JP 2024 Apr Sakura Fukuoka


Overnight it had been raining though luckily when we checked out rain had stopped briefly until we’re on the airport limo bus en route to the Matsuyama airport.  Airline checkin was brief and easy and so we had more than an hour to stroll around the shops and had a casual lunch before security. While we’re waiting rain became downpours with thunderstorms – bad sign!  All the while the departure time / gate was missing for our flight to Fukuoka while most other domestic flights were not affected. re the local announcement it was due to the same thunderstorm affecting flights from Fukuoka. Our almost full plane was delayed for 1 hour and it was a fairly bumpy ride. Over the entire trip of less than 1 hour we hardly saw anything outside except clouds and rain until the last 5 min before landing when we finally caught sight of the city below.  Thank God it touched down smoothly.  Checked into a hotel opposite to the Hakata station in less than 30 min by city subway direct.  


On next morning rain had stopped though it was cloudy. Visited the Fukuoka castle ruins / Maizuru park (2nd time) where sakura was at peak blossom (was late for several days). It was one of the highlights in this trip. Though it was a normal weekday it was fairly crowded. We stayed for about 2 hours. 


Fukuoka Castle ruins / Maizuru Park


Upon return we strolled along the Ohori park with plenty of food stalls opening for business. Had unagi-don for lunch in Hitsumabushi style, paired with famous sake also from Aichi Prefecture in Nakasu. Afterwards strolled to Canal city had coffee/cake before returning to hotel. 

On the next day we went for shopping. Overall had some delicious yet inexpensive meals in the dining floors of AMU Plaza on top of Hakata station.  Also discovered a local coffee house serving coffee from Americas, Africa, Oceania before we left. It was a nice finale :))





~~~~~~~~   T H E      E N D   ~~~~~~~~




JP 2024 Apr Sakura Matsuyama (Part 2)


On next morning after having breakfast we visited the Matsuyama Castle – 1 of 12 original castles in Japan. The castle is located on a mount about 100m+, served by a ropeway and chairlift on the side. We took the chairlift – first time of all our castle visits in Japan so far and commenced hiking up to the entrance of Honmaru (the Main Keep).

Inside the Main Keep there were several wings. All visitors had to follow a route heading up and down via narrow wooden stairs.  There were plenty of artifacts and exhibits about the history of the castle, weapons, swords, armours used by samurai, shoguns etc. 

Sakura was blooming at 50%, with early-blooming varieties such as Oshima, Youkou (literally sunlight) in peak blossom. 



Ishitei-ji (石手寺)

After enjoying a Yuzu-taste ice-cream (in orange) and resting for a while, we descended back to the street level and waited for a route bus to Ishitei-ji.  While we’re waiting I spotted the Hawaiian guy in his sunglasses whom we met the day before on the ferry. He had also finished visiting the castle – what a coincidence!   We chatted briefly but we had to part again when the route bus arrived.

It took about 15 min to arrive at the temple.  

Ishitei-ji (literally means stone hand temple) is temple number 51 along the 88 temples on the Shikoku Pilgrimage. This was the first temple we visited in Ehime Prefecture. Walking through a covered approach there were shops selling buddhist related artifacts though only a few were open.  After entering via the Niomon the temple ground was filled with multiple halls and a 3-storey pagoda.  On the left there’s another entrance where a long tunnel inside a cave was supposed to lead to an inner temple.  We followed through it where some bats were flying along eerily.  After about 5 min we emerged from the cave where there’s a mountain road though there was nothing resembling any temple infrastructure was in sight except for long grasses and forests.  Feeling a bit disappointed we descended via the mountain road back to the main hall and left. 



Back to Dogo onsen we went for lunch in the shopping arcade. Ordered two Tai-meshi lunch sets which is famous locally. We like Tai (sea bream) sashimi anyway and the sets were delicious. Afterwards we strolled around the shopping arcade until it’s time for our reserved timeslot to visit the Dogo onsen Honkan restricted rooms where this is the only onsen in Japan the Japanese Emperor and Royalties stayed for onsen.

