Most visitors are awed by Kumamoto Castle’s imposing walls; myself, I am more preoccupied with the stairs. According to the map board just inside the Hazekata Gate, there are many of them, tracing a convoluted path up to the raven-black donjon.
Normal people might not bat an eye, but invaders and stroller-toting mothers … That’s another story. I’ve been the latter for almost two years, and though my stamina has grown I still cringe at the sight of a hilltop Japanese castle. Thankfully, I’ve brought my own assistance — it’s nowhere near the size of an attacking army, but even the one extra set of hands provided by my visiting mother is a great help.
This castle, which dominates the Kyushu city of Kumamoto, is consistently listed as one of the country’s top three. Certainly, nothing rivals the original fortifications still standing proudly at Matsumoto and Himeji in Nagano and Hyogo prefectures, respectively; but despite its donjon being a ferro-concrete reconstruction, Kumamoto is not to be missed.
Personally, too, as this powerful reminder of times past is the pride of my newly adopted home city, it’s nearly obligatory that I pay it a visit sooner rather than later. To that end, we seize on a lovely crisp but bright day to explore the best my new metropolis has to offer.
The castle’s outbuildings, some of which are the original wooden structures, loom over us as we power up the stairs. They’re the legacy of Kato Kiyomasa, a powerful daimyo of the Warring States Period that considerably bloodied Japanese history from the mid-15th century until the establishment in 1603 of the Tokugawa Shogunate that ruled Japan until 1867.
As a reward for military services rendered (and to ensure his future loyalty), the renowned general and political unifier of Japan, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1585-98), awarded Kato lordship over the wealthy Higo domain, which included present-day Kumamoto Prefecture.
In planning the primary bastion of his realm, Kato drew on the significant portion of his military career he had spent fighting in Toyotomi’s campaigns in Korea, where he had perfected his defensive castle-building techniques. In Kumamoto, this knowledge allowed him to expand a former provincial palace into one of the most formidable early strongholds of the Edo Period (1603-1867).
Timing saved Kumamoto Castle for centuries, as there were no foreign invasions or domestic conflicts of much note throughout almost the whole of the Tokugawa shoguns’ rule.
However, the original donjon that greets us at the top of the stairs couldn’t survive the last gasp of the samurai era. It burned to the ground during the Satsuma Rebellion in 1877, when disaffected warriors led by the Satsuma clan from present-day Kagoshima Prefecture in the south of Kyushu rose up in revolt against the new Imperial Meiji government. The castle’s end came after government forces laid siege to it and eventually drove the famed warlord Saigo Takamori and his forces out of the prefecture.
The exhibits inside the donjon elaborate on this history, as well as detailing its reconstruction — but I must admit I am more taken with the view from the highest floor, where we behold a horizon spiked with mountains.
To the east, where my new neighborhood lies, the giant Mount Aso — at 1,592 meters, Japan’s highest active volcano — looms over a collection of lesser peaks. Kyushu’s terrain — formed from so many eruptions over the millennia — may seem stark and unforgiving at times but the silhouette of volcanos on the horizon is extremely photogenic.
Back down on the ground, we find that the Honmaru Go-ten Ohiroma — the castle’s main reception hall — is open after a long restoration. Padding around in our sock feet, we marvel at the gilded wall panels and flowery ceiling tiles. The hall seems positively cavernous; the largest of the rooms measures 60 tatami mats in size. It’s hard to convince my toddler it’s not just a massive playroom.
We head next for one of the hills behind the castle, where the Hosokawa Mansion (Kyu-Hosokawa Gyobutei) stands in an acre of serenity. Unlike the fortress, there’s no view from this residence — unless you count the tennis courts just down the slope — but that’s not a detractor. Instead, it makes us focus on the carefully raked garden and the perfectly burnished hardwood floors of the home constructed by Hosokawa Okitaka, one of the shogunate’s judicial bigwigs, in 1678.
While initially just used as a rest house, it was later remodeled by the family to be a second residence. Then, with the dawning of the Meiji Era, the family moved from the castle to make this home their primary abode. I can’t help but wish my new apartment looked as inviting.
The house is deceptively large; a series of arrows moves us through sparsely furnished rooms that open onto a dark-cherrywood veranda. A few of the alcoves display former family possessions — exquisitely painted sets of shells from the popular Edo Period kai-awase matching game, an abacus, tea-ceremony pottery and several accessory items such as pens and hand mirrors. I note the maple trees in the grounds and vow to return when they’re in their full autumnal glory.
Sated for the time being with such magnificent splendor, we catch the convenient city-center shuttle bus back down to the castle moat. Just beyond, in the early decades of the 20th century, trams started rattling along Kumamoto’s main thoroughfare. On both sides of the street, covered arcades house the longest shopping district in Kyushu. A few of the cafes and pastry shops look inviting but our prior dinner reservation isn’t long off and I need to conserve my appetite for that feast. Instead, we board the eastbound tram, alighting 10 minutes later at Suizen-ji Garden.
The Hosokawa lords must have not been completely satisfied with the gardens of their hillside estate; beginning in 1632, a succession of family rulers created Suizen-ji, which is now considered one of Japan’s preeminent stroll gardens. That claim, we discover, is a bit of a stretch — but any green space in the middle of a city is appreciated, and this one is indeed worth the ¥400 entry fee.
Though the temple that originally stood here is long gone, visitors today can still wander the garden and attempt to identify the various landmarks of the old Tokaido road between the Tokugawa Shoguns’ political hub of Edo (present-day Tokyo) and the Imperial capital of Kyoto on which Suizenji’s layout is based.
The garden’s high point — doubling as Mount Fuji — is the only one of those landmarks I can pick out, but it doesn’t make our stroll any less enjoyable. My daughter couldn’t care less about “borrowed” Tokaido garden scenery, so in the end we spend most of our time feeding koi in the glassy pond.
Suizen-ji at night has a different, more subtle beauty, we learn as we retrace our steps that evening — sans toddler this time — for a meal at traditional Senri on the garden’s edge. We could have popped into this beautiful wooden house for a quick lunchtime bowl of noodles, but my heart and my appetite were set on tasting its renowned kaiseki dinners.
Though our reservation is only for two, we are led upon arrival to our own private dining room, whose sole window faces out onto Suizen-ji’s green expanse. As the sun sinks progressively lower, bathing the scene in that velvety “soft glow” of twilight, we are alternately torn between gazing outside and marveling at the parade of dishes comprising our meal — black sesame-encrusted chicken, mushroom chawan mushi and grilled eggplant slathered with local miso, to name just a few. We finish off with dishes of black-sesame pounded mochi and local grape jelly that melts on our tongues.
I can’t help but admit how much fun it’s been to be a tourist in my own home city — but next time I’ll leave the stroller at home.
The city of Kumamoto’s sights are easily seen in a day. The castle is open from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (4:30 p.m. from Nov. to March); admission is ¥500 for adults. The Kyu-Hosokawa Gyobutei can be reached either on foot or by the Castle Loop Bus; entry times are the same as for the castle. Admission is ¥300, but a combined ticket with castle entry costs ¥640. Suizen-ji Garden opens from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. (though for slightly shorter hours Dec.-Feb.); admission is ¥400. It can be reached on either the A or B tram lines from below the castle, getting off at the Suizenji Park stop.