A little over a week ago, a certain, um… major disappointment – or shall we simply call it a calamitous circumstance – set me on a downward spiral of self-doubt and nihilism, at the bottom of which buzzed a flashing neon sign: “Why did I come to Japan?” I’m cold. I’m lonely. I can’t sleep, I can’t afford a new coat, I can’t find any imperial stouts, and I can’t read my phone bill, much less understand what the hell anyone around me is saying at work. Everything sucks!
But despite frustrations such as these, last week I was reminded of all the things that had originally enticed me to move here when I took a few days off from work and caught the limited express train to Kumamoto. Literally “the origin of bears” (I love Japanese names), Kumamoto is the capital city of the prefecture of the same name, due south of Fukuoka and centrally located on the island of Kyushu. I wasn’t sure what to expect of Kumamoto; although it looked like a fun and interesting city from the little research I had done beforehand, a few of my friends warned me that it was a bit of a bore, and that I should just go to the other destination I was considering – Osaka – instead.
But, boy, am I glad I didn’t. Here’s why:
The Food 熊本料理
Kumamoto is commonly known in these parts (and, presumably, the rest of Japan) for its unique culinary meibutsu 名物, literally “famous things.” Like most areas of Kyushu, Kumamoto boasts its own interpretation of the ubiquitous tonkotsu 豚骨 ramen. Kumamoto ramen chefs have improved upon the already robust pork broth by topping it with chips of fried garlic, which contribute a flavor significantly different from that of minced raw garlic (a common ramen condiment throughout the country). Frying softens the garlic’s brash spiciness while enhancing its musky aroma, allowing it to meld smoothly with the broth’s flavor instead of obscuring it. And not all garlic chips are created equal, I learned. At Komurasaki, the garlic had been fried to a very dark shade, and a few pieces were actually burnt, lending a wonderful charred edge to the soup. At Ajisen, on the other hand, the garlic was fried more lightly, maintaining more of its original spice, but it was also chopped more finely and used more moderately so as not to overwhelm the soup. Needless to say, I was very impressed with Kumamoto ramen.
Other culinary highlights included basashi 馬刺し and karashi renkon 辛子レンコン, raw horsemeat and spicy mustard-stuffed lotus root, respectively. I had tried horsemeat before, pan-seared, and was fairly unimpressed – and I’m afraid it wasn’t much more interesting in its raw form (especially for the price). That’s not to say it was unpalatable; it was simply bland and a tad chewy, like a cheap piece of beef. The karashi renkon, on the other hand, was delightful in both flavor and texture. The creamy, yellow mustard paste had the heat and concentrated flavor of wasabi, but not its volatile, sinus-torching aroma. And the lotus root provided the perfect vessel for the mustard, crunchy to contrast the mustard’s texture, and nutty and mellow to compliment its flavor.
I also happened upon two other delightful gustatory surprises in central Kumamoto: a handmade German sausage shop and a bar specializing in imported beer, both within a block of each other. The bar stocked about sixty different lagers and ales from around the world, including some exceptional offerings from Belgium and Germany. It was on the expensive side, but is any price really too high for Hoegaarden on tap or Orval served in the brewery’s official chalice? (Don’t answer that.)
By the way, I think my flirtation with vegetarianism is officially over (sorry, dolphins). You just can’t go to Kumamoto and not try the horse. Or the Weißwurst, apparently.
The Culture 熊本美術・歴史・文化
One of the most popular tourist destinations in Kumamoto is Kumamoto Castle, which really puts Kokura Castle here in Kitakyushu to shame. I mean, Kokura Castle wasn’t that impressive to begin with, and the displays it houses are generally pretty lame: awkward mannequins and animatronics, chintzy dioramas, and – my favorite part – a ten-minute animated filmstrip in which a family of raccoons learns the true meaning of Kokura Castle. I really got the impression that they’re trying awfully hard to make the castle seem important – and I’m sure it is – but the effort falls flat, and the displays come across as cheesy and insincere.
