Monthly Archives: June 2014

Himeji, Japan

We’d heard from fellow travellers and recent TripAdvisor reviews that Himeji’s main attraction and a highlight of Japan – the magnificent Himeji Castle – was in the final stages of restoration, and everyone suggested visiting after March 2015. But, we’re in Japan now, and Himeji was en-route so we figured that we’d stop off anyway and see how much of this famous castle we could actually see.

Himeji Castle in June 2014, just a little scaffolding obscuring our view. Although it was possible to visit the grounds and fortifications, the castle's main keep was off-limits

Himeji Castle in June 2014, just a little scaffolding obscuring our view. Although it was possible to visit the grounds and fortifications, the castle’s main keep was off-limits

Arriving with expectations of the castle being completely covered, we were delighted to find an almost un-obscured view of the resplendently restored Himeji main keep.

Because the cranes were still dismantling the scaffolding, the keep and its courtyard were cordoned off, which was slightly annoying because we were still charged full admission! However, as we found in Matsumoto, there were volunteers who offer free guided tours and as Himeji was quiet we got one all to ourselves.

The defensive embrasures of Himeji Castle

The defensive embrasures of Himeji Castle

Our excellent guide walked us through the battlements and defences, and we especially liked the different shaped embrasures designed for specific defence weaponry: square and circular ones for rifles, and tall rectangles for bow and arrows. The different shaped windows brought to mind a scene from the children’s TV show ‘Play School’ – “let’s look through the round window“.

We really like having a guide with us as they’re so enthusiastic about the castle and its history. As well as translating a lot of the exhibits they often add a lot of historical context and stories about Japanese history that isn’t included in the displays.

Our volunteer guide translated this list of samurai names, posts and salaries. Being a top samurai was very well remunerated! (Salary is the top line)

Our volunteer guide translated this list of samurai names, posts and salaries. Being a top samurai was very well remunerated! (Salary is the top line)

We opted for the combined entry ticket which included the Koko-en gardens west of the castle. Reminiscent of the walled Forbidden City in Beijing (though not even slightly symmetrical), the gardens are separated by passageways of high walls.

Cho-on-sai guest house in the Koko-en gardens. We sat here for about 20 minutes just watching the Koi

Cho-on-sai guest house in the Koko-en gardens. We sat here for about 20 minutes just watching the Koi

As much as I enjoy Japanese castles for their engineering, symmetry and finish, I think I enjoy Japanese gardens more, for their immaculate control over nature and the inclusion of ponds and waterfalls.

Our view of the garden and the waterfall from Cho-on-sai

Our view of the garden and the waterfall from Cho-on-sai

Koko-en is a collection of 9 gardens, each with a different theme. The first is a typical tea ceremony garden, arranged so the view is best from the guest house.

The 'flatly landscaped garden'. We sheltered from a little rain in its pagoda

The ‘flatly landscaped garden’. We sheltered from a little rain in its pagoda

The fourth, fifth and sixth gardens share a fast-flowing, winding stream, and each has little bridges or stepping stones that invite the wanderer to cross. These joined gardens are seasonal – the ‘garden of summer trees’, and the ‘garden of winter trees’ are designed so there’s a different focal point depending on the time of year, and I thought it was also a clever metaphor – walking through the seasons is like walking through the passage of time.

But the eighth garden was my favourite. It’s a clever design of two looping pathways that each return you to your starting position, backdropped by Himeji castle.

The excitingly named 'garden with a hill and pond' was my favourite of Koko-en. I liked the stepping stones and the single large pond

The excitingly named ‘garden with a hill and pond’ was my favourite of Koko-en. I liked the stepping stones and the single large pond

We feel pretty fortunate about our visit to Himeji. The external construction works were all but complete and we were afforded some great views.

Naoshima, the art island of Japan

The night before we left Yakushima, we met Georg, a young and enthusiastic Swiss architect who was full of praise for Naoshima when we told him we were heading there next. For years now I’ve been building my perfect house in my head, collecting inspiration from designs, materials and nice touches I’ve seen, and I asked Georg’s advice about how best to convey my ideas to an architect, which started a fascinating conversation..

Georg politely explained that I’d be employing the architect to do the design, so it’s far better to think about how I intended to live in the house, and to mention anything that affects the allocation of space, for example, where will I spend most of my time? Is the kitchen more important to me than the lounge? What impression should the house make from the outside?

