What makes Japan so amazing to travel in is the variety; with every new prefecture, city or village you find something unique. Consisting of 47 prefectures—including 43 traditional prefectures, two urban prefectures (Osaka and Kyoto), one territory (Hokkaido) and the Metropolis of Tokyo—Japan has a lot of ground to cover, and a lot of surprises to unearth. If you’re thinking of venturing outside of the obvious, here are some highlights to help you pick your prefecture! We’ve divided them by region, with this article covering the stunning Kyushu region.
Filled with beautiful beaches, wild forests and plenty of islands to explore, Kysuhu is the holiday destination of Japan. You need not look further for the perfect getaway—but you don’t have to sleep on a beach, you can hike, climb, learn, and adventure too!
Fukuoka – 福岡県
With sea on three sides, Fukuoka has always been a busy place and has plenty of amazing culture to show for the years of incoming trade. Famed for it’s ramen, there are plenty of delicious foods to try and places to explore—so be sure to bring some walking boots and a healthy appetite!
- Mt. Hiko is one of the three great Shugendo training sights and is dotted with small shrines and mystery-laden sites, all emitting a magical atmosphere. The area is great for views and hiking, with plenty of popular rock-climbing spots.
- Dazaifu Tenmangu is the head shrine of all Tenmangu shrines in Japan and is built above the grave of Michizane Sugawara, the god of literature and calligraphy. The grounds have over 6,000 plum trees and the first to blossom each year is the Tobiume, which legend says uprooted itself and flew to join Michizane in exile.
- Filling up on street food at the Hakata Yatai is a truly Japanese experience. Elbow to elbow with locals you can enjoy all the best food at the small stalls which appear at night before disappearing the next day. Ask for the chef or other customers’ recommendations and enjoy the family recipes and carefully honed creations!
While Hakata Gion Yamakasa is the grandest of festivals with over 770 years of tradition behind it, the Tamaseseri in early January is a sight not to miss. A ritual involving shrine parishioners competing to capture a wooden ball in fundoshi (traditional Japanese undergarment) in two teams: sea and land—the winning team is promised a good haul or harvest.
Hakata Ramen: With a rich, milky, pork broth and thin, curly noodles, Hakata ramen was created in the Hakata area of Fukuoka City, and is one of the three most loved kinds in the country. Made to serve up fast, the broth was made at higher temperatures and the noodles thinner to cut cooking time—all leading to the delicious creation you’ll find on every street in the city! (Incidently, the capital city of Fukuoka also rates high in terms of livability—follow the link to see all the reasons why you should move there.)
Saga – 佐賀県
Situated across the sea from Korea, Saga has long been influenced by Korean and Chinese culture and is famous for stunning pottery from the Arita and Imari areas as well as mudflats and onsen—a great combination for a trip!
- Yutoku Inari Shrine is built deep into the hillside of a valley with trailing torii gates, beautiful gardens, small shrines as well as the imposing main shrine, which is perched on tall wooden beams 18 m from the valley floor. You can follow a forest trail from the main terrace to Okunoin Shrine for views of Kashima City and Ariake Sea.
- Takeo Onsen town has been a top soaking destination for over 1,300 years with the smoothness of the water attributed to the high levels of sodium bicarbonate. There are plenty of public bathhouses and private ones too!
- Yoshinogari Park is a world-renowned archaeological site in Saga, covering a settlement from the Yayoi period with pit dwellings, over 2,000 tombs, an ancient shrine and a reconstructed village. There is an exhibition house displaying finds with plenty of information in English as well as chances to try traditional activities.
The Kashima Gatalympics in June is one of Japan’s messiest festivals as it is held on the mudflats of the Ariake Sea. Involving all manner of sports, from sumo to racing, anyone can participate, so join in and get muddy!
Squid fans can head to Yobiko, a village famed for squid cuisine, or you can try out charcoaled mudskipper if you want to stick with the mud theme.
Dagojiru, though, is a more standard local dish—a noodle soup with chicken and veg, it will definitely fill you up after a hike and a soak.
Nagasaki – 長崎県
The westernmost prefecture of Japan whose name is synonymous with tragedy, Nagasaki is full of history and an amazing place to explore.
- Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum and Peace Park: The first place to visit in the city, the museum and park are haunting, with memorials, sculptures and moving displays about the effects of the disaster.
- Dejima Island was the arrival point for foreign traders in Japan, and for many years the farthest they would reach. Now connected to the mainland, the original bridge is still standing, and you can cross into the past to explore how life was for the Dutch traders restricted to the island with reconstructed buildings and models.
- Mt. Inasa: For one of the three best night views in Japan and possibly the world, take the cable car to the top of Mt. Inasa and feast your eyes on the breathtaking bay views, glittering with city lights.
Kunchi Festival at the Suwa Shrine combines Dutch and Chinese culture and feature performances by one area each year—often using dragon dances and large floats to wow the crowds.
Tuck in to either of the traditional noodle dishes which combine Chinese and Japanese specialties: a hearty bowl of champon, a Chinese soup dish combining traditional bamboo shoots and noodles with local seafood, or saraudon, a bed of fried noodles topped with seafood and veg. Make sure to try the castella though: a steamed sponge with a delicate structure which is incredibly moreish and a very popular souvenir!
Kumamoto – 熊本県
You’ll most likely recognize the familiar face of Kumamon, the prefecture’s mascot—and maybe more so after the recent earthquake. However, Kumamoto is recovering well and offers plenty to see—with stunning natural onsen towns and gardens, and lots of delicious food to enjoy too!
- Kumamoto Castle is still one of Japan’s largest and most complete castles, although it is mostly closed to the public following extensive damage due to an earthquake in 2016. In summer 2020, an elevated walkway was opened for guests to view the inner castle grounds. The interior of the castle’s main keep is scheduled to reopen on April 26, 2021. Grounds filled with cherry trees attract many visitors in spring and the reconstructed Honmaru Goten Palace building is beautifully decorated.
- Kurokawa Onsen Town is unique in that it is free of the usual hideous concrete monstrosities that often dominate onsen towns in Japan. Kurokawa is a quiet town with wooden houses, paved streets and incredible riverside outdoor onsen, which offer a rare chance to sink into beautiful Japanese nature.
- Suizenji Garden was built in the 17th century and reproduces the 53 post towns of the Tokaido Road from Tokyo to Kyoto in miniature, including a mini Mt. Fuji. It makes for a peaceful escape from the city.
The Great Festival of Fujisaki Hachimangu Shrine, aka the Drunken Horse Festival, requires local teams to guide an ornately dressed horse through the city streets. Also, the once-controversial cries about Korea have since been dropped.
If the local specialty of basashi (raw horse meat) doesn’t tickle your fancy, why not try Kumamoto ramen which features a garlic-based broth and evolved from Chinese tanmen. If you’re feeling fancy, try Honmaru gozen: traditional samurai set meals recreated from Edo sketches and available at the Honmaru Palace.
Oita – 大分県
Home to the self-proclaimed best hot springs in Japan, Oita in Kyushu offers a wide variety including sand, mud, and the “eight hells” hot springs (see Beppu Onsen below). You can also work up a sweat mountaineering or enjoy the waterfalls and beaches.
- Showa Town: Recently transformed, this town takes you back to Japan in the 50s and 60s as a living museum. See old-fashioned transport; the amazing collection of toys, treats, and decorations at the Takada Agricultural Warehouse; and plenty or food stalls with snacks to enjoy as you stroll the streets.
- Beppu Onsen: A famous geothermal town with eight levels of hell (purely for admiring, not soaking in) and plenty to enjoy yourself (without crocodiles). The area’s eight springs produce more water than anywhere else in Japan, but you can also try sand baths, steam baths, and mud baths!
- Beauty spots: It’s almost too tough to pick between Harajiri Falls and Matama Beach—so have both! The falls are nicknamed the Oriental Niagara and were formed by an eruption of nearby Mt. Aso. The sunsets at Matama Beach are the stuff of legends, so head down with a drink and enjoy your evening.
The Hita Gion Festival is a bright parade of floats and costumes with food stalls, fireworks, and plenty of people in yukata (light-fabric kimono), for the traditional summer festival feel.
Be sure to try kabosu juice, similar to yuzu. It’s a local favorite and you’ll be needing to rehydrate after all the onsen action! If you’re hungry, try dango-jiru, a dumpling soup, or tempura chicken, especially if it comes with a kabosu dipping sauce.
