Travelogue: Northern Kyushu (Japan), Feb 2018
“Why did you all choose Fukuoka? Why not Okinawa or Hokkaido?” The pretty air stewardess from Singapore Airlines asked hubby as he entertained the 8-month-old Baby E. I was drifting in and out of sleep at the side, catching up on the patchy sleep I had on our red eye flight.
The lack of Singaporeans around Northern Kyushu kind of explains her question. Compared to glamorous and crowded Tokyo, the places around Northern Kyushu are subdued, slower and definitely less crowded. These are in fact why Northern Kyushu is a good place to go when you are travelling with a baby or toddler for the first time. At least for us. Moreover, being able to do a road trip around the prefecture sounded good to us.
However, the weather was not ideal. With Winter changing into Spring, the temperature was relatively low, hitting minus 1 degree Celsius in Kumamoto. Thus, we had to pack more than usual with baby’s winter clothing, not forgetting the stress on how to dress a baby for the cold. Btw, subscribe to the newsletter at baby.joogostyle.com for a printable travel packing list for toddler or infant. It’s super detailed!
On hindsight, it was a good call to travel then. It’s easier to travel with an infant than a toddler. It was still quite manageable to travel with a baby who didn’t yet walk, talk, and have a mind of her own. And as if a new environment stimulated Baby E, she suddenly crawled furiously in Japan, like the time in an eel restaurant where she enjoyed sliding, rolling and crawling across the smooth tatami mat.
We travelled from 21 February to 1 March 2018. (No part of the trip was sponsored.)
Road Trip in Northern Kyushu
We sat 2.5 hours on a highway bus from Fukuoka airport to Nagasaki. In the narrow leg space, I had to squeeze my hand luggage at the foot area, while carrying a baby in my arm. Hubby had his fair share of hand luggage. All of us were slipping in and out of sleep due to the tiredness of the red eye flight. Thank God there’s a rest stop to stretch out legs. We survived nonetheless!
Officially, we started our road trip from Nagasaki to Kumamoto, Mount Aso, Kurokawa, Yufuin and lastly back at Fukuoka. Self drive in Japan is not that difficult for Singaporeans in normal conditions, that is without snow, because it’s left hand drive. It’s fun to have a road trip as we had the liberty to make detours, unplanned stops and find surprises!
Oh like that time we wanted to visit Yume Tachinaba Plum Blossom Viewing Festival, only to find ourselves getting nervous as we seemed to be driving deeper into some unknown land. The one way road paralleled with tall lean trees loomed scarily above us. Then we found ourselves in a land of barren trees with no one around. We quickly concluded that these were the plum trees and the festival had yet to happen or was over. Either way, it was an adventure!
Overall, our road trip experience was pleasant. The online booking of the rental car, in addition to the pick up and return of car, was easy and smooth. Moreover, according to hubby, the traffic was generally slow (outside of Fukuoka) and thus not stressful to navigate around. The road signs were easy to follow too. Just that for stuff like parking and petrol pumping, we had some difficulties. Would have been easier if we read up information of these driving practicalities before the drive.
Ships bobbed up and down the cold and calm waters, as huge anchors burying in the seabed secured their positions. At the café overlooking Nagasaki Dejima Wharf, I sipped my hot drink, and relished the warmth radiating from inside out. At this time, hubby was served the famous cappuccino with latte art of Ryoma. Enjoying the breeze while the baby was napping, I wondered who the owners of these ships were and what adventures laid before them.
Old school vibes can be felt in Nagasaki — the red telephone booth with door, the chugging tram and aged buildings of another era. The history fading, the people of time old being forgotten. Of the little grudges we agonised over in the present, these too will be gone in time to come.
“The Chinese traders came to Nagasaki because the government allowed only Nagasaki to stay open to the rest of the world, but closed off the rest of Japan.”Wikipedia
“No photos!” The storekeeper shouted from his counter. I hurriedly kept my camera down and scurried away. All I wanted was to take a photo of the colourful array of a traditional store. Last admission for Glover Garden soon. We hurried on our journey up the steep slope while I lamented on the missed chances to visiting the interesting shops along the way.
One of the many footprints of Christianity in Nagasaki — a cross baptised in water found at Glover Garden.
Nagasaki became the center of Japanese Catholicism, and maintained close cultural and religious ties to its Portuguese origins. These ties were severed once Christianity was outlawed; at this point, Catholicism went underground. Most famously, the twenty-six martyrs of Japan were tortured and crucified on crosses at Nagasaki to discourage Christianity in 1597.Wikipedia
On another sober note, we visited ground zero of the atomic bomb, Atomic Bomb Musuem and Peace Park.
