Gentle Beauty: Kuju Mountain Hikes

Kuju Mountains, located in Oita Prefecture in Kyushu and part of the Aso-Kuju National Park, is one of my favorite hiking destinations in Japan. The mountain range rewards hikers with a rich network of trails and diverse landscape scenery without asking for much in return. The trails are usually gentle, except for a few, allowing one to focus on the beauty of the scenery without feeling too exhausted.

The area is also very accessible, with two major trailheads served by the public bus network. For those who want to go beyond day hikes and have a traverse-type experience, there is a beautiful and free campground at Bogatsuru Valley and an affordable mountaintop onsen right next to it—the wonderful Hokkein Onsan Sanso—where you can book a private or dorm room.

I hope I have given you enough reasons to consider the Kuju Mountains for a hiking trip. And if I did, here are a few notes to help you plan your trip.

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    How to get to the Kuju Mountains?

    While Mount Aso, the more famous sibling of the Kuju Mountains (thanks to its status as the largest active volcano in Japan), is located in Kumamoto Prefecture, the Kuju mountain range is part of the Oita Prefecture.

    In order to get to Kuju, as someone living in Tokyo, I usually fly to Oita Airport and then take the bus to Yufuin Town to get on the bus that heads to Kumamoto and stops at two main Kuju Mountains trailheads: Chojabaru (also known as Kuju Tozanguchi) and Makinoto Pass. Depending on the airfare and flight times, you may also choose to follow the same trajectory in reverse direction by flying into Kumamoto Airport.

    While the airport bus, which connects Oita Airport to the famous onsen town Yufuin, does not accept advance reservations (but I never had a problem finding a seat), you can book the second leg of the bus journey in advance: Kyushu Odan Bus.

    Kuju Mountains trailheads: which is the easier option?

    As you can see in this very helpful trail map, put together by the Chojabaru Visitor Center, there are many trailhead options to explore the Kuju mountain range. I have so far hiked the two most popular ones due to their accessibility with public transportation: Chojabaru and Makinoto.

    During my last trip to Kuju, I started my hike in Chojabaru and walked out of the mountains using the Makinoto trailhead. This allowed me to explore Sugamori Pass, which connects the Chojabaru side of the range with Makinoto region, for the first time. While I stayed the night in the mountains at Hokkein Onsen Sanso, covering the same distance between the two trailheads as a day hike is also possible. If you do not take any major detours, the whole hike will take around six to eight hours. If you have the option, I highly recommend starting and finishing your hike at different trailheads, as it will allow you to experience the amazing diversity of the landscape that the Kuju Mountains are home to.

    In terms of difficulty, the Chojabaru trailhead is considerably easier than the Makinoto Trailhead. It requires an hour of a very gentle climb through a lush and mossy forest before connecting to a flat section for the last 30-40 minutes. Makinoto, on the other hand, requires a steep ascent right in the beginning, followed by some gentle rock scrambling. But both are relatively short hikes. From Chojabaru, the hike to Hokkein Onsen Sanso, the main stop for many hikers, takes less than two hours. If you choose to start at Makinoto Pass trailhead, you will arrive at Kuju Wakare in a little over 1.5 hours. Once in Kuju Wakare, the world is your oyster—there are numerous peaks to conquer with relatively short climbs, including Kuju Dake and Naka Dake.

    Best season to visit the Kuju Mountains

    I visited the Kuju Mountains twice during the Kyushu Azalea (miyama kirishima) season. Azaleas usually start blooming in mid-May, depending on the peak, with early June being considered to be one of the best periods to experience the colorful azaleas. For the flower map of the Kuju-Aso Mountains and the blooming timeline, you can refer to this very helpful pamphlet published by the Ministry of Environment: Aso-Kuju Flower Map.

    During both my visits to Kuju, I hiked to Hiji Dake, following an exceptionally beautiful trail that takes around 1.5 hours from Hokkein Onsen Sanso. Himeji Dake is known to be one of the best spots for azalea viewing. The peak offers spectacular views of the Bogatsuru Valley, where the campground with the same name and Hokkein Onsen are located. While the peak is exceptionally beautiful during the azalea season, I would still recommend this hike at any season when the weather permits, as the valley views alone are worth it.

