Sponsored by Hitoyoshi city
Hitoyoshi is a small town nestled in the mountains of Kumamoto Prefecture in Kyushu. Hitoyoshi holds the nickname of the Little Kyoto of Kyushu: it’s a city full of temples and historic buildings on every corner. Hitoyoshi would be a perfect destination to discover on bike. Luckily, you can rent a bike at the city’s Tourist Office which is right next to the station!
Rent a bike in Hitoyoshi
You can easily rent a bike in Hitoyoshi. All you have to do is go to the tourist office which is just outside the station. There you have 2 options: an electric bike rental for 2 hours (400 yen) or 4 hours (800 yen). The staff will give you a city map which shows you the main attractions. Let’s discover Hitoyoshi by bike!
If you have never tried an electric bike, the tourist office will give you some helpful advice on site. Electric bicycles are extremely easy to use and you can go for many miles while saving your energy. However, you need to understand the Japanese traffic rules, which means keeping to left on roadways! But you will not be alone on the roads and the Japanese bike a lot, so feel reassured if you have doubts at times on the road.
Aoi Aso Shrine
A few steps from the train station you will find Hitoyoshi’s most famous temple. Aoi Aso Shrine is registered as a National Treasure of Japan, and the origin of the temple dates back to 806 AD. At that time, the inhabitants of the region had made this temple the guardian of their lands.
The present building was built at the beginning of the 17th century as the residence of the Sagara clan who ruled Hitoyoshi at that time. What makes this temple so special is its Momoyama-style architecture. The roof is made of straw, and the dark wood carpentry is richly decorated.
On the statues and the faded beams, you can see the marks of centuries gone by as the buildings have been standing for many generations. It is also a favorite gathering place for the people of Hitoyoshi. During my visit, a festival was being prepared near the temple and I witnessed the small food stands of takoyaki, karaage and other street food at the entrance to the temple.
Around the main building, there are other small shrines. All of them have an atmosphere of their own with old trees or a resplendent alley of torii gates. It is very pleasant to take a few minutes to walk around the Aoi Aso Shrine.
Bukegura, a samurai residence
When I got back on my electric bike, I arrived in front of a former samurai residence, Bukegura. The entrance fee costs 300 yen and allows us to visit a house where a samurai used to live in the old days.
The entrance door is an original and dates back to the same period as Hitoyoshi Castle. Inside the property is not very large, but it retains a charm that visitors will have an opportunity to enjoy. A small building stands in the middle of a beautifully-arranged Japanese garden.
This small garden seems to make Bukegura a particularly popular attraction in Hitoyoshi. The garden is arranged in such a way that it recalls the omnipresent mountains in Kumamoto Prefecture. A small piece of miniature nature evolves with the seasons. The Bukegura Garden is one of the 10 gardens that can be visited in Hitoyoshi.
The building itself is also very interesting. Obviously originating from another era, taking a few steps in this old Japanese house will make you travel back in time and discover a traditional Japan which is disappearing little by little.
Hitoyoshi Castle Ruins
Even though only the ruins remain, Hitoyoshi Castle is a beautiful place to visit. Passed down for 35 generations within the Sagara clan, the Hitoyoshi Castle Ruins are also known as “Crescent Moon Castle” since a stone with a crescent moon crest was found in the castle.
The fortifications of Hitoyoshi Castle look like European fortifications. This is extremely rare since only two other castles like this can be found in the entire Japanese archipelago. And if the castle itself has disappeared, the presence of these fortifications gives a good idea of the size of the place.
When climbing the stairs to the top of the fortifications, we discover a small forest that has settled in the castle square. It is magnificent reclamation by nature of a place erected by man. But above all, from these heights, the views of the city of Hitoyoshi and the surrounding mountains are superb and unobstructed. Curiously, few tourists go to the top of the fortifications, but the place was definitely a highlight of my visit.
Kajiyamachi-dori, the old avenue
In the heart of Hitoyoshi, the small street of Kajiyamachi dori is worth visiting to witness the history of this city over the centuries. The paved street is lined with many shops and traditional buildings, which make it feel very authentic. We feel that it has not been rearranged for tourists, so it retains a charm of another era.
We can spend some time on this small street. Among the old buildings, there is a still active craft factory producing soy sauce and miso, where you can visit the workshops for free and even to taste the different products made on site.
It is quite exciting to discover the process of making soy sauce which is used in most dishes in Japan. The staff is very welcoming and will be happy to offer you some tea while you discover products available in their small shop.
If you really enjoy tea, there is also tea shop conveniently located at the house next door.
The staff is very friendly here as well and happy to talk with you while you taste their tea. These occasions make you realize the depth of hospitality in rural Japan. You’ll be pleasantly surprised especially when you visiting small towns like Hitoyoshi after experiencing big cities like Tokyo.
Ganjoji, the Sagara clan temple
To finish my tour in Hitoyoshi by bike, I went to the Ganjoji Temple. The temple is dedicated to the Sagara clan who led Hitoyoshi for many generations. Built during the Edo Period, other temples in the area were run out of Ganjoji Temple.
The building itself has been modernized and is probably less interesting than other temples in Hitoyoshi. But what makes Ganjoji Temple particularly interesting is less the temple than its cemetery. Behind the temple is indeed a vast cemetery in which the Sagara clan are buried. Generations of lords who led Hitoyoshi and the region from the heights of the castle are all buried here with their families. They are overlooking Hitoyoshi from the heights of their final home.
It is time to go back to the tourist office and return my bike, and one last surprise was waiting for me near the station. When I arrived at the station, I heard a drum sound. The large clock in front of the station building was moving, lowering its walls to reveal automatons who stared to dance and play music. This is the image of Hitoyoshi that I will remember. Hitoyoshi has hidden treasures on every street corner.