From the outside, people see Japan as a concrete jungle, filled with countless skyscrapers, anime, and robots. However, underneath the veil of pop-culture, there is an aspect of Japan that is often woefully underappreciated: the country’s stunning natural beauty. Today, there are over 30 national parks scattered across Japan, from Hokkaido to Okinawa, that highlight the breathtaking scenery to be found among the volcanoes, beaches, and other geographical landmarks on Japan’s piece of the Earth. One area that’s certainly not lacking in nature is Kagoshima, on the southern island of Kyushu.
Kagoshima prefecture lies in the southernmost part of Kyushu, and is home to one of the country’s first national parks, Kirishima-Kinkowan National Park. With a mild climate and exciting geography, the almost-tropical prefecture makes a pleasant destination for any traveler interested in Japanese nature.
One of Kagoshima’s most prominent features is its volcanic activity. In fact, it was responsible for the formation of the picturesque Mt. Sakurajima along with many calderas, lakes, and volcanoes like Mt. Kaimon. Kagoshima also has a beautiful coastline that stretches about 2,640 kilometers and welcomes crashing waves and cool ocean breezes over its cliffs and beaches.
A warm welcome in Kagoshima
I had the opportunity to visit Kagoshima in February. Despite the grim forecast, the weather was beautiful and surprisingly warm for the time of year. Kyushu is a bit far from Tokyo, but the two-hour plane ride from Haneda airport went by quicker than expected. After landing, the incredible change of landscape from Japan’s busy capital stunned me. In contrast, the endless sea of the city’s office buildings was replaced with an open horizon above the calm ocean waves. Driving along the coastline, there were quaint, sun-faded shops, cafes, and scenic points that define the Japanese countryside.
An unusual combination: sand bathing in Ibusuki
Often people are asked whether they prefer the mountains or the sea, but in Kagoshima there’s no need to choose! People can enjoy the pleasant beaches, perfect for sun bathing – or sand bathing – and rugged mountains, for exploration. Some of those mountains happen to be active volcanoes, which provide the outdoorsy region with plenty of natural hot spring water.
This combination creates the ideal condition for a unique attraction that can only be experience in Ibusuki, Kagoshima — a natural sand bath. Surrounded by incredible scenery, you can rest your body under the healing sands of Ibusuki while listening to the soothing sounds of the ocean. Despite expectations, the warm water on the sands of the beach doesn’t come from the sea. Instead, it bubbles up from a deep, mineral-rich spring underground, which is heated by volcanic activity. The primordial water apparently has many healing properties. As a result, the warm blankets of sand gained popularity for its health and beauty benefits.
The healing powers of the Earth
I can’t say whether or not it did anything for my beauty, but lying under the hot sands of Sunamushi Onsen certainly left me feeling refreshed and relaxed — even after an early morning flight. The weight of the sand gently compresses your body while providing natural heat. Consequently, the feeling is like having your entire body massaged all at once. It was difficult to leave the warm blanket of sand — not because it was heavy, but because it was so comfortable! The sand bath welcomes guests during all kinds of weather, but on a pleasant day, there’s some unbelievable scenery visible from the shore while resting your body on the beach.
Ibusuki Sunamushi Onsen is just one of the many wonderful natural hot springs bubbling in the region. Places like the Yamakawa Outside Bath at Hot Spring Sanatorium “Healthy Land,” in the open air provide a magnificent view of the Kagoshima landscape. For travelers who are looking to experience natural hot springs in Japan, the Kirishima Onsen Village in the Kirishima-Kinkowan National Park area is a great place to visit.
The great outdoors in Kirishima-Kinkowan National Park
Relaxation is great, but there is more to do in Kagoshima than just soak in some hot water. The many mountains and lakes in the region create natural playgrounds with breathtaking views for outdoor enthusiasts.
