Monday, September 4, 2023

[KUMAMOTO] One of Japan's Three Famous Castles

At least according to Wikitravel. They list the castles of Kumamoto, Nagoya, and Osaka as the country’s most popular. I’ve visited the one in Osaka half a decade ago; Nagoya’s, I’ll see by the end of the month. For now, we launch our daily day trips with the destination nearest to Fukuoka via bullet train. A mere 40-minute ride on the Sakura shinkansen from Hakata, Kumamoto is an easy day trip, and probably a necessity if you want to maximize your JR Kyushu pass, since the Sakura is just one of only two bullet trains you can ride for free with that pass.

What greets you at the station is a huge black bear head, which is, perhaps, a playful jab on the city’s name. You can take a selfie alongside that bear head and call it a day, but do you really want to miss one of Japan’s three most popular castles? I kind of wanted to. I mean, these Japanese castles tend to look the same. It’s kind of similar to seeing too many red temples in China or pastel colored houses in the Caribbean. After a while, you can’t even distinguish them anymore from one another.

But I still went anyway. Kumamoto has a tram system instead of a subway and the city has some sort of partnership with the German city of Heidelberg, which seems to me the donor of those trams. The one-way fare is a flat JPY180 (~PHP70) and takes a mere 20 minutes from the train station to the castle. The admission fee to the castle itself is JPY800 (~PHP320). Ticket on hand, proceed to the series of stairs leading up to the castle grounds.

The castle was damaged by an earthquake, which is why you will see a lot of scaffolding everywhere because it is still under renovation. Once you reach the base, there are several selfie opportunities there including a samurai standee where you can insert your head in a hole with the castle in the background. If that is too wacky for you, then just sit on the bench next to it with what seems to be a fiberglass mascot of the castle next to you. The castle is also visible in the background from there.

I can no longer recall how the interior of Osaka’s castle looked like. I guess what surprised me about Kumamoto’s castle, though, is how the interior design is now very modern. Maybe it was necessary as part of renovation? Perhaps the castle’s interiors were heavily damaged and could no longer be reconstructed? In any case, you will find carpeted floors and wallpapered walls inside. In short, it does not look like a castle anymore in the absence of the characteristic wooden interior.

That is probably the reason why I got bored easily. Most of the displays inside only come with Japanese texts. You are free to download their app, though, for other languages. Since the castle provides free WiFi connection anyway, you have no excuse not to be educated. Or maybe this is just my excuse for not wanting to delve into Japan’s medieval history? I don’t know. I mean, castles and feudalism. It just feels like a shadow of an exploitative past that I am just not interested in at all.

And so, do I recommend Kumamoto? Well, yes, of course. There are other castles you will find on the island of Kyushu, but this is the most famous so far. The admission fee is cheap, and there is a lot of ground to loiter at if you are not into admiring Japan’s feudalistic past. Bring an umbrella with you, though, if you come during the summer. The outdoor cold wind blowing thingies they install provide some comfort, but unfortunately not enough to shield you from this sweltering September heat.

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