Day 0 & 1: January 17 & 18
Our flight was at 12:30pm and I woke up at 6am (!) to shower and get ready. T’s parents drove us to the airport. We arrived around 9am and it took around an hour to get through to the gates. We had some breakfast at Little Ludlow and bummed around until our flight (with JAL).
Our first leg landed at Singapore Changi airport around 5:30pm and it only took around half an hour to clear immigration. I met my friend and she took us to the staff food court adjoined to the airport where we ate some hawker food. This was a great way to catch up with her in the few hours we had to transit since we didn’t have to travel anywhere.
We hung around until 8:30pm before going back to our gate. Our next flight departed from Changi at around 10pm. We landed at Tokyo Haneda airport around 5:30am (on time) but we had a domestic transit at 7:30am, which I hadn’t realised would be a problem. We had to clear immigration, which took around an hour because there were so many people, run out and find our checked luggage and re-check it in for the domestic leg. I noticed that a lot of domestic flights were cancelled due to severe snow weather. Then we had to catch a monorail for the domestic terminal! We made it to our boarding gate with 15 minutes to spare, so it was really a lot more stressful than I had anticipated!
All over the country, Japan was actually having abnormally cold weather with lots of snow storms and many unusual places experiencing snow. Our plane was actually delayed because they had to de-ice the plane… this seemed to involve a man on a crane hosing the plane down, haha. I’m just grateful we were one of the few planes not cancelled! Shortly before take-off, a flight attendant also came and informed us that our checked luggage had not made the flight and would be on the next flight (roughly an hour behind). This wasn’t a big deal to me because almost anything is better than lost luggage.
After landing at Tokyo Haneda airport, we waited at the boarding gate another two hours (the second flight with our luggage was also delayed). I did have to check that the staff member knew who we were and that we were waiting for our luggage. She was quite concerned about disrupting our travel plans but honestly it wasn’t a big deal to us. When the plane landed, a staff member informed us and we went to baggage collection, where someone else was waiting there with our luggage – yay! It was such a relief to see it.
But the crazy first leg continues (I don’t think I’d ever do this again…)! We took a bus to Shin-Osaka station (25 minutes), exchanged our 21-day JR pass, booked some shinkansen seats, and activated our passes for our 3+ hour ride to Kumamoto, the first city on our trip. From Kumamoto station, we took a tram to our hotel, Richmond Hotel Kumamoto Shinshigai, which was located in the central shopping arcade of Kumamoto. It was a lovely hotel and exactly what I wanted. We checked in and picked up the pocket wifi that was mailed to our hotel. And so after 30-odd hours we were finally in our first location. Good gosh what was I thinking…
After relaxing for a bit, we left to walk around the area and find somewhere for dinner. We definitely wanted izakaya food!
We settled on Hakata Ichibandori, a quiet restaurant (I think we were one of only two sets of diners there) with a huge menu. It’s actually a chain restaurant, I think. The skewers were ah-mazing! Kumamoto’s specialty dish is basashi, horse sashimi. We ordered some and with some apprehension (none from T though because he’s game for everything), I tried it. It wasn’t bad, but also not memorable.
Day 2: January 19
Due to the weird cold weather Japan was experiencing, we actually had light snow in Kumamoto! Kyushu is the southernmost of the main Japanese islands and has a subtropical climate, hence why I chose to visit in January. Snow is pretty rare overall. Locals said it happens once every five to ten years or so. It was quite cold and windy though the light snow didn’t really continue into the afternoon. We were only going to sightsee around Kumamoto for half a day. First we walked to Kumamoto-jo/Kumamoto Castle, which is a modern reconstruction of the original castle, though some original structures still remain (such as the Uto Turret). Although it’s a modern reconstruction, the castle and its grounds are considered one of the most impressive in Japan, especially during sakura season. Very sadly, this castle suffered severe damages during the 2016 earthquake and it is still closed to the public.
I believe the structure on the left of the enormous tree is an original structure. We also went inside the castle, and at the top you can see a beautiful view of Kumamoto city, since the castle is perched on a hilltop.
We then walked back to the Shinshigai area to line up for katsu (Japanese port cutlets) at Katsuretsutei Shinshigai Honten, a very famous and popular katsu restaurant in Kumamoto. We arrived before midday and didn’t have to wait too long.
After lunch, we trammed to Suizenji-jojuen/Suizenji Garden, a landscape garden which reproduces the post stations of the Tokaido (including a miniature version of Mt Fuji).
The garden was so immaculate and beautiful. There were hardly any people, and in general I was surprised by how few tourists we saw in Kyushu until we got to Beppu and Fukuoka. (Honestly, it was kind of glorious compared to the rest of the trip)
I also picked up my first dango of the trip! (FYI I freaking love dango)
We trammed back to our hotel and picked up our bags to then take the shinkansen from Kumamoto station to Kagoshima-chuo station (around 45 minutes to arrive around 5pm). I was first introduced to Kagoshima from the taiga drama (period drama), Atsu-hime, in which the first half is set in Kagoshima, with the beautiful backdrop of the active volcano, Sakurajima. I was so excited to visit Kagoshima and Sakurajima!
It is very clear everywhere you turn that Kagoshima is also very proud of Sakurajima.
We checked in to our hotel, Solaria Nishitetsu Hotel Kagoshima (also excellent), and they had a great view of the mountain from the hotel! Sakurajima is so close to Kagoshima that it’s visible from almost everywhere.
We headed out to grab dinner. We went to Kagomma Furusato Yataimura, which roughly translates to Kagomma old hometown food stall village. It has a bit of a novelty factor, but it was really quiet and there really weren’t any tourists at all! We sat down in one tiny little stall (seated about two people on three sides so six to seven people total sitting around the chef). The store owner-chef (shopkeeper?) and the other locals were very friendly and chatted to us. One man said he/his company built a lot of important buildings around the world. One thing I always get in Japan is people exclaiming how far I’ve travelled (from Australia) to visit Japan. I find this so bizarre because I consider Japan one of the closest countries for us to visit!
We left after we had tried everything we were interested in, because a couple of them were smoking. We also like hopping around and trying a lot of stuff in Japan. The sizes of izakaya dishes means we can try a lot of things in small portions. We went to another little place, where we tried some oden. This one was more like a small restaurant and we sat in our corner, rather than squished up against other customers.