Miyazaki prefecture would be bypassed by tourists altogether were it not for the little town of Takachiho, one of the most sacred places in Japan, filled with myths and legends.
Myths and Legends of Takachiho
Situated in the center of Kyushu, Takachiho is the place where Ama-tsu-hiko-hiko-ho-no-ningi-no-mikoto, grandchild of Sun Goddess Amaterasu, is said to have descended from the High Plain of Heaven. He brought with him the Imperial Regalia, the sacred mirror, sword and jewels, that have been the symbols of power of the Japanese emperor for longer than writing has existed in Japan.
The Japanese Imperial family is said to descend in straight line from this august grandchild of Goddess Amaterasu, things they haven't disproved yet, and that many older Japanese still believe firmly.
Ama no Iwato 天岩戸
8 km north-east from Takachiho is Ama no Iwato (lit. "heavenly rock door"), where legend has it that Amaterasu Omikami hid herself in a cave, plunging the world into darkness, after her wicked brother Susano-o bullied her with his dirty tricks.
The other gods, growing concerned, tried all they could to lure Amaterasu out of her cave. They tried getting the cocks from the Eternal Land to crow, to fool her into believing that dawn had come without her. They tried to place the mirror in front of the cave's door, so that when she open it, she would think she had a rival and emerge out of jealousy. But she wouldn't open the door.
So goddess Ama-no-Uzumeno-Mikoto (lit. the "Terrible Heavenly Female") made herself a costume out of sasaki leaves, eulalia grass and moss and and perfomed a dance so comical and lewd that the Sun Goddess eventually got out of her cave to see what was happening.
Iwato Kagura dances (entry ￥500) mimicking Uzumeno's mythical dance are performed every evening from 8:00 pm to 9:00 pm at the Takachiho-jinja Shrine. Special all-night dances are held from late November to early February at the shrine.
Various Iwato Kagura Matsuri are also held on 3 May, 23 September and 3 November at the Ama no Iwato-jinja Shrine (take a bus or taxi from Takachiho station to avoid walking the 8km).
The Yasugawara Cave (天安河原洞), where Amaterasu is said to have hidden, is a few hundred meters away from the shrine, up the Iwato-gawa river.
Back to Takachiho, 2km south of the town, the startingly beautiful, deep and narrow Takachiho Gorge (高千穂峡) are another prime attraction.
It is actually surprising that this region, like the Great Shrine of Ise, does not figure better on tourist itineraries, but remoteness and the diminishing enthusiasm for Shinto beliefs surely account for a lot of it.
How to get there
Getting to Takachiho can be quite a hassle. The nearest airport is Miyazaki, almost 3 hours away by train, via Nobeoka. The train ride cost about ￥3,200, using the JR Limited Express Nichirin, then the Takachiho Railway from Nobeoka.
Coming from Fukuoka/Hakata or Beppu, you can use the same JR Limited Express Nichirin line to Nobeoka (4h10 and ￥5,800 from Hakata, 2h20 and ￥2,400 from Beppu), then the Takachiho Railway.
There is no quick way from Kumamoto using public transports. A road does link Takachiho and Kumamoto, and it is only 60km away as the crow flies. However, trains only go to Oita, then to Nobeoka. Altogether it takes 5 hours to reach Takachiho. There are buses from Kumamoto to Nobeoka via Kumamoto Airport, but they take over 4 hours, plus another 90 minutes to Takachiho. So your best bet would be to rent a car.