Naoshima is covered in art, like this giant red pumpkin by Yayoi Kusama that greets you at the ferry terminal

Naoshima is covered in art, like this giant red pumpkin by Yayoi Kusama that greets you at the ferry terminal

Then we started talking about materials and found we shared what some might call an unhealthy fondness for bare concrete. Georg showed me the works of architects who use concrete in their designs, and specifically those of Japanese architect Tadao Ando who is known for his ‘brutalist’ style of concrete, glass and steel, and I knew I was going to enjoy Naoshima.

Tadao Ando

Tadao Ando is self-taught and one of the most famous architects in Japan. He has designed buildings across the world, including Piccadilly Gardens in Manchester (UK), Fort Worth’s Modern Art Museum in Texas (USA), and of course, many buildings in Japan such as the Tokyo Skytree, the Omotesando Hills shopping complex and three large museum spaces on Naoshima.

Omotesando Hills shopping complex in Tokyo. One continuous inclining walkway links all the shops. Photo source: Wikipedia

Omotesando Hills shopping complex in Tokyo. One continuous inclining walkway links all the shops. Photo source: Wikipedia

Chichu Art Museum

Built into the top of a hill, the Chichu Art Museum incorporates a number of permanent installations by other artists, and is itself a work of art

Built into the top of a hill, the Chichu Art Museum incorporates a number of permanent installations, and is itself a work of art

Chichu Art Museum. Ando's design meant the museum building is all underground. Source: Benesse Art Site Naoshima

Chichu Art Museum. Ando designed the museum to be underground while still making use of natural light. Source: Benesse Art Site Naoshima

We loved the mix of geometry and materials, the long underground entrance corridor of concrete reminded me of the D.T. Suzuki zen museum in Kanazawa, and ended with a square, open air staircase whose bannister concealed the stairs so from the ground it just looked like a large square atrium. After climbing the stairs, another long open air corridor ends with a triangular courtyard which we descended to access the gallery spaces.

The triangular courtyard of the ChiChu musem. This one has stones at the bottom, the square one had long grass

The triangular courtyard of the ChiChu musem. This one has stones at the bottom, the square one had long grass

We thought it worth visiting just for the museum building, but there are site specific installations by 3 artists, including a stunning off-white room of natural light built specifically for 5 of Monet’s Water Lilly series paintings, 2 immersive installations by James Turrell, an American artist who presents light as art, and a large stepped room containing a huge sphere surrounded by various geometric cricket-stumps by Walter De Maria which was Julie’s favourite.

Lee Ufan Museum

The Lee Ufan Museum on Naoshima. Pointy

The Lee Ufan Museum on Naoshima. Pointy

The Lee Ufan Museum is a small museum, again designed by Ando and again built into the landscape. We liked the contrast – the large open space outside with the huge standing column gave a feeling of openness and accessibility, but this initial feeling is quickly betrayed by the claustrophobic passageway of 18-foot high concrete walls one must traverse before arriving at the museum’s underground entrance. Inside, the journey through the gallery spaces continue the theme of contrast: light then dark, large then small, each carefully planned for the exhibition of one of Lee Ufan’s installation pieces, until the final room.

Medium in size, with natural light, wooden flooring and rounded corners, the final room is juxtaposed with the rest of the museum, a final contrast if you will, and it invites contemplation because it’s designed as a mediation space. I really liked this – a dedicated space where you are encouraged to sit for a while and reflect on the art and architecture you’ve just experienced.

Lee Ufan - Shadow of Stone. Source: kamel mennour

Lee Ufan – Shadow of Stone. Source: kamel mennour

Of the artwork, I enjoyed the mix of Lee’s work – the large abstract block paintings of the ‘Encounter’ room (entitled ‘From Point’ and ‘From Line’), and the ‘Shadow of Stone’ piece where a video was projected into the shadow of a knee-high stone was captivating for both its content and execution.

Benesse House Museum

Benesse House Museum. Source: Benesse House

Benesse House Museum. Source: Benesse House

The original museum project of the island, the Benesse House Museum is part of the larger Benesse complex that also includes an exclusive hotel, park and a beach. While still incorporating permanent artwork installations such as the Oval (which, sadly, is only open to guests of the hotel), the Benesse Museum is more of a conventional contemporary exhibition space.

