Kansai Scene Magazine


A yen for Kyushu

Budget travel in Japan? Impossible, you say? Think again. With a little planning and spending care, it's entirely possible. I recently spent 15 days in Kyushu for about ¥8,500 a day. That's a bargain for a trip across this southern island of active volcanoes, onsen, rolling mountains, and affable people.

My biggest expenses were lodgings and transportation. I stayed at youth hostels averaging ¥2,800 a night. Low-end ryokan and minshuku cost about ¥3,500. For transportation, I used the seishun-ju-hachi-kippu, which, for ¥11,500, buys five days of unlimited travel on Japan Rail's (JR) local trains. Early to rise and early to bed curbed nightlife expenditures. When possible, I cooked at the hostels.

I first visited Miyazaki, arriving by ferry from Osaka, home for the last 14 years. But the city offers little so I headed to nearby Aoshima, a tiny island with a shrine (free) whose deity is the god of relationships. Diminutive the island may be, I passed two hours fascinated by its wild fauna and exposed plate-like rock called the Devil's Washboard.

I next headed to Kagoshima. From the train, I saw stepped rice paddies and farmhouses, gurgling rivers and the origami folds of verdant mountains. It was unlike the Japan I knew and it delighted me. I thought I might need my umbrella in Kagoshima. Dustfall from Sakurajima volcano across the bay is as frequent as rainfall. But the mountain behaved itself and clear skies prevailed.

I checked into Nakazono Ryokan then hopped on an old-fashioned tram just for the fun of it. I alighted at Naples Street then meandered along the shady banks of the Kotsuki River. By the time I reached Takamibashi Bridge I had seen a lot of statues commemorating bygone heroes. Lord Shimazu, who helped found the modernizing Meiji Restoration (1868-1912), is one of the most important. His family welcomed foreign contact when the country was essentially closed.

Today, Kagoshima's citizens enjoy both foreign and domestic influences. The Kagoshima City Art Museum was featuring paint- ings and sculptures by local teens. Across town at the Teoribata no Satou silk kimono factory, I was introduced to weavers who explained the forty-step process. No wonder it takes a year to make one garment.

Kagoshima's din is tempered by its bayside setting, ample parks, a mesmerizing aquarium, even the fickle peak of Sakurajima. I took a threehour round-the-mountain bus tour through lava fields and villages. No one seemed concerned about the hill's constant grumblings.

If Kagoshima was historically open,Naga- saki was positively foreign. The city was an international commercial hub long before the atomic bomb incinerated and leveled it. However, the Shogunate expelled foreigners in 1637, except for the business -minded Chinese and Dutch.

The Dutch were so liked, in fact, that a year earlier the Shogunate ordered the construction of a private island to house them. Until 1855, the fan-shaped Dejima was the only place in Japan where Western contact was permitted. The island disappeared in a 1904 land reclamation project, but its faithfully reconstructed buildings are marvelous.

After Japan reopened, Western pioneers moved in. They made fortunes in everything from breweries to importing arms and built themselves big houses. Glover Gardens features Japan's oldest examples of Western architecture. Six homes reloca- ted from their settlement adorn the grounds. The hillside neighborhood affords splendid harbor views.

In the morning, I visited Peace Park and the Atomic Bomb Museum, located in the northern neighborhood of Urakami. The bomb detonated here at 11:02am on Aug 9, 1945, killing 75,000 of the city's 240,000 souls. It flattened virtually every- thing within a two-kilometer radius. Inside, exhibitions and testimonials are graphic and emotional.

Outside, Ground Zero and the park are graced by sculptures from other nations. Strings of colorful paper cranes, a Japanese symbol of hope, are seen everywhere. As the train chugged by Ariake Sea en route to Kumamoto, fishermen appeared silhou- etted midst oyster and seaweed farms in the morning light. Down the line, hot-air balloons drifted like candy raindrops.

Most of Kumamoto's tourist attractions, including its 400-year-old castle, were closed for year-end holidays. I visited Honmyo-ji Temple, three kilometers from town. The mausoleum of Kato Kiyomasa, architect of the castle, is here. Visitors are more intrigued by hundreds of ishidoro stone lanterns that line the slope to the temple. In town, I walked round the formidable nine-meter high walls of the castle. I picnicked on the grass next to the purling Tsuoboi River, which forms a natural moat. The city's centerpiece was home to a feudal lord. Though they were destroyed by fire in 1877, modern reconstructions leave little to the imagination.

Across town, Suizenji-Jojuen Gardens further exemplify Kumamoto's glory days. Built 300 years ago by Lord Tadatoshi Hosokawa, this formerly private garden depicts the 53 stations along the bygone Tokaido Road (Tokyo-Kyoto), including a miniature Mount Fuji and islands in the spring-fed lake.

Aso National Park was a short jaunt away. It's the pinnacle of Kyushu's pockmarked volcanic face. It encompasses an 80-kilometer- wide crater, which formed about 100,000 years ago. Today, the valley is a tapestry of farmland and villages. At the center rise five peaks, of which Mt. Nakadake is active. Eruptions are so unpredictable that emergency shelters have been built on the rim.

The hilltop was caked in snow and shrouded in clouds and looked nothing like the green meadows I saw in the Aso Trekking Route Map. I hitched a ride from Aso Town to Kusasenri and walked round the frozen plain that means ‘a thousand miles of grass'.

The weather created a mystical atmosphere. I couldn't imagine the cattle that graze here in summer. Instead, my imagi- nation was captivated at the Aso Volcanic Museum, adjacent to the field, to where I retreated for warmth. The volcano comes alive here in words and photos.

From Aso's heavenly heights I descended into Beppu's jigoku, or hells, natural vents bubbling with 98C water. The city seemed non-descript until I noticed plumes of steam rising from pipes, manhole covers, and backyards all over town, though nowhere more so than the Kannawa area, where most jigoku are located.

The Umi Jigoku (Sea Hell), named for its blue water, is set in a tropical botanic garden. A basket of eggs was boiling in the hell and giant Victoria Amazonica water lilies were floating on the adjacent pond. At Shiraike Jigoku (White Pond Hell), named for its milky-white water, there was also an aquarium with various species of "maneating" piranha.

After twice being to hell and back, it was time for some bathing. I wanted to cook myself into pink, supple wrinkles. And, if the Beppu Hot Spring Area Guide were to be believed, all my bodily ailments would be cured. I spent most of my time naked in Beppu. I was boiled in Ekimae Koto's fiery bath, battered in Takegawara's sand bath, and chilled in Hamawaki Koto's cold bath, and I was basted in Hoyoland's outdoor mud bath.

I left Beppu for home slightly overdone. My wobbly legs just managed to get me to the ferry. The vessel lulled me to sleep and Kyushu felt like a dream.

Text & photos: Jono David

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Ways & means

Getting there: Miyazaki Express ferry from Osaka Nanko Ferry Terminal. Bookings at Tel: 06-6616-4661 • www.jtb.co.jp/eng

Getting around: JR: Seishun-ju-hachi-kippu - five days of unlimited travel mainly on local trains. Sold at all JR stations.

Where to stay: Japanese youth hostels: www.jyh.or.jp/english/

Website: Japan National Tourist Office: www.jnto.go.jp