Arrival in Kumamoto
Grey, heavy clouds shrouded our arrival our chosen traditional minshuku in Kumamoto, rainy season appeared to linger longer this year. The peaceful surroundings of the Honmyoji temple somewhat lifted our jet-lagged state of mind and we were determined to make the most of our first afternoon in Kumamtoto. Honmyoji’s edge of city location might not be considered by some as a prime location for exploring Kumamoto and a stay at the lovely minshuku ideally requires a car, despite the tram 1km away. Nonetheless, we were happy to discover the temple’s local neighbourhood on the walk down to the stop and ride the rickety tram into the town centre.
Stoll Through the Grounds of Honmyoji
We started our afternoon in Kumamoto by taking a stroll through Honmyoji temple. To our surprise the temple was calm and serene, no tourists seemed to reach its beautiful grounds. The main building sat just below Honmyoji Park and offered sweeping vistas of the sprawling city below. Budding lotus blossoms adored the courtyard and the faint chanting of the monks was audible. Taking the well-trodden stone steps we descended towards the tram stop.
Damage by the 2016 Earthqauke
At the centre of the staircase stood hundreds of stone lanterns like soldiers guarding the temple. Sadly some of the lanterns were toppled over by the vast force of the earthquake that damaged large parts of Kyushu and Kumamoto in 2016. The same fate had caused other parts of Honmyoji temple to collapse or be damaged, including the impressive Niomon gate, which was impassable and we had to take a short detour to reach the local high street and the closest tram stop.
Japanese Summer Rain
Passing the local shops the sky opened up and it started to rain and we raced for the shelter of the tram station. Japanese summer rain can be persistent and completely soak you. We knew we had to buy some umbrellas before our expedition would be drowned by the rain, therefore we decided to take a detour via the shopping arcade before reaching our planned destination, the beautiful Suizenji Jojuen Gardens.
Riding the City Tram
Thankfully we did not have to wait for long before a tram arrived. Streetcars are still a popular form of transport in cities of Japan and Jerome had always loved riding them on previous travels through the country, especially the older, wobbly ones. A day pass for the Kumamoto city tram (500JPY for adults and 250JPY for kids) can be purchased with the driver and proves to be very good value if you are planning on more than three tram journeys in a day. Pre-loaded IC cards like Suica and Pasmo are also a valid form of payment.
The tram ride was enjoyable, observing the passing cityscape, including Kumamoto Castle. We deliberately avoided a visit as scaffolding still veiled the structure due to the on going renovations after the earthquake. Having visited many castles in the past, including the most famous of all, Himeji, we happily focused our priorities on other sights in Kumamoto.
Covered shopping arcades are a common sight in Japanese towns and while some have a reputation of being old fashioned, Kumamoto’s esplanade however was vibrant and filled with many shoppers happy to be under cover from the torrential rain. We heading for the Daiso 100 yen store to purchase umbrellas when the opulent cakes and treats from Noji café caught the corner of our eyes and we could not resist the temptation. We probably should have had proper lunch instead but the pastries, especially the filled whole peaches, were pure heaven.
Visiting the Suizenjo Jojuen Garden
Back on the tram armed with umbrellas and a back pack full of all the wonderful things that 100 yen stores offer, we rode on towards the Japanese Garden, one of the major sights in Kumamoto. A short walk from the tram stop we reached the entrance of Suizenjo Jojuen. The popular sight was almost deserted due to the perpetual rain. However there was a group of girls, dressed up in colourful yukatas posing for photos. Kumamon (the cute bear mascot for Kumamoto) shaped fans adored the lavish bows. The girls seemed to be taken with our presence just as much as we savoured their outfits, especially Jerome with his long, curly hair.
Stroll Through the Beautiful Garden
Following the suggested route through the oranamental gardens, to fully immerse our selves in its artistry. The strolling garden depicts 53 scenes along the road from Tokyo to Kyoto. The lake echoes lake Biwa and the cone shaped mount can easily be recognised as Mount Fuji. The spring-fed lake is home to many gulping kois and a graceful heron. Crossing an arched bridge we reached the Izumi and Inari shrine. The crimson tori gates glowed in the grey, misty air and reminded us of the striking Inari shrine in Kyoto.
A group of Chinese tourists hidden under brightly coloured umbrellas slowly advanced along the gardens quiet paths like a giant caterpillar. Suizenjo Jojuen immaculate landscape was artfully dotted with hundred year old shrubs and trees. Compared to other esteemed Japanese gardens like Kanazawa or Okayama it is quite small in size, especially considering reputation. We were surprised to find a large number of souvenir shops on the grounds, all closed or closing due to the ceaseless rain.
Matcha and Wagashi at the Charming Tea House
The charming teahouse overlooking the lake looked too inviting and a hot cup of matcha accompanied by a wagashi sweet is still one of the most authentic ceremonies to savour a Japanese garden. Seated on tatami mats inside the Kokindenjiu-no-ma Teahouse, we were not only able to appreciate the remarkable views, but also the beauty of the traditional building and its long-standing history. Once a school for the king in Kyoto Imperial Palace during the 16th century it was moved to this site in 1912 and recently restored. The allure lies within its details, such as the elegant fusuma doors and the carved woodwork. Sadly Suizenjo Jojuen closing time at 17.00 meant we had to cut our afternoon tea shorter than we would have wished.
Hearty Ramen at Tengaiten
Taking the tram back into the town centre of Kumamoto we absorbed by the glitzy shops and department stores, albeit we refrained any further shopping temptations. Before returning to our lovely minshuku we had dinner at the tiny eatery Tengaiten. Worth the wait in a small queue, we happily slurped our hearty local hand made ramen, excited about our awaiting adventures in Japan and the perfect end to our afternoon exploring Kumamoto.
Where we stayed in Japan:
Sankara Resort treat yourself to a truly luxurious stay on the island.
Kirishima Kokusei for those wanting to stay in Kirishima Onsen
Ryokan Shinsen if you fancy a luxury ryokan experience
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