Miyazaki – 宮崎県
Famed for beaches and coastline drives, Miyazaki is filled with stunning views and plenty of opportunities to explore. With 12% of the prefecture counted as parkland, there is plenty of hiking and climbing to do, as well as local specialties focusing on animals and vegetables raised and grown naturally.
- Takachiho is a legend-steeped mountainous area with stunning waterfalls and caves perfect for exploring. The hiding place of Amaterasu, the Shinto sun goddess, it is considered a power spot as it has profound religious importance and natural beauty. The Amano Iwato Shrine and Takachiho Gorge are particularly idyllic.
- The area of Aoshima has a stunning swimming beach, a small island surrounded by an unusual formation called the Devil’s Washboard as well as shrines and a beautiful temple.
- Udo Shrine is located on a cliff beside the ocean, making for incredible scenery. You can pray for long and happy marriages, healthy children and safety at sea!
The Aoshima Naked Man Festival takes place on the traditional Coming of Age Day in Japan (held annually on the second Monday of January). It invites both men and women to take a chilly dip in the sea wearing nothing but a loincloth or robe before soaking in an onsen and making mochi afterward.
Chicken grilled over charcoal until it turns black is a delicacy known as Miyazaki no sumibiyaki. If that doesn’t strike your fancy you can also try chicken nanban, Kyushu-style fried chicken with a tartar-like sauce.
Kagoshima – 鹿児島県
Subtropical islands which inspired the film Princess Mononoke, volcanoes rumbling quietly and rocket launch pads that connect us with space—Kagoshima is a holiday spot with a difference.
- Yakushima is one of the subtropical islands off the southern coast of Kyushu, famed for it’s beautiful, dense cedar forests, it was the inspiration for the Miyazaki film Princess Mononoke.
- Chiran is a small town on the Satsuma Peninsula, with the popular Chiran Peace Museum for Kamikaze pilots and a well-preserved samurai district to explore. It also boasts an English tearoom and museum dedicated to a one-day war in which 18 lives were lost.
- Amami Oshima has the beautiful golden sands of Okinawa with none of the crowds. With corals and stunning sea life it has great opportunities for snorkeling as well as silk production for kimonos, traditional cuisine and mangrove forests to explore.
Home to some more unusual festivals, here you can choose between:
- a) the Sogadon-no-Kasayaki (Umbrella Burning) Festival, where umbrellas replace torches,
- b) the Spider Battles, in which specially trained samurai spiders fight, or
- c) the Seppetobe Festival, where men dance, drink and sing while covered in mud in a paddy field to pray for a good harvest.
Kagoshima is famed for its sweet potatoes. There are plenty of ways to enjoy the root vegetable, such as gane (sweet potato tempura). Visitors should make sure to try the silver fish kibinago, which tastes best as sashimi and is available almost everywhere.
Okinawa – 沖縄県
The ultimate tropical getaway, Okinawa feels like a different country and consists of over 150 beautiful islands stretching into the East China Sea, with sandy beaches, snorkeling and diving opportunities galore.
- Churaumi Aquarium offers a close-up view of the underwater treasures of the surrounding seas, including whale sharks, manta rays and dozens of impressive displays of coral, deep-sea environments, and more.
- Ishigaki: For an island away from islands, this small piece of paradise allows you to swim with turtles, go hiking, and truly escape city life.
- Okinawa Prefectural Museum: Steeped in history, Okinawa has a complex past which is often forgotten. This museum has multi-lingual audio-guides and three exhibitions with a great interactive children’s room.
Although there are plenty of dragon boat races in the ports of Okinawa, the Paantu Festival is so unusual it can’t go unmentioned. Held annually on Miyako Island, residents dress in leaves and paint their entire bodies with mud, taking on the appearance of indigenous gods and walk the streets to bless families and new babies. They will often chase those trying to stay clean and often make children cry.
Honorable mention goes to the annual Naha Tug-of-War, one of the largest events of its kind in the world.
There are two must-tries in Okinawa, soki soba and goya chanpuru. The first is a soba dish with stewed pork ribs, and the second is a dish of tofu, vegetables and the love/hate vegetable goya, aka bitter melon. Follow this link for more about Okinawan cuisine.