Come to Hot Kumamoto
– a city of onsen, history, nightlife and ramen
My day in Kumamoto included a visit to Mount Aso, beautiful Suizenji park, the giant shopping center of Shimotori, and finally a bowl of local Kumamoto-style ramen in the evening.
A little about Kumamoto
Kumamoto is the southern most location for Rugby World Cup 2019™ and a city steeped in Japanese history, with many famous historical figures having lived here – such as the unbeaten swordsman of the 17th century, Miyamoto Musashi, who wrote his famous guide to samurai behaviour and swordsmanship, The Book of Five Rings, in an isolated cave in the hills of the prefecture. It also has a famous 17th century castle, which, sadly, was extensively damaged in the earthquake of 2016 and is now being rebuilt.
But Kumamoto is not all about the past – it’s a city around the size of Manchester with many bars, restaurants, shops and museums. The center areas, called Kamitori and Shimotori, have a very active nightlife with a wide variety of places to drink and eat, from traditional Japanese bars serving shochu or sake, to modern western style pubs with music to match. There are also many famous onsen spas in the smaller towns surrounding the main city. In recent years the fame of the city’s mascot, Kumamon, has spread throughout the world. The Rugby World Cup 2019™ match of France v Tonga will be played here on Sunday 6 October, and Wales v Uruguay on Sunday 13 October in Kumamoto Stadium in the east of the city.
I started my experience of Kumamoto by going out of the city, right out into uplands countryside area called Aso. There are several good hotels in the area, each with their own spa or onsen provided free for guests. These are very relaxing but please read the rules about using them first. First thing in the morning I went to the famous Aso volcano – still active after 270,000 years and occasionally bursting forth! There is an excellent museum on the plateau where I was given a guided tour about the physical and animal life of the area, including a fun diorama that moves and lights up and was built by the same company that produced the Godzilla movies. There are some VR (virtual reality) goggles in the downstairs area which really put you IN the area! It’s a very interesting way to see the landscape. Among the models of animals found in the area and of personal interest to me was the giant salamander, an elusive creature that inhabits clear rivers and can grow to be as large as 1.44 meters!
Then I climbed of the hill, which is a little steep, so bring suitable clothing and shoes. But it’s a wonderful area, full of colourful plants which the guide is very knowledgeable about. On the day we had a mix of sunshine and fog, which made the view of the area from the top look both beautiful and mysterious. English speaking guides are available but you need to book one week in advance.
Then I come back into the city to visit Suizenji Park, which was originally constructed in the early 17th century by Lord Hosokawa. (Though I don’t think he did the actual digging himself!) It’s really one of the most beautiful attractions of Kumamoto – tranquil, immaculately designed and maintained, an oasis of calm greenery in the otherwise busy city. There is a ‘mini Mount Fuji’ mound in it, which looks great, a wonderful big pond with huge Koi carp, and lots of smaller fish darting around and under the old-style Japanese bridges. You can also visit the Shinto style Izumi shrine, cleanse your hands in the magical water near the entrance and say a prayer in the Japanese style, with clapping and bowing. The best thing for me though was the tea ceremony building, which is very relaxing. You can learn a simple part of the tea ceremony and look out at the lovely gardens and pond.
In the city there are 1000 things
I want to show you
Then, to finish on a modern note I went into the main shopping mall of Shimotori, right in the middle of the city, which has a very large amount of shops, everything from karaoke places, to food shops, from drug stores to shoe shops. There are also seemingly endless bars strewn around all the small streets that come off it, on several levels of each building. I don’t think it would be possible to visit them all even if you went out every night for a year!
The city is also famous for its ramen noodles, and so my experience was rounded off by a bowl at a well-known shop near the main rail station. This ramen really was very good. It’s served with slices of dry black seaweed, called Nori, which you should place on top. The sauce is especially tasty!
I can definitely recommend Rugby World Cup 2019™ visitors to come to Kumamoto where you can see something of Japan outside the big metropolis of Tokyo and beyond the main tourist places like Kyoto. As they say in the local dialect: ‘yoka ne!’ – it’s good!