Visiting Kumamoto in Spring – March 2017

Kumamoto is one of the 47 prefectures of Japan and if you have yet to heard of this place, I’m sure you will find their black bear mascot (Kumamon) familiar.

Just a brief history of Kumamon – The character has been created as part of a tourism campaign (sounds like Singapore’s Merlion) back in 2010 where the Kyushu Shinkansen (High Speed Train) line started operations. Kumamon is not only the mascot and face of Kumamoto City, it is also the city’s ‘mayor’  with its own office at the heart of the city center! From teaching dancing to children, attending tourism-related state events all across Japan to teaching the public about Onsen’s etiquette (see video below), he is a really busy bear.

Kumamon Office in Kumamon Square

Website: https://www.kumamon-sq.jp/en

Address: Tetoria Kumamoto Bldg.1F, 8-2 Tetorihoncho, Chuo-ku, Kumamoto City 860-0808

If you wish to see the bear you can check the appearance dates and timing of Kumamon on their website (English). Alternatively, you can just swing by his office and souvenir shop or to collect the stamp/chop.

If you want to read more about the success of Kumamon (no copyright for all usage), you can refer to this article for a deeper understanding.

Just a disclaimer, Kumamoto prefecture is not home to any black bear. The reason why a bear mascot has been chosen is because of it’s name whereby “Kuma” means bear in Japanese. If you recognize the Chinese/Kanji characters, 熊(Bear)本, it is indeed a character for ‘Bear’.  For many years of my life, I’ve never once thought that the ‘kuma‘ in Rilakkuma stands for bear.. 

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One year ago (April 2016), an earthquake struck Kumamoto where many people lost their lives. The Aso Shrine had been reduced to ruins while the Kumamoto castle has been shut for renovation for the past year. During my recent visit to Kumamoto in early March, you could still see the damages left behind by the earthquake. Cracks can be seen on some buildings while other buildings have been left ‘abandoned’ as it was marked unsafe for use. Apart from the infrastructure damage and the out-of-bounds Mt Aso area (volcano erupted Oct 2016), everything else seems as per normal with this city as it prepares itself to usher in the Spring crowd.

In my post, I will share about the various places I visited in Kumamoto.

Transportation

The city of Kumamoto is well connected with the rest of Japan via the Shinkansen Line. If you have the Japan Rail Pass, you can use it to travel to Kumamoto City. From Tokyo, the journey takes between 6 to 7 hours. Should you choose to fly, it also has a domestic airport and the flight duration will be about 2 hours from Tokyo.

If you are planning to visit Kumamoto and the surrounding Kyushu area, the fastest way is to fly direct to Fukuoka (International Airport) and transfer to the Shinkansen for a 30 to 40 minutes ride to Kumamoto City.


What to see/do in Kumamoto

  • Suizenji Jojuen Garden – Kimono Rental
  • Kumamoto Castle
  • Sakura no Kohji (near the castle) – Food, Souvenir and Samurai Show
  • Reigando Cave
  • Strawberry Picking

Suizenji Jojuen Garden

Nearest Tram Station: Suizenjigoen

Entry Fee: 400Y

More information about this garden: http://www.explore-kumamoto.com/suizenji-gardens/

Suizenji Garden is one of the key places people visit when they are in Kumamoto. It was constructed more than 380 years ago by a Feudal lord who wanted to use it as a tea retreat due to the fresh springs. Styled after ‘Momoyama Period‘ (1573-1615), the garden is home to miniatures like a mountain representing “Mt Fuji”, as part of the 53 stations of the Tokaido Road (Journey from Kyoto to Tokyo).

To read more about Tokaido Road and the 53 stations, please refer to this link – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Fifty-three_Stations_of_the_T%C5%8Dkaid%C5%8D

If you visit in early March, you should be able to see plum blossoms. The sakuras should start blooming towards the end of March or early April.

Apart from just being a traditional Japanese garden, it also houses 2 shrines – Izumi Shinto Shrine & Inari Shrine. Don’t forget to drink the water from the “Longevity Fountain’ if you wish to live a long life!

There are many photo opportunities within the garden and visitors may choose to rent a kimono for 2,000Y.

Apart from the kimono rental (which comes with dressing service) you will also receive free entry to the garden (saving 400Y) and receive a free photograph and a Kumamon-fan as a present!

The one we visited was Wa Collection.

For inspirations on how to take your #ootd or other shots, check out their Instagram location tag which has many awesome photos!

Kumamoto Castle & Sakura no Kohji

Nearest Tram Station: Hanabatacho

Exploring Options: Kumamoto Castle Tour Bus (150Y – Single Ticket; 400Y – One Day Pass)

Kumamoto Castle is one of the three famous castles in Japan (The other two are – Himeji and Matsumoto Castle). Since the earthquake last April, the castle grounds has been damaged quite severely and the area has been out of bounds. Restoration of the castle and surrounding grounds is currently ongoing and you can view the castle from a distance. The nearest you can get to the castle is at “Kato Shrine” and it is also the spot where you can get the best view of the castle.

