‘Land of Fire’ with history burning in its mokkosu heart


Few things puff up local pride like a local hero. Sendai dotes on its “One-Eyed Dragon,” warrior Date Masamune. Kagoshima loves its plump 19th-century rebel Saigo Takamori. And Kumamoto adores its old daimyo lord Kato Kiyomasa.

Like the other two, Kato was very much the tough guy. That is soon evident from his statue close to Kumamoto Castle. Only a tough guy could get away with Kato’s huge, over-the-top, Halloween-style helmet without eliciting sniggers from those around. In Higo (present-day Kumamoto Prefecture), this hardened warrior was lord of all he surveyed. And after having wisely picked the winning side before the decisive Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 (which cleared the way for the 264-year rule of the Tokugawa Shogunate, from 1603-1867), Kato was able to survey twice the amount of land in west-central Kyushu he had before, and call it his own — courtesy of Tokugawa Ieyasu, de facto ruler of Japan after that battle.

In addition to being one of the top generals of his day, Kato was also one of the country’s greatest castle architects. As might be guessed, the fortress that still dominates Kumamoto’s city center was his handiwork, and was regarded as one of the three strongest citadels in the land.

Like many Japanese castles, Kumamoto’s is not the original building, but for the most part a latter-day ferroconcrete reconstruction. However, rebuilding the battle-scarred structure was done reasonably well, and the main donjon still makes an impressive sight — from the outside at least: The interior has all the historical charm of a ward office. But it is palpably apparent from the reconstructed buildings and precipitous slopes of the great stone foundations what a formidable stronghold this once was.

Clear, too, is the no-nonsense, martial character of this castle, which sports none of the decorative flourishes you see at Himeji Castle, for instance. Kato’s castle-building skills were put to their severest test in 1877, during the Sa- tsuma Rebellion — Japan’s last civil war and the loose historical background (Hollywood, as ever, being meticulous in its disregard for factual accuracy) to the events depicted in the current Tom Cruise movie, “The Last Samurai.”

Saigo Takamori, the person on whom the Ken Watanabe film character is roughly based, was one of the main figures in the Meiji Restoration of 1868, which ended the so-called Edo Period of rule by Tokugawa shoguns. But Saigo — from the Satsuma domain of present-day Kagoshima Prefecture — became progressively disenchanted with the Meiji regime he had helped create, and eventually found himself propelled into open rebellion against the government.

The Satsuma Rebellion, though, proved to be a disastrous failure. Saigo made a big mistake by laying siege to Kumamoto Castle. The siege lasted almost 50 days, but the massive fortifications of that old sly boots Kato withstood everything Saigo could throw at them. The donjon and many other buildings were reduced to smoldering heaps, but the castle itself proved impregnable: the garrison held out.

If the castle tops Kumamoto’s list of attractions today, a close second is Suizenji Jojuen, considered one of Japan’s finest kaiyu-shiki teien (strolling gardens). For those who like gardens, the place is attractive enough — in a sculpted, trimmed and manicured sort of way. Appropriately, for a strolling garden, Suizenji Jojuen is modeled on the 53 stations of that great highway the Tokaido, which once linked Kyoto and Edo (former Tokyo). Dutiful tourists can be seen trying to identify the various places on the route — a not inconsiderably difficult task, as there are no signs indicating what is supposed to be what. But as the large pointed mound that was meant to be Mount Fuji looked to me remarkably unlike the mountain, I decided there would be little point trying to pick out the less-conspicuous landmarks on the route.

Nonetheless, one person who no doubt was perfectly delighted with the garden was that great Japanophile, Lafcadio Hearn, who was also known as Yakumo Koizumi, the name he adopted after becoming a naturalized Japanese citizen in 1896. Hearn was one of the first Westerners to write extensively about Japan and its culture. After he moved to Kumamoto in 1891, he made the city his home for three years and lived in a house owned by a samurai family. The writer would probably have few complaints with the house today, which occupies an attractive piece of real estate close to the warren of backstreet bars and restaurants that help to give the middle part of town its lively character.

Just as in Hearn’s time, the Kumamoto that the visitor finds is a fiery sort of place. Kumamoto Prefecture is known as the “Land of Fire” because it is home to the massive volcano Mount Aso. Similarly, one of the local culinary specialties is karashi renkon — a dish of deep-fried lotus root stuffed with a miso-mustard paste, which if you try it in an eatery that prides itself on its homemade stuff, can be so hot as to bring tears to your eyes.

The people, too — as they will readily admit — are a fiery lot. The Kumamoto character is described in the local dialect as mo-kkosu, which is usually translated as “feisty” or “stubborn.”

From what I witnessed of the place, I would definitely opt for “feisty.” Someone bumped into me and bellowed an apology. I went into a store and the shopkeeper barked out to me, “What do you want?” Though it scarcely seems possible, even the politicians out electioneering in Kumamoto sound more strident and downright irritating than elsewhere in Japan.

Mokkosu is not the only local dialect word that you invariably encounter in Kumamoto. Another is yoka, meaning “good.” This term has been plucked up by the city council and artfully incorporated into its “master plan” for Kumamoto, which goes as follows: “Yoka people, yoka city and yoka life.” And, well, PR spin aside, it has to be said that Kumamoto is hard to dislike. It is an open, spacious place with stylish shops; the great castle and its extensive grounds give it an attractive green heart — and beneath their mokkosu shell, the locals can be rather charming.

If only Kumamoto could work in a couple of yoka Italian restaurants, then it really would have a lot going for it.