Seeking warmer weather, I spent this year’s end-of-year holidays in Kyushu. This time, on the eastern side of the island, Miyazaki and Oita prefectures. I didn’t find much warmer weather, but I did find a beautiful corner of Japan I had not visited previously.
This was my itinerary (clicking on a day will take you to the relevant section). If you have any questions, please feel free to leave a comment or email me:
Day 1: Miyazaki City
I flew from Kansai Airport (KIX) to Miyazaki Airport (KMI) on Peach Aviation, the LCC subsidiary of ANA. At check-in, I was asked politely by the attendant “if I would mind” sitting in the emergency row. I believe this is the first time in my life someone asked me this, without me asking first… Of course I said yes. It’s a very short flight (less than 1 hour) but the extra leg room is always welcome.
Miyazaki City is the capital of the prefecture, and with a population of 400,000 it is a small city, even by Kyushu standards (7th largest on the island). The only reason I spent 3 nights here was because I had to stay put for Shabbat somewhere, and my schedule dictated it be Miyazaki.
I spent Friday visiting the main sightseeing spots, and Saturday walking along the Oyodo River. Trains are not an option here (there is only one line crossing the city and trains are infrequent), so it’s either buses, bicycle or walking. I chose the latter as the distances are not big and the sunny (yet brisk) weather was conducive to walking.
My hotel was centrally located, on the main thoroughfare, Tachibana Street. This is where one finds all the action, with the side streets bustling with shops, restaurants, nightlife spots, etc. A couple of shopping arcades (shouten-gai) cross the main street.
In the morning I headed north towards the Miyazaki Prefectural Arts Museum. I was too early and the museum was closed, but the building itself and the surrounding open spaces were nice to see nonetheless.
A bit further north on the same road I entered the vast grounds of Miyazaki Shrine. It is said to be 2,500 years old. To get to the shrine one walks through a quiet forest that puts the bustle of the roads behind. When I visited, the staff were busy setting up stalls and preparing for the big crowds expected the following week. During the first three days of the year many people flock to shrines for hatsumode, making their wishes for the new year. But during my visit (December 28) the shrine was almost empty. Wooden lanterns line up the way into the shrine, and the shrine itself, made of unpainted cedar wood, blends in well with the surrounding forest.
North of Yamazaki Shrine lies Heiwadai Koen (Peace Park), sitting on a small hill and also built 2,500 years ago. The park is dominated by a large monument, the Peace Tower, erected in the 1930s. I wrote a separate post explaining about this monument’s history, as I had an interesting encounter there with a fellow tourist.
On the way back to the hotel, before Shabbat, I had lunch at a vegan restaurant called Chago. I didn’t expect much, this being Miyazaki… but I was positively surprised. A beautiful Japanese decor and a delicious lunch. It is situated right behind the art museum.
I booked at the last minute so there weren’t many choices left (this being the holiday season), but luckily I found a room in Miyazaki at one of my favorite mid-class hotel chains, Dormy Inn, which have an unbeatable advantage: a hot spring public bath. I immersed myself in the outside bath to wash off the 12 kilometers I walked today.
Day 2: Miyazaki City
Shabbat, so all I did was take it easy, stroll along the Oyodo river (braving the bitterly cold winds), take more soaks in the hotel onsen, and finish the book I’m reading…
Day 3: Miyazaki > Nichinan > Cape Ito
First thing in the morning I picked up my rental car from Nippon Rent-A-Car at Miyazaki Station. After making sure the navigation system was set to English, I headed south to explore the southeastern corner of Kyushu.
My first stop was Aoshima Island. This small island (about 10 acres) sits right off the coast, about half an hour’s drive south of Miyazaki City. It is easily accessible on foot via a short bridge, and a walk around the island takes about 30 minutes. The rock formations in the shallow sea waters are quite remarkable: long, thin stripes of rocks extending into the sea. They are called Oni no Sentakuita (devil’s washboard). The shrine on the island is very colorful and is apparently popular among newly-wed couples, who buy clay disks which they then throw and break for good luck. The shrine extends from the beach into the sub-tropical forest at the center of the island, offering a nice contrast between the sunny, sandy beach and the dark, cool forest.
Next to Aoshima Island is a small Botanical Garden, featuring both outdoor and indoor (glasshouse) plants and flowers.
