Mascots are the tried and tested way to promote something in Japan, and when Japan organizes a national mascot contest every year to determine the most favored character, you know that mascots are serious business in Japan. Kumamon - a black and white bear boasting rosy cheeks - was the first winner of the national mascot contest in 2011.
Along with its victory came an imprint of the prefecture it represented, Kumamoto into the consciousness of travelers around the world. Kumamoto is home to Kumamoto Castle - one of Japan's top three castles - and Mount Aso which showcases the world's largest caldera. But other than these two world-renowned sights, Kumamoto Prefecture will take your breath away and elevate your travel to that of epicness with these five unique sightseeing spots.
1. Travel back in time at Yachiyoza Theater
Located in Yamaga in the northern part of Kumamoto, Yachiyoza Theater showed its first kabuki performance in 1911 and has been exhibiting the many complexities of human nature ever since. But even if you are not keen on kabuki performances, Yachiyoza Theater is still worth a visit. Divided into a main audience hall and an upstairs gallery, it offers a rare and enlightening glimpse into Japanese society as its colorful and intricately decorated ceiling tiles were actual product advertisements from the early 20th century. A microcosm of life in that era, indeed. After admiring the myriad commercials ranging from rice and sake to stationery and futons, be sure to go backstage and learn about how the stage itself is operated by humans turning a revolving turntable.
Yamaga also holds a light festival called "Hyakka-hyakusai" in February every year, where the rustic feel of Yachiyoza Theater is complemented nicely by eye-catching colorful paper umbrellas and intriguing hand-carved bamboo lanterns.
2. Admire the one-of-a-kind Tsujun Bridge
Fancy a bridge that can gush out water? Well, this experience is yours to claim if you make your way out to Tsujun bridge, a charming old arch bridge in Yamato, Kumamoto. Built in 1854 to provide a water supply for agricultural purposes, Tsujun Bridge comprises three stone aqueducts that can transport 15, 000 cubic metres of water in one day. Hence, in order to keep these aqueducts in pitch-perfect condition, water must be discharged once in a while.
You can observe this magnificent water discharge display at 1pm from April to May and from August to November. Don't forget to climb on top of this bridge to obtain a picturesque bird's eye view of the surrounding lush-green rice paddies as well as a up-close-and-personal view of the water discharge.
If the winds of fate blow your way and enable you to visit Tsujun bridge in September, don't forget to check out the Hassaku Matsuri, where local communities proudly parade their huge floats made up of Japanese pampas grass and bamboo down the streets of Yamato town. You might just find one Kumamon or two!
3. Soak your troubles away at Kurokawa Onsen
Kyushu is not known as "Onsen Island" for nothing, and indeed, onsens are a dime a dozen in Kumamoto. Nonetheless, Kurokawa Onsen more than holds its way against other famous onsen towns due to its many onsens located alongside trickling streams that flow through soothing wooden ryokans. Here, you can soak your stresses away and truly immerse yourself in nature For novelty's sake, you can even try out one onsen that is inside an underground cave (see picture above)! Accompanying serious contemplation of life not included.
Visitors will be well advised to first visit the information center when they arrive at Kurokawa Onsen so that they can purchase a wooden pass (tegata) that will enable them to partake in a rotemburo meguri (tour of outdoor baths). Once you obtain a tegata, you are eligible to enter three onsens of your choice for 1300yen. This saves you 200yen as the normal admission fee for one onsen is 500yen. Top up your savings with some more yen to buy some soft serve ice cream and count your blessings for being able to soak in the relaxing ambience of Kurokawa Onsen!
4. Be on top of the world at 3,333 Stone Stairs
Love trekking and the great outdoors? Then, I'm sure you can't possibly resist climbing the number one stone staircase in Japan. Tucked in Misato, this staircase consists of a grand total of 3,333 stairs made up of stone from all over Japan. Climbing this staircase will make you feel like a citizen of the world, as you ascend and look at the stones denoting their sponsors. Apparently, not only Japanese companies like the Japanese Post but also countries ranging from Korea to USSR had a part to play in building this staircase. This may just distract you from your fatigue as you revel in this show of unity displayed by both Japanese and non-Japanese alike - all in the name of building something monumental. Plus, looking out into romantically misty, green mountains will surely keep you going, 100 steps at a time. (Stone markers are placed every 100 steps to mark the progress of the climbers.)
Doubtful about whether you can make it to the top? Fret not! Misato Town organizes a climbing festival every November, in which local residents extend their hospitality by offering climbers local products at rest stops on the staircase. Food stalls and Taiko performances also await those at the main venue. Persevering alongside 999 other climbers (only 1000 people are allowed to participate in this festival) in a boisterous carnival-like atmosphere and feeling as if you're part of something bigger than yourself might just be the catalyst you need to push yourself all the way to the top.
5. Go deep at Kyusendo Cave
Kumamoto has the largest limestone cave, Ryusendo Cave in Kyushu. Here, not only can you see for yourself how limestone pillars are formed by stalactites and stalagmites, but you can also feel the cool breeze blowing on your face due to a gushing waterfall. But what impressed me most about this place was how it was used as a storehouse for wine. How clever of the local people to make use of Ryusendo Cave as a natural wine cellar!
You can choose to engage in one course from the two options available: general course (ippan) and adventure course (tanken). I would recommend that you sign up for the latter, for a mind-blowing, awe-inducing surprise would be unveiled at the end of your tour! I won't spoil the surprise by giving details here.
Other magnificent attractions abound in Kumamoto: Suizenji Park where you can observe archers strut their stuff (on horseback, no less) every April; Amakusa - the place that offers you great wild dolphin-watching tours and even greater seafood; Kikuchi Gorge for enjoying pleasantly cool waters in scorching hot summers; and many more. Indeed, a trip here will soon unravel why Kumamon has so much to be rosy about.