Known for its long history, hot springs, porcelain, citrus fruits, and steel industries – Kyushu (九州) is versatile and extremely beautiful.
As the early heart of Japanese civilization, the island keeps many secrets and it’s a gold mine of both cultural and natural sights. So much so that the entire southern island of Kyushu was listed as one of Time magazine’s top 50 World’s Greatest Places 2022.
Before you go to take in the spectacular environment of Kyushu, read on to learn the most important facts about its people, culture, history, and nature!
Volcanoes, Onsen, and 7 Hells – The Geography of Kyushu
While it may not look like one huge island, Japan is comprised of four large and almost 4,000 small islands. Kyushu is the third largest island, laid at the very south, spreading across almost 37,000 square kilometers. Along with the large island, several smaller southern islands (including Okinawa) fall under the jurisdiction of Kyushu.
A bit more than 10% of Japan’s population lives here – so of course it’s a region packed with history, culture, and interesting things to see.
The land of Kyushu was formed by volcanoes, nine of which are still active – and the island so obviously breathes and lives off that fiery energy. There’s a total of 26 volcanoes on the island, and two are considered some of the most active in the world. Just as it did millions of years ago, the eruptions still shape Kyushu.
Along with an abundance of fertile soil, a lot of rainfall, and a subtropical climate, the volcanoes blessed Kyushuans with many thermal waters. Approximately 30% of Japan’s hot springs (onsen) are located here – and up to 700,000 liters of geothermal water emerge in Kyushu onsens every minute.
Needless to say, Kyushu is definitely the spa capital of Japan!
The most famous hot springs are located in the town of Beppu (in the eastern Oita prefecture) and around Mount Aso in Kyushu’s central region. In fact, some hot springs in Oita are so hot and steamy that they got nicknamed the 7 hells of Beppu (some sources cite 8) – and while you really shouldn’t try to take a dip in them, each is truly a sight to behold!
Kyushu – The World’s Gateway to Japan
Kanmon Straits (関門海峡) separate the southern island Kyushu from Japan’s largest island, Honshu. The two islands are connected by two railway and one roadway tunnels, as well as the huge Kanmon Bridge.
Despite its distance from Japan’s major commercial centers like Tokyo and Kyoto, Kyushu connected Japan with the rest of the world for centuries. The island’s proximity to the Asian continent made it develop into a major port that accepted trade of goods and culture even when the rest of Japan was cut away from the world.
Specifically, the artificial island called Dejima (出島, literally meaning exit island), Nagasaki, played a key role in cultural exchange between Japan and European missionaries. The port was a major trading post from the 1570s, but it played a key role in Japan’s touch with the world during its 265-year-long period of isolation.
In the 1630s, Dejima was physically cut off from Nagasaki, making it the only place where the Portuguese and later the Dutch were allowed to trade with Japan.
Besides resources, a lot of knowledge (for example, the Japanese still use the Dutch word blik (ブリキ) for tin) and culture was brought to Dejima on European ships – including the Christian faith.
Even today, Kyushu is the place with the most Christian churches in Japan. Many of the Christian sites were built in secret, but today they’re recognized by the UNESCO World Heritage list.
Things to See in Kyushu
Kyushu is chock-full of breathtaking sights, long and spiritual history, unique culture, and incredible food. We definitely can’t cover all the beautiful sides of Kyushu, so we’ll mention a favorite or two in every region (prefecture).
Fukuoka (福岡, literally meaning lucky hill) is the most populous city on Kyushu. As such, it’s a bustling commercial center that has something to offer to everyone.
The city is famous for its festivals, including Japan’s largest and most colorful festivity in May – Dontaku. The festival started in the 12th century and has been held on Golden Week (a holiday when Japanese people tend to travel) since that time. Despite its very Japanese character, the festival is yet another testament of European influence – its name comes from the Dutch word for Sunday – Zontag.
Fukuoka is also known as the hometown of Tonkotsu ramen (豚骨ラーメン) and Hakata Niwaka (博多仁和加), a sort of comical, narrative performance under masks.
One of the most beautiful sites you shouldn’t miss out on if you visit Fukuoka prefecture in spring is the Dazaifu Tenmangu shrine (太宰府天満宮) orchard and its 6,000 plum trees in full, pink bloom.
Kitakyushu (北九州市) is the northernmost city in Kyushu – and interestingly, that is the literal translation of the city’s name. This city connects Kyushu and Honshu, with several ways to cross the Kanmon straits that separate them.
The city came into existence in 1963 when five municipalities – Moji, Kokura, Tobata, Yahata, and Wakamatsu – merged. Today, it’s the largest industrial city in Kyushu, with a variety of industries including iron and steel, heavy chemicals, cement, glass, machinery, ships, and deep-sea fishing.
One of the most impressive sights in Japan is definitely Kitakyushu’s Kawachi wisteria garden (河内藤園), a beautiful pathway under falling wisteria flowers.
