Before the world shut down, my partner and I managed to squeeze in a vacation to Japan. The trip had two purposes: 1) to visit family in Tokyo, and; 2) to spend roughly a week traveling Kyushu. Neither of us had visited Japan’s southern-most main island before, so we pieced together a road trip. Kyushu is also the ancestral home of my partner’s clan, the Kikuchi Clan, so we thought it would be interesting to pay the city a visit.
After spending a few days recovering from jet lag in Tokyo, we took off.
1日目： 福岡 ・ Day 1: Fukuoka
We kicked off our trip in one of Japan’s largest cities: Fukuoka. Situated on the northern coast of Kyushu, Fukuoka is an ancient port city-turned-foodie destination. While most shipping activity has shifted from Fukuoka to neighboring Kitakyushu, the city’s connection with the ocean can be seen through its numerous canals.
Since we had only allotted one full day in Fukuoka, we had a lot of ground — and meals — to cover.
For lunch, we sought after one of Fukuoka’s most famous dishes: Hakata-style ramen. This style of ramen has spread around the globe, but Fukuoka is still both its birthplace and epicenter.
On the plane ride from Tokyo, we had read about an up-and-coming ramen shop in the city center and realized that it was within walking distance from our hotel. Their ramen was excellent. The broth was thick and savory, and the pork was perfectly tender. It was definitely the best ramen I had ever had!
I was going to provide a link to the ramen shop, but I was dismayed to discover that it permanently closed due to the global pandemic. Regardless, if you visit Fukuoka once travel is allowed again, I highly recommend trying its famous ramen.
After lunch, we visited the city’s old castle (now a municipal park) for a walk and to digest our food. We had hoped to view the cherry blossoms, but it was still a bit too early in the year for them to bloom. It was still worth a visit! The guard tower provided a really nice view of the city’s skyline.
Before our evening meals (yes, multiple meals), we also visited the famous Kushida Shrine. Over 1,200 years old, the Shinto shrine was dedicated to the gods Amaterasu and Susanoo-no-Mikoto. The shrine grounds were rather large for being in the center of the city. If you visit Fukuoka, definitely check it out!
The first dinner we had was at an oden izakaya called Yasube. The restaurant is family-owned and has been in operation since the early 1900s (the owner’s father started the business in pre-World War II Dalian). Oden is a Japanese dish where you stew several ingredients in a flavorful broth, usually made with dashi. The broth has been in continuous use since 1961!
In hindsight, we should have dedicated more time to Fukuoka, as we felt a bit rushed trying to see the city. But, our road trip itinerary was very full (and exciting!), so we needed to leave early the following morning.
２日目：福岡から黒川温泉まで ・ Day 2: Fukuoka to Kurokawa Onsen
It was on our second day that the actual road trip began. Our first destination was an onsen village in the middle of Kyushu, with a few stops for ceramics shopping along the way. After an early breakfast and a bit of window shopping, we went to a car rental shop close to the city’s main train station and picked up our car.
As an American who has only lived in countries where you drive on the right side of the road, I was perpetually disoriented when in a car. Thankfully, my partner begrudgingly drove for the duration of the road trip and put up with me repeatedly entering the wrong side of the vehicle and freaking out over pulling into the left lane.
We made it to Fukuoka’s suburbs before hunger set in for the both of us. Nearby was a highly-rated udon and oyakodon (親子丼) restaurant, so we pulled over for a bite to eat. I was fascinated by the ordering system at this restaurant — instead of ordering through a waiter or at a counter, you placed your order and paid through a vending machine that would send your ticket to the kitchen. My partner assured me that this was quite common in Japan.
Once we left Fukuoka’s suburbs and entered the mountains, I was seeing a part of Japan that I had never seen before.
We followed winding mountain roads into lush agricultural valleys, passing dozens of little villages. I loved this part of the drive. As a city-dweller, it was so cool to get a glimpse of life in rural Japan. It was certainly a night-and-day difference from bustling Tokyo.
We made our first stop at Koishiwara (小石原), a very old pottery village nestled in a cove in the mountains. My partner has what I’d call a “mild obsession” with ceramics, and since Kyushu is home to several famous styles of ceramics, we planned a route that would take us through at least two of them.
Back in Fukuoka, a ceramics artist we met had mentioned a shop in Koishiwara (鬼丸雪山窯元) run by a friendly master potter. So, we arrived there a bit past noon, expecting to stay only for half an hour or so. That turned into three hours.
