by Tori Ward, Cruise and Resort Specialist, ROX Travel / Photo by Tori Ward
My first impression of most castles is, “Wow! How did any army defeat this enormous fortress?” Then, I realize I’ve answered my own question because it would take several battalions to defend a complex as large as Kumamoto Castle, and it would be just a matter of time before they ran out of provisions and water.
We started our day exploring the public areas of the castle complex originally established in 1467 and mostly restored between 1998 and 2008 after centuries of damaging events including earthquakes.
Departing mid-morning, we arrived in Takachiho in time for a sample of local sake followed by a hearty lunch that fortified us for the hike down into the gorge. The beautiful waterfall and cave that cuts into the gorge are steeped in legend.
We didn’t catch a glimpse of the sun goddess, but had fun watching the rental boats bobbing and dodging each other along the river. We ended our day at the Amano Iwato Shrine, a quiet and cool way to refresh after the excitement of the gorge.
The small town of Yufuin tempted me to find a tiny corner and hide so the tour would leave me behind. Nestled below Mount Yufu and surrounded by terraced rice fields and hot springs puffing in the spring air, the walk around Kinrin Lake chilled me into a reluctant walk back into the pedestrian area.
Yufuin is small, but with huge appeal with many boutiques and art galleries representing both traditional and contemporary styles.
The hot springs theme continued on our visit to Beppu. There are eight hot springs bubbling, each with a different name signifying a journey through hell such as Cooking Pot Hell and Tornado Hell, the last erupting every 10 minutes. You can purchase eggs boiled in the hot springs, which to me didn’t exactly smell like heaven.
However, the greenhouse bursting with the scent of bananas and orchids blooming in the humid air smelled lovely.
Following lunch, our bus parked in the belly of a beast of a ferry. This is probably the most efficient means of traveling between the two southern regions of Kyushu and Shikoku, but if you are not a hardy sailor make sure to take preventative precautions.
A number of our fellow passengers didn’t enjoy the choppy three-hour journey as much as we did and were happy to get back on the bus as rain started to spit on our way to Dogo Onsen.
Darkness and mist combined to present Dogo Onsen, Japan’s most famous hot spring, in all her noble mystery. We lingered in the silky hot springs, soaking tension from muscles tight from miles of bumping across land and sea and quickly realized why it’s a favorite of the Imperial family.
Our final day included my favorite experience of the trip, a morning in Ritsurin Gardens with over 300 cherry trees sprinkling us with their delicate flowers. One of the trees is the “Authoritative” tree that meteorologists measure to determine the official start to cherry blossom season.
As beautiful as the trees are, the garden’s design embraced me. Its peacefulness lasted until Osaka’s Dotonbori district snapped me out of it. Picture Vegas on steroids. Towering neon lights compete with each other for space amid food carts and restaurants snaking down both sides of the Dotonbori-gawa River.
When contrasting the graceful Maiko performance, the ancient castles, hot springs, cold sake and electric nightlife, I believe Southern Japan offers diversity to appeal to every generation.