Show-offery was serious business amongst the ruling class of Edo-period Japan. Since this was an age long before sports cars or private jets, one culturally refined way to outdo the neighbouring daimyō – short of setting fire to his castle and enslaving his entire household (which would have been just a tad uncouth) – was to build a better garden.
In that respect, the Hosokawa Lords of Kumamoto did very well indeed, setting up a splendid greensward in their capital that contained one serious piece of landscaping bling: Mount Fuji. (Or a reasonable facsimile thereof.)
It’s a long way from Nagasaki to Kumamoto by rail…
…so I departed as early as possible, with the first available service being the 5:58 Kamome 2. This wasn’t my first ride on JR Kyūshū’s sleek white 885 series EMU, but I had previously travelled only in the train’s first-class Green Car, thanks to the Green JR Passes I normally use on long journeys across Japan. This time, I was on a far shorter holiday in a far smaller area and a nationwide JR Pass wasn’t justified, so I carried a Northern Kyūshū Area Pass that only covers access to Ordinary Cars. No matter – the regular seats were more than adequate for my needs, and it was great to finally use them for the first time.
The 885 has had mixed reviews (some have described it as being a little rough and noisy), but I’ve got to admit that it’s one of my favourite pieces of Japanese rolling stock. Gorgeous inside and out, with rich honey-coloured parquetry and varnished wood panelling that contrasts beautifully with the clean white bodywork. The black leather seat covers also help add a touch of luxury, although I’m not a huge fan; give me comfortable cloth upholstery any day.
At Shin-Tosu Station, whose shinkansen platforms were deathly quiet at this early hour…
…I transferred to an N700-8000 series train of the Kyūshū Shinkansen. This particular set was on duty as the Sakura 403 service bound for Kagoshima-Chūō Station in the far south, though I only travelled as far as Kumamoto.
Another great looking train, one that I’ve taken quite a few times before – see here for example – though, as with the 885, only in the Green Car thus far. Interestingly, N700-8000 trains (along with their identical JR West N700-7000 brethren) are equipped with special all-reserved compartments that are classed as Ordinary, but with seats in a spacious 2+2 configuration that’s similar to Green (versus the more cramped 3+2 arrangement in typical Ordinary shinkansen cars). This meant that I was able to have a little taste of Green Car-style luxury, even with my basic rail pass.
After arriving at Kumamoto Station two minutes past eight, I deposited my bags in a locker and hopped onto a city tram bound for the Suizenji-kōen stop. (Japan Guide has some good advice on how to get here.) My destination for the day was just a short walk away, down a street lined with shops and straddled by, of all things…
…a torii. These gateways are a standard feature of Japanese shrine architecture, but what is it doing near the entrance to a garden?
We’ll see why in due course. First, let’s keep going…
…but watch out for the bear!
Oh, Kumamon. There’s just no avoiding you, is there? (^_^)
After parting with a few coins at the ticket booth (400 yen, last I heard), let’s step out of Kumamoto’s downtown sprawl…
…and into a world of spectacularly refined beauty, seemingly unchanged since it was first conceived more than three centuries ago.
Without going into too much detail – Wikipedia can fill you in if needed – Suizen-ji Jōju-en was once the private tea-drinking preserve of the Hosokawa clan, who ruled over Kumamoto Domain for more than 200 years until the late 19th century, when the old order was swept away by the reforms of the Meiji Restoration. Although not huge in terms of land area…
…the richly varied landscape features of this traditional garden are so arranged that visitors strolling along its circuitous walking path – which loops around and beyond a large spring-fed pond – can expect to see a different vista almost every time they pause to look. One of the garden’s most prominent features is a miniature representation of Mount Fuji, visible from various points on the route.
Suizen-ji Jōju-en is truly one of those places that’s best seen and experienced, rather than described, so I’ll put my own commentary on hold and lay out the pictures to set the scene on their own. These appear below in the same order that I took them, following the garden path in an anti-clockwise circuit around the central pond.
Just one last bit of commentary before we begin: amongst the images below, you’ll notice snapshots of a shrine standing within the garden grounds. That explains the torii we saw earlier. (^_^)
Right then, let’s go for a stroll.
Ahh, now wasn’t that invigorating? And there’s more to come – after all, Kumamoto is a city steeped in history and endowed with many cultural relics of its glorious past.
But let’s save that for future posts.