Kyushu, Japan: Road trip around the southern 'onsen island'

This is the most fun I've had driving in a long time: tootling along a coastal road in the world's cutest campervan with the windows down, taking in the ocean views, the sea breeze ruffling my hair. I drive through fishing hamlets, stop to swim in clear-water coves, walk on deserted sandy beaches.

On a grassy promontory I slow down to let a couple of wild horses cross the road (wild horses, in Japan?), before pulling over at the foot of a lighthouse to look down on Route 220 in south-eastern Kyushu.

It's one of the most beautiful drives I've done anywhere, a road to rival California's Pacific Coast Highway or the Great Ocean Road, and I barely see another vehicle, let alone any other tourists.

This is the beauty of driving in Kyushu. Not only is it easy – you drive on the left, most road signs are in English as well as Japanese, Japanese drivers are ridiculously courteous and it's less populated than other parts of Japan – but you enjoy a sense of discovery.

At a time when so much of the world is over-touristed, driving in Kyushu is a breath of fresh air. My nine-day road trip starts in the middle of the island at Kumamoto airport, where Mr Hirata from Japan Campervan introduces me to my "camping car" using an app on his phone that translates his Japanese explanations into Stephen Hawking-style English.

The Suzuki Raccoon might be basic – there's no cruise control or stereo – but it's perfect for a solo traveller, or a couple, being compact (it fits into a regular car space) and roomy (I can stand up inside without stooping).

But when Hirata-san hands me the keys and says sayonara, I'm suddenly nervous. I'd never driven a campervan in a foreign country, alone. "It'll be an adventure!" I'd thought when researching the trip online. Starting the engine and easing out of the carpark, I'm not so sure. Would I be able to do this?

In true road trip spirit, I have only a vague idea of where I want to go. My goals are: to do a loose lap of Kyushu – which is about half the size of Tasmania – see a few volcanoes and revisit the subtropical city of Miyazaki where I lived 20 years ago.

From Kumamoto, I head east across the enormous Aso-san volcanic caldera and into the mountains of eastern Kyushu. My first stop is one of the most picturesque places in Japan, Takachiho Gorge, where I walk along this lava-walled chasm looking down on the turquoise river flowing through it.

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That night, I park nearby in my first michi-no-eki. These "road stations" are rest areas where you can sleep in your vehicle, for free. They have toilets, which are never locked, and usually somewhere to buy local produce and have a meal. They're all over Kyushu and each has its own character. On my third day, I stop at one outside Hyuga, a surf town on Kyushu's east coast, for lunch: a simple bowl of sashimi on rice with miso soup, for only ¥950 (about $10). It's roadhouse food, but not as you might know it. Then I pop next door to the onsen for a soak in an outdoor hot spring pool overlooking the sea before I hit the road again.

The other thing that makes Kyushu easy for campervanners is that, with more hot spring baths than anywhere else in Japan, you're never far from a shower and a place to soak road-weary muscles for a few hundred yen (about $5). Onsen are easy to find: just search for "onsen near me" on Google Maps.

No michi-no-eki? No problem. It's legal to park overnight almost anywhere in Japan. I park at beaches, a shrine and a fishing port. There are public toilets everywhere – in parks, service stations, convenience stores – and they are usually open 24 hours. Best of all, Japan is probably the world's safest country, good to know when you're a solo female traveller sleeping in your car.

For the next few days I'm in heaven, taking in misty mountain views, driving through dark cypress forests and long tunnels (the longest is 6.3 kilometres) and alongside rushing rivers past lurid-green rice fields. I'd forgotten how lush and beautiful Kyushu is.

Even stopping for petrol is an experience. At full-service "gas stations" uniformed staff descend on your vehicle like a formula one pit crew. One cleans the windscreen, another checks your tyres, someone fills your tank. It's all in Japanese, but all you need to say is "regular mantan" (fill it up) and "genkin" (cash) or "cardo" (credit card) when it's time to pay. You don't even need to get out of the car for that: the pit crew will run your cash or card to the office and run back with your change, before ushering you to the kerb, signalling when it's safe to pull out, sometimes even stopping the flow of traffic for you, before bowing as you drive away. There are also fully automated self-service stations, but even there you'll find staff to help you.

