Noilly Prattle: Getting Reacquainted 17 – Head Start into Spring

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Getting Reacquainted 17 – Head Start into Spring

     Towards the end of March and cherry blossom time, spring fever calls for a getaway from the cabin fever of winter. In Japan, just as there are weather fronts that bring changes in the weather, there is a “blossom” front that traces the blooming of the sakura () from the south (Kyushu) to the north (Hokkaido) of Japan. For those who just can't wait for the flower front to reach their area a trip to southern climes is the just the ticket for chasing away the winter doldrums.

Lord Katou Kiyomasa - builder of Kumamoto castle
the donjon and battlements of Kumamoto Castle
       We decided on a 6-day 5-night getaway to southern Kyushu and were not disappointed either by the weather or the cherry blossoms. As soon as we stepped off the Shinkansen in Kumamoto it was evident that it was warmer than when we had left our house in Okayama. After taking the tram we checked into our budget hotel called the Dormy Inn. The name probably comes from the French word for sleep (dormir), but I persisted in calling it the “Dreamy Inn”. The hotel seems to be part of a post-bubble-burst trend to lower cost hotels for budget-conscious travelers. Japan used to be notorious for its high cost of travel accommodations. But, 20 years of deflation and recession have left their mark on the once spendthrift nation. Accordingly, we were able to book a room for two for less than $100 a night. Furthermore, the hotel had a public hot spring bath on the top floor and it was convenient to the station, a car rental dealer and the main tourist attraction, Kumamoto Castle.

strong walls, many steps and culs-de-sac and
zig-zag passages softened by trees
       After checking in there was plenty of time for a visit to the 16th Century Kumamoto Castle which was about a 10-minute walk from the hotel. It was a gorgeous afternoon, balmy temperatures and plentiful sunshine. I was most impressed by the excellent condition of the castle walls and battlements. They had either stood the test of time remarkably well or had been painstakingly restored—probably a combination of both. At any rate I got a very good sense of entering a fortified castle. It would have been very difficult for an enemy invader to penetrate the high battlements, steps, zig-zag twists and turns and culs-de-sac under a rain to arrows to reach the dongon of the castle. Yet, the effect of the fortifications are softened by the calculated positioning of cherry and other kinds of trees and design elements of the buildings giving an odd overall sense of aesthetic appreciation and strength blended into a harmonious whole.

the donjon, highest point in the castle and last retreat

       Most of the buildings are restorations, but they are faithfully carried out in wood according to the original plans. This is particularly notable since many castle restorations in Japan are done in concrete. Kumamoto Castle is one of the most beautiful castles I have visited in Japan.

painted directly onto the wooden door

three tiered veranda facing the gardens

the only tower that is an unreconstructed original 
beautiful wall and sliding door paintings

the shiny black edging is done with "urushi"
a lacquer made from a poisonous plant 

ceiling partitions are also of black lacquer

"KOI" carp in the castle moat

battlements in the golden glow of the magical evening hour

       Kumamoto City is famous in Japan for horse meat. There are many restaurants that feature horse meat on their menus. Westerners probably tend to think of horse meat as either dog food or used for making glue. I was skeptical but willing to try some and it turned out to be very similar to beef in color and texture and didn't seem to have any particularly characteristic or gamy taste. It was very good lightly braised served with a ponzu sauce and garnished with green onion and sprouts. There was even a minced horse meat pizza that was also very tasty.

braised horse meat with garnishes and ponzu sauce

minced horse meat pizza

chopsick wrapper says: horse meat
the first kanji 馬 is the character for horse

       For the next step of our getaway we rented a car just around the corner from our hotel.

To be continued...

No comments: