“But why are you going to Uto? There’s nothing there!” My Japanese friends were confused about my choice of a day trip location. To them, visiting a small town with almost nothing to do there seemed like a strange concept indeed. But I reminded them that to me, a foreigner, even the most mundane experience can be an adventure. Just going to the supermarket can be a fun experience if it’s done in a foreign language, with unfamiliar brands; so how much more exciting is a day trip to a place of natural beauty, regardless of the lack of ‘entertainment’?
With a population of less than 40,000 people, Uto is about 15 km from Kumamoto city – a journey that takes 12-15 minutes by train. Kumamoto doesn’t have a huge number of foreigners, but Uto can’t have more than a mere handful – on leaving the Uto train station, we stopped off at a convenience store where the shop assistant was so chuffed with our presence that she gave us a free box of Uto style mochi.
For a small town with ‘nothing to do’, we sure managed to fill up our day! The first attraction we went looking for was the Senba Bridge. We followed road signs as long as we could until they randomly stopped directing us (not very helpful…) Continuing in what we thought was the right direction, I spotted the bridge out of the corner of my eye, literally almost missing it as it was down a small road off the path. It’s a good thing we did find it because, despite the rain, the bridge was very beautiful.
It was built late in the Edo period, but is still in a grand condition. With trees overhanging the water and hydrangeas clustered along the riverbank, it made for picturesque scene indeed. We were particularly pleased to find the bride as there was a quaint little restaurant right next to it, which we chose to dine at and escape the rain. With a window seat overlooking the river, and a hearty set lunch at a reasonable price, it made the journey all the more worthwhile.
There are dozens of castles in Japan and any good city trip itinerary is likely to include a castle visit. The Uto castle was built in two parts, both of which are now complete ruins with almost nothing to show for them. The Japanese word Shiroyama (城山) is given to places like this – hills or mountains where castles used to stand. The castle was constructed by Konishi Yukinaga, a Christian feudal Lord, in the late 1500’s.
By 1637, the castle was completely razed to the ground, leaving no trace that a castle had ever stood there. During an archaeological dig in 1975, remnants of the castle were discovered and preserved. One part of the castle grounds boasts a statue of Yukinaga, and the other part has a recently constructed covered stage where you can sit and look out across the quiet hills.
There are several nature parks in Uto – we chose to visit Sumiyoshi because it is close to the sea and we thought there would be a nice view. The park is tiny – it’s built on a steep hill which is on a little spit of land, like an island that is only just joined to the shore. Clambering up the hillside, it’s dark and gloomy through all the trees, but you get a good viewing point out to sea from a small clearing. Near the shrine at the top of the hill is a monument to Kathleen Mary Drew-Baker, (1901 – 1957) a British-born phycologist (phycology is the study of algae) who was famous for her research on edible seaweed, which later led to a breakthrough in the commercial growing of nori.
So for a small town with ‘nothing to do’, we certainly didn’t have a boring day! Aside from the attractions we visited, other options include the Tachioka Nature Park, the KinoeIwa Nature Park, a popular hydrangea Onsen, the Tsutsuji-Keoka Nature Park, the Uto Big Drum Museum and the Todoriki Izumi water feature… so I think it’s safe to say that we will be returning to Uto for more day trips in the future!