our hostel, tucked away in a residential area. The place was very stylish and traditional, but as we had booked the smallest room, which literally barely fit two futon, so it wasn’t particularly comfortable, although we are both of small stature. Not having eaten much so far, we shared a huge and juicy watermelon grown locally and some instant noodles with Kumamon-shaped bits in it.

We explored Kumamoto some more, visiting the castle more extensively as well as the Hosokawa Residence and the Handicraft Museum, where the artists were present to explain their crafts (esp. pottery). I love Japanese pottery and metalwork, but it’s all a bit out of my budget. As we had missed the Asoboy Kuromon shop in Aso, we were on a mission to find merchandise of the cute dog mascot that has the same adorable look as my parents’ dog, so we walked 2h and back to the station, chancing upon a quaint neighborhood with birds as its theme. And we were successful, although the selection was limited, in favour of Kumamon. We also got some rice sweets near the station and were served chilled matcha free of charge because of the heat.

In the evening, we enjoyed some suika (watermelon) cider, regional fruity beer (recommended, so unusual!) and tantanmen, in the food/shop street below the castle. Those days, the (wet) Kumamon towel was our (or rather, my husbands’, I toughed it out) trusty companion, keeping us cool despite the scorching sun. We get 32°C+ days in Germany, too, but the sun is certainly more intense here. My husband got sunburned despite applying sunscreen liberally, so we tossed out my sunscreen and got some from a 7-11, with a “chilling effect”, that actually worked rather well.

We departed for Shimabara in the early morning to catch the first bus/ferry. Apparently, we had gotten on the local bus which had arrived one minute before the projected departure time of the correct bus (Japanese transport system being über-awesomely punctual) but we persevered as we were taken on a tour of suburbs and rural area. Luckily, we still arrived on time. When buying our tickets, we got paper sheets to make a little model of the ferry, how cool is that!

Above: Shimabara Town, dwarfed by a volcano; Castle moats

Wonderful little garden open to the public, they even served free tea (in central Shimabara somewhere along the carp streams, donations welcome)

Shimabara is a quiet town, with carp streams, traditional samurai houses, several footbaths and a castle.

Samurai gardens; Eco-friendly cooling mechanisms (for watermelons, ramune lemonade and rice balls in syrup)

At the castle entrance, we got our picture in samurai armour/yukata taken for free. Not particularly authentic, but fun. The castle museum is different from the others we have visited in that it told the (short and gruesome) history of Christianity in Japan.

Shimabara Castle with some rather expressive statues in its backyard

Cross-shapes on tableware, Astronomical device in Castle Museum

After 6 hours, we had seen everything listed above (skipped lunch, though, and didn’t have time for the Disaster Museum) and caught a bus to Obama Onsen via Unzen. The ride was very scenic, through winding forest roads. We had a little discussion with the driver as to where we should get off, but with other passengers chiming in, we finally figured out the closest stop to our ryokan Wataya. The host couple was so hospitable, made it possible to have a private bath right before dinner, and urged us to take a walk to the footbath in the evening.

The longest footbath in the world – also suitable for dogs, apparently

Near the footbath, there is some sort of huge steam oven, you buy produce from a stall nearby, assemble your potatotoes, corn etc in a bowl and put it into small openings in the oven. After a couple of minutes (there was a table of recommended cooking times), your freshly steamed dinner is ready!

Natural steam oven, Obama having a field day at Obama Onsen, our ryokan room

We hadn’t been able to contact our ryokan about our veganism, so the wonderful and extensive meals provided were very fish-centric. As we don’t waste food – and what would have been the alternative?-, my poor husband ate more fish that evening than in the 10 preceding years… I tried to take a bath in the communal onsen in the morning, but it was unbearably hot, the hottest we have encountered in all of Japan oO After a lavish breakfast, the owners graciously drove us to the bus station for our bus to Unzen.

Unzen Onsen turned out to be one of our favourite places in Kyushu. The quiet spa town is set among mountains (Mt. Unzen), lakes and flower fields and has a very special atmosphere, especially due to the onsen steam “hells” spotting the resort. Until check-in, we circled the town 3 times and hiked towards one of the smaller peaks, but didn’t get there because we were scared of the giant wasps (or hornets?) we spotted.

Unzen’s hells – looking cool nowadays, but painful execution method (particularly) for Christians

We relaxed our tired feet in a few little foot baths and tried to soothe our sunburnt skin (well, rather my husbands’, I’m darker skinned) from the inside by eating fruit sorbet. In a small pottery shop, we learned about the family craft, incorporating volcanic materials, and were served some chilled matcha tea, a real relief on such a scorching hot day.

Beautiful craftsmanship with volcanic materials; a random find in the woods – a vulva shrine (there’s a penis shrine next to it); coffee candy from a nostalgia sweets shop

The Fukudaya Hotel was a great choice, as well. Our plan included a banquet dinner (the biggest and most diverse dinner in our whole lives – no pictures because we forgot to take our camera) and extensive breakfast, all vegan creations just for us, served by an energetic and somewhat pushy old lady in the partioned dining hall. The mixed Japanese/Western-style room was not luxurious, but very pleasant. We loved the tasteful and tranquil communal onsen baths, both indoor and outdoor, and enjoy two private baths as part of our chosen plan.

Above: Communal Onsen facilities (female/male side switches during the day)

Below: private Onsen bath; welcome drink; extremely rich soy milk and pudding as part of the breakfast spread

The next morning, it was pouring and so foggy that you could see further than a few metres, the fog blending with the sulphuric steam, creating a rather unusual scenery. When we got on the bus that would take us to Isahaya, for no apparent reason the bus driver called the employee of the tourist office on the other side of the road, who sprinted through the rain to make sure we had really got our intended destination (Isahaya as gateway to Nagasaki) across, which was the case. The route, again, took us through rice paddies and hilly regions with a very rural feeling.

Scenery along the bus route; Church in Isahaya; Road leaving Unzen

In our 2 days in Nagasaki, we visited the Atomic Bomb Memorial Museum and Peace Park, which left a deep impression. We learned about earlier history in the very hands-on Dejima museums and Glover Garden, and enjoyed a sparkling view of the city from Mt. Inasa.

Our hostel was situated on the ground of a shrine, passing through the torii at night was a rather eery experience. Chinatown was rather small and, to me, boring, it seemed to consist mainly of champon or sara udon restaurants and touristy shops.

After some delicious wakame and kitsune udon (our favorite Japanese noodle type, we found out) for dinner on the second day, we were off to Hiroshima.

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