The city’s skyline is dominated by the castle, sitting proudly atop a hill in its centre, overlooking much of Kumamoto. Over the centuries, its multiple walls, turrets and buildings have been damaged by battles and earthquakes, resulting in extensive reconstruction. The latest damage occurred during two earthquakes in April 2016 and much of the castle, considered one of Japan’s finest, is again undergoing repairs.
On October 5, a ceremony in the castle’s expansive grounds commemorated its partial reopening to the public, though the full restoration work is expected to take many years. Nevertheless, it marked a significant milestone for the storied fortress, which is a source of considerable pride for Kumamoto’s citizens and a symbol of their city. The following day, Kumamoto hosted the first of two matches in the Rugby World Cup, with thousands of French supporters enjoying the sights, sounds and tastes of the city before cheering on their team against Tonga.
Japan, like France, is known as a culinary country. But even within Japan, Kumamoto is definitely a foodie’s city. Locals take great, and justifiable, pride in the deliciousness of the fare available in the city, even down to the tap water, which is derived from natural groundwater.
In the Kumamoto dialect, people who are open to new experiences are referred to as ‘wasamon’, a characteristic that visitors would be wise to aspire to when sampling the rich variety of food and beverages served in the city. Kumamoto boasts a number of signature dishes and foodstuffs, many featuring locally sourced ingredients.
There are two Kumamoto noodle speciality dishes which shouldn’t be missed. Ramen noodles are popular across Japan and the Kumamoto variant is known for its mild broth made from pork bone and chicken stock, topped off with roasted chips of garlic. Taipien noodle soup is a version of a similar Chinese dish that features ingredients that can include bean-starch vermicelli, vegetables, meat and egg. It is rare to find the dish outside Kumamoto and there are cup noodle Taipien on sale for those who want to take a taste of the city home with them.
Another popular regional food is Karashi Renkon, consisting of lotus root prepared with miso and Japanese mustard, fried in turmeric flour batter, it is said to date back centuries. An ideal place to try this quirky morsel is Aoyagi, a traditional Japanese restaurant in the heart of the nightlife and dining area in Shimotori which specialises in local cuisine. The combination of superb, elegantly presented dishes, classic Japanese décor, friendly staff and a broad selection of locally-produced sake and shochu (a spirit which Kyushu is famous for) makes Aoyagi the perfect place to experience some of the best food and beverages Kumamoto has to offer. Lunch courses start at 3,000 yen ($28) and dinner courses from 5,000 yen ($46). The Honmaru course is Aoyagi’s take on recipes from two books from the early 19th century and makes a great introduction to ‘kaiseki-ryori’, Japan’s version of haute cuisine. The kitchen can cater for vegetarians if advance notice is given. Little English is spoken and reservations are advised.
Another dish for ‘wasamon’ types is ‘basashi’ raw horsemeat, which is served at Aoyagi, among many other Kumamoto restaurants. The low-fat, high-protein marbled meat is typically eaten with ginger, garlic and soy sauce in a similar fashion to sashimi. Red wagyu donburi can also be found in many local eateries. This dish of rice featuring Japan’s famous beef, from cows raised in the rich grasslands of Kumamoto Prefecture, is set off with an egg on top.
For those with a sweeter tooth, Ikinari Dango, made from sweet potatoes, red bean paste and steamed flour, along with Chosen Ame, consisting of kneaded sticky rice, sugar and syrup, are highly recommended.
With its diverse line-up of culinary treats and surprises, food-lovers would be well-advised to make a beeline for Kumamoto. Whether visitors research restaurants and book in advance, or simply taking a chance on an eatery that looks appealing, disappointment is an unlikely outcome. And once the meal is over, visiting one of the city’s many watering holes may well lead to further unexpected encounters.
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