I must admit that I had run out of steam in terms of organisation for this part of the trip, having explored different parts of Tokyo, Kanazawa and Nagasaki over the previous two weeks. I had booked accommodation and transport and was content in just taking it as it came. Therefore I didn’t have a list of must see and do things and soon discovered that there is not that much to do in Kumamoto CITY (in Kumamoto Prefecture, for sure, though we didn’t venture out of the city on this trip). It is a relatively small city with a population of just over 700,000 people, and it is was struck by a large earthquake in 2016 which destroyed a number of historical buildings, including the city’s main claim to fame Kumamoto Castle (熊本所).
We arrived mid morning via high speed train from Nagasaki and after a quick pizza lunch at the station, we headed for the main attraction of the city – the castle. It was a spectacularly warm and sunny spring day – even erring on a little too warm for the clothes I had packed! The cherry blossoms lining the outside of the castle grounds were in full bloom and made for many beautiful pictures.
Due to the earthquake, we were not allowed near the actual castle but walking around the grounds itself was lovely. When I returned back to work and told my colleagues that I had visited Kumamoto, two teachers individually mentioned that back in the day, parts of the castle were edible (at least that is what I understood from my limited Japanese!) and upon some research discovered that this was indeed true, that the core of the tatami mats in the castle, usually made of straw, was made with taro and taro was also used in connecting the mud walls to be used as preserved food!
You can see the affects of the earthquake in the top left and the reconstruction taking place (bottom right). I love this picture of these kids posing (top right, featuring my dad’s elbow)
After the castle we headed to the nearby Kumamoto Prefecture Traditional Crafts Centre, mainly because my mum is a fan of all things crafty before having to go meet our host of the Airbnb were were staying in to check in. I was most excited about this guesthouse as it looked amazing in the photos and it didn’t disappoint. It was the nicest mix of traditional and modern and it just so happened the host, Akiko-san contacted me on our second last day and asked if we would mind being interviewed by NHK (the national broadcast TV station, similar to the ABC) on tourists’ opinions on guesthouses. I felt obliged to agree so we all made our TV debut down in Kyuushuu! It was the strangest experience, especially as they came around, camera crew and all, on the morning of our flight back to Tokyo at around 7.30am. So we had to make sure we all looked presentable plus the place was clean enough to check out and return the keys. They asked some interesting questions such as our favourite place in the guesthouse, how we normally spent our evenings, why did we choose the place and to take them on a tour of the rooms. My parents left most of the talking to me, mainly as it required a fair bit of Japanese even though they said the interview would be in English! The crew certainly got a kick out of the fact that my dad’s response to ‘What do you do in the evenings?’ was Sudoku! (数独) We had to stage getting our luggage together and waving goodbye to our host. It is definitely an experience that the three of us will never forget.
Our second day we hopped on a tram and headed to Suizenji Joju-en (水前寺成趣園), a Japanese style landscaped garden dating back to the 17th century. It is such a beautifully manicured garden and contains miniature versions of Mount Fuji (富士山 -Japan’s tallest mountain) and Lake Biwa (琵琶湖- Japan’s biggest lake). It is also an excellent spot of Hanami (花見 -picnicking under the cherry blossoms) and many locals were doing just that.
After lunch at one of the only vegan places in Kumamoto, which was back in the city centre, we decided to have a look around the shops in the shopping arcade (Kamitori Arcade) and then call it a day.
By our third day in Kumamoto we were running out of things to do and see. I had asked my friend Yoshiko-san who is from Kumamoto for some recommendations, and she herself suggested things we had already done and then said there really was not much else to do in the city. So we decided to go to Kumamoto Prefecture Handicrafts Promotion Centre which was a little outside the city. We caught one of the infrequent local trains to Kawashiri Station and it really felt like we were out of the city, despite having only traveled for maybe 15 minutes. Here, various handicrafts from the Kumamoto area such as pottery, stained glass, wood carving and even sake brewing were on show. However, as interesting as it was, there was very little to no English signage which made it a little tricky but it was still an interesting experience.
After going on a wild goose chase in search of a vegan restaurant I had read about online (it didn’t exist in the end) we settled on a quick Mos Burger lunch and then headed back over to the shopping area and then back to the castle area, where we made a second attempt at visiting Sakura-no-Baba Johsaien Castle Town, a little touristy shopping area next to the castle where we had made a quick stop on our first day as were drawn in by the most amazing looking strawberry ice-creams. Alas, we did not have the patience to wait in an almost hour long line just for ice-cream, so we settled on a different kind. Not as tasty I’m sure, but it did the trick on a hot day!
Japan is the country of mascots, and Kumamoto’s mascot (ゆるキャラ) – Kumamon (くまモン) is popular not just in Kumamoto but all throughout Japan. And why wouldn’t he be, he is just so adorable and cuddly and here are all the tourist shots I took of him and with him during our three days there.
And in a flash, our time in Kyuushuu came to end! It was fun and just the right amount of time but I think we were all looking forward to a little bit of normalcy going back to Tokyo.