Next up was Kumamoto, home to a historic castle and the majestic Mt. Aso beyond peaceful emerald plains and sparkling clear waters of its springs and lakes. My return to Japan through Oita had already vetted my appetite to see more of its glorious beauty and so, I began my journey to Kumamoto with eager excitement.
The symphonious sounds of Beppu Bay just behind our hotel seemed to bid us farewell as we made our way towards Kumamoto. This journey would take us from the east coast to west coast on the Trans Kyushu Route. The breath-taking volcanic landscape of the Kuju Mountains would accompany us during the two hour long bus journey along the Yamanami Highway.
The serpentine roads started to become steeper as we climbed higher. The vast green plains below looked like a green blanket slowly fading from view. We were on top of a mountain where we were making our first stop at the Kuju Flower Park. We were still in the prefecture of Oita and the flower park was a lovely welcome break along the way.
The Kuju Flower Park Entrance
Golf buggies are used to transport visitors over the age of 70
Located 800m above sea level, the Kuju Flower Park floats gently above the heart of Kyushu. Spread over 49 acres, it showcases about 3 million unique flowers of 500 different varieties blooming in profusion from spring to autumn. The park is known for its mesmerizing genus Nemophilia (late Apr to early June), moss pink hill (mid Apr to early May) and Cosmos (mid Sep to late Oct).
But this was the month of July the end of summer so Kuju Flower Park treated me instead with a luscious spread of lavender and plumed cockscomb. The air was perfumed with a cocktail of divine fragrances. And so amidst breath-taking sights of the five peaks of Mt. Aso range (Mt. Neko, Mt. Taka, Mt. Naka (also called Naka-dake), Mt. Eboshi and Mt. Kishima situated in the prefecture of Kumamoto) I stood hypnotised.
Fields of plumed cockscomb
The field of lavender was a hit with visitors
My senses squealed in ecstasy at this assault on the senses of sight and smell surrounded me as I walked through rows of flowers. They showed me how to prune a few and gifted me with a few stalks of lavender. Grabbing my camera I took a few pictures hoping to capture the beauty of this place. It was soon time to leave…
Back on board the bus, we slowly descended the mountains and made our way to Kurokawa, home to Kyushu’s famous onsens (hot springs). Kurokawa is a hot spring town nestled beside a river and has as many as 24 different outdoor and indoor baths that are open to both overnight guest and day trippers.
Kurokawa is a charming town that meticulously ensures that its streets are free of gaudy signs and has a homely attraction. It doesn’t look like a tourist attraction spot. Lying below the mountains the town just springs upon the visitors making them feel that they discovered a jewel not found in tourist maps. It’s a secret place known mostly to the locals… until now!
Known to the locals as “Rotenburo Meguri” which means basically “Onsen-Hopping”, visitors make it a point to not just experience one or two baths but spend days trying them all if possible. Each onsen has different features from mildly acidic and mildly alkaline springs to sulphur and ferruginous (iron) springs.
Cooled at between 40 – 42 degree Celsius for comfortable bathing, the Kurokawa hot springs waters are ideal for relaxing, soaking tired muscles and pampering the skin. Some springs are said to be able to treat or relieve specific conditions like insomnia, acne and anaemia.
I visited 2 of the 24 onsens. The Ryokan Okunoyu has nine different types of spa baths but my favourite was the one facing the waterfall. It sat on the edge of a cliff. Butterflies and small birds flew around in gay abandon. The gushing water of the falls made it tranquil. I was stunned at the beauty around me.
A five minute walk up a hill brought me to Yumerindo, a larger set up with several outdoor baths amidst beautiful landscaping. The indoor baths are creatively built with large fusuma doors that slide open to make you feel as if you are in fact outdoors. There are baths that cater specifically for men and women and also those that are mixed and even family onsens to choose from. See cost in box below.
Yumerindo – outdoor onsens
Yumerindo – indoor onsen
Yumerindo – pre and post onsen shower area
The Yumerindo onsen has a whole different feel from Ryokan Okunoyu and so it’s quite apparent that you would need to stay here a day or two to sample as many onsens to make it a worthwhile trip. But for me time was not my friend and my short-lived experience ended. There is some onsen etiquette a visitor should know. Read the box below for some tips.
Meanwhile my tummy suddenly reminded me of its existence. But it wasn’t time for lunch yet so I had cheesecake and soft serve (ice cream) instead from a local bakery I stumbled upon while strolling in Kurokawa town. In Japan, the soft serve (pronounced sofuto kurimu) comes in savoury flavours from green tea to wasabi but I stuck to good old vanilla. As I enjoyed my soft cream in the summer heat, I observed that this was a town that was dominated by natural colours and materials. It has wooden buildings, earthen walls, stone stairs and a river flowing through it. It was very picturesque!
Friendly locals we met along the way
I was back in the bus. It was time to head out to Mt. Aso, the largest active volcano in Japan. The story goes that Kyushu, which is the farthest south-westerly island of Japan, was created by the eruption of Mount Aso and the tremendous amount of magma that was spewed from Mt. Aso millions of years ago caused the surface of the volcano to cave in, leaving behind the world’s largest above-ground active caldera with a circumference of around 80 miles.
The bus started climbing steep roads again and this time the land seemed to be much greener and fertile. Cows grazed on the fields below. Outside my window we passed a ‘mini-volcano’ on the northern slopes of Naka-dake called Komezuka, which is a symmetrical volcanic cone as verdant as its surroundings.
Komezuka peeping out in between the valley
The bus came to a stop and we had arrived at a rest stop that has restaurants and souvenir stores called New Kusasenri. As I stepped outside into luscious green landscape I seemed to momentarily run out of adjectives to describe beauty so I decided just soak in the beauty without a murmur. Finally I headed into the restaurant for lunch. We were in for a Japanese hot plate BBQ experience with the meal of the day – Akaushi Beef (translation: red cow).
