Tour of Japan: Chugoku & Kyushu Regions

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Chūgoku Region (中国地方)   is the westernmost region of Honshū Island and is also known as the Sanin-Sanyo region.  It is made up of five prefectures: Hiroshima, Okayama, Shimane, Tottori, and Yamaguchi. Its geographic area is 31,922.26 km2, and it has a population of 7. 7 million people (2020).  Much of Chūgoku is very rural and sparsely populated. The two largest metropolitan areas in the Chūgoku region are Hiroshima and Okayama with a combined total population of 2.8 million (2020).  The City of Hiroshima is its capital.   Its climate is warm during the summer with temperatures in the high 70s (F), and very cold and bitter in the winter with highs in the 30s (F).  It was once governed by the Choshu Domain who was the most anti-Tokugawa domain in the Meiji period.  They joined forces with the rival Satsuma Domain and formed the Satchō Alliance and helped establish the Meiji oligarchy, the new ruling class of the Meiji Period.  Visitors to this region will enjoy heritage sites, beautiful natural wonders, and one of its most unique tourist attraction—a visit to Okunoshima a/k/a Rabbit Island where visitors can see and feed the 1,000 wild rabbits that run freely on the island.

Okayama Prefecture (岡山県, Okayama-ken) is located in the Chūgoku region of Honshū. It has a population of 1.9 million people (2018) and has a geographic area of 7,114 km2.  Its capital city is Okayama.  During the Edo Period (1603-1867) Okayama was a castle town with significant regional power that was controlled by the shogunate.  It is one of three cities in Japan that claim to be the homeland of folklore hero, Momotaro (Peach Boy).  Okayama is famous for Okayama Castle; Bizen-yaki (pottery); Okayama Demi-Katsudon (Pork Cutlet w/ Demi-glace); Hinase Kakioko (Oyster Okonomiyaki); White Peaches; Muscat and Pione Grapes; Fruit Parfaits; Kibi-Dango (Sticky Rice Dumplings); and Barazushi (sushi w/local fish, seafood and vegetables).

Tottori Prefecture (鳥取県, Tottori-ken) is located in the Chūgoku region of Honshū Island on the Sea of Japan coast.  Tottori Prefecture is the least populous prefecture of Japan with 570,569 people (2016) and has a geographic area of 3,507 km2.  It is capital city is Tottori and is famous for its 30 km2 of sand dunes.  Mt. Daisen and Mt. Mitoku are holy mountains with the healing powers of nature.  Mitokusan Sanbutsuji Nageiredo is the most dangerous National Treasure of Japan.  It is built into the mouth of a cave on the side of Mt. Mitaku.  It is believed that the dangerous climb to Nageiredo is a “metaphor for death and resurrection.” Ogamiyama Shrine Okunomiya  near Daisen-ji Temple is another power spot in Tottori Prefecture.  Onsen (hot springs) are scattered throughout the prefecture that are believed to have restorative properties. Yonago Gaina Festival is a summer festival in Yonago City featuring taiko drums loudly beating as people carry rows of lanterns on poles high above their heads.  The festival ends with a 6,000 fireworks display.  There are also many sake breweries in Tottori because of its natural water.  Tottori is also known as the “Curry prefecture and one of its famous desserts is curry over shaved ice. It is also known for its Matsuba crab; Japanese Sandfish; Mosa Shrimp;  White Squid; and, Wagyu Beef.

Shimane Prefecture (島根県, Shimane-ken) is located in the Chūgoku region of Honshū Island. It is the second-least populous prefecture of Japan with a population of 665,205 people (2020) and has a geographic area of 6,708.26 km².  Matsue is the capital and largest city of Shimane.  Shimane Prefecture is home to the Tokugawa-era Matsue Castle and Izumo-taisha, one of the oldest Shinto shrines in Japan.  Shimane Prefecture and the City of Matsue, especially, are known for growing tea.  Matcha tea is made from powdered tea leaves and is often used for baking sweet treats.  It is grown only in Japan using strict traditional methods and is used in the traditional tea ceremonies.  Sencha is another tea grown in this area and is known for its strong flavor.  Sekishu washi papermaking has been a product of this area for 1,300 years.  Shimane is known for shijimi-jiru, a soup made with the famous shijimi clam from Lake Shinji;  kanshimame-zuke don, a  rice bowl covered with soy sauce-marinated squid; Matcha Japanese Roll Cake; Matcha Green Tea Cookies; Matcha Green Tea Ice Cream;  and, Matcha Green Tea Sorbet. 

