Land of Fire: Volcanoes & Hot Springs of Kyushu
Kyushu is appropriately called the “Land of Fire”, as volcanoes are omnipresent on the island. From the Aso caldera in the north to Ata in the south, these volcanic calderas make up much of Kyushu’s mountainous backdrop – from fuming craters to pretty cone-shaped mountains – making for a picturesque road trip. By the end of the day, hop on one of many atmospheric hot spring resorts – waters of which are heated by these very volcanoes – for a well-deserved romantic soak.
Volcanoes are the main attraction in Kyushu – locals are so used to volcanic activity that they actually live in the calderas. Visitors can learn more about this landscape at the many museums dotted near active volcanoes, or ob- serve up close the steaming fumaroles of some of these active volcanoes along hiking trails, by ropeway, or from a helicopter.
Situated within the vast Aso-Kuju National Park, Mt. Aso is an active volcano complex with one of the world’s largest calderas, stretching 25km in diameter. Within the caldera limits are towns and hot spring villages, as well as several resurgent domes and a central plateau that consists of five mountains (known as Aso Gogaku) – the most active of these is Naka-dake, whose crater continuously billows with volcanic gas.
Naka-dake (1,506m) is accessible via hiking trails as well as a ropeway, making it the only place in Japan where you can see an active volcano – with its turquoise caldera lake – this close. There are shelter dugouts around the crater lip.
While the crater is currently inaccessible, you can see the smoky cone from
the lower ropeway station, or hop on sightseeing helicopter tours for an aerial view. You can also see the Aso Gogaku mountains from the Daikanbo view- point, located on Aso’s caldera rim.
South of Aso is Kirishima, an active volcanic mountain range containing volcanic cones, caldera lakes, gorges, and hot springs. Rising like a gigantic plateau, Kirishima Geopark is encircled by railway lines which connect to various cities around its periphery, including Ebino City and Kirishima City.
You can visit Kirishima Geopark from the Ebino Eco Museum Center in the Ebino Highlands, where you can access volcanoes and crater lakes via scenic hiking trails. These include a trail to Mt. Karakunidake (1,700m) and Onami Lake (3 hours), as well as one to the 2 crater lakes of Rokkannon Miike and Byakushi (2 hours). There’s a popular 12km trail (6 hours) from Mt. Karakunidake to Mt. Takachi- ho-no-mine (1,574m) at the other end of the park, although the trail traverses the crater of the active Mt. Shinmoe-dake which is currently closed due to a recent eruption.
The picturesque active volcano island of Sakurajima is located along the northern shores of Kagoshima Bay. The last cataclysmic eruption occurred here in 1914, and changed the landscape: the island expanded, and lava flows connected it to the mainland.
Sakurajima is today an icon of the bay, and is home to three peaks: Kita-dake, Naka-dake and Minami-dake, which is currently active. Erupting almost constantly since 1955, the smoky peak sees minor eruptions multiple times per day. Locals living in the area are used to the volcanic ash that can blanket the towns – there are even specialised trash bags for them.
The steaming peak of Minami-dake can be seen from observatories like Yuno- hira, Kurokami, and Arimura; there is also the 3km-long Nagisa Walking Trail which cuts through a lava zone created by the 1914 eruption. Free footbaths can be enjoyed at the Nagisa Park Foot Bath, or if you’re up to a bit of digging, you can dig your own “thermal pond” at one of the beaches – the seawater is heated by thermal activity.
HOT SPRINGS PARADISE
Officially marketed as ‘Onsen Island Kyushu’ by the local tourism board, the island is naturally abundant with onsen (hot springs) which are heated by Kyushu’s volcanic landscape.
Oita Prefecture is nicknamed ‘Onsen Oita’ because it produces the highest volume of thermal water in Japan, which can be enjoyed within its two major hot spring sites: Beppu and Yufuin.
Beppu has over 2,000 hot spring sites spread over eight towns, nicknamed Beppu Hatto, ranging from large family-oriented spas to secluded mountain ryokans. Located along the scenic Beppu Bay, it’s backed by Mt. Tsurumi (accessible via a ropeway) which has several scenic trails to various shrines on the mountain.
Nearby Yufuin has a more tranquil atmosphere, eschewing large-scale developments with its communal baths, craft studios, and cafes – all with pictur- esque views of Mt. Yufu.
Neighbouring Kumamoto Prefecture also has a hot spring gem. Like a village out of the Edo era, Kurokawa Onsen’s river gorge is lined with picturesque tra- ditional ryokans with rotenburo (outdoor hot springs) that have made this town popular. A nyuto tegata wooden plaque (¥1,300) gives you access to any three of these outdoor hot spring baths.
Kagoshima Prefecture in the south takes second place for the volume of thermal water produced, with two pop- ular onsen areas: Kirishima and Ibusuki. Kirishima Onsen, located on the foot- hills of the active Kirishima volcanoes, consists of a number of hot spring resorts in a mountainous area. The water quality ranges from crystal clear to creamy sulfuric springs.
Ibusuki, on the southern tip of the Satsuma Peninsula, is another popular hot spring resort area. No visit is complete without a unique hot sand bath, either at a resort or a public facility. Dressed in yukata (cotton kimono) you are literally buried, by shovel-toting staff, from neck to toe in hot sand by the beach.
THINGS TO DO
With a landscape that consists of mountains, lakes, and grassland, there’s no shortage of things to do in Kyushu.
Lake Ikeda, located on Kagoshima’s Satsuma Peninsula, is the biggest crater lake in Kyushu, dominated by Mt. Kaimondake (a cone volcano) on the southern end. At over 200m deep, it’s a magnet for unique watersports like FlyBoarding and HoverBoarding. The former involves being strapped to hydraulic-powered boots which allow you to ‘fly’ up to 2m above the water, while the latter is a similar concept on a wakeboard.
Horse riding is a popular activity year- round, particularly around Kusasenri (Kumamoto) which is dominated by grassland and farms dotted with grazing cows, with breathtaking views
of the Aso mountains. You can opt for short rides around the Nakadake crater, longer day-trips, or even nighttime rides with the Milky Way for a backdrop.
For a traditional experience, you can also visit the vermillion-accented Kirishima Shrine, built in 1715 with striking architecture reminiscent of the famous Nikko Tochigi, decked in a kimono. A dressing service is provided by local volunteers for a small fee.
Kyushu is known throughout Japan for shochu; while it’s distilled nationwide, Kyushu is known for its rice and sweet potato varieties in Kumamoto and Kagoshima respectively. These are ideal accompaniments to the local cuisine which range from raw meats to ramen. One of the most famous dishes from Kyushu is the Hakata Ramen from Fukuoka. Made with pork bone broth, the concept of noodle refills (kaedama) originates here. Kyushu is also famous for basashi (horse sashimi) and jidori, free-range chicken normally served slightly seared (or even raw).
In Beppu, there are some restaurants that specialise in jigokumushi (‘hell food’) which uses thermal steam to cook the food. You can order ingredients (or bring your own) and cook your own food in specially-made bamboo containers.
There are direct flights from Singapore to Fukuoka, situated on the north of Kyushu island. From here, there are numerous road, rail and air connections to other prefectures like Kumamoto and Kagoshima. Follow Me Japan (http://followmejapan.com.sg) offers various packages including nature, hot spring, and self-drive around Kyushu. Visit www.welcomekyushu.com for more on Kyushu.
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