sponsored by Northern Kumamoto Administrative Headquarters
In the heart of Kyushu, Kumamoto Prefecture is a natural paradise best known as the home of the world-famous active volcano, Mt. Aso, and the enormous caldera created by its eruption thousands of years ago. But the area boasts a wealth of natural beauty from mountain forests to rugged coastlines, and abundant hot springs onsen resorts. There is also a variety of accommodations, from luxurious ryokan with private baths to friendly farm stays with homecooked meals. Enjoy a variety of activities from outdoor adventures on bicycle, kayak, and foot to experiencing ancient traditions of Japanese arts and crafts. Kumamoto has recently played host to the 2019 Rugby World Cup and the 2019 Handball Women’s World Championships.
Less than two hours from Tokyo by air, northern Kumamoto is an escape from the city, for a weekend or even longer. Here is the ultimate travel guide to northern Kumamoto: where to stay, eat, and play during your relaxing adventure away from the city!
Northern Kumamoto Accommodations
Whether you love private or homey, luxury or simple, the array of accommodations available in northern Kumamoto can cater to every need. We sent a small army of Voyapon writers to experience and review some of the options available to you, from ryokan to farm stays.
Luxurious Ryokan with Onsen
There is no better way to spoil yourself and enjoy one of Japan’s unique pleasures is to book yourself into a luxury ryokan for a night or two. With meals that are better defined as feasts and relaxing hot springs baths, ryokan are the embodiment of Japan’s omotenashi (hospitality) spirit.
Ryokan Kafutei is hidden in the wooded hills of Kikuka. The large, modern rooms boast a private patio with a bath and a view of the countryside. The kaiseki meals are a feast for both the eyes and the stomach.
Cozy and modern at the same time, you will be pampered by the attentive staff over your meals before retiring to your room to enjoy a private bath big enough for two.
Satsuki Bessou is a lovely ryokan in Tamana with its own Japanese garden. The only competition with the exquisite meals served there is relaxing in the soothing hot spring water of your own private bath.
With its floor-to-ceiling windows, rooms at the modern Konomama Ryokan offer gorgeous views of the Aso caldera along with incredible Japanese hospitality and an elaborate 8-course Italian-inspired dinner.
Yamagawa Zenzo Ryokan
Sitting like a small castle on a hill, Yamagawa Zenzo Ryokan offers a quiet private setting to enjoy a private outdoor bath and a huge dinner feast featuring local specialties like charcoal-grilled Akaushi beef and basashi, horse meat sashimi.
Though not a ryokan, this stand-alone outdoor onsen overlooks the reclaimed land stretching out to the edge of the sea. For a place to enjoy a simple relaxing bath, Kusamakura cannot be missed.
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Home-style Hospitality at Kumamoto Farm Stays
For a unique experience staying as a guest on the farm of a local Kumamoto family, there are several farm stay options available. And you will not sacrifice comfort or quality to stay in these places, as the hosts will treat you as part of their family.
Kikuchi Farm Stay
Stay at Sozugawa in Kikuchi and learn to cook local foods from Mrs. Yonemura and how to harvest rice from Mr. Yonemura. Best of all, feel the warmth of a couple who truly enjoy opening their home to visitors of all nations.
Yamanosato Minshuku is a lovely farm stay where you can not only enjoy the friendship of a local Japanese family, but you will be spoiled by the amenities. Spacious Japanese style rooms, a rustic onsen, and an incredible dinner featuring local Akaushi beef in a private corner of the family-run restaurant highlight your stay here.
Foods of Northern Kumamoto
With ample underground springs of pure water and long seasons of warm, sunny weather, Kumamoto is a feast for food lovers. Experience local akaushi beef, a plethora of produce, and even locally produced wines.
Kumamoto: Nature Lover’s Paradise
The immense eruption of Mt. Aso 90,000 years ago created a diverse natural landscape that is extremely unique. The eruption created a caldera that is 25km in diameter at its widest point and up to 300m below the elevation of its surrounding area. Lava that was spewed or flowed from the volcano created a rugged landscape of mountains, and underground springs created crystal pure sources of water, enabling the growth of forests, grasslands, and eventually, crops planted by farmers.
There are many ways to enjoy the natural beauty of Kumamoto: on foot, bicycle, kayak, horseback, and even off-road vehicles! Here are a few of our recommendations to make the most of your time.
For a stroll in the forest that is accessible to all ages and levels of fitness, nothing beats Kikuchi Gorge, one of Japan’s top 100 sites for “forest bathing”. Courses range from 1 to 2 kilometers, making it an easy side trip along your tour of northern Kumamoto. Particularly gorgeous in Spring and Autumn but lovely in any season.
This innovative activity takes adventurous souls on a 30-minute thrill ride down fast-moving irrigation canals and through dark tunnels in a kayak. One of the more unique adventures you’ll experience during a trip to Kumamoto! (This activity is available July through September.)
