The "origin of the bear" is your gateway to Kyushu's natural beauty
The castle town of Kumamoto (the name loosely translates to “origin of the bear”) is the seat of the prefectural government and home to about 720,000 people, but its main attraction for most visitors is its proximity to Kyushu’s diverse natural vistas. An hour’s drive can take you from sub–tropical beaches in Amakusa to active volcanic peaks in Aso. Even within the city itself, nature is never far away, with the various branches of Shirakawa River flowing through downtown and around ample green spaces, earning the city its other nickname: City of Woods and Fresh Water. You probably won’t see any bears strolling through the streets, though, unless it’s popular promotional character Kumamon.
Things to do
The caldera of fire
Mount Aso is located in the heart of the sprawling Aso-Kuju National Park, and its caldera is one of the largest in the world with a whopping 25km diameter. That’s big enough to contain three small towns, a train system, a whole lot of farming and cattle-grazing land, plus five smaller mountains, one of which is an active volcano! Taking all that in from the edge of the caldera is an unmissable sight.
The mascot for Kumamoto Prefecture is a lovable black bear known as Kumamon. He he has become an international sensation, generating over JPY ¥100 billion in revenue each year, hobnobbing with the imperial family, and even lecturing at Harvard. Visitors to Kumamoto will find his face gracing just about everything, but if you want to meet him in the flesh — er, fur? — head to Kumamon Square opens in new window.
Japan abounds with castles, but the sprawling Kumamoto-jo is one of the largest and most impressive. Most of the buildings are reconstructions of the 17th century originals, but they are very well done, especially the Honmaru Goten Palace, the swanky gold digs of the daimyo (lord). With hundreds of cherry trees in the grounds, it’s also a popular place for spring blossom viewing.
Meat eaters, rejoice
If you are brave enough to try it, one of Kumamoto's most famous specialities is basashi, or raw horsemeat. If that’s too high a culinary bar, try the locally raised varieties of high-end wagyu beef called kurogyu (black) or akagyu (red). Vegetarians will love karashi renkon (lotus root stuffed with super-spicy karashi pepper).
Take the A-train
Amakusa, a group of some 120 islands to the southwest of Kumamoto, offer visitors a craggy coastline, long white beaches, excellent diving, year-round dolphin watching, and even dinosaurs! The most fun way to get there is aboard the A-Train opens in new window, a special, super-comfortable train that promises to make you feel like you're 'in a movie scene'. A-Train operates weekends and holidays during travel season.
Travel time 35 minutes
Taxi About Approx JPY ¥5,000-7,000
Bus About Approx JPY ¥730-800, takes 50 minutes; several buses depart every hour between 8am-9pm
There are also buses available to Aso, hot spring town Kurokawa, and waterfall wonderlandBack to top
When to go
Kumamoto has a humid sub-tropical climate, and you will likely see rain during your visit, particularly during the months of June and July. Summer temperature hovers around a balmy 30ºC, while winters are much cooler, with lows approaching freezing. Spring and fall are fairly temperate, if damp.
In October, you can visit the Country Gold and feast your eyes on Japanese cowboy culture or the bamboo lantern Mizuakari Festival for a more traditional experience. September hosts the Fujisaki Hachimangu Festival, also known as the Horse Festival. For five days, revellers decorate and chase horses through the streets of the city.Back to top
In addition to a network of buses, there are two tramlines that cover Kumamoto, both of which pass through the downtown area. The A-line then heads to Kumamoto Station south of town and the B-line heads north to Kami-Kumamoto Station. It is JPY ¥150 no matter how far you travel. There is a JPY ¥500 all-day pass that covers both buses and trams and offers discounts on popular attractions.
There is also a Kumamoto Loop Bus connecting the biggest sights in town. One ride is JPY ¥150 or there is an unlimited pass for JPY ¥400, also with attraction discounts.Back to top