The slow, slow escape to Kyushu

Posted by in Mike's blog

“Why did you come to Kyushu?”

Our host asked me this great question on our second night in Fukuoka prefecture.  We spent our golden week holidays (almost) as far away from home as the highways across Japan can take us.  It was an ambitious road trip, but the places we went were unlike any we have seen before.

The plan

“Golden week” is what we around here call a group of national holidays in late April/early May.  Most of the country gets time off of work, and it’s the busiest travelling season of the year.  Aside from a couple of long weekends, this was going to be our last chance to explore Japan as a family before we move to Canada in August.  2 days before the holidays started, we had no plan.  No ideas.  No destination.

I searched Airbnb for “Japan” and turned the price limit way, way down.  I found 2 choices:  A place near Tokyo and a place in a small town in Kyushu.  We have done golden week in Tokyo before…it was a little too crowded for our tastes.  We reserved a place, and we set out on our journey less than 48 hours later:

On the road

The day before we left, we visited our trusty mechanic to get the winter tires off of our car.  He noticed something peculiar under the hood and advised us not to drive faster than 80 km/h.  That made for a long, long drive.  It took us about 15 hours (with stops) to drive 850 kilometres.

I picked up a thing to attach Mary’s iPad to the back of my headrest so the Bunny could watch Frozen in the car over and over again.  She put on her pink headphones and occupied herself for most of the trip.  Unfortunately the Turtle decided that screaming at the top of his little lungs was the best way to get our attention.  A few exchanges went like this:

Turtle: WAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHH!!!
Me: We don’t scream.  Say “mama”
Turtle: Mama!
Mary: What is it little guy?
Turtle: ワンワン!
Mary: Yes, there’s a dog.
(…)
Turtle: WAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHH!!!
Me: We don’t scream.  Say “mama”
Turtle: Mama!
Mary: What is it little guy…

To hell and back in Beppu

We got rained out on our first day, so we went to the Anpanman museum in Fukuoka.  On our second day we drove to Oita prefecture to see the hells of Beppu.

These “hells” are 8 hot springs that are too to touch in their natural state and too inconvenient to water down, so they are interesting tourist attractions.  There’s a fair amount of volcanic activity on Kyushu, and the the wonders of nature have produced some neat places.  Each hell costs ¥400 to enter, but there’s a pass to see all of them for ¥2100 (we didn’t get it, the kids have limited patience).

We visited 4 of the hells.  Take a look:

The best train ever: Aso Boy!

We planned our third day around a train trip.  We ditched our car at a station in a small town and took a scenic trip aboard the Aso Boy!

This train ride was so fun, it could have been the only thing we did in Kyushu and it would have made all of the driving worthwhile.  The Aso Boy! runs on special weekends and holidays, and on those days it only makes 2 round trips.  Seats have to be reserved, and the best ones tend to sell out.  We wanted car 3.  I got 2 seats…but they weren’t together!  That was OK because we didn’t really sit down.

Aso Boy! has special seats built for parents to sit beside their kids, a cafe (that was sold out of bentos!), a kids’ library, a tatami play room and a wooden ball pit.  All of those things are in car 3.

On our way to Aso station, we stopped briefly at a nice viewing point close to Mount Aso.  Mount Aso is an active volcano.  We couldn’t get close because it’s been under a level 2 warning since last August.  After the train ride we went to Kumamoto castle.

Aso Boy! took us between these two places.  Our reserved seats were only ¥2500 each, and the kids had so much fun playing with so many others, it was the highlight of the vacation for everyone.

The way home

Our vacation lasted 5 days, and 2 of them were spent on the road.  We stayed in a nice house in a small town with a Japanese man whose nickname was George.  He was great with the kids and his English was fantastic.  When he asked my why we came to Kyushu, I answered him honestly:  We went because we hadn’t been there yet!  We have seen much of Japan, and we have almost completely exhausted our sightseeing options in Fukui and its neighbouring prefectures in the past 4 years.  Kyushu was wonderful.  Next time, I think we’ll fly!