Kumamoto, a modern Japanese city in central western Kyushu, is rightly proud of its roots as a medieval castle town (jokamachi). It’s the perfect place to learn about Japan’s cultural traditions and a convenient base from which to explore the wealth of nearby natural wonders – including Mount Aso, one of Japan’s most active volcanoes.
Kumamoto Castle: the beating heart of the city
In April 2016, television screens around the world showed news footage about the 400-year-old stone walls of Kumamoto Castle, which slid and crumbled, victims of a one-time earthquake in a century. All thirteen castle buildings, which are of national importance, were damaged or destroyed.
Within two weeks, the city had begun to support the beloved but damaged castle and to forge restoration plans. Full restoration is expected to take another 15 years, but Kumamoto Castle has been reopened to visitors via catwalks around the damaged walls, giving access to limited areas of the castle grounds and the opportunity to see both the damage and ongoing repair work visit. Every other building will reopen after the work is completed.
The keep of the castle, which is characterized by its two towers, was reopened to the public in the summer of 2021. Inside there is a fascinating museum with information on the various stages in the castle’s history. There you will learn more about the feudal warlord Kiyomasa Kato (1562-1611), who made his castle impregnable and safe from sieges, with up to 20 m high stone walls and up to 120 deep wells for a constant water supply.
According to legend, he also planted ginkgo trees around the castle grounds in order to ensure an emergency supply of food in the event of a siege. One of these trees, now huge, stands in front of the keep, its golden leaves are extraordinary in autumn.
Make your way to the top floor of the keep for panoramic views of the city and surrounding countryside. On a clear day, you can even see smoke rising from Mt. Aso volcano about 50 km to the east.
The seasons are honored and celebrated across Japan, and Kumamoto Castle is particularly well positioned for enjoying the fall foliage and spring blooms. The castle park is particularly popular during the cherry blossom season, when almost 800 cherry trees color the landscape a delicate pink while the castle’s black keep towers over it.
Experience traditional handicrafts
Over the centuries, artisans in each of Japan’s castle towns developed traditional crafts to please their feudal lord and his entourage. One of the most famous is Damascene, known as Higo Zogan in Japanese. In the past, these intricate designs of inlaid gold and silver were used to adorn sword and weapon hilts and other items used by samurai warriors. Today most of Higo Zogan’s adorn jewelry and personal items such as pens, hand mirrors, and letter openers.
To try Higo Zogan, look for Mitsusuke, a workshop in the Shinmachi neighborhood just below the castle. Here, fourth generation artisan Yuji Osumi guides visitors through the
Experience hammering gold leaf onto a black iron base that ultimately becomes a key chain or pendant. You will complete a basic pattern in less than an hour, and Mr. Osumi will finish the item and send it back to you in a couple of weeks – a memorable souvenir from Kumamoto. Cost: 3,500 yen (about $ 35).
Suizenji Jojuen garden
Like many Japanese warriors, the feudal lords of Kumamoto Castle enjoyed the joy of the finer things in life. This love is highlighted at a spring-fed pond about 10 minutes’ drive from the castle, which was shaped into a traditional promenade garden during the castle’s heyday.
Known today as Suizenji Jojuen Garden, the site is still a lovely place to take a stroll. They contain two Shinto shrines, an archery course on horseback and a Noh stage with traditional Japanese mask drama. In a thatched tea house overlooking the pond, it’s easy to sip traditional green tea, nibble on a candy, and imagine relaxing with feudal lords of centuries past.
A centerpiece of the landscaping is an eye-catching miniature of Mount Fuji. It is said that the original landscaping had features that mimick all 53 stages of the famous Tokaido Street that ran between Kyoto and Edo (present-day Tokyo); Mt. Fuji is the most famous sight for travelers on this road.
Experience the warrior’s way
In the 17th century, Musashi Miyamoto (1584-1645), perhaps Japan’s most famous swordsman, taught his skills to warriors at Kumamoto Castle before retiring to a cave in nearby Kinbo Mountain. There he wrote his famous philosophy, The book of the five rings.
While Musashi’s legacy is honored in many ways in Kumamoto, Meihodo – a retreat in the Aso Caldera – mimics Musashi by offering visitors the chance to learn traditional warrior arts such as kendo and judo, as well as tea ceremony and flower arrangements.
In a half-day experience, learn how to use a Japanese sword and even try to make a diagonal cut in a bamboo pole. If you prefer a longer overnight stay, you can also relax and soak up the atmosphere of this complex of traditional buildings and gardens. You could even try misogi, a cleansing ritual in which you stand under an ice-cold waterfall. It is the ultimate expression of Japan’s longstanding traditions of nature worship.
Environmentally friendly sightseeing around Mount Aso
Indeed, the design of the Meihodo complex integrates its buildings into nature in a way that has been perfected over centuries. The surrounding Mt. Aso area, a UNESCO Geopark, offers many eco-friendly experiences with nature, including numerous hiking and riding trails through the volcanic peaks of the caldera and along its edges. Expert guides are available or you can take brochures with you to navigate the stunning scenery.
A fun way to get up close and personal with the geology of the Aso Caldera is to take a bike tour on the northern edge. The Aso Kuju Cycle Tour has a menu of distances and difficulty levels to choose from – the owner Kota Hashimoto is an experienced and friendly guide who makes sure his groups have fun and learn about both the history and geology of the area. Prices vary depending on the length of the tour chosen.
For the perfect end to a day exploring the natural wonders of the Aso Caldera, there is nothing like a dip in one onsen (Hot spring). The region’s volcanic activity has created several hot onsens both inside and outside the caldera, largely managed by local hotels or traditional inns. Different onsens have different minerals and different medicinal properties. They all leave the bathers feeling relaxed and refreshed.
The Aso Caldera and other natural sanctuaries are within easy reach of Kumamoto City, making it a great place to explore and experience the “real Japan”.