Kyushu | An Onsen Road Trip

For our final month before having to leave Asia and return to reality, we wanted to explore somewhere new with direct flights back to Texas and road trip potential – so Japan was the clear choice. Tara had never been before – and my previous trips to Tokyo had left a strong desire to see life elsewhere in the country. With Narita airport as our likely departure point for the USA, it made sense to look at cities in southern Japan to start our road trip (the north was still covered in snow at the time). We played around with our frequent flier accounts to see how we could get to the region for free from Taiwan – and with luck, Delta had a codeshare to a city in Kyushu called Kumamoto that we previously knew little about  – but wound up being amongst our favorite places we visited.

The special Pokemon plane that we were on departing from Taipei gave us our first glimpse of the anime kitsch we had been excited to experience in Japan. While most of the other passengers had prior knowledge of it and lined up for selfies on the tarmac, we had no idea that was coming – the first of many (mostly pleasant) surprises we had that day. Upon landing, Andy was blown away by all of the cool robots cleaning the airport floors. Perhaps this led to a less pleasant surprise, in that he forgot to use the bathroom before entering a long immigration line. When it was finally our turn to get stamped into the country, he proclaimed an emergency toilet was needed- fun! This threw the immigration officer off-kilter and closed down the processing line while he politely escorted us to a bathroom. Watch out Japan, here we come!

Kumamoto’s biggest tourist draw is its 400 year-old castle, apparently Japan’s first UNESCO site designation. There are loads of interactive exhibits inside to goof off with prior to entering that were actually quite entertaining. We’ve become somewhat jaded with regards to castles these days, but I gotta say, this one was really fun to explore. Having a view of a volcano erupting from the top floor got Andy pretty jazzed about heading into the mountains the following week.

Being the piggies that we are, sampling Japan’s culinary delights was on the priority list from Day 1 – and stumbling into a random ramen joint near the river wound up giving us one of the best bowl of noodles we’d ever eaten. Even the breakfast spread at the Kumamoto New Hotel made getting up in the morning something to look forward to.

The people of Japan seem to thrive on all things kitsch, much to our delight. The city of Kumamoto even has its own mascot called “Kumamon” – and statues, souvenirs, and food bearing his likeness are never far away. We spent much longer than we’d planned at Kumamon Square with some new Taiwanese friends, and ended up getting Andy a matching set of Kumamon mittens and a snow hat. YOLO!

From here, we got Andy his long-awaited trip on Japan’s famous shinkansen “bullet train” down to the port city of Kagoshima. We decided to detour south before starting our road trip in order to catch a boat to Yakushima for a week – which is definitely worthy of a separate post that’ll come shortly. But Kagoshima itself was quite fun too despite the cool drizzly weather, which somehow seemed fitting from the images I’d harbored of Japan while watching anime in the past. Simply wandering around the towering neon signs written in Japanese (advertising a mix of restaurants, strip clubs, and video games) proved to be a great way to spend the evening. It was here that we got our first katsu curry of the trip, a dish we’d come to love after many years of living in Japanese-influenced Hawaii. We also came across a really unique and tasty ramen joint (Snoup) that uses creamy tomato sauce in its broth base and a parmesan topper, which worked surprisingly well.

We picked up our road trip car at Kagoshima’s airport and set off to the north sans issue, having become accustomed to left hand driving over the last year. It felt SO good to be driving again, we all really really missed the independence of taking road trips while living in Bali. Our first target was Kirishima Kinkowan National Park, full of billowing volcanic steam vents all along the windy roads- Andy was blown away. Many trails were closed due to seismic activity, but we found a nice open one through the forest along a milky-white heated stream. The cool pine forest air felt great too, dropping below 40 degrees by the time we got to our rental house near Mt Aso. Sitting by a fireplace was quite a change of pace from tropical life! Turns out that our accommodation was right on an active caldera rim, and the owner left notes everywhere about keeping cabinets and such closed because of earthquakes. Good advice, as we had a pretty solid tremor on our first morning there.

We took a day trip from Mt Aso over to Takachiho Gorge, which was even more striking than the pictures we’d seen. The mountain ridges just outside of our house were reminiscent of Patagonia in parts. To get a bird’s eye overview upon arrival, we hopped on a super kitschy tourist train that rumbles over the steep gorge, complete with laser lights in the tunnels and the conductors using bubble blowing machines while they told jokes in Japanese- possibly the best day of Andy’s life to date! We then drove down into the gorge itself and walked along a trail with killer views of the cliff walls, raging rapids, and a few scenic bridges.

Perhaps the highlight of the day though was our lunch spot, a “flowing somen” joint where the chef floats your noodles down a bamboo “river” and you have to grab them with chopsticks before they get away. So fun! After a 2 hour wait, our reservation for a rowboat finally came up and we got to join the throngs of clueless paddlers in sort of a bumper boats scenario deep within the gorge. We shared a ton of laughs with other tourists there, mostly young Japanese couples and groups of teenagers.

We’d been promising Andy some snow for months now, so thankfully Aso National Park didn’t make liars out of us. The summit was not only snowy, but there was also a huge volcano that was violently billowing smoke against an icy backdrop. It was quite a sight indeed! We tagged along with a school group of kids roughly Andy’s age for a short walk, and while they shared no language in common, they had a blast running around the snowy volcano viewpoints together. Lunch at a local dairy/restaurant nearby (Aso Milk Factory) was a real treat too, dairy in Indonesia was sparse at best.

After a few days of hiking around the summits of Kyushu, we hunkered down in a town called Yufuin which is known for its onsen (naturally heated hot tub) hotels. Our setup at  Hanarenoyado Yukagetsu had a boulder-strewn private onsen that we spent most of our waking hours soaking in. The hotel’s open bar of random liqueurs and door-delivery unagi (eel) were icing on the cake! As with Kagoshima, our accommodations came equipped with some rad kimono-pajama outfits that we thought we looked pretty sassy in. A nice relaxing stop before heading over the bridge onto Honshu Island for big-city adventures.

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  • Marianne BrockApril 20, 2024 - 6:46 pm

    Love the hat and gloves!  When are you back?ReplyCancel

  • Marianne BrockApril 20, 2024 - 6:46 pm

    Love the hat and gloves!  When are you back?  Andy has changed so much!ReplyCancel

  • Olivia ValeApril 20, 2024 - 9:55 pm

    Cuties!! Love the photos – looks like a blast!ReplyCancel

  • Joanne HallApril 28, 2024 - 2:10 am

    Thanks for letting live vicariously through all of you!! What a great adventure for your handsome boy Andy! Love you all!! ReplyCancel

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