Festival Island: Kyushu’s Rich Cultures Come Together in Kumamoto

Lily Crossley-Baxter

From fire-breathing dragons to delicate dancers, the festivals of Kyushu are a magical introduction to the island’s culture and traditions.

Tobata Gion Oyamagasa Festival, Fukuoka
Tobata Gion Oyamagasa Festival, Fukuoka | Photo by Lily Crossley-Baxter

As Rugby World Cup fans descended onto Kyushu‘s shores in autumn 2019, a unique event showcased the island’s rich cultural heritage and strong sense of unity. Japan’s third-largest island, Kyushu is home to seven prefectures: Fukuoka, Kumamoto, Nagasaki, Oita, Saga, Kagoshima and Miyazaki, but is also the adoptive home of neighbors Okinawa and Yamaguchi. Joining together to present their cultural festivals, cuisines and traditions over the course of two jam-packed days in Kumamoto, the prefectures presented a snapshot of life in Kyushu.

Yamaga Tourou Matsuri, Kumamoto
Yamaga Tourou Matsuri, Kumamoto | Photo by Lily Crossley-Baxter

Japan is the land of festivals, with over 400,000 held in villages, towns and cities across the country. Offering visitors a chance to experience the atmosphere and energy of night processions as well as the elegance of ancient ceremonies, they are a rare window into the local side of everyday life in Japan. Displaying a huge range of highlights including samurai processions, bon-odori dances and towering lantern floats, the Matsuri in Kyushu event selected 38 local festivals, including the island’s five UNESCO-certified Intangible Cultural Heritage displays.

While the Matsuri in Kyushu event itself was a one-off celebration, it served as a stage for the many festivals and experiences Kyushu has to offer. Aiming to encourage visitors to take a step off the well-worn paths that take many from Tokyo to Kyoto to Hiroshima and home again, it’s a promising start.

Sightseeing and shopping in Kumamoto

A small city known mainly for local mascot Kumamon, Kumamoto is a friendly spot with a downtown feel. Trams are the best way to get between sights and are part of the experience on their own, with many running for decades.

Kumamoto Castle: Rebuilding and renovations

Kumamoto Castle donation box
Kumamoto Castle donation box | Photo by Lily Crossley-Baxter

One of the city’s most famous spots is the 17th century castle, which was heavily damaged in the 2016 earthquakes that shook the city. While it once offered one of the most beautiful castle tours of Japan, complete with carefully reconstructed keeps, halls and gates along with beautiful gardens, it is now undergoing serious repairs. With severe structural damage and entire sections lost, it is expected to take 20 years to return the castle to its former glory.

Today, visitors can view the castle from the nearby grounds and donate to the project. Still a landmark for visitors, the castle stands as a symbol of the city’s strength and its perseverance in the face of adversity.

Suizenji Garden: Japan in miniature

Suizenji Park Kumamoto
Suizenji Garden view | Photo by Lily Crossley-Baxter

Hop on one of the city’s beloved trams for a stroll through the beautiful Suizenji Garden; a portrait of Japan in miniature. Recreating scenes from the 53 post stations of the Tokaido Road, visitors will spot a grass-covered Mount Fuji, the central Nihonbashi Bridge and Lake Biwa, among other landmarks from Japan.

When Tadatoshi Hosokawa became the first Lord of the Kumamoto Domain in 1632, he built Suizenji Temple beside the castle grounds, shortly followed by the teahouse—forming the beginning of the current gardens.

Perfected and funded by his successive lords, the garden took on its final shape and has remained largely unchanged to this day. Visitors can sip from the sacred waters of longevity flowing fresh from Mount Aso, explore the plum and cherry tree groves and take tea in the ancient teahouse—not to mention admire the statues, engraved haiku and temple buildings dotted throughout the grounds.

Busy shotengai: Street food and souvenirs

Karashi Renkon snacks in Shimotori Shotengai, Kumamoto
Karashi renkon chips | Photo by Lily Crossley-Baxter

Two main shopping arcades can be found in Kumamoto, packed full of shops, stalls, street food and cafes. Shimotori is the longest in the city at over 500 m and has more bars and restaurants than the shorter Kamitori. Packed with plenty of modern shops and older ones too, it had a bustling feel with bright lights and remains crowded at night as the bars and eateries draw in the crowds.

At 360 m long, Kamitori is unusually European as the roof was modeled on the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, with huge skylights. Considered more laid back than Shimotori, this arcade has a mix of old and new shops with side streets offering bars and restaurants in the evening.

Sakura Machi: Rooftop gardens and shops galore

The newly built terminal and shopping space | Photo by Sakura Machi Kumamoto

Newly opened in September 2019, this mega-center is the new heart of Kumamoto. Home to the bus terminal, a shopping mall, hotel, apartments and a giant Kumamon who presides over the city, Sakura Machi impressive to say the least. Since Kyushu relies heavily on buses over trains, this transport hub is somewhere you’re likely to visit during you’re stay, with the rooftop garden and food courts making it hard to leave.