It was a small group of 7 people including the two of us led by a local lady speaking in English. She showed the Yushinden (gate) entrance where only Japanese Royalties could use. Indoor we were guided along narrow corridors outside the living/bedroom (without stepping in) with detail explanations about the architecture, symbols and usage.  The indoor onsen room for soaking is in the basement with an adjacent changing room and a small Japanese garden.   It lasted for about 30 min and the lady was very friendly responding to our questions as well as taking photos for us.  This local tour is highly recommended. 




Took city tram to Okaido station and strolled in the Matsuyama covered shopping arcade which is much larger with more shops and eateries.  Had coffee and cake and returned to hotel after 2 hours. Strolled in the fairly spacious hotel landscape garden with sakura trees, small streams amongst others before rain clouds slowly rolled in.  Soaked in onsen for the last time before western dinner. 



==========>    Fukuoka   ==========>




JP 2024 Apr Sakura Matsuyama

After checking out from hotel I returned car in Beppu opposite to the ferry terminal. Took a ferry to Yawatahama, Shikoku for the first time from Kyushu. Not many passengers were travelling on that ferry on April Fools’ Day. Inside the cabin it has two spacious floors for passengers to relax.  While the ferry ride took nearly 3 hours, we had a nice long chat with a guy from Hawaii, who has been travelling from the Philippines to Taiwan prior to arriving at Kyushu/Beppu. Given one of his major interests is lighthouse, his plan was to pick up a car upon landing. We parted at the Yawatahama ferry pier waving goodbyes – little did we know we’d bump into each other later. 

Had brief lunch in the pier restaurant then took JR express train to Matsuyama in less than 1 hour direct.  Took city tram to Dogo onsen in less than 30 min.  


Checked into historical onsen hotel Funaya for 2 nights. Strolled around Dogo onsen spots briefly before soaking in onsen. 




Funaya – delicious Kaiseki dinner paired with local sake on our first night. 



============>    Part 2   ===========>




JP 2024 Mar Sakura Beppu

On the last Sunday in March when we checked out sakura blossom around the onsen hotel reached peak after two fairly warm days of up to 26C. 



As it was early we did some grocery shopping in the new Aeon Mall with Daiso on 2F. Afterwards we visited a river dyke along which sakura trees were planted. Here sakura was also in peak blossom with Mt Yufu as an almost perfect backdrop. Lunch in a local soba shop.



After lunch I drove to nearby Beppu via a mountainous road in order to arrive at Anraku-ji (安楽寺) for its famous sakura tree of over 150 years old.  It’s a Shidarezakura tree whose branches span across the road.  It was serene with a few visitors by cars/motorbike. 



Along the way to Beppu onsen hotel, we dropped by local parks in Beppu where sakura and azaleas were also blooming. 



Had stayed in Hotel Suginoi, Kankaiji onsen twice but this time we stayed in its newly opened Sora Kan (tower) with its own onsen and dining. Picked a modern and spacious western style room with view of Bay of Beppu from higher elevation. Thought dinner might be less crowded but it wasn’t.  Next time we’d rather stay in Intercontinental, Kanawa onsen again with less commotion.  This concluded our 7th stay in Beppu. 




===========>   Matsuyama   ===========>



JP 2024 Mar Sakura Yufuin

When we arrived at Yufuin it was after 2pm.  While we had expected the town to be crowded it’s beyond our expectations on a Friday that it was like in some kind of long holidays – many cars were roaming around apart from crowds. 

After parking the car nearby we dashed to Snoopy Cafe (that we had visited twice prior to covid) expecting a long queue but it turned out it had moved to a new location closer to Kinrin-ko. Due to immense crowds along the main shopping avenue we decided to have coffee right away. 

