Yufuin: Driving across Kyushu

You can drive from one end of Ikijima to the other in about twenty minutes. The narrow roads twist either along the coastline, between fishing villages, or bend back upon themselves into the hills, connecting farms in the interior. I don’t think there is a road on this island that is more than two lanes. Many are single, meaning you need to keep your eyes on the roadside mirrors to watch for oncoming traffic around the corner. I estimate about 90 percent of the vehicles on the island are kei cars.

So, after four months of not going anywhere I was a little freaked at the thought of driving a few hours across Kyushu in a seven seater van!

map of northern Kyushu
Map of our route across the major island of Kyushu

After a surprisingly snowy winter, northern Kyushu warmed to above twenty degrees this past weekend. We worked our way through the streets of the small city of Karatsu and into the Sefuri mountain range. This relatively low range is full of hot springs and cups the western edge of the Tsukushi Plain, the largest on Kyushu and historical source of wealth for daimyo that controlled what is currently known as Saga prefecture. Once we made it to the plain we got onto the expressway and zoomed through the semi-urban sprawl of Saga and Fukuoka prefectures before climbing up into the high mountains of Oita prefecture, just north of Mt Kuju, the tallest peak on Kyushu at 1788 meters.

The foliage was a dried out yellow and brown, except where the cedars turned red, pregnant with pollen. My wife sat in the passenger seat, teared up and sniffling from allergies while the kids were in the back staring at iPads in their laps, missing the mountainous scenery zooming by. I had to slow down since the curves of the highway became sharper and there were still patches of snow here and there.

Finally exiting the highway we wended our way down into the mountain town of Yufuin. This resort town is a popular destination for its hot springs and views of the imposing Yufu Mountain (由布岳), a two-peaked volcano that at sometime in the past erupted, changing the surrounding landscape into rugged hills covered in low grasses. The terrain around here is so treacherous that the Japan Ground Self Defense Forces have a massive training ground here for field maneuvers and tank driving.

View up mainstream to Yufu Mountain  with a cloudless sky
Yufu Mountain down main street from inside the train station

We would stay here in the evening, but in the meantime would forge on… to AFRICA! A few minutes drive past Yufuin takes you to a safari park where you can feed lions and tigers and bears through the caged windows of a safari bus, or sit inside a nice cozy mansion and pet lap dogs and cats. Whichever you prefer! My kids did both. I took pictures. See the African Safari gallery on Flickr →

Elephant statue beside a sign for African Safari in Japanese
A “welcome elephant” at the entrance to African Safari, Oita

Since we had about as much animal fur as my allergies could handle, we escaped the safari park and continued eastward to Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, which sits high above Beppu Bay. We made it to the other side of Kyushu!

Chad poses in front of vista of Beppu bay
The Beppu Bay opens into the Inland Sea. Below are the cities of Beppu and Oita.

Before it got dark we turned around and headed back to Yufuin. Thirty minutes of driving through narrow twisty roads had me thinking of Iki once again. However, here the drop-offs were much steeper, and the forest was imposing. The trees had shed all their leaves and it felt like we were driving through Halloween.

Back on the valley floor in Yufuin we were safe, with a beautiful view of Yufu Mountain during the Golden Hour. Before dinner I slipped into the outdoor hot spring. All alone I could look up and admire the double-peak. As the sun went down, a shadow moved up the mountainside. The pool was surrounded by large stones, artfully placed. Directly in the line of sight of Yufu mountain was a tall rock with two points. I smiled at this, and then went inside for dinner and relaxation after a long day of driving.

series of four images of Yufu mountain in the morning light
Yufu Mountain waking up.

The next morning, after having not slept well, I rose early to watch the sun come up over the mountain. The shades of blue the mountain cycles through during the winter sunrise are myriad. After a hearty breakfast, we walked around downtown. There were not very many people at all, but we did see a draft horse gallop down the street. After eating some fancy donuts, we loaded up the van to drive back across Kyushu. It was 23 degrees, an unusually warm February day. We took our time, stopping at parks along the way, before dropping off the vehicle in Karatsu and catching the late boat back to Iki. It felt good to be on the road again, to stretch our legs more than the 20 mins we have been limited to on the island.