This itinerary takes in all of Kyushu’s most famous cities, while also providing plenty of opportunities to get into some wilder areas. From Fukuoka (福岡), head for Nagasaki (長崎), one of Japan’s most interesting cities. The easiest way to do this is to use a train to get outside of the immediate vicinity of Fukuoka and start from there. I’d go 25 minutes south to Kiyama (基山)station, which is right next to Route 3 and close to the turning onto the Nagasaki Expressway (長崎自動車道), so plenty of people will be going your way. On the expressway, just hop from service area to service area until you reach Nagasaki, 153km away.
Nagasaki has enough sights to fill two days comfortably. From there, head east on Route 34, then route 251 round the Shimabara Peninsula (島原半島), where you can stand beneath the glowering face of Unzen-dake (雲仙岳), an active volcano, and then walk through its “hell”; an otherworldly landscape of rock, boiling water, steam and sulphur clouds. Further round the peninsula is Shimabara Castle (島原城), one of Japan’s only castles to be built in a flat field rather than atop a hill or bluff.
From Shimabara (島原), there are two options. The shorter one is to take the ferry across to Kumamoto City. The second is to continue to the southern tip of the peninsula and catch the ferry to Amakusa island (天草島) from Kuchinotsu (口之津港) port, where the beaches around the island are excellent, and the relaxed pace of life make it an addictive place to kick back, relax and lose a few days. Then hitch northeast back to Kumamoto on Route 266, or continue down to Ushibuka (牛深) on Amakusa’s southern tip and catch the ferry to Kuranomoto port (蔵之元港) in Kagoshima Prefecture; this route misses out Kumamoto but will take you much further off the beaten track into undiscovered parts of Japan. To retreat even more from civilization, go from Nakata Port (中田港) on Amakusa’s east coast through Shishi (lion) Island (師子島)and Shoura Island (諸浦島), from where Route 47 goes back to the mainland.
Kumamoto’s castle and famed garden, Suizenji-koen (水前寺公園), will keep you occupied for a full day, which will also give you the chance to try some raw horsemeat, the local speciality and much, much nicer than it sounds.
From Kumamoto, you can hitchhike south more quickly by aiming for the Kyushu Expressway (九州自動車道), using Route 3 out of Kumamoto to get to it. This allows you to stop at Ebino Kogen (えびの高原) where you’ll find some fine hiking up and around active volcanoes. This deserves at least an overnight stop to have time for a day hike, perhaps up Mount Karakuni (韓国岳) and around Lake Onami (大浪池) before heading further south to Kagoshima on the expressway. Alternatively, continue on Route 3 which runs along the scenic Shiranui Coast through Minamata and Akune, either of which make a good overnight stop, as do the numerous hot springs in the area. Then continue along the route the following day to reach Kagoshima, a brilliant city and prefecture that you could easily explore for a week or more; for more information click here.