Kumamoto’s pastoral charm can tug at you like the shiranui, or “unknown lights” that for centuries locals witnessed floating alluringly off the seacoast of the prefecture on rare nights. According to one medieval literary source, people gathered in the hills when conditions were right, gazing at the ephemeral flames dancing on the water in the distance while drinking sake. Late 20th century scientists determined the lights to be optical illusions likely created by specific atmospheric and geographic conditions. The glimmers are more elusive these days due to changes along the coast, including the proliferation of civilization’s lights. Kumamoto’s other attractions, at least, are more enduring, accessible and predictable.
These charms and attractions also reward the visitor with their abundance. Rolling green hills and lush meadows dotted with cows speak of a quieter life and the opportunity for outdoor travel by bike or foot. Expansive swaths of the prefecture are designated national park land. Agriculture is a large part of its economy and local farms can easily provide for a well-rounded feast. There is plenty of live catch, too, given Kumamoto’s proximity to several major bodies of water: the Ariake Sea, the Yatsushiro Sea and the Amakusa-nada Sea.
Kumamoto’s interior is home to one of the world’s largest active volcanoes, Mount Aso, and the geothermal features of the prefecture give it perhaps its greatest claim to fame: incredible hot springs. Kurokawa Onsen is nationally famous but generally not overrun by throngs of bath-seekers in ryokan robes. Its relative remoteness shields it from that. Also, the geographic features of this riparian area prevented any large-scale hotels from being built. Most of the thirty or so lodging facilities adhere to traditional architectural styles and have the feel of rustic getaways tucked into the woods. A few are built right beside the Chikugo River, allowing bathers to find deeper repose in the sound of its rushing waters.
You’ll definitely want to take a stroll along the winding road through town where there are a handful of small retailers. In places like Kurokawa, kitsch doesn’t dominate the shelves of gift shops. Instead, you’ll find an array of handmade goods, sweets and other local products. There are also two sake retailers of note. Sake no Yado is the smaller, more specialized shop with a decent selection of libations. It is curiously built on an incline with a small hobbit-like door frame you’ll have to duck under to enter. The other is Goto Sake-ten, which has a broader selection of offerings beyond even the alcohol; it’s more like a small grocery store but with shelves heavily laden with sake. Note that most onsen hotels or ryokan have a sake brand or two you can order in addition to the meal that usually comes with a stay, but these two retailers will offer more variety (and extra supply) for your evening. Most, if not all, of the resorts prohibit taking sake into the communal baths, but a few of the ryokan actually offer rooms with their own hot springs baths. Oyado Noshiyu, which we’ve stayed at, even has a “half-rotemburo”, meaning that half your hot springs bath is roofed while the other half is outside in your own private space. Such rooms are much pricier than standard offerings, but with your own private bath, the usual rules don’t apply. Take a dip, take a sip.
Some would say that you are wasting a wonderful opportunity if you are not staying the night in Kurokawa. There are day-pass options, however, if you just want a few hours of soaking before moving on, and there are many people who do day trips. It’s certainly more affordable that way. The countryside is actually dotted with smaller and lesser known hot spring spots with lodgings or, at the very least, public baths for those just passing through on their way to Mount Aso.
This massive volcano used to attract thousands to the ridge of its boiling (and beautiful) cauldron, but an eruption in autumn of 2016 forced authorities to set up an exclusion zone around the peak, thus closing the ropeway, hiking trails and roads to its upper reaches. At the time of this writing, it is still closed, but worth checking into again. We recommend going out there as the scenery is still breathtaking. If you are driving, busing or cycling east from Kumamoto City, you will pass by Komezuka, a conical volcanic hill slightly reminiscent of Mount Fuji that is a lush green in the spring and early summer. As it is still an active farming area, it is unaccessible, but still makes for some atmospheric photographs. Not far to the south is a grassy plain called Kusasenri that inspired poets of yore to compose verse. These days, visitors can roam the fields freely or even take horse rides (from spring to late autumn). It is especially lovely in late spring when the azaleas bloom, creating splashes of pink among the green.
Most trips to Kumamoto prefecture will logistically involve going to or through Kumamoto City, which is certainly not a bad thing. Although a major city, its pace of life is noticeably slower than its counterparts on Japan’s main island of Honshû. Nightlife, however, can be bustling (meaning “inebriated”) and it centers around a relatively compact district of several blocks where Ginza Dori and the city’s large, roofed arcade intersect. There are dozens of izakaya serving cheap dishes and an array of sake, as well as several sake-dedicated bars and restaurants. Of these latter options, Nihonshu Bar Choi-sake (a combination of “choice sake”) is cozy, casual and affordable, with cups starting from just ¥300. Sake Bar Ryu serves elegant Japanese-style small plates with its good selection of sake. Best of all, you can try a taste of three for free (obviously, they assume you are going to order more, and you definitely should). Jizake-dokoro (“local sake place”) Hiroki is a casual izakaya serving up exactly what its name suggests. For a more upscale experience, try Sake Kaiseki Kamone or its sister location, Sake Kaiseki Yoine. Just outside the district to the northeast is Sake Bar Karan Koron, which boasts a chic interior for enjoying its excellent selection of sake.
