The history of samurai in the area now known as Kumamoto, but for much of its existence as Higo Province, goes back around a millennium to the dawn of the legendary warriors. Various samurai clans in the region vied for supremacy over the centuries. Work on the original fortifications on the site of Kumamoto Castle began in the middle of the 15th century and four different clans were in control of the site in the 150 years before Kato Kiyomasa transformed it into the impressive fortress that can still be seen today.
Completed in 1607, the castle complex covers a wide area and features dozens of buildings, gates and turrets around its main keep, in a design ordered by Kato, a seasoned samurai commander. The huge, steep walls are curved in a way to make it virtually impossible for attackers to scale, an innovation for which Kiyomasa was widely lauded.
The castle was besieged during the 1887 Satsuma Rebellion, on which the 2003 Hollywood movie The Last Samurai is very loosely based, and was defended for more than 50 days by a vastly outnumbered garrison. The impressive architecture of the castle also inspired legendary director Akira Kurosawa to shoot scenes from two of his classic samurai movies, Ran and Kagemusha, there.
After the Kato clan was replaced by the Hosokawa in 1632, the daimyo lord of the castle Hosokawa Tadatoshi invited Miyamoto Musashi to be one of his retainers. Musashi was a legendary swordsman said to have gone undefeated in the numerous duels he fought across Japan, many using only a wooden sword. He saw out his final years in Kumamoto and lived as a hermit in Reigan-do Cave, where he mediated and wrote the Book of Five Rings. The book is regarded as a martial classic and its strategies have also influenced politicians and business leaders. The cave is about a 30-minute drive or an hour’s bus ride west of the city at the foot of Mt. Kinpo. Nearby is Unganzen-ji temple, and the carved stone pathway that leads to Reigan-do is populated by intriguing statues known as the Five Hundred Disciples of Buddha or Gohyaku-Rakan There are also tours to pick ‘mikan’ mandarin oranges around Mt. Kinpo.
For those who would like to experience a taste of Musashi’s legacy, there is a dojo of Iaido swordsmanship based on the style founded by the storied warrior, Niten Ichi Ryu, which was practiced by some Kumamoto samurai. In the appropriately-named Musashi Building in Shimotori, visitors can learn basic sword drawing, cutting and sheathing techniques under the calm and patient tutelage of sensei Akinori Matsunaga.
More about the life of Musashi and other samurai can be discovered at Shimada Museum of Arts, which houses exhibits on the history of Kumamoto’s warrior culture. In addition to being a sword master and author, Musashi also studied Zen, calligraphy painting and the tea ceremony while in Kumamoto. Some of his drawings and calligraphy are on display at the museum.
A samurai tea ceremony can be enjoyed in an authentic teahouse located in the elegant grounds of Suizenji Jojuen Park. The traditional ceremony – known as ‘bushi no cha’, the tea of the warrior – is said to be based on that of Sen no Rikyu, Japan’s greatest tea master. The Kokin-Denju-no-Ma teahouse, originally built in Kyoto, offers the perfect spot to be immersed in a slice of Japanese cultural history.
The Japanese landscape garden of the park, built by the Hosokawa clan in the 17th century, is based around a central pond circled by a recreation of the 53 stations of the historic Tokaido road which linked Edo (Tokyo) and Kyoto, and includes a miniature Mt. Fuji.
Kumamoto is truly soaked in history and other important sights include the Kengun Shrine, the city’s oldest, its origins are believed to date back to the 6th century. Along the Tsuboi River near the castle, sit five bronze statues of heroes of the Meiji Restoration, which in 1867 led to the abolition of the samurai class and Japan’s rapid drive towards modernisation. Ironically, the men behind the revolution were themselves samurai, the spirit of whom is still alive and well in Kumamoto.
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