THERE are two types of Japan - the Tokyo type conjuring up images of Godzilla-size Sogos, drunken salarymen vomiting outside karaoke bars and subway stations that could teach Tsim Sha Tsui a few things about congestion. Then there is the image so perfectly conjured up by that Diners Club card commercial, where the Hongkong businessman - fresh from ripping off his Japanese partner - soothes away his urban stress in an idyllic outdoor onsen, or hot spring. Unlike many residents of Asia who leave Japan at the bottom of their holiday list, I am in love with both versions. Although the former is the image most tourists have after arriving in Tokyo, few Hongkong people know how close they could be to living it up like the man in the bath. At the southern tip of Japan lies the island of Kyushu, only a few throws of bath salt away from the territory. But southern Kyushu, centred on the city of Kagoshima, must be one of the most sublime tourist secrets to be uncovered. With its tropical beaches, slumbering volcanoes, sloping mountains and a local brew called shochu more wicked than sake, it would take at least two weeks to do the area justice. But in one week, you will be a new person. Kagoshima, whose citizens spend their weekends cleaning the ash off their cars from the neighbouring volcano Sakurajima, is a pleasant place to begin. But the place to head for an all-in-one taste of rural Japan is Kirishima National Park, an hour's train or bus ride to the north. The park, which takes in volcanic mountains, deep blue lakes, beautiful panoramas and hot springs by the dozen, is a haven of serenity. Base yourself in Ebino, less a town than a hamlet of two hotels. The posh one, the Ebino Kogen hotel, will cost you upwards of $1,500 a night for the privilege of mixing with parties of Osaka pensioners. Far better value, by Japanese standards, is the nearby kokuminshukusha (Government lodge), offering excellent Japanese-style rooms, breakfast and dinner for around $500 per person. It is a comfortable, laid-back place, with its high-standard onsen where you can soak like Diners Club-man and then turn up pink as a beetroot for dinner in your yukata robe. Ebino is also the best base for hikers, with spectacular hill walks. And just when you think you have found the freshest air in the world, you'll find yourself walking past craters in the yellow volcano earth, where sulphurous steam emits odours that nostalgically recall fourth-form chemistry classes. THE smell of sulphur will stay with you a lot longer after relaxing in the surrounding onsen. Although the minerals from the earth are supposed to be good for anything from heart problems and digestion to skin ailments, they wouldn't be much help to the libido, smelling as one does like Lucifer for hours afterwards. One of the most famous onsen in Japan is Shinyu, an undistinguished-looking but revered indoor bath near Ebino. So pungent is the hydrogen sulphide gas bubbling from the earth that it killed a bather a few years ago. Now, they keep the windows open. After a few days' relaxation, head north to Hitoyoshi, which is well off the tourist track. The lazy Kuma river is an excellent place to venture upstream for some of the best white-water rafting in Japan. Venturing south from Kagoshima provides a different experience in the shape of Ibusuki, a seaside resort that is tacky in the Japanese way. It is a kind of Las Vegas without the neon and gambling, which isn't as bad as it sounds. Honeymooners flock to its toytown seafront for the summer's tropical heat and its famous sand bath. Because of a hot spring under the beach, the sand is scorching, and being buried under it for 30 minutes is an experience of ecstasy and torture. Kind offun, but God knows what ailments it cures. Down the beach at the mammoth Ibusuki Kanko hotel is the famous jungle bath, where you can hop between 20 types of bath before retiring to the grand dining room to eat and be ''entertained'' by a troupe of Hawaiian dancers. There is another reason to visit the Kagoshima area. The hospitality borders on a naivety belonging to another age. It is not hard to see why Japanese get exploited by the coachload whenever they enter lions' dens like Paris or London. On their home turf- and especially Kyushu, where the welcome is even warmer - you will enjoy countless offers of a car ride, a meal, or even accommodation. The people, the beauty of the landscape, and yes, even the lingering smell of sulphur, should not be ignored. How to get there Dragonair has direct flights to Kagoshima. Cost: $4,860 for an economy class return. Visa: required.