Occupying the southern tip of Kyushu, Kagoshima Prefecture is a region that offers glimpses of Japan you would be hard-pressed to find anywhere else. From horses roaming free across sprawling meadows to one of the most active volcanoes in the country, which has been responsible for shaping much of the landscape, Kagoshima provides a dream destination for any adventure-loving traveler.

For those on the hunt for greener pastures and untouched natural frontiers, here’s where to go once you lace up your hiking boots and set off in search of the beauty hidden throughout Kagoshima and its untamed islands.

A Volcanic City

The prefecture’s capital, Kagoshima city, is the perfect place to set up base camp for anyone keen to explore the surrounding areas. From this picturesque seaside city, explorers can easily access the location that Kagoshima is best known for: Sakurajima.

Situated on a peninsula only 4 kilometers across the bay from the city, Sakurajima is not only one of the most active volcanoes in Japan, but is also recognized as one of the most active on Earth. If that doesn’t deter you, a ferry is available from Kagoshima city directly to Sakurajima. Once there, you can hike up to the visitors’ center where visual exhibits are on display explaining the history of the volcano and how its eruptions have shaped the surrounding landscape. There’s also the Arimura Lava Observatory, which is situated in a lava field created by the volcano and offers its own unique view of Sakurajima’s peak.

For those who prefer to appreciate their volcanic sites from a distance, Sakurajima is visible throughout much of Kagoshima city, with the best viewpoint being the Shiroyama Observatory. Located at the peak of Mount Shiroyama, a 107-meter-tall mountain that was once home to a castle, Shiroyama Observatory today provides not only uninterrupted views of Sakurajima, but also Kagoshima city and the bay beyond. If you don’t mind setting an alarm, you can also watch the sun rise from behind the famed volcano if you’re up at the observatory early enough.

Rescue Horses and Relaxation

While the offer of rolling hills and lush forests is typically more than enough to get most nature lovers out of bed in the morning, Kagoshima’s Kirishima region steps things up with the addition of both hot spring villages and what are affectionately known as “happy horses.”

Capitalizing on an abundance of naturally occurring thermal springs located throughout the area, Kirishima has become home to a number of onsen villages offering a variety of ways to enjoy the warm water. Accommodation options abound, from high-end hotels and traditional Japanese inns to more family-oriented and budget-friendly establishments; there are also plenty of facilities with private baths.

Animal lovers will be particularly drawn to the Horse Trust ranch, a non-profit organization that provides a free-range home for former race and show horses. These equine retirees, referred to as “happy horses,” are allowed to roam freely across sprawling meadows in conditions that closely resemble those enjoyed by their wild counterparts. Visitors who would like to learn about life on the ranch can book a variety of experiences online in advance, including hiking with a horse whisperer and an early morning horse patrol to check on the well-being of the animals.

Untouched Islands

While most of Kagoshima is attached to the Kyushu mainland, there are also a number of much smaller islands that fall within the prefecture, such as Amami Oshima, Kikaijima and Yoronjima, which interestingly holds a sister city relationship with Mykonos, Greece. But if it’s pure, untamed forest you’re in search of, then look no further than Yakushima.

A portion of the island is listed as a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site, but Yakushima is perhaps most famous for being the real-life inspiration behind the Studio Ghibli film Princess Mononoke. It offers hikers an otherworldly landscape of mountains, stunning moss forests and towering waterfalls. Boardwalks and trails of varying difficulty grant passage through the otherwise undisturbed landscape, which is also home to a population of monkeys and deer. But all that greenery doesn’t come without a caveat: rain. With a humid subtropical climate, Yakushima is known to experience as much as three times the amount of rain that Tokyo gets, so if you plan on visiting, wet weather gear is a must-have.

Choose Your Own Kagoshima

Kagoshima is the kind of place that requires more than just a single visit to appreciate in its entirety. Beyond hiking, horses and hot spring stays, there remains a wealth of other cultural sites and experiences that can all be enjoyed at whatever pace suits you. No matter your definition of adventure, you’ll have little trouble finding it among the mountains of Kagoshima.

This article appeared in Kyushu Weekender 2024. To read the whole issue, click here

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