Have you visited Kumamoto before?

Kumamoto - Of Onsen, Castles, and Kumamon

Japan has 47 prefectures and one of our goals in life is to have visited each of them at least once. We have a special TV relationship with Kumamoto: We have been so impressed by the prefectural mascot Kumamon for a long time that we watch the morning program with him several times a week to wake up and learn Japanese. During a trip to the capital of the prefecture, we spent the night in the Kumamon room, in proper style.

Where is Kumamoto located?

Kumamoto is a prefecture on Kyūshū, the southernmost main island of Japan. It is best known for agriculture and nature. A popular local recreation area is the region around the active Aso volcano. The journey from Tōkyō is easy: with the Shinkansen you can get to the prefecture capital of the same name in just under 6 hours (with the Nozomi Shinkansen, it takes a little longer with the Rail Pass). It is also possible to arrive by plane via the nearby Fukuoka airport.

Kumamon and the Yuru-Kyara

The cuddly black bear is a phenomenon that cannot be understood without knowing what makes Japan tick when it comes to mascots. While everyday monsters like the unsympathetic pantless lion "Goleo VI" and his nightmarish ball partner "Pille" are driving companies into bankruptcy [1], things look very different in Japan.

Smooth-running mascots, the so-called yuru-kyaras, have long been popular in Japan and have experienced a real boom in recent years. Kumamon was not the first extremely successful character of its kind, this place belongs to the mascot of Hikone Castle, Hikonyan, which was launched in 2007 to celebrate 400 years of Hikone Castle [2]. In 2010, Kumamon was able to benefit from the dynamism of a competition that was held for the second time: the yuru-kyara Contest. Back then it was supposed to be about promoting the regions of Japan and so the mascots from different prefectures and regions entered a competition. Kumamon won out of 349 competitors and became a nationally known star.

Miura Jun who used the term yuru-kyara (We save an exact translation, it is not expedient ...) in the 2000s, in an interview from 2009 [3] makes three things that such a character needs:

  • Strong love for the home or region must be expressed
  • Behavior and demeanor should be inconsistent or unique
  • He must be lovable and easy on it (yurui) be

Kumamon is a phenomenon that has drawn attention to the entire Kumamoto region. From merchandise to hotel rooms to your own morning show on television: the mischievous bear is unstoppable. His trademark: fluffy and fond of children, but always a bit crazy and cheeky. So he was able to convince even with an adult audience. His slightly insane look when he did mischief again went around the world as a meme.

Products with the Kumamon label had an annual turnover of 1.29 billion euros in 2019 [4] and so it is no secret that the competition has long served commercial rather than rural folklore. On the other hand: Revitalization doesn't work without money. Nevertheless, it got too colorful for the organizers, and in 2020 the last contest took place for the time being because, according to the organizers, the extreme idea of ​​competition overshadowed everything.

In Kumamon Square

Surname: Kumamon Square
Address: 〒860-0808 Kumamoto, Chuo Ward, Tetorihoncho, 8, Tsuruya East [to Google Maps]
Opening hours: 10:00 am - 5:00 pm (shortened times)
Entrance fee: free
Directions: 1 minute walk from the "Suidōchō" tram station

The so-called Kumamon Square has existed in Kumamoto since July 2013. Here you can buy Kumamon merchandise, buy regional products with Kumamon imprint or see a live performance from Kumamon once a day on average. Due to Corona precautionary measures, it is currently not possible to touch Kumamon and the number of visitors is currently reduced. But he still performs daily. You can find the times for this on the Kumamon Square website [5]. You can also find Kumamon's official office and a small café in the square.

The Kumamon Hotel

Surname: Mitsui Garden Hotel
Stars: 3 stars ***
Address: 〒860-0012 Kumamoto City, Chuo Ward Koyaimamachi 1-20 [to Google Maps]
Directions: 2 minutes walk from the tram station "Karashima-chō"

The Mitsui Garden Hotel in Kumamoto has created a special concept room for all fans of the black plush bear, in which pretty much everything that can be made of kumamon is also made of kumamon. It's mostly just small things, but we especially liked the amazing pillows. A document sleeve was also given as a gift.

The city center location convinced us: it is only a stone's throw to the castle and there are plenty of shopping opportunities as well as restaurants in the area. The only problem: The trams in Kumamoto are REALLY narrow. If you arrive with two large suitcases (or more), consider switching to a taxi.

To be honest, we don't need to write a lot here, just let the pictures sink in!

Everywhere Kumamon

Kumamon is everywhere in the cityscape of Kumamoto. So omnipresent, de facto, that it might be a little annoying. Karaoke bars, flower pots - everything is paved with it. We would like to briefly introduce a few places that we liked, even if, like the Kuma Bar, they unfortunately no longer exist.

Kumamoto Castle and the 2016 earthquake

A series of powerful earthquakes struck Kumamoto Prefecture on April 14th and 15th. The strongest of these had a magnitude of 7.0 and caused severe damage to some cultural assets. The main tower of Kumamoto Castle was not an original, but a replica reconstructed with reinforced concrete in 1960, but many outbuildings were of historical value. Two originally preserved watchtowers collapsed in the earthquake and many walls were badly damaged. It will probably take decades before the castle is completely reconstructed. When we were there in 2016, it still looked desolate.

Parts of the castle park are now accessible again and the construction site can be observed from there. Since spring 2019 there have also been special events at which you can take a closer look at the progress of the work. In spring 2020, however, the second part of the event was canceled due to the Sars-CoV-19 pandemic.

At the foot of the castle there is a pretty little tourist village called "Sakura-no-baba Josaien". There you will mainly find various restaurants and local shops. The place is inspired by the castle town of the Edo period. You can also find a tourist information office and a small museum here. Despite all the kitsch, we felt very comfortable there.

    Relaxation in the onsen

    Surname: Shiro no Yu Onsen
    Price: 700 yen (shared bathroom, adults) / from 2600 yen (private bathroom without lounge for 60 minutes) / from 3600 yen (private bathroom with lounge 60 minutes)
    Address: 〒860-0079 Kumamoto City, Nishi Ward Kamikumamoto 2-8-43 [to Google Maps]
    Directions: 6 minutes walk from the tram station "Honmyohi Iriguchi" (line B)

    Our visit to Kumamoto was a short one - we were only in town for one night. And it was raining like buckets. So, apart from kumamon karaoke, what do you do in the evening? Exactly, looking for an onsen! As you already know from our articles on onsen and tattoos in the onsen or the associated podcast episode, we are mainly looking for private baths so that we can go swimming because of tattoos together and without stress. We found a good option at Shiro-no-Yu Onsen.

    After making a reservation directly on site, we had to kill some time and then we could easily go to soak. Of course, entry with a tattoo is also denied here, but nobody asks in the private bathroom. By the way, you have to ask for a “Kazoku-buro” here. You can reserve for 60-120 minutes and depending on availability you can choose different baths. There are four rooms with a lounge (including a tatami and TV) and two with a pool only. The large shared bathrooms looked nice too, but we couldn't test them.

    What about you? Have you ever been to Kumamoto? Did you enjoy nature at the Aso volcano or the nightlife in the city? Tell us about your experiences in the comments!


    All sources are external links and lead away from our offer.

    [1] Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (2006): "Goleo" plunges Nici into a crisis
    [2] The Japan Times (2008): The obsession over those dumbed down cute mascots
    [3] Orion (2009) Interview with Jun Miura - Have I become a Yuru-Kyara myself?
    [4] Kyodo News (2020): Japan’s "yuru-kyara" mascot competition to end after 9 years
    [5] Kumamon Square website

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