Kyushu and its fast-growing cultural capital Fukuoka have long been synonymous with tasty ramen, shogun-era castles and steamy onsen.
If you like only-in-Japan rituals you’re in luck: the Oniyo fire festival takes place on 7 January; while the bonkers Tamaseseri, which sees loincloth-clad competitors fight over wooden balls for good fortune, is held on 3 January. And if you’re visiting in March, don’t miss the lesser-known full-bloom cherry blossoms of Fukuoka Castle – they’re as spectacular as anything you’d see in Kyoto, but without the crowds.
Here’s a selection of the very best Fukuoka and wider Kyushu experiences to add to your itinerary.
THE EXPERIENCE: Seven Stars in Kyushu
The Seven Stars in Kyushu is to Fukuoka what the Orient Express is to Paris and Istanbul. The Japanese are obsessed with bullet trains, but few realise they’re equally smitten with slow ones – and the country’s foremost luxury cruiser is a treat. Sold out since launch (2018 dates are on offer now), the locomotive follows a loop to Kagoshima, before trundling up the sunset coast to Kumamoto. Inside, the deluxe cabins’ standout feature is an expansive rear-facing window, parading Kyushu’s greatest hits in slow motion.
THE HOTEL: Agora Fukuoka Hilltop Hotel and Spa
Cinema prop lamps, upcycled retro armchairs and design museum chairs aren’t the norm when it comes to Japanese hotels, but neither is a postmodern onsen that’s more in keeping with a Scandi spa. At Agora Fukuoka Hilltop Hotel and Spa, it’s still possible to reserve a traditional room with shoji doors and tatami flooring, but the smart money is on a suite with pinch-yourself views across the top of Fukuoka’s skyline.
THE ESCAPE: Yakushima
Yakushima’s haunting cedar forest inspired Studio Ghibli’s anime hit Princess Mononoke. While the Japanese fetishise the island’s Unesco-listed wonder, its macaques, deer and dragonflies; equally spectacular is the Sankara Hotel & Spa, a hotel prone to showing off its best bits at every opportunity. The infinity pool, with a view to the Tanegashima Space Center launch pad, is fit for royalty as well as astronauts.
THE SECRET BAR: Bar Kara Kara
Like tumbling down the rabbit hole, Kagoshima’s Bar Kara Kara is covered from top-to-toe with plastic Barbies and Pokémon, manga characters and superhero figures. Kitsch gimmick or not, few locals know about it, which makes it all the sweeter when you land a candy-coloured armchair at the teensy-tiny bar.
THE RYOKAN: Yamabiko Ryokan
Kurokawa Onsen, immaculately packed with timber-framed ryokans, hot springs and bamboo-trimmed natural pools, can get a little tense in high season. Get hot-pink in your yukata gown instead at Yamabiko Ryokan, a time-warp inn set back from the main throng; then dine on its kaiseki tasting menu of sashimi, sweetfish and wagyu.
THE MARKET: Hirado Seaside Seto Market
This fish bazaar comes without the crowds and is famous for the region’s delicious flying fish. If Hirado sounds familiar, the small island northwest of Nagasaki was where Jesuit missionaries first landed, a story now retold in Martin Scorsese’s Silence, starring Liam Neeson.
THE THEME PARK: Huis Ten Bosch
The theme park near Sasebo recreates Dutch life – from fields of tulips and sail-flailing windmills to a full-size royal palace built brick-by-brick using stone from the Netherlands. Inside, merchant houses and warehouses are the absurd home of virtual reality rollercoasters and a disco.
THE RESTAURANT: Suito Fukuoka
Dinky 12-seater Suito Fukuoka is more than a chef’s table placing you in arm’s reach of the open kitchen. The upstairs has been recast as a low-key cookery school, offering classes in making takoyaki (fried, battered octopus balls), sushi rolling and mentaiko (salted pollock roe) tastings.
THE INNOVATION: Henn na Hotel
The buzz is building around the robot-staffed Henn na Hotel in Sasebo, Nagasaki prefecture. With news that the hotelier will open an additional 10 automated hotels in Tokyo, Fukuoka, Osaka and Kyoto by 2019, the future is bright for humanoid receptionists. After an odd check-in, use the facial recognition technology to access your room, then have the in-room robot butler plan your day.
THE DISH: Ramen
Fukuoka is Xanadu for noodle lovers. There are dozens of outdoor stool-or-stand yatai stalls along the Naka river and tonkotsu specialists ladle out pork bone broth ramen on almost every corner. For solid-gold bets, try Ippudo or Ichiran; but for buzzworthy freshness, of-the-moment Eikoku Shoryu is the place to brag about. Surprisingly, it first opened on London’s Regent Street when Fukuoka-born noodle king Tak Tokumine moved to the UK.
● Downtown Fukuoka is an easy 15-minute bus ride from the airport. The Fukuoka Tourist City Pass is a convenient one-day ticket giving unlimited rides on buses, trains and the subway (yokanavi.com/en/tourist-city-pass).
● For further tips on what’s happening in the city, visit fukuoka-now.com, run by Fukuoka native Emiko and her Canadian husband Nick.
Cathay Pacific and Cathay Dragon fly to Fukuoka from Hong Kong 11 times a week