Not being able to read Japanese, I'm sure I miss countless attractions without even knowing they're there. But, to paraphrase John Steinbeck, you don't take a road trip, a road trip takes you. That is, the best road trips unfold with a minimum of planning and I do stumble on some unexpected gems. One surprise is Kirishima Open-Air Museum, a sculpture park in the foothills of the Kirishima mountains with art by the likes of Yoko Ono and British artist Antony Gormley.

Another is Cinema Heaven, a sort of hipster paradise that opened in 2018, with teepees, yurts and two Airstream caravans for overnight stays, a timber deck for yoga classes and movie nights (hence the name) and a Mexican-themed restaurant (the owners, a young surfer couple, love Central America).

One of the highlights of my week is driving beside a golden sea at sunset up to the foot of Mount Sakurajima, one of the world's most active volcanoes. It's such a dramatic place I spend the next day there, seeing it from all angles. At the visitor centre museum I learn about children wearing hard hats to school (to protect from falling rocks), I walk on lava fields and I take in volcano views from an onsen, a 100-metre outdoor footbath, the ferry that glides across the bay to Kagoshima city and from the Raccoon as I drive around the volcano on my way north.

That night, just for a change, I stay at an "autocamp". Nonoyu Onsen is a quirky place with a yacht stranded on a trailer, a three-legged cat and a log cabin, but the ¥1400 camping fee (about $15) includes unlimited use of its rustic onsen, which is built into a cave behind the owner's house, and "cooking facilities" – steam vents in the ground. The next morning I meet a few fellow campervanners, all Japanese, all curious to know where I'm from. "Gaijin" are rare in these parts.

Most days I stick to the local roads, where the speed limit is a Driving-Miss-Daisy 50km/h. Towards the end of my trip, however, I hit the Kyushu Expressway where the speed limit is still a relaxed 80km/h. Even freeway driving is lovely in Kyushu, though the mall-like Service Areas can make you momentarily forget where you are. On day seven, I stop at one to buy a Starbucks coffee and a fresh croissant from a French patisserie before walking back to my van past other vehicles with English names: a Toyota Athlete, a Honda Grace and, my favourite, a Suzuki Stingray.

Driving north of Nagasaki after visiting its fascinating Atomic Bomb Museum, I park at my last michi-no-eki, one I don't fully appreciate until the next morning when I pull back the curtains on my rear window and see the blue and sparkling East China Sea. It's a fitting end to a spectacularly scenic trip.

By the time I reach Fukuoka airport on my last day, I've driven 1250 kilometres and it's hard to say goodbye to the Raccoon. It had been so cosy to sleep in, easy to park, economical and, above all, fun to drive. Because that's what this trip is really about: the joy of driving, the landscape unfurling like a movie across your windscreen, and the unexpected freedom of the open road – in Japan.

FIVE TIPS FOR DRIVING IN JAPAN

1. Read up. Tourist information centres often have English-language road maps while Kyushu Tourism has a 22-page Rent-A-Car Drive Manual and more tips on its website. See welcomekyushu.com/kyushu-road-trip/

2. Get connected. Buy a prepaid Japanese SIM card, such as Japan Travel SIM, when you arrive so you can use Google Maps to find destinations and to search for, say, "onsen near me" or "michi-no-eki". See t.iijmio.jp

3. Fill up. Petrol stations in cities and at freeway stops are usually open 24/7, but those in country towns often close on Sundays, sometimes Saturdays too, so keep an eye on your petrol gauge.

4. Go "conbini". Convenience stores ("conbini") such as Lawson, Family Mart and 7-Eleven are one-stop shops with bento meals, clean toilets and "international ATMs" (most bank ATMs in Japan don't accept foreign cards).

5. Don't drink and drive. The legal blood-alcohol limit in Japan is 0.03 per cent and Japan takes a zero-tolerance approach to DUI with penalties of up to three years in prison and fines even for passengers in the vehicle.

TRIP NOTES

Louise Southerden travelled as a guest of Kyushu Tourism with flights by Walk Japan.

MORE

traveller.com.au/japan

welcomekyushu.com

FLY

Cathay Pacific flies daily to Fukuoka via Hong Kong from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth. See cathaypacific.com

DRIVE

Japan Campervan rents a range of campervans, starting at ¥7500 per weekday, with discounts for rentals longer than four, seven or 14 days. See japan-campervan.com/

An International Driving Permit, which you'll need to drive in Japan, is available online from NRMA for $39. See mynrmaidp.com.au

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