Adventure through the heartland in Japan’s Kyushu

By Helen Hayes February 27, 2024
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The best path to adventure is one that is experienced slowly, on two feet or two wheels, and immerses you into the heart of the culture and cuisine of the destination. Welcome to Kyushu.

This article is brought to you by Visit Kyushu.

Experiencing Kyushu for the first time is like unwrapping the best of presents. An unexpected surprise that warms the heart and soul. It is achingly beautiful, with aquamarine water, verdant islands, steaming hot springs, historical significance, soaring mountains, and everywhere, the warmth of the local people and the richness of the culture is all-encompassing.

Kyushu is an island located in the southwestern part of the Japanese archipelago and is a fertile destination; its rich volcanic soil ensures enticing food, and equally enticing scenery. While there are many spectacular prefectures on Kyushu, two stand out for the adventures you can experience there, Kunisaki, and Hirado. Let the team from Visit Kyushu inspire you to walk or cycle in the footsteps of the Samurai.

Discovering Kunisaki on two feet

The Kunisaki Peninsula is a place where you can come face-to-face with Japan’s national spiritual culture, with a thousand years of heritage and history – much of which remains unchanged today.

A wonderful way to immerse yourself in this history and culture is to undertake a four-night, five-day adventure along the Kunisaki Peninsula Ridge Long Trail, a path taken centuries ago by Shugendo Buddhist monks. Each step you take, when walking or cycling, will teach you about the monks back in ancient times, while you interact with the people who live on this land today.

Nada Midori-s. Image credit: Visit Kyushu

The itinerary

With a medium degree of difficulty, this tour is for groups of four -to -eight people and includes all meals along the way. Fly into Oita Airport, and meet your guide at Nada Midori-so, located by the sea on the Nada coast. The rhythmic sound of the waves as everyone is welcomed will set the scene for the harmonious nature of the journey.

From here, a private transfer will take you to Kitsuki, a town set around a castle that still looks much the same as it did during the Age of the Samurai. There are samurai residences on the hills to the north and south, with the historic merchant town sandwiched between them. Explore the town and visit the Tomaya tea shop to learn about tea etiquette and the tea ceremony. Tomaya should know, as it has been in business for almost three centuries.

Hop on your e-bike to start your cycling adventure over the mountain to Tashibu-no-Sho, with its truly beautiful landscape of rice terraces and villages that remain unchanged after many centuries. Meet some of the locals over a traditional lunch, then ride on through less hilly country towards Maki Odo and its Buddhist statues before pedalling on to Fukiji Temple, with its main hall a national treasure of Japan. It is a very spiritual place, and will help ease the tiredness of the 38km ride over the day.

Visitors cycling from Kitsuki to Tashibu-no-Sho. Image credit: Visit Kyushu

Wake at your ryokan and be blessed with ‘zazen’, a morning Zen meditation in the sanctuary that is Fukiji Temple. Mind clear, and breakfast done and dusted, you will be transferred by private car to Saihoji no Sato – the starting point of what will be a 9km hike over the day. With every step, you will feel the history of all that has gone before, as this path was used by Shugendo practitioners. Stop and take in the incredible views at the top of the pass, then venture to Ofudo Iwaya. This cave is called an Iwaya, and people worshipped it as a place where Buddha resided. Ofudo Iwaya is one of the largest, and the panorama is achingly beautiful.

Climbing the rocky incline from Saihoji no Sato to Ofudo Iwaya. Image credit: Visit Kyushu

After refuelling with lunch in this special place, descend down the mountain and stop off at Senso-ji Temple to make a wish on a ‘goma’ (piece of wood), then climb up the hill to Itsutsuji Fudo, the highest point of Kyu-Sento-ji, the remains of the former temple, which was one of the greatest in Kunisaki. Atop this steep rock, the goma on which you wrote your wish will be burned, and worshippers will pray that your wish will come true. Hike down the mountain then transfer by private vehicle to Imi Port, for the 20-minute boat trip to the island of Himeshima.

