Kyushu: Kumamoto + Aso boy!

Golden Week has come and gone without my having gone anywhere or done anything in particular (too many crowds and too little money), but it’s taken me a while to put my photographs in order from my Spring vacation trip. Christabel, a friend of mine from college, was moving to Korea at the beginning of April and happily, we were able to organise a trip together in Japan at the end of March. I persuaded her to come visit Kyushu with me, as I wanted to have another experience like my Shikoku trip from last year. I had wanted to travel all around the island and take a ferry out to Yakushima, a small island with really old trees that I’ve heard influenced the forest in Miyazaki’s film Princess Mononoke. Some of my friends went hiking there last year and it sounded amazing. But our time was a little tight at 6 days, so I decided to stick with northern Kyushu this time.

I was originally going to fly down, but the flights from my nearest airport were ridiculously expensive for an hour’s journey, and as I researched flights from Osaka to Fukuoka, I found that the cost of getting the train was about equal in terms of cost, and more direct – two trains from Kanazawa to Kumamoto, instead of two trains, an aeroplane, a subway and another train. It cost just over ¥20,000 (approx. €150) one way, and took 6 hours, about the same about of time it would have taken me with all those other forms of transport. Even though it was a long journey I quite enjoyed it, as one of the trains was a shinkansen, and I don’t often have the opportunity to take it (it’s coming to my region next year though).

We were to be going on a lot of trains over the next few days, so Christabel got a JR North Kyushu 3-day rail pass for ¥7,000, which was a really good deal. Unfortunately I couldn’t get it because it’s only available to non-residents of Japan. Unlike the All-Japan rail pass that my family had to buy online before they came to Japan, this ticket is available for purchase inside Japan. Christabel said they were quite strict about checking her passport and visa status when she bought it, though at the other stations and trains we went to, they never asked to see her passport.

Christabel flew in to Fukuoka at the north of the island and got the train down to meet me in Kumamoto, about half-way down. We didn’t have much time in Kumamoto, just a night and a morning, and I’m ashamed to say we didn’t see Kumamoto castle, one of the best castles in Japan. We did see the most famous resident of Kumamoto though, this guy, Kumamon:

Japanese cities have their own mascots that they put on souvenirs to sell to tourists, and that they have people dress up as for events. Every year, Japan has a competition for the best mascot in Japan and Kumamon won in 2011, having been only recently created in 2010 to celebrate the opening of the Kyushu shinkansen. Since then he has become hugely popular all over Japan, and even famous on the internet for this meme.

He was everywhere in Kumamoto. You couldn’t look up without seeing him giving you directions or about to jump from a window.

Kumamon door

Kumamon window

Even though we didn’t get to the castle, that’s not to say that we didn’t have a busy morning. We went to Suizenji-koen, a garden that recreates the 53 stations of the Tokaido (the road that connected Tokyo with Kyoto in the Edo period). It was pouring rain when we got there, but we fortified ourselves with ikinari dango (Japanese sweets made of sweet potato and red bean jam) and tea at a souvenir shop outside the garden. We walked around the mini Tokaido in the rain like these travelers who got caught in a rain shower at the 45th station (Hiroshige).

Suizenji koen 1

Although I can imagine it being more beautiful in sunny weather, the rain added an extra sense of mystery to the Alice in Wonderland-like garden that had patchwork grass, gardeners pruning trees on three-legged ladders, and a mini Mount Fuji.

Patchwork grass

Suizenji koen gardeners

Mini Mt Fuji

Mini Inari shrine

Suizenji koen blossoms

Suizenji koen 3

The other place we visited was Lafcadio Hearn’s house. In the future I would like to do a post about him because he had a very interesting life. Lafcadio Hearn (known as Koizumi Yakumo in Japan) had an Irish father, a Greek mother and lived in Ireland and England when he was growing up. He worked as a journalist and writer in Cinncinati, New Orleans and Martinique before moving to Japan, where he wrote and taught English for the rest of his life. He lived in Kumamoto for three years and his house has been preserved. Christabel and I were the only visitors to the house that day and when we told the man working at the reception that we were Irish, he was delighted and gave us a tour around the rooms in a mix of Japanese and English, which was surprisingly informative.

Lafcadio Hearn's house

After lunch, we left Kumamoto on a special sightseeing train – the Aso Boy! (actually pronounced aso-bo-ii). Only two run per day each way between Kumamoto and Mount Aso, a volcano in the middle of Kyushu.

Asoboy train

Asoboy Kuro

It caters for families with children, because as well as the regular reserved seats, there are carriages with special adult-and-child seats, a play area and even a little children’s library. Although we were unfortunately too big for any of the kids facilities, we enjoyed looking at how the train was designed and decorated, as it was very unique. We got off at Mount Aso station (still in the pouring rain) and got two more trains to Yufuin, where we explored the next day, and which will be the subject of my next post.

Asoboy library

Aso Kuroemon

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