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Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2000

Rapt in the spell of a castle town


By STEPHANIE GARTELMANN

There's something exotic about a castle town, and Kumamoto is no exception. Kumamoto Castle's enormous fortifications and steps give an immediacy to the thrills and spills of history, and tower knowingly above its surrounds today.

The topmost turret of Kumamoto Castle commands a view of the entire town.

Below the castle, new arcades and cluttered old streets form Kumamoto's small downtown area. The city is noticeably green. Kumamoto was dubbed a "citadel of forests" by writer Natsume Soseki and the description still rings true -- Kumamoto is surrounded by forested hills.

Winter is a great time for walking around its many natural and cultural attractions. First, the castle beckons visitors from almost every angle in town to spend a few leisurely hours. Built in 1607 on the orders of the daimyo Kato Kiyomasa, it escaped harm for over 13 generations until it was mostly destroyed in a seige in 1877 during the Seinan wars. A replica tower was built in 1960, but the original stone foundations and soaring fortifications remain.

Inside, a museum displays maps, weapons, palanquins and other Edo Period treasures over five floors. There's a fabulous view from the top over Kumamoto and the castle's beautiful grounds, filled with giant elms, camphors and cherry trees.

Outside the castle's north gate is Hosokawa Gyobutei, a villa that belonged to the Hosokawa family who replaced Kato as lords of the castle in 1632.

The villa's graceful exhibits include antique kimonos, tea ceremony and day-to-day utensils that lend authenticity to its formal banquet rooms and living quarters. Gyobutei is set within a sweeping white sand garden, making it austere and tropical at the same time.

South of the castle is Shinmachi, Kumamoto's original merchants' quarters, where a handful of nagaya (elongated wooden buildings typical of the Edo Period) hold onto a precarious existence across from Meijubashi Bridge.

Some have been converted into elegant restaurants and cafes, and can be found squeezed in among the many new buildings alongside rickety temples and antique stores.

The Hosokawa family brought much energy to Kumamoto's cultural scene, especially fostering arts such as tea ceremony and flower arranging. The third Hosokawa lord created the superb Suizenji Garden in 1650.

With its miniature Mount Fuji, a replica of Nihonbashi Bridge and other scenes from the Tokaido Highway to Edo, this stroll-style garden is a fusion of detailed landscaping and lavish space.

During holidays and flower-viewing seasons, be prepared to share the peace with the usual clamor of megaphone-wielding guides and tour groups.

A well in Suizenji Garden is said to confer long life who drink from it.

Kokondenju-no-ma, a moss-covered wooden pavilion believed to date back to 1600, was moved to Suizenji in 1912 from Kyoto's Hachijo Castle for use as a tea room. Be sure to relax over a bowl of matcha green tea there, while gazing directly onto Suizenji's central lake.

Also in Suizenji is a spring whose drinking water is said to ensure longevity, and a shrine to Kato. Kumamoto has several of these curious shrines, built in honor of Kato, who was highly regarded for his many public works.

The city's cuisine, however, heavily reflects its folk culture. Horsemeat, for example, a Kumamoto delicacy that can cost up to 2,500 yen for a small sashimi-style serving, was once more common than beef. Incidentally, most horsemeat today is imported from the United States and Korea.

Another Kumamoto specialty with humble beginnings is chosen-ame, literally "Korea sweets," so named because the sweets' long shelf-life made them useful as soldier's rations during Hideyoshi's Korean wars of the 1590s, which Kato took part in. Simple blocks of sweetened mochi rice, chosen-ame are delicious. The best place to buy them is Sonodaya, a 350-year-old confectioner near Kamidori Arcade.

Kumamoto's more recent cultural relics include a house that writer Natsume Soseki lived in during his four years teaching at what later became Kumamoto University. It's furnished with photos, writings and personal effects. There's also a large picture of Soseki in a guise all readers know: the mustachioed gentleman on the 1,000 yen bill.

Soseki reportedly loved strolling through the lush hills surrounding Kumamoto, and a bus ride from town to Toge-no-chaya tea house will take you to one of his favorite walks. Today known as the "Kusa-makura (Grass Pillow)" walk, it was from the bamboo groves along this 15-km stretch that Soseki derived his inspiration for the book of the same name.

Kumamoto has a mood all its own and many consider it Kyushu's most stylish city. Downtown shop windows have long boasted designer names, and the youth scene brings color to the back lanes off Kamidori Arcade. It's fun to look around even if you don't buy anything (or can't fit into the Lilliputian sizes). Hip new eateries have appeared next to Kumamoto ramen shops, where tourists crowd in for bowls of the noodles in garlicky, heavy tonkotsu pork soup.

Just when you thought a castle town's history was set in stone, the stones start changing.

For more information contact Kumamoto Prefectural Tourist Federation at (096) 322-5060


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