japanroad

From Oita prefecture to Kumamoto prefecture

One of the most beautiful journeys through Japan’s countryside is the trip between Oita prefecture and Kumamoto prefecture on Kyushu.

Kyushu has four very distinct seasons, much like most of Japan, but the trip through Kumamoto is arguably at its most beautiful in the summer months as opposed to the winter season, as we discovered on our tricky journeys through Kyushu. The winter can be bitterly cold and with much snow, so be well prepared – and that means if you are to drive through the prefectures, bring chains for your tires and/or request from the hire company that your car will come equipped with them.

The first stop of our trip took us through the south of Kyushu, traveling from Kagoshima into Miyazaki, up north into Oita and visiting Beppu and the other famous onsen of Yufuin.

Another excellent trip that we strongly recommend is our trip from Oita, through the centre of Kyushu into Kumamoto. This takes you a excellent tour through Daikanbo, a giant caldera that sits just outside of Kumamoto city; and through some of the most beautiful Japanese towns in the country, including Kurokawa Onsen, famous for its hot springs as well. Kyushu is famous for its baths, so a trip to any prefecture here should also have visit to onsen on your itinerary.

Starting off from Beppu, one recommended trip on the itinerary is a stop off at Yunohira Hot Spring resort. Yunohira sits on a mountain and amongst its stone pavements includes much history and onsen baths to be enjoyed. One recommended stop is the Nurukawa-onsen ryokan, which contains just 8 rooms but does have excellent onsen water which is said to be famous for healing damaged skin. This famous villeage has several hot springs which can be enjoyed for 200 yen.

From there, a trip to Kokonoe Yume Otsurihashi is well worth a visit.

Yume Footbridge
Yume Footbridge

Yume, which means dream in Japanese, is a stunning footbridge right in the middle of Kyushu. One of the longest foot bridges in the world, your view here will depend much on the weather at the time, so prepare the time of your visit well. In the early morning you are likely to see more.  This suspension bridge is 777 metres long and costs 500 yen for a visit, but you will really enjoy the view of the forest underneath as you head over. Whilst here, make sure you eat the Kokonoe Yume burger, famous to the locals. (Telephone: 0973-73-3800; Address: 879-4911)

As you move swiftly on, consider a visit to the Kongoho-ji temple, a truly magnificent place to stop off on the way into our next stop, one of our favourite places in the whole of Japan.

40 minutes away, the stunning Kurokawa Onsen (Telephone: 0967-44-0036), sits centrally in Kyushu and is a magnificent village full of small shops, restaurants, classy onsens and small roads. A truly magicial tourist show piece of Japan, it is worthwhile to visit here for at least two hours to enjoy everything on offer.

Kurokawa Onsen
Kurokawa Onsen

There are two onsens that we highly recommend here, the first is the famous Yamamizuki, located on one of the small roads just outside the village (be careful here, roads are small); and secondly Hozantei. This is again quite far away from the centre, nearly 3km to be exact, but the water is smooth and the surroundings are magical.

A 40 minute drive will then take you far and high into the mountains (be really careful, you can easily get caught out if your GPRS isn’t up to date and end up driving through the middle of nowhere) and eventually reaching Daikanbo. Our view was heavily restricted due to the snow, but what awaits you at the top of the mountain at Daikanbo Lookout (869-2313, Kumamoto) is one of the stunning views in all of Japan.

It can get cold here...
It can get cold here…

From Aso-san, make sure you have a chance to visit the stunning shrine. This is well worth an hour and is a great example of a beautiful temple.

Aso Shrine
Aso Shrine

A trip of approximately 30 minutes will take you to Komezuka (869-2313, Kumamoto) a 954 volcanic hill in the middle of the caldera. Again, during the summer months, this is best viewed.

From Komezuka, it’s time to head into Kumamoto city, on the west side of Kumamoto-ken. Whilst heading in, stop off at Suizenji Koen. This takes an hour from Komezuka, so leave enough time.  In Japan it is important to at least visit one garden, such is the extravagence and delight of these parks. Suizenji is a great example of a very well kept garden and lies just a short walk away from Shin-Suizenji station.

A five minute drive will then take you to the famous Kumamoto Castle, from where you will be able to see one of the most beautiful Japanese castles.

Kumamoto Castle
Kumamoto Castle

Be sure to look out for Kumamon, he is a hero in Japan…

Kumamon
Kumamon

We then went on to drive into Nagasaki, so please viewour next blog post for more information about that; but we were so happy with our stay in these two prefectures we recommend a visit to everybody at some point.

Takachiho

Takachiho to Oita, Beppu Hot Springs

Kyushu,  as mentioned in our previous article, is one of the most beautiful prefectures in Japan. With hundreds of miles of rolling hills and glorious green countryside; having a visit to this prefecture on your Japan visit itinerary is very worthwhile.

Japan has some of the most safe and modern roads in the world. The roads in Kyushu are amongst some of the most fun to drive. One such journey to take is a trip from Takachiho, in the Miyazaki prefecture, to the North East of Kyushu; Oita-ken. The Oita prefecture is famous for its onsens. Japan is a very seismically active country and Kyushu is particularly volcanic, this therefore makes for some of the most glorious hot springs in the country.