Checked into onsen hotel for 2 nights – our 5th stay in Yufuin. Picked this hotel as it served western meals – time for a break. It was surrounded by a forest on the hillside with sakura blooming at about 50%.  The shared rotenburo was not that spacious so after soaking in it we reserved a slot in its private rotenburo (first-come-first-served in 3 discrete huts) on next morning.   Dinner and breakfast were sumptuous and delicious. It was full house in the dining hall. 


After breakfast on next morning we headed to Nagayu onsen Shidarezakura-no-sato 長湯温泉しだれ桜里」. It took roughly an hour via national roads.  It occupies a huge area with over 2,500 sakura trees re its official website with Kuju mountains as backdrop. While some early-blooming sakura varieties were in full bloom, others have just started blooming at 10%.  Apart from temporary food stalls, live performance with a lady singing old hits accompanied by a saxophone, including  いい日旅立ち (“good day to start travelling”). We enjoyed it under the warm sun with light breeze at around 25C.  Stayed there for about 90 min and left for lunch. 



Drove to nearby Nagayu onsen town in 10-15 min. Strolled around it including the public bathhouse. re the local board the onsen is carbonated, good for drinking and possess healing properties.  However, it had a strong metallic taste – not so palatable to me. 

Dropped into a local family-run shokudo ordered udon and yaki-soba for casual lunch.  Menu items were inexpensive overall. 

Returned to Yufuin and checked into a local small coffee house with nice internal decor playing jazz music.  Apart from us only one table was occupied by a local family. We’d definitely return to this serene coffee house next time in Yufuin. 



Dinner in an Italian restaurant – our 2nd visit since Jan 2020. There were more customers so this time our table was not facing Mt Yufu. Dinner was sumptuous and delicious.



==========>   Beppu   ===========>



JP 2024 Mar Sakura Kikuchi

After checking out from Kikuka onsen ryokan we dropped by the Kikuchi Castle ruins. It was a sunny day after the frontal rain band had moved on overnight. 

The staffs in the information centre were very friendly and invited us to watch a video (narrated in English) of about 20 min.  The huge ancient hill fort was built some 1300 years ago for defense. While there are other reconstructed buildings such as army barracks, weapons storehouse, observatory etc, those are spread out in the mountains which we have not visited.    


Kikuchi Castle ruins



Kikuchi Koen

Next we dropped by Kikuchi Koen (Park) for about 30 min where sakura was in blossom (about 30%). 


Kikuchi gorge

From the nearest parking lot (about 200m slightly downhill) we followed the smallest loop mentioned in the pamphlet picked up in the tourist information centre. While it had rained heavily the day before the uphill trails on the left were not difficult. It took about 40 min to complete the smallest loop and returned to the entrance. While we spotted a few visitors at the entrance taking photos we bumped into a few travellers along the trail on that sunny day.   



Next we headed to Yufuin. Ascended via mountainous roads in Kuju Kogen and dropped by a soba shop for lunch.  The soba was hand-made locally and delicious.  While we were enjoying it more locals dropped in and they had to wait for empty tables.  After checking the bill we headed to Yufuin via expressway. 



============>   Yufuin   ============>



JP 2024 Mar Sakura Yamaga

On next morning we checked out after having sumptuous buffet breakfast. Drizzles started to turn into heavy rain.  Drove inland and arrived at Ogi Park – a top 100 sakura spot in less than 1 hour.  Though there were plenty of temporary food stalls (during sakura season) along both sides of the entrance, only a few were open. 

Ogi Park

Strolled around the huge park with a jinja on top of a low mount where more sakura trees were in bloom (about 30%). Not many visitors were around on that rainy weekday. We did not stay for long and headed to Saga city for lunch.  



Arrived at the famous Saga-gyu place but it was full with a long list of names in line. With about 1 hour of waiting time we decided to lunch in a nearby local restaurant (modern shokudo) with set lunches at unbelievably low prices (less than JPY1k each).   


