“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.
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.
“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.