Kumamoto is a city with a rich history and unique culture, famed for both the enormous Kumamoto Castle and its delicious cuisine. Downtown, you’ll find fantastic food at reasonable prices, great shopping spots, plenty of hole-in-the-wall bars and ramen shops, and impressive cultural attractions like the aforementioned castle. This guide will tell you all you need to know to make your visit to Kumamoto City a great one.
The city of Kumamoto lies smack-dab in the middle of the island of Kyushu. Its central location and good access to transportation makes it a great launchpad for travel around Kyushu. The city itself lacks the urban sprawl you see in bigger cities like Tokyo and Fukuoka, so you can hop on a train and be out in the countryside in minutes.
But while you’re in the city, there’s plenty to see, do, and eat, so this guide is here to offer you recommendations on the top things to do if you’ve got a day to spend in Kumamoto. I’ll also list some extra activities futher afield if you’ve got a day or two extra and are looking to explore the natural side of Kumamoto Prefecture.
About Kumamoto City
First up, a quick explanation about Kumamoto. Kumamoto City is centered around Kumamoto Castle, both geographically and culturally. The castle was built by Lord Kato Kiyomasa in the early 1600s. In contrast to castles built by rulers to show off their wealth, Kumamoto Castle was built to be an impenetrable fortress, with huge stone walls and winding, maze-like passageways.
Directly to the east of the castle, you’ll find the main downtown shopping and eating areas of Kumamoto, centered around the Kamitori and Shimotori covered arcades. South of the castle are the historic neighborhoods of Shinmachi and Kyomachi where you’ll find old shops and hidden shrines.
Kumamoto is unique among Japanese cities in that the station and the downtown area are separate. You’ll need to take a tram, bus, or taxi to get downtown from the station, either of which takes about 10 minutes. The tram is the easiest way to get around the city, and services the station, the area around the castle, Suizenji Garden, and more.
How much time can you spend in Kumamoto?
If you lack a car and only want to stay in the city, the main sights of Kumamoto can be covered in a day. If you have a car or want to explore the seaside Amakusa region or volcanic Aso region by train, you could easily spend a three or four days and still have plenty left to see.
Personally, I’d recommend a day seeing the sights in the city, then a day exploring the outdoors and relaxing in an onsen in Aso.
When should you visit Kumamoto?
Kumamoto, like Kyoto, is situated in a big valley that gets pretty hot in the summer. It is also located just south enough that it has a robust rainy season that runs from early June to mid-July. So if you have the ability to avoid a certain time of year, you’ll want to visit any time other than the mid-summer months.
The sakura (cherry blossoms) bloom earlier in Kumamoto than places up north, usually arriving late March/early April. The castle is surrounded in cherry blossom trees and looks especially nice in and around this season.
The weather in Kumamoto settles down a bit in the fall, which is when you’ll also find a number of festivals scheduled, including the The Great Festival of Fujisaki Hachimangu Shrine and the Hinokuni Festival.
Kumamoto is also famous for having one of the largest swings between high temperatures in the summer and cold temperatures in the winter. While it only snows rarely in Kumamoto, it can get pretty chilly, so warm attire is advised during the winter months.
How to get to Kumamoto
Most foreign visitors come to Kumamoto by train or plane. Kumamoto Airport does have direct international flights, but most visitors come via layover in one of Japan’s bigger airports. Fukuoka is the most common entry point for visitors from other Asian countries, from which Kumamoto is only an hour away by shinkansen.
Kumamoto Airport has direct flights to Seoul Incheon (Korea), Busan (Korea), Kaohsiung (Taiwan), and Hong Kong. It also has domestic flights to major connecting airports like Narita, Haneda, and Kansai International (as of 8/2022)
Because Kumamoto Airport is located about an hour outside of downtown Kumamoto, it actually only takes a little longer to fly into Fukuoka and hop on a shinkansen than to fly into Kumamoto and take a bus downtown.
Taking the shinkansen to Kumamoto is one of the most convenient ways to get here. The station was also rebuilt in 2020 and is a great improvement over the previous station. Keep in mind that the station area and the downtown are separate, and remember to factor that in when scheduling train reservations.
As with anywhere else in Japan, Japan Rail Passes are a great way to get around and offer significant discounts than if tickets are purchased separately. JR Passes must be purchased prior to coming to Japan and need to be picked up at special ticket offices located at most major JR stations and airports.