 Hiroshima Prefecture (広島県, Hiroshima-ken) is located in the Chūgoku region of Honshū Island.  It is located on the Seto Insland Sea and is across from Shikoku Island.   Hiroshima Prefecture has a population of 2.8 million people (2019) and has a geographic area of 8,479 km²).   Its climate is considered to be humid, subtropical.  Summers are mostly cloudy, wet, oppressive, short and hot.   Winters are very cold and mostly clear with minimal precipitation. The temperature typically varies from 34°F to 89°F and is rarely below 28°F or above 94°F.  August is the hottest month.  Hiroshima is the capital and largest city of Hiroshima Prefecture.  It is famous for the Hiroshima Castle (rebuilt), Gokoku Shinto Shrine, Shukkei-en Japanese gardens, Miaki-dera historic temple, Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, and the Atomic Bomb Dome.  Other major cities are Fukuyama, famous for its Rose Festival, and Kure, famous for its sake made at the Sempuku Brewery.  Itsukushima Shrine is a Shinto shrine on the island of Itsukushima (a/k/a Miyajima) and is best known for its “floating” torii gate.  It is considered to be the third most beautiful site in Japan.  Itsukushima Shrine and the Atomic Bomb Dome are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.  Hiroshima Prefecture has over 40 sake breweries.  It is famous for momiji manju, maple leaf-shaped cakes with a sweet bean paste filling.   Unlike Osaka-style okonomiyaki, Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki is a made with a thin crepe-like dough with its ingredients layered on top of each other such as yakisoba noodles, fried egg, vegetables, meat and tasty sauces.  

Yamaguchi Prefecture (山口県, Yamaguchi-ken) is located in the Chūgoku region at the western tip of  Honshū Island.  Yamaguchi Prefecture has a population of 1.3 million people (2018) and has a geographic area of 6,112 km².  Its climate is classified as warm and temperate.  It receives a significant amount of rain during the months of June, July and September with July being the wettest month.  August is the warmest month with temperatures around 86°F, and February is the coldest month with temperatures around 46°F.  Yamaguchi Prefecture is quiet and rural and has many historical sites such as the castle town of Hagi with the ruins of Hagi Castle; Rurikoji Temple built in 1442 with a five storied pagoda (National Treasure of Japan); and Kintai Bridge built in 1673 that is one of best preserved wooden bridges in Japan.  Another attraction is Akiyoshido,  the largest limestone cave in Japan.  This prefecture is the home of five UNESCO World Heritage Sites.  Yamaguchi City is its capital and Shimolnoseki, the largest city in the prefecture, is famous for its Karato Ichiba seafood market and its local specialty, blowfish.  Hagi City is known for Hagi yaki (pottery) that dates back to the 15th and 16th century and Korea.  The Yanai Goldfish Lantern Festival in August dates back to the Edo Period.  Thousand of Kingyo Chochin (gold fish lanterns) made out of washi paper and bamboo in the shape of goldfish are lit and carried through the city.  Besides blowfish, Yamaguchi is known for its:  Iwakuni sushi; Sanzoku chicken – chicken on a stick in “sanzoku sauce”; and, Kawara soba – green tea soba noodle served with eggs, sukiyaki-style thin strips of beef and an assortment of vegetable in a sweet sauce

Kyūshū  (九州, Kyūshū Region)) is the third largest of Japan’s four main islands that is located in the southwestern part of the country.  The Kyūshū Region consists of seven prefectures:  Fukuoka, Saga, Nagasaki, Kumamoto, Oita, Miyazaki, andKagoshima.  It has an area of 42,180 km2 and is home to 13.01 million people (2018).  The climate is slightly warmer and more tropical than Honshū, and the eastern and southern coasts are hit by typhoons every year. The Kyūshū Region is generally mountainous with very fertile valleys.  At the top of the island is a wide plain where its two largest cities, Fukuoka, the capital city of Kyūshū, and Kitakyushu are located. This region has many volcanoes and is one of the most active volcano areas in the world.  Mt. Sakurajima is a strato-volcano and is one of the most active volcanoes in Japan.  It last erupted on November 24, 2021.  Mt. Aso is a composite volcano with the world’s largest caldera.  It last erupted on October 20, 2021. The people of Kyūshū speak standard Japanese, but it is also home to some peculiar dialects of Japanese that are hard to understand.  The Kagoshima dialect is known to be unintelligible to outsiders.  The Kyūshū region is known for Japanese mythology, historic sites, traditional Japanese gardens, regional ramen varieties, some of the best wagyu beefs in the world, and culture sites.  It is the port where western explores first made contact with the Japanese people in the 16th century and is known as the “Gateway of Japan.”