Benesse House Museum - Some of our favourite pieces from the exhibition. Yukinori Yanagi 'The World Flag Ant Farm' (source: Benesse Art House Site); Bruce Nauman '100 Live and Die'; Yoshihiro Suda 'Weeds' (source: Big in Japan)

Benesse House Museum – Some of our favourite pieces from the exhibition. Yukinori Yanagi ‘The World Flag Ant Farm’ (source: Benesse House); Bruce Nauman ‘100 Live and Die’; Yoshihiro Suda ‘Weeds’ (source: Big in Japan)

Our favourites were the wall of country flags made from painted sand and joined up into a giant ant-farm, which meant the ants had completely destroyed some of the flags (we tried to identify as many as we could!); the flashing neon wall of words and the very cute piece by Yoshihiro Suda called ‘Weeds’, which look like small weeds growing out of the building itself!

Art House Project

Minamidera, houses my favourite exhibit of Naoshima - Backside of the Moon by James Turrell. Photo source: The Unhatched Egg blog

Minamidera, houses my favourite exhibit of Naoshima – ‘Backside of the Moon’ by James Turrell. Photo source: The Unhatched Egg blog

The Art House Project is a collection of regular dwellings that had been abandoned, and were subsequently turned into art installations. A single ticket buys entrance to all 6 of them, and it was fun to cycle between them, as they’re all located in the small port town of Honmura.

We’d spent most of our day at the bigger museums, but we had just enough time to quickly visit each house. On the advice of the ticket staff, we made a beeline for the Ando designed Minamidera, as entrance was limited by number and to 15 minute blocks – which immediately piqued our interest – that and it was built for another James Turrell installation..

While we waited for our turn, we zipped off to see the others before returning for what would be my favourite single exhibit of the island.

Haisha, the 'scrapbook' art house

Haisha, the ‘scrapbook’ art house

Julie really liked the crazy Haisha, which is aptly described as a ‘scrapbook’ and includes a giant plastic statue of liberty, and we both really liked Kadoya with its pool of submerged LED numbers counting down at different speeds.

Finally, Minamidera. We were led into the short end of the building by a handrail because it’s an installation in the dark. Once in, we sit down and are advised to wait about 10 minutes for our eyes to adjust.

10 minutes later, we can now make out two faint lights at either side of the other end of the room, and between them we were asked if we could see the screen – an empty rectangle of grey that looks like a cinema screen. Once we were all able to see it, I was expecting a show to start, and thinking that the show had already begun, I started seeing little stars move across the screen..

Then we were asked to stand up and approach it. What I thought had been stars were actually the blood vessels in my eyeballs, and as we got to the screen we found it was completely uniform in colour. Then came the surprise.

I’d love to tell you what happened next, but this one is better when you experience it for yourself :)

Us with another of Yayoi Kusama's pumpkins

Us with another of Yayoi Kusama’s pumpkins

We thoroughly enjoyed the art and architecture-packed day on Naoshima, but as each museum charges around ¥1,000 (~£6) for entry (or ¥2,000 for Chichu), we spent ¥5,000 (~£30) each, and that doesn’t include lunch, bicycle hire, or the round-trip ferry to get there. Yep, it was an expensive day on our budget, but it was definitely worth it!

Yakushima, Japan

While we were chatting to the owner of the hostel where we stayed in Nara and telling him our rough plans for our travels in Japan he asked if we’d heard about Jomon Sugi, a really old tree in the centre of an island off the south coast of Kyushu. Well, we hadn’t but it sounded intriguing and after a little more research we found that the name of the island is Yakushima and that 20% of it has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site on account of the value of its ancient cedar forests. It was quickly added into our itinerary.

Yakushima’s location [Image source: Yakumonkey]

Several weeks later we had made our way as far south as Kagoshima. Our final day in the city was grey and rainy so it was a pleasant surprise when we woke the following morning to blue skies and bright sunshine. Especially pleasant as we had a four hour ferry journey ahead of us which really wouldn’t be nice if it was windy and raining.

Yakushima is 60km south of Kagoshima and there are three ways to get there, flight (very fast and very expensive), hydrofoil (takes about two hours and more moderately priced) and car ferry (takes twice as long as the hydrofoil and is half the price). We opted for the cheapest option but would recommend it to others if they have the time. The ferry was comfortable, uncrowded and Andrew was thrilled to discover that there’s an onboard sauna, although he didn’t get chance to make use of it.

20140620-142138-51698352.jpgThe end of the Satsuma peninsula seen from the ferry to Yakushima. The conical mountain in the centre of the photo is Mt Kaimon-dake.

20140620-142446-51886607.jpgAs the ferry approached Miyanoura port we were delighted to see flying fish scooting away from the ship (and stunned at how far they can travel). I was also surprised by how mountainous the island looked and began to feel a little nervous about the long walk to the old tree which we planned to do the following day.

