20 Things to Do in Kumamoto While Enjoying Magnificent Nature and the Unique Culture
Kumamoto Prefecture is a nature-rich area with land formations such as Mt. Aso. It also has its own unique culture that can be seen through various traditional festivals. The plethora of attractions that it contains makes it difficult for people to settle on their travel plans. This article solves that issue by providing a list of 20 things that you should definitely do when visiting Kumamoto!
Where is Kumamoto?
Kumamoto Prefecture is virtually at the center of Kyushu, which is the southwestern region of Japan. By airplane, it is approximately 1 hour and 40 minutes away from Tokyo and about 1 hour and 10 minutes from Osaka. Below are the must-see spots in Kumamoto City, northern Kumamoto, Aso, Amakusa, and the southern Kumamoto.
Located at the heart of Kumamoto Prefecture, Kumamoto City flourished as a town that developed around Kumamoto Castle. It is one of the most famous sightseeing spots in Kyushu, so there are plenty of places to see and delicious foods to eat here!
Visit Kumamoto Castle
Kumamoto Castle is a spot that ought to be called the symbol of Kumamoto. It has a deep connection with the famous warrior, Kato Kiyomasa, and the legendary swordsman, Miyamoto Musashi, having served as a major stage in history for countless events since it was built in 1607. The main highlight of this castle is its beautiful and solid stone wall, built to prevent samurai and ninja intruders, that is so curved that it looks like it’s heading upwards. The earthquake in 2016 has made many of the castle’s areas restricted to the public, but you can still see the castle tower, yagura (turret), and other structures from Ninomaru Square.
Check Out the Former Residence of Hosokawa Gyobu
Located inside the Sannomaru site of Kumamoto Castle, the former residence of Hosokawa Gyobu is the only principal residence of a high-ranking samurai that remains intact in the prefecture. It was built more than 300 years ago and occupies a land area of 1,000 sq.m. Today, there remains a dignified air inside its stately foyer that comes from its use as a samurai residence. This spot is unfortunately closed right now due to the earthquake, but a portion of its garden is usually opened to the general public around late November. During this time, you will get to enjoy colorful red and yellow fall leaves. You must see it at night, too, as it is illuminated to create a magical scene. The plum garden is also open from mid-February until around early March, treating guests to a view of plum blossoms from about 40 trees.
Visit the Former Residence of Koizumi Yakumo
Koizumi Yakumo (Lafcadio Hearn, 1850 - 1904) was a naturalized-Japanese writer of books like the popular Japanese ghost story, Miminashi Hoichi (Hoichi the Earless). He was best known for his contribution to the research and introduction of Japanese culture to the world. This residence in Kumamoto was his first home in the prefecture, where he stayed for more than three years. When you enter this wooden structure that exudes antiquity, you will almost feel like you slipped back in time to ancient Japan. Inside the house, various items related to Yakumo are on display, so you can look back on his thoughts when he was living in Japan.
Explore Suizenji Ezuko Park
Ezuko (Lake Ezu), a spot that is rich in nature even though it is in an urban area, is a gourd-shaped lake that measures 2.5 km in length and 6 km in circumference. Suizenji Ezuko Park is a park that almost goes around the lake and fences it in. With a promenade and cycling road, this park is loved by locals as a fine place to relax. It also has sports facilities, making it a great place for families. You can also ride a boat on the lake or enjoy a picnic on the park’s spacious lawn area.
Go for a Stroll at Suizenji Garden
Suizenji Jojuen (Suizenji Garden) is a famous garden that has been designated as a national historic site and a place of scenic beauty. It is a historic spot that served as a rest area for the first lord of Kumamoto. It is also popular as the best kaiyushiki garden (stroll garden that offers up amazing scenery) in Japan. Visitors are treated to beautiful seasonal views at this garden through the landscaped grass, small islands floating on the pond, and the artificial hill that resembles Mt. Fuji.
Admission fee: Adult (16 years old and above): 400 JPY, Child (6 - 15 years old): 200 JPY
Shop and Dine at Josaien in Sakuranobaba
Josaien is a tourist establishment that houses the specialty dishes and souvenirs of Kumamoto. At Josaien, you can try specialties that are unique to the region, such as the Salad Chikuwa (deep-fried fish cake with salad inside) and the Ikinari Dango (sweet potato and bean paste wrapped in dough). The Tourist Information Center offers pamphlets and local maps in English, Chinese, and Korean, as well as coin lockers that you can use for free.