These are the types of JR Passes that can be used in Kumamoto:
- National Rail Pass
- All Kyushu Pass
- Sanyo-San’in Northern Kyushu Pass
- Northern Kyushu Pass
- Southern Kyushu Pass
Yep, you read that right, Kumamoto falls under both Northern and Southern Kyushu rail passes. Basing yourself out of Kumamoto while exploring Kyushu can save you some $$$ (or €€€ or what have you).
The Kyushu Expressway runs through the eastern part of Kumamoto City. Both the Kumamoto and Mashiki-Kumamotokuko exits are viable options to get downtown, but keep in mind that the roads can get very crowded around rush hour.
Layout of Kumamoto City
The area to the east of the castle until the Shirakawa River is considered Kumamoto’s downtown. The tram line runs along Densha Dori Street, which bisects Kumamoto’s main shopping arcade into the Kamitori and Shimotori sections.
The southern arcade is Shimotori, and it is the bustling section of downtown with all kinds of places to eat and shop packed within a few small blocks.
The northern arcade is Kamitori, which is a little quieter than Shimotori with a more laid-back vibe. One street east of Kamitori is Kaminoura Dori, which is a narrow back street lined with excellent restaurants the locals like to frequent.
West of Shimotori and south of the castle is the new Sakuramachi Bus Terminal and shopping complex. Both local and long-distance buses are available here.
About 10 minutes south of downtown by bus or tram is Kumamoto Station. For a long time, Kumamoto Station was pretty underwhelming, with a chintzy station building and nothing around it. After the shinkansen came in 2011, the station was rebuilt and newfangled skyscrapers started popping up. There still isn’t too much to do here compared to downtown, but it’s better than it was!
Getting around Kumamoto City
Most places you’d want to see in the city are downtown and within walking distance. The Shiromegurin Castle Loop Bus is a sightseeing bus that costs ¥160 per ride and links the castle and the station stops along the way at points of interest.
The tram is also convenient in getting between the station, downtown, and Suizenji. It costs ¥170 per ride. There is also a single-day tram pass that costs ¥500 and allows unlimited tram rides for a day (buses not included). Passes are available at the Kumamoto Station Tourist Info Center and directly from the tram driver.
For buses, Sakuramachi Bus Terminal offers the most convenient access with the most tourist information, but much of the information is only in Japanese. Local bus routes can be notoriously difficult to navigate, so avoid buses unless you have a specific bus number and stop you are going to.
Kumamoto has plenty of taxis. They are cheaper than in larger cities and, like most taxis in Japan, are clean, safe, and convenient. While they might be a little expensive for the solo traveller, a taxi may be a viable option for a trio.
Uber and other similar car hire apps are not yet active in Kumamoto, so taxis are your only option for now.
If you have an international or Japanese license, renting a car is recommended in Kumamoto, especially if you’re looking to venture outside of the city.
Keep in mind that cars drive on the left in Japan. Drivers from places like the US and Australia might also be surprised at just how narrow some of the streets are here. Kumamoto is known throughout Japan for having an especially baffling street layout, so keep this in mind as well if you are thinking about renting a car.
Car share is available via Times in the downtown area, so if you are registered with them, car sharing is also an option.
1-Day Kumamoto Itinerary
If you’re limited on time and only have a day to spend in Kumamoto, you can still cover the major downtown sights.
Any trip to Kumamoto City starts at Kumamoto Castle. Before exploring the inside, we recommend heading to the 14th floor of City Hall (the big brown building across the street) for an aerial view of the castle. Don’t feel shy; you’ll be rubbing shoulders with city hall staff and locals on the elevators, but the view is well worth it.
Next up, cross the street towards the castle and head along the river opposite the long castle wall (the wall, Nagabei, is the longest castle wall in Japan). The walkway ends around 300 meters ahead; head right over the bridge and diagonally to your left is Sakuranobaba Josaien, our next stop.
Josaien is a collection of local shops and eateries in a historic reproduction of a merchant town. You’ll find all kinds of Kumamoto specialties here, including horsemeat snacks, tofu ice cream, taipien noodles, and more.
There isn’t anywhere to eat inside the castle, so if you are looking for a snack or a meal before heading in, it’s best to eat at Josaien or buy something you can bring with you.
