Of the nearly half million American tourists visiting Japan annually (2004 figures), most trod the well beaten path between Tokyo, Kyoto and Nara, with day long side trips. For first time visitors to Japan, these destination cities and small day excursions are necessary routing. Especially in Tokyo, they will see the future of all modern cities, where some new innovation is bound to surprise even the most jaded observer.
To experience Old Japan, the cities of Kyoto and Nara are "must-sees," though you should know that they are both essentially huge museums, where the arts and customs of certain periods are preserved and memorialized for tourists. Marvelous as they are, visitors will find a clear delineation between modern everyday life in big cities and what is being kept of the past for the edification of those living today.
There's another way to see Old Japan, though, and that is by getting off the Tokyo-Kyoto-Nara well traveled path, getting off the main island of Honshu, in fact, and heading west and south. On my last trip, to experience the other aspects of Japan Past, I visited Kyushu, the farthermost of Japan's four main islands.
Eclipsed in size by Fukuoka (an industrial city on the northern cost of Kyushu) and in international fame by Nagasaki, the city and prefecture of Kumamoto are overlooked by the vast majority of American visitors. That's a pity, as here you can experience what Japan is like without the presence of many overtly foreign influences. Fewer locals speak English, fewer signs appear in Roman letters, and best of all, this is the place Miyamoto Musashi, author of The Book of Five Rings, chose to spend his last five years on earth, writing his epochal masterpiece in a cave.
Home to a progressive government, Kumamoto prefecture (akin to an American state) is largely agricultural, but has one of the most enterprising cultural programs in all Japan. Dubbed an "Artpolis" program, it strives to build new centers for culture while capitalizing on traditional aspects, many of which are on display. Major events are held every four years, the next being in 2008.
One Artpolis project sure to entertain is the Seiwa Bunraku Puppet Theater, where visitors can see the ancient art of bunraku performed by local artists (given here for the past 150 years or more!), nearly all of whom are farmers or workers in daily life. Having seen a performance of the Ferry Scene from Cherry Trees Along the Hidaka River on my recent visit and comparing it to professional performances in Osaka and Tokyo, I was amazed at how proficient the puppet managers (all female) were and how smoothly the play progressed. Performances are on the second and fourth Sundays of each month. More information at www.vill.seiwa.kumamoto.jp (in Japanese only).
Another program underwritten by the prefectural government is the traditional Kagura Dance in Aso City (formerly Namino Village). Dating back to the Tokugawa Period (1615-1868), the Iwato Kagura masked performances are connected to Shinto shrines, where they are staged, using elaborate costumes and minimal scenery. A typical dance portrays an elderly couple, their gorgeous daughter and a sword-waving hero, who has to slay a dragon before he can marry the fair lady. The big and ugly Iwato dragon, no slouch, snorted real sparks and steam before being chopped up by the fan waving, foot stomping suitor. Regular performances every first Sunday from April through November, except October, at 1 PM (lasting two hours). Admission is free. In October, the performance takes place at another location and costs ¥500 (about $5).
A fun project is making your own paper, which can be done at the shop opposite the entrance to Shirakawa Springs, in Hakusui Village. For just Y800 (about $8), you can make the paper for two postcards, pressing tiny dried flowers and glitter into the mulch before it is dried. Splendid paper products are on sale, too.
In Kumamoto City, the chief attraction is the castle, which has one keep (the Uto-Yagura) dating from about 1607, but the main tower of which was rebuilt in 1960 following its destruction in the Satsuma Rebellion of 1877. The main castle wall, the longest in Japan, measures 253 meters (about 830 feet). Open daily except Dec. 29-31, ¥500 admission (about $5).
If you want to buy local crafts, check out the Kumamoto Prefecture Traditional Crafts Center, opposite the castle's eastern border. Closed Mondays and December 25 to January 3; cyber.pref.kumamoto.jp.
Some 50,000 people live in Mt. Aso's caldera, the world's largest crater, through which a railroad happens to run. There are five peaks surrounding this crater, which is approximately 18 km (about 11 miles) by 24 km (about 15 miles), and one, Nakadake, smokes constantly. You can drive right up to Nakadake's edge unless the wind shifts in the wrong direction for viewing or if activity is above the Level Three at which I last visited. (That's on a scale of five, by the way, with TV cameras and particle detectors within the volcano monitoring every movement. Lava temperature in this crater reaches up to 1200 degrees Centigrade.) Even so, you will want to make your stay a short one, and to wear a mask or otherwise cover your mouth and nose. People with asthma, bronchitis and the like are warned to stay away. At the Nakadake site, you can visit a Volcano Museum, which is quite educational, with captions in English.
