Having finished out adventure in Kyoto, we caught the Shinkansen to Shinkobe late in the morning, and then changed there for Kumamoto. This journey, which took between 3 to 4 hours was a little less comfortable then some of the others, simply because it involved going through a lot of tunnels, which I found a little irritating on my ears. Dad had no similar qualms, so it may have just been me! People who are prone to discomfort at atmosphere and pressure changes may want to take some gum with them, and a hefty set of headphones!
There are no ninja in Japan
It was bright and sunny when we arrived in Kumamoto. We were immediately greeted by the disembodied head of a rather large (cartoon) bear in the entrance of the station. This is the mascot of the area, and visitors to Kumamoto will find him almost everywhere they go in the region. It took me a few days to put two and two together and realise why ‘Kumamoto’ had chosen a bear to represent them—(Kuma means bear in Japanese).
Our hotel, the APA was fairly standard and straightforward, but was well priced and put us in a good position for access to the rest of the city, the trams and the large arcades where we went to eat most nights.
Kumamoto is boasted as one of the friendliest places in Japan, though I will warn visitors that this area is a little more off the beaten track! Unlike Kyoto, which caters for vast amounts of tourists, we were among very few foreign guests at the hotel and in the city. A few of the restaurants had English menus, but on our first night we had to contend without—my Japanese was rather put to the test!
Fortunately, a lot of Japanese restaurants have a rather useful habit of including pictures, if not full-scale model displays of their food. This is incredibly useful for both those pesky tourists and for people who love a good visual when deciding what to eat.
We had soba noodles, then wondered back toward our hotel, stopping off in a bar-restaurant which would actually become a regular haunt of ours for the duration of our visit to Kumamoto. Dad got himself a beer, and I ordered some delicious plum wine.
For those who enjoy sweet or dessert wines—plum wine is the treat for you. That being said, they’ll offer it to you straight or with soda. Get it with some soda—even just a little. The wine is quite thick, and having finished a glass of it straight, I did feel a little queasy afterward and had to lie down. I corrected my mistake the following night and had no similar problems.
As a city, our first impression of Kumamoto was that it was bright and lively. It helped that we came out on a weekend, because there were lots of people about, but there was definitely the feel of ‘life’ here. The city was one that enjoyed sunshine and it had a slight ‘sea-side’ feel to it. Dad insisted that the sea wasn’t that close, but I smelt the difference in the air, even if there wasn’t a beach nearby.
Day 1 – The Crumbling Castle and the Golfer’s Nightmare
Kumamoto castle is one of the city’s biggest attractions, and draws a decent number of visitors every year. However, as Dad and I approached it, cameras at the ready and smeared in sun-cream, we weren’t expecting the crowd that greeted us.
The main entrance to the castle was closed, but signs directed us around a small shopping area where a three pronged queue of hundreds of people curled all the way around a grassy verge, up a flight of stairs and toward the castle-grounds.
Like any self-respecting Brits, we joined the back, and were pleased that—despite its size—the crowd was quite fast moving.
“This castle must be really popular,” I mumbled, whilst Dad craned his neck, eyes narrowed in suspicion.
“Hm,” he said.
After some time, we were able to make it up toward the castle entrance, only to find a huge mass waiting for us. Massive beach-balls were being thrown into the air, and someone was talking on a mic. There was music and chatter, and mile long queues for cabin toilets.
“Did we step through a portal into Glastonbury?”
“Hm,” Dad said, eyes still narrowed.
We advanced toward the wall of people, trying to see if there was actually anyway into the castle itself, which was on our left. Some investigation later however, and we discovered that there was no way into the castle because it was closed.
Upon closer inspection we saw exactly way.
Kumamoto Castle – Damage from the Earthquake
In 2016 Kumamoto suffered from a significant earthquake. The castle suffered significant damages to the outer walls and the roof, behind which a huge orange crane (work machine, not the bird) sat poised, paused in its work.