Shop at Shimotori Arcade
Shimotori Arcade is the largest shopping arcade in Kumamoto Prefecture, measuring 511 m in length and 15 m in width. Visited by more than 50,000 people each day, it is a place that is lined with department stores, boutiques, and eating and drinking establishments. It is also often used as a venue for performances by street musicians and exhibits by various groups. There are many izakaya (Japanese pubs) and bars here that are open until late at night, so it is also famous as a nighttime entertainment district.
Visit the Contemporary Art Museum, Kumamoto
Contemporary Art Museum, Kumamoto (CAMK) is a museum that mainly exhibits contemporary art. At the museum, you can appreciate works integrated with the actual building at various spots inside the hall, including James Turrell's light canopy and Marina Abramovic's bookshelves that come with a bed. The museum is attached to the Home Gallery, where you can browse art books and manga (Japanese comics), as well as a Kids Salon where families can enjoy picture books and picture story shows. There are also planned exhibitions that give a glimpse into the art culture of Kumamoto.
Fee: Free (except for the planned exhibition area)
Definitely Try Some Kumamoto Ramen!
This is the regional ramen of Kumamoto. It is characterized by its mild tonkotsu (pork bone) soup, made rich in flavor with the addition of chicken bones, that is mixed with ma-yu (garlic oil) or garlic chips. There are many ramen joints in Kumamoto Prefecture, but it is recommended to get the Bunryu Tonkotsu Kuro (590 JPY) from Hinokuni Bunryu Sohonten, which is one of Kumamoto’s most iconic restaurants. It is an exquisite dish with springy medium-thick noodles swimming in a thick, robustly flavored soup.
Challenge Yourself by Eating Horse Meat Sashimi
Kumamoto Prefecture is Japan's largest producer and consumer of horse meat, which is known for being low in cholesterol and fat. It is such a common ingredient that you can even find it in supermarkets around the region, stocked together with the usual beef and pork. There are many dishes that use horse meat, but out of all of them, the one that you have to try is basashi (horse meat sashimi), which has a unique sweetness to it. You can enjoy various cuts of horse meat in sashimi form, such as the lean meat, which is extremely tender and has a simple taste, and the tategami (neck) that is famous among women thanks to its abundance of collagen. The marbled part of horse meat is said to be comparable to the toro (fatty part) of tuna, so epicures hold it in high regard.
Dago-jiru is a soup that is filled with dago (rice dumplings made from mixing wheat flour with water, flattening and stretching the dough, and then cutting it into strips) and vegetables. It was originally cooked by busy farmers to save time and effort, but it has been transformed into a local dish that represents Kumamoto today. The steamy hot deliciousness and simple taste of this dish has made it an essential for winter in Kumamoto. The seasonings used for this soup varies from area to area. In Aso, the soup is miso-based and has pork and root vegetables added to it, while in Ariake’s coastal area, the soup is clear and contains shellfish and chicken.
Try Karashi Renkon
Karashi renkon is a specialty dish of Kumamoto that is made by filling the holes of renkon (lotus root) with karashi miso (barley miso mixed with Japanese mustard), coating the renkon in a yellow batter, and then deep-frying the whole thing. It was apparently created back in the 1630s as a health food for the lord of that time. The crispiness of the renkon and the spiciness of the pungent karashi miso give this dish a superb taste. Enjoy it with some alcohol!
The northern part of Kumamoto Prefecture is filled with onsen (hot spring) districts like Yamaga Onsen. You’ll find many spots that exude history and tradition.
Visit the 1,300-Year-Old Mountain Castle, Kikuchijo
Kikuchijo (Kikuchi Castle) is a mountain castle (a castle constructed on a mountain) that was said to have been built by the Imperial Court around 1,300 years ago in a bid to defend the region. It is one of the 11 most important mountain castles in Japan’s history. Some of the restored buildings on its grounds will actually remind you of how it was like back in the day! The most noteworthy feature of this castle is the octagon-shaped koro (drum tower), which is a rare sight even in Japan. If you choose to check it out, you might also want to drop by the Onko Soseikan museum that showcases and explains the history and highlights of Kikuchijo.
Relax at Yamaga Onsen
This is a hot spring district that has managed to preserve its history for over 800 years. Known for its hot water that feels soft to the skin, this hot spring is also said to make your skin more beautiful when you soak in it. Aside from enjoying it at lodging facilities around the area, you can also drop by the retro-style public bath, Sakura-yu, or warm your feet at the footbath in Yunohata Park. If you do decide to head there, also make sure to check out Yachiyoza Theater at the center of the area. The massive size of this old-fashioned theater, complete with sajiki (gallery) and masu (box) seating, will leave you stunned.
