Wander the fields of tulips at the Kuju Hana Koen (Kuju Flower Park) and you might be forgiven for thinking you're somewhere in the Netherlands. Turn the corner, however, and the fields of poppies will transport you straight to the Tuscan countryside. You can have a worldwide floral adventure all without ever leaving the mountainous territory of western Oita prefecture.
There's always something blooming at the Kuju Hana Koen, a sprawling garden located a short drive from Kumamoto's Aso region and the steaming hot springs of Kurokawa Onsen. The fields of blooms are arranged almost chronologically, so the flowers that are in season are all generally grouped together. On my visit in early May, the northern half of the park was awash with color - fields of yellow, orange and salmon-colored poppies; vibrant tulips; marigolds, pansies and other "porchbox" blooms; and a carpet of delicate sky-blue nemophila.
The southern portion of the park was notably bare but the later summer months will see the fields erupt in a blaze of yellow sunflowers, along with the more muted colors of lavender. Fall sees the arrival of the pink cosmos and the indigo salvia.
It won't take more than an hour to walk through the fields, though you could linger much longer waiting for the perfect light for pictures. If your visit falls over a mealtime, food stalls around the garden offer everything from steaming bowls of udon to yakitori and okonomiyaki, or opt for the filling buffet lunch at the garden's main restaurant. Ice cream is on offer every five feet, in floral flavors ranging from rose (eh) to lavender (surprisingly good). On spring and summer weekends, you'll also often find local farmers hawking their produce just inside the gate. A bag of tomatoes I purchased here was worth the trip from Kumamoto alone.
Kuju Hana Koen is best accessible by car, just a short drive north of the Mt Aso region and due east from Kurokawa Onsen on Rte 442. The admission fee is 1000 yen for adults, but those in the know can print off a discount coupon from the park's website.