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Friday, June 11, 2004

EXPLORING KUMAMOTO

Serendipity in the sticks


Staff Writer

I noticed a young boy staring at me from afar as I stood alone at the bus stop, poring over my tourist map. Then, with a shy smile and a face full of curiosity, he walked toward me. And when he got close enough for me to hear him, he opened his mouth and spoke.

News photo
A beautiful rosy sunset over the Ariake Sea, seen from Kusamakura Onsen Tensui.

"Have you ever been here before?" he asked politely.

"No," I answered.

"I come here a lot. I could show you around if you'd like," he said.

Taken aback by his boldness, but grateful for his kindness, I accepted his offer, and my tour of Higo Minka Mura began.

Located in deeply rural Kikusui in Tamana County, northern Kumamoto Prefecture, Higo Minka Mura is an outdoor museum-village of old homes. Opened in 1988, the village is presently comprised of seven old houses relocated there mostly from the immediate locality in this quiet corner of Kyushu.

Among these properties, which the museum hopes will convey an intimate sense of ordinary people's lives in the Edo Period (1603-1867), the "Former Sakai Family Residence" is a designated important national cultural property. Constructed in 1830, this single-story, two-roomed wooden farmhouse crowned with a lovely thatched roof gives off a powerful sense of nostalgia and of generations of lives lived out long before places like this had any connection with the wider world.

From there, my junior-high guide led the way through the whole village. It was like slipping back in time, seeing those old homes one after the other and trying to imagine how life was lived then. But then, just as the exit came into view, my young guide started striding off in a different direction.

"Please follow me. I think this may interest you," he said.

Through bushes and trees, the boy went. And there, at the end of a pebbly dirt path we came upon the kind of pit dwelling used in the Jomon Period (8,000-300 B.C.).

Seeping sunlight

A replica, yes, but to actually step down into this tentlike structure was quite a thrill. With a diameter of 5 or 6 meters and a fireplace in the center, the house was big enough for four to six people. And with sunlight seeping through small gaps between the branches and bark of the roof, the dark living space had a warm ambience -- and tremendous sense of history.

As we stepped out and back into the 21st century, though, my tireless tour leader suddenly turned around and said, "You should see the burial mounds before you go. This area is famous for them."

So, of course, we did. The three mounds, all designated important national cultural properties, were located right outside Higo Minka Mura in a large undulating area of greenery that looks more like a park than a burial site dating back more than 1,000 years. Of the three mounds, the most renowned is Eta Funayama Tumulus, which is believed to have been built in the latter half of the fifth century. When it was first excavated in 1873, this 61-meter-long, keyhole-shaped structure yielded a treasure trove of ancient jewelry, a crown and swords. Some 200 of these finds are now preserved at the Tokyo National Museum.

News photo
Some of the farmhouses (above) preserved at the Higo Minka Mura outdoor museum of old homes; one of the three ancient burial mounds close by the outdoor museum.
News photo

From there, it was back to the bus stop and warm "bye-byes" between me and the boy as he had to head off home. From there, I walked 10 minutes the opposite way to a hill called Tonkararin, which is pierced by strange little tunnels. No one knows who made them. No one knows for what reason. And no one knows when. Some of the tunnels are just wide enough for a person to enter, but even during the day, it was pitch black inside. When a local man ahead of me switched on his flashlight I saw we were surrounded by bugs scuttling about. Undeterred, the man entered one tunnel and ran through to the other side, from where he called me to follow. I only got a few steps in before bolting back -- no close encounters with bugs for me.

When considering a trip to Kumamoto Prefecture, tourist spots like Aso and Amakusa usually spring to mind, whereas quiet Tamana is relatively unknown. At present, this county is made up of one city and eight towns, but these will all be merged into one city next year. Not many tourists go there, but it's their loss if they skip the place, because not only are the locals genuinely warm and friendly, but there are various interesting spots that make for an intriguing voyage of discovery.

The town of Tensui, for example, was the setting for the famed writer Soseki Natsume's "Kusamakura," a haiku-like novel of everyday lives. At the end of 1897, Soseki arrived in Tensui to celebrate New Year's Day, staying at former politician Maeda Kagashi's second home. During his short sojourn, the writer met Tsuna, Maeda's second daughter, who became the model for the story's heroine, "Nami."

To mark the centenary of Soseki's visit, Kusamakura Onsen Tensui hot-spring resort was opened in 1997. Set on a high hill, the view for bathers of the Ariake Sea is magnificent. Hours soaking there can seem like minutes, as you just gaze out at the beautiful scenery.

And then there's the food. Tamana is the source of Kumamoto ramen, a quite divine dish comprising a thick, pork-based soup and thin ramen noodles. To add more spice, the right way to eat ramen in Tamana is to eat it with garlic chips, or pile them in the bowl -- who cares about stinky breath after a fine meal?

Serial slurping

Toen is a great place to start, because their soup is rather light and easy to digest. But once hooked, the craving for thicker, smellier ramen kicks in -- I ended up having four bowls in two days.

Ikegami, a local favorite, is raved about for its strong tasting and especially pungent soup. The owner, according to a regular customer, is an unfriendly man who never smiles. Nonetheless, the shop is popular because the locals are addicted to its ramen. That is why everyone's jaws dropped when the owner actually smiled and thanked me when I, a tourist, commented on how delicious his ramen was.

Tamana may not be on the list of hot tourist spots yet, but it has potential in abundance. This area is not just about sightseeing or jumping into a hot spring. It is more about interacting with the locals. The warmth and friendliness of the people there is something that city types like me can too easily forget. So much so, that on the plane back to Tokyo, I vowed to return -- for that ramen and to enjoy the company of my new friends.



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