A quick hop over from Seoul and we were in Fukuoka on the most Southerly of the main islands of Japan – Kyushu.
We quickly got into the Japanese food with a visit to Irichan – a restaurant where the eating arrangements are idiosyncratically Japanese.
Upon entry you put bags into lockers and make your selection of food from a vending machine which prints a ticket. Then a questionnaire is proffered as to exactly one prefers the ramen. The seating is at a booth with dividers which can be folded back allowing you to eat alone or with friends. Ahead is a window through which items are delivered by persons unseen but not unheard – the constant shouts and confirmations of orders and deliveries of ramen and ice cold beer reverberate through the bamboo curtain.
After a rest day in Fukuoka we headed off on the Shinkansen (the bullet train) to Kagoshima at the southern end of the island which was only 90 mins away. We went to a delicious soba noodle restaurant where they made the noodles right in front of you – alchemy of turning flour and water into a flavourful meal through mixing, rolling and superfine chopping which was somewhat hypnotic to watch.
Afterward we had a half-day to spend so we headed to the seaside resort town of Ibusuki.
As Japan is located on the boundary of 4 different tectonic plates the evidence that the earth is alive isn’t far away. Overlooking Kagoshima is the active volcano Sakurajima which is almost continually erupting. The residents are so used to it that in heavy ash downpours they simply open their umbrellas and continue their daily business. On the more positive side of the ledger are the volcanically heated hot springs and in the case of the town of Ibusuki volcanically heated hot sands on the beach.
Once changed into cotton robe yukatas we headed down to the black volcanic sand only to have people with shovels bury us under a mound of hot sand. Not for the claustrophobic the heat of the hot sand soon permeates and heats up the body and you start to sweat. The weight of the sand means you can readily feel your pulse. After 15 minutes of a Japanese bake-off we retired to cool off in the various plunge pools and relax heading back to Kagoshima.
Our next stop was the island of Yakushima – a subtropical island about 90 minutes away by hydrofoil. Being 2000m high it has all of the climates of Japan from sub-tropical at the base to cold taiga vegetation at the summit. The thick lush vegetation covers the island such that it looks straight out of Jurassic Park. The film connection doesn’t end there as the island was the inspiration for locations in ‘The Tale Of Princess Kaguya’ from the famous Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli.
We stayed at the Yaedake Sanso Lodge in the woods which allowed us to take a bus to the start of the hike to the peak. We headed up through a wonderland of ancient cedars with exposed roots and a carpet of moss snaking around the landscape.
On our way back down again we met a French family with no rain gear who asked how far it was to the top and I reported, accurately, that it was about 30 minutes. Later the heavens opened and it started to bucket down rain. Later they arrived with two crying children completely drenched and resolving to leave the island straight away!
We instead retreated to our lodge and the hot baths to rest our aching legs. It was completely open to the forest and as I lay back my head all I felt was this big set of legs rumpling my hair as an enormous spider scrambled up the wall. Tim screamed and took almost all the water with him. Calmed down we went for dinner and an early night now noticing these enormous spiders all over.
Our next stop was Mount Aso in central Kyushu, another active volcano which indeed had been so active in the preceding weeks to warrant a 2.5km exclusion zone around it. It sits at the centre of an enormous ancient caldera – presumably the site of a large eruption long in the past.
Snaking up the side of the caldera and over the edge we arrived at the Ryokan Sanga – a traditional guesthouse set in stunning scenery by a stream and bamboo groves.
The experience was quintessentially Japanese – tatami straw matting, lots of different hot springs to soak and unwind in and a traditional 12 course dinner in a private room. Absolute bliss!