When the gods of the Japanese pantheon first came to Earth, they didn’t descend on Tokyo or Kyoto, or any of the places you’ve heard of. They landed on the south side of Kyushu, Japan’s southernmost island; you may not have a chance to meet any of them, but this is a place that certainly feels mythic.
Hidden along the border of Kagoshima and Miyazaki prefectures, Kirishima is a little town perched on the volcanic range that overlooks Kagoshima bay and the smoking, gurgling Mt. Sakurajima. Natural hot springs give Kirishima its name (meaning mist-island), and on a some cool mornings, an other-worldly feel as fog billows over the streets and rooftops from underground. In Japan, a town on a volcano of course means a plethora of natural hot spring baths, and Kirishima is no exception, with a hundreds of outdoor baths in and around the town.
The main draw to Kirishima, however, is its link to myth and history. The mountains here are where Ninigi-no-Mikoto, grandson of the sun goddess, is said to have first come from the heavens to rule the Earth. Hikers can enjoy a scorched, alien landscape hiking up Mt. Takachiho-no-Mine to see the summit he landed upon. Kirishima Shrine was originally erected in his honor in the 7th century, but was destroyed and rebuilt several times due to fires and volcanic eruptions. The shrine as it is today was built in 1715, and boasts monumental structures in red, white and green, and an ethereal, sprawling grounds surrounded by forests.
Designated one of Japan’s “Little Kyotos,” Obi is a hidden gem in the south of Miyazaki prefecture. The castle itself was largely rebuilt in the 1970s, but the walls are originally from the 15th century. While it’s tempting to brush Obi castle off as reconstructed, the main halls were recreated with meticulous detail. Perhaps more importantly, unlike most castles in Japan, Obi never has a crowd. Without any tour buses in the way, it truly feels like an adventure to explore the grounds.
Maybe even more than any specific sights, Obi’s charms come from its quaint old town feel. This is a remote place that even Kyushu residents visit only for the cherry blossoms. The town itself has the atmosphere of an Edo-period castle town, with natural wood and white shopfronts and samurai residences lining the main street.
The Nichinan Highway
Driving south along the Pacific coast from Obi offers some of the best views in Japan. Palm trees sway in the wind and big, blue waves crash into craggy rock outcrops in the water. For much of the year, the entire ride smells of oranges and the sea, and in the summer, you may even see sea turtles nesting on the beach. Surfers come here from around Japan, but many travelers can be content just to drive, taking in the subtropical scenery. This is a place to pop a tent on the beach, watch the sea and the stars with a six pack, and take in the sunrise before getting back on the road.
Along the way is another place from legend. Udo Shrine is one of the most fascinating in Japan, hidden in a cave carved into a rock cliff-face over the sea. Dedicated to the father of the first emperor of Japan, this shrine is perhaps a little surprising to visitors from more conservative cultures. Rock formations dripping with water here are said to be the breasts that fed him as a baby.
Chiran is about two hours by bus from Kagoshima city and the samurai district here boasts one thing more popular old towns in Japan like Magome or Tsumago can’t: peace. At nearly the southern tip of Japan, the remoteness of Chiran helped it to preserve its charms and keeps the bus loads of tourists out. Without the wires and telephones normally ubiquitous in Japan, Chiran is a maze of samurai residences with hidden by low stone walls and greenery.
Chiran also has one of the more uncommon museums in Japan. The Chiran Tokko Museum displays personal affects, photos, and letters of the kamikaze pilots at a site that was once an airbase. This is first and foremost a peace museum. It never descends into nationalism or whitewashing, but simply hopes to tell the stories of the ill-fated young men.
Just off the coast from Miyazaki city Aoshima (both a tiny town and a tiny island) is about a mile in circumference and feels just like a fairy tale. The shrine on the island was rebuilt just in 1974, but offers iconic views of southern Japan, with a grove of date palms growing behind it and surrounded by some of Japan’s most beautiful sandy beaches and a natural rock formation known as “the ogre’s washboard.”
Perhaps just as interesting as the natural and cultural sites of Aoshima is the surrounding town. Once a popular honeymoon destination in the post war period, hotels, resorts, and restaurants line the waterfront. As the Japanese economy grew, however, Japanese couples began opting for more distant locales like Okinawa or Guam, and Aoshima was abandoned. The site of the ruined hotels against the backdrop of pink skies and swaying palms is absolutely haunting.
Don’t be fooled, though. The economy here may not be what it was once, but the people here are resilient. The people here are friendly and outgoing.