Japan City Guides: Kumamoto
Kumamoto is a pleasant, medium-sized and growing town on the west coast of Kyushu. Kumamoto is a major transport hub on Kyushu's north-south axis and for Unzen and Shimabara to the west.
Kumamoto Castle is the town's main attraction and a spectacular site, which underwent restoration in time for its 400th anniversary. Kumamoto Castle, built by Kato Kiyomasa between 1601-1607, is Japan's third largest castle after Osaka Castle and Nagoya Castle.
Kumamoto Castle is a masterpiece of defensive architecture and has never been successfully stormed.
The outer walls of Kumamoto Castle measured 13km and the inner walls 5km. The original castle had 49 turrets and 29 gates. Kato planted camphor and gingko trees to provide firewood and edible nuts in time of seige and also dug 120 wells to provide the inhabitants with water.
The wood used in the castle's construction was stained a dark color with persimmon tannin and pine soot to withstand insects and the changes in the weather.
Most of the original wooden buildings were destroyed in a fire during the 1877 siege of the castle by a rebel army led by Saigo Takamori (the model for the Hollywood blockbuster The Last Samurai during the Seinan War. The defenders under the command of Kanjo Tani (1837-1911) still managed to hold out for 50 days until reinforcements arrived and Saigo's rebellion was crushed. Only the Uto-Yagura turret survived the fire.
Reconstruction of Kumamoto Castle began in 1960 and continued during 2007 so the castle can be restored to its former glory for its 400th anniversary. The huge Hon-Maru Go-ten Ohiroma reception hall of the feudal lord is now an impressive piece of wooden architecture, with much of the reconstruction work done by skilled carpenters and painters from Kyoto.
The main tower of the 6-storey, 30-meter keep (donjon) contains an interesting museum detailing the history of Kumamoto Castle along with exhibits of Japanese armor, shells used in the 1877 attack and original black and white photographs.
A short walk northwest of the castle is Hosokawa Gyobu-tei (Tel: 096 352 6522) a 300-year old residence and gardens of Lord Gyobu, a member of the ruling Hosokawa clan.
The 24 rooms of the mansion open to the public contain Edo Period furniture including a rare clock, lacquerware and items of clothing.
The kitchen has a number of original pots and pans and such a large samurai mansion remains one of the few left in the country.
Kumamoto Prefectural Art Museum Chibajo Annex
The castle grounds and the sloping path leading to the castle are popular places for cherry blossom viewing and contain Kumamoto's modernist Prefectural Art Museum (Tel: 096 352 2111; closed Monday) in Ninomaru Park with displays of the family possessions of the Hosokawa and Kato clans, a tea room, modern European and Japanese paintings and items found in archaeological digs in the area including some stone Buddhist scuptures. Kumamoto Prefectural Art Museum was designed by the noted architect Maekawa Kunio, who is also responsible for the Saitama Prefectural Museum in Omiya.
The Kumamoto Prefectural Traditional Crafts Center (Tel: 096 324 4930) has displays of ceramics, bamboo crafts, lanterns and wood carvings. Access by bus to the Dento-koteikan-mae bus stop.
Kumamoto Castle General Office
A short tram ride southeast of Kumamoto Castle is Kumamoto's other must-see sight - Suizenji Garden.
This beautiful strolling garden and tea arbor was built over a period of 80 years from 1632 by three successive Hosokawa feudal lords.
The centerpiece of this Momoyama-style garden is the pond which is fed by pure, underground streams from nearby Mt. Aso.
The garden contains an instantly recognizable, miniature Mount Fuji and Lake Biwa, Izumi Shrine (dedicated to the ancestors of the Hosokawa clan), an Inari Shrine, a Noh stage (with Noh performances in spring and fall), a statue of the garden's creator Tadatoshi Hosokawa and a classical teahouse.
Suizenji Garden takes about 30-40 minutes to walk but is also a favorite spot for cherry blossom viewing or just sitting and relaxing in general.
The ongoing Kumamoto Artpolis project began in 1988 and aimed to encourage top architects to design in Kumamoto and its surrounding area.
Striking modern structures built as a result include the North Kumamoto Police Station, the Misumi Harbor Ferry Terminal, Mamihara Bridge, Tamana City Observatory Museum, Kuma High School of Industry, Saishunkan Lady's Residence, Shinchi Public Housing development, Kouda Akebono Nursery School, the Reihoku Community Hall, the Yatsushiro Municipal Museum and the Prefectural Decorative Tumulus Museum designed by Tadao Ando and the Kumamoto Prefectural Museum of Art Chibajo Annex (see image above) by Spanish architects Elias Torres and José Antonio Martínez-Lapeña, which was constructed in 1992.
