“Please visit Kumamoto Castle,” my colleague urged when I told her we’d be driving through Kumamoto City on the way back from Nagasaki during the Golden Week holidays. The popular tourist attraction is Japan’s third-largest castle, after Osaka Castle and Nagoya Castle. It is especially well known for its expansive grounds, numerous buildings, and more than 500 cherry trees that make it a popular hanami spot in the spring.
Since last year, Kumamoto-jō has become even more iconic after surviving extensive damage during the April 2016 earthquakes that killed 50 people and left thousands injured and trapped under collapsed buildings.
As a result of the tremors, roof tiles fell from the castle, the outer walls collapsed, and the foundation was damaged. Several of the castle’s shachihoko ornaments, an animal from Japanese folklore hung on roofs to protect buildings from fire, were also destroyed.
After destroying an entire tower with the flick of his tail, Godzilla approaches a tall, white building with full force. But then he stumbles and falls into instead, nonetheless sending it crashing to the ground. The target of the mon-star’s rage in this epic scene from Mothra v. Godzilla is, of course, the historic Nagoya Castle.
The smell of hot food and beer wafted up my nostrils. Having been lulled to a half-slumber by the chugging of the train, I opened one eye to find our new neighbours arranging their brunch on a drop-down tray. Behind us, a group of rowdy men were drinking away their hangover from the night before. I turned to Mark and we exchanged a look. Half annoyed and half amused, I turned up the volume on my phone, readjusted my ear buds and drifted off back to sleep.
It was on a journey much like this one that we had seen Nagoya Castle for the first time. The Shinkansen from Hiroshima to Tokyo blitzes straight through Aichi’s capital city. This time, we’d come from Osaka, taking a slower, cheaper route that snakes through the beautiful countryside of Mie prefecture. We were to spend three days of Golden Week exploring the heart of Japan.
Afternoons would be my favourite time of day, I thought as I weaved in and out of the streets of Taketa town, if they weren’t so melancholic. The roads had been painted gold by the last of the day’s sun, and the afterglow was just enough to lose my mind in. Then suddenly – BUM! BADUM-BUM-BUM! – the sound of drumming yanked me sharply out of my daydream. What on earth could be causing such a commotion this late in the day? Curiosity piqued, I decided to follow it.
As I walked up the giant steps to the site of the old Oka Castle, a haunting melody, blasting out from hidden speakers, followed me. The song, called Kojo no Tsuki (or, Moon over the Castle’s Scattered Ruins), was composed by one of Japan’s most renowned pianists. Rentaro Taki (滝廉太郎) spent many of his childhood years in Taketa, and the castle is said to have inspired his famed composition.
After Naked Man Festival, we decided to drive the hour south to see Obi Castle Town (飫肥城下町), the “Little Kyoto” of Kyushu. The town was built on the remains of Obi Castle, ruled by the Ito Family for 14 generations.
The original castle was governed by the Shimazu Clan of Kagoshima, until it was offerred to the Ito Clan in 1587 by Toyotomi Hideyoshi for their aid during the Kyushu campaign. In the 1970s, work began to rebuild the neglected castle and surrounding town, which now reflects an authentic castle town of the Edo period. It was the first castle town to be registered as a Preservation Area in Kyushu.
Through the main gate, Otemon, you follow the wide, stone steps up to the Obi Clan Historical Museum. Here, you can choose from several different walking tour packages. For just ¥610, we got a ticket to see 7 of the town’s buildings.