The master potter and his family were very kind, offering us food right when we walked through the door. His mother showed us around their show floor before the master himself gave us a tour of his studio and kiln. We learned that he had taught pottery around the world, including a lecture at Oxford.
After saying goodbyes at their shop (and with a box full of ceramics), we continued down the road to another famous spot, Onta pottery village. For being such a renowned locale, it was difficult to reach Onta. We drove through small, winding rural roads, occasionally having to pull over to allow other cars to pass us. Eventually, we topped out over a pass and came upon the village. It was picturesque: a one-lane village that followed a cascading mountain stream. The pottery shops mostly used the force of the running water to pulverize their local clay.
Onta-style pottery is unique for its distinct patterns called tobikanna (飛び鉋), or “flying chisel.” The technique involves letting a springy chisel bounce across the surface of earthenware on a potter’s wheel, creating small grooves that encircle the outer surface.
Since we spent a longer amount of time at Koishiwara than expected and needed to be at the onsen hotel before dinner, we hurried through Onta — although it definitely left an impression.
A few minutes south of Onta, we happened upon a cute bakery called Mother Bakery. The owner was very nice and gave us a few samples before showing us her traditional Japanese doll collection for Hinamatsuri (ひな祭り), or “Girls Festival.”
Kurokawa Onsen was about an hour away from Onta, so we drove straight there, passing cliffside towns and lakes along the way. And what better way than to end a long day of driving by soaking in a hot spring.
The hot springs hotel where we spent the next two nights was called Okyakuya Ryokan (御客屋旅館). And I have to say: it was the best hotel experience I’ve ever had. The ryokan had been in continuous operation since the 1600s when it was commissioned by the local daimyo (feudal samurai lord) as a respite for his annual journey to Edo. Okyakuya boasted a variety of private, gender-segregated hot springs that rotate once a day for guests to enjoy. You’ll have to take me for my word that the hot springs were immaculate, as photography was not allowed (guests are expected to enjoy the hot springs nude). The hotel also provided breakfast and dinner for its guests, both of which were exceptional.
It would be an understatement to say the employees were extremely courteous. They were so attentive that right after we went downstairs for our first dinner, they left me a new pair of larger robes and slippers. I hadn’t asked for these to be delivered — they just noticed that I was a bit tall for the set they had left for me.
We soaked in the hot springs until they closed and spent our first night relaxing in our heated tatami beds. The experience certainly felt comfortable enough for a daimyo.
３日目：阿蘇山と黒川温泉 ・ Day 3: Mt. Aso and Kurokawa Onsen
We had originally planned to spend the third day soaking in the hot springs and the fourth day hiking Mt. Aso, a nearby ancient volcano; however, the following day’s forecast was pretty rainy. We decided switching our itinerary around was a good idea.
The drive to the base of Mt. Aso was not too long, but the climb to the summit took an hour by car. To say Mt. Aso has a single summit is also a bit misleading — there are a number of peaks around the volcano’s caldera. The subterranean magma chamber was so large in fact that it created the hot springs we enjoyed miles away. The land alongside the road was charred, giving the area a surreal, extraterrestrial impression; although, we later learned that the locals burn the fields every spring to keep the pastures open for cattle.
When we reached the summit, we were told that we could not hike to the main caldera due to its activity (yikes), but that the hike to the older, taller caldera was open. In typical tourist fashion, we decided to tackle this hike without considering the effects of ascending five thousand feet in less than an hour.
After an hour of frequent breaks to gasp for air, we reached the top. I have to say it was worth the sweat. While on the trail, my partner also foraged wild fukinotō (フキノトウ), or the bud of the butterbur plant. The bitter-tasting bud is an early spring specialty and mixes well with miso. As an aside, when we returned to the ryokan, the staff gave us homemade miso and rice to mix with the buds.
We finished our hike in the early afternoon with more time to kill, so we stopped at a strawberry farm on the way back to our hot springs hotel. Even with that excursion, it left us with several more hours of daylight to explore Kurokawa. The little hot springs village was certainly geared towards tourism but was nonetheless charming. Off the main pedestrian street, there were terraced farms that traced alongside the village’s spring, and there was also a pre-war shrine that boasted original late 19th/early 20th-century artwork.
Our stay at Kurokawa Onsen was one of my favorite parts of the trip — or perhaps any trip I’ve had. I couldn’t recommend this ryokan enough. We were certainly sad to leave.