Continuing south along the coast, I arrived at Sun Messe, a place that looks so out of place in Japan it’s almost surreal. It is unclear what this place is exactly, something in between an amusement park (for families) and an outdoor museum. The raison d’etre of this place are the seven Moai statues, replicas of the world-famous originals on Easter Island. The site boasts (over and over again) that these are the only replicas allowed in the entire world! The statues have been there for 20 years now, and they are a real attraction, judging by the number of people praying to them, taking photos with them and generally milling around them. I haven’t had the chance to visit Easter Island yet, so this is second-best I guess…
My next stop was a few kilometers down the coast, and one of the most popular spots in Miyazaki: Udo Shrine. It’s located inside a cave, on a cliff overlooking the ocean (yes, it’s as beautiful as it sounds). Women hoping for a child, or expecting a child, come here and drink water from the rocks, as legend has it that Emperor Jimmu (the first one) was nourished from these waters. Another practice is standing on the terrace overlooking the ocean and throwing clay pebbles (100 Yen for 5 pieces), trying to hit a circular target marked by a rope down below. Women throw with their right hand and men with their left hand. If you hit the target, that’s considered good luck. I hit 3 out of 5, so I guess it’s so-so luck for me. In my defense, I am right-handed…
From Udo Shrine my plan was to head inland towards Obi City, and see the Obi Castle ruins. But on a whim I gave Obi a skip (I figured I saw enough castle ruins in Japan…) and instead continued south along the coast to reach the southernmost tip of eastern Kyushu, Cape Toi.
The area is famous for the wild horses that roam the area. And they are indeed roaming wildly; you can see them as you drive, on either side of the road. There is also a museum about the horses in the visitor center. The cape itself has a large, white lighthouse and offers beautiful ocean views. Another attraction here is the Misaki Shrine, which was built on the mountain face in the 8th century. Due to mudslides, the climb up to the shrine itself is prohibited, but you can reach the bottom of the cliff on foot and get a view of the shrine.
That was it for day one. I headed back north to Nichinan for my onsen hotel, perched on a hill overlooking Kitago valley, and offering outdoor baths with this view. Pure bliss.
Day 4: Sekino-o > Tsumagirishima > Saito > Mimitsu > Hyuga
Today started off cloudy with a little rain. I didn’t mind much as this day was planned for a longer drive between sightseeing spots, and not so much walking.
My first stop was Sekino-o Falls near Miyakonjo. This is one of the widest waterfalls I’ve seen in Japan. Apparently it has the largest pot holes in the world (I wish I knew what that was…). There’s a suspension bridge that allows you to cross the entire waterfall and then you can make your way up to the top.
A short drive from Sekino-o Falls is Tsumagirishima Shrine (alternative spelling: Tsuma Kirishima). This is a most interesting shrine, as it combines Buddhism and Shinto, as well as demons (Oni). The climb up to the shrine is very steep, large stairs made of large rocks. The legend is that the demon (a statue of which guards the entrance) built this massive staircase in one night. For those who need help, there are bamboo sticks available to help the climb. Alternatively, one can climb using more conventional stairs and ramps, from the parking lot area. The shrine itself looks very old, made of unpolished wood.
I continued on to Saito City, to see the Saitobaru Burial Mounds. These date back more than 1,000 years and are spread over a large area, which was excavated archaeologically only 20-30 years ago. Frankly, there’s not much to see here, and after you’ve seen a couple of burial mounds you kind of get the point…
Continuing my drive northwards towards Hyuga, I decided to stop and check out the old port town of Mimitsu. I was very glad I made this detour, because this tiny (and almost completely deserted) town turned out to be the highlight of this day. An enchanting port, preserved old wooden houses, an old shrine, and many small details that made my afternoon stroll through the narrow streets of Mimitsu a most enjoyable one.
Before getting to my hotel in Hyuga City, I drove to Hyuga Cape, to watch the sun set over the bay. A popular spot here for romantic couples is Sea Cross, where the rock formations down below in the sea are in the shape of a cross. Regardless of couples and rocks, the views here are stupendous.