Aso is an area where you can enjoy the great outdoors and the world’s largest caldera. It’s full of things to do!
Visit Aso Jinja
Aso Jinja (Aso Shrine) is an ancient shrine that is said to have a history spanning more than 2,000 years. With the crater of Mt. Aso as its object of worship, this shrine has been a deeply revered national place of prayer since ancient times. Even today, it regularly holds the Kako Chinsai - a ritual where you pray for the volcano to remain dormant - in early June. Enter the shrine’s precinct to be enveloped in a solemn atmosphere created by its impressive structures, such as the romon (two-storied gate). This shrine is also famous for its Gankake no Ishi, which is a stone that is said to grant wishes, as well as for the Takasago no Matsu - a pine tree that is known to bring good luck to matchmaking and marriage.
※ The shrine is currently under repair due to damage suffered from the earthquake, so activities like worshipping are done in temporary areas
Explore Multiple Hot Springs at Kurokawa Onsen
Kurokawa Onsen is a hot spring district with rows of charming ryokan (Japanese inns) tucked in a tranquil and nature-rich area. You do not have to stay in these inns to be able to soak in the hot spring water. Instead, you can enjoy its sulfur waters - said to be good for rheumatism and cuts - at public baths like Ana-yu and Jizo-yu. Something that you must not miss when you visit is the Yu-akari, which is an event that is held from late December until around late March. During this event, bamboo tubes and bamboo works set up around Marusuzu Bridge are lit up, painting the dark night in beautiful colors. Even sightseers from far away are drawn to the magical scenery that this creates.
Marvel at the Spectacular View of Kusasenrigahama
Kusasenrigahama is a vast 785,000 sq.m. prairie that’s located 1,140 m above sea level. This iconic Aso attraction has an idyllic landscape that is created by the grazing cows and horses against the backdrop of Mt. Nakadake, which emits thick clouds of smoke. One of this area’s main appeals is the scenery that changes every season, such as lush greenery in the summer and fantastic pure white surroundings in the winter. Here, you can enjoy activities like horseback riding around the prairie.
The southern area of Kumamoto includes Yatsushiro and Kuma in Hitoyoshi City. It is an area that is blessed with plenty of nature.
Check Out One of the Three Biggest Festivals in Kyushu, the Yatsushiro Myoken Festival
This is a festival that is held every November 22nd and 23rd. It is one of the three biggest festivals in Kyushu, together with Nagasaki Suwa Jinja’s Okunchi and the Fukuoka Hojoya Festival at Hakozakigu Shrine. The highlight of this festival is the Shinko Gyoretsu, which is a splendid and divine procession that is centered on the mikoshi (portable shrine) and shinme (sacred horse), with participants going around town to perform shows like the lion dance. It is a traditional festival that has also been registered as an UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage. At the Kazariuma event, you’ll be treated to a gripping sight of men holding onto horses that are making a literal splash while galloping around!
Go Rafting on the Kuma River
Kumagawa Kudari (river rafting on Kuma River) is an activity that will take you down Kuma River, one of the most rapid streams in Japan. This breathtaking ride on a wooden boat will let you feel water being splashed on your face as the boat races through small and large rapids. It’s especially thrilling when the boat slips through rocks that seem too close to pass by! There are various courses available, such as the Gekiryu Course that’ll let you travel through torrential, raging waters and the Mild Course that will let you enjoy the townscape of Hitoyoshi. Choose according to your preference.
※ Advance reservation is required for this. For more details, please visit the official homepage.
Surrounded by the sea, Amakusa is home to more than 120 islands of varying sizes. It is popular for activities like exploring cultural heritage sites related to Christianity and dolphin watching.
Enjoy Dolphin Watching
There are around 200 Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins that live off the coast of Itsuwa Town in Amakusa. If you use a boat from the Iruka Watching Uketsuke Yoyaku Center, there is a 98% chance that you will actually get to see dolphins! If you’re lucky, you might be able to get so close to them that you’ll almost be able to touch them. If that happens, you’ll definitely get to see them jump or swim together with your boat!
Fare (approx. 60 minutes): Adult (junior high school age or older): 2,500 JPY, Child: 1,500 JPY, Children under 2 years old: Free *All prices include tax
If you are planning to go sightseeing in Kumamoto, make sure to use this article when building your itinerary!
*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.
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