This trip was really planned with such precision that any delays will lead to potential stranding somewhere we would really not want to be. Well, if it were Japan it would be fine!
Only spanning five days, this is a road trip that we finally took after abruptly cancelling the plan in March of the same year. Due to the fateful events of the earthquake and tsunami, we had deferred our plans, as we weren’t sure about the conditions on outbound flights booking.
It would be a plan that takes us from north to south of the island. We flew into Fukuoka and completely gave it a miss, figuring that we will probably now have an excuse to come back again.
Driving downward immediately we hit Kumamoto to stay the night and use it as a springboard to visit Mount Aso and its fuming caldera. Its autumn now as we drove, and the leaves and grass are all turning to a brown.
Tip: when you get to the mountain, pay the ¥600 fee to drive all the way to the Nakadake caldera. Free parking is available at the entrance area but you will have an arduous walk up!
Komezuka was not as spectacular as we had thought it to be. It seems smaller than the brochures make it seem. As you probably know, volcano mountains do not just have one outlet for the lava. In the case of Mount Aso, Komezuka was the other caldera to Nakadake. Both were said to be part of a volcano that was even larger than Mount Fuji is today. That mountain apparently blew itself up some 90,000 years ago and left behind a serial patchwork of calderas, mostly dormant.
No naked hot bath
Perhaps it is not a particularly popular holiday time or destination. We did not encounter much of traffic throughout this drive. And down we drove onto Ibusuki (指宿) to take a bath. What bath is so special that we had to make a mad 3-hour dash by car?
The sand baths by the beach of Ibusuki.
People have been coming here for the last 300+ years to be covered from neck to toe in the sands of the beach. If you look closely at the photo, you should see that there are actually steaming vapors emanating from the sand. The sand is hot due to the hot spring water that is seeping up from deep below ground. Remember that this is an active seismic area.
The procedure is simple. Strip down to your briefs and put on a yukata. Wait in line for your turn. The attendants will wave you to your designated spot. In our case we came to see pits of steaming sand where up to 12 people will be “buried” alive, I mean under the sand. Ten minutes. You start to break a sweat within 3-4 minutes and tingling sensation will begin to rock your extremities – ie the digits on your hands and feet. It is said to be rather therapeutic – afterall your blood vessels dilate and circulation increases. Much like a sauna experience, except this is with hot spring sand. Perhaps the minerals in the spring water will leach into your skin…
The other reason we drove all the way to the south of Kyushu is to see the volcano “island” of Sakurajima.
It is not technically an island as it is connected via a tiny slip of causeway (Satsuma peninsula). Located within Kagoshima bay, it is either accessible via a long circular drive along the bay or directly across via a 15-minute ferry ride. It costs ¥1450 for the car – 5m or less + Suan with the driver’s fee already part of the price. Wonder if Suan is considered “baggage”…And so approximately four times per hour the ferry plies.
So what is on Sakurajima? Why a volcano of course! And one that is constantly spewing smoke and ash into the air. According to Wikipedia, this caldera’s activity began to act up more from 1955. Since that time, ash plumes are a norm for folks living in this part of the country. Imagine the amount of dust that collects on your furniture, floorboards etc. Sigh..so much mopping to do…They say that the white ash is collected to be used in cosmetics. So some good does come from all of this.
Best places to look at the caldera (you cannot get up there like Mount Aso) is from Yunohira and Arimura. And while you are in the vicinity, make sure you stop at the Yogan Nagisa park. It is next to the visitor centre not far from the visitor’s center near the ferry terminal. Free foot bath is one thing. You can have the view of the smoking giant directly in front of you.
And if you are lucky as we were, you might just see the caldera spew out a snoopy for you. Ok, so it looks more like a duck. Perspective, that’s the way we explain it. Actually it was because it did look like a dog until the winds changed directions. Just that we did not take the photos at that point…
Nourishment from the earth
You cannot be in the Kagoshima area without eating the namesake of its pork and beef. The marbling of the fat within the meat (both pork and beef) makes it suitable for hot grill. In this part of Japan it is such a daily fact of life that we have seen black pigs transported on the back of small trucks.
Our choice to relish this was via the Korean style of hot plate. At our Onsen hotel stay in Kirishima, it was served ‘shabu shabu’ style as part of the dinner set. Either way, they taste heavenly. Don’t leave Kyushu without it.
The other culinary experience that is a must try here in southern Kyushu is the vinegar produced by Tsubobatake (壺畑) at Kirishima (霧島). There is an excellent exhibition of their manufacture process and a large viewing gallery where you can see the jars of condiment being fermented. The way to enjoy flavorful condiment is via ramen noodle steeped in thick sauce that had been perfectly mixed with the famed vinegar. You can also have the rice set with mushrooms and fish slices. Both sets cost us ¥2500 each, came with a small dim sum and dessert. Find out more here: http://www.tsubobatake.jp. And finally how could one miss out on the seafood here in Kyushu, surrounded by the sea!
Sleeping & driving simply
Throughout our drive on this journey, we had determined to keep it economical. Afterall as a road trip suggests, we spend most of the time ‘on the road’. So we chose budget inns throughout the journey. In Japan there has been an increase in the number of chain hotels offering low cost stays. Rooms are definitely smaller, so don’t expect space to store your large suitcases. The Toyoko Inn here in Kagoshima cost us just ¥8000 per night (this is charged per room basis) while Chisun inn in Kumamoto cost ¥6750.
The only time we indulged was on the final night of our journey, where we stayed at the Kirishima Kanko Onsen hotel. How could we resist staying in a location with real mineral spring bath? We are in the vicinity of many small volcanoes, thus numerous hot springs all over. Free foot baths are a norm!
To truly experience Kyushu, it is recommended to drive. Unlike the very highly developed urban centers of Osaka and Tokyo (or even Nagoya/Kobe), there is a lot more “ruralness” in Kyushu which you will probably miss out if taking the train or public transport. Obviously for a 5-day journey it is not possible to cover the destinations comfortably as we did in such a short time.
For this journey we rented via Tocco.com, which charged about ¥7500/day for a mid-sized vehicle. And where we can, we found free parking. In the city, unfortunately there will not be such and we opted to pay for stacked garage. This picture shows where we parked for the night for ¥600. By the way we sort of goofed up and pressed the wrong buttons when we got our car out. It seemed the lift of the stacker got stuck and could not retrieve the next car…the pissed look of the guy made us drive off in a hurry, gomen’nasai (ごめんなさい)!
Thus ends this well planned journey to the southernmost island of the Japanese archipelago. We have not explored the northern half of the island in sufficient thoroughness and this certainly gives us an excuse to return. And we shall do so, as soon as the opportunity affords.