Like the good residents of Granada in southern Andalusia, notorious for their drastic mood swings, natives of Kumamoto have a reputation for being stubborn and sulky. These durable folk (Kumamoto has one of the country’s largest contingents of centenarians) are also reputed to be both easy to anger and generous to a fault, a combustible mix summed up in the local word mokkosu, which roughly translates as “feisty.”
The longevity of Kumamoto residents is routinely ascribed to the relaxed ambience of the place, a passion for living and a healthy diet. The latter includes karashi renkon (deep-fried lotus root stuffed with mustard miso), and various brands of sake and shochu made from water supposedly purified by the area’s rich volcanic soil.
A city with a small-town atmosphere, a mild climate and semitropical flora, Kumamoto was an important seat of power during the Tokugawa shogunate. The city’s star attraction, one of the largest castles in Japan, dates from this period. The main shopping precinct and sights are compressed into an area south of the castle, the original location of the merchant and craftsmen’s quarters.
Dominating the center of the city on 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 in 1600, and who was later rewarded for his loyalty with lands encompassing most of present-day Kumamoto. The castle was completed in 1607 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. Kumamoto Castle, in fact, was the last castle in Japan to be exposed to a feudal-style siege. The original structure had 49 towers and 29 gates, the circumference of its outer wall reaching 12 km.
The castle was almost completely destroyed during the Seinan War of 1877 by the forces of Saigo Takamori, a samurai and key architect of the Meiji Restoration. Saigo and his followers were ultimately 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 ferro-concrete in 1960, it is a highly effective replica successfully evoking the fearsome magnificence of the original. The late Alan Booth described this graceful castle as “. . . a decorative plume on a suit of stone armor,” in his travelogue “The Roads to Sata.”
A museum inside the castle houses a collection of feudal armor, decorated palanquins, swords and other samurai regalia owned by the ruling Kato family and, later, the Hosokawa family who replaced them. A former residence of this powerful clan, the nearby 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.
The house makes an interesting comparison to Gyobu-tei, the 300-year-old residence owned by Lord Gyobu, located a little northwest of the castle grounds. This second domicile presents more insights into the way the feudal elite lived during the Edo Period.
More Kato and Hosokawa belongings and interesting replicas of ancient burial mounds and other archaeological finds from the region can be found near the castle, at the Kumamoto Prefectural Art Museum. The exhibits are displayed in a distinctive modern building with a pleasant tea room.
The best place to experience Kumamoto Prefecture’s highly respected arts and crafts, and to see how the products are actually made without venturing too far from the castle precincts, is at the Kumamoto Traditional Crafts Center. Kumamoto is renowned for its damascene inlay designs, Amakusa pearls and Yamaga lanterns made of gold paper. The lanterns are a feature of the annual Yamaga Lighted Lantern Festival held in August.
Suizenji Koen, Kumamoto’s 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 example of the Japanese stroll garden. Its representational designs, unlabeled and not always apparent to the eye, include scenes in miniature from the 53 stages of the old Tokaido Highway, the outline of Lake Biwa and a miniature Mount Fuji, a green knoll at the center of the garden.
Although the park is plagued by tour groups and tacky souvenir shops, the accomplished beauty of the garden is undeniable. A 400-year-old teahouse, located beside the lake, serves green tea in a relatively serene setting.
The use of Suizenji as a recreational space dates back to the Meiji and Taisho eras. In Herbert G. Ponting’s 1911 travelogue, “In Lotus-Land Japan,” for example, the author on a visit to the garden enjoys a cone of shaved ice and fruit syrup under a pine tree in August, a hot month anywhere in Japan but especially in Kyushu. As the writer cools off he describes groups of adult men bathing in the lake, while “tiny girls and boys paddle in the water or scamper over the grasses.”
A pleasure garden indeed.