Discover Kyushu that the locals know
by Takehiko 'Riko' Hashimoto, 14 March 2019
RECOMMENDED TOUR ITINERARIES:
Chikugo Valley in Early Spring (departures in late February 2020 only)
Tours are still available for departures from end October to early December 2019, and mid-January to mid-March 2020 unless otherwise stated. Due to anticipated congestion related to the Tokyo Olympics, we will not run tours during mid-2020. Don’t miss out!
Kyushu, Japan’s southernmost main island, is rapidly becoming ‘discovered’ by international tourists for its distinctive culture and natural environment, an unparalleled wealth of traditions, and the warm hospitality of the locals.
There are many reasons for what makes Kyushu stand out as a premier destination for a Japan travel experience ‘with a difference’. First is its location, as Japan’s gateway to the Eurasian mainland—northern Kyushu, in particular, was where successive waves of peoples and cultures entered Japan over the millennia, mingling with the ancient indigenous culture of Japan—to shape the Japanese culture as we know today. The food, architectural and craft traditions of Kyushu are particularly revealing, in which hints of Chinese, Korean, European, Middle-Eastern and other cultural influences seem to harmoniously blend with classic Japanese elements to produce a culture that is distinctively Kyushu.
Antique Hina (Doll’s Day) dolls on display in a regional town in Fukuoka Prefecture
12th century Buddhist rock carvings at Usuki, Oita Prefecture
Kyushu is also blessed with natural beauty. Popularly called the ‘Land of Fire’ by the Japanese, Kyushu is home to numerous volcanoes, with their fuming vents, vast grassy footslopes, and peaks commanding endless vistas. The volcanic geology also makes Kyushu one of the best onsen areas in Japan, where there are countless opportunities for a restorative warm soak to let you cares melt away. But volcanoes are only one part of the beautiful natural landscapes of Kyushu, which also include some of the most diverse coastal sceneries in Japan, and rugged mountains cloaked in dense forests where wild azaleas, camellias and magnolias bloom. The natural environment of Kyushu has also had a major influence on its culture. The mild southern climate and the predominantly volcanic terrain, together with the multicultural influences, have cultivated a temperament that is noticeably more welcoming, relaxed and accommodating than in many other parts of Japan. The ‘Mother Nature’ of Kyushu can be nurturing… where tropical and arctic plants grow side-by-side in rich volcanic soils and farmers harvest two crops a year… as well as cruel… when famine ravages the land after calamities including volcanic eruptions, typhoons and floods. As a result, the traditional Japanese spirit of ‘Ichi-go ichi-e’ (‘One life, one encounter’) pervades Kyushu’s culture, reflected in its warm southern hospitality.
A summer afternoon in a mountain valley, rural Fukuoka Prefecture
Splendid wild azaleas in the volcanic ranges of central Kyushu
The rich culture of Kyushu makes it a legendary travel destination for enthusiasts of traditional crafts and food. Artisans continue to uphold age-old methods passed down the generations in their small, family-run workshops, individually handcrafting objects of beauty, and lovingly preparing traditional food. Being at a major cultural cross-road of eastern Asia for millennia, the people of Kyushu are also renowned for adapting to new influences—as reflected in Kyushu’s tradition of ‘fusion’-style cuisine, and more recently, in its reputation as a major hub for innovation including cutting-edge technology and medical research. The overall result is a diverse mix of cultural traditions that is unparalleled in Japan. Exquisite crafts including ceramics, textiles, handmade paper, bamboo and woodwork, and culinary experiences from traditional country-style soba noodles to spicy Asian-influenced dishes and decadent European-influenced sweets… Kyushu has it all!
Hand-dyeing using natural indigo at a textile workshop in a regional area of Fukuoka Prefecture
Unwinding over local green tea served in local ceramics
Exquisite Japanese fusion cuisine, Kyushu style
Kyushu, like most of Japan, is currently suffering from the effects of ageing and depopulation. As a consequence, traditions are disappearing fast, and the future for many rural areas of Kyushu appears bleak. An encouraging trend, however, is that Kyushu has been a major target area for what the Japanese call the ‘I-turners’ and ‘U-turners’… in Australia, we call them ‘tree-changers’, but in Japan they make a distinction based on their place of origin, i.e. the ‘U-turners’ return to their area of origin in the countryside after time in the ‘big smoke’, while the ‘I-turners’ are city-folk who relocate to the countryside. Many of the younger former city-dwellers who have decided to call Kyushu their home are making a tangible contribution to preserving Kyushu’s unique cultural traditions—such as Mr Setoguchi of Hita, a picturesque historic town in Oita Prefecture of northern Kyushu, and a treasure-trove of traditional crafts including ceramics and woodwork. Originally from Hita, Mr Setoguchi left a successful professional career in the city for a quieter life back home, driven by his passion to keep local traditions alive. Opening a cosy café and bar in the historic Mamedacho precinct of Hita in 2014, Mr Setoguchi has become a significant figure in the local community’s efforts to restore, preserve and utilise historic properties in the city, many of which are becoming abandoned and dilapidated due to depopulation. Just last year, he joint forces with a fellow Hita local, Mr Sakamoto, to open a private guest house using an abandoned property next to his café, restoring and refurbishing it using the skills of all the local traditional artisans that he could find… beautifully patterned ceramic lampshades and washbasins showing off the renowned Onta ceramics, exquisite floorboards and latticework on windows showcasing the Hita woodwork tradition, all custom-made for the accommodation… Mr Setoguchi tells me, in a somewhat sombre tone, that the latticework on the window shutters may very well be the last major commission for the renowned local artisan aged in his mid-80s now. [Read more about Mr Setoguchi and Mr Sakamoto’s stories at https://matcha-jp.com/en/6645.]
