Under the volcano

Kumamoto Castle may be a replica, but it is one of the most faithful in Japan
Kumamoto Castle may be a replica, but it is one of the most faithful in Japan
Photos by Stephen Mansfield

Stephen Mansfield finds some winter warmth in Kyushu' volcanic hot spot Kumamoto.

Erupting from a blue and green surface of sea and friable volcanic rock, the Japanese islands seem likely to burst into flame at any moment. Kyushu, the southernmost island in this quivering chain, has always seemed closer to the fire and hell pits than the rest of the archipelago.

The good people of Kumamoto near the temperamental caldera of Mount Aso have an understandable reputation for being stubborn and moody. These hardy folk (Kumamoto has one of the country's largest contingent of centenarians) are also easy to anger and offend, but generous to a fault. This combustible mix is summed up in a local word, mokkosu, which roughly translates as "feisty."

Suizenji's 400-year-old teahouse offers the kind of serenity it was intended for
Suizenji's 400-year-old teahouse offers the kind of serenity it was intended for

Firey food
The longevity of Kumamoto's testy residents is routinely ascribed to the relaxed ambience of the place, a passion for living and a healthy diet. Its cuisine, however, is no less robust than its inhabitants; typical preparations are basashi, (sashimi-style slices of horse meat), and karashi renkon, (deep-fried lotus root stuffed with miso and hot mustard), a rich torpedo of ingredients routinely washed down with one of the many local brands of shochu, a potato-based firewater. Kumamoto shochu and sake are reputed to be of an exceptionable caliber as they're made from water supposedly purified by the area's rich volcanic soil.

It was in Kumamoto that I experienced what the Japanese call getemono: odd, exotic or strange foods. If you think jellied arrowroot or sweetened kelp are exotic enough, an evening in a restaurant specializing in getemono will come as a sensory cleaver - the bill is also likely to make your senses tingle. At one such downtown restaurant I sampled boiled silkworms, infant bees and pickled locust. The piece de resistance was a handsome viper, still glistening with blood, the latter placed into a small tumbler of hot sake, while the rest was grilled and seasoned with a touch of soy and lemon juice.

Historical figures and city elders from Kumamoto's past wait to be unveiled in a Christo sculpture
Historical figures and city elders from Kumamoto's past wait to be unveiled in a tableau that resembles a Christo sculpture

King of the castle
A city with a small town atmosphere, a mild climate and semi-tropical flora, Kumamoto was once an important seat of power during the Tokugawa shogunate (1603-1868). It's star attraction, one of the largest castles in Japan, dates from this period. Dominating the center of the city from an imposing hill, Kumamoto Castle was constructed on the orders of Kato Kiyomasa, a warrior who fought alongside Tokugawa Ieyasu at the decisive Battle of Sekigahara. He was rewarded for his loyalty with lands encompassing most of present day Kumamoto on which the castle was constructed after a massive seven-year undertaking. Unlike more decorative castles such as Himeji-jo, Kumamoto's citadel is stridently martial in appearance with steep, almost impregnable walls. The original structure had 49 towers and 29 gates, the circumference of its outer walls reaching a length of 12km. The castle was almost completely destroyed during the Seinan War in 1877 by the forces of Saigo Takamori, a samurai and key architect of the Meiji Restoration. Takamori and his followers, disillusioned with the new government, were forced to retreat, but not before the castle was virtually razed to the ground. Although the main keep was reconstructed on a smaller scale using ferroconcrete in 1960, it still evokes the fearsome magnificence of the original. There is a museum inside the castle housing a collection of feudal armor, decorated palanquins, swords and other samurai regalia owned by the ruling Kato family and the Hosokawa clan who replaced them.

One of the former residences of the powerful Hosokawa clan, the Hosokawa Kyobu-tei, is open to the public. The house and its furnishings provide a fascinating glimpse into the lifestyle of a high-ranking samurai family of that era. Compare the house with the Gyobu-tei, a 300-year-old residence owned by Lord Gyobu. Located a little northwest of the castle grounds, it presents more insights into the way the feudal elite lived during the Edo period.

Near the castle the distinctly modern Kumamoto Prefectural Art Museum houses more Kato and Hosokawa belongings and interesting replicas of ancient burial mounds and other archaeological finds from the region as well as a pleasant tearoom.

The best place to experience Kumamoto prefecture's highly respected arts and crafts and to see how the products are actually made is at the Kumamoto Traditional Crafts Center just north of the castle. Kumamoto is renowned for it's damascene inlay designs, Amakusa pearls and Yamage lanterns made from gold paper. The lanterns are a feature of the annual Yamaga Lighted Lantern Festival held in August.

Suizenji Garden, Kumamotos' other main attraction, was laid out by the Hosokawa family in 1632 to serve as the grounds for a detached villa. Suizenji, with a central spring-fed lake, is a classic Japanese stroll garden. Its representational designs, unlabelled and not always apparent to the eye, include scenes in miniature from the 53 stages of the old Tokaido Highway, the outlines of Lake Biwa and Mt Fuji.

Commenting on why Disneyland has so easily transplanted itself to Japan, writer Donald Richie observes in his unpublished journals that "it was invented here" in the form of the 18th century Japanese landscape garden. Nowhere is this link more evident that at Suizenji where the accomplished beauty of the garden is plagued by noisy tour groups and tacky souvenir shops. However the park's tranquil 400-year-old teahouse stands apart. With its back to the main drag of shops, its inner garden and veranda open onto the edge of the pond. Mangetsu manjuzaki, a white sweet made from spring water, is served with powdered green tea on tables covered in red cloth, or in the tea ceremony room.

A woman enjoying a bowl of thick green tea and the view from the teahouse at Suizenji Koen
A woman enjoying a bowl of thick green tea and the view from the teahouse at Suizenji Koen

Lucky escape
Kumamoto is said to have been the initial target for the atomic bomb. Only a dense blanket of cloud above the city on the day of the flight, rendering visibility virtually impossible, saved it from the fate later visited on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. To give thanks for this bittersweet delivery, the Indian government (who have since blotted their own copybook by acquiring nuclear arms capacity), donated a peace pagoda. It stands on a hill overlooking the city. A Buddha statue, floating in a dish of perfumed oil, dominates the approach to the pagoda, one hand raised to the sky, the other pointing at the earth. A short distance from this beacon of peace and love, a cluster of love hotels on the main road provide a feistier version on the theme.

Whether you take advantage of the warming culinary treats, its firey volcanic surroundings or its temperate climate, you cannot fail to find some heat in Kyushu's hottest destination.

Getting there:  
JAL and ANA have regular daily flights to Kumamoto airport. The city does not have a JR bullet train connection, but you can catch the shinkansen to Fukuoka and then proceed by train or bus, a journey of roughly two hours from Fukuoka.

Where to stay:  
Kajita (Tel: 096 353-1546) is a popular minshuku (lodge) run by very friendly people. Part of the Welcome Inn group, it charges only JY4000 a night for its spacious, meticulously clean rooms. The Komatsu-so (096 355-2634), an immensely rundown minshuku, is run by a very kind family and only charges JY3000 a night. Just a few minutes walk from the station. More up market but very affordable is the Maruko Hotel (096 353-1241), with well-decorated, Japanese style rooms.

Aoyagi, at 1-2-10 Shimotori-cho, behind the Daiei store, has some good local dishes at affordable, though not cheap, prices. Hanarachimonme, near the Suizenji Youth Hostel, is a cheaper version of the above. Annapurna, at 2F, 3-12 Tetorihon-cho, is an excellent vegetarian restaurant serving organic dishes.

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