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Insider Asia

Commune with nature in scenic Kyushu

Commune with nature at Takachiho Gorge in Japan and walk among 800-year-old cedar trees that take one's breath away

Published on Jul 13, 2014 4:14 PM

It began with a massive eruption at least 90,000 years ago at the nearby Mount Aso, Japan's largest active volcano.

Water from the Gokase River then took its time eroding the lava to carve out one of the most scenic spots in Japan - the Takachiho Gorge.

Located in the south-western island of Kyushu, the Takachiho area is ancient. As my taxi takes its time around the hairpin bends in the road to get to the Gorge and its 100m-tall red-tinted cliffs, I can see how the area has earned its name as the epicentre of Japanese mythology.

Filled with waterfalls and set amid Kyushu's atmospheric mountains, the Gorge and its surroundings are picture-perfect as a place where gods cavorted.

The Takachiho area has a population of 15,000, but attracts some 1.5 million visitors a year. Domestic travellers form the overwhelming majority of visitors. They often come on what is described in the brochures as a spiritual journey to see where the exploits of Amaterasu Omikami, the Sun Goddess from whom the Japanese royal family claims its lineage, and others from among Japan's pantheon of Shinto dieties, are supposed to have taken place according to myth.

While nature has provided a setting fit for the gods, the hands of man have helped to make it easier for mere mortals among us to make our way more easily around the Gorge. There is a 600m-long walking trail, as well as carparks near the inevitable temples along the trail.

At the starting point of the Gorge where the Manai waterfall is, rowing boats can be rented for 2,000 yen (S$24.50) per half hour. It is well worth it to get close to the waterfall, or to make your way to the quiet parts where you can commune with nature, even if it's just for a few minutes.

I do not row very far that day, for my stomach reminds me of my mundane need for nutrition.

There are only two eating places, teahouses located side by side near the boat rental kiosk. Both serve a divine dish - the nagashi soumen, or flowing noodles.

For 500 yen, customers get a dipping sauce and chopsticks to catch the clusters of noodles as they are released in water flowing down a bamboo shaft cut in half.

The noodles, which taste like a cross between soba and Hokkien mee sua, are really good - remaining al dente even after they have been dipped in the sauce for some time, which is what happens when one is preoccupied with catching one's food.

For those with bad aim, fret not, for a basket catches what has been missed and is given to customers at the end.

A first-timer, I gamely try to take photos with one hand and catch the noodles with the other. My enthusiasm seems to please the shopkeepers no end, so the noodles keep coming until they see that I have my pictures.

I then head for the walking trail, choosing a path to take me to the Takachiho Shrine about 1km away.

Halfway through, I realise it is more a climb than a walk, so I have to make frequent stops.

But that is, in fact, the way to go, for along the trail are towering Chichibu cedar trees, some said to be as old as 800 years, that will take your breath away.

After a short rest at the well-manicured grounds of the shrine, I call a taxi for the 15-minute ride (2,100 yen) to Amanoyasukawara, a cave where the gods are said to have converged to discuss how to lure Amaterasu out of her hiding place so as to bring sunlight back into the world.

Devotees leave behind little towers of rocks around the cave for good luck.

It is then time for dinner and one of the highlights of a Japan holiday is the mini kaiseki (from 3,000 yen), a multi-course meal of small dishes using fresh local produce.

The main course is a hotpot that comes with the prize-winning Miyazaki beef. Dip the slices in the pot, then the yuzu sauce, and feel them melt in your mouth.

Suitably fortified, I finish the day at a night performance of the yokagura dance (700 yen) held in a hall at the Takachiho Shrine. The one-hour show, which starts at 8pm, features four out of the 33 dances performed from dusk to dawn in the harvest months from November to February.

Dancers don masks and reenact scenes from the stories featuring the Shinto gods to music from Japanese flutes and drums, to a packed hall of about 150.

This is an art passed down through the generations, but don't just watch the dance, absorbing as it may be - remember to watch the Japanese visitors too, some of whom are obviously on a pilgrimage and look enthralled by the creation dances on stage.

Buried alive

The next day requires an early start to catch first a three-hour ride on the 8.31am bus from Takachiho to Kumamoto JR Station (2,680 yen), then a shinkansen (6,940 yen, an hour) to Kagoshima JR Station, followed by a one-hour local train ride (1,000 yen) to Ibusuki JR Station.

Ibusuki, blessed with many hot springs, is an onsen town, but one with a difference. Apart from the usual hot-spring baths, the town is also well-known for its hot sand baths, made possible by hot springs close to the surface that heat up the sand in the beaches naturally.

I get myself checked in and head for one (1,080 yen) at the seaside hotel I am staying in. I am wearing only a yukata and the shovel-wielding handlers lead me to a spot on the black sand beach, place my towel so sand does not get in my hair and proceed to bury me up to my neck.

The experience is a little surreal - the sand is dense, almost hot to the touch and much heavier than I expected - and gives new meaning to the phrases "buried alive" and "being laid to rest".

