KarryOn Founder Matt Leedham travels with a group of eight Japan Tourism E-Learning incentive winning agents for a 6-day Kyushu Island adventure in Japan’s south.

Japan continues to boom as a destination for Australian travellers, with ever-increasing numbers heading to the land of the rising sun to explore more of its many diverse regions and experiences.

Our Nippon adventure saw us fly down from Tokyo to Kyushu Island (population 13 million), firstly to Kagoshima in the south before exploring the island by road back up to Fukuoka in the island’s north.

Agents from Flight Centre, Cruiseabout, Helloworld Travel, iTalk Travel, Travel Partners, Travel Managers and Escape Travel made up our group – All of whom had won their spot on the trip thanks to the Japan National Tourism Organisation (JNTO) E-Learning incentive.

Needless to say, we were all VERY excited to be in Japan.

 

Our route on Kyushi Island

So first to the metropolis of Tokyo, where we flew into Narita Airport from Sydney and Melbourne with Japan Airlines (JAL) and our six-day Kyushu Island journey started and finished.

Autumn in Tokyo is magnificent, with Gingko and Maple trees shedding their colourful leaves and a temperature of around 6-10 degrees celsius keeping it fresh but still very enjoyable to explore the city.

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Our first night…

On our first evening in the capital city, Yoko (Our guide who herself hails from Tokyo) took us to a busy ‘Izakaya’ bar in the heart of the Shinagawa district, where we munched on delicious barbecued (Yakitori style) meats and steamed vegetables amongst the after-work ‘Kanpai!’ yelling crowd for what was the perfect welcome.

Hotel: The Grand Prince Hotel New Takanawa in Shinagawa
Very comfortable, excellent value and close to Shinagawa station. A great, affordable location to base yourself for exploring Tokyo.

 

Day Two – Tokyo to Ibusuki

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Leaving Tokyo…

Time to leave the chilly air of Tokyo for warmer climes with a 2-hour flight on Japan Airlines (JAL) from Tokyo’s Haneda Airport down to Kagoshima at the southernmost tip of Kyushu Island.

Here the temperature was a balmy 20 degrees. The whole sub-tropical region is arguably Japan’s friendliest and is renowned for its slower, healthier pace, volcanic peaks and fresh produce, with much of Japan’s supply being grown here on its fertile soils.

This quieter, rural region is also a centre for Japanese ‘Onsen’ (Hot spring baths). Kagoshima Airport even has its own excellent ‘Foot Onsen’ right outside its main doors for weary travellers seeking a soak before they depart or arrive.

Kagoshima Airport Hot springs

Kagoshima Airport Hot Springs

We spent the afternoon at the peaceful Kirishima Jingu Shinto Shrine wishing for good health and fortune, before staying in Ibusuki at a Ryokan hotel on the islands southernmost tip where we got to experience a traditional ‘Sand bath’ and Onsen for ourselves.

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Kirishima Jingu Shinto Shrine

A sand bath or ‘Sunamushi’ as its locally known is an experience you won’t forget in a hurry. Apparently, it’s good for the nervous system and general aches and pains.

After donning Kimono’s, we lay down outside on the beach and were buried (apart from our faces) in steaming volcanic sand. After laying there for around 10-15 minutes (and giggling a lot), we then hopped into a hot outdoor onsen together (No not naked! Still in our Kimono’s) to soak and scrub off the sand (cue even more giggling).

Ibusuki Sand Bath Japan

Ibusuki Sand Bath

After showering and changing into new Kimono’s, a traditional Japanese banquet followed in the hotel’s restaurant which included around 14 tasty dishes and warm Sake. We were all asleep about 20 minutes later!

Hotel: The Ibusuki Isawaki Hotel
A good value option as there is limited hotel accommodation in Ibusuki. Whilst the property is a little older, it does have sea views and beach access, Onsen and the legendary ‘Sand bath’ to experience.

 

Day Three – Ibusuki to Kumamoto

The magnificent Chiran Gardens

The magnificent Chiran Zen Gardens

I managed to make it into the hotel’s outdoor Onsen at dawn to watch the sunrise and was glad I did. Soaking yourself in the thermal hot pools is an absolute must and makes you realise just why the Japanese live such a healthy life given daily rituals like this.

With the sun shining, we left the coast and drove up into the lush hills, slowly climbing on narrow, snaking roads past rice and green tea terraces, solar farms and ancient cedar thicket and bamboo forests with clumps of palm trees adding to the tropical feel.

Tanya Whitehurst, Cruiseabout, Perth

Tanya Whitehurst, Cruiseabout, Perth. Chiran Gardens.

We stopped at a small village called Chiran where hot steam rises in the streets to wander through immaculate Zen Gardens and explore old Samurai Clan traditional Ryokan houses.

An hour later we were cruising down the picturesque river on a punt at Kumagawa eating raw sweetfish with soy and wasabi soaked rice and washed down with Asahi beer while we watched young cormorants fishing for their lunch.

Samurai House, Chiran, Japan

Samurai House, Chiran, Japan

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All aboard!