The Former Residence of L.L. Janes was the first western-style building constructed in Kumamoto and was the home of the American educator and missionary Leroy Lansing Janes (1838–1909). Janes was invited to teach at the Kumamoto Yogakko and designed a curriculum entirely in English.
The main shrine at Takahashi Inari Jinja, west of downtown Kumamoto, Kyushu
The Former Residence of L.L. Janes, Kumamoto
Kumamoto Temples & Galleries
Kumamoto's other sites include Honmyoji Temple which contains the mausoleum of Kato Kiyomasa, which was built to be at the same height as the keep at Kumamoto Castle.
Nearby is the Shimada Art Gallery (Tel: 096 352 597), which has exhibits relating to the life of master Edo Period swordsman Miyamoto Musashi, who spent his last years in Kumamoto. Take a bus to Jikei-byoin-mae bus stop.
Writers Lafcadio Hearn and Natsume Soseki both lived in Kumamoto for periods in their lives and it is possible to visit their former homes. Hearn's previous house (Tel: 096 354 7842) is at 2-6 Ansei-machi in the center of town.
Natsume Soseki's residence is preserved as the Soseki Memorial Hall (Tel: 096 325 9127) at 4-22 Tsubo-machi, north of the castle.
Tatsuda Shizen-koen northeast of downtown Kumamoto includes Taisho-ji Temple, which contains the grave of Hosokawa Gracia (1563-1600), a convert to Christianity and the daughter of Akechi Mitsuhide, the betrayer of Oda Nobunaga at Honnoji Temple in Kyoto. Married to Hosokawa Tadaoki, she was killed by a servant in Osaka Castle on the orders of her husband to prevent her being taken hostage by Ishida Mitsunari, an enemy of Hosokawa and his ally Tokugawa Ieyasu.
Eating in Kumamoto
Horse meat is a local delicacy and can be sample in a number of eateries near Kumamoto Castle. Another local food is karashi renkon - deep-fried lotus root. The volcan soils of the area are also supposed to produce a distinctive sake.
Kumamoto Tourist Office (Tel: 096 352 3743) is located inside the railway station.
Kumamoto Airport has direct flights to Tokyo, Osaka, Naha (Okinawa), Nagoya (Chubu and Komaki), Kobe and other cities in Japan. Kumamoto Airport is about 50 minutes from downtown by regular bus. Airlines that fly into and depart Kumamoto Airport include ANA, JAL, Cathay Pacific and Asiana.
There are buses to Kumamoto Airport from Kumamoto railway tation and Kumamoto bus station. There are bus services from Kumamoto Airport to Oita (3 hours), Beppu (4 hours), Takachiho (3 hours), Aso (1 hours) and Kurokawa Onsen (90 minutes).
The JR Kagoshima Line runs north to Hakata Station (Fukuoka) in about 90 minutes with journeys south to Kagoshima taking approximately the same time. The JR Hohi Line has trains to Beppu in 3 hours. The Kyushu shinkansen line opened on schedule and now extends from Fukuoka to Kumamoto and on to Kagoshima with a branch to Nagasaki.
There are highway bus services from the Kumamoto Kotsu bus station, south of the castle, to most major destinations in Kyushu. The north-south Kyushu Highway connects Kita-Kyushu, Fukuoka, Kumamoto and Kagoshima.
Two ferry companies run car ferries from Shimabara to Kumamoto. The crossing takes one hour on the cheaper, slower boat run by Kyusho Ferry (Tel: 096 329 6111) or 30 minutes on the more expensive quicker boat operated by Kumamoto Ferry (Tel: 0957 63 8008). The last crossing on weekdays from Shimabara to Kumamoto is 5.30pm with Kumamoto Ferry and 6.55pm with Kyusho Ferry. Both companies have later sailings on weekends and public holidays from April to December. 7.20pm for Kumamoto Ferry and 7.05pm for Kyusho Ferry.
Getting Around Kumamoto
The bus and tram network covers all of Kumamoto's main sites but traffic can be heavy with people driving in from surrounding areas and cross-Kyushu traffic. It is possible to buy one-day passes for the street car network which are also valid on the green city buses (700 yen). The Castle Loop Bus (shiro-megurin) runs from the bus station and passes many of the city attractions. The service runs 18 buses daily from 8.30am-5pm over the 50-minute loop and a one-day ticket is 300 yen.
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