Hitoyoshi Tourist Information
Hitoyoshi Kuma (Introduction)
In the heart of southern Kyushu, the area centered around the city of Hitoyoshi Kuma abounds with historic sites and cultural treasures, and ancient styles of art and architecture survive in its shrines and temples. Buddhist statuary dates from as early as the eighth century. The river and its tributaries are dotted with recreation and leisure spots, where tour operators offer whitewater rafting, wooden rowboat rides, and SUP paddle board experiences. Distilleries in the area carry on rich traditions of rice shochu distillation to produce Kuma Shochu, a single-distillation brand protected by a Geographical Indication (GI). Hitoyoshi Kuma flourished under the rule of the Sagara family between the twelfth and nineteenth centuries, and their legacy can still be felt today in cultural treasures and traditions such as Aoi Aso Jinja Shrine and the biannual Sagara 33 Kannon Pilgrimage.
Hitoyoshi Kuma (History)
Hitoyoshi Kuma is a microcosm of pre-modern Japanese history, ranging from sites that reveal ancient burial practices, to those that tell the story of the rise and fall of the samurai class. Most of the sites are connected with the Sagara family, who ruled this area continuously for nearly 700 years.
Ancient society in the area developed early and burial sites from the Yayoi (ca. 300 BCE–300 AD) and Kofun (ca. 250–552) periods hint of local class hierarchies and the centralization of power. Traditions passed down at Aoi Aso Jinja Shrine date from the Heian period (794–1185), and sites like the Kajiyamachi former blacksmith district and Hitoyoshi Castle are reminders of the rise and fall of samurai culture. Hitoyoshi Kuma’s rich history is evident in its sacred sites, Buddhist artwork, Edo-era streetscapes, and recreational activities on the Kuma River.
Many of the historical sites and activities offer insights into the Sagara family and their contributions to the economic and cultural development of the region. The family ruled from the twelfth to the nineteenth century, and their legacy is preserved through regional traditions such as distillation of Kuma Shochu liquor, the biannual Sagara 33 Kannon Pilgrimage, and cultural treasures that include National Treasures and Important Cultural Properties.
Hitoyoshi Castle Site
The stone ramparts with original sections from the late sixteenth century, and the reconstructed parapets, battlements, and gates convey a sense of Hitoyoshi Castle as it appeared between 1589 and 1871. Visitors can explore the grounds, including the Ninomaru (“second enclosure”) complex where there was a palace for the family of the ruling lord. The Ninomaru grounds command unobstructed views of the city and the Kuma River.
The Sagara family ruled Hitoyoshi Kuma for 37 generations, from the late twelfth to late nineteenth century. The castle began as a hilltop fortress that relied on natural topography as its main means of defense and was modified over the centuries. The most significant changes were made by Sagara Nagatsune (1469–1518), the twentieth lord. Nagatsune commissioned defensive stone ramparts, added fortifications, and expanded the castle to connect it to the Hitoyoshi Kuma river.
Aoi Aso Jinja Shrine
Aoi Aso Jinja is the oldest extant shrine in the Hitoyoshi Kuma region. It dates from 806 and bears similarities in layout to the imperial palace of that time in Heiankyo (now Kyoto), which was built in 794. Most of the current shrine buildings date from 1610 and are a blend of several architectural styles with some unusual decorative details. These styles and details are used consistently across the structures, creating a distinct aesthetic that can be observed in later shrines throughout southern Kyushu. This consistency of design is uncommon among historic shrines since most shrines include buildings dating from different periods. The romon gate, the haiden worship hall, and the heiden and honden halls and the corridor connecting them are collectively designated a National Treasure.
An iconic symbol of the shrine
The approach to the worship hall passes through the two-story romon gate. The gate is 12 meters high, with a steeply angled thatch roof. The transoms are decorated with dynamic carvings, including episodes from a series of Confucian teachings (the Twenty-Four Exemplars of Filial Piety) and a pair of carved white faces at each of the four corners. The carved faces are the only known carvings of their kind in Japan and represent the emotions of pleasure, anger, sorrow, and joy.
Confucian themes are continued across the worship hall and the other structures. They appear alongside carvings of mythical lions frolicking among peonies, dragons emerging from clouds, and delicate renderings of wisteria and other blossoms. The imagery is opulent and auspicious, in a style common during the Momoyama period (1573–1615).
A rare confluence of styles
The Momoyama aesthetic blends with design details popular during the flourishing of Zen Buddhism in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. These include cusped oval panels, the stepped bracket systems supporting tail rafters extending far into the eaves, and ornamentation at the ends of tie beams. Motifs from Shingon Buddhism appear on the doors of the honden main hall, and panels around the sides of the shrine’s halls are decorated with crossed wood battens, a feature not commonly seen in shrine architecture outside of the Hitoyoshi Kuma region
Annual Events at Aoi Aso Jinja Shrine
There are regular festivals held at Aoi Aso Jinja to celebrate good fortune, health, and the harvest, and to express gratitude to the enshrined deities who protect the region. The largest and oldest celebration is the Okunchi Matsuri, or Okunchi Festival. It marks the anniversary of the shrine’s founding and runs from October 3 to 11. Rituals performed over the course of the festival include ceremonial processions and Kuma Kagura, a regional form of kagura dance offered in worship to the deities. The highlight of the festival is the procession on October 9, the anniversary of the shrine’s founding. The shrine’s deities are transferred to mikoshi portable shrines and carried through the streets of the town, accompanied by Shinto priests, flag bearers, and lion dancers. On the eve of the shrine’s founding, Kuma Kagura is performed in the haiden worship hall on a stage designed to symbolize the cosmos. This ancient form of kagura is unique to Hitoyoshi Kuma. It is designated a Nationally Important Intangible Folk Cultural Property.