Then we dropped by Yanagawa where we had visited before.  Bumped into the Yanagawa Hina Festival 2024 (towards the end) where unique hanging decorations known as “Sagemon” were featured though ringfenced. Strolled for an hour and had a coffee in a quaint shop along the canal. 




Next I drove to Yamaga onsen-go for the first time in northern Kumamoto Prefecture.  Stopped at the visitor center with public bathhouse next door.  Thanks to a brief explanation by the friendly local staff then we realized there are 5 onsen villages around Yamaga onsen-go, where we would stay in one of those.  Yamaga in Kanji literally means “mountain deer”.  

It’d be interesting to watch ladies with a “Toro” (lantern) tied onto their heads during the Yamaga Toro Matsuri (Lantern Festival) in mid-August.  



Kikuka onsen ryokan

In fairly heavy rain we arrived at our onsen ryokan in Kikuka onsen (“chrysanthemum deer”). After quickly unpacking we dashed for onsen, where the furos were surrounded by wooden beams in traditional style.  Onsen was slightly alkaline while minerals were apparently deposited around wooden beams and stone paved floors, thus making the latter slippery.  The serene rotenburo has a nice view on a small mount. 

Dinner was sumptuous and delicious. It paired well with a local sake. After dinner, drinks in the lounge were free for consumption, including alcoholic. The whiskey was ok. 



==========>    Kikuchi   ===========>




JP 2024 Mar Sakura Karatsu

It was a nice sunny day on the road.  First we dropped by two terraced fields along the way before arriving at the peninsula nearby Karatsu. 



Lunch in road station nearby the Nagoya castle ruins (名護屋城跡) – not to be mistaken with Nagoya city, Aichi Prefecture.

Nanatsugama (七ツ釜)

Visited Nanatsugama (七ツ釜) literally “seven caves” along the coast before arriving at Karatsu.  From the nearest parking lot it took about 20 min on foot via a few flights of stairs. Sea was in deep blue while waves were smashing against the tilted pillar rocks forming sea caves – of which there were about six. Guess one was blocked from our viewpoint.  Upon return we discovered an easier short cut without stairs sloping downhill.  From April sightseeing boat tours are available though subject to weather conditions. 



Karatsu Seaside Hotel

Arrived at Karatsu Seaside Hotel, where we stayed 11 years ago. However, this time we stayed in the new East wing with its own onsen and dining place. Stayed in its luxury twin bedroom of 62 sqm with balcony on high floors with sea view.  Our room was equipped with a coffee machine and thus we had coffee with 2 pieces of delicious cakes – complimentary upon checkin from the lounge 🙂

Dashed downstairs to soak in onsen with a sea view rotenburo. It was windy outdoor while clouds were rolling in.  While spa areas are available (for staying customers), we did not enter as swim wears are required.  Though swim wears are available on rental we’re not comfortable with it.  Besides, the outdoor pool (if opened) would be too cold to enjoy. 

Dinner was in buffet style with good food – whole squid sashimi (typical in Karatsu) was made to order and delivered to our table, grilled beef was tender, not fatty and delicious. And so were the tempura items.   





===========>    Yamaga   ==========> 



JP 2024 Mar Sakura Saga

Embarked on a visit to Kyushu again (7th time) in end March (since Jan 2020). Re-visited Northern Kyushu for 10 days and took ferry to Shikoku for the first time to stay in Dogo onsen, Matsuyama for 2 days. While sakura peak blossom dates have been fickler for the last few years, this trip is more for enjoying onsen, scenery, relaxing and catching sakura blossom if any along the way. And hopefully there are less crowds. 

Overall itin – Takeo onsen > Karatsu > Yamaga onsen-go > Yufuin (2n) > Beppu > Matsuyama (2n) > Fukuoka (3n)

After landing in Fukuoka, took JR express train from Hakata to Takeo onsen in 1 hour direct. It has been drizzling on the way but luckily rain had stopped prior to our arrival. Took hotel shuttle bus to onsen hotel. 


