See: Travel: Japan Trip #4 2016 itinerary and intro
Day 6: January 23
For our last (half) day in Yakushima, we checked out of our hotel in the morning and drove to Kigen-sugi, which is also one of the major cedar trees on Yakushima, in terms of its age (over 3000 years old) and size. You can drive straight to this destination and a very short walk from the car park.
Those snow people were made by someone else!
After rain on the first day, and dry and warm weather on the second day, we had snow! As touched upon earlier, Japan was experiencing very strange weather and cold storms around the first week of our trip. It had snowed very heavily overnight and snow was piled quite thick on the mountains. Though Yakushima is quite south and tropical, it does snow during winter on the mountains, and some of the more difficult hikes are not recommended in snow. Yakusugi Land is pretty accessible and not much of an issue though. We had light drizzle for most of the morning.
After Kigen-sugi, we drove to Yakusugi Land, another major nature park featuring Buddha-sugi, Futago-sugi and Sennen-sugi. For short visits, most of the main cedar trees are located quite close to the car park, and there are much better hiking trails compared to Shiratani Unsuikyou from yesterday. Since we only had until early afternoon, we did the 80-minute trail. We were incredibly lucky that it stopped drizzling when we got to Yakusugi Land!
I was aiming for the 1:30pm ferry back to Kagoshima, so after our morning activities, we drove down to Anbo port, filled up the car’s petrol and dropped it off in the car park specified to us (at pick-up). We checked in for our ferry and had some time to walk a few hundred metres to the nearest supermarket to pick up some packaged food for lunch (and snacks including mochi, of course. Dango and mochi are my jam!). As before, the ferry trip was two hours.
On arriving back at Kagoshima, we took a taxi to Kagoshima-chuo station, where we were catching a shinkansen back to Kumamoto (~45 minutes)! I know my travel route is seeming ridiculous, but because Kumamoto is a pretty central and major city, I decided it served as a good base to get to our next two destinations.
We stayed at Hotel Route-Inn Kumamoto Ekimae since it was located right outside the station. We were really just in Kumamoto for an overnight stay and needed to be close to the station to pick up a rental car to drive the next day. I thought it was one of the poorer business hotels I’ve stayed at in Japan. I wouldn’t particularly recommend it.
Also, it was snowing in Kumamoto again. It was still a big deal and people were exclaiming how rare it was to see snow. For dinner, we went to Hanatsuzumi, which was the quintessential family-run homely Japanese restaurant. We sat at a cosy low table (kotatsu-style but minus the heating) and had mixed nabe (seafood, meat and vegetables). I had some language barriers as the family members were trying to explain the contents to me but I didn’t understand one particular thing they were concerned about. I eventually figured out one of the items was fish guts so I tried to subtly make sure T ate all of those, haha. The nabe was actually a huge amount of food and we struggled to finish but we did the very best we could since it’s rude to leave food unfinished. The family were incredibly nice and friendly. They even gave us mandarins to take away as a souvenir!!
Back at the hotel, it was time for us to do laundry. This hotel did have a female and male onsen (bath houses) and it turned out the coin laundry was actually located in the respective gender-segregated areas. To enter the onsen area you actually need to get a key from reception. As you can imagine, this was quite bothersome. We chose the washing machine in the female section, so only I could go in there to access our stuff and I had to obtain a key each time. This was definitely inconvenient as I had to return to put the washing into the dryer then again to bring everything upstairs. (Also it’s just easier with two people and four arms.) We hung everything up overnight in the hotel as they hadn’t completely dried. After all that, we ended up sleeping quite late.
Day 7: January 24
We woke early and checked out of the hotel. We picked up another rental car. It was snowing heavily today and poor T had to drive us in a pretty serious snow storm. Even better, the rubber on our wipers kind of broke so they didn’t wipe half the windscreen and we had to make frequent stops to manually wipe all the solidified snow/ice off the windscreen! We took the drive very slow, and despite being another tiny car, it drove very well in the snow to Takachiho-kyou/Takachiho Gorge (east of Kumamoto). What was meant to be a 80km, 2-hour drive took at least twice as long because we were driving on mountain roads through heavy snow. Luckily there were practically no cars. For a while thought we were driving behind a taxi which kept worryingly slipping and sliding side to side…!
Takachiho Gorge is best visited in warmer months so that you can also rent a boat and paddle along the river and look at the waterfall from below. Apart from the gorge, Takachiho is also famous for inventing nagashi soumen, a summer cold noodle dish where noodles flow out with water on a slide and you have to catch them with your chopsticks! Unfortunately we also couldn’t enjoy this because it definitely isn’t available in winter. But we both love Kyushu so much that we are considering revisiting Kyushu in the future, and possibly visiting Takachiho again! We also didn’t get time to visit the shrine.
When we got to the gorge, everything was covered in snow and it was already like 2pm. There was one souvenir store and a soba restaurant (where we had a quick and late lunch). Staff in both places advised that it might be too dangerous to walk down to the gorge in these conditions. This was super disappointing especially as it was already so much later than we had wanted to arrive. Nonetheless we decided to just start walking and see how it was. It was manageable and they had probably exaggerated a bit. Certainly we had to be careful but it wasn’t so bad because it was fresh snow. It was freezing but so worth it! I think we saw other visitors once, and otherwise we had the whole place to ourselves! I enjoyed how pristine the snow had fallen on everything.
My not-pristine snow person
After our short but sweet visit in Takachiho, we continued on north to Beppu. This leg was just over 100km and meant to take just over 2 hours (but it took us around 3 hours). We gradually left the mountains and the roads became easier though the whole journey was very isolated and we rarely saw any cars. It also stopped snowing eventually.
After arriving in Beppu, we drove to our hotel, Umikaoru Yado Hotel New Matsumi. They had a car park that we had to pay for (since we were keeping the car for half of the next day). Because Beppu is a very famous onsen town, we were staying in a ryokan (traditional inn). It was really lovely and a nice change to have a spacious room. The hotel also used water from the onsen for the baths so we planned to try that after dinner (since I have never wanted to actually go into a communal onsen).
We walked out to a nearby restaurant, Toyotsune, for dinner. They specialise in tempura but have lots of other izakaya dishes too. The food was delicious!
While walking to and from the hotel, we noticed the streams and drains had steam coming from them from all the hot spring activity. I thought that was pretty cool! On the walk back, I also had a terrible slip and fall on a patch of slippery ice. I landed smack bang on my butt, but thankfully I was fine except for some bruising and pain.
Back in our room, we started to draw the bath. Unfortunately it took about half an hour of running the water before it was warm enough! We had been warned by the staff that the water would take a while to be hot since they were using water from the hot springs, but I thought half an hour was pretty extreme. Anyway, the bath was lovely but mostly a novelty (to say I had experienced the onsen waters of Beppu) since I never actually take baths.