Kumamoto city (in Kyushu, Japan) hasn’t always been a top tourist location. The area gained recognition after the 2016 earthquake which devastated Kumamoto Castle, the city’s main tourist attraction. However, don’t write Kumamoto off your travel list – there is plenty to do in the city, as well as numerous amazing day trips which take little more than a short car journey. One such location is Reigando Cave, famous for housing a historic figure in years gone by. Aside from the cave, you can also see the brilliant 500 statues which litter the hillside, enjoy awesome views of rice terraces, and finish it all off with a visit to a thoroughly British tea and antique shop… of course.
‘Spirit Rock Cave’ looks more impressive before you go inside. At the end of the cliff path, you can see two steep (and vaguely hazardous) staircases leading up to the mouth of the cave, nestled into the rock face which is sheltered by trees. Various decorations give the entrance to the cave a more impressive feel, but once you’ve ascended you’ll see that the cave is really quite tiny, just twenty feet across. Dominated by a large rock in the middle and a shrine at the back of the cave, it seems hard to imagine that this hole in the wall was ever called home.
But home it was, to Miyamoto Musashi (who lived 1584 – 1645) who was a well-known samurai in his day, though now more famous for his work as an author. This Buddhist swordsman was a traveller undefeated in duals, of which he fought more than 60 in his lifetime. However, in his later life he swapped the sword for a pen and in the year 1643 he entered Reigando Cave. His final work, The Book of Five Rings, is a philosophical piece giving practical advice on the ins and outs of war. The book covers five topics – Wind, Water, Earth, Fire and The Void. The work was completed a few months before he died at the age of sixty. Living in a cold, damp cave can certainly cause a few problems for your health, so it is no surprise to learn that he actually died within the Reigando Cave.
But don’t be put off by morbid thoughts – the cave is a pleasant place to visit, with most visitors wondering whether the large rock in the middle of the room serviced Musashi as his bed or his armchair. Take time to look up at the ceiling and into the nooks and crannies where you can find decorations and carvings hidden away. Watch your step coming down again – the stairs can get slippery in poor weather.
Gohyaku Rakan – 500 Statues
The other attraction at the site (and my personal favorite) is not the cave itself but the walk to get there, past 500 fascinating statues which are scattered across the hillside. Representing the five-hundred followers of Buddha who achieved enlightenment in their lifetimes, these statues are rather like a more jovial version of China’s Terracotta Warriors. Each pulling a different facial expression and sitting in a different position, they say that if you look long enough you can find one that looks just like you. No mean feat if you happen to be a woman, given that all of the statues look decidedly like men. Having been guarding the hillside for a number of years, naturally some of the statues are looking a little worse for wear. Some are missing limbs while others are entirely headless, with some of them put back together but looking a little mismatched. The statues are wonderful, and you could visit half a dozen times and still see something new each time you visit.
Open every day from 8:00 – 5:00, entry to the Reigando Cave costs just 200 Yen (100 Yen for a child ticket) and group discounts are available. This attraction isn’t well-known with either local or foreign tourists, and even locals of the Kumamoto area often haven’t visited. This is one of Kumamoto’s best kept secrets – a cheap day out, something interesting to see, and you’ll probably have the place to yourself. Being up in the hills, it makes for a pleasant place to visit in the summer as the temperature is a little cooler up there. However, you’ll need to watch out for mosquitoes as they can be found in number anywhere near bamboo. The best time to visit is first thing in the morning or later in the afternoon – with the sun streaming through the trees and dappling the hillside, it lights up the statues in the most glorious way. Not a rainy day activity, but just as beautiful on a sunny day in winter.
Mountain Viewing Point
Near the car park at the top of the hill (there is also parking right next to the ticket desk, but I recommend parking up by the big statue of Musashi) there is a path leading up the mountain. It doesn’t take long, just a few minutes, but it’s absolutely worth the climb. At the end of the path you come out onto a opening which has the most stunning view. Surrounded by mountains, with the valley down before and the sea in the distance, it makes for a wonderful picnic spot. Few tourists bother trekking up this way, but I would say it’s one of the most breath-taking things to see there.
If the view has taken your fancy and you want to check out somewhere else nearby with a wonderful scene to behold, consider stopping off at Honmyo-ji on the way back into Kumamoto. Named the highest ranking Buddhist temple of its sect in Kyushu, the temple is set halfway up the hill to Honmyo Park. There are around 300 steps to reach the top, or you can take the easy route and drive straight up. The view from the park is immense – you can see the whole of the city, with the bullet train line snaking along in front of you and mountains on the hazy horizon. While you’re there you should certainly check out the temple itself, as well as the Hanazono Cemetery behind, with stones lining the steps down to the bottom. It’s a beautiful place to stop off, and particularly nice to break up the car journey back from Reigando Cave, especially seeing as those roads are so twisty and winding!
Kokopelli – Cafe & Antiques
If you forgot to pack a picnic, don’t panic – you can head on down to Kokopelli. Just a few minutes down the hill from the ticket desk, you can find a charming little cafe in a traditional Japanese house, which is actually over 100 years old. While it looks thoroughly Japanese from the outside, once you get inside you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d stumbled into rural Britain. With knick knacks piled high, this place is a cafe which also doubles as an antique shop, selling bits and bobs brought over from England. Household items of days gone by, jewellery, glassware, furniture, old books, photographs and paintings… it’s an absolute treasure trove, with prices akin to treasure to match! A vintage camera will set you back between 6,000 and 12,000 Yen, and if you fancy one of the wooden and glass doors they have for sale, you’ll be paying between 4,000 and 10,000 Yen. The bric-a-brac might be a little out of your price range, but it doesn’t cost to take a look, and with so many antiques jumping out at you it’s easy to feel as if you’ve wandered into a museum.
The cafe serves light meals as well as drinks and cakes, with Asian and European choices as well as fusion dishes. The hazelnut coffee is a top choice, or iced coffee on a hot summers day. They use British tea and Jersey milk, which comes from the herds of Jersey cows in nearby Aso. Cakes use local produce and there is always a tasty selection (to eat in or take away) with the cheesecake being a top choice. Kokopelli can cater for parties and other gatherings, so make inquiries in you’re planning a special event. I can imagine a boxful of their cheesecake going down a treat at your birthday party or wedding. Kokopelli furniture and antiques are also available to rent if you want to add a special display at your event. Some staff members speak English so don’t worry if you can’t read the menu. Find out more info at the Kokopelli website.
As far as day trips from Kumamoto go, you could certainly do worse than a visit to Reigando Cave. The statues and cave don’t really take all that long to see, even if you love them as much as I do. What with the short walk up to the viewing point on top of that, you could easily manage to see all the attractions in a morning and have time for a coffee at Kokopelli before lunch. From there, you could spent the afternoon in nearby Tamana, or pop down to the sea to see the famous sandy beach which is so popular at sunset. There’s also a Musashi museum nearby. Kumamoto has loads of great choices for day trips, so what are you waiting for?