Get to Kumamoto Castle by taking the tram from Kumamoto Station. A journey costs 150 yen, pay when you exit. The castle is open from 8.30am to 5.30pm. Adm is 500 yen.
The original castle was built in 1607 after only 7 years work. It was the third largest castle in Japan and was built by Kato Kiyomasa.
The castle was beseiged and burnt down during the Satsuma Rebellion in 1877, but was restored in 1960.
The main castle building also acts as a museum. There are beautiful views from the top of it. You can also go into several of the castle gates. Uto Yaguru, the only part of the castle to survive the Satsuma Rebellion, has beautiful views of the main castle keep.
- Castles and Palaces
- Historical Travel
Visit the Zoological and Biological Gardens
The best place to go to if you are travelling with kids, for aside from the zoo and botanical gardens, there is even an amusement park on the ground, so you can easily while away an afternoon with your kids and have a whale of a time.
In regards to the main attractions, the zoo offers a comprehensive selection of animals from all over the world--you can even find penguins and a polar bear here (There isn't any panda though--sorry about that). But because the zoo only has one of each animal for some species, I couldn't help feeling sorry for these animals. This is especially so when I saw the polar bear swimming up and down the length of his pool--not the most heart-warming sight. But that may be just me though. I had a friend from my home country, Singapore who came over to visit and he said that he really liked Kumamoto's zoo, for there is no way in which one can get so up close and personal with the animals in Singapore's zoo. Good point. Indeed, I was surprised at how there was no fence separating the monkeys from the tourists at a stopover point near the entrance. And it was really a great experience to see the penguins do their thing from such a close distance.
The tigers and lions and what-have-you are safely kept in cages though, so do not be alarmed about your safety. Heh.
For an unprecedented cheap price of 300 yen for adults and 100 yen for children, I recommend that you visit this zoo to form your own opinion!
Visit this website for more information and to get directions:
Cheese Bar Shirokuma
A trip to Cheese Bar won't be complete without trying out its mouth-watering cheese desserts. What's more, the personable bar owner was kind enough to show us her stock of cheese and let us work for our own cheese (See photo attached for a clearer explanation).
I also enjoyed a nice glass of hot red wine that comprised kinmikan (a kind of orange that is a specialty of Kumamoto) for 500 yen. It was well worth the money, for the drink came with a plate of finger food, courtesy of the bar owner.
Most delightful was the cosy feel of the bar--only five seats are available--and the easy-flowing conversation. The bar owner was fluent in English and so, it was interesting to hear from her how she had come up with the idea of a cheese bar. Apparently, as compared to Fukuoka, many flavours of natto can be found in Kumamoto. Coupled with the fact that 2 shops selling cheese-related foods can be found here, she thought that the idea of a cheese bar would be well received since people in Kumamoto like foods that come with strong flavours. I love chats like this that enable me to gather more insight into the city I'm living in;)
3333 Stone Steps
People often sign up for marathons in order to test their physical and mental limits. It is in my humble opinion that there is a more interesting (and less gruelling) way to do so by climbing the 3,333 stone staircase in Misato county, Kumamoto (though I'm currently flirting with the idea of undertaking the Kumamoto castle marathon next year. Go figure).
The stone steps were imported from all over the world, not that you would care much about this piece of trivia as you heave and ho your way up the staircase. It was a good idea for the builders to build stone markers indicating the number of steps in an interval of a hundred steps. It was definitely useful for me to maintain my pace and keep my mind focused on the goal instead of my fatigue.
Of course, observing the picturesque views along the way was a reward in itself. I would recommend that you spend some time resting after you reach the 2000th step because you can get a bird's eye view of the mountains. The view at the top (i.e. the 3333th stone step) wasn't surprisingly not as good as I had expected, for it was marred by the tall trees in the vicinity. Still, the sense of accomplishment at finishing the course more than made up for it. Perhaps I should go and try vertical marathons instead! Heh.
Suizenji Park is a sight that warrants a visit but given that it costs 400 yen per admission, I thought it was disappointingly small, especially when some of the major must-gos in Japan don't cost a single cent (or yen). I could finish walking its entire perimeter in 10-15 mins and felt compelled to walk another round to get back my money's worth.