Mr Setoguchi’s café and bar, Bajio, overlooking the Kagetsu River in Hita, Oita Prefecture
On a brighter note, Mr Setoguchi points out that the craft traditions of Hita remain comparatively healthy, unlike in most other regional areas of Japan, because of the existing local demand that reflects the residents’ belief in maintaining a heritage townscape for themselves and their children—i.e. they are living traditions that are still embedded in everyday life. Yes, groups of tourists do amble around during the daytime in the old quarters of Hita, with its timeless townscapes, but it is obvious that the entire town has not been turned into a tourist attraction—unfortunately all too common in historic towns elsewhere in Japan. Kyushu, in particular, appears to have many historic towns that remain ‘functional’, without becoming over-dependent on tourism. I personally believe that this is one of the pillars of sustainable tourism in Japan… i.e. make everyday life and living traditions your tourist attractions rather than ‘putting on’ the culture to please the tourists.
The unassuming old-world charm of Mamedacho, the historic quarter of Hita, Oita Prefecture
So, Hita is lucky in many ways… as in other areas of Japan, most of regional and rural Kyushu, together with its ancient culture and traditions, is decaying due to ageing and depopulation. Although the recent boom in international tourism have significantly increased visitor numbers to Kyushu, most tourists visit a handful of well-known destinations such as Fukuoka City, Dazaifu, Nagasaki, Kumamoto, Beppu, Yufuin, Mt Aso and Kurokawa-Onsen. In some of the smaller regional towns not geared toward tourism, the sudden concentration of tourists has had negative consequences, including issues around congestion and waste disposal. However, much of regional and rural Kyushu remains practically unknown to international tourists. On one hand, this means that these areas are mostly missing out on the economic benefits of tourism, yet they are precisely the areas that desperately need them. On the other hand, these areas have not (yet) been tainted by mass tourism, so that you can still experience ‘real’ Japan, observing everyday life of the locals, away from the crowds and at your own pace.
A mountain village in northern Kyushu, where rural life continues as it has for centuries
Walking is one of the best ways to explore the picturesque towns, countryside and natural wonders of Kyushu. In some areas, bicycles are available for day-hire and can be combined with sections of walking. The areas along the Chikugo River, the ‘Mother River’ of northern Kyushu, and its tributaries, are particularly suited for a series of day-walks (and/or cycling) to take in the diverse landscapes… intensively cultivated river valleys with their patchwork of fields and orchards, ancient country temples framed by giant trees, historic towns harking back to the time of the samurais, carefully tended terraced fields and quaint villages clinging to hillsides, volcanic peaks adorned with colourful wild azaleas in early summer… and there is so much more! Walking the landscapes adds an entirely new dimension to your Kyushu travel experience, especially in a region where serendipitous discoveries seem to await you at almost every turn in the country lane.
Japanese apricot groves in late winter in the northern Kyushu countryside
A forest giant guards a 10th century Shinto shrine in rural Fukuoka Prefecture
A major obstacle to travelling in many parts of regional and rural Kyushu is the lack of foreign language information and signage, made worse by a maze-like network of small country roads and lanes covering the corrugated terrain. Finding your way can be a major challenge without local knowledge and language skills (and Google Maps won’t help you in many areas, unfortunately). We, at Deeply Regional Japan, have extensive local knowledge of regional and rural areas in Kyushu, gained through over 20 years of personal travel and through association with our personal contacts in Kyushu. Our private tours are guided by experts with a deep understanding of Kyushu’s culture, natural environment and history, with ‘insider’ knowledge of the region that the mainstream travel operators simply cannot provide. We focus on non-mainstream and non-tourist areas so that you will experience Kyushu like a local in their everyday life. (We certainly would be happy to also include a few famous tourist attractions if you don’t want to miss out on them!) Through our tours, you will directly support (i.e. without the ‘middlemen’) individuals, small businesses and community initiatives dedicated to upholding and developing the local culture and traditions into the future—whether it is craft and food artisans, farmers, or accommodation owners.
Japan’s southern paradise awaits you. Experience Japan with a difference in 2019 and early 2020… like a local, and away from tourist crowds… in regional Kyushu with Deeply Regional Japan®. Tours are still available for departures from end October to early December 2019 and mid-January to mid-March 2020. Due to anticipated congestion related to the Tokyo Olympics, we will not run tours during mid-2020. Don’t miss out!
RECOMMENDED TOUR ITINERARIES: