Kyushu is a magical place. Home to some of the country’s most prominent Onsen towns, Japan’s southernmost island was a travel experience like nothing I’ve had before.
The Onsen is one of Japan’s most renowned cultural institutions. As a destination of choice for the Asian traveller, the quintessential mountain towns which house the mineral baths have somehow slipped under the radar of Western tourism. It is the simple concept of exploring a destination that is so famous within Asia, but so unknown to the rest of the world that makes this travel experience unique.
Rural Japan is also famed for it’s aesthetic and although the epic Samurai movies had set my expectations pretty high, provincial Kyushu was basically the embodiment of my Japanese dreams. Yes, the landscape itself is idyllic, but the Ryokans were what really stole my heart.
Traditionally a Japanese inn, Ryokans have evolved over time into one of the most elegant hospitality experiences in Asia. The perfectly proportioned rooms are constructed from rich natural woods with minimal furnishing. Most time is spent sitting Seiza style on the tatami mat floors. Sliding paper shoji screens divide the space and almost every wall opens blending the interior with the surrounding Japanese gardens.
Most Ryokans include private ofuro (mini onsen), as well as public baths. Upon arrival at a Ryokan, you will be promptly changed into Yukata (casual kimono), where you will remain in traditional dress until checkout. Although it is technically optional, why wouldn’t you want to walk around all day in something that is beautiful, but basically as comfortable as a bathrobe?
Meals are a works of art themselves within the guesthouses. An upscale Ryokan will serve you a Kaiseki (multi-course) meal privately within the room by Kimono clad staff. I honestly ate foods that tasted better than anything I’ve had before and some meals were upwards of 14 courses. In addition to taste, the aesthetic of Japanese cooking is perfected to the point that it seems silly to destroy with chopsticks.
Through a series of carefully curated luxury Ryokan’s organized by the Thai Travel Center, I was able to experience one of the many cherished aspects of Japanese heritage, the Onsen, alongside the picturesque rolling hills of Kyushu. There is also a traditional way of life that is alive and well within the Ryokan environment which is slowly being lost to urban culture.
Although I don’t have many images from the mineral baths themselves (they’re baths… so yah, naked), I still have a selection of photos to share form my journey with the Thai Travel Centre in Kyushu, Japan. This was my first real pre-planned “tour” through an agency. Although I was a bit worried that I would feel a lack of freedom on such a structured trip, I quickly realized that this experience wouldn’t have been possible any other way. For starters, English is impossible to find – the Ryokan’s didn’t have any English language documentation, nor did I ever hear an English word spoken. Aside from accidentally eating raw horse meat, my meals were all successfully pre-booked by The TTC or provided by the Ryokans. Without this service, I would have been selecting what to eat from a long list of options in Japanese which often didn’t have any photos. Transport was another detail that would have been impossible on my own. Not only are there no taxis in the countryside, but my inability to communicate, as well as the fact that several mountain Ryokans are literally off the map (google maps included), so would have been hopeless to find without our lovely driver who was with us throughout the journey. Basically, I spent 5 days without any form of communication aside from polite bows and the giggles of locals as they tried to help me put on my Yukata. I can honestly say that my presence in rural Kyushu was as foreign to them as it was to me.
Please follow along as I take you through some of the highlights of my Thai Travel Centre trip to Kyushu, Japan.
Considered one of the most beautiful castles in Japan, Kumamoto is unique in that it has the pointed roofs between each floor. I hope that makes sense, but if not just look at the triangular sections below.
Although I was a few weeks early for the famed Sakura season, I still managed to catch a few cherry blossom trees that got their flowers early.
For starters, I would like to say that yes, that is an un-blossomed Sakura tree on the rooftop of my Ryokan. It’s a good thing it didn’t have flowers yet or I never would have left.
Mineral baths are generally located in a way that they can be opened to the outside. The warmth of the steaming water feels wonderful in contrast to the cold air of winter.
What is basically a casual Kimono, a selection of Yukata are provided within every Ryokan. I didn’t have a clue how to put it on, but the guesthouse staff are more than happy to help (and laugh at my ignorance a bit too).
I’m not a big meat eater and red meat rarely passes through my lips. However, there is nothing like Japanese beef and I found myself happily eating it for both lunch and dinner.
Everything is Japan needs is perfect and the farmlands are no exception. Although they are for agricultural purposes only, some of that stylized Japanese garden culture still shines through.
The Hidden Ryokans
Driving through volcanic hills long after we disappeared of Google maps to finally stumble upon the Ryokan of dreams is a moment that gives me goosebumps to remember.
I still can’t quite believe this happened, but at one Ryokan I literally had a private, creekside Onsen. It was heaven. I could literally watch small animals in forest as I sat in my mineral bath.
I don’t know how to explain the flavours of food, but Japanese countryside soups have some of the most natural, earthy tastes I’ve ever experienced.
I spent many days travelling around Mt. Aso, one of the biggest volcanos in the world (it is also still active and currently erupting!) There are 5 peaks to the volcano which form a huge caldera in the centre which is home to the farm town seen below.
I’ve seen a lot of monkeys from 6 years of living in SEA, but these two are my favourite ever.
Living a Fairytale
I don’t know why everything in Japan is so beautiful, but it is. This canyon included.
I am a little bit biased because of my love for Japanese style, but their natural wood temples are the most beautiful I’ve seen.
One of the cool things about being surrounded by volcanos is that you can go from being in lush forest to volcanic soil with very little elevation. Having said that, this elevation also comes with a volcanic gas induced headache, so take it easy.
Complete with tiny roads and endless guesthouses hidden amongst the hills, these towns exist entirely to accommodate the steady flow of Onsen visitors to the region. It’s kind of like Whistler, but everyone is in a spa-like trance.
I have never loved a hotel room like I do a Ryokan. They are the epitome of Zen in which I could probably stay forever. Oh and beds are all futons on the tatami floors – I don’t know why, but that’s the way it is.
Ramen, Soba and Udon are my favourite Japanese foods aside from beef and sushi.
At around 15 degrees, Kyushu was the perfect temperate to spend all day outside.
The volcanic activity in the region has resulted in some pretty weird/entertaining tourist attractions. This particular volcanic fissure has been nicknamed hell because it gives off this terrifying rumbling sounds. Basically, you pay to enter to look at this steam and leave feeling really, really ill from the gases.
There are some pretty epic mountains on the island of Kyushu. This one in particular had a tram going all the way to the top!
Scary Volcanic Stuff
There are reminders of volcanic activity everywhere. I’m quite certain this field of rocks came flying out of a volcano, but I may be making that up.
All in all, this was the adventure of a lifetime thanks to the Thai Travel Centre. If you’re in Thailand and looking to book a trip to Japan (or anywhere really), I would definitely recommend sending them a message. This holiday was perfect.