Having said that, there is no denying that Suizenji Park is beautiful and is a fine example of Japan's intricately cultivated gardens. It is said to incorporate famous scenes in minature from the 53 stages of the ancient Tokaido Highway that connected Kyoto and Tokyo, though I could only identify Mount Fuji with my lackluster knowledge of Japan's geography. Grins. The park is centred around a lake, so I sat down on the stone steps and had a good time watching the carp (As a side note, it never fails to impress me how honest Japanese people are. Back in my homeland, people would have stolen these carps for keeps a long time ago).
Suizenji Park also comprises Izumi Shrine which I enjoyed visiting. Izumi Shrine is said to be crazily crowded every New Year's Eve when the people in Kumamoto celebrate their New Year, so it's sorta like a spiritual core of Kumamoto City!
Drunken Horse Festival in Kumamoto
The Drunken Horse Festival is the biggest festival held in Kumamoto City, so be sure to watch it when you are in town during September. Contrary to the name, the horses are no longer fed alcohol even though it certainly looks that way when they stagger through the streets!
There will be a procession going on throughout the entire city but you can pick a prime spot near the city's main shopping arcades and wait for the horses to come to you;). If I am not mistaken, each town in the city will form a group to parade in this procession. The horse that is colorfully decorated with garish stuff first makes its grand entrance, followed by a leader with a microphone who tries his damnest to rally his troupe of dancers and drummers to spice up the atomsphere.
To be honest, the procession felt kinda old to me after a while. Still, it was entertaining watching burly men trying to control the movements of their horses--I had some heart-stopping moments as I watched the horses suddenly pick up their pace and move towards the crowd (But don't worry. These experienced men have it all under control). Also, seeing one or two foals in the parade just about melted my heart!
Mifune Dinosaur Museum
There are no English explanations in this museum, so it won't be interesting to those who don't understand Japanese. Thankfully, I had a Japanese friend--a junior high school science teacher, no less--with me, so he helped explain the exhibits.
My teacher friend enlightened me that Japanese students learn about dinosaurs for science classes in both elementary school and junior high--something that surprised me because we never do that in Singapore. Erm, it was also something I couldn't understand as being a product of social conditioning in my country, I would find it a strange move to incorporate dinosaurs into the curriculum because a knowledge of these creatures isn't necessary for economic progress. Oh, woe is me and my pragmatic mindset. Haha!
Back to the museum. Apparently, Mifune, Kumamoto was the first place where people found dinosaur and fossil remains in the whole of Japan! I guess when you have such remains in your own backyard, you would naturally develop an interest in the subject matter itself. So my visit there was illustrative in the sense that it enabled me to understand some of my Japanese friends' fascination with dinosaurs. Case in point: I have been to an apartment whose walls were decorated with everything dinosaur. Not kidding.
If you make your way there, have fun admiring the large dinosaur models and fossil rocks. The museum also detailed the different types of fossilised remains in different parts of Kumamoto, so it will be quite educational if you have a Japanese guide.
- Museum Visits
Kumamoto Castle was constructed by the Kato Clan in 1607. Half a century later, it was handed over to the Hosokawa Clan, which ruled from there for over 200 years until the end of the feudal age.
In 1877, Kumamoto Castle became the site of Japan's last civil war, when an army of former samurai under Saigo Takamori unsuccessfully rose against the new Meiji government. Large parts of the castle were destroyed in that civil war.
Most of the present castle buildings, including the large and small castle towers, are reconstructions, dating from the 1960s. The interior of the castle towers is a modern museum.
- Castles and Palaces
- Historical Travel
Enjoy Aso-Kuju National Park
Aso-Kuju National Park is a wonderful nature experience. Located inthe caldera of Mt. Aso, the park dominates both the rim and the approaches to the volcano. Inside you will find older cones, both larger and smaller than the main crater, and also beautiful mountain lakes. The towns in the caldera sport a number of ryokans and resorts designed to take advantage of the clean, cold mountain air and beautiful scenery. Many activities such as horseback riding, spas, skiing and ice skating are readily available.