Just so you know, the main castle that you see today was not the original building from the past. It was a rebuilt from 1960s as the old castle had been burned down during the feudal lord wars back in 1877. On the other hand, some of the surrounding wooden structures have been surviving since the olden days, like the one in the picture below.

Walking around the castle grounds made me realised how fragile things are against mother nature. A ‘modern’ concrete building which stood strong for 60 years fell to the mercy of the earthquake and the atmosphere was somewhat solemn at the beginning as we reflected on the memories of the earthquake.

In the photo below, the wooden watch tower (I believe) was left standing strong despite many disasters. If you notice, the castle has curved edges up the stone wall. This style makes it difficult for ninjas and enemies to attack the castle and this is one of the unique features of Kumamoto castle.

Take a look at the before and after photo. You can see that the entire stretch of building at the right side of the main tower has fallen off =/

If you do visit in Spring, where the sakuras start blooming, it will be a very beautiful sight as there are more than 800 sakura trees within and surrounding the castle premises. I can imagine a sea of pink and the huge crowds drowning the entire walkway and picnic area in a few weeks time!


After you are done with the castle grounds, make your way down to the “Sakura-no-baba Johsaien/Koji” which means “Cherry Blosom Street” in English to enjoy a street representing the Edo Period cityscape. It is home to 23 stores and restaurants featuring traditional food and products from Kumamoto prefecture. If the time is right, you can even catch a Samurai show whereby two warriors will perform in their 20-30kg full armour suit. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to take photos wit them after the performance too!

 

For history buffs, you can visit the Wakuwakuza History and Cultural Experience center and learn more about the Higo region.

Reigando Cave

Public transportation: (Bus) From Kotsu Center, take Sanko Bus to Kawachi via Yoshino -> Get off at Iwato Kannon Entrance, walk 20 min

For more complete directions, please refer to this link.

Price: 200Y

This cave is not exactly the easiest place to visit via public transport but if you are familiar with the famous Japanese book “The book of Five Rings” written by swordsman Miyamoto Musashi, you will find that the pilgrimage to this cave very meaningful. The famed book was written by Musashi while residing in this cave. On the way to the cave, you will be ‘greeted’ with 500 statues of Buddha’s disciples, each with different expressions and actions. Some of these statues have been defaced and their heads missing due to natural disasters and a movement to destroy Buddhist statues (Haibutsukishaku).

We don’t know why this sculpture got a special treatment but.. it looks really cute!

Inside the cave, there’s a shrine for visitors to show respect to the great swordsman.

If you’re lucky, you might be able to see the ticketing staff’s dog – Yuki (a Shiba).

It is a really small place and the visit will take approximately 20 to 30 minutes. While we were there, there were only 2 other Japanese elderly couples and I guess this place will hardly ever be a destination for foreign tourists unless they are a fan of his famous book and teachings. Oh wells, but if you’re in for some quiet time and peaceful nature trail, this is the place for you.

Strawberry Picking @ Kichijien

Website: http://www.kichijien.jp/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/kichijien/

Address: 556-1 Kurumi Uki-machi Kita-ku, Kumamoto-shi, Kumamoto Prefecture 861-0151

Price: (In March) 1400Y; the prices vary across the months from 1200Y to 1700Y

A trip to Japan is never complete if you do not get to eat their fruits!

To make the experience even better, fruit picking has been introduced in recent years! Strawberries are one of my favourite fruits and having an all-you-can-eat strawberry feast for 50 minutes definitely sounds extremely appealing! At 1400Y, it might be really pricey but the moment you start feasting on the strawberries, you will forget about how much you actually paid for the experience.

Strawberry season is from December to May, Grapes start from July to October and Apples/Pears are from August to November. Apart from the hot summer months, there should be something for everyone at all time of the year but strawberry is definitely the best one above the rest as it is so easy to pluck and eat!

The strawberry sizes were really huge and we were super spoilt for choices! Perhaps it was because there were not many people (just us) that afternoon but oh gawd, the feeling of seeing these huge strawberries still hanging by their stalk, waiting to be plucked is amazing.

Do note that you are not allowed to take out any strawberries with you when you leave. If you do, they are chargeable by the weight.

I estimated that I ate approximately 20 strawberries within that 50 minutes session; of which I’m pretty sure I ate the biggest and sweetest strawberry ever my whole life. It’s like when you purchase strawberries from the supermarket, you will usually wash it before consumption but in this farm, we just pluck and eat as it was without preservatives or pesticides!

Don’t miss out on a chance to visit a strawberry farm the next time you’re in Japan!

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Read the other articles for my Trip:

What to eat in Kumamoto |  Visiting Himeji  | What to eat in Himeji

Disclaimer: Writer was hosted on a Media FAM trip to Kumamoto and Himeji by Kumamoto City and Himeji City during early March 2017.

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