[From November Issue 2011]
Clear blue skies, vivid green meadows, majestic mountains, and a sea so transparent that you can see down to the rocks below – Kumamoto Prefecture, located in the center of Kyushu, south-west Japan, is blessed with an abundance of beautiful natural scenery. It also boasts a number of historical spots including Kumamoto Castle, built in the Edo period, as well as numerous unique hot springs like Kurokawa Onsen.
Kumamoto’s famous Mount Aso is actually a gigantic caldera (volcanic crater) that encloses five peaks called “Aso-Gogaku.” Within these peaks lie craters which were formed by subsequent volcanic activity. These include Naka-Dake (Mt. Naka), an active volcano. The caldera is one of the largest in the world and inside it are fields and houses inhabited by people.
To fully enjoy the magnificent view of this Aso mountain range, a visit to Daikanbo Peak to the north of the caldera’s rim is recommended. Here, those in the middle of a long motorbike ride or a drive can take a little break to gaze out at the spectacular view of the Aso-Gogaku mountains, and the caldera. You can also enjoy the stunning vistas of Aso by going horse riding in Kusasenrigahama, a vast meadow at the foot of Eboshi-Dake (Mt. Eboshi) near Naka-Dake.
There are quite a few hot spring resorts in the vicinity of Aso, most notably Kurokawa Onsen, which is famous nationwide. This hot spring resort is characterized by its open-air baths, each one unique to each inn. You can enjoy any of these outdoor baths without booking a room in the inns that operate them by simply paying a small fee at the door. Another popular thing to do is to take a walk alongside the rows of restaurants and souvenir shops that line the town’s streets.
Kumamoto is also well known for the Amakusa Sea. The view of green islands of various sizes floating on the blue ocean is spectacular. The scenic roads on Amakusa-Gokyo – the five bridges connecting the islands – are a popular route with those wanting to take in the superb view. In addition to its beautiful blue sky and sea, the sight of the sinking sun in Amakusa is splendid too. Seen from the west coast, the way the evening sun sets slowly beyond the horizon is mystical and breathtaking.
The picturesque sea of Amakusa has beautiful white sand beaches which become crowded in summer with people who come to swim. Watching wild schools of dolphins from a boat is another popular activity. The dolphins are so friendly that you can even see them swimming alongside the boat. You can also try scuba diving to get an enjoyable look at coral reefs and tropical fish.
Kumamoto Prefecture has an abundance of historical sites. A typical example is Kumamoto Castle in Kumamoto City. Built in the Edo period, this castle, overlooking downtown Kumamoto has characteristic stone walls which were designed to become steeper the higher up enemies tried to climb – by the top they are almost vertical. During the cherry blossom season in spring, the contrast of beautiful flowers against the austere castle attracts crowds of sightseers.
In Kumamoto City trams run along the streets. Getting on a tram from the nearest stop to Kumamoto Castle – Kumamoto-Jo/Shiyakusho-mae (Kumamoto Castle/City Hall) – and getting off at Suizenji-Koen (Suizenji Park) about 15 minutes later, you will find Suizenji Jojuen (Suizenji Garden) within the park’s grounds. With a pond as its center, the garden, built in the Edo period, consists of hills, stones, lawns, and plants, whose arrangement imitates famous landscapes found elsewhere in Japan. Along with Kumamoto Castle, the garden attracts a number of tourists.
Kumamoto also boasts a variety of delicious dishes. Kumamoto ramen is especially famous nationwide. There is another famous kind of ramen in Kyushu, this is called Hakanta ramen and is found in Fukuoka, but the tonkotsu soup (pork bone soup) of Kumamoto ramen is richer than that of Hakata ramen and the noodles are thicker and have more elasticity. It is characteristically eaten with garlic chips which are made by deep-frying or with oil made from deep-fried garlic.
Its natural bounty has made Kumamoto one of the largest agricultural prefectures in Japan. Tomatoes are grown all year round and watermelons have long been cultivated here making it one of the biggest fruit producing regions in the country. Many citrus fruits, such as the mandarin orange, are also farmed in Kumamoto. There are a wide variety of them available, including dekopon, a type of sweet juicy orange characterized by a distinctive raised knob on its top.
Banpeiyu, which can grow to the size of a human head, is another famous citrus fruit produced in Kumamoto. In addition to its extraordinary size, its charm lies in its crisp, elegant flagrance and refreshing sweetness. Because the fruit lasts a long time, you may choose to place it in a room to enjoy its aroma for a while before eating it. The thick white part between the skin and the pulp can be candied to make it edible.
It takes about one hour and 30 minutes to fly to Kumamoto Airport from Haneda Airport in Tokyo. Also, using the Kyushu Shinkansen, which opened in its entirety in March 2011, allows you to get to Kumamoto Station from Hakata Station in Fukuoka within 33 minutes.
Text: MIYAZAKI Nagisa