You’d be forgiven for asking ‘where?’ on hearing the name Ainoshima Island. It’s off the coast of Fukuoka and is better known as one of Japan’s ‘cat islands’. Local photographer Fubirai’s photos of the cats went viral a few years ago. But I had no idea how to get to Ainoshima until I came across this blog post from a few months ago. I was able to piece together the various stages from that, but it’s still a bit confusing so here’s a step-by step guide to getting to Ainoshima.
First, you need to get to Shingu station (or to give it its ‘proper’ name, Nishitetsushingu station). From Hakata take the Kagoshima line to Chihaya then change to Nishitetsuchihaya station for the Kaizuka line and travel to the Shingu terminus. Chiyaha and Nishitetsuchihaya are in the same building but are technically different stations, so you’ll need a new ticket or to swipe out and in with your prepay card. The journey takes about 35 minutes and costs 460 yen in total. There’s another route from Tenjin: take the Hakozaki subway line to Kaizuka (end of the line), then switch to the Kaizuka line for Shingu. It takes about 40 minutes and costs 530 yen. These are commuter lines and trains are pretty regular.
At Shingu, turn left out of the station and walk for 100m until you get to a bus shelter in a car park. You need the local community bus, which is green, and not any of the Nishitetsu buses. All the timetables are on the Shingu town website (use Chrome’s translation widget to read them!).
(Since I originally wrote this guidance, the Shingu town website has handily put together a timetable guide for catching the bus and ferry. At the moment it’s here, but if the link breaks again go to the homepage, use Chrome to translate and look for ‘public transport’ in the menu.)
So for example, if you wanted to visit in summer, these are your options:
7.10am bus for the 7.50am ferry
8.45am bus for the 9.20am ferry
10.55am bus for the 11.30am ferry
2pm bus for the 2.30pm ferry
4.10pm bus for the 4.40pm ferry
(You could take the 5.30pm bus for the 6.10pm ferry, but that’s the last sailing for the day and you won’t be able to get back.)
The bus costs 100 yen. The journey takes about 10 minutes and you get dropped right at the ferry terminal. The bus then hangs around for the ferry to get in and picks up disembarking passengers. (Note: buses travelling in both directions wait to pick up passengers. Both go to the station but one will take longer! I asked the bus driver if he went to the station; I presume if he’d been the longer route he’d have directed me to the other bus.)
The ferry costs 460 yen each way and takes about 20 minutes. You need to buy your ticket from a machine in the terminal at the Shingu side and a little office on Ainoshima (next to the restaurant). If you don’t spot it, like I didn’t, you can pay the person collecting the tickets on Ainoshima in cash.
It tipped it down the entire time I was on Ainoshima so I didn’t do much exploring (though I still saw five cats, two of which were very up for cuddles as they sheltered from the rain). The island is small and has some interesting scenery, but of course the main draw is the cats – take some snacks, hang around the port and you will see some. There’s a village (some of the doors were open and I got a peek into some traditional Japanese homes, all tatami mats and raised floors), and do pay a visit to the small restaurant. It’s run by a lovely woman who’s very fond of cats and is keen to visit England one day.
The big draw in Usuki is a series of stone Buddhas carved from soft volcanic rock about 1,000 years ago, designated as national treasures. The town itself is also worth a look, with some temples and an old district with shops and restaurants.
There are a couple of trains an hour to Usuki from Oita, a limited express which takes about 30 minutes and costs 1,670 yen and a local train which takes 45-55 minutes and costs 740 yen (both covered by the Rail Pass). There’s a little tourist information office at Usuki station (to the left at the front of the building) where you can pick up maps and bus timetables, because yet again the buses are infrequent.
There are only four buses on a weekday from Usuki station to the Stone Buddhas (Usuki Sekibutsu): 10.10am, 12.10pm, 2pm and 3.15pm. The bus costs 310 yen each way and takes about 20 minutes, but it drops you off right in the car park. If you’re willing to walk 10 minutes to bus stop Jyohoku there are more buses – and on the way back you may find yourself dropped off at Jyohoku anyway as only half the 11 buses from the Sekibutsu back into town go to the station.
When you arrive, work out when the buses leave. You’ll need at least an hour to see the Buddhas but the way the timetable falls you could end up with an hour to kill after that – in which case, a combined ticket for the Buddhas and the small historical museum next door is good value at 710 yen (entrance to the Buddhas alone is 530 yen). It’s a beautiful area in a small valley, with several temples scattered around the fields, and I heartily recommend a visit.
On the way back into town, if you get off at Hirasozu bus stop you can explore Ryugen-ji and its three-storey pagoda and walk back through the old samurai district. The maps given out at the tourist office list various different bus stops if you don’t fancy walking all the way back to the station, and you can roughly work out the times from the timetable they give you.
