Golden Week has just passed and as most Japanese people I had some days off and went on yet another trip. As always after traveling I present you my itinerary and hope it can be a good sample for one of your future trips to / in Japan.
This time I wanted to visit Kyushu again. The original plan was to check out spots in Oita, Nagasaki and Fukuoka Prefectures that I haven’t been to before.
Unfortunately, this year’s Golden Week Vacation didn’t turn out that well.
First of all, I got sick and had to cancel the first part of my trip. Then, it was much hotter than it should have been and several flower parks I planned to visit announced that the “viewing / blooming time is over early this year“. I ended up cancelling several highlights.
Yet I got to explore some really nice spots such as the popular Kawachi Fuji Garden (wisteria) and yet another great cat island. Read on to find out more.
I made Oita City my base from where I mainly travelled by rental car. I’ve already been to the most famous spots such as Beppu, Yufuin and Nakatsu. This time I wanted to explore the less-known sights.
Being in Oita City, I thought it’s finally time to check out Funai Castle. It’s only a short walk from Oita Station.
I really liked it although there’s no castle tower left. The moat and remaining buildings are quite nice and make a pleasant walk. You completely forget that you’re surrounded by a busy city life.
I mainly spent some time on the Kunisaki Peninsula during my stay in Oita. While you can travel there by train, it’s hard to get to all the sights without your own vehicle, so I really recommend a rental car!
Kunisaki Peninsula – Usa City and Rokugo Manzan:
First I visited Usa Shrine whose giant red gate you can see in the photo above. It is one of the major Hachiman Shrines in Japan!
Afterwards I went to the nearby “Oita Prefectural Museum of History“. It displays replicas of the Usuki Stone Buddhas (that I also visited) and a huge reconstruction of Fujiki Temple’s main hall (see the real one further down).
If you are in Usa City and have a car, then you also have to check out the temples and shrines of Rokugo Manzan (六郷満山).
In the photo above you see the cool stone guardians at Futagoji Temple.
Here’s the main hall of Fujiki Temple. A reconstruction of it can be found in the prefectural museum in Usa City as mentioned earlier.
This hall is a designated national treasure as it’s the oldest wooden structure existing in Kyushu, dating back to the Heian Period. It is one of the three top Amitabha halls in Japan, along with Hoo Hall at Byodo-in Temple in Uji and the Konjiki Hall at Chusonji Temple in Hiraizumi.
In the photo above you see the impressive Kumano Magaibutsu Stone Buddhas. They are actually the biggest Buddhist stone carvings in Japan.
They are not too far away from the other sights I’ve mentioned, but again you’d need a (rental) car to get there.
I visited Usa City and the Rokugo Manzan temples and shrines in one day. It can easily be done as a day trip from e.g. Beppu, Oita or Yufuin (as long as you have a car).
Kunisaki Peninsula – Kitsuki Town:
Another nice place to check out on the Kunisaki Peninsula is Kitsuki, a lovely castle town with an interesting city layout.
Kitsuki can be done as a day trip from other areas in Oita Prefecture. You can take a bus from Oita and get off at the “Kitsuki Bus Terminal“. Right next to the bus terminal there’s a small building called “Furusato” where you can eat lunch and store your luggage. They have coin lockers, but if your suitcase is too big they’ll take care of it for you. It only costs 100 yen.
There’s also a bus running between Kitsuki Bus Terminal and Kitsuki Station.
All the sights are in walking distance.
Kitsuki has a lot of slopes and its famous for sights like in the photo above. Many streets are “sandwiched” between slopes giving the castle town a very interesting layout.
Kitsuki Castle can be seen from far away. It offers a lovely view. I like how the town was full of vivid blue and green.
On another day I went to see the famous Stone Buddhas of Usuki that are sculpted into the walls of cliffs, dating back to late Heian era and early Kamakura era. In 1995, they were the first rock carvings in Japan to be designated national treasures.
I spent the whole day in Usuki as there was also Usuki Castle and a lot of other nice sights.
You wouldn’t necessarily need a car to get there, but the town center and the stone buddhas are a bit far from each other, so you’d have to either walk all the way or go there by rental bicycle. I still had a rental car, so it was rather easy for me.
Usuki is a former castle town and there’s also a former samurai district you can check out. Most famous is the Nioza Historical Road which is built in the Edo Period architecture style. You can see it on the right photo above.
I also ran into a cat shrine, featuring red maneki neko. There was a “Neko Matsuri”, but I missed it just by a few days. Maybe another time?
