Three months ago I hadn’t heard of Kumamoto City. It’s a city of approximately 750,000 people in the South East of Japan and I visited it last week as part of my study tour of Japan organised by CLAIR the Japanese LGA.
It was, as you might expect a very different type of place than Tokyo, the city which we had both left and then returned to. In many ways it was the difference between London and Liverpool. Two great strong cities in their own way but they feel and are very different.
The first strong impression that you get is that this is the real Japan when we think in the West of Japan. You can see from the plane beautiful mountains (one of which is a volcano), the sea with lovely islands and green and verdant countryside and these impressions are reinforced on the way in on the bus. I have never seen bamboo groves before but they look gorgeous. Every piece of earth was cultivated, in some cases by allotments. The volcanic earth has created a very good soil structure which is reinforced by good weather and not too much rain.
As you go into the city itself you see all that you would expect from a large but definitely provincial city. In most cases a very modern city with a massive range of new buildings but, and you cannot escape this, dominated by a 400 year old castle, pictured above, which we subsequently visited. They have an excellent range of hotels. The one stayed at for our first night was a tradition Japanese hotel in which had a traditional meal and then slept on a traditional tatami mat on the floor. There was also a traditional Japanese bath area in which the warm water came from hot springs which well up in various places in the city. Lovely to do for one night but I was relieved when we move to a more western hotel with a bed!
Thinking of food I have to say we ate well. The range of restaurants is vast with an emphasis on Japanese food, hot and cold, but with a wider range of venues and styles. Delightfully however with a very low level of food miles involved. Massive parts of the cuisine are grown, raised or fished locally. Food is a major part of their offering as a city and one that they could build on.
Just up the road they have their own Volcano. We had hoped to visit it but our trip got curtailed when we had to go back to Tokyo because of a volcano. So that’s a downer then but it’s a downer for the whole of Japan.
The Castle is a must see if you are in South East Japan. 400 years old it would be absolutely impregnable with the weapons of the time. Somehow though it does not come over as a hard place in the way that a mediaeval castle would. Inside the castle it is far more delicate with beautiful interiors and art work. The views from the top of the mountain were spectacular with the city below and even greater mountains above.
Lastly, we were privileged to be in the city when their ‘Festival of Light’ took place. This event brought in 200,000 over two days and was only able to take place because of a massive input of volunteers. The work had taken place over 2 months with volunteers going out into sustainable bamboo areas and cutting the bamboo. They brought it back to the city and caved it out so that they can put candles inside. They spent the whole of Saturday putting up the lanterns and then – when the Festival was over – they spend the night removing all the bamboo. This went off to be burnt and the ash used in the fields as fertiliser.
The total cost of this to the public sector was about £70,000 – a real bargain. We saw that this idea of communal and community effort was a common one in the City and indeed throughout Japan. In Kumamoto the streets are spotless not only because the council keeps it that BUT more importantly because the people, of the city do not drop litter in the first place. Japanese people care about common areas. They do not chuck rubbish away (indeed they have excellent recycling rates. They do not have graffiti ruined walls. They obey the speed limit and do not even nip across the road as pedestrians but wait until the pedestrian lights change.
The Contemporary Art gallery in the City has to be seen to be believed. Whilst we were there they had on a special exhibition which was one of the most vibrant that I have ever seen. It was, to my eyes, clearly ‘oriental’ in style. You could see comic books and angels in it. Yoshitaka Amano is an artist who clearly should be displaying his work to a much bigger audience than Japan and I hope to make introductions between this art gallery and the National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside.
This may sound like a travel brochure for Kumamoto and indeed it is. If I was going for a holiday in Japan I would strongly recommend a week in Tokyo and then a week in Kumamoto. The noise and the bustle against the calm and tranquillity. Big shops and big volcanoes! I will be looking at some of the problems that Kumamoto faces which are shared by most of Japan in my next blog. In the meantime just go to Kumamoto and see for yourself.