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.