Drive Through Kyushu: 3 Days of Nature and History in Nagasaki, Kumamoto, and Miyazaki
Kyushu is the third largest island in Japan. It has a long history, bountiful nature, and plenty of tourist attractions to explore. We were given an opportunity to explore this region, so we packed our bags and mapped a path for three iconic prefectures: Nagasaki, known for its plethora of iconic sightseeing spots, including Dejima; Kumamoto, home to one of the three most famous castles in the country, Kumamoto Castle; and Miyazaki, full of natural beauty and spiritual places like Takachiho Gorge. Read on to see just what you can do in this majestic region in three days with a rental car!
Dec 21 2020 (Feb 02 2021)
[Day 2: Kumamoto: A Prefecture That Stands Despite Adversity]
On the second day, we got up bright and early so that we could drive ourselves all the way to Kumamoto Prefecture! It was an ambitious journey that took nearly four hours by car, but we decided on this because we would be able to make an interesting stop at Shimabara City within Nagasaki Prefecture.
Shimabara City: A Historically Significant Coastal Town
Despite being a popular tourist destination for the Japanese, not many international tourists know about this city. Shimabara is home to a castle, a geopark, and hot springs. It is located just 1.5 hours from Nagasaki Station by car, so it was easy to visit from our accommodation in Unzen City.
▪️ Shimabara Castle Tower Museum: Truly Fascinating Pieces of History Await
When it comes to size, Shimabara Castle isn’t the biggest one out there. However, it’s one of the more fascinating ones and was even designated as one of Japan’s top 100 finest castles by the Japan Castle Foundation. Apart from learning about traditional Japanese history, Shimabara had a large Christian population even back when Christians were being persecuted all across Japan and you can view items and works that detail their daily affairs back then at the museum.
The exhibitions were well themed and structured. Many of them even came with English explanations, with audio guides also available via QR code in English, Korean, and Chinese. At the top floor, we found an observation platform from which we could get a panoramic view of the entire city. Next time we come here, we’ll dress up in samurai armor, an option offered right at the museum entrance!
▪️ Shimabara Samurai Residences: An In-Depth Look into How the Samurai Lived
Our next destination before leaving Shimabara was the samurai residences area just a 10-minute walk away from the castle. There were signs in English leading up to this 400m-long area, with more signs posted right in front of each residence introducing the samurai that lived there, so we had no trouble finding and exploring everything.
Unlike many other exhibitions in Japan, the samurai residences were not blocked off by glass barriers or constantly monitored by someone, so we were able to take really close looks at the architecture, furniture, items, and so on. The only things we had to be careful about were keeping an acceptable noise level as actual Shimabara residents lived in the surrounding houses and not going into areas that had “Do Not Enter” signs.
Though we only briefly covered Shimabara City in this article, we actually have another article that goes into more detail about the city. Please check out this article for more information!
Kumamoto City: This Should Be on Everyone’s Bucket List
Since we had to wake up early the following day, we ended up seeing just two of Kumamoto’s most popular attractions: Sakuranobaba Johsaien and Kumamoto Castle. However, both of those spots were worth visiting, as we’ll explain in more detail below.
▪️ Sakuranobaba Johsaien: Treat Yourself to Local Delicacies
Located at the foot of Kumamoto Castle, Sakuranobaba Johsaien is a place for tourists to enjoy learning about Kumamoto Prefecture in various ways, be it through food or performances that explain parts of its history in Japanese. When we came, they were doing a samurai show, so we were treated to an exciting sword fight!
→ Kaimaru: Luxurious Seafood Dishes That Anyone Can Enjoy
We arrived well past noon, so we decided to have some food before properly exploring the area. Our first stop was a seafood specialty restaurant called Kaimaru, where we ordered their two main specialties: Uni Croquette Premium (400 yen) and Kaisen-duke Don Set Meal (1,650 yen).
Their Uni Croquette Premium definitely lived up to the hype. Despite having lots of uni (sea urchin) inside, it didn’t have any sort of fishy taste. Instead, it was beautifully sweet, soft on the inside while crispy on the outside, and easy to eat. As for the Kaisen-duke Don Set Meal, it looked and tasted premium, with a wide variety of seafood toppings that we later found out changed based on what’s in season and in stock. There’s a specific way to eat this meal: eat half of it as is, then add the provided broth to finish it up. The broth made the dish taste even more delicious as it was full of umami!
Though lots of people shy away from seafood because of its fishy taste, the ingredients used at Kaimaru are incredibly high quality and therefore easy to eat. If you absolutely can’t stand seafood raw, they also have cooked seafood dishes such as ten-don (tempura on top of rice). Even better, their menu comes in English and Chinese, so you should have no trouble placing an order!
→ Tente: Take Pictures of All the Instagrammable Sweets and Drinks!
This adorable shop offers all sorts of Instagrammable sweets and drinks that make use of local fruits that are at their freshest. We decided to get two of their bestsellers: the Kudamon Tea (600 yen) and the Kudamon Soft Ice Cream (500 yen). It was very easy to order, as the owner knew enough English. Apparently, the owner is fluent in Chinese as well!
Both the tea and ice cream were absolutely delicious and stuffed to the brim with local, seasonal fruits, making them a steal considering how expensive fruit is in Japan! They tasted extremely fresh, brightening our spirits after the long drive to Kumamoto. The tea was almost like lemonade but without being overly sweet, while the ice cream had a rich milky flavor that made us sigh in delight.
▪️ Kato Shrine: A Serene Location Within the Kumamoto Castle Grounds
After Sakuranobaba Johsaien, we headed towards Kumamoto Castle. Within the castle grounds, at the end of a long path, we came across Kato Shrine. This charming shrine was extremely peaceful, with a giant holy tree at the center. We spent some time looking at all the o-mamori (protection charms) on sale, taking in the side view of Kumamoto Castle, and praying for luck and safety during our journey.
▪️ Kumamoto Castle: A Sign of Hope for the Kumamoto Locals
At last, it was time to visit the castle itself!
Kumamoto Castle is one of the three most famous castles in Japan. In 2016, a series of earthquakes in Kumamoto damaged the castle, and ever since then it has been under reconstruction.
On June 2020, Kumamoto Castle opened up a special observation path as the second stage of its grand unveiling plan to commemorate the reconstruction of the main castle tower. Built six meters above ground, you can observe the damage that the castle took during the earthquakes as well as its recovery from a completely different angle. Though it did cost money, we just had to take the opportunity to have a look while we were in Kumamoto.
Some of us weren’t big fans of castles. However, Kumamoto Castle changed that perception entirely. As we walked the path, we grew to realize just how large the castle was and the history and hope it held for Kumamoto’s recovery from the earthquakes. At certain points throughout the route, there were security guards who were more than happy to explain more about the castle and reconstruction process, and at the end, we found ourselves at the Tenshukaku-mae Hiroba, the open square in front of the main castle tower. It was approaching sunset by then, so we were able to get some gorgeous shots!
Although getting to Kumamoto took a long time, it was well worth the journey to be able to visit this amazing castle. We can’t wait to go back when the main castle tower fully opens to the public!*
*The main castle tower will fully open to the public on April 26th, 2021.
The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.