In Takachiho, one of the spots well worth visiting is the Takachiho Shrine. There are not many hotels in the local area, but from the central town to the shrine takes only five minutes and the roads in the area are quiet and fun to navigate.  A short walk will also take you to the Takachiho Gorge, which is amongst the most beautiful spots to visit in the entire country. Not often visited by tourists because of the location, with a car this is achievable. The Gorge has an area where you will be able to hire a boat and sail alongside the river and has some of the most excellent photo opportunities.

Takachiho Gorge
Takachiho Gorge

From there, a trip to Amano Iwato Shrine (882-1621; telephone: 0982-74-8239) takes approximately 15 minutes.

Amano Iwato Shrine
Amano Iwato Shrine

From Takachiho, you can visit Oita in approximately three hours. The roads – despite not being highways – are a joy to drive. Once you drive into Oita, the first port of call would be visiting The Hells (874-000); a selection of hot springs in different shapes, colours and varieties. Beppu itself is a city, so expect the roads to be busy and be on the look out for road signs, if you get lost and off the main streets in the city centre, expect a tricky trip to where you need to be.

Hells Jigoku Beppu
Hells Jigoku Beppu

One trip worth taking is just outside of Beppu, in another hot spring resort called Yufuin. Yufuin is less touristy, so the hotels are a little cheaper and better quality. A trip from Beppu to Yufuin only takes 10 minutes. With a car this is highly recommended.

At Yufuin, enjoy driving up and down the main street in the town. This is a traditional Japanese village and the shops and architecture are designed in a style of that era.  Finally, take a quick stop off at Kinrinko. The lake is famous for its morning mist, but this can only be seen prior to 11am.

Morning Mist at Kinrinko
Morning Mist at Kinrinko
Sakurajima

A tour around Kagoshima and Miyazaki

Kyushu is arguably one of Japan’s most underrated prefectures. Full of culture, history, tradition, good food and excellent roads; a trip around this beautiful part of the country is best spent at the wheel of a vehicle.

There are many flights from all over Japan into Kagoshima Airport, including a nice early 06:35 flight from Tokyo Haneda into Kagoshima. The flight takes approximately 2 hours and there is a very conveniently placed car rental store just outside the airport.

The airport itself, whilst located relatively close to the centre of Kagoshima, is not best positioned for exploring the local area. In your car you can drive (or take a boat, like we did) onto the famous Sakurajima volcano. This is a very active volcano, with eruptions almost weekly; so be careful when you decide to visit here. The most beautiful thing about Sakurajima is the fact that you can drive allt the way around it. There are beautifully crafted winding roads all the way around the mountain. Whilst you can not approach the volcano at a close distance – for very good reason – you can enjoy the scenary of the area and the beautiful lake from your car.

Sakurajima
Sakurajima

A short drive from Sakurajima should see you end up at Shiroyama Park, a very interesting tourist spot located in Kagoshima city (899-4316; telephone: 0995-46-1561). With good car parking and excellent facilities, make a morning/afternoon of it here. They have a delicious Tonkotsu Ramen shop here – delightful! There are also some interesting Japanese gardens and vegetable plants here, whilst the trees of fruit are particularly pretty.

Tonkotsu
Tonkotsu

From Kagoshima, it’s time to head into Miyazaki, the next prefecture to the East. Driving from prefecture to prefecture takes time, the best possible trip into Miyazaki takes around two hours from Kagoshima. Thankfully, the roads are comfortable and easy to drive.

Our first recommended spot on the roads is Udo-jingu (887-0101; telephone: 0987-29-1001), a gorgeous shrine located on the coast of Miyazaki.

Udojingu
Udojingu

This shrine is particularly famous for those who are not married, with many couples going here to pray for their future together. What is particularly nice is the beautiful scenery of the waves crashing against the rocks just next to the shrine.

Udojingu
Udojingu

A short drive up the coast will bring you to Aoshima in approximately 45 minutes. Aoshima is worth a visit. Despite being difficult to find a parking space – you might end up parking in a local’s garage if it’s busy, and paying 500 yen for the privilege – the walk across the sea to the island is stunning. With the traditional Japanese red gate (torii), this makes a good stop for a picture. On the island itself is an ornate shrine. From parking your car to reaching the island can take about 10 minutes – so leave enough time.

Aoshima
Aoshima

After you’ve finished at Aoshima; one option is to head into central Miyazaki. A short drive indeed, the city has a very nice shrine (Miyazaki jingu) and also many famous restaurants. The local cuisine here in Chicken Nanban, very similar to American fried chicken but much more healthy, one recommended spot for this food is “Ogura Honten”, the very first Nanban restaurant in the area (telephone: 0985-22-2296).

