KUMAMOTO (ATT.JAPAN ISSUE 35)
Kumamoto Castle celebrates its 400th birthday in 2007. Kumamoto is blessed with a beautiful natural environment, a rich history and delicious local food prepared with a wide variety of ingredients from the sea and the mountains. Let’s enjoy Kumamoto!
Kumamoto Castle is a symbol of Kumamoto and is one of the three major castles in Japan. It was first built in the Muromachi era (1392-1573) and warrior Kato Kiyomasa (1562-1611) became lord of the castle in 1588. After 7 years of construction, Kiyomasa finally completed Kumamoto Castle in 1607. After his death, Lord Hosokawa entered the castle and his family resided there for 240 years, until beginning of the Meiji-era (1868-1912). With a large keep, a small keep, 49 turrets, 18 yagura-mon (a gate on which a turret is built) and 29 gates, the castle was marvelous and impregnable. The castle now has only 5 remaining gates : Sudoguchi-mon, Hazekata-mon, Hohoate-gomon, Nishi-yagura-mon and Akazu-no-mon. The keeps burned down in the Seinan war in 1877 but they were reconstructed in 1960. Homaru-goten (a palace in the center of the castle) will be reconstructed to commemorate the 400th anniversary.
Castle Keeps and Turrets
The remaining two keeps were reconstructed in 1960. Ichi-no-Tenshu (the first keep) is home to property belonging to the Kato and Hosokawa families. Uto yagura turret is the only multi-layered turret that survived the Seinan war and is called the third keep. It demonstrates the structure of the castle and retains the atmosphere of the time when the castle was built.
It is said that the most attractive features of the castle are its stone walls. The walls were built by experts who were brought all the way from Omi-no-kuni (now Shiga Prefecture) by Lord Kato Kiyomasa. Kiyomasa was famous for stone wall making and demonstrated his ability by also building Nagoya Castle and Osaka Castle. The slope of the lower part of the wall is gentle (about 30 degrees) but it steepens at the upper part to about 75 degrees, which looks like a steep cliff. The style of the walls is called “musha-gaeshi,” meaning “to reverse warriors.”
Old Hosokawa Gyobu-tei House
This is the residence of Hosokawa Gyobu’s family, the chief retainer of the clan. It is 990 square meters in size and shows how upper warriors used to live, with a Nagaya-mon gate, a Karahafu-style entrance, a study room, a tea room, a kitchen and a treasure house.
This long, straight wall runs along Tsuboi River in front of Kumamoto City Hall. It is 242 m long and is the longest straight wall in Japan.
Kumamoto Prefectural Museum
The massive building in the castle site permanently displays Hosokawa family treasures.
Suizenji Joju-en was home to a tea ceremony room constructed during the 3 generations of Hosokawa family rule. It has a circuit style garden presenting 53 stages on the Tokaido road against a backdrop of Aso mountain ranges, although, unfortunately, they are now obscured by buildings.
Natsume Soseki Uchitsuboi Kyukyo
Natsume Soseki (author, 1867-1916) arrived at Go-ko (now Kumamoto University) as an English teacher in 1896. Uchitsuboi Kyukyo (Old house in Uchitsuboi) is his fifth house in Kumamoto and displays his manuscripts and letters.
The Aso mountain range, containing an active volcano, is located in the center of Kyushu and is called the largest caldera in the world with a perimeter stretching some 130 km. 1,700 m high mountains including Mount Kuju (1,787 m), huge grass plains, virgin forests, rocks, streams and flowers are a sight to behold. Walking on soft grass is fun and offers a chance to see “aka-ushi” (a kind of cattle) and horses grazing contentedly.
Aso Mountain Ranges
Five mountains – Mount Naka-dake, Mount Taka-dake, Mount Neko-dake, Mount Kijima-dake and Mount Eboshi-dake (located in the center of outer rim of the crater – 19 km east-west and 24 km north-south) are collectively called Aso-san. Aso-san has been worshipped as a sacred mountain. Those who witnessed and heard the overwhelming power of the mountain’s infernos believed it was a kind of god and revered it. Aso began erupting about 300,000 years ago and 4 large eruptions, the last one of which was 90,000 years ago, formed the current caldera.
Mount Naka-dake Crater
Mount Naka-dake was shaped more than 20,000 years ago and was active until just recently. Its magnificent views often lead to it being called The Grand Canyon in the East! After you depart from the Sensuikyo cable car, on the east side of the central crater, a 10-minute walk up a steep slope brings you to the eastern crater observatory where burning red magma and white rising steam can be seen. Access to the crater is sometimes restricted, due to the presence of toxic volcanic gas.
Komezuka is a 954 m hill. It was a volcanic hill and the summit sags downwards. There is a legend that says that God piled up rice to make a hill and distributed pieces of rice on the summit to poor villagers, which is how the bend on the top was made. The hill is covered with grass in early summer and well worth seeing. However, entry is not permitted because it is a working farm.
The huge beautiful plain, 1 km in diameter, is located on the Mount Kijima-dake crater.
Scores of fires over 3m high can be seen in the plains at Aso. The vast field is maintained by “noyaki,” or open burning in early spring. If the area is not maintained properly, the grass plain becomes bush-like within a few years and later grows into a forest. So, local residents maintain the field with dangerous open burning, grazing and mowing. Thanks to the open burning, the emergent grass – feed for cattle and horses – grows quickly and harmful insects are disposed of. Shortly after the burning, the field is charred but it turns yellow-green with fresh growth in spring.
Theme Parks in Aso
Aso Farm Land is a large theme park on the hillside of Aso-san. Visitors can learn various crafts and play with animals, as well as enjoying a soak in the hot springs. There are a lot of cute animals in Cuddly Dominion and, in Aso Milk Farm, visitors can see and experience a real dairy farm.
People have been living along Kikuchi river since the Stone age, as the land is rich and fertile. It is believed that Kuma-koku, which is written in ancient texts as Gishi-Wajin-den, was a counterpart of Yamatai-koku, along the river. Many ancient burial mounds are found here and there are indications of strong ties with China and Korea.
The legend of Yamaga Onsen is that a wounded deer soaked in water during the Heian-era (794-1192) and was completely healed. Yamaga prospered as an inn town on the Buzen-kaido road. The water is mild and good for the skin.
Yachiyo-za is a playhouse built in 1910 that has an Edo-era (1603-1867) atmosphere. The revolving stage, the sunken stage, the “Hanamichi” (an extra stage section used in Kabuki theater, located stage left) and other facilities remain unchanged. Kabuki plays, including a special performance by Bando Tamasaburo (1950- ), are performed here.
Yamaga Toro Matsuri (Festival)
A Yamaga Toro lantern is made of Japanese paper and glue. There are 2 types of lanterns: one is a large temple-shaped lantern dedicated to Omiya Shrine, the other is a gold lantern. Women put the gold lantern on their head and elegantly dance all night wearing the same Yukata as one seen in the “Sen-nin Toro” dance at the festival.
Yamaga Toro Roman
In Yamaga Onsen town, buildings, umbrellas and decorations made of Japanese paper and bamboo are wonderfully illuminated.
Hitoyoshi is located in the southernmost part of Kumamoto Prefecture, along the Kuma River. From the Kamakura era (1192-1333) Lord Sagara and his descendants maintained the town’s independence for 700 years, despite the continuing threat of the Satsuma domain (now Kagoshima Prefecture) to the south. A unique ethos and culture can be seen here and this town is called Kyushu’s little Kyoto. Touring the local breweries and soaking in the onsens is recommended.
Kuma River Cruising
Kuma River is one of three rapid streams in Japan. Boats run 19 km in two and a half hours, passing many oddly shaped rocks.
Kuma Jochu liquor is made from delicious Hitoyoshi rice and clear water from the Kuma River. Visitors can see the production process at the Mine-no-Tsuyu brewery. (Tours require advanced bookings.)
The Shimabara-no-ran rebellion occurred in Amakusa in 1637. Amakusa is comprised of some 120 islands and is surrounded by the ocean. It is blessed with an untouched natural environment.
Amakusa Gokyo (Five Bridges)
Route 266 from Misumi in Uto Peninsula to Kamishima via Oyanojima is called the Amakusa Pearl Line. Amakusa Gokyo (Five Bridges) connecting the 5 islands were completed in 1966, and Amakusa was finally connected to Kyushu by land. Before the bridges were completed, the only access to the islands was by boat. Cruises around the Amakusa Gokyo Bridges are available.
Amakusa Shiro Memorial Hall
Amakusa Shiro was born in Oyanojima and led the Amakusa-no-ran rebellion with 37,000 people in 1637 when he was 16. The next year, they crossed the sea to Shimabara. He was killed after taking refuge in Shimabara Castle.
Several hundred dolphin inhabit the sea around Tsushi Island. Visitors can watch them from fishing boats. (Advance bookings required.)
Waita Onsen (Oguni Town)
Waita Onsen is a hot spring resort consisting of three hot springs: Hage-no-yu, Dake-no-yu and Yamakawa Onsen. It was ranked No. 1 for customer satisfaction for the second consecutive year in 2007, according to a survey of popular sightseeing spots in Kyushu and Yamaguchi, conducted by a popular Japanese magazine. There are many types of baths available such as a private open-air bath and a 24-hour bath.
Kurokawa Onsen has always been one of the most popular hot springs in Japan. There are some 20 hotels and a number of people aspire to stay in Kurokawa Onsen.
Minami Aso Onsen
Aso is also blessed with a lot of hot springs containing a lot of different kinds of water (mineral, sulphur, alkali etc) that have different positive effects on the body.
“Dagojiru,” – dough made of flour and then stewed with radish, carrot and burdock root – is a local Kumamoto delicacy. Karashi Renkon is lotus root whose holes are filled with mustard miso and goes well with sake. Ramen in thick soup flavored with garlic is also famous. Taipien is a kind of Chinese food but an original Kumamoto variety. It is soup containing bean-starch vermicelli, vegetables, meat and boiled egg, and not served outside Kumamoto – the reason is unclear. Chosen-ame is a candy with a long history that Kato Kiyomasa preferred. Horse sashimi and horse meat are also popular local dishes.
The symbol of Higo-zogan is a gun inlayed with gold, created during Kato Kiyomasa’s reign. Elaborate patterns stand out elegantly on the gold base.