Fukuoka Prefecture (福岡県 Fukuoka-ken) is located on the island of Kyūshū.  Fukuoka Prefecture has a population of 5.1 million people (2019) and has a geographic area of 343.39 km2.

 Its climate is warm and temperate with significant amounts of rain throughout the year.  Its warmest month is August with an average temperature of 80.4°F, and its coldest month is January with an average temperature of 41.6°F.  Fukuoka is famous for the Sasaguri Hachiju Hachikasho Temple complex that is 180 years old and has 88 temples and Buddhist sites scattered throughout the complex.  One of the 88 sites is the Nanzoin Temple that houses the Nahanzo (reclining Buddha statue) that is 41 meters long, 11 meters high and weighs 330 tons. The ruins of Fukuoka Castle are located in Maizuru Park that is known for its cherry blossoms viewing in the spring. The Hakata Dontaku matsuri is one of Fukuoka’s three main festivals that dates back 840 years.  Today it is attended by 2 million people who watch 30,000 festival performers.  Fukuoka’s yatai (open-air food stalls) is its best known symbol.  Typical yatai dishes are yakitori (grilled chicken skewers); and, Hakata Ramen( thin ramen noodles in tonkotsu [a creamy pork bone based soup]). Fukuoka is famous for one of the three big sumo tournaments in Japan.  It is a region were tomatoes, lettuce, eggplant, grapes, kiwi, strawberries and persimmons are grown.  It is also becoming known for special tomato-based dishes, such as Tomato Motsunabe (hot pot made of beef or pork tripe, cabbage, garlic, chives and togarashi peppers in a tomato broth; Tomato Ramen (red broth with celery and freshly chopped tomatoes, springy noodles and slivers of pork); and, Tomato Cheese Risotto (made from the leftover tomato ramen soup with tomato cubes, steamed rice and melted cheese). 

Saga Prefecture (佐賀県, Saga-ken) is located in the northwestern area of Kyūshū Island.  It borders Fukuoka and Nagasaki Prefectures, and its capital city is Saga.  It has an area of 2439.77 km2 and has a population of 809,248 people (2020).  Its climate is warm and temperate, and there is a significant rainfall throughout the year. The warmest month is August, with an average temperature of 79.4 °F, and the coldest month is January, with an average temperature of 40.6 °F.  Although it is small and rustic, its fertile soils make the region known for high-quality meats and produce such as rice, strawberries, and pears as well as local vegetables. One of Japan’s most famous inari shrines, Yutoku Inari Shrine, is located in this prefecture as well as the floating torii gate at Ouo Shrine.  Saga is known as the birthplace of Japanese ceramics and pottery.  The first porcelain was made after a rich source of porcelain clay was discovered near the city of Arita by a Korean potter.  Arita-ware became known for its decorative Chinese themes.   Imari became the center for Imari-ware during the Edo Period (1603-186) for the Nabeshima clan and featured more traditional Japanese designs.  Karatsu became a pottery center known for its “simplicity of earth tones.”  Originally it was made for everyday use, but now it is one of the top three styles of pottery used in tea ceremonies.  Saga has beautiful natural wonders such as the black pine grove known as Rainbow Pine Grove,  and Takeo Onsen and Ureshino Onsen (famous hot springs).  Saga castle and Nagoya Castle offer a window into Saga’s feudal past.  The Saga International Balloon Fiesta is an international balloon competition with 100 hot air balloons and 800,000 spectators.  Saga is known for:  Yobuko Ika (Live Squid Sashimi); Saga Sake (Nihonshu); Saga Gyu (Wagyu Beef); and Onsen Yudofu (Hot Spring Tofu).

