Mt. Kuju (九重山）
Mt. Kuju is not only a majestic volcanic wonderland filled with luscious greenery, steaming gas vents, and serene lakes – it’s also the highest peak on the island of Kyushu.
The hike: From the parking lot, take the trail that starts to the left of the souvenir shop. It should take about 20 minutes to reach the Kuju ridge line up the concrete-lined path. If you’ve come in early summer, then you should find a sea of beautiful azalea in bloom and literally hundreds of people. The next 40 minutes to Ogigahana (扇ヶ鼻) is relatively easy going, where you’ll find a 4-way junction. You can either climb to the top of Ogigahana, head left to the summit of Mt. Hosho (星生山) or continue straight towards Mt. Kuju. The steam vents just behind Mt. Hosho are wonderful, and a reminder that you’re on an active volcano! After another half hour or so, you’ll reach the saddle just below the peak of Kuju, where you’ll find a small emergency hut. There are lots of different trails that branch off in all directions, so I recommend climbing over to Naka-dake first (中岳) first, and hitting Mt. Kuju on your way back to Mi-no-koshi. Naka-dake is the tallest peak in Kyushu, and reachable in about 40 minutes. You’ll pass by some fabulous volcanic lakes, which make for a great place to relax and enjoy your lunch (if the weather is nice). After reaching the summit of Naka-dake, you can loop back to the saddle below Kuju. Head up to the peak and then all the way back to the parking lot or continue traversing the ridgeline of Mt. Kuju via Hokke-in hot spring (法華院温泉), which has a nice campground.
When to go: This hike can be done year round if you’ve got some crampons. The peak does get its fair share of winter snow, so make sure the road to the mountain pass is plowed and open before venturing out. The azaleas bloom in early to late May, which brings huge crowds. Autumn is also a great time to visit and winter is seeing increasing crowds as of late, due to the winter hiking boom in Japan. Click here to see the winter scenery and be careful of white-out conditions.
Access: From Hakata station (博多), take a JR “Yufuin no mori” limited express train and get off at Bungonakamura station (豊後中村駅). The train takes about 2 hours and costs 4290 yen. A local train is half the price but takes a whopping 4-1/2 hours. From Nakamura station, take a bus bound for Makinoto-toge (牧ノ戸峠). Buses only run on weekends from late May to late October. Click here to access the schedule. Click on “時刻表”, “ローカル時刻表”, and then “森町〜牧ノ戸線” to download the .pdf file. Another more convenient option might be to take the bus that runs from Beppu to Kumamoto, which stops along the way at Makinoto-toge. For example, if you take the overnight Osaka to Beppu ferry, there’s a direct bus leaving directly from the ferry terminal at 7:07am, arriving at Makinoto at 9:26am. This bus does not run in the winter however, which means between December and March you’ll need to take a bus from Beppu Bus Center (別交通センター) at 8am. Click here for that bus schedule. If coming from Kumamoto, the bus stops at Mt. Aso first before completing the 3-1/2 hour ride to the trailhead. Click here for the bus from the ferry terminal to Makinoto-toge. Sorry if it’s confusing but there are 2 different bus companies that provide bus services.
Level of difficulty: 2 out of 5 (elevation change ~500m).
Distance: 9.6km (3 to 4 hours)