I spent so long faffing around at Rakan-ji that I didn’t have much time in Kitsuki, which was a shame. It’s an old samurai town with a castle and an interesting old district built on small hills with famous slopes and stairways. Pick up a town map from a rack in the station.
Kitsuki is on the same train line as Nakatsu. There are a couple of trains an hour from Oita (an express, which takes 20-25 minutes and costs 1,580 yen, and a local train which takes 35-40 minutes and costs 650 yen. Both are covered by the Rail Pass) but there are fewer direct trains connecting Nakatsu and Kitsuki. Kitsuki train station is several kilometres out of the city centre and, as seems typical for the Kunisaki peninsular, the buses aren’t very regular.
There’s an excellent site called Bus Navi Oita that generates timetables for stops you want to travel between. Here’s a link to timetables between Kitsuki station and Kitsuki bus terminal (all sights are walkable from the bus terminal) and timetables from Kitsuki bus terminal back to the station. You can easily be waiting an hour for the next bus, so time your arrival carefully, particularly in the afternoon when it goes down to about one bus an hour. The bus ride takes 10 minutes and costs about 300 yen each way. If you really screw up the timing you could always catch a taxi, there are plenty around the station (for obvious reasons).
Rakan-ji Temple is near Nakatsu in Oita prefecture. It’s a temple built into the cliff face halfway up Mount Rakan. The site dates from the 14th century and is mostly famous for thousands of stone Buddhas and the wooden rice paddles that people write prayers on and nail to the walls. There’s a hall with 500 Buddha statues, each with a different face, but what I loved about it most were the views across the valley and the sense of peace. It’s a beautiful place but a complete pain to get to.
First, take the train to Nakatsu. A limited express service runs from Oita about every 30-60 minutes which takes 45-55 minutes. It costs 2,890 yen each way but is covered by the rail pass. This is the easy part.
From Nakatsu, you need a bus to Nakashima bus stop. Go to the front of the station where there’s a mini bus station to the left (and I mean mini: there’s a shelter, some benches, timetables and a staffed hut). There’s no English on any of the signs so ask the person in the hut where the bus goes from – I can’t string the sentence together but use ‘doko’ (where) ‘bass’ (bus), Nakashima and ‘kudasai’ (please). I was lucky that the woman in the hut took pity on me, sold me a bus ticket (640 yen each way; otherwise take a ticket when you get on and pay the fare shown on the board next to the driver when you exit), made sure I got on the right bus and told the driver where I was heading. Bus announcements are in Japanese only but are easy to work out. Also, for most of the journey I was the only passenger and the driver let me know when we were approaching Nakashima.
The other problem with the buses is there aren’t many of them. Here are PDFs of the timetable from Nakatsu station – the third column from the right definitely goes to Nakashima, so Mon-Fri 9.40am, 10.30am, 1.40pm, 3.40pm, 5.10pm, 6pm and 7.10pm, though I have read elsewhere that all three columns furthest to the right will get you there – and the timetable back again from Nakashima, which is a lot more obvious. Still only about one bus an hour though. The bus journey takes 30 minutes and passes tourist site Yabakei Bridge and goes through the Ao-no-domon tunnel.
Once at Nakashima, you now have a 2km walk to the base of Mount Rakan. Nakashima bus stop is at a crossroads, and you need to walk in the direction this sign is pointing:
See the kanji at the top, where it says 2km? That says Rakan-ji; try and memorise it if you can. The walk is along a main road for 1.5km through pretty countryside. (There also seems to be a small taxi rank just past this sign if you don’t fancy walking.) Eventually you’ll hit two small convenience stores with drinks vending machines, one on either side of the road. Just after the shops there’s a small bridge, with this sign:
Told you to memorise the kanji! Cross this bridge and walk for about 500m towards the mountain. Once you’re at the base, go past the shops (or stop at the one with the small restaurant for some excellent noodles; no English menu but the owners are nice people and very understanding). You can walk up to the temple – it’s very, very steep – or you can catch a chairlift for 800 yen, which covers the trip to the temple, up to the top and back down again. The chairlift is tucked away behind a building so look for this sign:
There’s also a nice viewing point and garden at the top, so make sure you go all the way up the mountain in the chairlift.
I just missed a train on the way back so I had a wander round Nakatsu, visiting Gogan-ji Temple. It seems like a pleasant little town, and it has a castle. I barely scratched the surface (and didn’t get to the castle), but luckily Zooming Japan has. If you did want to stay, I could see a Toyoko Inn and a Super Hotel from the train platform.
