My journey through Kyushu begins in Osaka using the Sunflower overnight ferry. A bed in the tourist room costs only ¥8,000 which is unbelievable compared to how much that journey would cost via shinkansen.
The tourist room sleeps ten travelers on futons, with only a curtain to provide privacy. The next day after gorging myself on croissants and sausages at the ¥600 breakfast buffet I hopped off the ferry to start my day at my first location, Beppu.
The Hells of Beppu
The first thing I did once arriving in Beppu, was walk to rent a car ten minutes away from the quay. My first port of call was The Hells (jigoku) of Beppu. Seven scalding natural hot springs. While I enjoyed the atmosphere of the beautiful blue ‘sea hell’ with its billowing fonts of steam, some of the ‘Hell’s’ felt like tourist traps.
The next day, I went to the Aso Visitor Center, where I stopped to do some hiking before going to the volcanic crater at Nakadake. The hike which was supposed to be half an hour soon became an hour and a half due to the extremely icy path during winter. Despite my defeat at the hands of the hill, I couldn’t begrudge the views that even my short clamber produced.
After kicking the mud off my boots, I got in my car and made my way to the crater. Nakadake is the active volcanic peak of Mount Aso and is a constant font of ash and volcanic gas. The area around the peak is cordoned off so that authorities can control and measure who enters and what areas of the peak they can access.
When I walked to the edge, the light was blue. Smoke billowed out from a dozen entrances, obscuring the magma far below and the stench of sulfur was thick. The light turned yellow. The wind picked up. Volcanic gas is lethal when ingested in high quantities, even at yellow a single breath sent me into a coughing fit and running for the concrete shelters, along with most other visitors. Not wanting to chance red, I decided I’d seen enough of the volcano.
Crossing the Ariake Sea from Kumamoto
The following day, I raced to Kumamoto Castle, one of Japan’s three most famous castles and renowned for a siege during the Satsuma rebellion.
Much to my dismay, a significant portion of the castle was under renovation. Even more disappointing was that once inside the structure, all the historical displays were only available in Japanese. I resolved to leave Kumamoto promptly aboard the Kyusho Ferry.
The Kyusho ferry runs from the port of Kumamoto to Shimabara in Nagasaki prefecture, across a gulf known as the Ariake sea. I didn’t stay in Shimabara after unloading from the boat, the town is famous as the site of a Christian rebellion during the Edo period, however, for a real sense of the gruesome history of this event, I headed once more up the slopes of a volcano, to Unzen onsen.
Into the Fires of Unzen onsen
The water boils out from the ground in hundreds of swamps and mires dotting the landscape. I was encouraged to hike around the town, visiting each hot, volcanic water font. I reminded myself, in between gasps of wonderment at each fresh release of steam, that it was here the Catholics of Shimabara were brought when they refused to renounce their faith.
Were it not for the simple memorial sitting at the hilltop, the town might have been mistaken for any other onsen town and not as a place of human suffering.
Finally, I set off for one of the last legs of my journey to Dejima in Nagasaki. What is now a small area lost among a concrete jungle and bordered by small canals on two sides used to be the only foreign settlement allowed in Japan for hundreds of years and an island in Nagasaki Bay.
Despite the small area, I was soon lost in the fantastic history of the place. The reconstructions and English description of life there cemented it as a paradise and refuge to the historian inside me.
Nagasaki National Peace Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims
The next destination on my list was far more solemn. Due to the greater strength of the bomb that struck Nagasaki, far fewer buildings remained standing leaving the memorial parks without a symbol that could match the power of Hiroshima’s dome, however, some parts of Urakami Cathedral remain.
I visited an accompanying museum and was brought face to face with images of the inconceivable human suffering that occurred in the wake of the bomb. What struck me most about this museum was the language differences between Hiroshima’s museum and Nagasaki’s. Hiroshima makes little mention of the war. Nagasaki’s museum stands out in Japan, recognizing the awful conditions of Korean forced laborers and crimes committed against prisoners of war in Nagasaki.
The Nagasaki A-Bomb museum, I thought to its credit, painted the bombing as a complex issue, however, the overall message is clear.
There and Back Again
I left Nagasaki behind me in a highway bus, headed to Fukuoka and then home to Kobe.
Kyushu is regrettably overlooked by the broad majority of travelers outside of Fukuoka. The island is filled with such character and beauty that not visiting the backcountry almost seems like a waste.
Have you been to Kyushu? Which areas did you go to? Let us know in the comments!