    Azaleas blooming in Kuju in June in Japan

    Another popular season for the Kuju Mountains is October, during the koyothe autumn colors season. I have yet to visit Kuju during this season, but I will report on it here when I get the chance.

    Best Kuju trails

    As mentioned above, I highly recommend starting your hike at one of the trailheads, ideally Chojabaru, with a much gentler climb and finishing at the other one, Makinoto Pass, in this scenario. The route will take around 6 to 8 hours and cover an exceptionally diverse landscape scenery encompassing lush and mossy forest sections, valley views, and an active volcano, Mount Io, surrounded by a plantless yet very enigmatic terrain—Kita-Sengrihama.

    Once you reach Kuju Wakare, the junction leading to numerous Kuju peaks, I recommend not limiting your options to Kuju Dake, the most popular choice, but also exploring Naka Dake. The trail leading to Naka Dake follows the picturesque Milke Pond, which looks striking from high above. Also, a fun fact: despite common belief, the highest peak in the Kuju Mountains Range is not Kuju Dake (1.787 meters), and the honor belongs to somehow less popular Naka Dake (1.791 meters).

    Which trail to avoid in Kuju Mountains

    While all the trails in Kuju will likely make you happy, there is one section that I recommend you skip: Hokotate Pass. Despite the spectacular views (thus the temptation), the pass, which connects the peaks surrounding Kuju Wakare to Hokkein Onsen and Bogatsuru area via a shorter route than Sugamori Pass, gave me some of the scariest moments of my life. The steep trail had been damaged some time ago due to the typhoon (and I did not know it at the time of your hike) and offers plenty of highly sketchy sections where a slip could have very unpleasant and even fatal consequences.

    My hiking companion is looking at the mesmerizing scenery, trying to forget the trouble we are in

    I hiked the trail in May 2022 and was lucky to encounter another hiker. Once we both realized the depth of the trouble we got ourselves into, we quickly became a team to support each other emotionally. I honestly don`t think I could have managed the steep descent without the company. During my last visit to Kuju in June 2024, Hokkein Onsen had signs up notifying the hikers that the trail was off-limits.

    Where to stay in or near Kuju Mountains

    If you get a chance, I highly recommend a stay at Hokkein Onsen Sanso. Even if you arrive at the Chojabaru trailhead in the afternoon, the hike to the onsen takes less than two hours and is well worth it. I once stayed in a private room, which was around 10,000 Yen, and twice in the dorm room, which cost around 6,000 Yen. I would say to book whichever one is available. You also have the option to choose a stay plan with meals, including breakfast (you can also request it as a bento if you will start hiking early) and dinner. They also operate as a cafe during lunch hour where anyone, including day hikers, can order lunch sets of curry or beef donburi. There are multiple beer vending machines in the facility serving non-stop ice-cold beer. Last but not least, the facility comes with its onsen facility, a blessing after a day of hiking.

    The area surrounding Hokkein Onsen Sanso

    Another option is Bogatsuru Campground, which is free and does not require advance reservation. It is right next to Hokkein Onsen. While I have not camped in Bogatsuru, I walked through it multiple times. With the vast valley and the lush mountains it is surrounded by, it is sure one of the most scenic campgrounds I have seen in the mountains of Japan.

    Bogatsuru Campground

    If you need a place to stay either the night before or after the hike at the foot of the mountain, I recommend Toranoyu Onsen, located within a 20-minute walk from Chojabaru Visitor Center. It is affordable, the rooms are large, and the onsen is private. You can book online.

    Kyushu is a wonderful place to visit. It is home to some of Japan`s culturally and historically richest cities, islands whose beauty has inspired one of Japan`s most beloved anime, and outstanding nature, with the Kuju Mountains representing some of the best of it.

    More hikes in Japan

    If you are looking for more hikes in Japan, below are some other hiking posts from the blog:

    Some of my favorite hiking trails in Japan

    Mount Aso Hike: Japan`s Largest Active Volcano

    Hiking Mount Miyanoura in Yakushima, Kyushu`s Highest Peak

    Hiking in Daisetsuzan National Park in Hokkaido

    Sadogashima Island Traverse

    Hiking Yake Dake in the Japanese Alps

    Karasawa Cirque Hike in Kamikochi

    Pilgrimage Routes of Japan