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5 Spots to Experience the Outdoors in Japan’s Northern Kyushu

Northern Kyushu is a perfect destination to combine hiking with Japanese cultural experiences.

By 5 min read

Around 70% of Japan is covered by mountains. The country is also home to 34 national parks, hosting dozens of hiking trails offering diverse scenery. In Hokkaido, you will find true wilderness, whereas central Japan, particularly Nagano, features some of the highest peaks in Japan and offers alpine-style hiking and climbing experience.

Among all the hiking regions in Japan, Kyushu—the land of fire— is the one that always stood out for me. Home to dozens of volcanoes, including Japan’s largest active volcano—Mount Aso—the relatively easy hiking trails of Kyushu always guarantees mesmerizing scenery without requiring tremendous physical effort. Extensive rail and bus networks covering most of the main trailheads also make Kyushu an ideal destination for solo hikers such as myself, who often depend on public transportation.

These are 5 locations in Northern Kyushu for a perfect week in the outdoors and a few days in picturesque small towns.

Kuju Mountains: in search of Kyushu azalea

Azalea bloom on Mount Hiiji from late May to early June.

Kuju Mountain range lies in the northern part of Aso-Kuju National Park. It is home to numerous trails where all hikers will find a route fitting their skill level.

I recently spent three days in the area exploring two of the main trails that start at Chojabaru and Makinoto Pass trailheads. Despite their proximity, the landscape along the two routes was so dramatically different that it felt like hiking in entirely different regions and always a welcome experience.

The trail that starts at Chojabaru trailhead involves a gentle climb through a dense forest before opening to a picture-perfect valley scenery in Bogatsuru. Makinoto Pass, on the other hand, requires negotiating a steep incline at the beginning of the hike.

The path to Naka-Dake.

However, it’s one of the quickest routes to reach the two highest peaks, Naka-Dake (1791-meters) and Kuju (1787-meters), each offering outstanding panoramic sceneries of the surrounding mountain range. This is also the trail where the hikers are exposed to the intriguing volcanic landscape of the region.

Most of the hikes in Kuju can be done as day hikes. Still, one of the biggest appeals of the region is the opportunity to spend the night at Hokkein Onsen, tucked deep into the valley in Bogatsuru.

I spent two nights at Hokkein Onsen, only accessible via hiking, using it as a base to explore the side trails leading to inner peaks such as Mount Hiiji—a perfect spot to view the Kyushu azalea blooming in late May to early June. The opportunity to meet the other solo hikers to share trail stories and cold beer after sunset was as rewarding as the surrounding scenery.

Yufuin: the perfect rest day

Kinrinko Lake

Yufuin is one of Japan’s best-known onsen (hot spring) towns. It is home to the tastefully luxurious ryokan (traditional inn), stylish shops, restaurants and art museums. Located 42-minutes away from Chojabaru trailhead by bus and has some of the best outdoor cafe scenes I have seen in Japan (not always an easy find). The town is the perfect base for a rest day in between hikes.

Although mostly for guests-only, several inns offer daytime onsen visits to non-guest during the day. Yunotsubo Street, lined with souvenir shops and cafes, is the biggest draw of Yufuin. The road leads to picturesque Kinrinko Lake, where I spent many morning hours sitting at a cafe on the water and enjoying the spring breeze.

Mount Yufu: twin peaks, choose your battle

The view from Mount Yufu.

Yufuin town is also the getaway to one of Kyushu’s most popular day hikes—Mount Yufu (1583-meters). Located 15-minutes outside of the town (by public bus), Mount Yufu offers terrific scenery of the surrounding region even long before you reach the peak.

After a leisurely start through the forest, where you’ll likely see deer, the trail demands roughly 80-minutes of steep climbing. The bright side is the views are a great distraction. Eventually, you’ll reach the fork for the mountain’s twin peaks for a final 20-minutes push to the top.

The west peak (nishi-dake) involves a technical climb (chains involved). It’s not for the faint of heart and only advisable for highly experienced climbers. For those desiring to enjoy the mountain top scenery without using chains, like myself, the east peak (higashi-dake) is the better option where the views are equally rewarding.

Kamishikimi Kumanoimasu Shrine: take a break

The path to Kamishikimi Kumanoimasu Shrine.

While a little trickier to get to (several changes), Kamishikimi Kumanoimasu Shrine on the eastern side of Aso-Kuju National Park is an excellent option if you’re not into hiking.

The shrine, featured in the anime Hotarubi no Mori e (To the Forest of Firefly), is surrounded by a dense forest with a narrow pathway guarded by lanterns leading to the main shrine. Dedicated to the first Shinto gods, Izanami and Izanagi, it is one of the main power spots in Kyushu.

You can easily make a half-day out of a visit to Kamishikimi with a stop at one of several cool restaurants within walking distance of the shrine. The restaurants offer a set lunch menu featuring regional cuisine in a Japanese-style setting.

Mount Aso: Japan’s largest active volcano

Volcanoes are so hot right now.

Hiking to Mount Aso, the largest active volcano in Japan (last erupted in October 2021), is a perfect and grand way to end a hiking trip to Northern Kyushu. Easily accessible from Kumamoto or Oita by bus and train, the region awards the visitors a rare chance to get close to an active volcano with a relatively easy hike (you can also take the bus all the way up).

The scenery at Aso is dramatically different from the nearby Kuju. In Aso, the rough terrain and the constant smell of sulfur always remind you that you are in the vicinity of an active volcano. For an overnight trip, the nearby Aso town, directly connected to Kumamoto Airport, makes a good base with a small range of accommodation and eateries.

Mount Aso is one of the more frequently erupting volcanoes in Japan. It is therefore advisable to check the latest safety warnings and the trail closures on the official website.

Have you yet explored any of the mountains in Kyushu? Which ones are your favorites? Let us know in the comments!

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