There are 24 tunnels on the expressway between Kumamoto and Hitoyoshi, 23 more than my claustrophobic mother is comfortable with. By the time we pull off at the small city in southern Kumamoto Prefecture that bills itself as a “little Kyoto,” my navigator is more than ready to escape the confines of the vehicle.
The lucky few who can arrange passage on the special steam locomotive from the city of Kumamoto to Hitoyoshi ride in style through the mountains (and probably encounter fewer tunnels) but there will be no runs until the weather warms up. Still, we start our own exploration of the town at the centrally located train station, availing ourselves of their pamphlets and helpful staff before striking out for the nearest sights.
Hitoyoshi was once a prominent castle town, ruled for over seven centuries by the powerful Sagara clan. All that remains of their stronghold are a few stone walls across the river from the train station, though some of the temples and shrines they funded exist in more complete form. We start first at Aoi Aso Shrine, tromping across the scarlet bridge near the entrance to climb the steps to the bustling grounds. The thatched roofs of both the honden (main hall) and the entrance gate stand in stark contrast to the concrete buildings on the surrounding blocks. These edifices date from 1609 and are the southernmost building structures in Japan to be designated as a national treasure.
Despite the plaudits, it doesn’t take us long to cover the grounds and we soon retrace our steps back toward the center of town. Plum blossoms peep out from household gardens but the true spots of color in Hitoyoshi in winter come from the vibrant presentation of hina dolls, arranged in displays large and small throughout the city from the beginning February to the end of March. With map in hand, we amble slowly, eyes peeled for the wooden signs with pink kanji that mark participating shops and lodgings.
Nearly every business for a five-block radius participates in the festival — we see displays in shop windows as incongruous as the hardware store and the local fishmonger. At one of our first stops, we’re ushered inside by an effervescent group of women over 70. I take my chance to examine the dolls while they cluck over my blonde-haired daughter and her grandmother. When queried, we say “yes” to tea and are soon plied with a heaping plate of tofu salad and pickles alongside our agreed upon beverage.
And so begins our “doll crawl.” Having recently been to the stunning Hina Festival displays in the canal town of Yanagawa in Fukuoka Prefecture, I’m not as enamored with the tiers of porcelain figures here but the social aspect can’t be denied.
We stop and chat with all sorts of residents, from the shopkeeper whose son is living in San Jose to the antique collector with dolls from every era, from the Meiji Period (1603-1868) through the Showa Period (1926-89). At one small corner display, I pop my head in for only a short moment — driven away quickly by the stale smell of cigarettes — but am convinced to stay longer as the dolls’ proud owner elaborates on their handmade origins in Osaka nearly 115 years ago.
As in Yanagawa, it’s not just dolls alone all the time. Some displays incorporate sagemon, hanging mobiles that are adorned with cloth balls, animals and occasionally human figures that are created and given to a girl by her extended family soon after her birth. Others feature hagoita, wooden paddles known as battledores that were used long ago for a traditional form of badminton. Here, they’re emblazoned with both humans and animals dressed in accordance with the holiday in the eye-catching robes of the Heian Period.
Our stroll culminates at the Marukama Miso and Soy Sauce Factory, housed in an old wooden house with a kura (storehouse) out the back. While there does seem to be some work going on in the back reaches of the factory, we’re disappointed to discover we can’t sneak in a tour. Instead, we settle down at a long wooden table in the front shop area and work our way methodically through the various vegetables pickled or soaked in a range of the company’s products.
My toddler wins huge praise for her willingness to consume even the spicier offerings and we’re left to enjoy a sizable pre-lunch snack. It’s hard to choose what to carry home with us, but in the end I leave with a bottle of umakuchi shōyu, promising to be full of that crucial fifth flavor of Japanese cuisine — umami, or richness.
With the snack just a precursor, we return to the car and leave town via a circuitous mountain road, following signs for the restaurant Kijiya. Hityoshi is littered with pheasant paraphernalia, most notable being the kijiguruma, wooden pheasant toys with wheels that trace their origins back at least a millennia. It comes as no surprise to me that a local eatery is dedicated to serving the famous avian, but to learn it might be the only one in the nation with such unique fare makes it a “must” on our day’s itinerary.
Kijiya sits on the banks of the Kumagawa River and from the windows of our private dining area, we can hang our heads out practically over the water itself. With small waterfalls to either side of our vision and forested mountains in the backdrop, I’m already won over by this place and I haven’t even tasted the food. For time considerations, we pass on the pheasant yakitori option and choose small set meals featuring pheasant hot pot.
I feel a small twinge of guilt that the birds in the enclosure outside the restaurant have probably given up a relative to my lunch course, but the notion is quickly dispelled as I dig eagerly into the appetizer plate. Pheasant pate, pheasant mixed with hearty local miso and a candied kinkan (kumquat) start us off but as the dishes arrive, we move on quickly to homemade tofu and rice punctuated with chunks of pheasant, carrot and mushroom. The meat in the hot pot is my least favorite preparation but the homemade noodles more than make up for it and within what feels like minutes, my mother and I are fighting each other for the last sips of broth in the bottom of the communal bowl.
It’s hard to leave the riverside idyll, but one more of Hitoyoshi’s delights is calling. On our way back to town, we follow signs to a recommended onsen.
With the volcanic ranges of both Aso and Kirishima to the north and south of the region, respectively, Hitoyoshi has no lack of natural hot water. The bath we rent is nearly unbearable in temperature, but makes the perfect contrast to the last vestiges of winter still swirling around on the afternoon air. Hitoyoshi may not be the stereotypical “little Kyoto” that many expect to find, but so long as that tagline gets you here, you’ll find plenty of reasons to linger awhile.
Getting there: Hitoyoshi is easily reached via regular train or steam locomotive (March-November only) from the city of Kumamoto and is a well-marked stop on the Kyushu expressway. The tourist office at Hitoyoshi Station can provide maps of the locations of the hina doll displays as well as a map of the local onsen. Kijiya can be reached by car or taxi and is about 10 km outside of town on the road to Isa. Kijiya is closed on Wednesdays.
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