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3-Day Model Trip Outline of the region

3-Day Model Trip Outline of the region / Kyushu / Trace JAPAN, Visit Kyushu !

Volcanoes and hibiscus, sunny skies and belly-shaking good humor, dancing Chinese dragons and sugary Portuguese sweets.... Doesn't sound like Japan? Then it's time you headed for Kyushu, Japan's temperate southern island and experienced its delights for yourself. The island's proximity to China and Korea made the region fertile ground for over 2,000 years for continental Asian civilization, a cultural richness evident in its cosmopolitan cities and colorful festivals.
Although characterized by color, festival beats and eclectic cuisine, Kyushu also offers much subtlety. Ancient Shinto mythology is said to have emerged from its mist-shrouded peaks and hot springs; prehistoric relics hint of obscure roots in Asian continental civilization. Dense tracts of unspoiled nature prove that two-thirds of Japan's landscape really does comprise uninhabitable mountains. Welcome, then, to a Kyushu where tales of gods and goblins alike linger in lush, natural folds.

Eco Adventure

For all its cultural intensity, Kyushu is also a land of surreal volcanic landscapes and stunning mountains-particularly in the south. From Miyazaki, follow the palm trees along the rugged coastline of Nichinan, a marine-sports mecca made all the more striking by sights such as the vermilion steps of Udo Shrine, zig-zagging along cliffs against an indigo ocean. High up in Kirishima, hiking trails link a necklace of cone-shaped volcanoes, passing fierce sulfuric vents and the vivid blue lake of Rokkanon on the way. Far south again, past Kagoshima is Chiran, where a former samurai town replete with immaculate stone gates and clipped gardens has been preserved to perfection. Evidently, the samurai spirit lived long: Chiran was also one of the Second World War's most important Kamikaze-pilot training bases.
From Chiran continue south through tea country to the rugged cape beyond Ibusuki, with its hot-sand bathing, tropical gardens and idyllic fishing villages. Long white beaches await at Tanegashima. Allow a long, last stop at the achingly beautiful island of Yakushima. Its friendly, smiling locals and tiny, jagged circumference almost belie Yakushima's sheer godliness: at nearly 2,000meters, its mountains are Kyushu's highest, its impenetrable 4,000-year-old cedar forest is navigable by expert guides only, and it is sliced with massive canyons and thundering waterfalls.
Returning from Yakushima back to reality is a hard process. Who would have thought that samurai towns, hibiscus-filled subtropical gardens, European trading posts and breathtaking mountain vistas could all exist barely within 50 km of each other?

Experience Nature and Volcanic Mountains

Take a trip to Kyushu's geological core: the northern volcanic belt formed by the prehistoric eruptions of Mt. Aso some 100,000 years ago that lies beneath the Yamanami Highway. Drive from the azalea-blanketed foothills of Mt. Aso, a still-active volcano, past eerie pyroclastic flows right up to its barren peak, and stand on the thrilling edge of the world's largest caldera.
Surrounding Aso is prime mountain resort country. Kuju, Kokonoe and Naoiri are quiet, hot-spring towns set within gently rolling countryside 1,000 meters above sea level. Here, hike to blissfully windblown peaks or sample nouveau-Japanese dishes made with organically-grown produce. In summer, drink in the cool mists of Oguni's waterfalls and gulp down clear mineral water from its springs. Hidden hot springs dot the windblown coastal hills to Ajimu, where old homes are graced with unusual relief paintings, called kote-e, depicting friendly gods. Gentrified country charm awaits at Yufuin, lovely thatch-roofed spas peeping from their traditional bamboo and maple hedges. Yufuin's annual jazz and film festivals are other highly-regarded drawcards.
East at Beppu, jets of steam hiss, and over 130,000 kilolitres of volcanic hot water pour from an estimated 2,800 cracks and pools. Viewed from the dusky green mountains behind it, Beppu looks as though it is being boiled. Try a healing soak at the traditional inns lining Beppu's curved bay, or marvel at the startling Jigoku springs: red, seething white or burping mud pools bursting out of rocky crevices, each a result of different mineral properties.

