Castles, mascots, samurai, volcanoes, hot springs, horses, distilleries, art galleries, lush gardens … what else could you want in a city?
Welcome to Kumamoto, both a city and a prefecture, located at the centre of the southern island of Kyushu. The region has been inhabited since paleolithic times, while the city has been home to daimyō feudal lords, samurai and ninjas—and more recently mascots, enka singers, athletes and artists.
Kumamoto is located on the shores of Shimabara Bay on the island of Kyushu. Less than an hour from Fukuoka by shinkansen (bullet train), the city enjoys warm, subtropical temperatures year-round.
Upon arriving at Kumamoto Station, you’ll notice the famous Kumamoto-jō, or Ginnan-jō (ginkgo nut castle), in the distance—named for an ancient ginkgo tree planted on the grounds in 1600 that continues to blossom to this day. While it was heavily damaged during the April 2016 earthquake, the castle continues to beckon tourists and locals to marvel at its beauty, best seen from Sakura-no-Baba Johsaien Castle Town, Kato Shrine or the Ninomaru Park at the base of the castle. The inner grounds, main tower, foundation walls and roofs are currently being repaired, and the main tower is expected to open again in early 2019. When restored, Kumamoto-jō will rise once again like a black egret and captivate visitors with its jet-black ceramic roof tiles, gold leaf ceilings and beautiful painted shoji screens. Ninomaru Park boasts several art museums, craft centres and festivals, as well as year-round performances.
Afterward, hop on a retro tram, in operation since the 1920s, for a tour of the city. The tram links all of the main destinations in Kumamoto: Kumamoto Station, Kumamoto-jō, the Contemporary Art Museum, Suizenji Jojuen Garden, Ezu Lake and the shopping arcades. Hop off at the Suizenji Jojuen Garden, a traditional Japanese garden with lush landscapes that will take you back in time. The garden is built along a circular path and recreates the Tokaido, an important road connecting Edo with Kyoto during the Edo period. Keep an eye out for the mini Mt. Fuji! Walking south along the river will bring you to Ezu Lake, divided into two parts: Kamiezu and Shimoezu. Japanese cities rarely boast large bodies of water within their boundaries, and as such, the citizens of Kumamoto make good use of their fortune—birdwatching and fishing are popular activities, with rowboats and paddleboats available for rent. The lake is also bounded by a promenade, a large park, a zoo and botanical gardens.
Basashi, perhaps Kuma- moto’s most famous dish, are slices of pink-marbled raw horsemeat sashimi served ice cold with minced ginger, garlic or wasabi and a delicate soy sauce.
If eating and shopping are more your style, Kumamoto is famous for both—Higo Koryu, the tea ceremony practiced by samurai, can be experienced at the Suizenji Jojuen Garden’s teahouse. You’ve no doubt heard about Kumamoto’s signature dish, basashi (馬刺し)—raw horsemeat sashimi. The shopping arcades, Kamitori and Shimotori Shotengai, are enclosed street markets, with numerous video game arcades, shops, bars and restaurants, while Kokai Shotengai, Kaminoura-dori, Sunroad Shinshigai and Namikizaka-dori are traditional market streets. Here, hungry visitors will find a variety of delicious foods—from horsemeat served grilled or raw to Kumamoto ramen, a hot, delicious soup made with pork broth, garlic and chewy noodles, and even vegetarian dishes like karashi renkon (fried lotus root served with mustard and miso paste).
The area also offers the ideal elements to make potent shochu—this distilled libation is a perfect companion to any meal, and a wonderful treat to bring home afterward.
Finish your trip with a relaxing soak at Ueki Onsen. This onsen (hot spring) features numerous baths, from outdoor lagoons overlooking waterfalls and tropical plants to large stone baths, and even steaming hot sand baths by the river. Located just outside of Kumamoto City, and accessible by bus, Ueki Onsen sits surrounded by serene rice paddies on the Koshi River. The mildly alkaline waters are known to provide soothing relief for muscular-, nerve-and joint-based aches and ailments. A perfect way to conclude your trip to Kumamoto.