To lift the mood, there’s always the good food to savour in Nagasaki, such as the unagi in Izumiya, a 160-year old restaurant in Nagasaki. And at night, head up to Mount Inasa for a million dollar view, before heading to bed at
Hotel Belleview Nagasaki Dejima.
At Mount Inasa, Baby Evangeline was so numbed from the chilly temperature and cold wind that her fidgety body froze up. Nevertheless, it’s worth it for the million dollar view, albeit just for a few minutes. Surprisingly. After seeing the night view of a few cities, I didn’t expect much. I had assumed the ‘Million Dollar view’ tagline of Mount Inasa was just a gimmick.
Boy, was I wrong. The view took my breath away. I only wished the weather was not that cold, and the timing not so rush. It is definitely a view to admire with our loved ones. A place to be still, and enjoy. The sparkling lights of the night shone brighter as the sky darkened. In the gloom, there’s always hope.
All about Nagasaki: travel.joogostyle.com/tag/nagasaki
Our Airbnb in Kumamoto was just beside the majestic Kumamoto Castle. Sadly, major parts of the castle was undergoing renovation because of an earthquake in 2016. It’s not easy to restore architecture like this.
It’s hard to miss the rubble left from the earthquake. No matter the angle of my camera, the cranes and fences stood out as sore thumb in the magnificence. Moreover, we weren’t able to see the building up close because of the restoration works. Anyhow, we could still feel the enormity of these buildings that sprawled across a large area.
Good thing we ate a bit to fuel our energy before exploring the Castle’s compound. We snacked at Josaien, located at the foot of Kumamoto Castle. These shops housed in traditional shophouses sold Kumamoto’s specialty items such as Ikinari Dango and horsemeat “croquette”.
It would have been easier had we read the Josaien’s English guide before going around. At least we managed to find a well-stocked food souvenir shop and settled most of our gifts there.
From Josaien, we took the free shuttle bus to the Ninomaru parking lot that’s near the actual site of Kumamoto Castle. You might want to climb up from Josaien, but I suggest you save the energy to walk around the castle.
It’s a huge area. We walked inside and around the site, walked by Kumamoto Traditional Crafts Center and popped in for the air-con and toilet breaks. Air-con because we’re perspiring from all the walking. The center sell beautiful crafts, but at a pretty high price too.
Walking past a shrine, the castle was now almost out of sight and we were near to Kumamoto City Hall. Entering the building by a secretive side entrance, we went up to the 14th floor’s observatory and got a bird’s eye view of Kumamoto Castle. A sweet end to our castle tour.
Yokobachi is famous for horse meat but I just couldn’t eat that. So we ordered their skewers, chicken wings, shrimp balls, fried rice and noodles, and they were all good! Thinking of the juicy tender Tonkatsu (i.e. breaded, deep-fried pork cutlet) we had at Katsuretsu Tei Shinshigai the night before, Kumamoto was indeed a place of good food for us!
While hubby was trying to find a lot in the crowded and small carpark, I ran through the drizzle. “One hour,” the staff from Imakin Shokudo said to me. The advice I read online is true: come early at 10:45AM before the shop opens to avoid the long waiting time.
The beef was worth our wait in the rain and cold. Hubby ordered their signature beef donburi (rice bowl), which was almost cooked raw-medium. For me who usually eat my beef well done, I was glad to find a dish with fully cooked beef, and it’s delicious too!
Moreover, we got a private tatami room with heater to dine in. Awesome arrangement when dining with a baby! Btw, Imakin Shokudo only has Japanese menu. Thus if you don’t understand Japanese, take a photo of what you want from their food display at the entrance and show it to the waitress.
“Sorry, it’s closed.” The lady at the visitor center of Mount Aso confirmed what we saw on the signboard, the eruption level alert had been raised. We didn’t want to believe it. We were holding to a glimmer of hope. But nope, because even the weather was not cooperating. Hence we had to abandon our plan to take the Ropeway to the crater’s edge of Mount Aso, the famous active volcano in Japan.
With disappointment and reluctance, we stepped out of the warm and toasty visitor center and into the windy and chilly weather surrounding Mount Aso. Our layers of clothes didn’t prevent the cold from “biting” us.
Even though the background was quite fogged up, we had to pose and take a few photos. We had travelled thus far for this.
Kurokawa (Onsen Town)
The sky was dark, the rain pattered against our car. My heart thumped to the tapping sounds. Our car meandered into a narrow lane. Pedestrians trudging through the rain with their umbrellas saw our headlights and made way for us. In the low lighting, it was hard to locate the signboards of the respective ryokans.