Tonight is New Year’s Eve. Hyuga City, a sleepy town (population 63,000), is hardly the place to look for places to party into the new year. Which suits me just fine. It was a long driving day and I’m tired. I read in bed while listening to the bell ringing 108 times at the nearby Buddhist temple (to symbolize getting rid of the 108 human sins before the new year).
Day 5: Tachihiko > Mount Aso > Yufuin
Today I spent most of the day in the place that prompted me to visit eastern Kyushu in the first place, Takachiho. I read about it in several travel blogs and it receives unanimous accolades. So I set out early from Hyuga, driving through mostly deserted streets shortly after the first sunrise of the year.
Takachiho is meaningful to many Japanese people as it is identified with the mythological Amaterasu, the goddess of the sun and the universe in the Shinto religion. The Japanese Emperors lineage also apparently started here. So it is no wonder that Takachiho Shrine, on January 1, was already packed with worshippers at an early morning hour. I joined the crowds and lined up politely to enter the shrine. From an architectural perspective it is not a very impressive shrine. The more impressive ones in the area are Amano-Iwato and Amano-Yasugawara shrines, both of which I skipped because I didn’t feel like standing too long in lines (and because I figured I already saw enough shrines on this trip).
From the shrine it is a short drive to the main attraction: Takachiho Gorge. This narrow gorge with its tall, sharp cliff edges made of volcanic rock, is indeed very impressive. There is a footpath along the gorge, which takes about 20-30 minutes to walk (with pauses for picture taking), and provides a view from above. At the head of the gorge there’s a small boat pier, and people can row back and forth along the gorge, providing a view from below. There’s a waterfall about halfway through the gorge. It was too cold for me to attempt the boat ride (I left my gloves in the car), but I did enjoy walking back and forth along the pathway. The photos do not do the place justice…
From Takachiho I took the long drive to Mount Aso, hoping to see the various craters of this active volcano. The roads to Mount Aso were partly closed down after the April 2016 Kumamoto earthquake and opened again only recently. Before going, one needs to check whether the area is crater area is open to the public; sometimes it’s shut due to high levels of poisonous volcanic gases (check here).
It’s a steep drive up this 1,600m mountain, and about halfway it started getting foggy. Getting to the crater is possible either by ropeway, shuttle bus or private car. The fog at the summit became so thick the ropeway was not in operation, and the advice was not to go up (by bus or car) as visibility is zero. I drove up anyway (fee: 800 Yen), only to get the following view. Oh well… I guess I’ll see the crater another time.
The drive back down the mountain was somewhat scary, as visibility was reduced to only a few meters.
That concluded my day of sightseeing and I headed north to Yufuin, where I plan to spend the next two days mostly relaxing and soaking in hot spring waters.
Days 6-7: Yufuin > Beppu > Kitsuki > Oita
This is my second time in Yufuin, and you can read my impressions from my first visit here.
Yufuin is mostly an onsen town, with not much to see if you don’t enjoy hot springs or want to spend time jostling with Korean and Chinese tourists in an over-touristy shopping street. I stayed 2 nights in a small ryokan with a private small onsen bathtub and a view of the town.
On the second day, after checking out, I had a whole day before my flight back. So I made my way slowly through the mountains to Beppu. After arriving there, I took the ropeway up to Mount Tsurumi. The summit is reached after another 30 minutes or so climb. The views of Beppu and the surrounding countryside on this clear day were stunning.
I had read online about Beppu’s “hidden onsens”, that is onsens that are not easy to reach and do not have any facilities attached to them. I wanted to reach one of them, so I headed up Mount Nabeyama to reach Nabeyama-No-Yu, a rotenburo (open-air onsen). The road to the onsen is closed off, because a woman was murdered here 8 years ago; signs warn people about this. So I had to hike up the mountain for 20 minutes or so to reach the onsen. It was well worth it as I was there completely alone most of the time (until a local couple turned up), soaking in hot water and surrounded by nothing but nature.
My last stop before Oita Airport was a castle town called Kitsuki. There’s a small reconstructed castle tower with information about the local warlords and some history. Not much to look at, but as I had time I stopped here and took in the views.
From here I headed to Oita Airport, returned my rental car, and took a JAL flight back to Osaka (ITM airport).
Miyazaki prefecture is a great place to visit if you want to see rural Japan and avoid the well-trodden touristy paths.