“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.
“Aaa-eeh,” the punter sang, “tsukino dokoromo hatsukano yamimoe.” His throat danced around a different note for each of the syllables of the old Japanese poem. The sun was beating down, making me wish we had forked out the 100円for a kasa hat. Still, listening to his voice and water lapping up gently against the side of the donkobune was like a massage for the soul.
It’s easy to see why 1.3 million visitors descend on Yanagawa, Fukuoka every year to ride one of these traditional boats around the city’s canals. In total, 930 km (578 mi) of ancient waterways reticulate the affectionately nicknamed “Little Venice of Kyushu”. The architecture, atmosphere and cuisine is worlds away from its Italian counterpart, but Yanagawa is a city of water in its own right.
To the southwest of it lies the Ariake Sea, known for its high tidal range which reaches 6 meters in some areas. The strong ebb and flow of the tides grinds down earth and sand brought into the sea by rivers into a fine silt, creating vast mud flats at low tide.
Of all the things we had planned to do in Nagasaki, I was most curious to see the Peace Park. Established in 1955 to commemorate the atomic bombing on August 9, 1945, it is built on a hill directly north of the hypocenter. The top of the slope offers a commanding view of the city below; looking down at the many trees and rolling hills, it’s hard to imagine this place was every anything but gorgeous and green.
Having already visited the peace park in Hiroshima, where the first bomb was dropped on August 6, 1945, I wondered how Nagasaki’s would fare without its own A-Bomb Dome, which has come to be such an iconic symbol of peace.
Not knowing the exact layout of the park, we followed the route Google Maps had given us and ended up outside the entrance to the Atomic Bomb Museum. The museum was opened in 1996 to mar the 50th anniversary of the atomic blast. I had skipped the museum on my visit to Hiroshima because the line to get in was impossibly long, so I was eager to see inside here.
On top of Minami-yamate, a gorgeous hillside overlooking Nagasaki Harbour, sits Glover Garden (グラバー園), an open-air museum of the homes of former Western residents of the city, who settled there after the end of Japan’s isolationism in the latter half of the 19th century. The Garden is the original site of the former residence of Scottish trader, Thomas Blake Glover, and features six other mansions which were dismantled, moved, and reconstructed here as important national cultural properties.
The walk up to Glover Garden begins at Oura Catholic Church, the oldest wooden church of Gothic architecture in Japan. It was built in 1864 by the French missionary Bernard Petitjean of Fier, and dedicated to the 26 martyrs who were executed on Nishizaka Hill. In 1865, Hidden Christians from Urakami came to the church and professed their faith to Father Petijean after two years in hiding. Pope John Paul II visited the site in 1981 and declared it the “Miracle in the East”.
Next to Oura Church, is one of two entrances into Glover Garden. Along with entry, the 600円 ($5.20) ticket gets you a map and cardboard cutout Glover mask that you can use to take pictures with. Two escalator rides later, Austin and I found ourselves in front of the Mitsubishi dock house, a former facility where crew members could rest while their ships were in for repairs. Even more impressive than the house is the view from its garden, which overlooks Nagasaki Bay and the surrounding hillside.
I’ve always dreamed of visiting the Netherlands, partly due to my Dutch ancestry but mostly because of my love of cheese and other edibles. So when Golden Week began approaching, an annual string of public holidays, and Austin and I were planning a road trip around western Kyushu, I figured why not make a stop in Japan’s very own Amsterdam.
Huis Ten Bosch (ハウステンボス) is a 17th-century style Dutch-themed amusement park located in Sasebo, Nagasaki facing Omura Bay. Named after one of the residences of the Dutch Royal Family, the “House in the Forest” recreates the atmosphere of a Dutch city with windmills, canals, and tulip gardens straight out of a Jacob van Ruisdael painting.
The park is the size of Monaco and pays homage to the city’s relations with Holland, which date back to Japan’s isolationist period. Despite the country’s sakoku policies at the time, Dutch traders were allowed to buy and sell wares on Hirado island, and later Dejima in Nagasaki Bay.
On the first weekend of April, Austin and I were out hiking in the north of Nobeoka when all of a sudden it began to snow. Snow! In April! I shouldn’t have been so surprised – it’s been a pretty weird spring so far. Not only has the weather stayed unusually cold in Miyazaki, the cherry blossoms have been late to bloom. When the sakura were finally rumored to make an appearance this past weekend, we were disappointed to learn that rain was also forecast.
“Wanna go to Kumamoto?” Austin asked.
I immediately replied, “I’ll find us a place to stay.”
One of his colleagues had recommended Hitoyoshi for cherry blossom viewing, and having already fallen in love with the town during my first visit, I was just waiting for a reason to go back. Sure enough when Saturday came, it was pouring. We packed the car and left Miyazaki City after lunch.
The next morning, water was teeming from the grey cotton balls above. We pulled our rain jackets on and headed to the bus stop to catch a ride to Shiratani Unsuikyo. Located 800 m (2624 ft) above sea level, the ravine is nicknamed “Princess Mononoke Forest”; Kazuo Oga, the lead artist for the film, spent a great deal of time sketching here for ideas.
I heard someone calling my name as I flashed my pass to the bus driver and peered out of my soaking hood to see a bunch of fellow Miyazaki teachers sitting on the bus. Shunbun no Hi, or Vernal Equinox Day, had gifted an extra day of weekend and apparently Yakushima was calling to us all. It was fun to catch up, but once we reached Shiratani Unsuikyo, Austin and I waved our goodbyes and hurried onto the trail.
We didn’t just want to hike around the ravine, which, while absolutely beautiful, is very touristy in its setup. The wooden walkways feel crowded; you can only go as fast as the person in front of you, and you feel like you can’t stop to take photos or admire the scenery lest you hold back the person behind you.
