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Monday, May 31, 2010

Trip to Kyūshū, Days 1 and 2 - Rain, rain go away 九州の旅5月22日と23日

It was almost 9pm on a Saturday night when my flight landed at Fukuoka International Airport 福岡空港 in a steady rain. The fact that there were few non-Japanese on the plane, and my having only a carry-on bag, meant I was able to move quickly through Immigration and Customs, and so was able to catch the 9:32 highway bus to Kumamoto 熊本 with plenty of time to spare. Two hours later, I checked into the Tōyoko Inn Kumamoto Suidō-chō Denteimae 東横イン熊本水道町電停前 hotel, showered and went to bed. Thus ended my first night back in Japan.

It was still raining when I awoke early the next morning, and it would continue to do so all throughout the day. In fact, it poured much of the time, stretching the waterproof limits of my backpack to their breaking point and beyond, with my passport getting soaked in the process. Despite the weather, I enjoyed the time I spent in Kumamoto, a city of 730,000 people and the capital (naturally) of Kumamoto Prefecture 熊本県. Using the city's tram system to get around, my first stop on the local sightseeing trail was Suizenji-jōjuen 水前寺城趣園, one of Japan's finest stroll gardens. It was finished in the early 1700's after about eighty years of work under three successive lords of the Hosokawa clan 細川氏, rulers of the Kumamoto Domain 熊本藩 for much of the pre-Meiji Restoration 明治維新 era. The layout recreates scenes on the Tōkaidō 東海道, the Edo period 江戸時代 road that ran between Edo 江戸 (now Tōkyō 東京) and Kyōto 京都. Mt. Fuji 富士山 and Lake Biwa 琵琶湖 were pretty obvious:

The one disappointment I had with Suizenji-kōen (other than the rain, of course) was that the 400 year-old Kokindenju-no-ma Teahouse 古今伝授の間 was closed for renovation. However, next up was Kumamoto-jō 熊本城, Japan's third-largest castle after the ones in Ōsaka 大阪 and Nagoya 名古屋. Like those two, this one is also a modern-day replica,dating from 1960, as the original burned down during the 1877 Satsuma Rebellion 西南戦争. The restoration work was done superbly, and even in the heavy rain, the main keep was a magnificent sight:

Like virtually all castles in Japan, both originals and reconstructions, the views from the top floors are fantastic. Here's what was like from high up inside Kumamoto-jō:

Back at ground-level, I walked over to the Go-ten Ōhiroma, the main reception hall of the castle that was only completed about four years ago (at great cost and effort). Another excellent reconstruction, you wander from room to room marveling at how the architecture and interior decoration could be so simultaneously grand and minimal. Here are a couple of examples of the artwork painted on sliding doors:

Admission to the keep and the reception hall was included on the same ticket, as was entry into the Uto Yagura 宇土櫓, the only turret to survive the battle which destroyed most of the rest of the castle:

The tourist authorities in Kumamoto certainly know how to provide value for your sightseeing yen, as the ¥640 ($7/NT225) combination ticket also included the Kyū-Hosokawa Gyōbutei 旧細川刑部邸, a large samurai residence originally constructed starting in 1688 for one of the branch families of the Hosokawa clan. It's yet another well-done restoration, a skill at which the city of Kumamoto seems especially adept at:

The Hosokawa-Gyōbu clan certainly lived well:

All this historical appreciation was working up an appetite for me, but restaurants were lacking in the area around the castle and the former residence. The nearby Kumamoto Prefectural Museum of Art 熊本県立美術館 had a cafeteria, but the deep puddles on the path in front were too wide to leap across, so it was a long walk before I finally found an accessible cafe in what turned out to be the museum's Chibajo Annexe 熊本県立美術館分館 on the opposite side of the castle park. This was the view from the fourth-floor window while I ate my curry rice カレーライス:

Just when I thought I had seen every kind of vending machine imaginable in Japan, I came across this one on the grounds of a colorful shrine, with amulets on offer. Hello Kitty ハローキティ amulets, to be precise, one of which became Amber's first present of my visit:

With my time in Kumamoto running short, I decided I'd had enough history, and checked out the modern side of the city, strolling through both the Shimo-tōri (pictured below) and Kami-dōri shopping arcades:

Around 3:30 in the afternoon, I picked up my bag from the hotel, took the tram to Suizenji-Ekidōri Station 水前寺駅通駅, walked from there to the JR Shin-Suizenji Station 新水前寺駅, and got on the slow train on the Hōhi Main Line 豊肥本線 to Aso 阿蘇, my next destination, arriving around 5:40pm. After a tonkatsu 豚カツ dinner at the Coffee Plaza East restaurant/photo studio (which explained the roadster parked inside), I checked into the Minshuku Aso-no-Fumoto 民宿阿蘇のふもと, my home for the next two nights. The rain had eased up somewhat by this point, which bode well for my hiking plans for the following day.

That evening, the rain came down in buckets, and the local TV channels were flashing onscreen warnings of heavy rain in the area. At the same time, there was talk of the precipitation peaking that night and then moving on. In any case, it was out of my hands.

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