Why does Kumamon always look so happy in Kumamoto?

I would too and it’s because of the abundance of food to eat and things to do. One of the best day trips to do in Kumamoto is to head to Mount Aso and the Takachiho Gorge. That was honestly the first thing I did on my first full day.

I booked my day trip to both places with Helen of Explore Kumamoto. She is a British lady who has been in Japan for the past 20 years. She is also super nice and helpful and she runs a very personalized tour of just 9 people from a minivan. The meeting point is Higo Ozu station, a short 30 minutes train ride away. I packed my bottle of water and a packet of prawn crackers, Japanese of course as set off from Kumamoto at 730am to meet her and the group at 824am. You can also take the cute mini bus that departs from the train station if you want to do the tours on your own but I think you then only get time for 1 a day and not both.

Our first stop was Takachiho Gorge. It’s situated in a very quaint town and the gorge is not big but it’s beautiful when the sun shines down and you can see a cute rainbow. I love rainbows. We paddled in the boats and also walked the whole gorge and Helen tells us cute stories about the history of the place. If you do the tour on your own, you can also visit the Takachiho shrine which is rather big and beautiful.

We stopped here for lunch and I had the water slide cold somen noodles that was really fun as you had to catch your own noodles as it goes down the bamboo tube. The taste is ok and I liked the grilled fish that comes with it too. The shop is run by ladies who speak little English and Helen was the one who helped them write English signs and thus, she’s quite popular with the locals here. There is also a chicken place that you can eat at if you don’t fancy cold noodles and the half of the group who ate there said it was delicious.

After our lunch, we headed to the view points of Mt Aso. Sometimes, if there is too much ash or the wind is blowing the wrong way, you can’t go all the way to the top. That day, the wind was obedient and we went up all the way to the crater where we could see the water in the crater and the surroundings it didn’t last long though as after about 5 minutes, we had to walk away from the crater as the wind direction changed and we all choked on the poisonous sulphur dioxide. The Japanese security immediately asked us to clear the area and we went to the other view points nearby.

We had to clear the area shortly after this photo was taken

The drive up and down Aso was beautiful

These are not clouds but vapor from the volcano

Mt Aso up close was so amazing as it’s probably the closest you can get to an active volcano. You can also hike up and down but if the wind direction changes then you may have to hike down quickly or risk choking to death. Definitely not for me as I’m a slow hiker 😂

One of the cute view points was the rice bowl that’s turned upside down on the way down from Mt Aso. We stopped by for photos and a story by Helen. The story was of one of the Gods who had a slave whom he didn’t treat very well. Everyday, the God will shoot an arrow and the slave would have to run for the arrow he shot so as to retrieve it back so he can shoot again. One day the slave got tired and upset and he just threw the arrow back at the God. The God got very angry and decided to kill the slave and buried him under this small mountain. When the slave was killed, there was a terrible drought that year and none of the rice crops could grow and they all had to starve. The villagers thus have to sacrifice baby animals to appease them to have a good harvest again at this mountain, and god harvests of rice and fruits they did year after year.

Looks like an over turned rice bowl right?

The furry mountain opposite the rice bowl mountain

The next day, as it was Sakura season, I went to Kumamoto castle to see them at their best. Kumamoto castle is now closed due to the earthquake that destroyed quite a bit of the walls and made the castle unstable. They’re now doing restoration work such that they can reopen it again soon. Hopefully soon enough for the rugby world tour. The grounds around it is still beautiful to stroll around and the sakuras didn’t disappoint. There is also a shrine that survived the earthquake and from there, you can get a good closer view of the castle.

Near the castle grounds, there is a museum called Chibajo Annex and it’s quite a cool museum which architecture reminds you of Spain rather than Japan. It’s a free museum so do drop by if you’re around the castle grounds and have time to spare.

I love gardens and thus, I headed to one of the most beautiful gardens in Kumamoto called SuiZenji Jojuen. SuiZenji Jojuen was rebuilt after world war 2 and it’s a perfectly manicured garden with a lake and also 2 very important shrines.

The mini Fushimi Inari Shrine, which is brother to the bigger one in Kyoto and the SuiZenji main shrine which you cannot miss as it has the fountain of immortal water straight from Aso. There, the water is supposed to be amazing for making tea or just drinking straight up, which was why this gardens was chosen as the spot for drinking tea.

A good spot for drinking tea is at the main tea house where you get to relax and enjoy your green tea with a sweet snack by the lake. There is a resident white bird there that loves to stand on the rock. This gardens is easily reached by tram A from Kumamoto JR Station. Just get off at SuiZenji koen stop. The same tram also gets you to Kumamoto castle and the shopping area.

If you like shrines, there is a large one called Fujisaki Hachimangu shrine which is one of the most important in Kumamoto. You can pray here for a good year and I hear there is a horse festival held here in autumn!

If you love sunsets like I do, one of the best places to see this in Kumamoto is at the top of Hanaokayama. You can see the white stupa from JR Kumamoto station. Google maps led me up and also down. The hike up was pretty steep and it’s through a cemetery near the top and thus, I decided against staying for the complete night view as I didn’t want to hike down the cemetery at night and alone and it didn’t seem like it had lights at that part. The sunset was spectacular there and there were many sakura trees who were shedding their petals as the wind blew when I was there. Something amazing to experience as you watch the orange sun set and the city slowly lighting up.

There is also a super huge tori gate nearby so remember to go find it by walking towards the sunset. It’s the biggest I’ve ever seen! The views of the the city was real nice and on a clearer day you can see all the mountains around including Mt Aso. A must do for one of the evenings there so you can eat more after the hike 😂. I hiked Really quickly down as soon as the sun set I was being bitten by mosquitoes and I didn’t want to walk by the cemetery alone in the dark. If you have company or have driven up, you should stay for the night view as I’m sure it’s beautiful from up top.