Not so at Kumamoto castle, where there’s no need for this kind of nonsense, because the castle really is awesome. First of all, it’s enormous; the castle grounds take up a huge portion of Kumamoto City, and the main tower stands tall upon a hill, visible from many kilometers away (the view of Kokura Castle is blocked by office buildings on the south and a mall on the north). Kumamoto Castle also has a very rich history, having played important parts in both the rise and fall of the Tokugawa shogunate, and this history is displayed straightforwardly and simply. Plus, the architecture of the castle itself is quite interesting, as it sports a number of structural innovations that protected the castle from attack for nearly 300 years (it was eventually sacked and burned by samurai rebels during the Satsuma Rebellion – much of what remains today was reconstructed in the 1960s). Kumamoto Castle is widely considered one of the three greatest castles in all of Japan, along with those in Matsumoto and Himeji, and you don’t have to be an historian of Japan or an architecture buff (I’m neither of these things) to see why. Trust me, it’s impressive.
After I left the castle, I walked a few blocks over to the Contemporary Art Museum (CAMK), where I was wowed all over again, specifically by an exhibition of ikebana by local artists that just opened. Now, I’m no art critic (clearly), but I must say I thought everything was absolutely beautiful – sometimes delicate, sometimes dynamic, always detailed, and often thought-provoking. I confess I know next to nothing about ikebana, and that could be the very reason I enjoyed it so much. But this exhibit had me very intrigued, and I hope to learn more about the history, technique, and function of ikebana.
The People 熊本町民
Each time I’ve come to Japan, I’ve been stricken by how helpful and hospitable people seem to be. But I’ve never felt more welcome in this country than I did in Kumamoto. I don’t think I can even remember all the friendly interactions I had with people there, but here are a few:
When I first arrived, a middle-aged woman volunteered, without being asked, to help me figure out the streetcar system – in English. Later, a clerk at a clothing store complimented me on my jacket. When I checked into my hotel on Thursday, I had a conversation with one of the receptionists who told me she had spent some time in Montana. When I checked into my bed-and-breakfast on Friday, the proprietor offered to pick me up from the station and was there within five minutes after getting off the phone. Later, he recommended a Japanese restaurant that turned out to be phenomenally delicious. At a used record shop near the castle, the owner and I talked a bit about American and European indie music. When I told him I was in town for the Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra show, he said I should come back to meet him and his girlfriend after the show if I was interested in going to the after-party! At the concert itself, a few of the people with whom I had danced shook my hand and thanked me politely when it was over, and one girl even told me I was “very cool.” Afterwards, I went back to the record store to meet up with the owner only to discover that I must have misunderstood his Japanese; he was nowhere to be found, and in his place were four men jamming on acoustic guitars in the hallway. When I turned to leave, one of them followed and stopped me to ask if I was looking for someone, and – again, in English – explained that the record store guy had just gone home (oh well… I was pretty tired anyway). Back on the streetcar, an older man made room on the bench and cheerfully offered me the seat next to him.
So, if there are any Kumamoto people out there reading this: you’re awesome. Thank you.
The Ska 東京スカパラダイスオーケストラ
Alright, so Kumamoto isn’t really known for its ska scene (actually, the only places in Japan that have much of a “scene” at all are Osaka, Tokyo, and maybe Naha). But this past Thursday and Friday, Kumamoto became a bona fide steady beat convention when the nine-piece Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra descended upon the shopping arcades and rocked their unique brand of ska at two concerts that can only be described as volcanic. Originally, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to get in – tickets had long been sold out online – but I went to the venue early on Thursday and easily acquired tickets to both shows. My good fortune almost makes me think I should start attending some kind of church.
Now, I just have to say this once, and then I’ll shut up about it forever: Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra is the best ska band in the whole world history of the genre. Not only are they excellent songwriters who have succeeded in synthesizing a number of different influences with the traditional sound of bands like The Skatalites, they’re also unbelievably talented performers – endlessly energetic, impeccably fashionable, and jaw-droppingly skilled with their instruments. I mean, you should see their keyboardist, Mr. Oki Yuichi. The man slams his fingers and fists down on the keys so hard, so swiftly, and with such reckless abandon, it almost looks cartoonish – but he never misses a note, and his solos are consistently mind-blowing. And if you think I’m being hyperbolic, you should really just see them live for yourself.
The crowd was great fun, too. Everybody danced. Nobody fought. Women and twentysomethings made up a noticeable majority of the crowd each night, which came as a surprise to me considering that about ninety percent of the turnout at any given ska show in America is comprised of fourteen-year-old boys (who usually can’t dance to save their lives). Overall, it was an utterly skathartic experience.
In conclusion, I love Kumamoto. If anybody wants to go down there sometime, I’d definitely be interested in making the trip again. I didn’t even have time to see Suizenji or Mt. Aso! So stay tuned for a future post: “Kumamoto, Part Two.”