Castle Towns in Japan: Shimabara and Kumamoto

Before heading back to Korea, I spent some time in castle towns, the first being Shimabara. In order to get to Shimabara from Nagasaki, I took a quaint little one car train down the Shimabara peninsula. Much of the way down was flanked by rice fields.

Before I got on the train, I took a look at the map and bought a ticket for a rural looking station that was about halfway towards my final destination with plans to just wander around a little bit and take some photos. Looking at the strictly adhered to train schedule, I knew that a train going the opposite direction would be coming by shortly. I looked around to see if there was a good place to snap a photo, I saw a nice little rice paddy a couple hundred meters down the track that I thought might be nice. In order to get in position to grab a shot of it I feverishly looked for a good place to take a photo of it. I climbed through a local cemetery and jumped around an old lady's small farm until I found the right spot, just in time to capture this image.

 

Shimabara Castle's history kind of surprised me when I was walking around the museum set up inside. Basically, in 1624, the mostly Christian peasants built the castle, which had caused their taxes to drastically increase, during a time when Christianity was banned and Christians were being executed, all during a famine. These factors, amongst others, led to the Shimabara Rebellion. During the rebellion, almost 30,000 died and in the aftermath more than 37,000 additional rebels were beheaded. Also, the ban on Christianity became even more strictly enforced than before.

 

Shimabara Castle itself is quite nice. It's somewhat unique in that it kind looks like a pyramid, with it's symmetrical square footprint and consistently smaller levels.

I got to talking the resident samurai re-enactor, quite the nice fellow, and after he constantly apologized for not being able to speak English he insisted I get kitted out and we take a photo together. Of course, I obliged.

A former samurai neighborhood near Shimabara Castle.

In the middle of the Shimabara peninsula is Mt. Unzen. It's striking and is the prominent feature of the landscape in the area. It is absolutely not what I was expecting to see on my trip to see a castle. It reminded me of how beautiful the mountains of Japan are, which is fantastic considering almost all of the interior of its islands are very mountainous and you are very rarely out of sight from one.

After my jaunt in Shimabara, I was on a ferry to check out Kumamoto, another castle town across the bay.

The constant dashing of birds behind out ferry was a great source of entertainment on the one hour ride.

Kumamoto and its castle are much different than that of Shimabara. Both are much larger and have a lot more going on.

Even though I arrived in Kumamoto at about 2:00 pm, the bus from the ferry port to town, losing my hostel information, getting on the wrong trains, showing up at the wrong hostel and generally just being lost, drained about 8 hours from my day. Luckily by the time I got my bearings, there was still time left in the night for Kumamoto castle to be lit up for me to see.

The outer walls of the castle are immense, imposing and impressive.

I knew that I didn't have much time to catch a glimpse of the two-tone castle lit by flood lights, so I jogged up the hill to the main entrance and found my way into the neighboring Shinto shrine that had a great view. I snapped a few photos and turned around to look at the city from the hilltop. When I turned back around, the list had been turned off and everything was pitch black. I got it just in time. 

The next day I actually walked in and around the grounds in the daylight and it was great. I even got another photo with a samurai.

After one of the castle guides tried to convince me to move back to Japan, I find myself talking to strangers far more often in Japan than any other place, I was on my way out when something glorious happened.

A samurai taking a cell-phone photo of a group of high school students with a cutesy mascot in front of a castle. I think that I've capture 50% of Japanese culture right there in this one photo, it's probably the crowning achievement of my Kyushu trip. Kuma-kun, the bear character in the photo, is a bit of a sensation in Japan right now. He is the new official mascot of Kumamoto, Kuma meaning bear in Japanese, and he is EVERYWHERE and on EVERYTHING in Kumamoto. While I was at the castle, I think that he was being "interviewed" by a local TV station about his thoughts on the castle.

I didn't spend a lot of time getting familiar with Kumamoto, but I enjoyed it. It's a small city that still has its own unique identity. It's own castle, cute mascot, brand new trains and its own style of ramen. I love ramen.

Ramen has a bit of a stigma in the West. People seem to think that it is simply instant Cup Noodles, but it is so much more delicious than that. Ramen from a proper ramen shop is phenomenal. The broth is fantastic and the noodles are not microwaveable crap. But most importantly, there are so many different styles that give you different, toppings, broth or noodles. Can you that tell I'm getting all nostalgic over the stuff?

This statue has a little blanket to keep him warm at night.

Things that define Japanese culture: the ubiquity of vending machines.

Small back alley restaurants.

Taxis and their unfortunate expensiveness. This taxi driver was working on the biggest sheet of Sudoku puzzles I have ever seen, a 2 foot square of puzzle after puzzle.

Cutesy mascots, this little guy was in Kumamoto Station.

Convenience stores and their actual convenience, no seriously, you can pay bills at them, buy baseball tickets, read magazines for days, have all four meals in them, chill out in the parking lot, ask directions (by far the best place to do so, they always have loads of maps of the area and are always extremely helpful and willing to show you the way), and buy all of your basic household necessities.

Unique beverages. The two on the left are likely to be limited runs and probably won't ever be seen again after a few months. Both were amazingly delicious, the Grand Kirin was probably the best beer I've had from a major brewery in Japan. That little milk from a local farm in Shimabara was from this adorable little vending machine in Shimabara Station, it was delicious. After I was done, there was a little drawer underneath the vending machine for me to put the bottle for recycling, like I said, adorable.

Immaculate trains. JR Kyushu, the railway company, recently updated much of the trains around the island last year, notably the bullet train. This is the first time I have ever walked into a train car and been stricken by its actual beauty.

And that's it. Over a month is much longer than I anticipated it to take to sort through and post my photos from my 5 day trip to Japan, but I was happy to take that long to let such an amazing trip settle in my mind. I met such awesome people, I saw a part of Japan I didn't think I would get to see, ate some of my favorite food, relaxed, wandered around and generally just got lost. This is the dawn I saw while I waited to board my ferry back to Korea where I continue to have a fantastic time. Soon to come are posts the include beautiful fall foliage and the Seoul Lantern Festival.