Castles, mansions and volcanoes in Kumamoto

Friday 4th – Sunday 6th October

Our first bullet train ride was a mere 40 minutes from Fukuoka south to Kumamoto, barely enough time to get a feeling for the comfort and speed of these famous trains. The only complaint we have is the lack of low level baggage storage. We had to haul our bags onto the overhead luggage space.

We arrived too early to access our room so we left our bags and walked the 2km to Kumamoto castle. This is one of Japan’s three greatest castles. It was first built in 1607 by Kato Kiyomasa within a circumference of 5.3km. Most of the wooden structure, set high on stone foundations was burned down during the Seinan War of 1877. It was rebuilt in 1960 and restoration and reconstruction is still taking place.

The main castle building is now a museum and obviously a popular excursion point for elementary school children. The Honmaru Goten Palace was a meeting place that has more recently been restored and a walk through it in stockined feet was very interesting. Beautifully painted screens and ceilings left us in awe.

Some of the turrets on the perimeter of the castle grounds escaped destruction in the 1877 fire. A solemn looking guard enthusiastically invited us into one of the turrets for a look. The turrets overhang the stone foundations so that conventional ammunition could be fired and rocks could be dropped from the numerous peepholes and screened windows. The turret is a large space that accommodates ammunition and soldiers during times of conflict.

We took an entertaining walk through the parkland where senior school boys were throwing rocks into the moat and a group of senior school girls were trying the Toyota jump. Same everywhere!

Our next stop was the Kyu Hosokawa Gyoubutei or mansion of the Feudal Lord Gyobu. Initially built in 1678 and underwent various renovations before being moved out of the castle grounds in 1873. It is a huge are with floor space of 9902m and countless rooms perfectly named and described in Japanese. We did recognise the kitchen and the sauna. The rooms were linked by external corridors with paper panelled sliding doors on the inside and wooden sliding doors to the outside. The beautifully raked grey stone garden caught the attention of a toddler who was insistent on rearranging the stones.

We wandered through Kumamoto’s shopping malls, found an Italian bar to rest our weary legs then braved another Japanese-only-no-pictures menu. We were most impressed to find we had ordered a salad, charcoal grilled beef and the best BBQd fish Bruce says he has ever eaten.

We had checked the next day’s tour to the Mt Aso caldera and were warned that we could not go on the “ropeway”, a cable car that gives you a view of the crater, as there were eruption warnings.

The day started grey with drizzle but we set off anyway. Mt Aso was 1½ hour journey so perhaps the weather would improve. It didn’t and not only was viewing the crater closed, clouds hid the top, and the drizzle turned to heavy rain.

We made do with a visit to the volcano museum just short of the crater and the adventure of hopping on and off regional trains just hoping we would reach our intended destination.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the journey was the switch back as the train zig zagged on the outside of the caldera, taking us backwards then forwards again.

Wimped out again because of the rain, and had an excellent meal at the hotel, mostly sushimi and tempura.  The pictures helped with our choice!