Where was our accommodation? Did we miss it? Hubby was driving at snail’s speed. We squinted. Why are the signboards so dimly lighted? The sky was dark. We were reaching the end of the road, and soon exiting the town. We got to make one big U-turn to return.
Just before we were about to exit, a man waved to us at the side of the road. He signaled for us to turn in. We looked at him and wondered who he was.
“Oh, there it is!” I exclaimed, pointing to the signboard nearby.
How did he know we were guests of his ryokan, Ryokan Wakaba?
Because of our memorable experience at a ryokan in Noboribetsu, Hokkaido (Takinoya Bekkan Tamanoyu), we just had to plan a ryokan stay for this Japan trip, especially when Kyushu is one of the best onsen areas in Japan.
There are a few onsen towns in Kyushu but we picked Kurokawa Onsen town (hot spring town) because of its small cosy area, traditional feel and it being less touristy in general. Situated in a forested valley, Kurokawa is also said to be the best among the ones in Kyushu and one of the most scenic onsen towns in Japan.
After checking in at Ryokan Wakaba (“Wakaba”), a male staff helped us to carry our heavy pieces of luggage up the stairs to the second floor, only to later learn that the ryokan doesn’t have a bellboy service when we checked out. Hence, hubby became the one who did all the weightlifting. Nevertheless, the male staff did help us out of goodwill and the young lady who was in charge of our room was very friendly, helpful and spoke a fair bit of English.
The food at Wakaba was of the usual high standard, delicious for both breakfast and dinner. Breakfast was only served in the shared dining room but dinner could be eaten in our private quarters.
Dinner was filling even though I skipped most of the sashimi, which was quite a portion. Most because under the strong recommendation of our friendly server, I tried the horse sashimi and surprisingly find it tasty! I think it’s because of the meat’s superb quality.
After our sumptous dinner at Wakaba, we decided to take a stroll in the night drizzle. Donning the yukata’s coats, we borrowed umbrellas and headed out. All shops were closed early, but we managed to enjoy the beautiful illumination of the river that runs across town.
We love this Ryokan, and felt it was even better than the ryokan in Noboribetsu. However, it was harder to enjoy onsen together this time, as we needed to take turns to look after Baby E.
Nevertheless, Ryokan onsen experience is not to be missed. After enjoying the onsen, we felt so sleepy and slept soon after and well that night! The cold weather made the hot onsen all the more enjoyable. If you want more of this good stuff, you can buy an onsen hopping pass!
It was a good thing that the ryokan’s private onsen was available at the timing we wanted and so we could bring baby E along to wash up and then have her by the side. Early next morning, hubby and I took turns to head to the shared onsens of Wakaba, which are bigger and with a better environment to calm the mind.
Kurokawa Shopping Street
Walking down the slope, the first shop that caught our attention to buy was Dora Dora, a shop selling dorayaki (dessert with red bean filling). This shop is also recommended in the tourist pamphlet. We bought one dorayaki with mochi and red bean filling to try. It was delicious and so we bought another one.
Further down slope, we discovered more shops and found a crowd outside Patisserie Roku. We joined in the fun and bought freshly-made choux cream buns. It’s nice but not worth a long wait. Nearby, we saw people putting their face in some wooden box structure, and again joined in the fun. The steam coming out from it made our faces youthful again (JK!).
As we followed the pathway and walked on, the bustle dwindled until we saw Sugiyohoen Honey Shop. Seeing this shop quite a few times in Japan, we finally succumbed to buying a bottle of honey here. After we bought, the staff told us that if we like it, we could also buy it in Singapore. I looked at the 1kg heavy bottle and hope the savings from the Japan’s store really made this extra weight worth it. The honey was tasty and it is expensive in Singapore. So I guessed the weight was worth it?
Yufuin (Onsen Town)
Looking at the time, I asked hubby, “Shall we go to Yufuin or Beppu?”
Yufuin and Beppu are two popular hot spring resorts in Kyushu, with Beppu being bigger and more famous. But compared to Kurokawa, Yufuin is bigger and felt more like a shopping street than onsen town.
Yufuin and Beppu are both near to each other, but since Yufuin was closer to our driving route, we ended up there. Without much itinerary planning, we got a bit lost and disoriented when we arrived. I only knew to try out the TripAdvisor’s 4-star Yufuin burger. It turned out to be, well, I could say we had better burgers like Fatboys in Singapore.
Being an onsen town, we didn’t really spot any ryokan or hotel around. Later I found out that they’re all spread out across town. Day trippers from Fukuoka can still enjoy onsen because most baths are open to non-staying guests during daytime.