Nagasaki Prefecture (長崎県, Nagasaki-ken) is located in western Kyūshū.  Its territory consists of many mainland peninsulas centered around Ōmura Bay, as well as islands and archipelagos including Tsushima and Iki in the Korea Strait and the Gotō Islands in the East China Sea.  It is home to Mr. Unzen, an active group of strato-volcanoes on the Shimabara Penninsula that erupted in 1996.  Nagasaki Prefecture has a population of 1.3 million people (2020) and has a geographic area of 4,130 km2.  Its capital and largest city is Nagasaki.  Its summers are short, warm, oppressive, and mostly cloudy, and its winters are cold, windy, and mostly clear.  It is wet year round. Nagasaki’s hottest month is August with an average high temperature of 86° F, and its coldest month is January with an average low of   39.4° F.  Nagasaki has a long trading history with the Chinese, Portuguese and Dutch, and during the Sakoku period, it was the sole place of direct trade and exchange with the outside world.  Its international influence can be seen with its 19th century open air museum, Chinese temples (Kofukuji  Temple) , and Christian churches.  Nakasaki has one of three Chinatowns in Japan that was home to Chinese merchants involved in foreign trade.  Historical sites include Hirado Castle, Hirayama-style castle, built by Matsura Takashi in 1718 as the seat of the Matsura clan, and rebuilt in 1962; Suwa Shrine built in 1619 and home to the biggest and most famous Nagasaki Festival, The Nagasaki Kunchi festival started in 1642; and, The Atomic Bomb Museum and Peace Memorial Hall built after WWII.  Nagasaki is known for Chanpon, a rich noodle dish with stir-fry meat and vegtables (Chinese origin); Momo Castella Cake (white Peach Sponge Cake) Portuguese influence;  Turkey rice with pork cutlet, and curry;  and, Goto Udon (thin, round Udon noodles).

Ōita Prefecture (大分県, Ōita-ken) is located on the island of Kyūshū.  Its borders are Fukuoka Prefecture to the northwest, Kumamoto Prefecture to the southwest, and Miyazaki Prefecture to the south.  Ōita Prefecture has a population of 1.1. million people (2019) and has a geographic area of 6,340 km2.  The Ōita area was historically known as Funai.  It has an abundance of mountain ranges including Mount Yufu, Mount Tsurumi, Mount Sobo, Mount Katamuki, and Mount Kujū (which is called the “roof of Kyushu”).  Because of these mountain ranges 70% of Ōita is forest areas, and the rivers and streams that flow from these ranges give the prefecture rich water sources.  Its major water sources are the Yamakuni River, the Yakkan River, the Ōita River, the Ōno and Banjō Rivers, and Beppu Bay and the Bungo Channel.  Ōita is the capital and largest city of Ōita Prefecture.  Other  major cities include Beppu, Nakatsu, and Saiki.  Ōita has hot, humid summers and mild chilly winters with significant rainfall year round. Summer temperatures can climb to 97° F and winter temperatures can drop to 20° F.  During the Sengoku period (15th–16th centuries), the powerful Ōtomo clan was based in Funai.   It was a key port of trade with Portugal and the Ming-dynasty China.  Ōita is primarily famous for its famous onsens (hot springs) and ryokans (traditional Japanese inns) and is a popular tourist destination in Japan.  The City of Beppu is known for the “home of the hot springs.” Beppu’s top tourist attraction is the “eight hells,” multicolored volcanic pits of boiling water, mud and one geyser.  The “hells” are not onsen because the temperatures of the “hells” are between 122 to 210 °F, and some of them have a natural sulfur smell.   The “eight hells” are named: Umi Jigoku (Sea Hell); Oniishi Bozu Jigoku (Onishi Shaven Head Hell); Yama Jigoku (Mountain Hell); Kamado Jigoku (Cooking Pot Hell; Oniyama Jigoku (Devil Mountain Hell; Shiraike Jigoku (White Pond Hell; and, Chinoike Jigoku (Blood Pond Hell).  Ōita is also known for Bunko Beef; Oita Sake; Ōita’s “soul” food – Toriten (Chicken Tempura); and, Dango-jiru (thick wheat noodles cooked with sliced shiitake mushrooms, onions and carrots in a miso soup).

Miyazaki Prefecture (宮崎県, Miyazaki-ken) is located along the southeastern coast of Kyūshū.  It is known for its beaches, surfing, beautiful mountains and oceanside drives.  The prefecture has a population of 1.07 million people, and an area of 7735 km².  Because the Pacific Ocean borders it to the east, the length of the coastline, called Hyuga-nada, running north to south, is about 400 km.  The climate in Miyazaki Prefecture is warm and temperate with significant amounts of yearly rainfall.  In Miyazaki, the summers are hot and oppressive with average temperatures around 87°F.  Winters are cold and mostly clear with temperatures around 38°F.  Its capital is Miyazaki City.  Miyazaki Prefecture is known for Aoshima, a popular swimming beach, connected by a pedestrian bridge to tiny Aoshima Island.  The island is surrounded by a flat, ribbed geological formation nicknamed Oni no Sentakuita, or “Devil’s Washboard.” Famous Pacific Coast surf spots include Hyuga, Kisakihama and Shirahama. In 2019 Kisakihama hosted the ISA World Surfing Games.  Miyazaki-jingū is the city shrine dedicated to Jinmu, the mythical first emperor of Japan.  Takachiho is known to be a place of deep religious importance and the supposed cave site of Amaterasu, the Shinto Sun Goddess.  It is also famous for its mangos; Miyazaki Beef;  Hyuganatsu (a type of citrus fruit); Manjuu (pastry filled with sweet cream cheese);  Nanjakora daifuku (strawberry, walnut and cream cheese wrapped in red bean paste and then wrapped in a chewy mocha layer; and,  Imojochu, Japanese vodka made from sweet potato.

