With a population of more than 730,000, Kumamoto City is substantial but by no means one of the biggest cities in Japan. While it has long been regarded as a top tourist destination for local travellers, it is only recently that Kumamoto has been viewed as a choice location for international travellers. Away from the hustle and bustle of mainland Japan where megacities like Tokyo and Kyoto see the highest turnover of visitors, Kumamoto is tucked away down in Kyushu (the south island) and as such is an emerging modern city of reasonable size while retaining the quiet charms of the road less travelled. With a wide variety of things to see, do and eat, Kumamoto is a city that appeals to travellers of all sorts.
The ‘Spirit Rock’ Caves were home to the famous swordsman and author Miyamoto Musashi in the 1600s – it was here that he penned The Book of Five Rings, his philosophical, practical account of war. The book was finished in 1645 and he died a few months afterwards in Reigando Cave.
But what the caves are better known for these days are the ‘gohyaku rakan’ – five-hundred statues of the followers of Buddha who attained enlightenment, often referred to as just the five-hundred Buddhas. Scattered across the sun-dappled hillside, these squat little statues are famous for their facial expressions which are in turn provocative, serene, grimacing and filled with mirth. Speckled with moss and some of them falling into a stage of crumbly disrepair, like ancient garden gnomes, these statues keep silent watch over the quiet countryside.
Being a little bit out of the way, this attraction is rarely overrun with tourists and you can soak up the calming atmosphere in peace. The easiest way to get there is by car but if that isn’t an option you can catch a local bus and then hike up the hillside.
Unanimously held as the number one thing to do in Kumamoto, the castle is a favourite destination for both local and foreign visitors alike. It first began its life as a humble fortification in 1467, and since then has gone through major changes, disasters (such as catching on fire), restorations and being owned by a number of different clans throughout the ages.
Famous for its imposing dark exterior and sloped outer walls (designed to make it easier to pour boiling liquid down on the heads of stealthy ninjas), the main tower is six stories high and offers a grand view of central Kumamoto. Walk through the Hon-Maru Goten Grand Hall to see what the palace looked like in its heyday, and don’t forget to check out the restored watchtower that was recreated using materials and techniques to make it look as authentic as possible.
If you find that eating and travelling go hand in hand and that trying local cuisines is a top reason for travelling, your Kumamoto trip would not be complete without a meal at Yokobachi. This popular restaurant is frequently stuffed to the seams with garrulous, raucous patrons, but don’t let the party-vibe fool you – this is a classy restaurant with top quality food and is held to be one of the best eateries in the city.
An absolute must-try is that oh-so-famous dish that Kumamoto is best known for – basashi (raw horse meat sashimi). If you don’t fancy it raw, you could always order the horse meat hot pot for a less adventurous option. Yokobachi offers set course menus that let you try a variety of dishes, with courses starting at 2,500 yen per person. Other choice dishes include thick-cut sashimi, skewered beef and oysters.
A 90-minute drive away from central Kumamoto, Mount Aso is the largest active volcano in Japan and can frequently be seen with plumes of smoke billowing up into the air. It also has one of the largest calderas (volcanic craters) in the world and while you can venture fairly close to the volcano, in recent years the severity of the eruptions have prohibited tourists from venturing right up to the top.
Also known for its clear blue skies (when there hasn’t been a recent burst of ash), the wide open plains dotted with grazing cows and the geothermally heated onsen (hot springs), Mount Aso is a top location for those who love the great outdoors and want a break from city sights.
A large number of foreigners living (and therefore, travelling) in Japan are TEFL or JET teachers, who will no doubt have at least a passing interest in the history of English teaching in Japan. If you fall into this category, make your way on over to Teacher Janes Mansion, a small museum in Kumamoto close-by to the famous Suizenji Park.
Leroy Lansing Janes was an ex-military man who came to Japan in the late 1800s to teach English. His teaching style was revolutionary – less so the chalk-and-talk of traditional Japanese classrooms, but he encouraged discussion and debate between students. Not only this, having previous experience in agriculture, he taught the Kumamoto people about modern farming ideas and even permitted girls to be educated alongside the male students. It was a fascinating time of change for the people of Kumamoto (and Japan) and the museum is an excellent source of information for enthusiastic educators.
Aside from the many educators living and working in Japan, there are also plenty of budding writers who would be interested in these top literary spots in Kumamoto. Soseki is recognised as one of the most famous and influential of all Japanese writers, his most well-known titles being I am a Cat, Kokoro and Botchan. He lived in Kumamoto for just over four years and there are at least three different museums around the city where you can learn about his life.
Hearn was a Greek/Irish national who spent most of his early adult years living in America. He came to Japan at the age of 40 and never looked back – becoming a Japanese citizen and changing his name to Koizumi Setsu, he is well-known for his books about Japan (specifically, Kyushu and Kumamoto) and his eerie ghost stories.
These two shopping arcades run through the centre of the city and are a Mecca for Kumamoto’s young fashionistas. The Kamitori Arcade runs for a length of 360 meters, and Shimotori for 511 meters, with the Kumamoto Tram acting as a dividing line between the two.
The Kamitori end is a hub of cheap, chain diners, independent boutiques and a wide variety of coffee shops. The Shimotori end is the downtown area of Kumamoto and gets very lively at night, with plenty more shops and restaurants, as well as the large Tsuruya Malls and a large electronics department store.
There isn’t much in the way of hiking in Kumamoto. It’s a fairly flat city and you need to go a far way out to get decent hills for tramping up. But not far from the centre, the best place for a refreshing walk is Honmiyoji Temple. The temple is halfway up a large flight of steps. The first half (176 steps) is split up the middle by rows of lantern-style gravestones, and the second half is the much bigger climb (300 steps) which offers misty views of the entire city from the top.
In days gone by, Kumamoto would have been an unlikely candidate for the hit-list of most travellers in Japan. However, with the Japan Rail Pass making it easier for people to hop from city to city, it’s certainly worth your while to spend at least one day in Kumamoto and see the unique things it has to offer. Kumamoto is an inexpensive city full of local charm and would make a charming addition to your holiday itinerary.