But before I can say "hot", I am already snoozing lightly, the result of a tiring journey perhaps, but more likely because it's the wellbeing derived from the comforting heat that envelops me.

Be careful not to exceed 20 minutes in the hot sand, though, which is the recommended time for an optimal sand bath. The operators usually plonk a clock nearby to help visitors keep track of the time.

It takes surprisingly little effort to get out of the sand and into a big hot spring tub for a quick wash before heading for the showers.

The next morning, I head to Cape Nagasakibana (3,420 yen by taxi), located at one end of the Satsuma Peninsula, to enjoy the scenic views of Kagoshima Bay and Mount Kaimondake, a Mount Fuji look-alike dubbed by locals as the "Satsuma Fuji".

From the deck of a lighthouse located at the cape, the view of the rocky coast is similar to a scene in Hawaii, not surprising as Kagoshima has been described as the Hawaii of Japan due to its constant volcanic activity and usually mild climate.

With gems like Takachiho and Ibusuki, the island of Kyushu deserves to figure more on foreign visitors' radar.

This is part of a series on off-the-beaten-path places to explore around Asia.

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Background story

Getting there and around

When to go

Summer (June to August) is the best time to go, with more transport options and longer opening hours. However, avoid the super peak season, which is the week of the Obon Holidays in mid-August.

How to get there

1. Singapore to Takachiho

  • The nearest airport to Takachiho is Kumamoto.
  • Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways operate several flights a day from Singapore to Kumamoto via Haneda in Tokyo for about $1,300 for a return ticket.
  • The flight time is seven hours to Haneda and another two hours to Kumamoto.
  • From Kumamoto Airport, it takes about two hours to get to Takachiho via a limited bus service at either 10.04am or 4.24pm (2,160 yen or S$26.50).

2. Singapore to Ibusuki

  • The nearest airport to Ibusuki is Kagoshima.
  • JAL and ANA operate several flights a day from Singapore to Kagoshima via Haneda in Tokyo (about S$1,200 return).
  • The airport limousine bus takes you directly to Ibusuki in two hours and the ride costs 2,350 yen.

For those who wish to go to both places:

3. Takachiho to Ibusuki

  • Board the 8.31am bus from Takachiho to Kumamoto JR Station (three hours, 2,680 yen).
  • Take a shinkansen train from Kumamoto JR Station to Kagoshima JR Station (an hour, 6,940 yen).
  • From Kagoshima JR Station, take a local train (90 minutes, 1,000 yen) or an express tourist train (an hour, 2,130 yen) to Ibusuki JR Station.

Getting around

Be prepared to shell out a little as taxis are the most convenient way to get around in rural Japan. The flag-down fare is 620 yen in Ibusuki and 580 yen in Takachiho. As English is not widely spoken, do ask hotel staff to write down the names of the destinations so you can show the cab drivers.

Where to stay

All hotel prices are on a twin-sharing basis, with breakfast and dinner.

In Ibusuki

Several of the beachfront hotels have their own hot sand bath facilities and can be a convenient choice.

  • Ibusuki Iwasaki Hotel

3805-1 Juni-Cho, Ibusuki, Kagoshima 891-0493, Japan; tel: (+81)993-22-2131

The sand bath fee at the hotel's own facility is 1,080 yen. Airport limousine bus stops in front of the hotel.

Price: from 13,110 yen a person.

  • Hotel Shusuien

5-27-27 Yunohama, Ibusuki, Kagoshima 891-0406, Japan; tel: (+81)993-23-4141

Three-minute walk to Ibusuki's largest sand bath Sunaraku (1,200 yen). Foot sand bath is available in the hotel.

Price: From 19,440 yen per head.

In Takachiho

  • Hotel Shikimi

729-29 Mitai, Takachiho, Nishiusuki-gun, Miyazaki 882-1101, Japan; tel: (+81)982-72-3733

Price: From 12,960 yen per head.

  • Imakuni Ryokan

803-4 Mitai, Takachiho, Nishiusuki-gun, Miyazaki 882-1101 , Japan; tel: (+81)982-72-2175

Price: From 12,200 yen per person.

What to eat

As holiday hotels generally charge a price that includes breakfast and dinner, visitors only need to take care of their lunch.

In Takachiho

  • Chiho-no-ie

62-1 Koyama, Takachiho, Nishiusuki-gun, Miyazaki 882-1103, Japan

At the Takachiho Gorge, round the corner from the boat rental kiosk. Price: 500 yen for a serving of flowing noodles, or 1,300 yen for the set meal which includes a grilled trout and rice balls.

  • Wagyu

Ibusuki has its Kagoshima beef and Takachiho has its Miyazaki beef. Most restaurants in both places serve the delicacy.

Good deal

Buy a JR Kyushu Pass if you intend to do a lot of sightseeing by train. The pass includes unlimited travel on the JR Kyushu trains, including the shinkansen, and is a great bargain for tourists. Note that it can be bought only before arrival in Japan. A five-day pass costs 17,590 yen.