Kumamoto Prefecture (熊本県, Kumamoto-ken) is located in the center of Kyūshū.  Kumamoto is also known as Hi no Kuni – The Land of Fire” since it is home to Mt. Aso, one of the most active and tallest volcanoes in Japan and the largest inhabited volcanic caldera in the world.  It has a population of 1.7 million people (2019) and has a geographic area of 7409 km².  Its capital city is Kumamoto, the third hottest city in Japan.  The temperatures in this prefecture vary from balmy summers and mild winters in the coastal areas to cool summers and freezing winters with heavy snowfalls in the mountain regions.  Because central Kyūshū has many volcanoes, Kumamoto Prefecture is known for onsen (hot spring centers) in the cities of Kikuchi, Yamaga and Hitoyoshi.  The traditional onsen city of Kurokawa, north of Mt. Aso, dates back 300 years, and is known for its onsen, ryokans (traditional Japanese inns), public bath houses and yukata.  In keeping with Kumamoto’s nickname of “The Land of Fire” it celebrates three great fire-inspired festivals each year:  The Aso Fire Festival in mid March (controlled burning of the prefecturer’s grasslands); The Yamaga Lantern Festival (hundreds of women dancing during the night wearing lanterns on their heads); and, The Hinokuni Land of Fire Festival and fireworks display each August in Kumamoto City.  Historically, it is known for Kumamoto Castle, considered to be one of the top three castles in Japan dating back to the Hosokawa Lords of Kumamoto who dominated the area for centuries.  Kumamoto’s Kumamon, a black bear with red cheeks, travels throughout Japan, representing and promoting the prefecture and is now considered to be one of the best known costumed mascots in Japan.  Kumamoto is also known for:  Basashi or “cherry blossom meat” (thin slices of raw horse meat); Tonkatsu (Japanese fried pork cutlet); Kumamoto Raman; and, Horaku Maju (a bun filled with red or white bean paste).

Kagoshima Prefecture (鹿児島県, Kagoshima-ken) consists of the southernmost tip of Kyūshū and the northern half of the Nansei Shoto, the island group that stretches from Kyūshū to Taiwan.  It was formerly called Satsuma.  It has a population of 1.6 million people and has a geographic area of 9187 km².  The climate is warm and temperate and the average temperature is 63.1 °F.  Its largest and capital city is Kagoshima and is known as the “Naples of the Eastern World” because of its bay location.  It is home to the strato-volcano, Mt. Sakurajima.  Ibusuki, Makurazaki and the Kirishima areas are known for onsen (hot springs) and sentōs, public baths heated by hot springs. The people of Kagoshima speak standard Japanese, but also speak the local Satsuma dialect that is unintelligible to outsiders.  Kagoshima’s Yakushima Island has an extensive cedar forest with trees (yakusugi) dating back over 1000 years with one thought to be 7000 years old.  It is most famous for the birthplace of Saigō Takamori, an influential Japanese samurai, nobleman and leader of the Meiji Restoration, and the end of the samurai era.  Kogashima was also the main location of the Satsuma Rebellion led by Saigō Takamori and the place of his death in 1877.  He is called the symbol of Kagoshima and Saigō-don.  Saigō Park in Kagoshima has a 10.5 meter tall statue of Saigō Takamori (on top of a 5 meter tall stand) weighing 30 tons.   It is the tallest statute of any person in Japan.  Kagoshima was also the birthplace of Japan’s Industrial Revolution. It is also known for handwoven silk fabric called Oshima Tsumugi that must meet specific requirements:  made in Amami Oshima; dyed with mud (dorosome); made of 100% silk threads; and, must be a fabric with a plain weave.  The prefecture is known for: Kurobata Pork; Tori Sashimi; imo shōchū  (sake made from sweet potatoes); Karukancake made from yams, rice powder and sugar; Kuwacha mulberry tea; and, Satsumaage, fried fishcake.