Chicken Nanban
Chicken Nanban
Izu Peninsula

A side trip to the Izu Peninsula

The Izu Peninsula is a popular side trip away from Tokyo for the day, or even for a weekend. A town full of beautiful onsens and ryokans, you are sure to find both enjoyment and a chance to relax amongst Japanese countryside. The area is well served by local train and direct from Tokyo, whilst driving there is also an excellent experience. A journey from Tokyo to Izu (part of the Shizuoka prefecture) will normally take over 2 hours. Depending on which part of Izu you are staying, this could take as long as 3 hours, however. The peninsula is a very large place.

Tokyo to Izu
Tokyo to Izu

Directions can be found on Google Maps.

There are numerous options for getting to Tokyo. The first, and perhaps the longest route, is to drive from Tokyo into Yokohama, and then follow the route around Sagami Bay. This will then show you some of the beautiful scenery from around this lovely bay overlooking the Pacific Ocean. This also goes through Odawara, a good spot to stop off and have a light snack before you head on into Izu peninsula. Alternatively, and perhaps the fastest route, sees you drive through the highways on an approximate journey of around 142 kilometres, passing through Gotenba. This town is famous for its unparalleled view of Mount Fuji from distance, as you drive through the Yamanashi Prefecture. Gotemba is also famous for being a hot spot for shopping, with Tokyoites taking a weekend trip to the Gotemba Premium Outlets.

Gotemba Premium Outlets
Gotemba Premium Outlets

As the locals swarm to this area on a weekend, be sure to be well prepared for traffic. The road into Izu is sure to be busy and full of tourists and local Japanese people alike, looking for a quick break away from the city.

Izu

In Izu, there are numerous places to enjoy and to stop by. On the east coast, you have the beautiful Jogasaki. Overlooking Sagami Bay this truly offers some wonderful driving around the coastal lines.

Sagami Bay
Sagami Bay

At the southern tip of Izu you have the beautiful Irozaki. This is very close to Kawazu, which is beautiful during the months of March and April for cherry blossom. The sakura is not just the most famous thing from the area though, as you may have heard that Shimoda, just in between Kawazu and Irozaki, is where Commodore Perry’s black ships landed in 1854. Commodore Perry is of course famous for helping Japan break free from their period of isolation; a time when no foreigner was allowed into Japan or to engage with Japanese people.

Further around the west coast of Izu is the delightful Dogashima and Matsuzaki. This unique and scene coastline is famous for its stunning views of stone formations and cliffs. You can even venture into some of the caves along the coast. Driving around this area will give you a good general feel for the area, but the best way to approach this is via boat, which can be found nearby.

In central Izu, and finally, you have the main town of Shuzenji, most famous for its onsen. This resort is named after the local temple of the same name. Many say that Izu hosts Japan’s oldest hot spring.

Shuzenji Onsen
Shuzenji Onsen

If you are planning a trip to Tokyo, do consider a trip around Izu. Nowadays, you can hire a car for around 5000 to 6000 yen, it is also worth shopping around using the excellent Tocoo website.

Izu Map

Utsunomiya Gyoza

A day trip to Utsunomiya

Being just under two hours away from Tokyo in regular traffic, Utsunomiya is definitely a candidate for a great day trip out of the Japanese capital. Famous for its castle, park with stunning cherry blossom and gyoza (Utsunomiya on a day trip without eating fried dumplings would be silly), the town can be quickly accessed on either highway or country road, depending on whether or not you would like to save money and drive away from the tolls.

Utsunomiya Gyoza
Utsunomiya Gyoza

Driving from Tokyo to Utsunomiya will take you on the Tohoku Expressway if you decide to take tolls, and on the way into the town you will pass some famous places such as Saitama and Hanyu. Once you’re at the town, it is worth visiting Hachimanyama Park which is just a short trek from the main JR station. The castle in the town was famous for hosting the Japanese royalty before they travelled on to Nikko. Whilst visiting, see if the park is hosting any events and if of course you are lucky enough to visit in between March or April, see if you are able to catch some cherry blossom on your visit.

What’s really famous about Utsunomiya, is of course the dumplings. The best place to visit for this could well be PASEO, which has a basement full of several restaurants all at different prices. The multiple gyoza vendors will let you take a variety of gyoza and eat them at other vendors, such is the excellent collaboration between all of the restaurants.

Utsunomiya
Utsunomiya

If PASEO is not your thing, the Utsunomiya Station also has a variety of places to grab these little bites of joy. There are generally queues outside, so make sure if you decide to eat here you are well prepared. Expect to wait up to 30 minutes to get in to these restaurants.

Utsunomiya is a great place if you’re heading on to Nikko or Fukushima and decide to head on the Tohoku Expressway to anywhere to the North. One of the best things about Utsunomiya is its relative ease to get off of the expressway into the town. Turning off on the Kanuma IC will take you just five minutes to reach the main central area of the town and the area is surprisingly well signposted once there.

Utsunomiya Castle
Utsunomiya Castle

Whilst this certainly isn’t a particularly good idea for tourists to visit Utsunomiya unless they are really interested in gyoza, for anybody living in Japan or lucky enough to be staying for a few weeks, the town certainly offers a few extra options.