Lying off the south end of Honshu, Japan's third largest island, KYUSHU , is surrounded by a spray of smaller islands which trail off in a long arc across the East China Sea. It's a relaxed, uncomplicated place, with its own distinctive character and enough variety to make it a feasible holiday destination on its own. Though Kyushu has no absolutely compelling sights, there's something for everyone here, from dynamic cities to ancient folk dances, grumbling volcanoes and steaming hot spring baths. It's perfectly possible to scoot round the main cities in a week, but you'll need more like two to do it justice, allowing time for the splendid mountainous interior and a few of the more far-flung islands.
This area has long had close links with the Asian mainland, and Kyushu's chief city, Fukuoka , is again becoming an important regional hub. An energetic city on the island's heavily developed north coast, most people pass Fukuoka by, but it's a shame to miss out on its superb modern architecture and vibrant nightlife. If you've only got a couple of days on Kyushu, however, Nagasaki represents the best all-round destination. Though its prime draw is the A-Bomb museum and related sights, the city also has a picturesque harbour setting, a laid-back cosmopolitan air and a spattering of temples and historical museums. From here it's a short hop east to Kumamoto , famous for its castle and landscaped garden, and the empty, rolling uplands of central Kyushu beyond. Dominated by the spluttering, smouldering cone of Aso-san , this is great hiking country, while hot-spring enthusiasts will also be in their element - from Kurokawa Onsen's delightful rotemburo to the bawdy pleasures of Beppu on the east coast. The mountain village of Takachiho requires a fair detour, but it's worth it for the thrilling train ride along the Gokase gorge and to see traditional dance performances depicting the antics of Japan's ancient gods.
The island's southern districts contain more on the same theme - volcanoes, onsen and magnificent scenery - and, if you're pushed for time, there's no need to linger. However, there are some real highlights, including one of the world's most active volcanoes, Sakurajima , which looms over the city of Kagoshima . Nearby Chiran was a World War II airbase for kamikaze pilots who are the subject of a somewhat perturbing museum, after which Yakushima provides the perfect tonic. This lush, lumpy island, roughly 100km south of Kyushu, has recently been designated a World Heritage Site, in honour of its towering, thousand-year-old cedar trees.
Kyushu is connected to the main island of Honshu by road and rail. Trains on the Tokaido Shinkansen terminate in Fukuoka's Hakata Station and are covered by JR West's Sanyo Area Pass . From Hakata, JR Kyushu trains fan out to all the major cities, and the company offers its own five- and seven-day rail passes (¥15,000 & ¥20,000) for travelling round the island. These allow unlimited travel on all local, limited express and express trains, but not the Shinkansen or JR buses, and note that you have to buy the exchange voucher before arriving in Japan .