Even if it’s not a major touristic destination among travelers, a visit to Kumamoto city to admire its famous castle is worth it. Once flourishing as the castle town of the Hosokawa clan, Kumamoto city is still one of the major cities in Kyushu with plentiful greenery and spring water. The city streets around Kumamoto castle retain remnants of the old castle town and are ideal for strolling, so why not stopping for a day or two? And because the castle is not the only thing you can see in the town, let’s see what else this city has to offer.
Kumamoto’s 400 years old reach history can be seen trough 4 different eras:
- Kato Era
- In 1588 Kato Kiyomasa became the lord of the northern part of Higo province (today’s Kumamoto Prefecture) and the keeper of the original Kumamoto Castle,
- In 1590 he started to renovate the original Kumamoto castle until 1607 when the new castle was complete,
- The castle earned the nickname of the “Gingko Castle / Ginnan-jo”,
- The castle started to be best known for its massive, curved stone walls that repelled any enemies who dared try to climb. This magnificent engineering led Kumamoto castle to be considered one of Japan’s three most famous castles.
- Hosokawa Era
- In 1632, Hosokawa Tadatoshi became the lord of Kumamoto castle, as the Kato clan has been removed,
- During his leadership, he repaired, expand and improved the castle.
- Modern Era
- In 1874, the castle was converted into a military garrison, with the garrison headquarters at Honmaru (the main compound),
- The Shinpuren (1876) and Satsuma rebellion (1877) occured,
- The castle keeps and Honmaru palace are destroyed by fire right before the Satsuma rebellion,
- In 1889 the castle is damaged by the Kumamoto Earthquake.
- Contemporary Era
- Since 1933, many areas of the castle started to be declared as national treasures, important cultural properties, special historic site, until 1960 when the reconstruction of the keeps begins,
- After all the efforts over the years to preserve this historical asset, in 2016 the castle was massively damaged during the Kumamoto Earthquake,
- It took several years for the restauration and in 2019 partially reopened to the public,
- Even today, the restorations are still on-going.
Kumamoto Castle Museum
And now, taking a step away from the historical facts, the current castle does have things to offer. Built on 6 floors + underground chamber, each area has something on display. From the old entrance of the castle keeps, original & recreated items from each era of the castle, to the observation deck, you need about 3 hours to see it all.
They have a free English app for the non-Japanese speakers which is very well done and handy. You just need your phone and headsets, as they offer free Wi-Fi. There are several interesting videos as well, and despite the fact they don’t display an English subtitle, the app is so smart that is translating automatically on your smartphone as soon as it detects the sound. I was touched to see how nicely the technology was embedded to coexist with history.
View from the top
Instead of paying 800¥ to visit only Kumamoto castle, I do recommend to purchase the combo ticket of 1100¥ which offers entrance to 3 touristic attractions in the city: the castle, Kumamoto Castle Museum Wakuwakuza and Kumamoto City Museum. The ticket is valid for 2 days, so you don’t have to rush and see everything at once.
Kumamoto City museum
This is a nice museum, displaying lots of artefacts from Kumamoto region. From coins, rocks, animals to temporary art exhibitions it has it all. And on top, it has a planetarium you can access (but are dedicated time slots to enter, so check in advance).
Wakuwakuza History and Cultural Experiences
I need to say that this museum is a joke. It is soo small, that I don’t even see its purpose, especially for non-Japanese speakers. In my opinion it should be merged with another museum or the artifacts moved to the Kumamoto castle and save some money. It consists of a big room with interactive displays (all in Japanese) and a theater displaying a video (also, only Japanese). So all you need are 5 to10 minutes to go in and out. So maybe you wanna skip it.