Saga (佐賀市) is one of the best places to go if you’re looking for a spa vacation – the area surrounding its inactive volcano is famous for its hot springs.
If you happen to visit Saga in October, don’t miss the annual Saga International Balloon Fiesta – over 100 hot-air balloons dot the sky.
The rice paddies surrounding the city are also an impressive sight that makes traveling around the prefecture a joy.
Arita (有田) is the place of origin of porcelain dishes that were valued across the world for centuries – particularly the brightly-colored Arita plates and cups. Those are known as 有田焼 – Arita-yaki or 伊万里焼 – Imari-yaki, and were one of the main Japanese exports shipped from the Nagasaki port Dejima centuries ago.
Yoshinogari Historical Park near Kanzaki
See the best preserved testament of the Yayoi period of Japanese history (300 BC to 300 AD) just a few miles outside Kanzaki, Saga prefecture. If you’re a history nerd, the burial mounds, homes, shrines, and everyday scenes reconstructed on the archaeological site will make you understand Japanese ancient culture more closely.
With the nearby towns of Hirado and Sasebo, Nagasaki (長崎 – long cape) was the main point of contact between Japan and the rest of the world for centuries.
On August 9, 1945, Nagasaki was the second and the last city in the world ever hit by an atomic bomb. The utter devastation of the area was the reason why most of the city had to be rebuilt, making Nagasaki infrastructure newer and more modern than most other Japanese cities.
However – not everything was left in ruins, so today you can still visit historic buildings and temples. One of the iconic testaments of war is the one-legged torii (Japanese gate) near Sanno Shrine (山王神社). The stone gate used to be complete, but after the atomic blast, somehow only one side was left standing.
The city of Aso (阿蘇市) is located at the Aso Mountain, the largest active volcano in Japan (and one of the largest in the world). You can visit the main crater, and learn all about the history of the Aso Mt in a nearby museum.
There’s no prefecture in Japan with as many hot springs (onsen) and traditional Japanese hotels as Oita – and no town as famous for its spa resorts as Beppu (別府市).
Located around the Kirishima Range, a volcanic belt, the land is dotted with thermal waters.
The hot springs are scattered across several Beppu districts, commonly referred to as Beppu Hatto (別府八湯, eight hot waters of Beppu). Together, these make up to 2,000 hot springs in this area alone. Most of them are equipped with spa facilities and attractions like sand baths, making Beppu an incredibly relaxing experience.
When you’re done soaking, don’t forget to visit the Hells of Beppu – scorching hot, bubbling waters with mineral contents that give them impressive colors. The “Jigoku meguri” (Hell tour) is a popular tourist attraction that will take you across Beppu.
By the way – if you’re a fan of healthy cooking, head to Kannawa, near one of the Hells. Jigokumushi Kobo Steam Cooking Center (地獄蒸し工房鉄輪, Jigokumushi Kobo Kannawa) lets you cook your own veggies on hot spring steam!
If you’re a hiking lover, go to Miyazaki prefecture and have your breath taken away. From amazing surfing spots and beaches like Nichinan and Aoshima island, to the dreamy Takachiho gorge and its many, lovely waterfalls, Miyazaki prefecture has a lot to offer to anybody who enjoys spending time in nature.
Sitting at the southernmost part of Kyshu’s main Island, Okinawa is the only prefecture that lies further to the south. Kagoshima includes the southern portion of Kyushu Island and is a bridge to Okinawa with its many islands dotting the ocean.
Until only a century or so ago, Sakurajima, an extraordinarily active volcano this region is best known for, was a separate island. An eruption in 1914 connected the island to the mainland. The event is a lovely testament to how volcanoes still shape and reshape Kyushu. The volcano, Sakurajima, towers the city of Kagoshima, often compared to Naples for its geography and climate.
Loved by both nature lovers and studio Ghibli fans, one of Kagoshima’s must-see attractions is Yakushima island. Covered in thick cedar forests and mossy stones, this fairytale location that inspired Princess Mononoke truly looks out of this world. And when you get tired of hiking, have some of Kagoshima’s famous Kurobuta premium pork for a hearty meal!
Kagoshima is home to many spas and is famous for its mud baths, delicious food, and beautiful scenery. The Satsunan Islands, including the island of Amami Oshima , sit between the mainland of Japan and Okinawa and are considered part of Kagoshima Prefecture.
Last but not least, Okinawa prefecture is also a part of Kyushu – despite being quite far away and separated. Okinawa and the surrounding Ryukyu islands are unique in their own rite – so we devoted an entire article to them.
Kyushu – The Volcano and Spa Capital of Japan
Known as “the land of fire”, Kyushu radiates with energy and warmth.
It’s a welcoming place with plenty of things to see and do, with industrious and approachable people, and probably the best hot spring experiences you can find anywhere in Japan. One thing is too difficult to convey in words, though – the lively spirit. You’ll have to visit Kyushu yourself to know what I mean!