I watched the many peaks of Yakushima expand in stop motion as our Jetfoil powered towards the island. The high-speed ferry is the quickest and most expensive way to get there by sea, but I was glad we had forked out the extra yen; it was only 10:28 a.m., the sun was shining, and we had almost a whole day left to get our bearings and start exploring the place that inspired Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke.
Truth be told, I’ve never seen the acclaimed Studio Ghibli film. “I’ll watch it after we get back,” I assured Austin. But a love for the Japanese anime, I soon discovered, is hardly a prerequisite for enjoying the island. With its impressive peaks, 1,000-year old yakusugi trees, cascading waterfalls and pristine coastlines, Yakushima is one of the most beautiful places you could imagine.
The round-shaped, subtropical island, which politically belongs to Kagoshima prefecture, is located approximately 60 km (32 nmi) off the southernmost tip of Kyushu where the Earth’s palearctic and indomalayan ecozones meet.
In the mountains of Kitago, Nichinan, there is a hidden ravine that has the ability to relieve its visitors of their ailments. It’s not local lore or legend – spending time here has been scientifically proven to heal the body and mind. The Inohae Valley (猪八重渓谷 ) is one of three spots in Miyazaki prefecture that have been certified as “forest therapy bases” by the Japanese Society of Forest Medicine.
Forest therapy bases are parts of a forest where various psychological and physiological experiments have been conducted that show the healing and preventative medical benefits of the area. These range from boosting immunity and lowering blood pressure, to decreasing heart rates and relieving stress, anxiety and depression.
It sounds like hippy pseudoscience, but the concept of shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing” as a health-enhancing practice is well established in Japan. It’s backed by an every-growing body of research that suggests a walk in the woods is one of the best things you can do for your health. A certification program to register forest therapy bases was started in 2006 and since then, 62 sites have been designated across the country.
“Please visit Miyazaki again,” a sign reads at the entrance to the prefecture’s last tunnel burrowing through the Kyushu Mountain Range on Route 219. When you emerge on the other side, another one is waiting to greet you: “Welcome to Kumamoto!” It’s as if the passageway is a portal, transporting you to another world. And that’s exactly what Hitoyoshi feels like: a dreamy hidden town that’s come to life from the pages of a storybook.
Just a two hour’s drive from Miyazaki City, Hitoyoshi is located in southernmost Kumamoto, in a basin that’s enveloped in fogs from late autumn to early spring. Once a lake, the town is also an onsen resort, fed by the alkaline and carbonated hot spring waters that flow from rock layers containing fossilized trees.
More than 25 public baths are scattered around town and dotted along the banks of the Kumagawa. Flowing from its source in the Kyushu Mountains down to the Yashiro Sea, the 115 km-long (71 mi) river turns to powerful white water once it reaches Hitoyoshi, making it an ideal location for canoeing and an abundant source of ayu, or sweetfish.
“You ate what?” Maria-san asked with surprise.
“Wild boar and deer.”
She scrunched up her nose in disgust, “Urgh…really?”
“Yeah, it was delicious!”
“Oh no,” she frowned unconvinced, “I’ve never tried it.”
Maria is the co-owner-co-chef of one of my favourite restaurants in Miyazaki, which made her reaction that much more amusing. It’s not an uncommon one in Japan though, where game meat seems to have a pretty poor reputation. As my one colleague explained it, “most people are put off by the smell.”
Two crouched rikishi look each other dead in the eye. In perfect symmetry, they rub their hands together, clap once, and then move their arms out slowly to their sides, first facing their palms up, and then turning them to face down. They put their hands on their knees, still not breaking eye contact. One grabs a handful of salt and throws it into the air, and then they both lift their legs out to their sides and bring them back down to the ground. The salt will purify the dohyo; the stomping will drive away bad spirits; and the arm movements will show that they are unarmed. Once the greeting ceremony is complete, the match can begin. They put their fists on the ground. Hakkeyoi!
Sumo is more than just a sport. In this Japanese style of wrestling, the pre-match ceremony often lasts longer than the bout itself, with each movement carefully performed to honor the activity’s core values: integrity, dignity, discipline and strength. Intertwined with the country’s Shinto religion, the history of sumo spans almost 2,000 years. Ancient wall paintings reveal that it was first performed to pray for a bountiful harvest when planting rice.
The earliest written account of sumo, found in the 8th century history book Kojiki, recounts a tale in which the possession of the Japanese islands was decided by a sumo match between the gods Takemikazuchi and Takeminakata. The former won the bout and is believed to have established the imperial family from which Akihito, Japan’s present emperor, traces his ancestry.
AIR RESCUE POINT. The small, yellow sign caught my eye as I clambered over another giant boulder. Take note, I teased myself, this is where they’ll have to come to find you. I was two hours and 40 minutes into the 4,25 km (2.6 mi) ascent of Kaimondake. Most of the hike so far had been a gentle walk, but this last bit was proving to be quite tough. The rock I was standing on was propped up against the cliff face by another rock, and next to it was a sharp drop into the trees and shrubs below.
Located in the Ibusuki region of Kagoshima, “Open Gate Mountain” is a dormant stratovolcano that is part of the submerged Aira caldera in Kagoshima Bay and belongs to the Kirsihima-Yasu National Park. It last erupted in 885 AD and is the 99th of Japan’s 100 Famous Mountains as listed in the popular 1964 book by Kyuya Fukada.
Kaimondake is nicknamed the “Fuji of Kyushu” for its similarity in shape and symmetry to Japan’s most famous peak, although it’s just a quarter of its size standing at 934 m (3031, ft). The relatively small mountain rises straight from sea level though, making its elevation change of 815 m (2,700 ft) from the first station a challenge for even the experienced hiker.