Tom has been to Beppu as well, and spent it visiting onsen. I went more touristy and visited some of the famous Hells (very hot springs for looking at, not bathing). This was probably a poor choice. I visited three of the eight and they were quite run-down and small; 400 yen entrance fee isn’t actually that much, but when you consider that entrance fees in Japan are generally quite low and you look at what’s in there, it feels like a rip-off. You can buy a combined ticket for all eight Hells for 2,100 yen but to avoid Hell fatigue I’d suggest picking the most interesting sounding and focusing on those. Especially considering that several keep live animals; I dread to think of the conditions.
The Hells are in two separate parts of town, all a significant distance from the train station. The Information Centre at Beppu station is fantastic and will load you up with leaflets, maps and timetables. If you’re going to visit both Hell districts, pick up a “1 Day Mini Free Passport” for the bus from the Information Centre for 900 yen; it’s a 10 yen saving on paying for each bus separately and is just easier than rootling out exact change. For the six Hells in Kannawa, you want either the 5, 9 or 41 buses from the West exit of the station and get off at Umi-jigoku mae. This is the stop after Kannawa bus station (a parking area with a small green bus shelter); I’m giving you this advice because although bus announcements in Beppu are given in English, they’re so quiet they’re almost impossible to hear.
Because I couldn’t hear the damn announcements I leapt off the bus at Kannawa and after trailing up the hill could only be bothered to visit Cooking Pot Hell (Kamado Jigoku). It’s on the tacky side of kitschy and the most interesting thing is probably the food cooked in the springs – steamed dumplings, boiled eggs and a rather tasty suet pudding. I gather Umi Jigoku has a lovely garden but it’s further up the hill and the weather was hot, so I went back to Kannawa bus station again to wait for a 16 or 16A bus to Chinoike-jigoku bus stop and the two Hells in the Shibaseki district. Chinioke Jigoku (Blood Pond Hell) has red water, sells beauty and medical treatments made from the spring’s clay and not much else. Tatsumaki Jigoku next door has an actual geyser that erupts every 30-40 minutes for 5-10 minutes.
You can see the geyser’s been enclosed; if it wasn’t, apparently it would reach up to 30m in height. The more cynical part of me thinks they walled it off so people wouldn’t be able to get a free show from outside. There are nice gardens to wander in while you wait for the geyser to go off and they sell excellent ice cream. When you’re done, catch the 16 or 16A back to Beppu station. It also stops at Kamegawa and Beppu Daigaku stations.
A far, far better tourist attraction in Beppu is Takasakiyama Monkey Park. This is also out of town, on a mountainside, but it’s also next to the Aquarium (which I was too late to visit but is apparently modern and very nice). To get to both, catch buses AS60 or AS61 from the East side of Beppu station, but there aren’t many of them and they stop at 2.39pm on weekdays and 4.20pm on weekends (warning: last entry to Takasakiyama is 4.30pm). There are more and later buses running from Beppu Kitahama, about 15-20 minutes walk from Beppu’s East exit. Buses AS54, AS60, AS61, AS70, AS71, AS72 and AS73 all leave from stop number 4, which is beyond Kitahama train station, on a crossroads and with a big 4 painted in a red circle. (It’s obvious once you see it but you’re walking for so long there’s a paranoia you’ve gone in the wrong direction or passed it.) The journey takes about 10 minutes to Takasakiyama-Umitamago stop – look out for the big aquarium on the left because the announcements are inaudible – and costs (IIRC) about 300 yen.
The monkey park costs 610 yen for entry with a ride up the hill on the monorail, 510 yen without. And the park is brilliant. It’s not a zoo: the monkeys were enticed there 60 years ago after causing havoc on farmland, and now stay voluntarily because they get fed. The monkeys are technically wild but not at all afraid of humans, and scamper around the visitors like we’re barely there. There are signs everywhere not to touch, stare or shout at the monkeys, which made the moment when one of them started gently tugging on my bag a little awkward (no food in there, little guy)…
Handily, the buses from Takasakiyama run on to Oita, where I was staying, so in theory you could catch the bus straight from Oita if your itinerary works better that way.
Yufuin is a bonny, albeit kitschy, hot spring town a bit further inland from Beppu and, if I’m honest, I prefer Yufuin. It’s more compact and completely surrounded by mountains. But it’s not that handy if you want somewhere cheap to stay and eateries are mainly of the cafe variety: this is somewhere people either visit on a day trip or eat in their ryokans.
I went to Yufuin straight after landing at Fukuoka airport. I’d planned to get the train – there are a handful of direct trains from Hakata a day which cost around 4,500 yen and take 140 minutes. It’s covered by the Japan Rail Pass but I didn’t start mine right away, so when I spotted the Nishitetsu highway bus from the airport for 2,880 yen I leapt on it. (There are more frequent rail connections transferring via Kokura and Oita or Beppu, but most of them involve Shinkansen routes that aren’t covered by the Rail Pass.)