As we walked on from the Yufuin Station Bus Center, we kept thinking, “What’s the catch with the town?” It seemed to be just normal shophouses lining the street. Oh, but there in the skyline is the twin peaked Mount Yufu, making it a very scenic backdrop of Yufuin. Feels like we’re in some movie set with a painted backdrop.
After about 500m of walking from the bus station, we came to the main shopping street, Yunotsubo Street. Lined with cafes and boutiques, one could spend a long time eating and shopping here.
Not knowing what snacks to get, we simply joined in the long queues. But most of them turned out to be a disappointment. Perhaps we were expecting more because of the queues. Having said that, one should really try the cheese cup from Milch Cafe. We got a second cup to takeaway and a cone of ice cream on our way back.
Speaking of cheese, we stumbled upon a cheese shop, Cheese Factory Yufuin, while queuing for food. I bought their bestsellers and it turned out to be the best food souvenir I got from this Japan trip. Simply oiishi!
Fukuoka has a different feel from the places we visited in Kyushu. It felt busier and bigger, even though the crowd is incomparable to Tokyo. Koreans and Taiwanese were everywhere. The proximity of these countries to Fukuoka make it a popular short weekend getaway. I didn’t plan much for Fukuoka and it ended up to be a food and shopping stop.
Food and Streets of Fukuoka
On our cold first night in Fukuoka, hot ramen was top of our list . The first Ichiran ramen shop is in Fukuoka but we were too tired and thus went to a slightly nearer outlet at Tenjin Nishidori. The narrow doorway, fitting one person each time, didn’t seem kids friendly and the shop looked crowded. Pushing our stroller to the entrance, we were prepared to be turned away.
Alas, the staff asked us to wait and then ushered us into a private room on the second floor, with baby chair and hooks for coats. Yays! The ramen was super yummy. I don’t usually like Japan’s ramen because of the springy noodles, but the soup and noodles in Ichiran were both to my liking!
The next day, we settled our lunch and snacks at the shopping malls of JR Hakata City. There’s this restaurant that sells simple, delicious set meals that resemble Nana Green Tea in Singapore. If you happen to see it, can consider this value for money option!
As for the snacks we bought around the malls and train station, in the streets of Fukuoka, or Kyushu in general, there were more misses than hits, unlike say in Hokkaido. Perhaps because the food culture seems to be less of the Japanese food we Singaporeans are familiar with.
To cut Fukuoka some slack, we had some awesome food such as pancakes from Eggs n’ Things (Fukuoka outlet permanently closed), chicken soup from Hanamidori, and baked curry from Curry Honpo. Chicken soup was served in our private room with superb service. The server dressed in Kimono cooked the food in the chicken soup for us, portioned them and served us, from the first to the very last drop. We were told not to touch anything and let her do the job.
As for Curry Honpo, we were looking for lunch along Kami Kawabata Shopping Street and the baked curry stood out. It’s tasty and a new type of food to try, although I wouldn’t recommend going there specifically for it. It’s not like there’s anything exciting on the quiet and short Kami Kawabata Shopping Street too. We came out of Curry Honpo and saw a long queue in a restaurant opposite. You might want to check that out too.
For another interesting dining experience, try a Yatai behind Canal City Hakata. Yatai is a street food stall in Japan, selling ramen, tamago and many others. The fun of Yatai is striking conversations with the owner or fellow patrons while trying out new food. Sadly, with a baby in the stroller, it was logistically impossible for us to dine in Yatai!
Light show of One Piece brought us to Canal City Hakata. In the inner courtyard, an IMAX sized 3D projection was projected on the wall, glass, and water, coupled with superb sound quality and lighting effects. The show had a storyline (I wasn’t expecting that) and the duration was fairly long for a free show.
That made our walk to Canal City worth it! Otherwise, the international shops, such as Muji, Zara, Lacoste, around the mall did not fascinate us.
The light show started only in the dark and we were early. Hence, we walked to the nearby canal and saw all the Yatais. Sitting on a bench by the canal, our baby slept in the stroller beside us. I leaned against my hubby’s shoulder and reveled in the serene landscape with the sun setting.
Fukuoka is bigger but there were not many interesting things for us – perhaps that’s why the air stewardess queried my hubby about our choice (read opening para). We did visit the 3-storey Line Friends Cafe & Store in Fukuoka, but it’s now permanently closed.
Overall, Kyushu is less crowded and glitzy, but a nice place to bring babies on their first overseas trip.
Travelogue series chronicles my thoughts, emotions, personal anecdotes and observations that transpired during the trip. It includes links to the relevant posts for trip planning too.