４日目：阿蘇市 ・ Day 4: Aso City
Waking up to the sound of rain, we decided to relax in the hot springs for a few hours. It was a pleasant way to spend our last morning at the ryokan. Relaxed and ready to go, we were on the move again.
The weather hampered our outdoor activities for the fourth day, but we enjoyed exploring the Aso area and sampling local foods. Perhaps the most interesting dish we tried was takanameshi (高菜めし), a local staple difficult to find outside of Kyushu. The bitter, pickle flavor was offputting at first, but I grew to like it.
The town of Aso sadly felt a bit economically depressed. The main shrine, while one of the most famous shrines in Japan, was devastated by an earthquake that rocked the region in 2016. We noticed reconstruction work when we visited, but were unable to see much of the shrine grounds. It had apparently affected the town’s tourist industry.
That being said, we found the town quite charming. We spent an hour or so at a cafe in the town’s center. There was also a pretty forested walk a few minutes from our hotel that overlooked a steep cliff and waterfall (the latter of which had dried up).
The rest of the evening was slow-paced, which proved to be fortuitous. The following day was quite eventful.
５日目：菊池渓谷と熊本市 ・ Day 5: Kikuchi Gorge and Kumamoto City
The final leg of our road trip was from Mt. Aso to Kumamoto City. We had planned to visit Kumamoto for two reasons: 1) to see the famous Kumamoto castle, and; 2) to visit the shrine of my partner’s clan.
We had a tasty breakfast at our hotel in Mt. Aso before we packed into the car and headed out for our last day of driving.
Due to the altitude and the weather, we ended up driving through the clouds for a time. The conditions were dangerous, but also surreal for two Southern Californians used to year-round sun. After an hour or so, we descended into Kikuchi Gorge, our first stop of the day.
The original plan for Kikuchi Gorge was to hike. It was still pouring rain when we arrived, but we decided to follow through with our plans regardless — and I’m so happy that we did. The hike was breathtakingly gorgeous. It felt like something from a fairy tale: moss hanging from lush trees, cascading springs galore, a series of ever-prettier waterfalls. Kikuchi Gorge was by far one of the most magical places I’ve ever visited. Pictures do not do it justice.
By the time we returned to the car, we were soaked. My shoes were so wet that they could have been alternatively used as a fishbowl. After a change of clothes, we headed to the ancestral home of my partner’s clan.
The city of Kikuchi was halfway between the gorge and our final destination of Kumamoto. We made a stop there to visit the Kikuchi Shrine, which was dedicated to the deified ancestors of the Kikuchi Clan. Since the weather was bad, we had the whole place to ourselves. The cherry trees were in full-bloom that day, so the shrine grounds were exceptionally beautiful.
We reached our final stop by midday — the historic city of Kumamoto. Luckily for us, the weather cleared just enough for us to take a few great shots of the city at a scenic overlook, which happened to also house a Buddhist peace pagoda.
We turned in our car (much to my partner’s relief) and began to explore the city. Our main stop was the famous Kumamoto Castle. Originally built in the late 1400s, the castle was occupied by a host of clans until it was partially-destroyed in 1877 during the Satsuma Rebellion. The Japanese government restored the castle in the 20th century, and it subsequently was considered one of the premier castles in Japan until the disastrous 2016 earthquake. Much of the castle was still closed to the public when we visited in March 2020, but significant repairs were happening to the main keep.
We also checked out the Kumamoto Prefectural Museum of Art and rode on the city’s historic light-rail system. A few of the trams were classics, having been introduced to the system in 1960.
For dinner that night, we visited an izakaya called Sake-to-Meshi Riki (酒とめしRIKI). The owner was an alumnus from my partner’s undergraduate university and treated us very well. Their variety of sake was excellent.
I would be remiss if I failed to mention the Kumamoto local specialty: basashi (馬刺し), or delicately-sliced raw horse meat. It was not my favorite dish for psychological reasons; however, the taste wasn’t bad.
６日目：熊本 ・ Day 6: Leaving Kumamoto
On the sixth morning, we returned to Honshu via shinkansen, or the Japanese bullet train. I felt sad to leave the island after spending only a week exploring its mountains and valleys. Kyushu was a bit off the beaten path for tourists (I certainly stood out like a sore thumb), but it was a lovely place to visit. The people we met were warm and easygoing. I appreciated the genuine kindness from the strangers we met — from the potters in Koishiwara to the baker at Mother Bakery to the owner at Sake-to-Meshi Riki.
Our trip didn’t end with leaving Kumamoto — we continued on to visit Osaka and Kyoto. However, that story is for another time.