Kuju Flower Garden:
The Kuju mountain range features the highest peak in Kyushu and is popular for hiking, especially in autumn. It’s close to Kumamoto Prefecture and the mountain range is part of the Aso-Kuju National Park.
However, I didn’t go hiking, I wanted to enjoy the beautiful flowers of “Kuju Flower Garden“.
Unfortunately it was raining that day (although the weather report said it would be clear all day long). Usually you’d see the Kuju mountain range in the background, but there were only clouds.
Yet there were some awesome flower fields. Many different flowers were in bloom (pink moss, tulips, etc.). The park has to offer something for every season, so it’s worth a visit almost all year round.
I visited Kuju on the same day as Usuki. Please note that this is only possible if you start early enough and have a car as both sights are far from each other!
Saga Prefecture – Takeo Onsen
My next stop after Oita Prefecture was Fukuoka Prefecture, but I also did a day trip to Saga. To be more precise I went to the region around Takeo Onsen.
Actually, I built my Golden Week trip around two highlights. One was in Nagasaki Prefecture. I wanted to see the awesome sights of azaleas and the Kujuku Islands near Sasebo in the “Nagushiyama Park“. But the night before my departure the website updated saying the “viewing time is over now“. The flowers weren’t in bloom anymore this year – which is rare! It was just extremely hot this year, so they finished off earlier than they should have.
I checked my second highlight and the website didn’t say anything, so the next day I was off. But ….. well, just have a look at the graphic above and you’ll know what happened. I visited the Mifuneyama Garden which is also famous for “tsutsuji” (azaleas), but they had turned green already as well. Very disappointing!
I walked back to Takeo Onsen Station and asked if there was anything else to check out as I still had a lot of time.
They sent me to the “Takeo Onsen Romon Gate” which you see in the photo above. It was constructed by Tatsuno Kingo, the designer of Tokyo Station, without the use of nails! It is the symbol of Takeo and a national important cultural property.
Once you pass the gate you’ll enter a little onsen paradise. There are several different onsen, also private baths, you can choose from. Prices and photos can be found outside, so it’s easy to choose.
Or you can just check out the little museum for free where they display old onsen and bathing rooms – which is what I did.
Certainly worth a visit for onsen fans!
If you don’t mind walking around the town a bit, I also recommend dropping by “Takeo’s Okusu“, a big and very old camphor tree, in the forest behind Takeo Shrine.
The tree is so precious that you cannot touch or even get close to it. It is over 3,000 years old, 30m high and the root circumference is 26m.
No wonder it’s such a magnificent sight, it’s the 7th largest tree in Japan!
After my three days in Oita Prefecture and the day trip to Saga Prefecture, I spent the rest of the time in Fukuoka. I chose Kurume as my base because I wanted to be able to go to Sasebo in Nagasaki Prefecture for a day. Unfortunately, the flowers I wanted to see there had withered already (as I explained in detail earlier), so I stayed in Fukuoka for the rest of the time, exploring towns I haven’t seen before.
Soeda is the deepest inaka (*countryside). There is really nothing! I was the only tourist there (and that’s amazing considering it was Golden Week).
Why did I go there and how did I even know about this?!
Well, you have to ask the “little” castle hunter inside of me, I guess.
I’ve been to over 115 Japanese castles now, but I guess I just can’t stop adding castles to my bucket list.
And there just happened to be a castle in Soeda, so there you go.
“Ganjaku Castle“, being on Mt. Ganjaku, isn’t very impressive. It’s a rebuilt concrete construction with an elevator and almost no exhibitions inside. The view from the top floor is also not too great.
However, there were some nice temples, shrines and other things I could explore on my way up to Mt. Ganjaku, so I felt it was still a nice short trip.
You won’t have to spend a whole day, a few hours are enough. But be careful as there aren’t too many trains!
Earlier that day I went to “Kawachi Fuji Garden“.
Kawachi Fuji Garden:
Kawachi Fuji-en (Kawachi Wisteria Garden) is one of the most popular spots for wisteria viewing in spring. Just look at my photos and you’ll understand why.
And I have to admit it’s really breathtaking! They have created a true wisteria paradise!
On top of that it smells very good, like perfume, and the buzzing sound of the huge bees is just adding up to the nice atmosphere.
Just a word of warning: try NOT to go during Golden Week!
Well, I didn’t have a choice and it was insanely crowded! Not only that, but it was tough to get there and it took forever!
If you have a car, then be prepared that you might be in a traffic jam for 30-60 mins. Finding a free spot in a parking lot is also difficult.