During the warmer months of the year, Josaien has a Soft Serve Ice Cream Fair, where visitors can try one of dozens of different delicious soft serve cones offered at the various Josaien eateries.
If you’re looking for a full meal, my recommendation is Ginnan, a buffet restaurant located to the rear of Josaien. The buffet is reasonably priced and features a lot of Kumamoto specialties.
Wakuwakuza Kumamoto Castle Museum
Inside the complex, you’ll find the Wakuwakuza Kumamoto Castle Museum. If you are planning on visiting the castle (as you should), combo tickets for the castle and the museum are available that are considerably cheaper than buying tickets separately.
This small museum acts as a great introduction to some of the history and culture of the castle and Kumamoto City. If you have time, be sure to catch the dynamic 096k (pronounced “O’Clock) theater troupe performance on the second floor. The show is about 60 minutes long and follows the exploits of the eccentric samurai Maeda Keiji as he visits Kumamoto.
Next, grab an ice cream and a drink and make your way to the stairs at the rear of Josaien towards Kumamoto Castle.
At the top of the stairs, head right towards the entrance to Kumamoto Castle. Tickets are available for purchase here if you didn’t buy one at Wakuwakuza. Entry for adults is ¥800 (as of August 2022).
The city of Kumamoto was struck by a series of devastating earthquakes in 2016, the strongest registering as magnitude 7.0. These were the strongest series of earthquakes to hit Kumamoto in the 400 years since the castle was built, and there was extensive damage to nearly all of the castle’s stone walls, turrets, and keep. Complete reconstruction is expected to take decades, but they are rebuilding the most important sections first.
The first major reconstruction project involved building an elevated walkway over the collapsed walls and into the core of the castle. This is where you’ll start as you pass through the ticket gate.
Because parts of the castle grounds are designated National Treasures, no new construction is allowed to alter their structure. This means two things: all of the collapsed stone walls need to be put back together exactly as they were before the earthquakes; and this elevated walkway can’t be anchored by foundations dug into the ground.
To get around this, enormous cement blocks were placed on top of the ground to anchor the walkway. The walkway now allows access to the castle even during construction, and can be removed without damaging the grounds when construction is complete. This enormous construction is actually meant to be temporary and will be removed once repairs are complete (a couple decades in the future).
After taking some photos and climbing some stairs, you’ll find your way to a short tunnel under a large building. This is the Honmaru Goten and was reconstructed in 2008. The Honmaru Goten is a large hall where the lord welcomed and entertained guests to his castle. Unfortunately, it was only open for a few years before it was heavily damaged in the earthquakes.
Head under the Honmaru Goten and you’ll see a path running under the Honmaru Goten to your left. This is called the Kuragari Tsuro and was the official entrance into the central citadel. The lord’s visitors would enter this underground tunnel and climb a staircase to arrive in the entrance hall of the Honmaru Goten.
On the opposite side of the tunnel lie the inner courtyard and the castle keeps.
Kumamoto Castle Main and Minor Keeps
The main draw of Kumamoto Castle is its towering keep. The keep itself is divided into the Main and Minor Keeps. The keep complex is a concrete reconstruction built in 1960 that actually floats above the stone walls. Keeping all that weight of the keeps off the walls helped the keep foundations fare better during the earthquakes.
The keeps themselves didn’t escape harm but, instead of simply repairing them, the interior of the keeps has been transformed into a beautiful 6-floor museum brimming with interesting exhibits and artifacts. There is an elevator to the top, but it is only for people who are unable to take the stairs.
If you don’t understand Japanese, you’ll need to download the Kumamoto Castle companion app to understand all of the signs and videos inside the museum. You can download the app here for the iPhone or here for Android.
Each floor of the museum covers a different era in the castle’s history. The top floor is a lookout deck that offers 360-degree views over downtown Kumamoto City. Give yourself a good hour or so to explore the exhibits and enjoy the views. There are also small AR markers on the windows on the top floor that, when viewed through the castle app, overlay historical photos over the modern landscape of Kumamoto.
After making your way up, down, and out of the keeps, head out of the North Exit from the castle and make a quick stop at Kato Shrine.