Painting a traditional mask in Himeshima; Standup paddling boarding in Beppu Bay. Image credits: Visit Kyushu

Known for its Fox Dance, you’ll learn to make a traditional mask and ‘Imokiri’, a local samurai cuisine. With that samurai energy you’ll be ready to walk up Mount Yahazu, a volcano that was active about 90,000 years ago, and look over the Kunisaki Peninsula, before heading back on the ferry and private car to Beppu Onsen, where you can experience the hot spring culture.

On your final day, stroll through the steamy hot springs of Myoban Onsen, then go for a stand up paddle to a secret cave in Beppu Bay. End your trip with a visit to the ruins of Hiji Castle.

Find out more about this itinerary to Kunisaki visit the new adventure page on the Visit Kyushu website.

Heavenly Hirado

The island of Hirado is in the western part of Kyushu, connected to the Kyushu mainland by a large suspension bridge. Hirado became the gateway to Japan in the 16th century, when Portuguese ships arrived during the global Age of Discovery. This was the very place where the samurai first met the West. It was from here, that Western culture flowed into the rest of Japan and began to influence Japanese culture.

The island is mountainous with hilly terrain extending to the coast. The people here learned to grow crops on the limited land they had, and thanks to the warm currents that flow along the coast, fish are in great supply.

Cycling around Ikitsuki Island. Image credit: Visit Kyushu

The itinerary

This three-night, four-day journey, for a group of between two and four people, will see you based in the city of Hirado, a mysterious city with the typically Japanese-style Hirado Castle at its heart.

Day one will see you catch the ferry to Hirado, then take a bicycle tour of around 5.2km around the city, starting with Hirado Castle, which has incredible views over the city, mountains and the sea from the top floor.

Afterwards, visit the Matsuura Historical Museum to see the incredible collection of the Matsuura clan, who ruled Hirado. Marvel at the authentic samurai armour, and learn about the role Hirado played historically, as the place where Christianity was introduced. In the city, you can see ancient Japanese Buddhist temples, but you can also see a Catholic church standing next to them. 

Visiting Matsuura Historical Museum in Hirado. Image credit: Visit Kyushu

Day two will see you climbing the World Heritage-listed Mount Yasumandake. Ride the bike to the trailhead, stopping to take in the vistas at the Kawachi Pass on the way and purchase from hot spring water from a vending machine. It is an unusual place.

Mt. Yasumandake tells a wonderful story. It has become a spiritual stronghold for local residents, who created stone steps up the mountain so they could pay homage at the shrine at the top. There is also a history of visits to the shrine by hidden Christians. From the top, enjoy the views over the East China Sea.

Mount Yasumandake. Image credit: Visit Kyushu

Trek down towards Kasuga Village, a World Heritage Site. Kasuga Village has one of the few flat areas of the region with its terraced rice paddies a beautiful sight.  Return to the village in a private car, resting your legs after the 8km cycle and 5.3km trek.

Head out on the water on day three, on board a fishing boat. A fixed net is set in the bountiful sea and you will experience pulling up the fish with the net. Even better, you get to eat the fish you caught for breakfast. Back on dry land, learn how to make local specialty, ‘oshizushi’ (pressed sushi) before heading off on your bike for a 30km ride around the neighbouring island of Ikitsuki. The first half of the ride will be on the Sunset Road which has cliffs on the right and the sea on the left en route to your lunch stop – Obae Lighthouse at the northern tip of the island.

Cycle back along the eastern side of the island stopping along the way to learn more about the local people’s way of life on this. Dinner will be at a local ‘izakaya’ loved by the locals.

On the last day, learn to make ‘casdoce’, a sweet form of castella cake that was introduced to the locals when the Portuguese ships came here in the 16th century.  A very sweet way to end a wonderful exploration of this fascinating island.

Catching fish in Hirado; casdoce cake. Image credits: Visit Kyushu

For more information on this Hirado itinerary, visit the new adventure page on the Visit Kyushu website.

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This article is brought to you by Visit Kyushu.