Our first stop was the tourist office where picked up what has to be my favourite information handout ever – an A3 sheet with a map of the whole island, all the bus stops, points of interest and a complete bus timetable for all the routes – an obsessive travel planner’s dream tool! Next we wandered along the main street in search of lunch, eventually settling on Satchan where the friendly waitress managed to translate enough of the menu for us to decide on a set meal of Yakushima specialties. It was a delicious feast of sashimi, fishcake and grilled fish although the fact that it contained lots of flying fish made us feel a little guilty after admiring them so much from the ferry…

20140620-142630-51990576.jpgExcited to dig into our lunch!

Yakushima is famous for its ancient cedar forests and also has the rather dubious honour of being the wettest place in Japan receiving up to 10,000mm of rainfall per year. To put that into perspective, the wettest town in Britain, Dalness in the Scottish Highlands, gets an average of 3,300mm per year. Yes, that’s right, this place is three times wetter than Scotland! We had our fingers crossed for a dry day for the walk up the mountain and the forecast looked promising.

20140624-163013-59413220.jpgYou can tell how wet the climate is by the amount of moss in the forest

Our accomodation was a one hour bus ride from Miyanoura which Andrew managed to sleep through while I followed the route closely with my new favourite piece of paper. Alighting from the bus we found ourselves in the company of two other travellers, Brian from New York and Claudia from Zurich, and quickly realised that we were all staying at the same guesthouse. We spent the rest of the evening talking them into the early start that was necessary to join us for the 10 hour hike to Jomon Sugi. The only public transport option to the Arakawa Trail Head meant that we had to get up at 4.30am…

20140620-151456-54896440.jpgBrian, Claudia, Julie and Andrew looking pretty chipper at the start of the trail at 6.45am

The first three-quarters of the trail are not too challenging. The path is along an old logging railway and the incline is very gentle although the distance is long (just over 8km or about 5 miles). We were by no means the only group to be doing the hike although most of the others seemed to be small groups of mostly middle-aged Japanese ladies with tour guides. Everyone was very friendly and by the end of the day, having passed each other numerous times, we almost felt like honorary members of some of the groups!

20140620-152337-55417183.jpgWalking the railway line

20140620-152528-55528348.jpgUs with a slice of the trunk of a felled cedar at the site of an abandoned loggers’ village part way along the trail.

The last section of the trail is only 2.7km (about 1.7 miles) but it is steep and the path is a combination of steps, boardwalk and twisty tree roots so we really needed to watch our step. This is close to the highest part of the island, where the old growth forest still survives. There are many old trees along the path and a couple of stumps too. Wilson’s Stump is big enough to fit about eight people inside and, when looked through from the right angle, the view up to the canopy from its centre is heart shaped.

20140620-152658-55618179.jpgThe last part of the trail seemed to be a never ending series of steps

20140620-153021-55821590.jpgAndrew checking out the height of one of the ancient cedar trees

After seeing some incredible huge trees we thought that Jomon Sugi might be a bit of an anti-climax, but when we arrived it made us gasp. It’s the largest cedar ever found in Japan at 25.3m tall and 16.4m in circumference. Estimates of its age range from 2,170 to 7,200 years old, based on a scientific sampling of the trunk, and an estimate from its size respectively.

20140620-153219-55939190.jpgUs with Jomon Sugi. Unfortunately this is as close as you’re allowed to go to prevent erosion around the tree’s roots.

After stopping for lunch, we then had to turn around and do it all in reverse. We just pressed on to get the hard part over and done with quickly and we were back on the railway line in about an hour and a half from where, even with tired legs, the going wasn’t too bad. Highlights of the walk back were seeing deer and a couple of monkeys (both sub-species indigenous to Yakushima) and also a brief stop away from the track at the riverside – the water is crystal clear and looks wonderfully turquoise blue in the sunlight. I was very tempted to give my feet a soak but eventually decided against it worried that once off, I might not be able to get my boots back on!

20140622-165114-60674312.jpgAt the river in the afternoon sunshine

At last we made it back to the trail head in time to catch the bus back to the guesthouse. All four of us exhilarated but exhausted.