Kato Shrine is dedicated to Lord Kato Kiyomasa, the builder of Kumamoto Castle. After a couple relocations, the shrine is now located within the castle grounds and is a great spot to take photos of the keeps. Kato Shrine also offers a great view of Uto Yagura, one of the few original wooden structures of the castle. Visitors used to be able to go inside Uto Yagura pre-earthquake, but the building is currently closed.
If you got an early start to your day and are about ready for lunch, head either back to Josaien or go to the Shimotori Arcade area and you’ll find plenty of options.
If you’ve got nice weather and a couple more hours to spend, hop on the tram and head to Suizenji Jojuen Garden.
Suizenji Jojuen Garden
This traditional garden takes about 15 minutes by tram from downtown Kumamoto and is a quiet oasis among the bustle of the city. Be sure to get off at Suizenji Park and not Shinsuizenji Station. After getting off the tram, head north down the diagonal street until you see a big torii gate and a shopping street that leads to the park entrance.
Admission costs ¥400 per adult (as of August 2022). Once inside the park, check out the Kokindenju-no-ma Teahouse, a historic thatched-roof building that overlooks the Suizenji pond. If you purchase a matcha or coffee and sweet cake set, you can sit in the teahouse while you enjoy your snack.
If you follow the path to the left of Kokindenju-no-ma around the pond, you’ll soon find Izumi Shrine. Izumi Shrine is dedicated to the members of the Hosokawa family who ruled Kumamoto in the centuries following the rule of Kato Kiyomasa. The Hosokawas were proponents of the arts and built Suizenji Jojuen as a garden to enjoy tea ceremony, horticulture, and noh theater.
The garden itself is a great place for a stroll. The mound in the center of the garden is supposed to represent Mt. Fuji. To the rear of the garden, you’ll find a long track that is used a few times a year for yabusame (horseback archery) demonstrations. Suizenji is especially busy in early January for New Year’s celebrations and for college students getting dressed up to take photos for Coming of Age Day.
If you’re a fan of the One Piece manga and anime franchise, there is a statue of Luffy in front of the Kumamoto Prefectural Offices, which are about a 10-minute walk from Suizenji. Check out our other article here for the locations of the other One Piece characters. Ajisen Ramen, one of the world’s largest ramen chains, hails from Kumamoto and its first store is also located near the Luffy statue.
Once you’ve had your fill of Suizenji, hop back on the tram to head downtown. If you’re feeling hungry (or ready for a drink), I recommend trying out the Kaminoura Dori area.
In contrast to the busier, more commercial Shimotori and Kamitori Arcades, Kaminoura Dori (a street that runs parallel to the Kamitori Arcade) is more laid-back and with a bit more character. Along Kaminoura, you’ll find specialty coffee shops, boutique clothing stores, great places to eat, and more. A number of restaurants and shops are located in old houses that have been expertly renovated into retro-styled buildings bursting with character.
Here are a couple of my recommendations from south to north.
Terrace: Fantastic Brazilian-style churrasco buffet in a very unique former residence.
Akagumi: Authentic Kumamoto ramen at a very reasonable price.
Cafe Lacadio: Great little wine bar and bottle shop with wide selection of wines and tasty snacks.
And Coffee: One of Kumamoto’s first specialty coffee shops, offering basic coffee drinks and fresh-roasted beans.
Yokobachi: An izakaya that sprawls throughout an old house, its veranda, and its spacious courtyard. The menu is filled with Kumamoto specialties like basashi (horsemeat sashimi), karashi renkon (fried lotus root stuffed with spicy mustard miso), and more. Loved by locals and travelers alike.
Ninoni: Hopping gyoza spot offering a tasty menu, great atmosphere, and reasonable prices.
Ruri-an: Upscale dining featuring gorgeous dishes made with local ingredients. Impressive wine and sake list. Reservations required.
Yakoboku: Small yet fantastic new-wave cocktail bar hidden under Ruri-an. Recipient of numerous top bartender awards.
Nini: Somewhat hard-to-find bar & restaurant offering great food and a surprisingly deep selection of rare spirits. Great place to geek out with the owner about alcohol.
So that about covers the standard one-day stay in Kumamoto City. If you’ve got more time to spend in Kumamoto, the Aso region with its smoking volcano and beautiful landscapes is a must-visit (and take special Aso-Boy train there if you can schedule it!).
If you’ve got even more time to spend, try exploring seaside Amakusa or head to the secluded Hitoyoshi-Kuma region for great shochu and countryside hospitality.