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Postcards from Japan: Exploring Kyushu on a budget and culinary discoveries, with Moo and Simon from Kyushu Journeys

Moo and Simon are a Japanese-British couple who fell in love with the southern Kyushu island while visiting Moo's parents every year for 15 years. That's what led them to starting their own travel agency called  Kyushu Journeys! They help English-speaking visitors plan their dream holidays around the beautiful Kyushu and offer tours based around their personal passions. They shared their tips on exploring Kyushu on a budget, themed trips they offer and top places you need to see when visiting for the first time - get your notebooks ready because they really know every corner of Kyushu! 

Hi Moo and Simon, thanks for talking to us today. Could you tell us a little about yourselves?

Konnichiwa! We’re a Japanese (Moo) and British (Simon) team living here on Kyushu. We own and manage Kyushu Journeys, a travel agency for English-speaking visitors to Kyushu. We’re crazy about Kyushu travel ourselves so try to encourage travellers to visit our beloved little island.

Kyushu views (Kumamoto prefecture)

What inspired you to start Kyushu Journeys? How did you find it after experiencing other Asian countries?

For 15 years we worked in the tourist industry on Bali island Indonesia. 
Every year we took a short trip home to Kyushu to see Moo’s parents. We always took the chance to travel around and loved it more and more each time. Every year we said to ourselves, “Let’s build a travel agency here”. Finally we did. We loved our time in Bali but Kyushu Journeys is definitely our passion project. 

Strolling the traditional town of Ukiha (Fukuoka prefecture)

What do you love most about living on Kyushu?

The food, the natural hot-spring bathing (onsen), the wonderful countryside, the tradition, history and culture. There’s a gentle side of Japan here long-lost in the crowded cities. It’s a chance to escape the tourist trail and find the real Japan. 

Praying to the 2,000 Jizo (guardian deity of children) statues at Takatsuka Atago Jizoson temple (Oita prefecture)

What kind of tours do you offer?

We decided right from the start to only offer tours based around things we know and love. We don’t offer golf tours for example, even though it could be very lucrative, because golf just isn’t our thing. Our tours focus on the countryside (Sakura and Autumn Leaves), the hot-spring onsen, staying at traditional Japanese inns, visiting pottery villages and strolling the countryside. We’re really excited about our two latest projects; a Foodie Tour and a Yoga Retreat, and a tour of the pottery villages is in the pipeline too.

Checking locations for Autumn Tour 2021 - Yabakei Gorge (Oita prefecture)

Can you give us some travel tips for exploring Kyushu and how to get around to experience an authentic Japan trip with your family? 

Unless you are comfortably wealthy, hiring a private guide and driver is prohibitively expensive. We therefore suggest our clients take one of three options, depending on their preference:

1) Travelling independently (without a guide) in a self-drive rental car. We make sure the car has English GPS and we include easy to input navigation coordinates and Google map links for all places along the route. Like Britain we drive on the left here, the roads are excellent, and I seldom see a traffic jam. We take a road trip around Kyushu ourselves once or twice a month, and you can read about some of the trips we have taken here (green tea and onsen), here (the pottery villages) and here (the Hells of Beppu and around).

2) Travelling independently (without a guide) by train and bus with some short taxi rides. We do all the timetable research so the traveller just needs to turn up at the station at the right time. We also advise about which rail  passes to choose to get the best value trip.

For both of the above options we take care of all activity and itinerary planning, detailed route planning, and hotel and restaurant recommendation and booking. We also have a phone or WhatsApp helpline (for help in emergencies or with any language communication problems). Each trip is uniquely customised for our individual clients based on their budget, special requests and a detailed questionnaire we ask them to complete at the start of the planning process.

3) Group tours travelling on a private bus accompanied by an English-speaking tour leader - usually Moo herself! She’s our company Director, Kyushu local, passionate foodie and our chief destination planner. There’s nobody better to travel around Kyushu with and these tours are always in high demand. We are currently opening the waiting list for our Autumn Colours 2021 tour, our Cherry Blossom 2022 tour and our Kyushu Foodie Tour 2022.

Due to the uncertainty caused by this horrible virus we will make the final decision as to whether we run these tours 90 days before the tour begins. We won’t be requesting any payment or firm commitment until that time, however we are opening up the waiting list now and those on the waiting list will be given first priority.

Shooting sakura in Tochoji Temple (Fukuoka prefecture)

What places would you recommend to someone visiting Kyushu for the first time?

A visit to Aso volcano is a unique experience. It’s perhaps the only place in the world where you can peep over a volcano rim and peer into a bubbling crater (if it isn’t erupting too fiercely that day). Aso is in the heart of Kyushu countryside so offers wonderful scenery too. 

For travellers on a budget it’s great to visit Beppu. Honestly speaking it isn’t a ‘classy’ place (I think of it as the Blackpool of Kyushu) but it’s so much fun. It’s one of Japan's most famous hot spring resorts, producing more hot spring water than any other resort in the country. Luckily it’s just an hour from where we live so we’ve visited so many times. Where else can you have a hot spring bath for the equivalent of just £1! The bubbling and boiling Hells of Beppu are so much fun and the seafood is fresh and cheap. 