The Romance and History

Having touched Kyushu's Asian heritage and peeped through its windows to the West, it's time to meet the wilful lords and merchants that shaped its highways and fiefdoms. Traveling southwest of Moji-the 1920s port from whose red-brick trading houses steel was shipped worldwide in Japan's early industrial days-is Yanagawa. Here, an intricate system of moats created for a now-ruined castle give the delightful impression of a town floating on waterways. Yanagawa's lords inhabited the lovely Ohana villa long enough to create an austere Japanese garden in the sixteenth century, and a Western annex and a Japanese armor collection in the nineteenth century. Flat-bottomed canal boats glide there effortlessly beneath Yanagawa's willows.
Inland, flanked by two fast-flowing clear rivers is the former shogun fief of Hita, whose merchants built miso and sake establishments still lingering with rich, brewed scents. On the east coast of Kyushu are the historic castle towns of Kitsuki and Usuki, held together by the smooth flat stones of their old fortifications. You can still admire the gracious homes and tea shops both towns' seventeenth-century lords brought to their isolated shores. A visit to see the cluster of some 60 stone Buddha images carved into rock makes an interesting side trip outside Usuki. The carvings were first made at the turn of the eleventh century, and not completed until the mid-fourteenth century.

Christian and Early Western Influences

Cannonballs and kasutera spongecake included, much early Western influence in Japan arrived hand-in-hand with Christianity. Several Portuguese merchants and one saint-Francis Xavier himself-arrived in Hirado in 1550 to open trade and preach their faith. The famous scenery, where Buddhist temples stand alongside nineteenth-century churches, is watched over by Hirado Castle.
Dozens of churches are scattered along the rippling hills and island-studded coast south to Nagasaki city, where you'll also find the Oura Catholic Church built in 1865, a national treasure and the nation's oldest wooden Gothic architecture. Why are there no older churches? All traces of Christianity were destroyed after 1643, when stringent bans were placed on the religion until 1858. Faithful converts managed to practice in secret, through the strange and secretive cult of crypto-Christianity. Crypto-Christian crosses and graves, cleverly styled during these two centuries to resemble Buddhist imagery, can still be seen in the Shimabara Peninsula, Amakusa islands and far south in Kagoshima.

Foods and Festivals

Your journey begins at energetic Fukuoka, a major crossroads for Chinese and Korean culture after the seventh century, and today a brisk, modern metropolis. The city offers world-class museums and fashions, and some of Japan's best contemporary Asian arts festivals. Even its cuisine reflects this fresh international-mindedness, and any local dish seems fused with Californian or Korean influence alike.
Fukuoka's sleek modern architecture makes a striking background to more traditional scenes, ranging from a number of colorful festivals to the rough-hewn yatai noodle stores that brighten the downtown area at night. The Yamakasa festival, held every July and which dates back 800 years, is famous for the speed and vitality with which huge bamboo floats are carried during races involving hundreds of men.
A contrast to Fukuoka is quiet, forested Dazaifu, once an outpost of Nara's Yamato Imperial Court. Old-world streets lead past obscure ruins from the seventh century and the mossy gardens of exquisite minor temples. The scent of incense never fades at Dazaifu Tenmangu, a shrine dedicated to the god of scholarship; in spring, the graceful poetry festival, Kyokusui-no-en, is held there amid the blossoms of 6,000 plum trees. Very close to Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine, there stands the Kyushu National Museum which is the fourth national museum founded in Japan focusing on the theme of exchange with other countries and districts of Asia.

From Dazaifu, take the old Nagasaki Kaido trade road west to Kyushu's most historic port. Stopping perhaps to sample the delicate tea and hot springs of hilly Ureshino, arrive, finally, in Nagasaki. With its narrow streets, atmospheric Chinese quarters and dainty stone bridges, getting lost is half the fun in Nagasaki. At the tiny once fan-shaped island of Dejima, marvel at how Western traders introduced medicines, art and even chocolate during some 200 years of national seclusion (1635-1857). For centuries, Chinese sweet-and-sour pork has been as much a part of Nagasaki's cuisine as heavy Portuguese dessert, and the city's festivals are as eclectic: from the hilltop kite-flying festival in spring to the Nagasaki Kunchi Festival (October 7-9) with its dragon dances, pantomime acts and colorful floats evoking the local culture. These presentations are made in honor of the deities of Suwa Shrine, and can be seen in various parts of the city. On August 9 each year, a more solemn occasion is held: the moving peace ceremonies commemorating Nagasaki's tragic destruction by the atomic bomb of 1945.