This was, as you can imagine, rather a disappointment—we’d been keen to see the castle, but understandable safety regulations prevented us from even getting close to the rather impressive building.
We pushed through the dense crowd, like Scott and his men wading into the Antarctic—mystified, wary, and—in my case—grossly unequipped for the environment. Dad, a regular festival goer, and almost a head-taller than most of the people around him, was fine as he slipped through the crowd. I—claustrophobic, bad-legged, and at just the right height to be blinded by wide-brimmed hats and parasols—struggled a little more.
As we broke through the thicket into a slightly clearer area on the other side of the mass, we noticed that most of the crowd were facing toward the castle, watching it keenly. Clearly something was about to happen.
For a wild, and terrible moment, I thought we were about to be witness to the castle being bulldozed, and then I had the good sense to just ask someone who was poised ready, with a camera facing up to the sky.
“What everyone wanting to look at?” I asked in my broken Japanese.
The cameraman replied. I blinked stupidly and asked him to repeat. He did so. I continued to blink stupidly.
I didn’t understand a word.
Fortunately for Dad and I, a rather lovely young lady in-front of us turned around and explained in perfect English that that there was going to be an air-show. The event was to raise money for the castle repairs, and one of the pilots in the show was actually local to Kumamoto. Everyone had come out in force to see the spectacle, and support one of their own.
We got into conversation with the young lady, who had the most endearing accent—Japanese, but with the occasional twang of pure Australian! She’d spent some time in Perth, hence her impeccable English. She recommended a few places for us to go in the area, which we were very grateful for, as castle plan had fallen through.
A Surprise Air-Show!
The conversation was cut off by the arrival of the aeroplanes. We watched, impressed, as they flew in perfect synchronicity across the sky, creating shapes out of cloud, and performing daring twirls and tricks. I pointed out that we were never at risk of missing a moment, because every time the planes disappeared, the crowd would quickly signal their return with a loud “Ooooh!”
Having seen our fill, and thanking our impromptu tour advisor, we detangled ourselves from the crowd and circled around the castle back onto the main-street.
There, we caught the tram—which was as efficient as the rail and bus service—and went down to Suizenji, an attractive garden park that circles a large pond.
Surrounded by city on all sides, the garden was a stretch of perfectly mowed knolls and hills, with trees, humungous fish in the water, and an attractive tea-house on the water’s edge.
The masochist’s golf-course (Suizenji)
As I looked out over the immaculate grass, a Japanese flag flapping on the other side of the garden, I made the observation to my father that it looked like a masochist’s putting range. Dad snorted loudly.
The rest of the walk was occupied by internal observations on how this garden was unequivocally unsuited for golf. Robin William’s sketch, and my own brief experience with Golf came to mind several times.
We stopped at the Tea-house for a drink. The waitress looked aghast when I asked if they had any coffee, (for Dad, that is—I’m not a heathen) and quickly informed me that there was only one thing on the menu, as the name of the place suggested. Tea.
We accepted this, and sat by the water, taking in the sights as we sipped our hot beverages and nibbled on delicious Japanese cake.
As the afternoon came in, we were driven back to the hotel by an unmistakable force that neither cared what time it was, where we were, or that we were on holiday.
Glastonbury ticket resales.
Having missed the chance to grab tickets in the first go, Dad, Jonathan and a number of his friends had formed a team to try and grab tickets on the resale for the famous festival, which Dad and Jonathan have attended for nine consecutive years. The ultimate father-son tradition.
I opted to join in with their efforts, and at 17:00 sharp Japanese time, our afternoon transformed into a frenzy of button hitting as we refreshed the Glastonbury ticket page again and again.
It was over in a matter of minutes, and unfortunately—despite best efforts—we weren’t able to secure tickets for the Vaughan men. Disappointed, but counting the fortunate of having attending nine years in a row, Dad wasn’t in too bad spirits as we set out for dinner.
