Kumamoto Part 1- That Gigantic Castle

Last year, me and my wife traveled to Fukuoka, the island of Kyushu’s biggest metropolis, for our second anniversary.  This time around, we found cheap fare to Kumamoto.  Coincidentally also in Kyushu, Kumamoto is another of its most populous cities, south from Fukuoka, far less maritime in character and located further inland.



Downtown Kumamoto.  If it looks deserted, that’s only because it was early in the morning.



Everyone comes out at night.


The city has an extremely vibrant nightlife relative to its population, which is sizeable but nowhere near the Top Ten.


This could partially be because Kumamoto is growing and prosperous, with a proportion of young people above the national average.  It could also be because Kyushu people just really like to party- Fukuoka had a pretty kickin’ night scene as well.

Kumamoto has lots of distinctive local cuisine too, including horse meat (both roast and raw!), roast chicken (Kyushu locales tend to pride themselves on their chicken), and spicy mustard lotus roots.  Kumamoto ramen isn’t nearly as famous as Fukuoka’s Hakata ramen, but it’s a really tasty variation featuring a more Chinese-style blend of spiced oil.


The city has been growing in nationwide stature and popularity, but its sights and historical locations are not necessarily that well known.


Most famous is the castle on the north end of downtown.



There had been smaller forts in the area since 1467, but Kumamoto Castle (and thus to a large extent, the town) in its current iteration was built late in the 16th century by Kato Kiyomasa, a ruthless and renowned general of warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi.  The castle design was celebrated for the extent and toughness of its fortifications.


Very surprisingly, lots of original buildings have survived.



Other parts, like this tower, have been recently rebuilt.  Impressive, but still dwarfed by that ancient tree.


Inside.  The reconstructions all use traditional carpentry rather than the usual concrete.


Last year, I was unprepared for how cold Fukuoka was.  This year’s winter, however, was (and still is) bizarrely warm.  The unseasonable climate caused the autumn leaves to hang on weeks after they usually fall.


Does this look like mid-December to you?



The main keep, behind layers of fortifications.



The Kato family built the castle, but the Tokugawa Shogunate soon gave the domain to the Hosokawas, a much older and more aristocratic family known as patrons of the arts.


This heavy rampart by the keep also served as the Hosokawas’ tea hall, and still hosts major cultural events.




One of the unique features of Kumamoto’s heavy fortifications: visitors to the central keep and palace have to travel through this tunnel inside the walls first.


Unlike many Japanese castles, Kumamoto has actually rebuilt part of the lordly palace too.  The building is of modern construction, but certain rooms are traditionally restored.  Crazy carpentry- and it’s only the palace kitchen!


The throne room has been painstakingly rebuilt, using historical texts and drawings to recreate the paintings.  Note the classic features of throne room architecture, visible at other sites as well: the offset dais for the lord, the staggered shelves to the side, and the square panels for housing bodyguards.


…and in keeping with the Hosokawa enthusiasm for tea, a tea room right behind the throne. Note the entirely different style, meant to bring the participants “down to Earth” so to speak.


The keep is an older postwar concrete reconstruction- but the original wasn’t demolished after the Meiji Restoration, or lost in American air attacks.

The tale is a unique part of Kumamoto’s history, and a pivotal chapter in the emergence of modern Japan.  The 1868 Meiji Restoration brought about the abdication of the Tokugawa Shoguns, the end of their feudal system, and the installation of a constitutional monarchy.  The support of the samurai of Satsuma Domain, further south of Kumamoto in Kagoshima, had been instrumental.  However, the end of the feudal system effectively meant the samurai had put themselves out of work.  The new Meiji government took a very dim view of Japan’s feudal era, as evidenced by their demolition or intentional neglect of most of the historic old castles, symbols of the old order.  The samurai were forbidden from carrying their swords, lost the rice stipend that constituted their salaries, and were replaced with a more European-style police force and standing army.
Thus the 1870s saw the emergence of a community of unemployed warriors, feeling betrayed and abandoned with practically nothing to lose.

Saigo Takamori, a Satsuma samurai who was influential in the Restoration, went on to become a respected core member of the new government.  The samurai cause was very close to his heart, and he quickly became disaffected with Meiji policies.  One of the major reasons for the rebellion against the Shogunate was its conciliatory treatment of the Western powers, who the dissidents believed were barbarians who needed to be kicked out of Japan.  Instead, the new Meiji government not only continued to maintain relationships with foreign powers, but modeled its institutions after European ones, and emphatically promoted the Westernization of Japanese customs like clothing and hairstyles.  Saigo was also extremely hawkish and lobbied for an invasion of Korea.  The government’s rejection of his proposal was the final straw that caused him to resign and return to Kagoshima.

There he established an academy and private military school to support the former samurai.  It quickly became a political institution, whose members filled the regional government.  To the Meiji government, it was tantamount to separatism.  Then came a wave of samurai revolts throughout western Japan.  Tensions were extremely high on all sides.  The national government sent a warship to remove the weapons from their Kagoshima arsenal to prevent them from being stolen and used in another uprising.  This provoked Saigo’s students to do just that.  The Satsuma Rebellion, or Seinan War, had begun.  Saigo Takamori wasn’t behind the arsenal raids, but it was too late for him to distance himself, and he was too loyal to his people to repudiate them.

At the beginning of 1877, the Satsuma rebels marched north with the intention of petitioning the emperor.  The road passed through Kumamoto, with its massive castle and garrison standing in the way.  The castle garrison opened fire from a defensive position, and the rebels besieged it.  The fighting was desperate, with the defenders having lost their food supplies in a recent fire, and the attackers trying to press on before imperial reinforcements arrived.  The keep was lost, but the new conscript army turned out to be tougher than the elite samurai had thought.  They were forced to abandon the siege when reinforcements flooded in.

Saigo’s samurai had to spread themselves thin and lost the initiative against overwhelming numbers.  He eventually retreated to Kagoshima, where he and the last of his soldiers were killed.  The end of the Seinan War marked the practical end of the samurai, and the Japanese state moved resolutely ahead in its modernization, industrialization, and imperialism.


But let’s go up and take a look at the keep.  Interestingly, the museum inside isn’t very impressive.  Clearly Kumamoto has been spending its efforts on restoring other buildings instead.  But there is a view of the city.



Impressively, this major western tower is original…and big enough to be a small castle on its own.



The Three Towers


Even the smaller infantry cover walls have survived.


Quite a lot of them, in fact.


The castle’s double main western gate


Leaving out the west side

So much more to see…but I better save that for later.



2 responses

  1. I always learn something here. Now I know more about the Satsuma Rebellion

    January 6, 2016 at 6:02 AM

  2. Pingback: Kumamoto Part 2- Real Estate | perihele

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