If you come by train (JR Yahata Station) you need to take a bus. The problem is, there is no bus anymore. A bus that went close to the garden is not running anymore nowadays.
However, there’s a free(!) shuttle bus running from JR Yahata Station to “Ajisai no Yu”, a onsen resort right next to the garden! (You can find the bus timetable here.)
Officially you’re supposed to go to the onsen when you ride the bus, but nobody controls it. It’s a great way for tourists to get there.
BUT during Golden Week everything is different. I arrived at Yahata Station early and rushed to the bus stop where already a lot of people were lining up. I saw a group of foreigners hanging out at the station, chatting. They didn’t realize they had to line up. They finally noticed it and ended up way back in the line. Finally the very small shuttle bus came and only about 20-25 people did fit in. Luckily, I was one of the last ones to get inside.
The other 30-ish people (including the foreign tourists I mentioned) had to wait for the next shuttle bus that came over an hour later!!!!
Guys, that’s how crazy Golden Week is! I always tell you to be prepared for that chaos, but nobody seems to listen to me. *g*
The garden is about 8km from Yahata Station, so you could walk if you have the time and stamina. There’s also a beautiful dam along the way.
Outside of Golden Week, you shouldn’t have any issues.
Although I made Kurume the base for my time in Fukuoka, I only spend one day in the city itself.
Kurume is very famous for azaleas in spring. However, just like everywhere else in Kyushu the flowers finished early this year and there was almost nothing to see anymore. Instead there was a rose festival near the Ishibashi Cultural Center. There’s a nice park with a Japanese garden, the Ishibashi Museum of Art and they had food stalls and music performances during the festival.
One of my highlights in Kurume was the huge Kannon Statue and “The Buddhist Hell” at Narita-san Temple. A must-see if you are in Kurume.
And the castle lover in me had to check out the ruins of Kurume Castle. Luckily they are just a short walk away from JR Kurume Station.
There’s really nothing left apart from the castle walls. A shrine stands on the former castle grounds now.
Kurume City has a lot more to offer, more or less interesting depending on the season. I think the “Bairinji Temple” must be awesome during plum blossom season. There’s also the “Fukuoka Science Museum” featuring Japan’s first digital planetarium with a laser projection system.
Ainoshima – Another Cat Island:
On my last day I got to experience another personal highlight. You know how much I love cats – and in Japan there’s so much to do and see for cat lovers. Cat cafés, maneki neko, cat shrines and temples – even train station masters are cats nowadays!!
Oh, and let’s not forget about “Cat Island“!
…… What? You thought there was only ONE cat island? You thought Tashirojima is the one and only cat island? You were freaking out because you had no idea how to squeeze that into your itinerary? Ohohohoho~
Actually, there are quite a few cat islands here in Japan, Tashirojima being the most popular one.
I’ve yet a long way to go to explore them all, but today I want to share yet another nice cat island in Japan with you:
Ainoshima (相島) is a small, VERY small island located in Shingu Town, not too far from Hakata Station.
Thus, it makes a great day trip if you happen to be in Fukuoka City.
Take a train to Nishitetsu Shingu Station. Then, either walk (~ 20 mins) or take a bus to Shingu Port. From there you can take a ferry (~ 20 mins, 460 yen) to Ainoshima.
The island is so small that you can walk around it (5.4 km) in a few hours, meeting a lot of cats on your way. At first, I didn’t see many cats and was a bit disappointed.
They mainly hang out around the port. Bring some snacks, cat food and you’ll soon be surrounded by 10 or more of them. I couldn’t even get all of them into one photo. *g*
Take your time to walk around the island. There are some really interesting sights!
The rock with the hole in it is commonly called “Megane Iwa” (official name: 鼻栗瀬).
Very impressive were the Tsumai Shizukagun (積石塚群), stone hill graves at the beach.
Golden Week Vacation 2014 – Conclusion:
As you could see I got to visit some nice spots, the cat island being a highlight. Yet I have to admit that it was one of the most boring trips I’ve ever had and certainly my worst Golden Week vacation thus far.
Ok, of course it’s hard to keep up with last year’s Golden Week trip where I got to swim with dolphins among other things. But it’s mainly because I got sick and had to cancel my highlight as the flowers weren’t in bloom anymore that the trip wasn’t as good as I expected it to be.
I’m still happy that I was able to take some nice photos at the Kawachi Fuji Garden despite the crowds and that apart from this tourist spot, it was a rather chilled vacation far away from the mass of tourists.
How about you?
Did you go anywhere during Golden Week?
What did you do in your Easter Vacation?
Do you know of any other cat islands in Japan?