You’d think that after all that exertion we’d take it easy the next day but we only had two full days on Yakushima and we wanted to make the most of it so we hired bikes from the guesthouse and set off to explore the southern coast of the island. After picking up a picnic lunch, we made our way to Hirauchi Onsen to coincide with low tide. This hot spring bath is very much au natural, the sulphurous spa water bubbles up from beneath the rocks and is contained in crude concrete baths. It’s so close to the sea that it can only be used for a few hours either side of low tide.

20140622-170326-61406668.jpgHirauchi Seaside Onsen

The onsen was exactly what we needed to ease our aching muscles and it left us feeling so relaxed that we thought we might go straight back to the guesthouse, but after a bite of lunch and a sugary drink we had a bit more energy and decided to carry on to see if we could reach the waterfall marked on our map. Turns out it was a bit further than we’d expected, but by the time we’d realised we were only a few kilometres away and so we pressed on.

20140622-171057-61857508.jpgOhko-no-taki waterfall with a drop of 88m was much more impressive than we’d expected especially considering that it was the end of the dry season.

By the time we got back to the guesthouse we were completely exhausted and when we worked out that we’d cycled a total of about 50km we joked that all we needed now was to swim back to Kagoshima and it would be like a three day triathlon! In the end though we decided to get the ferry instead…

20140622-171617-62177015.jpgYakushima’s southern coast (clockwise from top left): Mountainous scenery above the bridge at Kurio, a very strange house, beach at Nakama, a huge banyan tree

One of the very few things that we don’t like about travelling in Japan is that reasonably priced accommodation can get booked up fast and so we’ve found it necessary to have our accommodation booked well in advance. This denies us the flexibility to stay in places that we really like for longer than our initial estimate. We could easily have stayed on Yakushima for a week, gradually exploring the whole island and chilling out in its quiet greenness but unfortunately it wasn’t possible this time. We also started daydreaming about island hopping between the remote and small inhabited islands even further south so I think there’s a pretty good chance that we’ll be back!

Volcanic activity near Kagoshima, Japan

In Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s four main islands, the volcanic activity of the archipelago is obvious and nowhere more so than near Kagoshima towards its southernmost tip. Incidentally the area around Kagoshima is called the Satsuma Peninsula which we found endlessly amusing even before we found out it actually is famous for citrus fruits. The Komikan tangerine is a variety indiginous to the area and tastes a bit like a cross between an orange and a lime – very yummy!

One of the reasons we visited Kagoshima was the fish market tour, but we were also keen to see the volcanic activity and how it affects the day-to-day life of the residents.


Just 4km across the bay from Kagoshima is the very active Mt Sakurajima (cherry blossom island). It streams smoke almost constantly and erupts more than 1000 times a year although mostly just small quantities of ash. The falling ash is a fact of life for local residents and bags of it are cleaned up from the streets. Seeing the volcano billowing on the day that we visited was pretty awe inspiring and every so often we would turn to each other to say ‘Wow!’

20140619-135311-49991692.jpgBags of ash awaiting collection on a street corner in Kagoshima

We took the cruise ferry, which departs once a day from Kagoshima, and takes 50 minutes instead of the 15 minutes of the direct ferry. It skirted the lava fields around the south-west part of the volcano before arriving at the port.

20140619-135523-50123323.jpgSakurajima billowing smoke, seen from the cruise ferry

At the port we hopped onto the ‘island view’ bus to head up to the Yunohira Observatory, the closest access point to the crater. At 373m above sea level it’s just over a third of the way up. After we’d taken some photos of the volcano and admired the view of Kagoshima, there didn’t seem to be much more to do there and we still had 45 minutes to wait before the next bus. Then we noticed that the information leaflet said there were seven heart shaped stones hidden around. It seemed like a reasonable way to pass the time but even after a thorough search including the car park we only managed to find four, perhaps the rest were covered in ash!

20140619-140115-50475158.jpgUs at Yunohira Observatory

20140619-140831-50911093.jpgYunohira Observatory (clockwise from top): View across the bay to Kagoshima, aerial view of the three craters in the visitor centre, one of the heart shaped stones once we’d cleared the ash away

Back on the bus, we descended from the observatory to Karasujima Viewpoint where we read that it used to be an island 500m away from the volcano until the 1914 eruption. This is the most recent big eruption of Sakurajima and it not only buried this small islet under 20m of lava but also filled the strait between the volcano and the mainland, and destroyed three villages. Reading this we were shocked that Sakurajima still has a population of 5000 people but I suppose the economic lure of tourism, fertile fields and ash that can be mined is hard to resist. The tourism leaflet says that the population ‘live in harmony with the volcano’ but I’m not convinced that anyone has fully explained that to Sakurajima…

20140619-141616-51376083.jpgFrom Karasujima we walked the 3km trail back to the port town to end the day with a soak of our feet in the public foot bath

Ibusuki Sand Baths

An interesting effect of the volcanic activity can be experienced in Ibusuki, an hour south of Kagoshima by train, where steam bubbles up through the sand heating it to spa temperatures. We like a good hot bath and so we were keen to try the hot sand. First we wandered along the deserted seafront and ate our packed lunch sitting on the seawall and gazing out to sea before making our way back to Sunamushi Kaikan Saraku (Natural Sand Bath) and paying the entry fee.