The Shochu Spirit

Like its volcanic landscape, Kyushu's definitive distilled spirits, shochu, has a fiery character. Unlike sake, full-bodied and fragrant, shochu is light and crisp-best drunk on the rocks or with hot water. Wheat shochu makes a heady accompaniment at Kokonoe and Ichinomiya villages to rustic meals of dengaku, densely-flavored tofu and mushrooms charcoal-grilled in miso.
The further south you travel in Kyushu, the more ubiquitous shochu becomes. Deep in the cleft gorges and vast forests of Takachiho, barley shochu keeps the frenzied Kagura dances of winter going until well past midday the following day. These whirling, stamping "demon" dances, derived from ancient Shinto myth, are powerful visualizations of Takachiho's deep assocations with Japanese mythology. Legend has it that the mighty goddess Amaterasu once hid in a cave here in Takachiho, causing the world to be plunged temporarily into darkness.
Far from Takachiho's mountainous mystery is Kumamoto, a city whose meat-dominated cuisine and feisty inhabitants were shaped by warrior culture after Kiyomasa Kato built its mighty castle in 1607. Kumamoto Castle's expansive grounds glow with golden gingko leaves in autumn, and make a bold contrast to the poetic Suizenji garden nearby, its beautiful landscaping inspired by Mt. Fuji and views from the 53 post stations (stops) along the Tokaido road.
Back in the steep mountains south of Kumamoto is Hitoyoshi, its fourteenth century castle ruins smothered with cherry blossoms in spring, and forests filled with inexplicably dense mists in winter. The fast, translucent Kuma River slices through Hitoyoshi. Wooden boats once transported fuel and coal down its hazardous rapids; the same route now makes an exhilarating ride for visitors. The Kuma River's pristine water is the secret ingredient of Hitoyoshi's prized Kuma shochu. Taste Kuma shochu at the dark, cool distilleries that dot Hitoyoshi's historic streets.
In Kagoshima join the loud, friendly locals in tiny bars, and savor Kagoshima's bold sweet-potato-based shochu with rough fish cakes and Chinese-style pork dishes. A fine spray of volcanic ash rains on the city almost daily from Mt. Sakurajima, the innocently beautiful volcanic island in Kagoshima Bay. A hot spring at Sakurajima's base allows for steaming relaxation at eye-level with the bay.

The Ceramic Towns

Although Japan has a 12,000-year history of earthenware making, Kyushu is where its porcelain industry was later born. Several towns famous for ceramics are concentrated along this route. At Karatsu, a former castle town framed by windswept beaches and gnarled pine groves, pottery of a Zen-like simplicity is fired in about 20 kilns. The bold, flung glazing style was perfected in the late 1500s.
Japan's very first porcelain works were fired after the early 1600s at Arita and Imari, tiny towns set in fecund valleys shaped by towering hills of clay that somehow resemble Chinese ink landscapes. The brick chimneys of 10 kilns jut against the dripping, hemmed-in green of Okawachiyama in Imari. Huff and puff up its narrow flagstone paths to workshops overflowing with blue-and-white wares. At Arita, over 150 kilns "tumble" out of a V-shaped valley, along with splashing streams and curious sights, including one blue-and-white tiled torii shrine gate. Some of Arita's elaborate porcelain works are emblazoned with whirling dragons and effervescent flowers in hues of red, green, gold and blue.

Archeological Mysteries

In the mood for more mystery? Kyushu's ancient and prehistoric relics offer fascinating insights into the growth of early Japanese culture. Age-old Korean influence abounds at rugged Tsushima Island, including a rare group of storehouses with stone slab roofs, and Korea itself is clearly visible from Tsushima's northern tip. Gentle Iki Island nearby is a pleasure of flowered rolling fields and pristine beaches. The remains of an ancient village, Haru-no-tsuji, were discovered here as recently as 1996. The find made an exciting complement to the Yoshinogari ruins on mainland Kyushu, where extensive excavations were made of a Yayoi-era (300 BC-AD 300) village. Its original moats, boundaries and a fascinating museum elucidate the age when rice cultivation had just begun in Japan.
Dozens of ancient burial mounds in Yamaga and Kikuchi provide another awing glimpse into prehistoric Japan, when it was populated by a farming people who worshipped the sun and harvest cycles. At nearby Kikuchi Gorge, formed by mighty Mt. Aso's outer crater, silvery waters cascade through exquisite elm and camphor forests, creating a year-round icy vapor.
Far over on Kyushu's eastern coast at Saito, 300 small and large mounds-keyhole shaped, round and square-fill an open windswept park, made all the more mysterious by an abundance of seasonal flowers.