If you have already seen the sights of Kumamoto and find yourself at a tourism loss of what to do, consider a day trip to the nearby city of Tamana for an outing that combines history, culture and relaxation.
Tamana is a small town not far from Kumamoto. You can take a train from Kumamoto station and be there in under 30 minutes for a cost of 560 Yen.
Taking a bus will be twice the time and actually cost a little more than the train, but as the train is a small local line, it’s not unusual for it to be cancelled in bad weather. Tamana has a population of about 70,000 people and is located to the north of Kumamoto city.
If you’ve seen one Buddhist temple you’ve seen them all – or at least, that’s the feeling you get after you’ve spent several years traipsing around dozens places in Asia. So while shrines and temples are not usually the top of my sight-seeing list, the temple of Rengein Tanjyo was recommended as a particularly special destination for Tamana travelers.
The temple is in two parts – the main temple, and the inner temple (called Okunoin) which is where I visited. The two sections are over two miles apart, and given that it is quite difficult to get around Tamana without a car, we only visited one section. Tamana is a sleepy little place that is seemingly not accustomed to having many Western tourists – the bus timetables were difficult to decipher, so we opted to take a taxi from the train station at the cost of 2,000 Yen each way (ouch!)
The Okunoin section of the Rengein Tanjyo temple was well worth a visit. Entrance was only a few hundred Yen and as it was a quiet, drizzly day we had the place almost to ourselves. We arrived just at the right time of day to enjoy the experience of ‘banging the bell’. The temple is famous for its kane (bell) which is named ‘Hiryo no kane’ (and is known as ‘the biggest temple bell in the world’.) The bell is 4.5 meters tall, has a diameter of 2.8 meters, and weighs almost 40 tons.
If you arrive at the temple around lunchtime (call ahead to know the exact time) you can participate for free in the bell gonging activity. The monk puts a purple sash around your neck as you approach the platform and dusts you in spice, and then all bell-gongers are given a worn piece of rope to cling onto. The monk says the chant and everyone pulls the ropes together, which hauls back a large log of wood. The log swings several times to build momentum, and then on the monk’s signal, everyone loosens their grip on the rope and lets the log swing forward and smack into the bell, letting out an almighty chime. Banging the bell was a magical, one-of-a-kind experience. If you arrive at a different time of day you can arrange to pull the bell then too… but it will set you back 5,000 Yen!
The bell is considered to be very special indeed because of the miraculous way it came to be at the temple. The road up to Okunoin is very steep and narrow, and it is known that a vehicle of 6 tons is unable to ascend the hill without causing damage to the road. However, it was decided to try and bring the heavy bell up to the temple despite this risk. The bell (weighing 37.5 tons) and its enormous trailer (20 tons) were brought up the hill without making a single dent in the road, giving the bell its name – the Flying Dragon Bell.
Aside from the giant bell, there are many other things to see at the temple: The shingyo-mon (circular-shaped stone gate) which greets you is very photogenic, as it the gojyunoto (five stories pagoda) which is the main hall of the temple at okunoin and is the only five-storied pagoda in Japan which allows worshippers to practice religious training inside. Indeed, when we visited the pagoda the monk instructed us how to read the prayer chant which was written at the front of the hall. Training takes place on all five floors of the pagoda, but only the first floor is open to visitors.
Another spectacular sight at the temple is the Daibutsusama (Buddha statue) which was made in 1989 by Tsuneo Kagami in the likeness of St Koen, a famous Buddhist priest who was born in 1073. Take a walk up past the statue and down the lantern-lined hillside to have a marvelous view from the hilltop, and see the other statues around the temple.
Rengein Tanjyoji Temple*Automatic translation
Aside from the Temple, another thing that Tamana is well known for is its hot springs. Most of these can be found on Onsen Street – a whole row of public bath houses for you to choose from. If you want to test the waters before entering a bath house, head towards the public foot bath that is located in a small park at the roadside. The foot bath is beautifully put together and a very relaxing place to have a soak, and also a great place to see dragonflies!
As for the Onsens, the biggest and most famous is Tsukasa No Yu, which is very popular with locals and tourists. The public bath is 500/570 Yen for adults depending on what time of day you visit, and 250 Yen all day long for children. There are private bathing rooms available for a selection of time lengths and at different prices. As the onsen was swarming with visitors at the time of our visit, we decided to go to a small, local bath house. It was very down-to-earth indeed, but also very cheap!
Tsukasa no Yu Onsen Website*Automatic translation
There are plenty of other things to see and do in Tamana…. but mostly they are difficult to reach unless you have a car! On our last visit we just went to the temple and the onsen, but plan to go back again with a car so that we can visit all the other attractions easily, as they are quite spread out. Other attractions include the Sanskrit Character Carvings, the beach, Kusamakurakouryukan (a museum and villa detailing a story written by Nastume Soseki), more onsens, public parks and, of course, more temples.