“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.
“It’s snowing!” I yelled excitedly over my shoulder, peeking through the curtains. “Oh yeah?” my sister responded with mild disinterest. You’d swear she never grew up in Johannesburg. The fluffy white stuff still excites me; I’m lucky if I even get to see it once a year.
We packed up the last of our things and headed for the bus, which ambled through the fresh snowfall to Niagara Jet Adventures. A ride on one of the company’s customized jet boats down the Niagara River costs $61 (and 45 minutes of nausea), which we weren’t willing to part with in the cold. We huddled around hot coffee and chocolate muffins in the waiting area instead and made friends with a nice family from Croatia.
The next stop on the tour was a lovely surprise. I had somehow missed on the itinerary that we would be touring Fort Niagara, a French castle with a 300-year history. I just love a good museum.
In the Ichifusa Mountain Range of Miyazaki, alongside the Hitotsuse River, seven picturesque hamlets are scattered across a 272 km² area filled with forests, streams, rice fields and vineyards. Collectively, they are known as Nishimera Village (西米良村).
It’s a quiet, peaceful place – a nature-lover’s haven filled with hiking trails and fishing spots that are home to wild boar, deer, and trout. In autumn, its fertile soils yield shiitake mushrooms, followed by yuzu citrus in the winter, and bell pepper in the spring. It’s the only place in the prefecture that cultivates iseimo, a soggy-textured, sweet-tasting root vegetable that most resembles taro.
But despite its natural beauty and agricultural riches, Nishimera has experienced a staggering population decline in the last 50 years. With just 1,240 residents left, the village is one of hundreds in Japan facing extinction.
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.