Updated: Aug 6, 2019
A city built around its impregnable castle, home of a legendary samurai, and a popular entry point to Aso-san region.
Kumamoto is another rarely visited city in Japan. Although traversing the beaten path is hassle-free, we highly recommend making this detour to experience a side of the country less trodden.
The heart of this very picturesque city is one of the most imposing castles in Japan. Unfortunately, most part of Kumamoto-jō is close indefinitely due to the 2016 earthquake damage. However, there are still other sights worth your effort, especially in the surrounding towns. We will highlight those places in this post so you can enjoy Kumamoto prefecture to the fullest.
Best time to visit: Autumn (October-November) for dry and pleasant weather.
Currency: Yen (¥)
Language: Japanese (very few people speak English)
Kumamoto is a short train ride from Fukuoka, but we strongly suggest renting a car for this leg.
Read our Japan Car rental guide. (to be published soon)
The JR shinkansen operates between Hakata station and Kumamoto station in 40min. With trains leaving every 15min. Fare: ¥4190 Kyushu Rail pass can be considered if traveling to different cities in Kyushu.
8AM YŪTOKU INARI SHRINE
Japan's biggest and most famous
You're not yet in Kumamoto, but this is a must pitstop when driving from Nagasaki.
Yūtoku Inari Shrine is dedicated to Inari—god of agriculture, fertility, and foxes—a principal kami of Shinto.
Soak in the massiveness of the structure and hike up the steep hill.
Perhaps the princess who founded this shrine loved Vermillion, as it is glaringly red all around.
Don't stop at the main hall for there is a trail behind leading you to the wooded hill.
An impressive array of Torris line the pathway. Even though you think you have reached the end, you haven't! Continue your climb until you see a smaller Shrine and the view of Kashima City.
Hello : konnichiwa
Thank you : arigatou gozaimasu
Excuse me : sumimasen
Yes : Hai
No : iie (i-ye)
How much is it? : ikura desu ka?
Do: Bow; Slurp; Speak softly in public; Queue; Use two hands when receiving and giving things
Don’t: Tip; Wear shoes indoors; Blow your nose in public; Leave chopsticks standing upright in a bowl of rice
Tip: Pitstops in Japan are called Michi no eki—these are wonderful places to relax and to replenish your stores—and like everywhere else, there’s WiFi and the toilets are heavenly to pee or take a dump in.
*When using the Squat toilet: you MUST face the wall NOT the cubicle door.
12PM SAKURA NIKKU
A Meal Course of Horse
Depending on how fast you drive and whether you take the tolls or not, you'll be arriving Kumamoto in the afternoon—looking for food. Kumamoto’s other interesting feature is its tradition of eating Horses. You might, as we have, imagined blocks of tough, chewy meat. However, your palate is in for a treat if you decide to try one.
There are Horse meat restaurants spread out near the castle grounds. Go inside whichever tickles your fancy, or choose Suganoya—the most famous in the city.
There is also Ramu which serves Horse Tartare mixed with fermented Natto.
The Fire Country
Walk towards the castle after your intriguing meal. You won't be able to go inside, but you could at least take some nice photos of the premises. There are other notable spots in the city such as the Suizenji-jojuen—a large Japanese garden, depicting stations located on the ancient road of Tokyo and Kyoto.
Despite that, you’d much rather push on and continue your road trip.
Where Gods and Goddesses Descend
Located in a sleepy town, Takachiho Gorge is one of those places ripped off the pages of fairytale books—its beauty undeniably incomprehensible. Our jaws were literally welcoming flies the entire afternoon we were there.
With the Gokase River flowing through the basalt columns, riding a boat is no wonder the best way to experience the Gorge's magnificence.
Available from 8:30am-4:30pm
3pax maximum capacity
¥2000 for 30min
Suspended if rain causes the water level to rise
If by some reason you miss out on a boat ride (like us), there is a trail above for a bird's-eye view which offers equally breathtaking sceneries.