Buy tickets from the Domestic Terminal at Fukuoka Airport, which means getting on the free shuttle bus from International. The ticket machines and staffed office are directly in front of the bus stop. Then you have to get back on the shuttle, because the Yufuin bus leaves from the International Terminal! The bus stop is to a little to the left of the International Terminal’s main doors if you’re standing with your back to the building; look for ‘Yufuin’ painted on the floor along with other city names. An official turns up when buses are due to check tickets and put away luggage.
The journey takes about 1 hour 40 minutes, so it’s a cheaper and shorter journey than the train and the obvious option unless you have a Rail Pass. Buses leave roughly every 30-60 minutes – you can check the times online and reserve if you like, but there were less than 10 people on the bus I rode. To check the timetable and/or reserve, click the Reservation button the on left and select ‘Fukuoka’ for the departure prefecture, ‘Oita’ for the arrival prefecture, give it a few seconds to load up then select the Fukuoka-Yufuin route (obviously). Yufuin’s the final stop so no need to worry about missing it.
I stayed in a ryokan on the edge of the main town. It’s about a 20 minute walk from the station but near the inn it’s very hilly and is all twisty lanes, so it’s advisable to get a taxi at least the first time. Some of the room fixtures and fittings at Hotel Reimei are a little worn, but there’s nothing quite like eating a keiseki meal in a room overlooking lush mountains followed by a soak in an outdoor onsen while watching the sun go down to deal with jetlag.
If you do go to Yufuin and you’re British, then as well as visiting Lake Kinrin and exploring the shops and galleries, make sure to nip into Yufuin Floral Village. It will mess with your head, jetlag or no jetlag.
Lake Towada is the biggest caldera lake on Honshu, in the middle of a national park. The easiest way to get there is by bus; despite there being a Shichinohe-Towada stop on the Shinkansen, I have no idea how you get to Towada-ko from the station. A couple of buses a day leave from Hachinohe station but more (five) go from Aomori.
If you have a full Japan Rail Pass – but not a JR East pass – the bus is free, otherwise it costs about 3,000 yen in each direction. I tried to reserve a seat as soon as I got into Japan, being worried that the small number of services could mean they’d all be full, but the ticket office in Tokyo station had no idea what to do. Instead I waited until I got to Aomori, where the staff reserved me a place on the 7.50am bus. I needn’t have worried; it was only about a third full.
The bus takes two and a half hours to reach Yasumiya, the main development on Towada-ko, but has several stops at onsens along the way for snacks and toilet breaks. It’s a gorgeous journey through the mountains and you can still see snow packed several feet high even in June.
I got off the bus at Nenokuchi, the other, tiny, development on Towada-ko. From here I walked back up the Oirase stream a little way to look at the waterfalls – you can get off anywhere from Yakeyama stop onwards to walk along the Oirase stream, but the full length is 9km and the most interesting waterfalls are near the mouth of the lake anyway. Nenokuchi has a small shop and restaurant, but what it doesn’t have any more is a ferry linking it to Yasumiya. Unless you can time the buses perfectly, fancy the hike along the lake shoreline or really really like waterfalls I’m not sure there’s much to recommend stopping off at Nenokuchi any more.
There’s a sightseeing ferry from Yasumiya, which does a loop round one of the peninsulas and back to Yasumiya. It only runs April-November and costs 1,440 yen. There are lots of Matsushima-style islands jutting out of the lake and it’s worth getting up close to some of them. There are some more restaurants and shops in Yasumiya and a shrine, and the shoreline on a sunny day is beautiful and not at all busy, even on a Sunday; probably because it’s so remote. It’s one of my favourite parts of Tohoku and even though you’ll spend more time getting there than you will at the actual lake, it’s worth it.
I’m always amazed at how few Westerners there are in Japan, even in Tokyo. Japan as a whole got 10.3m foreign visitors in 2013; to put that into context, London alone got 16.8m foreign visitors in 2013. And many of Japan’s visitors will be from other Asian countries. There seems to be an idea that Japan is expensive (it’s not) and difficult to understand (it’s not; particularly in the major cities you’ll be amazed how much is translated into English, or how many pictures there are).
My friend Tom Royal has spent the last few years compiling a guide to visiting Japan on a budget. But there are a few places he hasn’t been to yet, and given the lack of information in English about these places I’m going to create a complementary guide.
First, there are some basics that I pass onto everyone who asks about travelling to Japan (Tom has more detailed info on hotels, transport etc):