From May 11-14 in 2006, Kumamoto will be the venue for the 4th World Conference on Women and Sport, where the sponsors hope to have over 100 countries and 700 participants taking part. Held every four years, previous conferences have been in England, Namibia and Canada. More details at www.iwg-gti.org.
Odd Job for a Samurai
Having seen the Tom Cruise film, "The last Samurai," filmed in Kumamoto in 2003, I was curious about the allegation in Japan that his character was based on a real American who participated in the Satsuma Rebellion against Imperial forces in 1877. Stumbling on the story of L.L. Janes, about whom a book "Yankee Samurai" (1975, Princeton) was written, I thought I was onto something. But it was not to be. Although Janes was a captain in the American Civil War and came to Kumamoto to teach English in 1871, he was asked to leave the city in 1876 when he started mixing missionary proselytizing with language lessons. When some of his converts proudly declared themselves Christian, his school was closed and after a while, he left for home. So, yes, he was a samurai, but in the United States, not in Japan, where he was nothing more than a sensei, teaching English to the young. Both the Kumamoto Prefectural Government and Historical Society said they knew nothing of an American fighting with Saigo Takamori in "the last samurai" battle, which, incidentally, destroyed most of Kumamoto Castle. And Warner Brothers and a co-author of the script describe the film as purely fiction. There was a rebellion, but no Yankee samurai on either side of the battle.
Hotel Nikko is not only one of Kumamoto City's best places to stay, but is also in prime location, right in the heart of downtown, a short walk from the castle and alongside the longest covered shopping arcade in Western Japan, they say. Called Kamitori and Shimodori (Upper and Lower Streets), these pedestrian streets are crammed with restaurants, shops and amusements. Room rates start from ¥30,030 (about $290) for a twin. Check them out at www.nikko-kumamoto.co.jp tel. 096/211-1111.
If you really want to get away while maintaining a healthy budget, you could try the Momiji Ryokan, a Japanese style inn for fat cats, way out in the hinterland. Combining traditional comforts with nouveau riche taste, each suite has a private indoor bath and a private outdoor bath, pretty cool for luxury lovers. The Momiji Ryokan boasts sumptuous food and excellent service. The cost is ¥36,900 (about $365) per person, but that includes taxes, service charges and two meals (breakfast and dinner). More information at www.87momiji.com (in Japanese only).
The Japanese are quite like the French about one thing, and that's food. They want to know everything about what they are putting into their mouths, including the name of the farmer who grew the produce. Kumamoto is the country's leading producer of watermelons and tomatoes, among other items, and first in number of eco-farmers. (Kumamoto has a sister-state relationship with Montana, by the way, and raises a fair number of cattle.) As for drinking water, four natural springs here are recognized by the national government as being among the top 100 in Japan. I drank directly from one, Shirakawa (which spouts some 60 tons of water per minute) even carrying away some bottles I filled at the source.
Local specialties include basashi (marbled horse meat eaten raw with ginger or garlic and soy sauce), ramen (the soup stock is made with boiled bones of pigs and chicken), and shochu (a rice spirit, stronger than sake, and a bit like European plum brandies). Another is karashi renkon, lightly fried lotus root stuffed with mustard.
A typical modern Japanese eating place is Tetsujin, in the Shimodori Shopping Arcade, with everything from yakitori and sashimi to pizza. Typical cost, for chicken curry, is ¥580 (about $6). Phone 096/212-5551. Kamameshi ("burned" rice) lunch is a specialty at Aoyagi, also in the Shimodori arcade, at ¥1100 (about $11). Phone 096/353-0311.
You can reach Kumamoto by air from Tokyo or Kansai on three different airlines, taking only about two hours or one hour, respectively. The Nozomi limited express takes only 6 hours 20 minutes from Tokyo, just under 4 hours from Osaka.
If you want to see what the Japanese are like at home, try the home visit system offered by the Kumamoto International Foundation (tel. 096/359-2121; www.kumamoto-if.or.jp). In general, you are invited in the evening for tea, by families volunteering for this and hoping to make international friends. KIF will also answer any questions you may have about the area. Contact KIF at least one week before your visit.
Another organization providing free English-language guides around the city is the Kumamoto International Convention Bureau (www.kumamoto-icb.or.jp).
Note that the international phone and fax access for Japan is 011-81, then the area code given here and the number.
The website for Kumamoto Prefecture's Tourism Division is cyber.pref.kumamoto.jp/; the province's Tourist Federation is www.kumakanren.com; the Japan National Tourism Organization www.jnto.go.jp or www.japantravelinfo.com and The Visit Japan Committee www.japanwelcomesyou.com.
Visit the Frommers.com Japan Message Board to get advice and feed back from fellow travelers who have traveled to the land of the samurai.