Smoke on the water
Between the smoking crater of Mount Aso in the east and the isolated islands of Amakusa in the west, Kumamoto has plenty to keep you enthralled.
Kumamoto’s diverse attractions are best explored with a car. You can start at Mount Aso for a hike around the active volcanic peaks before heading for a tour of the traditional baths at Kurokawa Onsen, or a cool down in Kikuchi valley which boasts some of the best waters in Japan for immune-boosting ‘forest bathing’. Just across the water from Nagasaki prefecture is the bustling prefectural capital of Kumamoto city. Keep travelling south to reach the Amakusa islands, where Christians went underground, and to spot wild dolphins in Shimabara Bay.
With its accessible dining and lively nightlife, Kumamoto city is a great base for exploring the rest of the region. Don’t head off before paying a visit to Kumamoto castle; it’s huge grounds are also a popular cherry blossom viewing spot if your timing is right.
An hour from Kumamoto city, Mount Aso is the largest active caldera in the world spanning over 100 kilometers with rural villages and rice fields in between. Eruptions are fairly regular, but you can climb to the peak of Naka-dake to peer into the smoking crater when conditions are safe – check the volcanic updates before you go.
Kurokawa Onsen is a picturesque hot spring town packed full of traditional ryokan (inns) with private baths as well as outdoor public baths that you can tour with a discounted pass. Kikuchi valley is famous as one of Japan’s 44 ‘forest bathing’ sites reputed to have healing powers. Whatever the health benefits, both settings are like something out of a dream.
The numerous museums and churches on the remote Amakusa islands provide information on the persecution of Christians when the religion was banned by the ruling Shogunate. Worshippers are known as the ‘hidden Christians’, disguising their faith by concealing icons in Buddhist images and changing their prayers to sound like Buddhist chants. Around the islands, it’s also possible to glimpse dolphins and go diving – cruise companies offer tours.