Kumamoto is a compact and walkable city, the perfect size to conquer in 48 hours. Spend one day soaking up the city and one day in the surrounding countryside. Since Kumamoto is known as a foodie destination, this guide also recommends some top places to have a meal in the heart of the city and lists its unmissable local delicacies.
Morning: The shopping arcades
The Japanese love covered shopping arcades, and Kumamoto has two conjoining walkways with distinctly different vibes. In the north, arty Kamitori has cosy coffee houses, vibrant jazz bars, bookstores, fashionable homeware and bespoke shopping experiences. As well as a variety of convenience stores, you can grab something to eat at one of the many famiresu establishments – family restaurants known for their budget prices, foreigner-friendly food and large portions. At 360m (1,181ft) long, Kamitori is the shorter of the two arcades but with a funkier daytime scene.
In the south, the recently renovated Shimotori arcade – 511m (1,677ft) long – is in downtown Kumamoto. In the evening, this is the rowdy end of town, with multitudes of well-dressed young people making their way to clubs, bars and the popular karaoke joints. Shimotori links with shopping malls such as the Tsuruya Department Store and is also populated with Western stores and restaurants such as ZARA, Starbucks and McDonald’s. It’s also a great place to hang out if you love manga and anime, as several stores here cater to manga otaku (obsessives). The Kumamoto branch of the Sushi Zanmai chain here is one of the best places in the city for luxurious (yet affordable) Japanese dining.
Afternoon: Kumamoto Castle and CAMK
In 2016, Kumamoto experienced an earthquake, the epicentre of which was in the nearby town of Mashiki. In central Kumamoto, few buildings collapsed or were seriously damaged, but one casualty was the symbol of the city – Kumamoto Castle. With a history dating back to 1467, the castle was reconstructed in the 1960s, and despite being just one of the hundreds of castles across the country, Kumamoto-jō is famed for its unique black exterior and slanted walls.
Repairs to the castle started just months after the 7.3 magnitude earthquake. The entire project is predicted to take approximately 20 years, and while much of the structure is still closed to the public, you can get a good view of what remains from the surrounding park. The castle is a short walk away from the centre of town, passing by the Kumamoto Prefectural Traditional Crafts Center. The ground floor gift shop carries local gifts, and the museum upstairs is a brilliant slice of local crafting history.
On a rainy day in the city, head to CAMK (Contemporary Art Museum, Kumamoto), which is located at the end of the Kamitori shopping arcade. It’s open Wednesday to Monday, and the general exhibition is free and includes work by prolific Japanese artists, such as Yayoi Kusama, as well as artwork by international artists. The seasonal exhibits are worth visiting, as is the charming café and museum gift shop.
Evening: Luxurious dining
For an unmissable evening meal in Kumamoto, head to a restaurant that’s a short walk from the centre of town. As a foodie city with plenty of famous local dishes to try, the best place to sample a taste of Kumamoto is at Yokobachi. The multi-course menu may seem pricey, but it’s some of the best food in the city and well worth it for a night of extravagance. Unmissable Kumamoto dishes from the à la carte menu include karashi renkon (lotus root stuffed with hot mustard), basashi (raw horse meat sashimi) or horse meat nabe (hotpot) with different ingredients, and a glass of fiery shōchū. It’s a dining hotspot, so you should book early.
Morning: Reigando Cave
Kumamoto may only be a small city, but outside of it, you can find unique attractions that are well worth the journey. A 30-minute bus or taxi ride will whisk you away from the bustling city centre and into a serene setting of rice paddies, persimmon trees and stunning hillside views. Reigando Cave (Spirit Rock Cave) is worth visiting for two main reasons. First, the hillside is blanketed with statues of Gohyaku Rakan, the 500 followers of the Buddha who attained enlightenment. Imagine the Terracotta Army, but rather than a formidable army, these statues are posed in contemplative recline. Some have their eyes closed and wear expressions of illumination, while others grimace or erupt with mirthful laughter. Second, the hillside is imbued with a serene spirituality that’s all the more poignant on a sun-dappled day.
Follow the uneven trail past the 500 statues to Spirit Rock Cave. Climb the steep steps to a hollow that’s no more than 6m (20ft) across – it’s a place that was once home to a reclusive samurai and author, Miyamoto Musashi (1584-1645). An undefeated swordsman, Musashi retreated to the cave to work on his final manuscript, The Book of Five Rings (c. 1645). While this philosophical script is hardly easy reading for a modern audience, Musashi remains a well-known figure in Japan for his eccentric ways and combative prowess.
Don’t leave the complex without visiting the extraordinary viewpoint that’s a few minutes uphill from the car park and large statue of Miyamoto Musashi. On a clear day, this platform offers unrivalled views of the hillside down to the sea and is the perfect spot for a picnic if you’ve brought a bento box. If not, head back down the hill to Kokopelli, a charming Western-fusion-style café, farm and adjoining antiques shop – an unexpected find in the middle of the countryside.
Afternoon: Temple walk
On your way back from Reigando Cave, stop off at Honmyō-ji for a brisk uphill walk, a traditional temple and stunning views. The Buddhist temple has buildings at the bottom, near the torii (red gate entrance to the shrine), and as you climb 176 steps up to the grave of Katō Kiyomasa (a powerful feudal lord from the Edo period), the stairs are split up the middle by a line of gravestones shaped like stone lanterns.
Follow the left-hand path around the temple and past the car park to where the trail continues with another 300 steps, taking you to the top of the hill. It’s a steep climb, but don’t be surprised to see dedicated athletes or groups of high-school students jogging past you with ease. Emerging from the tree-lined path, you’ll be rewarded with panoramic views of Kumamoto city and the misty mountains beyond. Watch the shinkansen (bullet train) weaving its way across the landscape under the cloak of sunset.
Evening: Best restaurants and bars
When it comes to bidding the city farewell, make your final meal something spectacular. An unforgettable dinner can be found at Ninoni (a Chinese restaurant famed for its dumplings and happy hour) or Ramen Akagumi (a down-to-earth noodle joint specialising in tonkotsu ramen, where the pork bone broth is rich and creamy). Reservations are recommended for Ninoni, but if you turn up early, you might get lucky.
There are endless choices for foreigner-friendly bars in Kumamoto, but if you want a global feel in a local bar, head to Glocal BAR Vibes on Shimotori, where you can find “English conversation and Japanese hospitality”. For an introduction to shōchū, its tasting set offers five types of shōchū, and another drink plus bar snacks for ¥2,200 (£16.25). For cocktails, beer, shōchū, sake and more, head to the popular Katherine’s Bar near the Hanabatacho tram station. Stumble down any downtown street to find countless local izakaya (casual Japanese pubs) where you can enjoy cheap drinks and a few sticks of yakitori (charcoal-grilled meat, a popular bar snack).