Kumamoto Prefectural Traditional Crafts Museum
Traditional Crafts of Kumamoto
Various traditional crafts are used in everyday life in Kumamoto. These crafts are born from Kumamoto’s natural environment, the skills of craftsmen and the ingenuity used by local people in their daily lives. The craft items that originate from Kumamoto were handed down for generations and are designated as traditional crafts of Kumamoto. And it’s not an easy job to get this name. To receive this designation, the craft must be made using traditional techniques and must have over 30 years of history. Today, there are about 90 such designated crafts in Kumamoto prefecture, including metalwork, ceramics, woodwork, bamboo crafts, dying and weaving, paper products and traditional toys.
Japan’s Nationally Designated Crafts
Taking this to another level, in order to be designated as a Japan’s nationally designated craft, the conditions are even harsh. The traditional skills or techniques used to make the craft must have over 100 years of history, and must have developed in a fixed region with more than 10 organizations or 30 individual craftsmen currently engaged in the production of the craft. In Japan there are over 200 such crafts, declared under the Nationally Desginated Crafts, including 4 in Kumamoto prefecture: Shodai pottery, Amakusa ceramics, Higo inlay metalwork and Yamaga lanterns.
So why not having a look for an only 210¥ entry ticket? For the visit itself you only need half an hour. But stop at the shop downstairs to purchase some handicraft souvenirs. I got a toy which can be broken down into 4 spinners. It’s absolutely great! (last picture from above)
Kato Kiyomasa, the lord of Kumamoto castle is enshrined at this shrine. While there isn’t something special about it (in my opinion), it provides a great view with the Uto torrent tower and other main towers. They also provide stamps (goshuin).
Just a nice shrine at the base of the castle that is worth in a 10 minutes stop. It looks even prettier than the Kato shrine and it has goshuin for sell too.
Here is where you’ll find the Kumamoto Castle Museum Wakuwakuza, the touristic information office, plus various restaurants and shops. The area itself is not big, but rather nice and cozy. The architecture creates a special atmosphere.
Kamitori and Shimotori Arcade
If you’d like to experience the vibe of the city, visit its arcades, Kamitori and Shimotori. There are plenty of shops and restaurants to chose from. Sometimes you can even find items on display related to the Kumamoto life or seasons.
The city is absolutely superb during the spring, especially during the sakura season (but not much on rain). Take the time to admire the cherry blossoms surrounding the castle grounds and the ones near the river. Apart from this, I wouldn’t say the city is special anyhow.
If you’re looking for a free view with the castle and the city, stop by the city hall. Take the elevator to the 14th floor and enjoy the view. There is no area for outside viewing, so you’ll have to admire the surroundings from the windows. If you want to extend your stay, there is a restaurant offering lunch for a limited time.
Sakura Machi Kumamoto mall
Another one is at the Sakura Machi Kumamoto mall. There is a garden built on each floor with view towards the city, plus the upper floor providing views with the castle.
Suizenji Jojuen Garden
Suizenji Jojuen is a traditional Japanese garden where you can walk around the pond fed by the spring water coming from Mount Aso. The history of this place began with Hosokawa Tadatoshi, when he found a clear spring flowing from the ground while out hawking. He felt in love with the place and build a teahouse. It was named “Jojuen” from a Chinease poem written by Tao Yuan Ming, and today is a designated as a national scenic and historic site.
The relaxed tour of the garden takes about 1 hour and costs 400¥, but you can easily extend your visit to half a day. My recommendation is to stop by the tea house and enjoy a matcha set with sweets (izayoi or kaseita) inside the house. You can chose between sitting outside and pay 550¥ or go inside the house and pay 100¥ more. What’s even more interesting about this house “Kokindenju-no-ma” is that it has been moved from Kyoto and placed at the edge of the pond. It is designated an important cultural property.
If you’re looking to extend your visit and spend some more time in the nature, once you finish your visit at Suizenji Jojuen Garden head towards Kamiezu lake. There is nothing special to see, but it’s a nice walk you can make. There are also some cafes, restaurants and boat ridings available for you to further relax.
Well, that’s it from my side. I hope you enjoyed the article and one day you’ll visit Kumamoto by yourself. Meanwhile, get inspired from more articles across Japan and not only, here.
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