Akaushi is beef produced from Akaushi cattle. The meat is richly marbled with fat and produces a very tender and buttery taste. Originating from Kumamoto, Akaushi beef contains a higher concentration of monounsaturated fat. This beef actually lowers cholesterol! The camphor cubes underneath my hot plate were lit and I BBQ-ed away! It was my first time tasting such tender beef so, despite the simple surroundings of a rest stop restaurant, I was contented.
The smoke in the far left of the photo is where we headed to next
After a sumptuous lunch we headed off to Mt. Aso specifically to one of its 5 peaks called Mt. Naka-dake. The usual ropeway was under maintenance so travellers could choose to hike up, drive up in your own car or purchase a ticket for a short 10 minute bus ride up to the crater. The landscape from bright green changed to deep browns, the air smelt of sulphur and volcanic ash blanketed the crater’s edge.
I was atop the 1506-meter-high Mt. Naka-dake, an active volcano which continuously emits smoke and has occasional eruptions. The emergency concrete shelters near the crater rim made the dangers of standing on top of an active volcano very real!
The road that buses and cars use to get up to the crater
Approaching the crater rim
In all its glory
The Naka-dake first crater is located at the northernmost part of the group of craters that are lined from north to south. During moderate seismic activity, the bright green crater lake boiling at 60 degree Celsius is usually seen. On my visit, the smoke was heavy and we couldn’t see the lake. The lake turns grey as its temperature rises. When the temperatures rise to critical point, ash and magma erupt into the sky.
The pointed edges and dark grey and brown crater landscape of Mr. Naka-dake reminded me of Mt. Doom in the fictional land of Mordor from The Lord of the Rings. Remove the bright blue skies and imagine the lake to be boiling magma instead and you could just be right where Frodo was in his mission to destroy the One Ring! I was suddenly jostled out of my imaginary world when a local tourist asked me to take his picture and I was back in peaceful Kumamoto where volcanos aren’t the end of all things but in fact the very reason the island of Kyushu exists.
Next up on our journey onwards was Kumamoto city some 50 kilometres away. We were to visit the ancient Kumamoto Castle but since it was already getting very late, the castle visit was postponed to the next morning. I arrived at Kumamoto Castle Hotel and as its name would suggest, my hotel room was very luxurious and regal with deep red and purple tones and an amazing view of Kumamoto Castle outside my window.
I couldn’t wait to relax in my comfortable Twin Room. I had two beds to choose from and a large bathroom with lovely toiletries at my disposal. The best part was that the hotel offered free Wi-Fi too but there was no time for relaxing just yet as I off to dinner – Kaiseki style.
Kaiseki is a Japanese cuisine known for its meticulous preparation and beautiful presentation. It’s one of the most expensive types of Japanese food where meals can have more than 14 courses. It is often comprised of a bowl of miso soup and three side dishes known as setto (set) and is followed by an appetizer, sashimi, a simmered dish, a grilled dish and a steamed course in addition to other dishes at the discretion of the chef.
Basashi – Densely-marbled & lean horse meat
The highlight of dinner was Kumamoto’s local delicacy of horse meat eaten sashimi style. The delicacy is called Basashi. A well-known local specialty of Kumamoto, it is usually served with soy sauce, chopped green onion, and spices such as ground ginger and garlic. The marbled cuts of horse meat are surprisingly light when served raw as sashimi due to the high polyunsaturated fat content.
Though a little hesitant, I went ahead and tried it. I figured if I can try Kangaroo meat in Australia, horse meat wouldn’t be that different but it was. It was soft, tender and tasted somewhat like raw tuna. I really enjoyed it. The rest of my Kaiseki experience looked like this…
Appetizer: Assorted six small dishes including famous lotus-root stuffed with mustard
Starter: Amakusadaio, local free-range chicken in thin-sliced noodle style
Grilled Dish: Eggplant grilled with Miso on top & Amakusadio, local free-range chicken broiled in Soy Sauce
Boiled Dish: Tenderly boiled pork
Deep-Fry: Freshly fried Shrimps and Vegetables
Steamed Rice, Japanese Dumpling in warm Soy Sauce soup, Pickles in three selections
Back in my hotel room, refreshed and relaxed sitting by the window, I stared at the busy roads below and the lit roofs of the ancient Kumamoto Castle wondering what life would have been like back then when Kato Kiyomasa, the feudal lord (daimyo) ruled the area of Kumamoto Prefecture, then known as the Higo Province. This is an ancient land filled with culture, tradition and folklore. I was grateful to be here and so dusk fell once again in the Land of the Rising Sun.
Kumamoto Castle view from my hotel room
Jetstar Asia is the first low fares carrier to operate flights between Singapore to Fukuoka via Bangkok, offering travellers access to the island of Kyushu, well-known for onsen, beautiful mountain scenery and great food. Visit their official website for more information. Fukuoka is Jetstar Asia’s second destination in Japan. Jetstar Asia flies daily between Singapore and Osaka, via Taipei and Manila.
If you are travelling from Australia, you can fly Jetstar from Sydney via Gold Coast or Cairns to Narita and take a Jetstar Japan domestic flight to Fukuoka from there. Jetstar Japan operates a domestic network including flights from Osaka and Fukuoka.
Interested to fly Business Class? Read about Joseph’s Business Class experience with Jetstar.
My journey around Kyushu is part of a sponsored trip by Jetstar Asia, Oita Prefectural Government, Kumamoto Prefectural Government and Fukuoka City. All opinions are my own.