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Japan : Kyushu Road Trip (Day 1)

20131109-133912.jpgLast week, The Hubs and I gave in to a bout of wanderlust.  We flew to Kyushu, hopped into a car, and went on a little road trip.  The next 6 days were filled with long winding roads, open skies, charming little towns, cold matcha and lots of green tea ice cream.

Fukuoka Airport –> Kurume  

Picking up the rental car was a piece of cake.  We booked through JTB and the Toyota car rental counter was conveniently located at the arrival hall of the international terminal. Processing the paperwork was fast and efficient, and within 15 minutes, we were driving out of the airport.  Toyota provided English GPS for easy navigation, and all we had to do was to key in the telephone number of our destination.

Just a few things to remember:  (1) Japan is right-hand drive; (2) Bring along an international driving license; (3) Set aside ample cash for highway tolls; and (4) Do your homework beforehand.  You are going to need the telephone numbers of where you plan to go.

Our first stop of the day was Kurume.  And there was only one reason for the 40-minute drive: the legendary Taiho ramen.

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Apparently the secret behind their broth is that they have never emptied their pot of soup since they first opened their doors in 1953, contributing to an incredibly rich and flavorful pork bone soup.  My first sip of their tonkotsu soup blew me away.  Creamy, smooth and rich with melted marrow, it hit all the right notes.  It was the perfect bowl of tonkotsu ramen.

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I loved, loved, loved their mukashi ramen – an old-style classic Kurume pork ramen that comes with a generous sprinkling of pork lard.  Needless to say, I was in ramen heaven.

Taiho Ramen Showatei (Tel: 0942-22-6886; Closed Mondays)

Kurume –> Asakura Triple Waterwheel

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Our next stop was the Asakura Triple Waterwheel.  It’s said to be the only waterwheel in Japan used in real irrigation.  My recommendation is that unless you’re really interested in waterwheels, you can give this a miss.  Or make the stop if you simply want to get out of the car and stretch your legs.  There’s a restaurant and souvenir shop, and the peach sorbet was pretty good on a hot summer day.

Asakura Waterwheel (Tel: 0946-52-0531) *This telephone number brings you to the vicinity, and you can follow the road signs

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Asakura –> Ryumon Falls

DSC06248Set deep in the countryside, Ryumon Falls is popular with the local kids in summer who go slip sliding down the smooth rocks of the waterfall.  When we arrived, it was a blistering afternoon of 38 degrees, and I wished I had brought my swimming costume.  We watched the kids squeal in delight as they played in a water park created by Mother Nature, and splashed around in the cold refreshing water.  Ryumon is made up of 2 levels, 40m wide with a drop of 20m.  Bring along your towels, swim wear and a float or water board, and you’re set for a fun afternoon.

Ryumon Falls (Tel: 0973-73-5510) * This telephone number brings you to the vicinity, and you can follow the road signs

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SONY DSCDSC06257Ryumon Falls –> Beppu-wan

One of the things we love about driving around in Japan are the rest stops.  They are dotted along the highways for you to take a break from the long drives.  While some consist just of a toilet (very clean!) and vending machines, others come with souvenir shops selling local speciality products.  And then there are some like Beppu-wan that come with souvenir shops, restaurants and a great view of the Beppu Bay area.

We were here for the B-speak cafe – a swiss-roll speciality store that sells the famous P-roll and other cakes and pastries.  The P-roll is otherwise sold only in Yufuin, and the Yufuin store has no seating space.  This means you can only do takeaways, not ideal in the sweltering summer heat. Here at Beppu-wan, you can enjoy a slice of P-roll in the comfort of the cafe and take in the wonderful view of Beppu Bay.

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By the time we got to B-speak in the late afternoon, the plain P-rolls were already sold out. Thankfully, they still had the chocolate ones left.  We also tried a slice of their early grey cheesecake, and a cup of hot matcha.  Compared to other types of cake, swiss rolls are plain in comparison.  However, the beauty lies in their simplicity and they are difficult to execute well.  You often find that the sponge cake is too dense or the cream too buttery, leaving you feeling a little sick after. The P-roll was perfectly executed.  The sponge was wonderfully light and oh-so soft.  And the cream?  Fresh and delicate. I could have eaten a whole bowl of cream!  No wonder they are so popular.

Beppu-wan Service Area (Tel: 0977-67-6340) *You can see the exit as you head down the highway towards Beppu

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 Beppu-wan –> Beppu

Beppu is one of Japan’s most famous hot springs town.  It houses more than 2,500 hot springs and produces more hot spring water than any other hot spring town in the country.  As you drive towards Beppu and through town, you’ll see numerous jets of white steam gushing out from onsens and vents.

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One of the top attractions of Beppu is Jigoku or the Beppu Hells – eight hot springs that are too hot for bathing but make for intresting viewing.  Six of the hells are located within walking distance of one another in the Kannawa district, and two further away in the Shibaseki district.  Admission is 400 yen per hell or 2100 yen for all eight hells.

Visiting all eight hells in the summer heat seemed a little too much so we chose to visit only two – Umi Jigoku and Oniishibozu Jigoku.  We also deliberately chose to skip the hells that housed animals since we couldn’t quite see how the animals could thrive under such conditions.

Umi (or Sea) Jigoku is known as one of the more beautiful hells, featuring a pool of boiling cobalt blue water.  Just standing next to the pool is enough to make you sweat.  The pool is 200m deep and stands at 98 degrees celsius – almost boiling point!

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Just by Umi Jijoku is a water lily pond and it’s been said that the lily pads are large enough to support a small child.

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Oniishibozu is named after the mud bubbles which resemble the shaven heads of monks.  This pool is even hotter than Umi Jigoku and stands at 99 degrees celsius.  The bubbling mud pools made interesting shapes and were quite fun to watch and photograph.  Do you see the animals I see in the shots below? 🙂

Beppu Jigoku (Tel: 0977-66-1577); Opening hours: 8am – 5pm

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 Check in : Shiosai-no-yado Seikai

After a red-eye flight and long day of driving, it was wonderful checking into Seikai.  Upon arrival, they valet parked our car and ushered us into the cool lobby.  We were offered a cup of Japanese barley tea as they settled the paperwork.  It was also a lovely touch that ladies were asked to select a yukata of their choice.

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Our hotel package included a kaiseki dinner for two.  And like any kaiseki dinners, Seikai presented a beautiful 10-course meal using the freshest seasonal ingredients.  These were my favourite parts of the meal.

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 Seasonal sashimi

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Chawanmushi with seasonal clams

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Barleycorn noodles

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Oita beef and grated lotus root in a hot pot

I think the beef was my absolute favourite. Beautifully marbled, it simply melted in my mouth.  After a sumptuous dinner and a soak in our private onsen, it was the perfect end to the day.

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