The pretty city of Kumamoto is the capital of the wider Kumamoto Prefecture and is part of the island of Kyushu. Like many cities in Japan, Kumamoto is known for having a stunning castle and is also close to the mighty Mount Aso which is a still-active volcano, which has led to the city being known as Hi No Kuni which means ‘Fire Country’ in Japanese.
As well as the castle and mountain, Kumamoto is also a place where you can explore a number of interesting museums, galleries and shopping arcades or you can also go for a leisurely afternoon walk in the beautiful Japanese gardens that adorn the city.
One thing to note is that Kumamoto was hit quite hard by an earthquake in 2016 and many of its famous buildings were damaged.
Some of these will need extensive repair work and are reopening at different times, so you need to check with the central tourist office in the city to find out which places are currently open.
Kumamoto is particularly resplendent in the autumn months, so try and visit at that time if you can as this also coincides with the Autumn Festival held annually in the city.
Here are the 15 best things to do in Kumamoto…
1. Go for a stroll at Suizenji-jojuen
Suizenji-jojuen is one of the main attractions in Kumamoto and is basically a large Japanese garden which is set around a picturesque lake.
The garden is meant to look like the 53 stations that would have been located on the ancient road from Tokyo to Kyoto and you can also see miniature models of famous Japanese landmarks such as the peerless Mount Fuji.
If you can, then make sure to come here in the afternoon when the light makes the garden look even more beautiful.
2. Hike Hanaokayama
Hanaokayama is a hill which offers you great views over the city and it is particularly pretty if you trek here in the evening when you can catch the twinkling lights over the city.
If the weather is good then you can even see as far as Mount Aso, steaming away behind Kumamoto.
It takes around 15 minutes to trek to the summit of the hill, or you can also travel there by car, but it is more than worth the effort to get to the top as you can also check out a small hillside temple which is topped with a shrine gate known as a torii in Japanese.
3. Visit Soseki Memorial Hall
Soseki Memorial Hall is dedicated to Natsume Soseki who was a writer who would have lived during the Meiji period and who died in 1916. The memorial hqll is based in his former home which dates from the 1870s and this also used to be an English school.
One of the main reasons to come here is to check out the period architecture as well as the ornate Japanese garden that surrounds the building.
From the house you can also walk to the serene Tsuboi-gawa River.
4. Tour Kumamoto Prefectural Traditional Crafts Centre
If you want to check out some arts and crafts while you are in Kyushu then the Kumamoto Prefectural Traditional Crafts Centre is one of the best places to do it.
Here you will find a huge number of different crafts pieces such as ceramics, glass ware and wood carvings, and there are even ornate Yamaga lanterns on display.
One of the great things about the center is that you can also buy many of the pieces on display here which make excellent souvenirs or gifts.
5. Visit the Shimada Museum of Art
The Shimada Museum of Art is one of the smaller museums in Kumamoto but it is well worth a visit if you are in the area.
Here you will find a number of galleries which are dedicated to items such as calligraphy pieces and scrolls which were painted by Miyamoto Musashi who was an artist and a famous samurai warrior who would have lived in Kumamoto in the 16th century.
The museum also has a number of galleries dedicated to the work of contemporary artists from the region so art lovers should make sure not to miss this off the itinerary.
6. Visit Kumamoto City Hall
Kumamoto City Hall does not, at first glance, look like a very interesting place to visit.
In itself the building does not have a huge amount to offer, but it is free to enter and the big draw here is the observation deck on the fourteenth floor.
From here you can look out over the city itself and also get some spectacular views and photo opportunities of the castle and the downtown section of Kumamoto.
7. Admire Honmyo-ji
Honmyo-ji is another one of the major attractions in Kumamoto and is a temple which sits on an elegant hillside in the north of the city.
To get to the temple you will need to walk up some 176 steps which are also dotted with graceful Japanese lanterns.
This is also the final resting place of Kato Kiyomasa who lived during the 16th and 17th century and who was the famed designer of the Kumamoto Castle.
In honor of the architect, the central tower of the mausoleum and the castle were made to measure the same height and you can find some memorabilia related to Kiyomasa in a small museum section of the building.
8. Hike to Mount Kinpo
Mount Kinpo is located close to Kumamoto and is known for having resplendent views over both the city and neighboring Nagasaki.
The mountain is only around 10 kilometers from Kumamoto, but once there you will need to trek to the summit which takes around an hour.
It is more than worth the effort however, as you can also take in views of Mount Aso as well as Mount Unzen.
As with many mountains in the area, this one is topped with a dainty temple, but the signature attraction here is actually a fence along the side of the observation deck which is covered in locks which have been placed there by amorous couples as a sign of their everlasting love.
9. Visit Fujisaki Hachimangu Shrine
Fujisaki Hachimangu Shrine has the claim to fame of being one of the most important shrines in Kumamoto and is also one of the most famous spots of worship in the city.
If you come here at New Year then the shrine is likely to be crowded with worshippers who have come to pray for an auspicious year ahead, and there is also a famous festival held here in September which is known as the ‘Drunken Horse Festival’.
10. Explore Hosokawa Gyobutei
If you want to know a bit more about the history of Kumamoto then consider heading to Hosokawa Gyobutei which is the former home of the famous Hosokawa Clan.
The celebrity family were the ancestors of one of the Japanese Prime Ministers in the 1990s called Morihiro and a trip here will give you an insight into how people would have lived in Kumamoto in the days of old.
It is also close to the main castle and you can buy a combined ticket and visit both at the same time.
11. Visit Chibajo Annex
Chibajo Annex is actually part of the Kumamoto Prefectural Museum of Art and was built in the Spanish style by two famous designers who came to Japan from Spain.
The reason to come to the annex is to check out the art work on display, but also to enjoy the dramatic design features of the building itself which looks like it should be located in the middle of Spain rather than a city in Japan.
12. Enjoy the Autumn Festival
If you happen to be in Kumamoto in October or November then you need to make sure to catch the famous Autumn Festival which is held annually.
At the end of October and the beginning of November the city turns orange thanks to all the gorgeous trees here and the burnt copper colors found across the parks and gardens are not to be missed.
The main event of the Autumn Festival is held at Kumamoto-jo and includes musical recitals such as taiko drumming shows as well as dance competitions.
13. Explore Honmaru Palace
Honmaru Palace is actually a reconstruction of the original building which was known as Honmaru Goten.
The reconstruction dates from 2008, but it was designed in the original style and is made of wood which has been painted with intricate layers of gold leaf.
There are a number of different rooms that you can visit in the palace including one which is known as the Sho-kun-no-ma which would have been the receiving room and is one of the most opulent parts of the palace.
14. Go for a bike ride
Kumamoto, like many cities in Japan is a great place to explore by bicycle.
With that in mind, you can hire a bike at many spots across the city and then ride around at your leisure.
As much of the city is flat, it is fairly quick to cycle from one side to the other and this is the best way to get a whistle stop tour of the best sights.
15. Visit Kumamoto-jo
Kumamoto-jo is probably the main attraction in the city as this is its main castle which would have been built at the beginning of the 1600s over several years.
It would also have been the former home of the ruling family of Kumamoto, the Hosokawa clan, and previously you were able to go inside the building as part of a tour.
Sadly the castle has been damaged by earthquakes over the years and it is not clear when it will reopen, although it is still well worth visiting even if it is just to take photographs of the impressive outside of the building.