While there are a ton of rad blogs already existing about how to travel Japan, I am frequently asked what I’ve done and how I’ve done it… So here you go! My fairly casual, thrown together quite simply, detailed experience with touring northern Kyushu.
Where to begin… When it comes to Japan, always plan ahead whenever you possibly can. Things book up, hotels fill up, and restaurants and attractions close on odd days. I usually can’t plan in advance when it comes to food, so I often pick pricier hotels that have food options on site. This works out well for me and Tom since we like to be a little spontaneous with our nights out.
We flew with the Super Value fare on ANA (All Nippon Airways) from Tokyo to Kumamoto. While there isn’t a ton to do in Kumamoto, the Kumamon bear is quite popular and cute and I wanted to see what the place was all about. We rented our car from Nissan, as per usual, and drove into town to visit the newly renovated castle. It is absolutely stunning. Sadly, this part of Kyushu was ravaged by an earthquake in 2016 and much of the castle was completely destroyed. The before and after pictures are shocking, and what they have done with the grounds is super impressive. It’s well worth a trip to see. We dined beforehand at the Kumamoto Buffet in the shopping street area just before you approach the castle. It left something to be desired, but heck, it was a good quick bite! In retrospect, go already fed and maybe grab a steamed bun instead on your way.
Following our brief castle trip, we checked into the beautiful and also newly renovated ANA Crowne Plaza. It was great, and my only complaint is that their restaurant Sun Cielo also fills up if you don’t book in advance… so you should! It looked very delicious.
Because we don’t drink and drive, we took a taxi towards the shotengai area downtown. I had done some internet research and found a bar specializing in shochu called Glocal. Nori-san, the owner, is an absolute genius. It is his ikigai, and gift to the world, to spread his love and knowledge about shochu. If you don’t like shochu, you will find one you do like by the time you leave this bar. He is an absolutely genius, speaks perfect English, and is one of the most fantastic, passionate people we have met on our travels. The bar attracts an eclectic bunch, including lots of academia transplants from the USA and other countries. There is lots of conversation and opportunity to connect with locals. Don’t miss this place, and if you have the time and interest, schedule a shochu tour with him in advance because the tour looked awesome.
We were in Kyushu over New Years when much of the country quiets and lucky bags fill the shopping streets. To keep ourselves busy on the first day of the year, we hopped into the car and drove south towards Amakusa and the somewhat famous five bridges that connect the many scattered islands around the mainland. It was an incredible drive, and a definitely highlight to our trip. We stopped for food at the nifty Ripple Land, snapped a pic with the octopus, and then continued south to Sakitsu.
If you’re unaware, Sakitsu is the old fishing village centered around a Catholic Church. It is where Catholicism hid during times of persecution back in the day. Now, the tiny town is home to many little feline friends. The church is super cute and sadly we weren’t there for the evening when it illuinates, but that looked cute, as well. Don’t speed on your way back up the coast, there are the unusual police cars policing the area, and we even saw a dummy in the driver seat of a parked patrol car.
We left Kumamoto for Yufuin, Beppu’s sister town, the next morning. Yufuin is absolutely adorable and full of fun little touristy shops. There’s a black and white 7/11, which I found to be quite unique. We checked out the Bengal cat cafe, claw machines of course, and the local sites around the main drag. I would advise not staying where we did, but instead checking out the Zen Ryokan was passed on our way in. It looks absolutely divine. Enjoy a relaxing night, and on the way out of town in the morning, return back to catch Yufuin Floral Village and Kirin Lake down past the Chagall Museum. When the tourists are sleeping you get your best pics.
After Yufuin we headed northwest for Fukuoka. We stayed at the Hilton Fukuoka Sea Hawk. While this hotel is located slightly outside the heart of the city, it’s a gorgeous building with a stunning few from the top floors.
We opted for the Executive Room since it would come with happy hour and breakfast the days of our stay. While we didn’t have great luck with the happy hour the first night, Hilton’s motto is ‘we’ll make it right’ and that they did. They went above and beyond for us after I complained, which included comping our lunch from the first day, sending us away with a parting gift, and providing us a bottle of wine in our room for the inconvenience. In the end, I was embarrassed I said anything but in all honesty, when you’re paying top dollar, you want to get what you pay for.
We spent our first night checking out the shops at the Canal City Hakata, along with their fancy illumination show at the center of the building. The ramen museum has some tasty options for dinner or a light snack. We walked from there past the cute yatai, or pop up bars and restaurants lining the water. Finding our way into the Tenjin area, we stumbled upon Bar Leprechaun and Quad for dinner. Both were amazingly lucky finds on a Friday night for a couple with no reservations.
The next day we slept in and took our time heading back into the city to check out the underground shopping mall, Tochi-ji, and Fish Man. Can’t say enough good things about Fish Man, make sure you get the sushi stairwell. We found fun after dinner drinks around the corner at Rakuda, which means camel, and Kemono Roof Bar.
Our last day in Fukuoka, we decided to take a drive down to the coastline to see Sakurai Futamigaura… the epic white Torii Gate at the oceans edge. If you’re lucky enough to be here during June, the sun will set just between the two rocks out in the water. We enjoyed a little snack here and headed back to the airport.
Kyushu complete: was it perfect? no. Was it fun? yes. Would we plan it better next time? no, we like to fly by the seat of pants and see whatever it is we can see.