Leave the city and discover the fascinating landscapes of Kyushu, Japan

After the neon lights of Shinjuku and the alleys of Osaka, my sense of adventure yearned for a more offbeat, open-air Japan. For this, I ventured to Kyushu, Japan’s third largest island which is home to a multitude of sacred monuments and geological wonders, including some of the country’s most active volcanoes.

Image: Steven Csorgo

Searching for shrines in Fukuoka
From the depths of the holiest mountain to the back of a convenience store, as long as you’re in Japan: you’re never far from a shrine or temple.

Kyushu is no exception – in fact, it is considered one of Japan’s most important spiritual centers. My highlight during the trip was the Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine on the outskirts of Fukuoka city, an enormous complex surrounded by peaceful gardens, forested hills and picturesque streetscapes. These ancient lands are full of treasures steeped in Japanese history, including a bronze statue of the mythical Kirin beast, rumored to be the inspiration behind Kirin Beer.

Complementing the vermilion Shinto architecture, a vast park and forest invited me to wander aimlessly and bask in the wisdom of giant, ancient cedars. Feeling completely invigorated, I returned to civilization on Sanctuary Road only to once again get lost among rows of tantalizing restaurants, including a cafe in a posh Starbucks tastefully designed by legendary architect Kengo Kuma.

Image: Steven Csorgo

Street dining in Tenjin
For the people of Fukuoka, dinner is served on the streets. Once darkness sets in, Tenjin’s elegant central business district becomes crowded with tents yatai stalls serving businessmen and hungry travelers hearty and healthy regional cuisine.

As I hesitated to flick the flap and step inside, it was clear from the warm, boisterous chatter inside that everyone was welcome. Here, the chef has the dual role of host and conversation starter, encouraging mingling between patrons while cooking up a storm right before your eyes.

Mount Aso Volcanic Hike
Mount Aso, one of Japan’s most active volcanoes, is the pinnacle of Kyushu’s dynamic topography. As an avid hiker, the thought of escaping the city to explore this rugged, steaming terrain was irresistible. While recent volcanic activity has made the best vantage points off limits, there were still plenty of trails that treated me to jaw-dropping vistas of the smoking crater and dramatic landscape to scratch my adventurous itch.

Image: Lazy Friday the 13th / Flickr

Hot Spring Tour at Kurokawa Onsen
After crossing the Aso Mountains, my tired feet and exhausted body begged for the warm, mineral-rich waters of nearby Kurokawa Onsen. Often overshadowed by Japan’s most well-known hot springs, Kurokawa Onsen remains an isolated hidden gem that has yet to find the limelight.

Best of all, using Kurokawa Onsen’s “jumping passageway”, I was able to take a well-deserved bath in three local hot springs out of a generous selection of 28. Although it’s hard to choose, I settled in in the majestic cave baths of Shinmeikan, the vast open-air thermal pools of Yamabiko and the rustic wooden baths at the edge of the Nishimura Valley.

get off the road in the Takachiho Gorge
Wanting to get away from the tourist circuit, I continued my journey in the mountains of Miyazaki. In this remote region lies Takachiho, a land steeped in Japanese mythology. One of the most notable attractions here is Amanoyasukawara, a small shrine that is discreetly tucked away in a secluded cavern believed to be where the gods gathered to plan how to lure the Sun Goddess out of hiding.

Image: Steven Csorgo

Takachiho is also the origin of the ancient kagura dance, with performances given at shrines across Japan. While I missed the opportunity to see the nocturnal kagura at Takachiho Shrine, I was instead able to get closer to this deep tradition through a ceramic kagura mask painting workshop at Gohogama, a famous potter and restaurant. local perched on the side of the gorge.

Besides the shrines, the centerpiece of Takachiho is the Takachiho Gorge; an idyllic turquoise river carved into the rock born from ancient eruptions at Mount Aso. Completely captivated by the surreal hues and symmetrical rock faces, I have been able to admire this wonder many times through a leisurely stroll on the footpath, a relaxed cruise on a rowboat, and even again at night during the enchanting night light.

Image: Steven Csorgo

Relax at Suizenji Jojuen Garden
I followed the vast grasslands of Aso and the thick jungle of Takachiho with a visit to the meticulously maintained Suizenji Jojuen in Kumamoto City. The design of this scenic garden complex is meant to resemble the 53 stations of the Tokaido, an ancient road that connected Tokyo to Kyoto. Every element was a sensory delight – from the seductive aromas of plum and cherry to the refined flavor of traditional confectionery and the varied scenery, including a miniature Mount Fuji.

Even a gardening novice like me could appreciate the scope of this masterpiece.

Unlike other activities I experienced, visiting Suizenji was all about relaxing. I savored my last day in Kyushu napping on a grassy lawn, watching lethargic carp and crumb-hungry ducks, and slowly sipping a bowl of matcha at the teahouse. A fitting conclusion to my Kyushu outdoor adventure!

Main image: Tanaka Juuyoh/Flickr

Steven Csorgo was the guest of Japan National Tourism Organization

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