If you’re searching as intently for local food as you are for sake, then you’ll inevitably encounter the regional delicacy, basashi, or raw horse. It’s often a part of kaiseki meals at Kumamoto’s onsen. While other regions in Japan are known for it, too, and while you can find it on izakaya menus in any major city in Japan, Kumamoto is widely considered ground zero for horse meat. Yes, the offerings extend well beyond just slices of raw horse. One could eat it grilled or shabu-shabu style (thin slices dipped in boiling water), for example. We’ve even seen raw horse liver, horse tacos and horse sushi. It’s perhaps best enjoyed as a part of a full feast. For this, we recommend Sakura-an, located in the central drinking district described in the previous paragraph. This exquisitely decorated, upscale restaurant offers multi-course meals starting as low as ¥4000. There is plenty beyond horse, too, if you are feeling squeamish or follow dietary restrictions.
One of the best retailers in the city is Inomoto Saketen, a short cab ride to the east in Kumamoto City’s sprawling suburbia. It was established in 1974 as a liquor store, but pivoted to specializing solely in sake and shochu about twenty-five years ago. Now housed in a large modern building of gray and white tones with minimalist art of sake bottles on its facade, it sources from over 100 breweries in Japan with a heavy emphasis on stocking local brands. Its attractive interior features shelves and shelves of alcohol, some refrigerated, all carefully selected. It’s the kind of place that makes sake lovers tremble with giddiness.
If you need a dry day on your trip, or at least a brief diversion from relentless sake-themed activity, Kumamoto City has a few cultural attractions worthy of note. Unfortunately, Kumamoto Castle, the one for which the city was perhaps best known, sustained heavy damage in the recent Kumamoto earthquake and is not open to the public. Full repairs to its majestic, sloped walls and castle keep will take years and considerable money. Much of the magnificent exterior is still visible at the time of this writing, including crumbled portions, but expect scaffolding over the damaged areas as reconstruction begins. As an alternative visual treat, visit Suizen-ji Park, which is a gorgeously landscaped Japanese garden and tea oasis. You’ll want to take your time here, and also take a few deep breaths as you stroll the arched bridges and appreciate the miniature landscapes, including one designed to resemble Mount Fuji.
For those seeking even deeper quiet, head southwest. Beyond the waters where the shiranui are said to flicker lies Amakusa, accessible only by a single bridge and a few ferry lines. This remote grouping of two main islands with a scattering of islets and jagged outcroppings off its shores is hilly and relatively green, especially on the interior where there has been less development. Nagasaki Prefecture lies just across the bay to the northwest. And like many of the islands of neighboring Nagasaki, Amakusa has old and rather dark Christian heritage, as brought to many people’s attention by Martin Scorsese’s recent movie, Silence. As depicted in the film, persecutions swept across the islands, forcing Amakusa’s Christian residents underground where they continued to worship in secrecy until 1873, when the ban on Christianity was lifted. In the early 20th century, missionaries built two new churches, the Ôe Catholic Church and the Sakitsu Catholic Church, which are now heralded landmarks on the islands.
Otherwise, Amakusa is known for its ceramics, or Amakusa Tôjiki. There are four sub-styles which are nationally designated “traditional wares”. They are generally marked by bright tones, functionality and relative simplicity. Sake cups and flasks are not a significant part of the legacy but you can find some in ceramics shops on the islands. The Ueda Shiryokan (Ueda Historical Museum) is a museum dedicated to the Takahama-yaki style of ceramics, which have a white base with cheerful colors and designs painted on them. For a reasonable fee, visitors can decorate cups and, after firing, have them shipped in about two or three weeks’ time. There are plenty of accommodations on the islands, including more than a dozen hot springs hotels and lodges, most of them somewhat aged. Gosoku-no-kutsu is a notable and luxurious one consisting of three villas perched on the hillside of the western coast. The staff speak English and can accommodate individual food preferences and restrictions.
Most who visit Amakusa seem satisfied that they saw this quiet corner of Japan, even if they know they will likely never be back. Kumamoto as a whole, for that matter, rarely disappoints, even for those who never catch a glimpse of the shiranui. There’s simply too much to make up for any disappointments, from unforgettable hot spring ryokan to other rich natural scenery. Rumor is, the sake isn’t so bad either. We trust you’ll confirm that shortly after your arrival.
Damage from the earthquake still remains throughout the prefecture. Be sure to check ahead of time to verify places you would like to visit are easily accessible.