Housed in a Kuma-like design, the building is a short walk from the castle and offers views of the repair work in progress from its many balconies as well as the roof. There are 149 shops to browse, covering pretty much everything, from Daiso to a specialist anime store, but one thing is missing: a book shop. Keen to encourage visitors to head out into the city, it left some things missing, tactically choosing books as a guaranteed gateway to the city.

Sakuramachi Tourist Information Center, Kumamoto
Information desk | Photo by Lily Crossley-Baxter

The restaurant floors and food courts are a mix of local restaurants and national chains, while the souvenir shops come second to none. Be sure to head to the tourist information center on the second floor—all staff speak a minimum of four languages and one member walks the building with a tablet offering support in over 40 languages.

Food in Kumamoto: Ramen, renkon and delicious sweets

Kumamoto Ramen, Kokutei, Kumamoto
Kumamoto ramen | Photo by Lily Crossley-Baxter

From ramen to fresh fruit, Kumamoto is a foodie haven, with plenty of unusual local specialties to try. In Japan, the first one that springs to mind isn’t quite so popular around the world—and that’s horse meat. Known as basashi, it is served raw or cured and is often a popular souvenir. If that’s not quite up your alley, don’t worry—there’s plenty of other treats to try. The local ramen, pictured above, features blackened garlic and raw egg yolks, perfect when mixed in with the thick tonkotsu broth (best done in your soup spoon it turns out). For savory fans, it doesn’t get much more savory than the mustard-covered lotus root known as karashi renkon. Yellow, strong and weirdly addictive, it’s worth a try, even if it is only the chips!

Karashi Renkon, Kumamoto
Karashi renkon | Photo by Lily Crossley-Baxter

For something a little lighter, taipien is a fusion of local Kumamoto and Chinese flavors. A busy trade port in Japan, Kumamoto has adopted the dish over the centuries along with other international flavors. The mild soup contains vermicelli noodles made from bean starch cooked with cabbage, shrimp, a battered boiled egg and squid, among other ingredients. Found in the Kamitori shopping arcade, the local’s head to Kourantei Chinese restaurant when craving this dish.

Ikinari Dango - Suizenji Garden, Kumamoto
Ikinari dango | Photo by Lily Crossley-Baxter

If you’re looking for something sweeter, then the simple, homemade ikinari dango are a great option. A sweet potato and red bean filling wrapped in mochi, they’re sold all over the city, including stalls outside Suizenji Garden. Jindaiko is also a popular snack—a mochi ball covered with red bean jelly. If you’ve just left Kourantei and have space for a treat, head to Houraku Manjuu for some freshly made pancake-like cakes with red or white bean paste. They’re common around Japan, but these have the unusual twist of a dash of honey.

Kyushu’s Festivals and experiences: Get involved

Omuta Daijayama Festival, Fukuoka
Omuta Daijayama Festival, Fukuoka | Photo by Lily Crossley-Baxter

Aside from simply looking amazing, festivals in Japan offer a chance for visitors to get involved. A relaxed atmosphere, high spirits and community activities can be a great way to experience different elements of Japanese culture. If you’re planning ahead for a trip to Kyushu, there are a few opportunities to keep in mind. In Kunisaki, Oita, you can visit the annual fire festival complete with guide, a temple dinner and bus pick ups (to avoid crowded transport).

For a year-round (and slightly quieter) experience you can try dressing up in a Kimono to explore the streets of Hagi—an ancient samurai town. For an added twist, the ornate lantern headdresses of the Yamaga lanterns (pictured above) can be worn to explore the historical Buzen Kaido road in Yamaga City

Kangetsusai Tea Ceremony Sweet
Tea ceremony | Photo by Lily Crossley-Baxter

If you are lucky enough to be in Kyushu in October, the Kangetsu-sai Moon Viewing event is an unmissable experience. You can step back in time to participate in this ancient tradition—making your own lantern, enjoying a tea ceremony and more.

Check out the full calendar of events in Kyushu so you can plan your trip with an unusual local twist.

Pro tip: See a country-wide map of popular Japanese festivals.

An island packed with unusual festivals and plenty to keep visitors entertained in between, Kyushu is the perfect destination for those looking for a unique adventure in Japan. Combining the cultural highlights of nine prefectures, the festival calendar is packed with a variety of events throughout the year, making it easy for travelers to experience the incredible atmosphere and rare sights of local festivals themselves.

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Filed under: Travel
Tags: Festivals, Japanese Culture, Japanese Festival, Japanese Specialties, Kumamon, Kyushu, Local Cuisine, Matsuri, Regional Specialties
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