Photo:Martin Lewison on Flickr

15 Things to do in Kumamoto City

15. Suizenji Park

Photo by Yoshio Kohara on Wikimedia Commons

This wonderful old park, built by Lord Hosokawa in the 17th Century (though I think other people did the actual digging and building). One of the main tourist attractions in the city, it has a miniature Mt. Fuji type hill in it, a lovely pond, old bridges to walk over, koi carp lazily swimming around and turtles bathing in the sun. The area is cleverly designed to block out almost all the modern buildings from view, so you can almost feel like you are in Edo era Japan. There is a charge to get in, but a small one. 

14. Kumamoto Castle

Photo by 663highland on Wikimedia Commons.

It's quite well known that the 17th Century castle in the center of Kumamoto suffered shocking damage in the 2016 earthquakes. Whole sections of walls slid off and large parts caved in. What is less well known is that its estimated that it will take 20 years to put it back together again. Amazing to think that a whole generation of people born then will grow up to adulthood before the castle is back to its full glory. But you can still come and see its extensive and beautiful grounds, plus seeing the damage is interesting in itself. 

13. Lafcadio Hearn House

Photo by u dou on Flickr.

Hearn was a Irish-Greek writer who came to Kumamoto in the 1890s and taught at the university. That university is on the next road down from where I'm writing these words, and I'm a half-Irish writer myself. In fact I’ve done two manga versions of Hearn’s Japanese stories. Those stories were among the first ones to spread knowledge of Japanese ghost and folk tales in the English language, and are probably the best known. This museum dedicated to Hearn is a lovely old style house which, though repaired, keeps close to his original house, and is right in the center of the city.

12. Sakura-machi Shopping Mall

Photo by hyolee2 on Wikimedia Commons.

This is the new kid on the block: a large organic shaped mall that was opened in 2019 and has a lovely tree lined terrace for walking along and looking out at the city. Not only that but it has a large rooftop garden with a pond and stream – unique in Kumamoto and it looks great, especially when lit up at night. Though there are no fish in the pond, which is a pity. The shopping centre itself has the usual mix of places to eat (in the basement) with various clothes and accessory shops on each floor. Nothing unique in these, but because the place is new, it's very popular, and convenient too, being right in the city centre. There is also a cinema and a hotel and a bus terminal within the complex. Those feeling unadventurous would hardly need to leave!

11. Shimotori and Kamitori

Shimotori
Kamitori

Kumamoto has two central shopping places, both covered malls: called Kamitori and Shimotori (which basically just means upper street and lower street). These are modern but long-established malls (built in the 1960s, but with some of the shops histories stretching back 300 years). Between the two they cover pretty much the whole length of Kumamoto city center. So, you can walk in comfort rain or shine, apart from having to cross over from one to the other, across the city’s tram line. On these two long malls you can find cafes, shoe shops, drug stores (very popular with Chinese visitors), stationary shop, electric good shops, internet cafes, and book stores. Both malls open a little late in the morning but stay open till late, with the bars night live going on till the wee hours of the morning. Shimotori is the longer and busier of the two, with Kamitori having a slightly more upmarket or artistic feel to it. The skylight roof of Kamitori being apparently based on the style of the Musée d'Orsay in Paris (a city which is, alongside London, the spiritual home of all such arcades). Its hardwood floor has beautiful beams that came from South America. 

10. Kokai Shotengai

Many tourists might prefer to see a bit of old-style Japan and for that a recommended place is the wonderful old shopping road, Kokai Shotengai, about 2 kilometres east from the city centre, on the way to Kumamoto University. Here the shops are still mostly small, family run businesses, often with a cute grandmother still in charge. Once she gets to know you, she might even give you a free treat from the shop as 'service', as they say here. But hurry to see these old places before they disappear. Despite the common image of respecting old culture, Japanese people much prefer the new to the old, and these older style shopping streets are very much on the decline. 

9. Kawara-machi

A real hidden gem called Kawara-machi, so much off the beaten track that most Kumamoto people have never heard of it! It’s a block of 3 interconnecting narrow lanes that seem to be have gotten stuck in the 1960s–in a good way! Here they have things like a mod tailor with his Lambretta scooter, a intriguing candle making shop, a bar with live bands (when the police allow the loud music, last time I was there they came and stopped the music!), second hands shops and cool little cafes. It’s unique in this town and well worth visiting for the unusual vibe.

8. Record Shopping

Photo by Lisa on Wikimedia Commons.

Dotted along the many narrow streets that come off Kamitori and Shimotori are various hip places run by individuals trying to do something different from the chain stores, such as a cafes, clothes shops and this great vinyl record store, Sweet Nothing Records (near Oaks Dori, just off Kamitori mall). In this digital age vinyl is making a come-back among some people who prefer the beauty of the physical object and that analogue sound.  