Bask in this natural spectacle and don’t forget to take as many photos as you can!
Delicious Takachiho Beef
The best dinner option in Takachiho is Nagomi, a rustic restaurant that provides steak cuts in a set menu. It's ok to splurge here since you deserve a satisfying dish after a whole day of driving and sightseeing.
8PM MICHI NO EKI
A Japanese Pitstop without the Horror story
Now, this is certainly, 100%, not for everyone. However, if you want to say you've done road tripping in Japan all the way, this is a must-do. Sleeping in a car is one activity you won't be looking forward to on this trip; unless, you're like us.
Just imagine it as camping, it's snug and a pretty fun experience. Another key takeaway is the fast internet connection allowing you to stream Netflix.
8AM TAKACHIHO SHRINE
A Shrine Amidst Cedars and Cypress
An ancient, unpainted Shinto shrine dedicated to 2 gods with a mouthful of names—Takachihosumegami and Jisshyadaimyoujin—the best deities to pray to for your marriage aspirations.
Inside you’ll find the ‘Couple Cedar’, a fusion of 2 towering cedar trees. According to myth, you will be granted prosperity and safety if you walk around the trees 3 times, hand in hand with your partner.
9AM KAMISHIKIMI KUMANOZA SHRINE
A Verdant Stairway to Heaven
Kamishikimi shrine is nestled in the forests of Takamori, so you’ll be driving back up North to reach this hidden treasure. A well-known ‘power spot’ to the locals, but barely mentioned in travel guides—I wouldn’t begrudge them on that since this place is as pristine as Miyazaki’s drawings.
If you’re an otaku, you most probably know the anime and manga ‘Into the Forest of Fireflies’ Light’ (I just get solemn remembering the last scene). Anyway, this shrine is the aspiration for that wonderful work.
Moreover, the shrine’s sacred tree, Nagi, is another good luck charm for relationships because its leaves are hard to tear or break. Hike up and down the myriads of steps, taking pictures, admiring the lush greeneries, and wondering how on earth a place like this exist.
The World’s Largest Volcanic Crater
On your way to Kurokawa, you’ll be passing by the region of Mt. Aso—mainly grasslands bordered by mountain ranges, and a spectacular view of the volcano itself.
Lounge with a huge wooden sculpture of Kumamon. I hear you, who, what is Kumamon???
He is a black bear with round, red cheeks. Kumamon is an adorable and cuddly mascot created by the government of Kumamoto to draw tourists to their prefecture. Which in fact was a very successful strategy for he has gained international fame over the years, leading tourists down Kumamoto’s yellow brick road.
12PM KUROKAWA ONSEN
An Ancient Onsen Village
Your destination after an idyllic drive through Aso’s region is the village of Kurokawa—an onsen town like no other. Free of bright lights and hotel chains, you might just convince yourself of time travel, back to when the Feudal lords still rule.
Staying overnight in the seclusion of the mountains is the perfect luxury you can gift yourself. While there are dozens of onsens to choose from, we opted for Sanga Ryokan. A spacious ryokan with spectacular views of dense foliage and the roaring Tanohara River.
Their Tatami room (Tsuribana) has a private stone bath, and includes a 10-course meal (Kaiseki) for breakfast and dinner.
Price: ¥36,720 for 1night.
2 buses from KUMAMOTO station depart at 8am and 12:15pm for Kurokawa, with 3 hours travel time.
Fare: ¥2500 One way
There’s literally nothing to do here but to soak in the hot spring baths until your skin is all wrinkly. When you’ve had enough of that, you could head downtown wearing your Yukata for a stroll and to see how different and quaint Kurokawa can be from the other cities/towns you’ve visited.
Tips: 1)When wearing YUKATA, the LEFT side must always be on TOP. (Left-over-Right); 2) MEN should wear the belt at hip level and WOMEN should wear the belt at waist level.