Road trip: Yamanami Highway


An iconic trip from Beppu via Yufuin to Kuju and beyond.

Duration: 4 days beginning and ending in Beppu.

Although one of the most picturesque driving experiences in Japan, the Yamanami Highway remains a less-driven way. Running through the heart of Oita from Beppu via Yufuin to the Kanda Kogen highlands and the Kuju mountains, and beyond to Aso in neighbouring Kumamoto Prefecture, this route never fails to delight both avid drivers and companions alike.

Day 1 Beppu - Yufuin - Handa Kogen - Senomoto
Start with a relaxed night in Beppu exploring one or more of its famed onsen hot springs baths. Take time to explore its laidback nightlife, Hit Parade is a good starting point, because from hereon you are heading into Oita’s deep, quiet countryside.

An early start to join the Yamanami Highway which quickly turns into a twisting climb as you head to Yufuin. En route, make sure to stop off at the trail head for Mt. Yufu-dake to soak up the views of this magnificent dormant volcano.

A winding descent leads into Yufuin, an elegant onsen resort town. Enjoy breakfast at Kinrinko, a large pond fed by onsen waters. Our favourite cafes nearby include Cafe La Ruche and Cafe Tenjosaiki. Make sure to take a gentle stroll following the stream from Kinrinko and look over your shoulder for more impressive views of Yufu-dake.

Back on the Yamanami Highway make sure to stop off at Yamashita-ko, a scenic lake before heading for Handa Kogen, a highland plateau in the foothills of the mountains of the Kuju Renzan Massif. Visit Kokonoe Yume Ohashi, a footbridge spanning a deep ravine, for high thrills, and then enjoy a homemade tomato ice cream at Milkland Farm. Wide views open up across the plateau and onto to the Kuju mountains. Lunch in Chojabaru at Resthouse Yamanami, a popular wayside restaurant for a lunch of its signature Japanese-style curry. A visitor centre across the road is the starting point for gentle walks on wooden broadwalks over Tadewara, an internationally important wetland registered under the Ramsar Convention.

Another winding climb leads up to the Maki-no-Toge, a pass over the Kuju mountains to Senomoto and a gallery dedicated to the work artist Rikuro Oakamoto. Stay overnight at neighbouring accommodation, which include the upmarket Hoshino Kai, Auberge Ama Facon and Spa Greenness hotels.

Day 2 Senomoto - Aso - Kurokawa Onsen

It would be churlish for anyone in Oita not to recommend a visit to Aso and Kurokawa Onsen, both over the prefectural border in Kumamoto, today. But do return to Oita. Before going far on your drive today drop by the Senomoto Resthouse. You may not need a coffee or cake this quickly after breakfast but its interesting 50s-style Americana architecture makes it worth a quick stop. Beyond the countryside turns into rolling grasslands before you suddenly reach the precipitous edge of Aso, one of the world’s largest caldera. Here vistas stretch for miles across to the active volcano at the caldera’s centre. A steep winding descent leads into the caldera and the end of the Yamanami Highway.

Journey to the centre of the caldera to see the sulfurous craters of Naka-dake, an active volcano.

Drive to Kurokawa Onsen and settle into your ryokan inn for the evening. This one street village has rural charm aplenty and combine with its wonderful onsen is an ideal place to relax and spend the night. Most accommodation is located in the centre of the village but our favourite is Sanga, a kilometre or so on the outskirts.

Day 3 Kurokawa Onsen - Taketa - Nagayu Onsen

The road to Taketa is through the Kuju Kogen highlands offering great views to Aso and the Kuju mountains, and a variety of interesting places to stop off at. First enjoy a coffee break at TAO no Oka, the flamboyant Japanese drum group’s multi-purpose theatre facility and enjoy either a live or recorded performance. Stage costumes designed by Junko Koshino for TAO’s are also on display. Beyond lies Kuju Flower Park, where a multitude of gardens are in bloom from spring through to autumn. At Magma Glass Studio try your hand at glass blowing and perhaps buy one of the wonderful works of art created here by Naruhito Inoue, Magma’s artist-owner.

Onto to Central Taketa and enjoy lunch at one of this compact town’s many restaurants. Our recommendations are Tomoshu and Kana’s Kitchen. Soak up the atmosphere with a stroll around Taketa’s quiet streets. Make sure to visit the city’s History and Culture Museum, which was designed by acclaimed architect Kuma Kengo. Dotted around and about are boutique arts and crafts shop, and after digesting your lunch head to Tajimaya Roho for one of their exquisitely delicious Japanese sweets washed down with a bowl of green tea.

Drive up to Oka-jo, the site of a hill-top castle overlooking Taketa and the surrounding countryside. The grounds, bounded by magnificent stone ramparts, now form a delightful park that fill with sakura cherry blossom in spring and later in the year with the vibrant leaf colours of autumn.

A short drive from the city centre is Nagayu Onsen, another charming village making the most of its plentiful onsen hot spring waters. It also has two must-visit onsen are the intriguingly whimsical Lamune Onsen and Kur Park Nagayu. Recommend accommodation for the night include Kur Park and Daimaru Ryokan.

Day 4 Nagayu Onsen - Bungo-Ono - Beppu

Onto Bungo-Ono for an intriguingly eclectic sculpture trail. First, Fuko-ji temple and its ancient giant Buddha relief carvings. Then to the Fumio Asakura Museum of Sculpture, which celebrates the figurative work of Japan’s foremost sculptor of the early 20th Century. Nearby is Harajiri-no-Taki, a horseshoe-shaped waterfall sculpted by nature. This waterfall is a major feature of the Bungo-Ono Geo Park, an extensive area of beautiful natural landscape formed 90,000 years ago by pyroclastic flows from a massive volcanic explosion at Aso.

Try lunch at The Veg Cafe Ms., a community restaurant offering simply satisfying vegetarian lunches. Spring waters in Bungo-Ono are plentiful and form an essential ingredient at Takagiya, a boutique maker of excellent sake. To round up lunch here; passengers can sample a variety of brews while the driver can enjoy a coffee made with the same deliciously pure waters. Although there is a fast road via Oita City, we recommend driving back to Beppu over country roads to soak up the glorious scenery en route.

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