Kyushu

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The southernmost of Japan’s four main islands at the western end of the Seto Inland Sea lies Kyushu, the principal gateway to Japan for culture and trade from overseas since the earliest of times. Perhaps because of this foreign influence, from pre-historic continental cultures through the Chinese and Korean to the Portuguese, Dutch and English, it retains a different feel to the rest of Japan to its east. Relics of these influences include ancient tumulii burial mounds, Korean-style pottery, Portuguese and Dutch trading posts, crypto-Christian churches and other-worldly festivals that are quite unlike any others found in Japan. Much to the consternation of Uji near Kyoto, Kyushu has a good claim on having the first tea fields in Japan grown from seed brought from China by Eisai (1141-1215), a Buddhist monk. Kyushu is also home to one of the oldest centres of religion on the Kunisaki Peninsula, where Rokugomanzan, a 1,300 year-old Shinto-Buddhist group, still exists. Elsewhere in Takachiho, Amaterasu Okami, the Sun Goddess and progenitor of the Japanese Imperial line, hid taking the sunlight with her in the mythological, earliest days of Japan.

Kyushu’s principal cities, of Fukuoka, Nagasaki and Kita-Kyushu are in the north while the rest of the island, particularly the centre, is sparsely populated. Which leaves much of Kyushu relatively untouched but only easily explored by vehicle. Here are found myriad onsen hot spring villages and towns, verdant forests, spectacular views across Aso, one of the worlds largest calderas; landscapes akin to those found on the moon on the many active volcanoes dotted around Kyushu, including Sakurajima which erupts so regularly the locals seem to barely give it a second thought.

Kyushu also includes many islands including the Amakusa and the sub-tropical Amami-Oshima chains. Just north of the latter lies Yakushima, one of the wettest places on earth known for its ancient giant cedar trees, and Tanegashima, where Japan’s space centre is located. In the opposite direction further south lie the Okinawa, or Ryukyu, Islands.

With its southern aspect not surprisingly many Japanese from elsewhere mistakenly believe Kyushu has a charmed, warm Pacific climate. While in the south and west of the island this reality does largely conform to commonly held perceptions, the centre and north can become cold in winter with heavy snowfalls; there are even some ski areas. Unlike the north of Japan, however, the season is short, the snow does not remain too long and the rest of the year is generally comfortably warm.

Finally, Kyushu boasts perhaps the most attractive trains in the whole of Japan. They not only clean and run on time, as with practically all the nation's railways, they also comprise the most interestingly designed rolling stock found anywhere, including the Sonic Express; Kyushu Shinkansen; the ultra-luxurious Nanatsuboshi Seven-Star and it smaller sibling the glorious Aru Ressha Sweets & Gourmet Train.