We went to Kome no Kura, a great little, Japanese restaurant, with private, tatami floored booths, and a menu that included local Kumamoto dishes. We tried a few of these, avoiding the horse dishes out of personal preference, and the whole meal was very much enjoyed! I can’t recommend the place enough!
Day 2 – The Christian Islands
Day two of our visit saw us heading out to explore the coast. One of the main reasons we chose to go to Kumamoto, was that I was curious what life along the sea was like.
The sea is the centre of many island communities. It is a giver and taker of life—it has inspired generations of stories and mythology. As well as dividing countries, it connects them through trade routes. It gives us beautiful shells and pearls, provides one of the main sources of food in Japan, and is a place of wonderment and beauty.
It’s also a frothy, thrashing pit of death, where you can ironically die of dehydration, if the exposure, hyperthermia, drowning or large flesh-eating aquatic animals don’t get you first.
It stands to reason then that I wanted to see how the Japanese lived alongside this turbulent monster, especially considering the occurrences of earthquakes and tsunamis in the country. In particular we wanted to see rural fishing life, so we headed up to Tomioka Magarizaki, taking the costal road from Kumamoto. Once again, we hired a car for the occasion, and the journey took about two and a half hours.
The beach, on arrival, was small and almost entirely deserted. Dad and I enjoyed walking up and down it, and collecting some shells. The smell of the sea was incredibly strong, and there was very little in the way of commercial spots. Two restaurants that looked over the beach were closed, and there were no shops of any kind. Visitors coming here for a classic day out on the beach with parasols and ice-cream, would certainly be disappointed.
Having done the beach, we went further inland up to Tomioka castle. This has an interesting history, in particular with reference to Christianity in Japan.
A little bit of a history lesson. During the 16th Century, Catholicism arrived in Japan via the Portuguese. Catholicism took hold in some areas, boasting up to 100,000 converts at the height of its success. In particular, Nagasaki and the Kyushuu area became a centre for Catholicism, up until the point it was outlawed by the Shoganate in 1620.
Between 1637 and 1638, the Shimabara rebellion broke out. Most of the rioters—peasants in the Shimabara peninsula and Amakusa—were Catholics. This is often cited as the reason for the turmoil, despite the facts the rebellion probably had a lot more to do with over-taxation and hunger, than religion.
After the rebellion was ended, special enforcements were thrown down against Christianity. It was punishable by death, and so Christians went underground. Believers who continued to practise their faith in secret became known as the Kakure Kurishitans (Hidden Christians), and little signs and clues can be found across Kyushuu of their presence.
During the rebellion, Tomioka castle, one of the Shoganate strong-holds, was attacked three times. After the rebellion ended, the castle was succeeded by Suzuki Shigenari. He recognised much of the true cause of the rebellion, and submitted a request to the shogunate to reduce the tax. The request was denied, and it is said that—in protest against this—Suzuki Shigenari actually committed hari-kiri (a very painful form of ritual suicide).
The View from Tomioka Castle
Back to the castle itself—it was actually destroyed in 1670 by Toda Tadamasu. The building that now stands in its place is a reconstruction, with very few original features on the inside. That being said, it is still well worth a visit. For one—it’s free entry, and contains a pleasant exhibition. There’s also a museum on the site which you do have to pay for, that contains historical artefacts. Visitors should be warned, that the majority of the information and writing is in Japanese, though you are provided with a free English pamphlet that goes into detail about the history of the castle.
Outside, you will find four statues stood looking out of Tomioka. One of these is the rather grim-faced Suzuki Shigenari. Beside him is his brother, Suzuki Shosan, a priest and Shigenari’s political advisor. The other statues are of Katsu Kaishan and Rai Sanyo.
Standing at the top of Tomioka Castle and taking in the stunning view of the island and sea, you can understand why it was such an important stronghold, particularly during a time of great national isolation in Japan.
Having completed the Castle, Dad and I decided to go back along the costal route and stop off in Tsuji Island. This is a popular place to go Dolphin watching, and indeed most of the shops and businesses had Dolphin themed signs.