One of the high points of my journey in Kagoshima was visiting the area around Mt. Kaimon, a cone-shaped mountain whose unique beauty rivals Mt. Fuji. In fact, people referred to it as the Mt. Fuji of Satsuma (the area’s original name) due to the striking resemblance. At 924 meters, Mt. Kaimon stands tall as a symbol of the local area and provides a panoramic view of Kagoshima that includes Sakurajima, the Osumi Peninsula, and the nearby island of Yakushima. Kirishima-Kinkowan National Park can be divided into two parts — northern Kirishima area and southern Kinkowan Bay area. Mt. Kaimon is one of the symbol of southern Kinkowan Bay area.
Lake Ikeda is also great place to appreciate the view of Mt. Kaimon while enjoying marine activities like a ride on the Kumagawa JET. Despite its astounding speed, the boat can stop on a dime and complete a full 360 degree spin safely. When I boarded this incredibly powerful speed boat, I had no idea I was in for the ride of my life. The wild thrill of the ride together with the peaceful atmosphere of the lake and Mt. Kaimon at sunset made for a perfect combination.
Peaceful moments in Kagoshima, Japan
Between all the excitement, Kagoshima basks in moments of peaceful reflection among the charming nature. The delicate, colorful flower fields lining Lake Ikeda, the largest crater lake in Kyushu are just one example. Everywhere I looked, locals seemed to have set up spaces to proudly display Kagoshima’s flora.
One of the most beautiful scenes I encountered was the Nishi-Oyama Train station which looked like it had just rolled straight out of a Japanese animated movie. The locals are well aware of the resemblance and seem to reference it in the hand-drawn postcards. After writing a short message, you can send the cards from the yellow postboxes that stands among the bright flowers.
It’s the southernmost station operated by JR and maintains a quaint feel, despite its local fame. Trains stopping at the tiny station are few and far between, but I enjoyed some delicious ice cream from a nearby store while I waited.
Day 2: The journey to Cape Sata
The next morning, I took a ride across the Kagoshima Bay on a ferry from Yamagawa Port to Nejime Port. On a clear day, you can see Sakurajima breathing smoke into the open sky. As there are many mountains in Kagoshima, the scenery is incredible from any angle along the way to the southern cape town of Minamiosumi.
The southernmost point of mainland Japan falls on Cape Sata is a popular attraction Minamiosumi. You know you’ve arrived when the massive monument marking 31 degrees latitude appears. Of course, it’s a fun spot to take pictures and learn about geography. In addition to the cliffside view of the ocean, lighthouse, and surrounding mountains, there’s also a shrine to explore among the thickly growing tropical plants. Even in February, I felt like I was on a Hawaiian vacation among the fresh greenery and sounds of the crashing ocean.
Irishima-Kinkowan National Parks Ogawa Waterfall
Speaking of greenery and crashing water, my final stop was Ogawa Waterfall. Although it doesn’t gush massive amounts of water, the impressive panoramic view the cliff and emerald colors makes the scene special. Furthermore, the gentle waterfall ripples in the pool beneath, and the serene beauty made it seem like a mystical natural wonder, untouched by man. It takes about 20 minutes to reach the secluded area on foot, but each step of the way is worth it as you walk along the clear, rippling stream in the Ogawa Ravine.
The life of Kagoshima
What really puts Kagoshima on the map is its incredible geography and terrain that help shape the culture of the region. According to Japanese legends, Mt. Takachihonomine in Kirishiima is a sacred place where the Sun Goddesses’ grandson, Ninigi no Mikoto, descended to Earth. The ruins of the ancient shrine dedicated to him still lie at the foot of the mountain. In fact, it’s a mystical place where legends of Japanese folklore and religion live today.
Looking at the beauty of Kagoshima — its volcanic eruptions, misty mountains, tranquil scenes, and healing properties — it’s understandable how the region inspired such legends and culture. I couldn’t help but feel that the Japanese nature gods were surrounding me as I hiked through the quiet forests. I hope that more people can experience the astonishing nature of Kagoshima and the Kirishima-Kinkowan National Park.
Kirishima-Kinowan National Park is composed of Kirishima-Kagoshima Bay, an area of Kagoshima Prefecture and Miyazaki Prefecture. For more information…