We went straight to the Unzen onsen area and had a (very) cheap onsen (¥100) in some beautiful sulphuric waters. It was nice to have an onsen again in something that didn’t feel like a swimming pool. It was even nicer to have it to myself for the majority of the duration.
There is a jikokudani (Hell valley) in Unzen, but a quick drive past (to see if it was worth paying ¥500 for parking) and we were able to see that it was much, much smaller than the one in Noboribetsu. We kept on driving to Shimabara where the ferry to Kumamoto departed.
As we entered town, we could finally see the volcanic peak of the recently erupted Mt Unzen, and what a rugged, steaming peak it was. I have a bit of a mountain fetish. But first, we headed to see what time the ferry departed. We had time, so a quick drive out towards the volcano was possible. The information centre was also quite informative (if you had someone to translate the Japanese for you).
Risa wanted to try a local dish called guzouni, which was a light soup full of vegetables, fish, chicken and mochi. Was delicious! There was a whole story about it’s creation too (Christians stuck in a castle under siege, making food with what they had available to them).
Risa also wanted to look at a few things around town (carp in natural spring streams, which was quite underwhelming), and a foot onsen area (that we didn’t manage to find). We arrived back at the dock with less than 10 minutes until the ferry departed. We drove HMAS Delica onto the ferry, and as we were getting out the door, they were closing the gate behind us. Lucky! Oh, and there was a discount running on the fares, so we saved ¥2000. Double lucky!
It was an hour long ferry, though sadly there was lots of haze masking the views back of the mountains. We killed time by reading/researching about future travel plans (including Okinawa). When we finally arrived in Kumamoto City (4PM) we headed straight into town, found a nearby supermarket, unloaded the ‘cub and went to explore.
I’d read about how spectacular the castle was in Kumamoto City, we that was the first destination. Sadly, it’s quite a modern recreation, but it’s a grand recreation, there were dozens of buildings and expansive grounds. We arrived at 4:45, and believed that the castle was shutting at 5:30 so we rushed through as quickly as we could. Turned out that only one of the original turrets was shutting then, the rest of the castle/museum was to remain open until 9PM, but of course we didn’t realise this until we’d rushed through it all, and missed the only old building which had already shut.
Inside the main castle building was a modern museum, filled with relics and information about the town/castle. It was hard to believe that we were inside a castle when we were looking at giant concrete pillars, linoleum flooring and fluorescent lighting. The very top floor (of what felt like a dozen) there was an observatory looking out over the sprawling castle grounds (and the city), it made all the stair climbing worthwhile. Again, it was obvious that the whole building was a masquerade, surrounding the top floor was glass and fencing.
We also had a quick look around the old palace. It too was a modern recreation, and this time it was much more faithful inside. It was large and opulent, just the thing you could imagine a lord living in. Lavishly decorated doors/ceilings. Beautiful. You could dine here too. For ¥3000 you could eat some of the foods that they used to eat, and if we didn’t already have plans for dinner, we could have been tempted!
We also saw something we didn’t expect to see again, a mandolin group playing a Ghibli medley. There was a concert later tonight (as well as classical ballet). We only caught their rehearsal, which was so much better than the small group that were playing at the Saijo Sake Festival.
The sun had basically set (in a beautiful display behind the castle) and the temperatures were rapidly dropping. I was still in my t-shirt/shorts, and Risa wasn’t very warm either. We had to ride on the ‘cub into town to try something that was called a local dish in a Kumamoto City guidebook (the best guidebook for a city that we’ve found yet). The dish was called Taipi-en, which we had no idea about, other than it was a vermicelli based dish complete with local meats/vegetables in a tonkotsu-like soup.
The only place that Risa could find it was a fancy looking (but very reasonably priced) Chinese restaurant in the middle of town. They had several set meal options, all priced under ¥950, and the taipi-en was one of them. I grabbed a kara-age (fried chicken) set, and we shared. It was delicious, totally delicious, and even better, we could look out on the people walking around through the undercover malls below us.
After that meal, we were both thinking that Kumamoto was a pretty nice city, definitely liveable. But, it wasn’t just that meal, it was clean, wide, energetic and in the right places, modern. If only it wasn’t in a sub-tropical environment…
The restaurant wasn’t far from the castle, so I wanted to go back and get some night-time photos of the castle (and Risa wanted to try and catch some of the ballet, which had already finished by the time we’d returned).
It was 8:45PM, and they were starting to play the ‘hurry up and go home’ music, so we headed back to HMAS Delica, and started driving out of town. Tonight we stayed in a brand new michi-no-eki! Quite a treat.