Wonders of the south

Sakurajima is one of the most active volcanoes in Japan.

JAPAN - In the south of Japan's Honshu Island, where the capital Tokyo lies, is the island of Kyushu, which is famous for its beautiful scenery and what I often think of as "thermal wonderland" due to its many active volcanoes.

The opening of the shinkansen (bullet train) line in Kyushu cuts travelling time between the major cities. You can take a trip down from Fukuoka (in the north) to Kagoshima (in the south) in slightly over an hour.

Many people head down to Kagoshima to visit Sakurajima (Cherry Blossom Island), which is one of the most active volcanoes in Japan. You can take a ferry from the mainland to reach the island.

Once there, you can opt for a hiking trail to the respective lookout points. To reward yourself after the hike, pop by the Yogan Nagisa Park, which is located near the Sakurajima ferry terminal, to soak your tired feet in the outdoor ashiyu (footbath that is filled with hot spring water).

Another highlight of Kagoshima is the Izuma Plain, where more than 10,000 cranes migrate to escape the winter months from mid-October to March every year. It is said to be the only place where you can find so many cranes staying so close to human dwellings.

Visit the Crane Observation Center to find out more about these elegant creatures and to spy on them through binoculars. Watching the thousands of cranes reminded me of the ancient

Japanese legend that your wish would be granted if you were to fold 1,000 paper cranes.

This legend also forms the backstory to the thousands of paper cranes at the Nagasaki Peace Park as well as in Hiroshima - the two cities devastated by atomic bombs at the conclusion of World War II.

It immortalises the story of Sadako Sasaki, a young girl who developed leukaemia several years after the dropping of the bombs. She began making origami cranes hoping to recover, but according to one popular version of the story, she didn't manage to complete folding 1,000 cranes before her death. Her friends helped to make up the number and buried the paper cranes together with her body.

At the Peace Park, you can also find the huge Peace Statue which, imposing as it is, is a figure full of symbolism and quiet fortitude.

The statue has one finger pointing to the sky alluding to the threat of nuclear weapons, while the extended left hand symbolises eternal peace.

The bubbling geothermal activity underneath Kyushu means that you can find some of the best onsen (hot spring baths) here.

One of my personal favourites lies in the little town of Ibusuki, at the southernmost tip of Kagoshima. Besides the usual hot spring bath, you can also do a sand bath, where you lie beneath a pile of volcanic sand. It gets really hot after awhile and you will sweat buckets.

In the middle of Kyushu is Kumamoto, which is worth visiting for the beautiful Kumamoto Castle and the active volcano of Mount Aso.

Besides taking the ropeway to see billowing sulphur fumes at Mount Aso, you can also gallop to Kusasenri, the grassland patch located at the foot of Mount Aso, for a horse riding adventure. The view is spectacular. Don't worry if you are not born a horse whisperer, the guides there will help you along.

Islands in the sea

Okinawa is Japan's southernmost prefecture. The best place to appreciate the pride and joy of Okinawans - its surrounding seas - is at the Churaumi Aquarium (left) located at the Ocean Expo Park.

There is such a huge variety of fish swimming in its large tank, including a whale shark and a manta ray with the world's record for longevity in captivity. And you can view these natural wonders behind the large acrylic window measuring 8.2m high and 22.5m wide.

Away from marine life, you can take a peek into the lives of the locals back in the 17th and 18th centuries - when Okinawa was part of the Ryukyu Kingdom - at the Native Okinawan Village, also located within the Ocean Expo Park.

Here, you can see a traditional village consisting of Utaki (a sacred place), Ugamiga (a sacred spring) and the Nirai-kanai house of worship (a place for prayers), complete with private houses and high-floored granaries.

If you can't get enough of being under the sea without getting wet, head for Busena Marine Park Kaichutenboto, which is the only underwater observatory on the main island. You can also board whale-shaped glass-bottom boats that provide close-up views of the ocean.

For a fun and educational activity, head to the Gala Sea Salt Factory in Yomitan.

If you think making salt is just about drying salt water under the sun, think again.

Here, you can learn about the various stages of salt making - first, there is a Condensation Tower where the sun aids in evaporating the water; then a Brewing Center where the creation of the first salt crystals begins, and finally a Solar Crystallization House, where glittery crystals are formed.

If you have adventurous tastebuds, go to a "salt bar", where you can taste salts from around the world with mildly differing colours and textures.

For a hands-on experience, try making your own salt. It takes about 30 minutes, and you can bring home the fruits of your labour as a souvenir placed in a small pottery jar.

Makishi Market, sometimes known as the kitchen of Okinawa, is where you would want to head to next to find food. Even if you are not hunting to eat, visiting a wet market in Japan is a cultural experience in itself.

Here in Makishi Market, you can find all manner of fresh seafood as well as poultry and meat. As pork figures largely in Okinawan diet, you can expect to find all parts of the animal on sale including its ears and facial skin.

Visit Japan at NATAS Travel 2014

Find out more about the various destinations in Japan as well as promotional deals and packages at Hall 3 (Booth #3H74) at NATAS Travel 2014 from Feb 28 to March 2.

Visitors can enjoy special on-stage performances by Hello Kitty and photo-taking opportunities with her. Proudly brought to you by Japan National Tourism Organisation and Singapore Airlines.


Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.