Mt. Aso Geotourism
No visit to Kumamoto would be complete without taking some time to enjoy the spectacular views of Mt. Aso, the live volcano responsible for the beauty of the landscape. You can view the volcano from the famous Daikanbo overlook, from the Kusasenri Observatory and Aso Volcano Museum, or up close and personal near the Mt. Nakadake basin.
“Torokko” Trolley Train
Japan has a multitude of unique trains, but the Torokko trolley of south Aso has to rank among the most fun. Enjoy splendid views of the Aso caldera and the friendly staff might even lend you a conductor’s hat for a souvenir photo. Top off your ride with a visit to a restaurant specializing in local cuisine or a side trip to gorgeous Shiraito Falls.
Aso Cycling Tours
Perhaps the best way to see the real Kumamoto countryside is from the saddle of a bicycle. Aso Kujyu Cycle Tour Company can help customize a ride: easy, challenging, on-road or off-road, or just loan you a bike and safety equipment so you can go wherever your heart leads you. We tried their Downhill Cycling Tour and found it a beautiful and relaxing way to enjoy the views of Kumamoto.
Paragliding, Horseback Riding, and ATV-ing in Kumamoto
For more exotic methods of exploring Kumamoto, we spent a day experiencing several activities that allow you to see a different side of the area. Paraglide over the caldera from Daikanko lookout or crawl over uncharted terrain in an ATV with Aso Nature Land Company. Or visit the ranch to take a leisurely horseback ride over the grasslands at El Patio Ranch.
Private Onsen Hopping
You don’t have to stay in a luxury ryokan to have a private onsen hot springs experience. Waita Onsen is one of the resort areas in northern Kumamoto where you can reserve private onsen baths at reasonable prices, and if you’d like, string a few together to make it a spa day! Don’t forget to take a lunch break for fresh soba at Waremokou, as we did.
Create A Custom Kumamoto Itinerary with Help From a Local Guide
If you’re still completely at a loss of what to do in Kumamoto, there is help! Visit the Aso Michi-no-Eki, where Frank, a local resident formerly from France, can help you design an itinerary to fit your interests and schedule. Frank is fluent in English, and, of course, French. With Frank’s help, we learned about the convenient and inexpensive electric bike rental, local and organic produce from Kumamoto’s fertile land, historic Aso Shrine, and where to find (and taste) some of the best natural water in Japan.
Discover Local Japanese Traditions
The island of Kyushu of which Kumamoto is part of has a rich and varied history. Kyushu’s relative proximity to Korea and continental Asia, as well as trade routes with European countries in the 15th and 16th centuries, made it an important center of Japanese trade. Many Japanese crafts and traditions thrived here, sometimes influenced by the foreign cultures that were interwoven in the region’s history. Here are a few local crafts and traditions that are unique to Kumamoto.
Arao Japanese Swords
If your dream is to see how a real Japanese sword is made, sword-maker Matsunaga Genrokuro has been practicing his craft for over 40 years. Visit his workshop and he will show you various processes of sword-making and you may even get a chance to try it on your own.
Sho-dai Pottery and Bamboo Chopsticks
In Tamana, visit two companies carrying on centuries-old crafts with precision and beauty. The Yamachiku chopstick factory produces a dizzying variety of the ubiquitous utensil while a father and son create very different styles of Sho-dai ceramics in their workshop.
In Yamaga, you don’t just make lanterns, you wear them! After creating your own handmade lantern, dress in kimono and take a stroll through town with a beautiful lantern on your head.
Higo Minkamura Craft Village
A wonderful blend of a historical village with craft workshops, cafes, and shops, Higo Minkamura is the perfect place to learn more about Japanese culture and history while taking a relaxing stroll. There is even a craftsman from Sweden, Hans Koga, who has a shop here making tsuka, the hilt of a katana sword.
This 100-year-old theater was so important to local residents that in the 1980’s they worked together to preserve it as a national cultural asset and restore it to its original glory. Today, among the many types of entertainment hosted here, the beautiful Yamaga Lantern dance is often performed here to the delight of visitors and locals alike.
Shiba Inu – Japan’s Beloved Dogs
No Japanese travel guide would be complete without mentioning Shiba Inu, the national breed of dog that has captured the hearts of dog lovers around the world. Here in Kumamoto, visit a Shiba Inu dog breeder to learn more about the breeding process and, of course, get some snuggle time with the cutest puppies you’ve ever seen.
Travel Information to Kumamoto
Renting a car is the most convenient way to fully experience northern Kumamoto Prefecture. You can rent a car easily from areas near Kumamoto Station, or Kumamoto, Fukuoka and Oita Airports. Japan Guide has some good information about renting a car in Japan. Here is some information about driving laws in Japan in English.
If you don’t have a car, the next best thing is a free shuttle bus service from Kumamoto Airport or JR Kumamoto Station serving 4 cities in northern Kumamoto : Tamana, Nagomi, Yamaga and Kikuchi. Details can be found on their website or download the PDF. Service is available only in January and February 2020 at the time of this writing.