7. Miyamoto Musashi

Photo by STA3816 on Wikimedia Commons.

Miyamoto Musashi is probably the most famous historical figure connected with Kumamoto, and the legendary swordsman wrote the world famous 'Book of Five Rings' here, literally in a barren cave in the nearby hills, called Reigando Cave. In the north east of the city, at Musashizuka there is a grave for Musashi’s, with a lovely water feature park recently built nearby. There is also a funeral march marker along the end of the road that I live on, just above the university, in Kurokami (for those who really want to search out the rarer aspects). There is also Shimada Museum in the center west of the city with lots of good Musashi type objects and information.

6. Tsuboi Park and Ezuko Park

Photo by Kuzeo on Wikimedia Commons.

Kumamoto is blessed with several large parks just outside the city center. These two are my favorites. Tsuboi Koen (also known as Usui-chi koen) is in the center north area, and is a long, thick park that stretches along the banks of the Tsuboi River. There is a children’s play area, baseball and several marshes and streams where you can spot frogs, fish, and huge turtles. Ezuko Park is a bit further out, to the south east area and even larger. It has cute little paddle boats that can be hired, a lake side café and a shallow water area for the kids to splash about it and try to catch cute little crabs. Nice!

5. Contemporary Art Museum Kumamoto (CAMK)

This is right in the center of the city and access is free to the general building, but with a charge for specific events. It opened in 2002 and has established itself as a good place for local and international artists and exhibitions. It aims to promote the power of art, and cultivate appreciation of the arts. It mixes these admirable high aims with a family-friendly feeling. For people who love manga, there is also Koshi Manga Museum, which, although a bit far out, to the north of Kumamoto City itself, is a new purpose-built museum run by people very keen on taking manga seriously as an art form (quite rightly so!).

4. The Great Festival of Fujisaki Hachimangu Shrine (formerly known as Boshita Matsuri)

Photo by MK Products on Wikimedia Commons

This is a yearly festival, held in September, dating back at least until the 16th Century, which is rather unusual, because it’s so contentious. In the 1970s and 1980s Koreans complained that the origins of the festival were anti-Korean, and more recently people have complained that it shows cruelty to horses. Other people don’t like it because its noisy and disruptive, with whole streets being taken over for the parade day. Nevertheless it remains very popular with some, with many groups from different parts of the city taking part, each with their own elaborately decorated large horses taking part. They have very specific walking-dance styles, lion dances, drums and trumpets and loudly shout "Dookai Dookai" ("how about this?") or other phrases while they march through the streets with 10s of thousands watching them go. 

3. Kumamoto Castle Marathon

Photo by nakashi on Wikimedia Commons.

This is a modern event, which started in 2012, but is already very popular with 13,000 people running and even more watching them hobble by along the 42.195 kilometres of the full route. (I’m sometimes tempted, as a joke, to secretly wait near the finish line and run out at the end when the leaders come by). Applications are selected by lottery, with the deadline ending about 5 months before the actual run.

2. Kumamoto University

Photo by ja:長岡勇衛 on Wikimedia Commons

The university’s main campus in the Kurokami area to the center east area of the city is worth visiting in itself just for a stroll. The amount of trees in urban areas in Japan is very much on the decline, for various reasons (none of them good!), but the university still has a very large amount of lovely trees, some more than 100 years old as the institution dates back to the 1880s. There are also 3 old buildings dating back almost as long, which is also very rare in Japan. The main one is where the above mentioned Lafcadio Hearn taught in the 1890s and an excellent example of late 19th Century architecture. Though, ironically Hearn himself didn’t like it, because, for him, being built just a few years before he arrived there, it was a modern eye sore!

1. Bars

Photo by すしぱく on Pakutaso.

Lasty, for those looking for a place to get a drink and chat to locals I can mention 3 bars worth trying: Glocal Bar Vibes (3rd floor of Arita Building on Club Dori, a street coming off the left side of the Shimotori mall).The name combines global with local, and that is a good summary of this bar. The young owner, Noriykui, makes a good effort to welcome foreigners and speaks pretty good English, which is a rare thing in this town. Jeff’s World Bar (2nd floor of Kumamoto building on San nen zaka dori), This has been the main ‘foreigners bar’ in Kumamoto for 20 years, so it’s practically a cultural institution here. Detour (Basement of Shanse Shinagawa building on Ginnan Kita dori, two streets off Shimotori mall.). A bunch of foreigner residents who were previously associated with Jeff’s bar decided in 2019 to open their own bar. No entrance charge, drinks reasonably priced. I wouldn’t bother with the so called ‘Celts Irish and Sports Bar’ just off Shimotori, speaking as a Celt myself I can say there is almost nothing Celtic about it!

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