Then to the bustling city of Kumamoto to admire the Suizenji Jojuen Gardens before viewing the magnificent Kumamoto Castle which had stood since 1600 until it was sadly devastated by a 7.3 magnitude earthquake in April 2016. It’s going to take a decade to restore it at the cost of around 63 trillion Yen (AUD 736 million), but thankfully, it will happen.

Hotel: ANA Kumamoto Hotel.
Excellent quality and value in the heart of Kumamoto.

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Kumamoto Castle

 

Day Four – Kumamoto to Fukuoka

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Boarding the punt at Yanagawa

Up early for a Japanese breakfast of Miso Soup, pickles, fried omelette and pork Katsu curry with rice with not a Coco Pop in sight.

A drizzly, fog-shrouded start cleared thankfully as we drove out of Kumamoto city and past cabbage fields, pagoda tiled roofs and small boxy cars that looked like fridges on wheels.

One thing you will not see in Japan is litter. The streets are spotless and the roadsides totally trash free. Even the fields look manicured. Such is the Japanese’ respect for their fellow countrymen and women.

So ninety trash free (Believe me, I was looking for some) minutes later, we were in the small town of Yanagawa.

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Nicknamed ‘The Venice of Japan’ thanks to its 470 km’s of canals, it seemed only fitting that a singing Gondolier should take us on a punt tour (Kawakudari) through Yanagawa’s scenic waterways.

Passing weeping willow trees and Crane’s fishing for their lunch, our Gondolier sang old folk songs to us while we watched out for the next low bridge to duck our heads under.

Our singing Gondolier...

Our singing Gondolier…

Then it was off to visit more Zen gardens and the historical house of Yanagawa Ohana for a smoked, grilled eel lunch (delicious!) and a meander through the neighbourhood’s quaint streets stopping to buy locally grown Satsumas (Aka Mandarins).

Smoked eel... Yum!

Smoked eel… Yum!

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Yanagawa Ohana

Heading back towards the ocean and the city of Fukuoka on the bus, we stopped at the much larger and more popular ‘Dazaifu Tenmangu’ Shrine before arriving at the vast Fukuoka Seahawk Hotel at sunset for an excellent Sushi dinner on the hotel’s 38th floor to end our day.

Hotel: Hilton Sky Hawk Fukuoka
Huge oceanfront property featuring its own Onsen and all the mod cons you’d expect from a Hilton. The only drawback is the property is a good 15-20 minute cab ride from the CBD.

 

Day Five – Fukuoka to Tokyo

The Hilton Sky Hawk Fukuoka

Sunset at the Hilton Sky Hawk Fukuoka

Fukuoka is the fifth largest city in Japan with 1.5 million people and faces Busan in South Korea across the Tsushima Strait (Around 3 hours by hydrofoil or 7 hours by ferry).

We had a bit of free time to explore the hotel surrounds in the morning, and then we were on our way back to Tokyo and Haneda Airport which is a 90-minute flight.

Ramen! At Fukuoka Airport

Ramen! At Fukuoka Airport

The land of the rising... Over Fukuoka

The land of the rising… Over Fukuoka

This time we were staying in the heart of business and leisure district Shinjuku, with its fantastic shopping, eating and expansive Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden right on its doorstep. It’s an excellent location for anyone visiting Tokyo.

Our ‘Friday night in Tokyo’ experience took us into the dazzling neon district of Shinjuku for a delicious meal at another cozy Izakaya bar where we joined a very rowdy, fun after work crowd. There’s no better place to be than eating barbecued meats (Yakitori style) and drinking warm sake when it’s cold outside.

Shinjuku Kids

Shinjuku Kids

Afterwards, some of us kicked on to see the famous (and unmissable if you’re visiting) Shibuya crossing and then enjoy a few late night drinks in the ‘Golden Gai’ bar area of Shinjuku. The ramshackle ‘Golden District’ is made up of 6 narrow laneways with tiny, buzzing bars the size of your kitchen and is another absolute Tokyo must-do.

The famous Shibuya crossing

The famous Shibuya crossing

Hotel: Hilton Tokyo, Shinjuku.
Stylish, busy property with all the mod cons and exemplary service you’d expect from Hilton. Fantastic location and extremely comfortable.

 

Day Six – Tokyo and home

Harajuku on a Saturday is a great place to be

Harajuku on a Saturday is a great place to be

Spending time in Tokyo on a weekend is a real treat with so many moments on offer to experience. You can check out the many markets, wander the buzzing streets of Harajuku and shop its many boutiques, or relax and stroll through one of Tokyo’s parks, taking time to people watch.

Mmm... Ice cream

Mmm… Sweet stuff

We all had our own quick insights before heading back out to Narita for our flight home. I think all of us were sad to leave. Japan is like that – there is just so much to discover that somehow you never leave satisfied that you’ve seen enough. This was my fourth visit to Japan and already I’m itching to get back.

Overall? A fantastic trip and insight into another growing area of Japan. Incredible food, countryside, people and culture.

Matt travelled as a guest of Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO) flying on Japan Airlines.

Have you been to Japan? What was your favourite area and experience?