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47 Prefectures from A to Y


Castle walls rise above clear waters

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  • Chinese

Kumamoto Prefecture is located at the heart of Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan's four main islands. Home to Mount Aso, one of Japan's foremost active volcanoes, the prefecture supports no less than 1,412 hot spring sources, while plentiful forest cover ensures groundwater is so abundant that Kumamoto City can offer natural mineral water straight out of the tap.

The signature sight in Kumamoto City is the high walls of Kumamoto Castle, which rise majestically beyond the city's downtown shopping arcades. Considered one of Japan's three premier castles, construction of Kumamoto Castle lasted seven years from 1601-1607, with extensive fortifications that incorporate a natural river among its moats and formidable mushagaeshi walls that grow steeper as they climb. The castle's main towers burned down for reasons unknown in 1877, but the mighty stone walls still held strong when the forces of the Kagoshima-based Satsuma Rebellion arrived just three days after the fire. While the current main towers are 1960 reconstructions, 13 original structures remain, including an imposing array of wooden turrets that are designated Important Cultural Properties.

Fourteen minutes sout-heast of the castle by city tram, Suizenji Jojuen Garden — more commonly known as Suizenji Park — represents the only traditional Japanese-style garden in Kumamoto City. Founded in 1636 as a private retreat for Tadatoshi Hosokawa, lord of Kumamoto Castle and late-life patron of the legendary swordsman Musashi Miyamoto, the garden features an artificial hill constructed in imitation of Mount Fuji and a crystal-clear, spring-fed pond believed to represent Lake Biwa in Shiga Prefecture. The circular garden path is said to lead visitors through a recreation of the 53 Stations of the Tokaido, the historic road linking Tokyo to Kyoto. While Suizenji Temple, from which the site took its name, has long since disappeared, this traditional location still attracts reminiscent visitors clad in kimono, while the timely tourist might spot a wedding being officiated at Izumi Shrine.

Roughly an hour and a half from Kumamoto City by car, Kurokawa Spa, or onsen, lies in the northeast of Kumamoto Prefecture. Each of the area's 28 hotels features an open-air bath, or rotenburo, fed by a different water source. And the varying mineral content has fascinating effects on the hot spring water. "There are places with white water, clear water, even green water," explains Nozomu Shiga, director of the Kurokawa Onsen Tourist Inn Association.

While Kurokawa's fame dates back to the Edo period, it was in the late 1970s that the local hotels each determined to offer a unique bathing experience. Poring over the brochure offered at the Kurokawa Spa Hotel Visitor Center, Shiga animatedly points out open-air baths distinguished by their splendid exterior views, their integration with rivers, trees or rock formations, or by their sheer size – and even a mixed bath carved out of a cave.

To let visitors get the most out of the region's hot spring variety, the Tourist Inn Association offers an 'onsen-hopping pass' — a bathing stamp card made out of a circular slice of cedar — which is valid for entry to three different spas at a reduced price. With an increasing number of foreign visitors, the Hotel Association now lists the many local hotels that offer services in English and Korean on its website.

Massive castles, pleasant gardens and unique hot spring experiences – whatever you choose to see in Kumamoto, you won't be disappointed!

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