Monday, February 6, 2017

Our Fukuoka Christmas 8 - The Remarkable Kumamoto-jo ... a must-go-to in Kyushu

When Jay and I first visited  Fukuoka on June 2016, it had just been two months since a powerful earthquake hit Kumamoto, which is about a hundred miles away.  The city suffered damage as well as its most significant monument, Kumamoto-jo or Kumamoto Castle.  I wanted to visit then but was told that they were in the middle of recovery and might not be ready for tourists. 

On this December trip to Fukuoka,  Kumamoto was number one on my "bakit (why) list". 
As in "bakit hindi ko puntahan ito ngayon?" ("why should I not go now?").  We had the 
3-day JR Northern Kyushu pass which allowed us unlimited travel on JR trains, including 
the Kyushu shinkansen which would take us from Hakata Station to Kumamoto in just 35 minutes.

(NB The Northern Kyushu Pass costs 8,500 yen per person. We used it for Nagasaki and  Kumamoto where round trip tickets would have amounted to 19,040 yen per person.   The pass was truly a terrific buy!) 

The shinkansen ride to Kumamoto went by so quickly -- we hardly had time to relax and enjoy 
our comfortable reserved seats.  

The  two most famous "brands" in Kumamoto are the splendid castle and the friendly
black bear known as "Kumamon",  the prefecture's mascot.  As a big fan, I was happily
surprised by his giant grinning face in the train station.

Like Nagasaki, Kumamoto has a tram system -- the best and easiest way to get around the city.
There are just two lines -- A and B and at some point they meet up in one station so you can transfer and get to another part of the city.  Line A stops right in front of the train station and takes passengers to the stop nearest Kumamoto-jo.

The tram is standing room only for most of the 15 minute ride to Kumamoto Shiyakusho-mae, the stop closest to the castle.  From this point on -- let me trace our steps to Kumamoto-jo so if you're
going on your own, you'll know just how to get there.

Across the road from the tram stop,  this directional poster helped us get our bearings. 

Our approach started by the Nagabei Wall that runs along the Tsuboi River.
The wall at more than 230 meters long, is the longest of all the castle walls and is a designated Important Cultural Property.  It is made of contrasting black and white stones which sadly  have crumbled in certain sections.   This was my very first view of the damage caused by the earthquake and it was disheartening to see.
Do you see those bare branches?  Those are cherry blossom trees and during sakura season, the Nagabei is framed by masses of pink and white blooms, making it a very popular spot for both
locals and tourists alike.

We saw more extensive damage as we walked down the path.  This portion of the Nagabei has collapsed completely with crumbled stones spilling out from a gaping hole.  It is as if its guts had  poured out and I for one, felt a visceral punch to see this destruction.   

Before entering the castle walls, you will see this statue of Kato Kiyomasa, the local daimyo or 
feudal lord who in 1600 started building this castle complex, expanding it from the fortress that 
it was originally constructed as, in the late 1400s.  
Lord Kiyomasa finished the castle in 1607 --  a relatively short time for such a massive undertaking.
 It is sad to note that he passed away in 1611, just a few years after his castle was built.  He enjoyed 
it for just a short time.

Before the earthquake, one of the access points to the castle was via the Hazekata Gate.  As you can see from this photo,  this entrance is now barricaded and closed to the public.  Instead,  visitors are directed to go through the Johsaien, a tourist information facility that also houses souvenir shops, restaurants and rest areas.

Right outside, someone has cleverly put together PET bottles in the shape of the main castle keep.  
I wish the earthquake had toppled this "castle"  instead. 

This is the entrance to Johsaien -- it hews quite closely to the look of the period.

We walked inside and exited via a side gate which led to the castle's perimeter areas that have been deemed secure and thus, are open to the public.

Behind the Johsaien is a steep stone staircase that takes visitors to the areas that will give everyone vantage though long-distance views of the castle.

One of the first structures that you will see is the Hitsujisaru Yagura  (yagura means turret) that guards the southwest flank of Kumamoto-jo

Here is another view of the turret, now seen with the collapsed portions of the walls.   Across it is the empty moat.  Can you see the stones carefully laid out on the grass?  Restoration of the castle consists of trying to put the broken stones back in the same place -- much like a giant puzzle.  Local artisans and craftsmen are working on the restoration and are committed to seeing the castle brought back to its original glory.

We walked up a short but steep incline to reach this wide open space where we could see the main castle buildings from across the moat.  You can see that the enormous stone walls that have sustained much damage. 

This is the Inui Yagura  that guards the northwest part of the castle .  Can you see that it is precariously balanced on one part of the stone wall that has almost completely crumbled. 
Directly behind it is the Uto-Yagura.  Five stories tall and one of the original buildings in the castle compound, it is a designated Important Cultural Property.  Thankfully, it was not fully destroyed by the earthquake.
You can catch a glimpse of the main castle buildings partially obscured in the far background.

Around the bend from the moat we saw these large plastic bags placed firmly against the stone walls to prevent any further damage. 

This is the Kumamoto-jo Inari Shrine also known as the Kato Shrine. It was built in the 1600s to protect the castle and Lord Kiyomasa.  The shrine is neither big nor is it flashy -- it looks very much like a neighbourhood shrine --  which is what it exactly was, during Lord Kiyomasa's time.    
This is also the end of the road for visitors as the castle grounds beyond this area are closed off to the public. 

At  Kato-jinja, I saw this miniature shrine perched on a tree branch.  Small shide or lightning bolt shaped paper streamers are hung from a hemp rope.  The shide are Shinto symbols used to designate sacred or holy areas. There must be a kami or spirit that resides in this tree. 

From the shrine, you will get a very good look of the Honmaru.  This is where Lord Kiyomasa lived and where he conducted government business. 
You can see that the roof tiles have been badly damaged.   Despite that, it continues to stand tall and majestic against the darkening winter sky.  I can understand why Kumamoto-jo is one of the top 3 castles in Japan.
Even a powerful earthquake cannot diminish its breath taking presence. 

While I would have wanted to visit a few more places in Kumamoto,  the main purpose of this short trip was to see the castle.  After spending a little over three hours in Kumamoto-jo, we headed back to the station for the train ride back to Fukuoka.

The Kyushu Shinkansen makes two trips every hour to and from Fukuoka.   It's less than 100 kilometres from Kumamoto and takes only 30 to 40 minutes on the the shinkansen.  If you are in Fukuoka, it would be a shame to miss this quick trip to Kumamoto to see the castle.  
Please visit ... your tourist dollars will certainly help towards the castle's repair and reconstruction! 


I took this photo somewhere along the Nagabei Path.  Seeing this yellow bud push its way up, beyond wood and concrete, gave me a feeling of hope. I feel it is a symbol of the recovery that is happening now in Kumamoto.   
Because of the strong spirit of the citizens of Kumamoto,  I know that one day the castle will be restored to its full grandeur and greatness. 

NB Many thanks to my son Gani and husband Jay for some of the photos used in this post.  And thank you to google photos for the enhancement of my photo of the Inui Yagura Turret.

We wandered around  Kumamoto-jo on our own, without the invaluable services of a local guide. In an attempt to 
identify the various structures in my photos,  I relied mainly on the tourist map and a magazine specially published detailing the progress of the restoration.  If there are any mistakes as to the proper identification of the turrets and buildings, the mistakes are all mine. Gomen nasai!

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