The Hells of Beppu (Oita prefecture)

If you do want a classy experience in beautiful nature head to Kurokawa Onsen. The traditional Japanese inns (ryokan) there are gorgeous and you can enjoy private onsen bathing with a loved one. 

Yame is one of Japan’s premier green tea growing areas. There are wonderful views of the tea plantations and you can sample the very best quality tea and sweets in the cafés around town.

After terrible damage in the 2016 earthquake the dramatic and imposing Kumamoto Castle (built in 1607) is starting to open to visitors again. There’s a very pleasant Japanese garden in Kumamoto too where you can sip green tea and gaze over the lake just as the feudal lords once did. We highly recommend a 130-year-old Japanese inn we stayed in recently situated right at the entrance to a temple. It was such a bargain for just £30 including a wonderful traditional Japanese breakfast.

Hita is a pleasant little town off the tourist trail. You can stroll around its well-preserved streets and get a real feel of traditional Japan. Don’t miss the breathtaking display of hand-made dolls, the old saké brewery and the soy sauce factory still using age-old production methods.

For those who love ‘common man’s food’ head to Kurume city. There are over 100 ramen shops, more yakitori shops (BBQ skewers of meat, seafood and veggies) per person than anywhere in Japan, and 18 saké breweries along the river bank.

Enormous ramen restaurant in Kurume (Fukuoka prefecture)

For lovers of tradition and beautiful things, make sure to visit one of the many pottery towns and villages. The more famous ones are Arita, Imari and Karatsu but our own favourites are Koishiwara and Onta. Here you can pick up a very affordable mug or plate hand-made by a 14th generation potter. Think about that! An unbroken family line dating back to the 1600’s! It’s wonderful too see the potters patiently at work on their simple wheels and peek into the wood-fired kilns. 

There are so many more, but a final recommendation is Yakushima. The lush forests and mountain trails offer walking and hiking opportunities for all levels and you can take a trek to one of the world’s oldest trees! Jōmon Sugi has stood serenely for an estimated 5,000 years as human civilization crashed and banged around it.

Doll-lovers’ heaven in Ukiha (Fukuoka prefecture)

We’ve heard that Moo is a culinary expert. What are some must-try foods for people visiting Kyushu? 

Kyushu is famous even amongst the Japanese for its cuisine. When one Japanese returns from a trip to Kyushu, another Japanese will invariably ask, “What did you eat?” 

Hakata ramen (from Fukuoka city) claims to be the best ramen around, though the inhabitants of Kumamoto and Kurume claim theirs is best too! 

The beef from the free-roaming grass-reared cattle around Aso is highly sought after and did you know Kyushu wagyu beef beat all other contenders in the Wagyu Olympics? In fact Kyushu grabbed the three top spots!

If you want a hearty noodle soup-cum-stew you can try both champon (Nagasaki) and motsunabe (Fukuoka) and see which you prefer. 

The seafood in Kyushu is exceptional too. We recently returned from a trip to the fishing port in Saiki city, which holds the record in Japan for landing the widest range of fish (over 350 different kinds). The sushi there was exceptional in quality and ridiculously cheap. 

I’m not keen myself, but the locals (including Moo) go crazy for mentaiko; salted cod roe marinated in powdered chiles and spices.

The riverside street stalls in Fukuoka city (yatai) are a great place to try the different Kyushu foods, drink some shochu (Kyushu’s favourite drink) and meet the locals. You can also visit Ramen Street and wander the many different ramen restaurants to find the style you like. 

Don’t miss a night staying at a ryokan and enjoy a kaiseki-ryori dinner. You’ll lose count of how many courses you are served, each one meticulously prepared with the chef’s pride using seasonal local ingredients. We’ve just released our Kyushu Foodie Tour and the waiting list is already open.

Speaking of food, how well does Kyushu cater to people with different dietary requirements?

Vegan is difficult, honestly speaking. Vegetarian is definitely possible with some advance planning. Pescatarian is easy. I haven’t eaten meat for decades myself so am always happy to go the extra mile in this area.

Harvesting shitake mushrooms from the forests of Hitoyoshi (Kumamoto prefecture)

Our word of the month is ‘hanafubuki’ meaning a blossom blizzard and used for when the wind catches falling petals in a flurry. What's your go-to place to see spring blossoms in Japan?

We just got back from our annual sakura-hunting trip. Take a look at the video here. If you force me to choose one it’s this enormous tree in the Aso area, an incredible 400 years old and still flowering wildly.

Cherry tree and green tea in Ureshino (Saga prefecture)

How is the situation currently for travellers wanting to visit Japan?

Japan is currently completely closed for tourism. Hopefully international travel will open again after the summer Olympics and vaccine rollout. Coronavirus levels here are a tiny fraction of those in the UK and Europe so we’re cautiously optimistic. We are currently accepting bookings for private customised family trips from October this year (2021). Our first group tour (Autumn Colours) starts in November 2021 and is open now for tentative bookings.

We know you’re passionate to visit Japan and we can’t wait to welcome you here ❤️

All photos by Kyushu Journeys

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