20140612-115025-42625167.jpgDeserted sea front at Ibusuki

Ibusuki Sand BathsRows of spa goers buried in sand at Sunamushi Kaikan Saraku

In the changing rooms we put on the provided yukata (imagine a kind of cotton dressing gown) and made our way to the beach where we lay down in a hollow and the staff began to shovel hot sand over us, something like you might have done to your dad on the beach as a kid. It was a relaxing experience and not actually as hot as we’d expected. The recommended time to stay covered for the full blood cleansing benefits is 10 minutes but we both managed at least 15 minutes.

Julie getting covered in sandStaff shovelling sand over Julie

Taking a sand bathBuried up to our necks! You wrap a small towel around your head to protect your head and neck from the heat

Andrew getting out of the sandAndrew escaping from under the sand

After wriggling our way out we made our way back up to the onsen building to rinse the sand out of all the places it had worked its way into. The sand bath was a fun and unique experience and left our skin feeling thoroughly cleansed.

Kumamoto, Japan

Kumamoto’s Castle is one of many in Japan which have been reconstructed, however it is pretty unique in that it was neither deconstructed during the mass modernisation of the Meiji period at the end of the 19th century, nor bombed during WW2, but destroyed in battle during the Satsuma Rebellion in 1877. The story behind its demise under Saigō Takamori is dramatic and culminated in a 54 day siege but ultimately it is unclear how the fire which destroyed the castle broke out. Saigō’s story inspired the film ‘The Last Samurai’ starring Tom Cruise although Hollywood invented the involvement of an American soldier.

20140605-081803-29883719.jpgUs in front of the main keep of Kumamoto Castle

The castle was built in 1607 by Kato Kiyomasa and was widely admired. It is a maze of huge stone walls leading to the main buildings, an impressive keep tower which was used for defensive purposes and a reconstruction of the Honmaru Palace where the lord and his family would have lived. In addition there is one turret which is an original structure and several more around the perimeter walls which have been reconstructed.

20140605-081700-29820425.jpgMassive stone walls protect the castle

20140605-082327-30207266.jpgThe Shokun-no-ma room in the guest hall of the Honmaru Palace reconstruction is extravagantly decorated in gold leaf and bright colours. Even the ceiling is covered with gold and painted with flowers (top right).

20140605-082256-30176887.jpgThere are several wells around the castle grounds which were used to provide drinking water during the siege period. This one was deep!

Next day we planned to catch the afternoon bus to Kagoshima which meant that we had time in the morning to visit Suizenji Garden. Construction of the garden began in 1636 for Tadatoshi, the third Lord of Hosokawa, as his tea retreat. Its design represents the 53 stations of the old Tōkaidō post road although apart from the grassy mound shaped like Mt Fuji any other features were fairly obscure to us. Maybe I shouldn’t have been expecting something like a miniature village with model buildings and explanatory notices…

20140606-083818-31098399.jpgLooking across the pond towards the carefully manicured slopes of ‘Mt Fuji’ (towards the left of the picture)

The garden is quite small and it doesn’t take more than half an hour to walk around it all. Nevertheless the peaceful pond was a lovely place to sit for a while watching the herons, egrets and the ever present koi. There is a Noh Theater stage in the garden as well as a couple of shrines, one of which features a fountain of longevity.

20140606-083850-31130004.jpgSuizenji garden (clockwise from left): Well, teahouse across the pond, heron, Arum lilies

20140608-104531-38731824.jpgShrine in the grounds of Suizenji Garden

Most Japanese cities have mascots, a friendly looking cartoon character which they use on their tourist materials. Kumamoto’s mascot is a black bear called Kumamon and he really seemed to be everywhere, popping up on street signs, postcards, T-shirts and even in the lobby of our hotel, often with different expressions.

20140603-190813-68893611.jpgUs with a Kumamon cut-out near Suizenji Garden