If you love shopping and eating, you can head to the pedestrian stretch at Nishi – Ginza and Sakae Dori. There are a lot of shops and restaurants selling everything. In Kumamoto, they produce good horse meat and also Red Bulls that feed on the fresh green grass in Mt Aso and both meats are delicious. There is also the black pig that is delicious and the best way to eat it is in Katsuretsu Tei which is Michelin awarded and is one of the top restaurants in Kumamoto. Of course ramen is also fantastic, because they boil the pork till it melts in your mouth!

Here’s what I had in my few days here.

Soba that’s Michelin rated at Kaminouradori Sekkasambo. This is located near the shopping and pedestrian stretch and they serve lunch and dinner. I had the cold soba with duck and it was delicious. The other lunch option was the tempura with cold soba. You can also have it hot but I ordered the cold as they serve it on the bamboo tray. The way the chef makes it he seems very meticulous about his movements and the way his soba is done. Lunch set comes with an appetizer and dessert for only 1750 yen! Delicious and adorable!

Deep fried pork cutlet at Katsutetsu Tei was soo soo good I went back twice. It’s located in the city. I went Once for dinner and once for lunch. They are Michelin rated as well as won the number 1 spot for best Japanese restaurant in 2016. You take a number and wait for your turn. There is always a queue but it moves rather quickly and you can sit comfortably to wait for your number.

For dinner, I ordered the Atsuage Roast Tonkatsu Zen to try and it bowled me over. The meat was so tender and juicy inside and the crust was perfectly crispy. It was so juicy when you bite into the cutlet the juice flows out. The fats also melts in your mouth. This is the best pork cutlet I’ve ever tried in my life. It’s executed to perfection I must say. The pork they use is from Kagoshima and it’s the special one called the Roppakku Kurobuta which is the premium Berkshire. It’s the meat they use and the way they fry it that makes the crust so light and the pork so juicy. It comes with free flow of tea, rice, cabbage and miso soup of course. I added a piece of premium prawn and a normal prawn. The premium prawn was thicker and bigger than the normal one but they both come with the perfectly fried, fluffy and crispy bread crumb crust. Super yummy at 3500 yen!

For lunch on weekdays, they feature a different set. I ordered the lunch set to see if the pork quality differs from the more expensive version. It was just as juicy and good. I guess for the Japanese, there cannot be anything inferior. The lunch set version featured the roast cut, fillet and a prawn. The fillet is lean but still soft and the roast was a little less fatty but not less juicy than the premium one. The prawns are delightfully tasty in the same fluffy crispy bread crumb crust. YUMMY! And only 1350 yen! If you love coffee you can also have a complimentary cup on top of the tea, rice, cabbage and miso soup!

I love beef yakiniku and I tried the Red Bull Asuage beef at Hitokire Red Bull Roast. In Japanese it’s called Ajitore. The chef speaks very little Japanese but they have an English menu. This little gem of a place is near Sakae Dori and servers the cows that are from Mount Aso. I’ve seen the Red Bulls on mount Aso, they’re actually dark reddish brown that gives them the name Red Bull and they really graze on the pastures of Mount Aso and Helen did tell me they’re very soft and tasty! She was right! I ordered the beef set and the beef tongue, my favorite and they both didn’t disappoint! The chef even showed me how to grill and cook the thinly sliced tongue. Their appetizer of simmered beef that he flames just before serving you was delicious. I ordered the pickled cucumber and yam and both were delicious too!

All the nice cuts and not too expensive

Next, I had to try Horse meat! I didn’t try it at the specialty restaurants but I did so at a very lively Izakaya called Yokobachi right in the city too. I fancied some sashimi, horse meat and beef and the tuna sashimi with Uni was good as was the grilled horse meat and grilled beef. They also had fried chicken wings and a good drinks menu. You can also have horse meat as a sashimi. It looks like beef and when grilled taste like beef, but has a less beefy taste. It’s also supposedly healthy as there is less fat but its super soft.

The horse skewers were very good

For ramen there are a few in Kumamoto that is top rated. Both you can find at JR Kumamoto station. There is Tengaiten which I tried and also Keika Ramen. They both also have a branch in the city and I decided to try Tengaiten‘ spicy ramen as it seemed like there was more of a crowd there. The broth was deliciously thick and a bit salty and I order extra char siew. The pork was super tasty and soft but slightly less soft than the one I tried in Kagoshima. The broth was similar consistency. The noodles here are better as it’s thin like the one in Ippudo and Ichiran which I prefer. I added garlic and pickled ginger and it gave the noodles a kick. Yummy and only 780 yen a bowl.

If you love chicken yakitori, I tried the one at JR Kumamoto station and it’s chicken skin and chicken gizzard was super good! It was sold out by dinner after my hike down Hanaokayama. Their roast pork served with onions was also delicious and I saw a few people having their hot pot.

I also tried Amakusa sushi hero at JR Kumamoto station and it was not bad for the sashimi plate. The simmered horse meat was delicious too!

Kumamoto marks the end of my Kyushu journey and it’s a short train ride on the Shinkansen back to Hakata, Fukuoka for my flight back to Hong Kong.

The cuisine in the south of Kyushu was amazing as I love my meats as well as ramen and the volcanos and hot springs are so wonderful. I will love to come back to explore further south to Yakushima island and also the other parts I’ve not been.

Till then, never stop wandering


Stella goes west

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