A Tanuki pops out to say hello!
The Island is actually quite small, and is mostly residential, with a small diving club and a local harbour. Dad and I drove around the island and enjoyed the views, as well as spotting some surprise wildlife in the form of wild tanuki (Japanese racoon-dogs) and lots of cats.
We ended our tour of Tsuji island by stopping off at the Youmeru Spa, an onsen located in the middle of the island, up at the top. We didn’t have time for a dip, so we opted for some lunch instead, and then began the long, scenic journey back into Kumamoto city.
We ended the night with Ramen, having been advised to check out Ramen Komurasaki, another restaurant in the arcade. We both ate the signature ‘King Ramen’ dish, along with some steaming gyoza.
Day 3 – Into the Volcano
So, around when we were still planning our trip, and I expressed a desire to go to Kumamoto, Dad had a look at the area and said he wanted to go and see Mt. Aso, the largest active volcano in Japan. Dad was adamant about wanting to get to the top of it.
Cut to October, 2016 when an 11,000 metre column of ash was blown out of Mt. Aso as it erupted, ash reaching as far as the Island of Shikoku, 300 kilometres away.
I sent Dad a link on facebook. “Is this the Volcano you want us to go up?”
“Yep,” Dad replied merrily.
Andrew Vaughan – Explorer Extraordinaire!
And thus, on our third and final day in Kumamoto, Dad and I got into the car and drove up to Mt. Aso. One of the things I have repeated again and again is how scenic the drives always are. I am not particularly taken by modern Japanese architecture, when it comes to cities. Houses aren’t really built to last, which in a country ravaged by earthquakes, seems rather wise. Driving through cities isn’t particularly fascinating, as far as views go. However, Japan is taken up hugely by mountains, and the moment you hit that lush natural world, there really is nothing like it. The colours, the variation…It’s magical.
We reached our destination, stopping off at Aso Volcano Museum. Unfortunately the cable-car that sometimes takes visitors up to the crater, wasn’t running. Toxic gas emissions were rising up from the mouth of the volcano, and Dad and I were pretty understanding on why it may not be a good idea for us to get too close.
Instead, we looked around the museum, and took the chance to take several thousand photographs of the amazing views around us.
Fumes rising up from Mt. Naka
A little bit more on Mt. Aso. It has a humungous caldera, with a circumfrance of around 120 km, and actually consists of five peaks, known as the Aso-Gogaku. It is Mt. Naka, on Aso, which is the current active volcano, and from where we were, Dad and I could see billowing fumes rising from its crater.
We also saw even more evidence of the destruction of the earthquake that had occurred the previous year. A monument stone up at the top of a hill had collapses, and the museum itself was undergoing repairs. Despite this, everything was open, and we were welcomed warmly. Dad, being the Science nerd he is, profited more from the museum that I did—though I do have a soft-spot when it comes volcanoes, however macabre that is.
Having exhausted ourselves with photographs there, we drove across to Daikanbo lookout, further north, to take a few more photos. The lookout, though quite busy, did offer some really breath-taking views and was worth the detour.
Views from Mt. Aso
Then back to Kumamoto we went, and stopped off in a small restaurant that truly pushed my Japanese to the limit. No English menu, and no pictures either. I thought we were doomed until I spotted one word on the menu that I recognised (though, I didn’t actualy remember what it meant!). Taking a leap of faith, I ordered two of the dishes with some rice.
All turned out well as we were delivered cutlets of succulent, breaded pork and delicious steamed rice.
Dad and I then stopped off at the little restaurant close to the hotel, for our ritual drink (that plum wine really is delicious).
In conclusion for Kumamoto—
The Worst Part, on a touristy level, was not being able to see Kumamoto Castle, though this very understandable.
The Best Part was the warmth in which we were received, the excellent food, and the unique experience of seeing a less tourist driven, new side to the country.