- National/State Park
Visit a live VolCanO! Mt. Aso
Not far from Kumamoto is the real live active volcano, Mt. Aso, one of several on Kyushu. A trip to Mt. Aso is fairly simple, you drive up into the mountains, through the towns of the caldera and then up through Aso Park to the cable car. Ride the cable car up right up to the rim. There are three main viewing areas, though when I visited only one was open due to volcanic gasses. If that weren't a reminder enough, scattered around the rim are mushroom shaped pill boxes so people can take cover from spewing ash and cinders when the volcano gets REALLY active. A third reminder of the power of the volcano lay in the altars the Japanese set up. About the altars were gifts to the volcano God to keep her from waking up.
Mist and gas makes it a bit difficult to see the lava lake, but every once in a while the mist clears and you get a look. The smell of sulphur permeates the air all around the rim and you can buy bags of sulphur or figurines made from volcanic ash from various vendors. The cable car area boasts a number of restaurants and souvenier stores, as does the volcanic museum below.
- National/State Park
See a Monkey Show
This tip is a bit sad to write, but it may appeal to a lot of people. I think a lot of the kids (and there were very many kids) could overlook the fact that the monkeys were on rope leashes and obviously didn't have the intelligence to understand the line of patter (not speaking Japanese neither did I for that matter) and jokes that they responded to. Still, the overall level of dexterity the animals display, easily walkign on 12 ft. stilts and balancing on balls, is really pretty incredible. The vendors sell sweet potato fries and other uniquely Japanese snacks and the entire performance takes just over 20 minutes. I think if the leashes hadn't been so prominent I might really have walked away from this show feeling pretty happy, but they kind of spoiled it for me. Still, I think children will likely not notice and to many people it isn't an issue. As you leave you (or at least the kids) get to shake hands with one of the monkeys and have a picture fiesta.
I have a related tip on just seeing the monkeys at the same facility.
See the Monkeys
Just outside of South Aso are the Aso Osaru Monkeys. Entry to the general facility is free after you pass through a double row of food and souvenier vendors. The facility has about forty monkeys in a very large enclosure where they run and play. The monkeys are of all ages and both sexes and you can feed them with a pair of tongs (for your safety and theirs). I dropped a piece of yakitori and one of the males snatched it right up by reaching under the wire mesh, but mostly they want you to feed them these Y100 bags of monkey feed. Inside there is a mix of fruits, vegetables and nuts that resembles their diet in the wild and lets you fed 10-12 times.
The facility is open every day from 9:00-5:00 and has 2-3 shows per day, see my separate tip
If Kumamoto has one place that is a must, it is the castle. One of the big three in Japan, Kumamoto Castle is located near the city center, very easy to get to and not to be missed. Tickets are a moderate Y500 and you are free to roam through the grounds and structures at will for as long as you like. Although shrouded in scaffolding, the castle is still beautiful, with historical exhibits on each of the floors leading to the top. Not everything is translated into English, but most of it is. The castle was razed at least once in warfare, but is in very good shape. The base uses a unique style of stonework designed to make it difficult to undercut.
- Castles and Palaces
- Historical Travel
Suizenji Jojuen Garden
Suizenji Jojuen Garden is a refined circular garden of Momoyama period style and represents the 53 Stations of the Tokaido Road.
The fresh springs in the garden release clean, cold water, which flows there from Mt. Aso via underground currents.
In 1636, Tadatoshi, the third Lord of Hosokawa, began its construction as a tea retreat, and he also built a temple here for Priest Gentaku.
This temple was called Suizenji.
This beautiful Momoyama style garden evolve during the reigns of the fourth and fifth Lords.
In all it took about 80 years to complete.
Jojuen was named after a character in a poem written by Tao Yuanming.
Must visit attractions in Suizenji Jojuen Garden
- Izumi Shinto Shrine
- Kokindenju Room
- Noh Theater
- Water for Longevity
Kumamoto Castle, the city's most famous landmark, is an extremely well fortified Japanese castle.
The donjon is a concrete reconstruction built in the 1970s, but several ancillary wooden buildings remain of the original castle. The castle was besieged during the Satsuma Rebellion, and was sacked and burned after a 53-day siege.
- Romantic Travel and Honeymoons
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