Mifuneyama Rakuen Hotel

It was our 2nd stay since Jan 2020. If we had not stayed before we would have been surprised entering the reception area – in darkness except being lit up by lamps akin to those in teamLabs!  The other displays in larger rooms did not exist 4 years ago. 


After dropping our bags in the room, we took a stroll around for the newly added displays apart from the outdoor park before sunset.  Sakura was in its initial bloom about 10-20% – our first shot in this trip :)) 


Dashed for onsen before dinner at 7pm – so soothing 🙂 While the bathing and onsen areas remain the same as previously, new premises have been added in the huge rotenburo area.  On one side there’s a tower for sauna and another tower on top of the robenburo has indoor relaxation on 2 levels, with reclining chairs, refreshments and snacks provided.  Being a bit hungry after soaking in onsen, I grabbed some cold drinks to keep hydrated apart from having warabi mochi – my fav 🙂 A few males were grilling mash mellows over a furnace with slowly burning charcoal. Plenty of them were still enjoying in the onsen area when I left after 30 min. 

Dinner was in traditional courses which was sumptuous using local vege, fish, beef, pork. Everything was fresh and delicious. Finished around 8:30pm and strolled for a while to help digestion. Retired early in room as we’re tired after catching early am flight from HKG to FUK and travelled all the way here. 

Waked up early next am for one last onsen before breakfast at 8am with so many people around, despite on weekdays and most were young, either in couples or families.  While all were familiar with self-service salad, toast and coffee bars, most were wondering around a charcoal furnace for grilling nana-senchi (7cm in Kanji), apparently made from fried-tofu in thin slices packed together like a square bread roll. It was so tasty when served with a warm bowl of miso-jiru (soup). 



Before checking out we headed slightly downhill for the Rakuen, whose entrance fees were waived for staying customers. There were more sakura trees around the small pond with Mifuneyama as backdrop.  Stayed for about 30 min and by the time we left tour groups were rolling in.  Took hotel shuttle bus back to station and picked up rental car.    



==============>    Karatsu   ==============>



JP 2023 Aug JP Alps (Part 2)


On the next morning checked out from Hirayu onsen ryokan and drove to Myoko Kogen via Matsumoto. First dropped by the Hirayu folk museum, followed by the Daio Wasabi farm in the outskirts of Matsumoto. 

Wasabi has to be grown in shaded areas within a certain temperature range – not too cold nor hot. The farm is huge and was featured in the movie “Dreams” by Kurosawa Akira in 1990.



Arrived at Nojiri-ko, Niigata Prefecture and had Italian lunch at the lake rim. Though it was a hot day, the light breeze was very much welcomed.  Afterwards, we visited the Nojiri Naumann Elephant Museum which contains prehistoric fossils of animals including Mammoth Elephant, giant deers, which roamed the Earth 28K years ago. The fossils were excavated around Nojiri-ko. 



Myoko Kogen

Before hotel checkin we drove uphill to Naena falls (苗名滝), listed as one of top 100 waterfalls in Japan. Hiked for about 25 min. It was our second visit. 

On the next morning after checkout, we dropped by Imori-ike with nice view of Mt Myoko as backdrop. The small pond was full of lotus flowers in full blossom.



Dropped by Kagami-ike (“Mirror pond”) in Togakushi briefly while returning to Nagano city. In latter, dropped by Zenko-ji again to have a glimpse of a stolen but recovered wooden Buddha statue, which is believed to possess healing power to whomever has touched it.

When we were in Japan in Dec 2022, it was reported in the local news that it was recovered in Kyushu after being stolen.



Had lunch in Nagano city and took Shinkansen back to Tokyo afterwards, where we stayed for 2 more days before returning to Hong Kong.



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