Discover a new side of Japan with a wellness break in Kyushu. Located in south west Japan, it’s an area known for its great natural beauty, healing hot springs and great food – and now you can fly there direct, and in style, from Helsinki to Fukuoka with Finnair
Words: Victoria Purcell
A trip to Japan usually means the bright lights of the sprawling Tokyo metropolis, where Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson gave in to the joy of karaoke in Lost in Translation. Or it’s the serene, cherry blossom-framed streets of Kyoto à la Memoirs of a Geisha. But what about the Japan of The Last Samurai? All rolling hills and heritage?
Find it in Kyushu, the most south westerly of Japan’s four main islands, and a region that would have meant a domestic flight from Osaka or Tokyo. But now you can fly to Fukuoka via Helsinki with Finnair, who will even arrange a Stopover package, where you can spend up to five days in Finland at no additional cost to your return flight.
Fukuoka, Japan’s sixth largest city, is Europe’s new gateway to Kyushu, an area known for its natural beauty with active volcanic peaks, lush rolling hills and near-tropical coastlines (Tom Cruise dressed as a samurai, sadly, does not come as standard). Active volcanoes mean there are a vast number of onsens (hot springs for bathing) and ‘hells’ – geothermal pools in steamy hues of bright blue or fiery red according to their mineral content (more on those later).
On landing at Fukuoka, a great drop-and-sleep hotel, just a 20-minute drive from Fukuoka Airport or 10 minutes by train to Hakata Station, is the Nishitetsu Hotel Croom. It’s nothing fancy, a bit like a Premier Inn, but the decor is cool and contemporary and it has a great Japanese restaurant.
Fukuoka, Japan’s sixth largest city, is Europe’s new gateway to Kyushu, an area known for its natural beauty with active volcanic peaks, lush rolling hills and near-tropical coastlines
If you’re staying a little longer in this area, check into Hotel Nikko Fukuoka, a beautiful five-star hotel where Madonna and the Japanese president have stayed. Opt for a Japanese-style room to bolster your ‘authentic’ experience, and choose from excellent restaurants such as Kawasho, known for great sushi, Icho teppanyaki and Les Célébrités for fine-dining.
There are temples, shrines, pagodas and parks to discover in central Fukuoka, so do spend some time ambling about. There’s also the JR Hakata City Amu Plaza shopping centre with restaurants, food shops and deli counters galore.
Japanese shopping centres are something else, but you may find your time better spent exploring Dazaifu, a small city about a 30-minute drive from central Fukuoka. Dazaifu was established in the late 7th century and served as the administrative centre of Kyushu for over 500 years, which means the main attraction, Tenmangu Shrine, is rather inspiring. It’s reached via a traditional red-post wooden bridge over a heart-shaped pond, where turtles bask on rocks and koi carp feed in a frenzy.
If you’re lucky, you might catch a glimpse of a Japanese wedding with a traditionally dressed bride and groom. The shrine is preceded by a boulevard of boutiques, where you can pick up everything from the usual tourist tat to some lovely Japanese ceramics and textiles. After your visit, enjoy a kaiseki (multi-course) lunch at Kokoan, an old-style wooden Japanese property with tatami mats, sliding paper doors and a beautiful garden, just off the shopping boulevard (ask your guide to book).
One of Kyushu’s most famous area’s is Beppu in Oita Prefecture, known for its hot springs, which regularly draw comparisons to Yellowstone Park. It’s a steamy place. With some 2,900 hot spring vents, the volume of water discharged is second only in the world to that of its American counterpart. All this hot water makes for the perfect wellness break.
The Japanese are known for their healthy diet and longevity, so why not take a leaf out of their book? Before dining on fresh sushi and local beef (Bungo), discover Beppu’s ‘sand baths’. Here, you are buried in a pit of warm volcanic sand (the more sand they pile on, the hotter it gets), and there you lay for 15-20 minutes while any aches and pains are soothed away. Head for Beppu Beach Sand Bath on Shoningahama beach, where the gentle sea spray helps you keep your cool.
The area is hugely popular with domestic tourists, who flock to Suginoi Hotel, a sprawling hilltop spa resort with spectacular views from the rooftop onsen and Aqua Garden, which hosts a light show every evening. It’s an impressive hotel, with a rooftop bar and stylish Japanese restaurant, but it has some baffling elements – to access the lovely, relaxing spa area, you have to traipse across the underbelly of the hotel, through a supermarket and a startlingly loud amusement arcade.
There’s also an international buffet restaurant that’s not unlike the It’s a Small World attraction at Disney. And therein, I guess, lies the beauty of Japan. It’s all exotic beauty and tranquility one minute; the next it’s all Harajuku Girls and noise. So embrace it. That’s what Bill Murray did, after all.
Finnair flies from London Heathrow to Fukuoka three times a week from £2,044 return in Business Class. See finnair.com or call 020 8001 0101. For tourist information, see welcomekyushu.com, visitfukuoka.jp and visit-oita.jp. In Fukuoka, stay at hotelnikko-fukuoka.com or nnr-h.com. In Beppu, stay at suginoi-hotel.com