Foodie hotspots: Kumamoto, Aso-Kogen, Kurokawa Onsen Hot Springs, Amakusa Islands, Yakushima, Uki, Kikuchi.
Foodies Look Out For: Lotus roots stuffed with mustard; Kumamoto ramen, full of garlic; green onions; Kumamoto wagashi; good shoyu; good shochu.
The Basics: Kumamoto, once known as Higo, has a long cultural history that has set it apart somewhat from the rest of Kyushu. It suffered a catastrophic earthquake in 2016, and is still recovering from the disaster. The prefectural 'mascot', Kumamon, is now a billion-selling, marketing phenomenon that has prompted serious analysis in The Guardian and The Atlantic. It is easily accessible, from Fukuoka, and Honshu, thanks to the Kyushu Shinkansen.
Foodies Go Kumamoto: The volcano-rich Aso-kogen plain provides Kumamoto with takana-zuke mustard-leaf pickles, and Japanese Wa-o beef. Hitomoji no guru-guru are small green onions rolled, wrapped, boiled and eaten with su-miso vinegared miso. Another common dish is karashi renkon, lotus root sliced and stuffed with Japanese mustard, dipped in soy powder, wheat flour, eggs and water and then deep-fried. It is a speciality of Uki town.
In the Kikuchi district, yubeshi are yuzu rice cakes, with soy-bean paste, sugar and yuzu juice mixed with rice, then wrapped in bamboo wrappers and boiled. Kumamoto oysters are fruity and light, and are nicknamed 'The Chardonnay of Oysters'. A great place to experience hot-spring cuisine is at the wonderful Kurokawa Onsen. We've been bathing and fine dining at ryori ryokan traditional inns here for years. Our personal favorites are Shinmeikan, Kiyashiki and Okunoyu.
The Kumamoto Budget Gourmet
Look out for ikinari dango, steamed buns containing sweet potato and either tsubuan or koshian red bean paste. They are popular in the souvenir shops at Sakuranobaba Johsaien below the entrance to Kumamoto-jo Castle. Also, Kumamoto Seika, Kobaian, Higotemari and Asorindo wagashi sweets; taipi-en and dagojiru soups.
The Ramen Professor Recommends: In order to get to grips with the garlicky tonkotsu pork broth soup emanating from Kumamoto, there are four places you must try. Ajisen Honten, in Chuo ward not far from the prefectural office, Komurasaki in Kamiotori-cho jut East of the castle, or Kokutei, South-East of Kumamoto station are the best known. But we like Kiyoutei best, just a block South of Kokutei. The owners are very friendly too: on a recent visit they gave us mikan as a present.
Chicken-and-egg-style arguments exist for which came first, precisely how the ramen differs from Hakata or Kurume, etc etc, but most people seem to agree that three friends started the craze, post-WW2, for a tonkotsu soup heavy on cooked - not raw garlic, and with noodles slightly thicker than average. Basically, you pays yer ramen money and takes yer choice.
Kumamoto Keika ramen, the darling of post-bubble economy Tokyo seems to well and truly have died a death.
FGL Favorite Tipple: Kumamoto is bonkers about its shochu. Down here it is generally kome-jochu, made from the local rice. One of the most accessible is Torikai, with its gentle aroma of tropical fruit, and clear finish. Shiro and the premium brand Matsuyoi, both rice-based, are also highly regarded by locals. Mitake Shuzo, based on the beautiful island of Yakushima, produces a beautifully rounded, smooth sweet potato imo-jochu named for the island on which it is created. Kum a Shochu by Sengetsu Shuzo is also popular.
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