I've been through Kumamoto Prefecture on several occasions. Overwhelmed by all the sights to see, I only wrote about the famous Laputa Road. But it's time to fix that. Join me as I make my way through Kumamoto's gorgeous locales – by car, train, boat, or on foot!
It was love at first sight when I stepped into Suizen-ji. If you're as fascinated by the Tokaido Road, the famous Edo Period (1603-1868) road connecting Kyoto and Tokyo, as I am, this park is a scaled down representation of it. Which means it's a much shorter trip than the real trek, and you can even stop at "Mount Fuji" along the way!
Kumamoto Castle is a must see. Unfortunately, it was badly damaged by the April 2016 earthquake and repairs of this scale usually take decades. Undeterred by the troubles they've faced, the local government plans on accomplishing the impossible by having the necessary major repairs done by 2019. Commitment to such an effort is definitely impressive and I'm definitely cheering them on!
Before heading out into the countryside, it's a good idea to gather your strength with a quiet evening in downtown Kumamoto. Tonkotsu ramen is the specialty of Kyushu (and just so happens to be my favorite ramen!) and Kumamoto's special take on it comes with extra eggs. I stopped at a restaurant called Kokutei and highly recommend it.
But I've been in Japan for years, so I don't limit myself to only Japanese restaurants when I travel. By chance, I came across a French restaurant in Kumamoto that I loved, a place called Rosace, and it was great to get a small taste of home in an unexpected place. What's important is to have fun.
Before heading south to the sea, I wanted to take a look at the plains and mountains north of Kumamoto City. I had some spare time on the road when I saw a sign with a picture of an old bridge. On a whim I checked it out, and was very pleasantly surprised! This is the Iwamoto Bridge, which is 150 years old and built out of volcanic rock from Mount Aso.
My true destination was the Manda Coal Mine in Arao. I'm fascinated by
Like Gunkanjima, the Manda Mine wishes to be registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
With hidden treasures like the huge spool pictured above, it should be a shoe-in!
I headed deep into nature in Kikuchi Valley. The article promised greenery and water and there are loads of both here! I recommend the four-kilometer (2.49-mile) hike along the valley. It's quite scenic, not very long and really refreshing when the weather is warm.
I continued on to what I consider to be one of the most beautiful waterfalls in Kyushu. It was formed by the volcanic eruption of Abe-san (no pun intended) and it's remarkable for the large chamber concealed behind its curtains of water. There are six hidden hearts to discover in the cobblestones that make up the path to the waterfall, so be sure to try to find them.
If you somehow weren't feeling refreshed by the bridges and the waterfalls, well… there's always a waterfall bridge! The Tsujunkyo Bridge, built in 1854, is, in fact, the largest aqueduct in Japan. At noon, the valves are opened and water rushes out the side. Although it was originally to clean the pipes of the aqueduct, now it's simply a spectacle for visitors to enjoy.
The construction of this bridge required a total of 30,000 people over a period of 20 months. It's as if it were built by Pharaoh Khufu!
One of the most beautiful sanctuaries in Japan is located near Mount Aso. Is it forgotten? Ignored? With so much history, I'll definitely revisit it in a future article.
But wait: why do visitors come to Kumamoto usually? To visit Aso and its volcano of course! Which makes perfect sense as the volcano and its surroundings are stunningly beautiful.
The volcano is often active so the small path that leads to its crater is closed most of the time. It should re-open soon, but it is advisable to inquire beforehand through the official website. In the meantime, you can take a lovely helicopter tour.
On the way back, along the road to the small town of Aso, lies another volcano, Kome Zuka. Legend says it's where God decided to create an abundance of rice on a whim, which was stored in the crater before being distributed to the poor.
On the other side of the plains is the Daikanbo Observatory. From there, you can take in a stunning view of the Aso Caldera, the city of Aso and its surrounding farms, as well as the volcanic chain on the horizon.
It was here I had a brilliant idea: I like enjoying the majestic mountain scenery. Why not add a rotenburo (an outdoor bath) to the mix? Maybe a field of birds? If that isn't picture perfect, I don't know what is.
Next up is another hidden gem. This is the Kokuzo Sanctuary, not far from Aso.
Somewhat hidden, here one can find an ancient sixth-century tomb, a kofun. What's amazing is that unlike most, the interior can actually be visited. I rushed in, but almost immediately rushed out: the tomb is full of overly friendly and slimy creatures.
I headed back to town for a short hike before sunset. Life is truly serene in Aso, despite the volcano's changing moods.
In Aso and Kumamoto, horse sashimi (basashi) and beef (akagyu, the local wagyu) are local specialties. Needless to say, meat lovers will have a lot to enjoy.
It should be clear by now that I love Kumamoto. But what I love best isn't its volcano, or its natural vistas and waterways, or its well-marbled beef or tasty horse. No, what I love best is its geothermal springs and spa villages, where anything can be found! This makes Kurokawa Onsen my favorite spa village in Japan. The quality of its ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) is simply amazing. I found paradise here and I believe these four photos say it all. Here is the Sanga Ryokan…
And here's Miyama Sansou.
I'm sure you're convinced! But just in case you need a little more, let's head south.
Aboard the Limited Express A-Train, I headed toward the Amakusa Islands. Along the way to Misumi you can sip on some delicious whiskey and soak in the ambiance of the train, which is cozy and broadcasts jazz music. From Misumi, there's a boat to reach Amakusa. I know, it's long trip. But they say that what matters is the journey, not the destination, right?
The Amakusa Islands see relatively few tourists, though their history is well known to Japanese people. Because the islands were quite isolated, they were easily converted to Christianity by missionaries. It was a land with Catholic daimyo (lords)! But, during the Edo Period, Christians were persecuted. A bloody uprising was organized, leading to the historic Shimabara Rebellion, but the shogunate crushed it. Although the history is a little heavy, the view on the way is enough to lighten any mood.
The Amakusa Islands have a warm and unique atmosphere. Lovers can take boats out to watch the dolphins dance at sunset (I actually recommended it to a Japanese friend and his sweetheart), while others may prefer the Sweet Cruise (エ ル ミ ラ), a small yacht that tours the islands while offering a chef-driven menu. And there are some who choose to grab a fishing rod and cast a line for fish… from their room's rotenburo! If you manage to catch anything, it can be prepared by the ryokan's chef.
Not in the mood to fish? You can find one of Japan's top 3 best sushi restaurants here in Amakusa. The fish are varied but fatty, from beginning to end, and it has to be tasted to be believed.
I hope you enjoyed getting to see another side of Kumamoto. Very different from all the tragic images relayed by the medias, isn't it? 🙂