On the West coast of Kyushu, Kumamoto is one of the islands biggest cities, and you’re likely to pass through it at some point on any trip around the island. It’s worth stopping for at least a day, not least to see its beautiful castle – I visited a few times in late 2013.
Kumamoto is easy to reach via the Kyushu Shinkansen, which passes through roughly midway between Fukuoka and Kagoshima, but it’s also served by limited express trains on other lines – including the Trans Kyushu Limited Express, which runs east to towns including Beppu.
Once you arrive, getting around the city is easiest by tram – there’s a stop right outside the main JR station. If you’re heading into the city centre you want the platform that’s right in front of you, with trams heading from right to left on the A line – this runs past the castle. The fare’s 160 yen, payable in cash when you exit.
The most famous sight in Kumamoto is pretty hard to miss: the castle, considered one of the finest in Japan, is right in the city centre. The keep (top) is reconstructed, the original having burned down during the Satsuma rebellion, but other sections are original.
Entry costs 500yen, but that allows you to stroll around the whole grounds, climb the keep and also visit the spectacularly reconstructed interior rooms. I visited on a weekend, so it was absolutely packed with Japanese visitors, but there were also talks and performances being given inside, alongside lots of information about the castle’s history and reconstruction.
It’s also worth mentioning Kumamon – the black bear mascot who seems to be ever-present in Kumamoto itself, and crops up regularly in the rest of Kyushu – I even caught him being interviewed on national TV. Apparently he was recently voted the most popular mascot character in Japan.
Kumamoto does such a good line in characters, in fact, that there’s another popular one: Kuro-chan the dog is used to promote the trains through to Aso, and in particular the completely crazy Aso-Boy limited express (sadly I didn’t manage to catch it, but check out the pictures on Wikipedia – bottom of this page).
Kumamoto has loads of accommodation, but I arrived late after a failed attempt to get across the water from Shimabara and so checked into the JR Hotel, right by the station. It’s nice, but a short tram ride to the downtown shopping and restaurant areas. The local dish is taipien – a bit like Nagasaki’s Champon, but with vermicelli noodles.