Eikokuji is known for tales of ghosts, a picturesque pond, and the events of the famous Satsuma rebellion. The temple belongs to the Soto school of Zen Buddhism and was founded in 1408.
Among Eikokuji treasures is a hanging scroll depicting a ghost-like female figure, with contorted hands and flowing robes, floating against a backdrop of reeds. The spirit is said to have appeared at the temple pond behind the Main Hall to ask for help from the temple’s first priest. According to legend, she had been the mistress of a powerful local man and, driven to despair by the man’s wife, had drowned herself in a river. Unable to pass into the next life, she had been trapped as a vengeful ghost. The priest is said to have painted the scroll to show the once beautiful woman her new form and to help the ghost on her way. The scroll displayed in the Main Hall is a copy.
The temple pond can be reached through the Main Hall, and visitors are welcome to sit and enjoy the view from the Audience Hall. Flowering plants, such as wisteria and hydrangea, as well as trees like cherry, pine, and maple, reflect the varied colors of the changing seasons in the waters of the pond.
Artifacts from the Satsuma Rebellion are displayed in the Main Hall. These include an artillery shell and a hanging scroll with calligraphy by the famous samurai Saigo Takamori (1828–1877). In 1877, nine years after a new government was established under Emperor Meiji (r. 1868–1912), Saigo led disaffected samurai in a rebellion against the imperial government. The rebels battled the imperial army across Kyushu, and after failing to take control of the castle in Kumamoto to the north, Saigo retreated to Hitoyoshi Kuma. His army made its headquarters at Eikokuji, staying for 33 days before being driven out by pursuing government forces.
Sagara 33 Kannon Pilgrimage
The Sagara 33 Kannon Pilgrimage includes 35 worship sites dedicated to Kannon, the bodhisattva of compassion, in the Hitoyoshi Kuma region. The statues are all carved from wood, and some are gilded. They depict Kannon in a wide variety of artistic styles, sometimes seated or standing, with hands clasped in prayer or held in other symbolic poses. The oldest figures date from the Nara period (710–794).
Some of the Kannon images are displayed all year round, but the majority can only be viewed for a few days surrounding the spring and autumn equinoxes. One of the sites in Hitoyoshi to offer year-round viewing is the Murayama Kannon Hall at Kanrenji Temple, the ninth site on the pilgrimage. That Thousand-Armed Kannon is depicted standing on a lotus flower with arms extending forward, as well as reaching out from the body in a radial pattern. The many arms represent Kannon’s all-encompassing compassion. The figure dates from the twelfth century and has soft flowing lines characteristic of the era.
The pilgrimage was popularized in the Edo period (1603–1867) and continues today. It is held on the day of the spring equinox and for seven days over the autumn equinox. During the pilgrimage periods, members of the community share food and drinks with their neighbors and with visiting pilgrims.
Kajiyamachi—Exploring Hitoyoshi’s Traditional Blacksmith District
The sharp ring of hammers striking iron once filled the air of Kajiyamachi, the blacksmith district of Hitoyoshi in the Edo period (1603–1867). Although there are no working forges in Kajiyamachi today, the district has been preserved, and the main street is now lined with traditional family-run businesses. Signs (mostly in Japanese) along the street and in some of the properties explain the distinguishing features of merchant homes and aspects of local culture, such as Unsun Karuta, a traditional card game once played by Hitoyoshi’s blacksmiths.
Touring a soy sauce brewery
Kamada Jozojo is a soy sauce and miso producer operating out of a merchant home from the Taisho era (1912–1926). The property has been renovated over the years but retains many of its original features and design elements. Visitors can take a free tour of the brewery to learn about the production of soy sauce and miso.
Tea and cultural experiences
Tateyama Shoten is a historic merchant home and tea shop with a tasting space overlooking a traditional teahouse garden. The Tateyama family have been purveyors of tea since 1877. They offer tea brewing workshops, ikebana flower arranging, matcha tasting, and tea ceremony experiences that can include wearing a kimono.
The below link will direct you to a third-party site.
Unsun Karuta, the ancient card game
Visitors to Kajiyamachi can learn about Unsun Karuta, a game played with 75 cards across five suits. Unsun Karuta evolved from a game introduced by Portuguese traders in the sixteenth century. The card game became popular across Japan, but due to the gambling potential of the game, it was outlawed under a series of conservative measures (the Kansei Reforms) implemented in the late eighteenth century by the Edo shogunate. Despite these measures, Unsun Karuta continued to be played in Hitoyoshi Kuma and has survived to this day. At Unsun Karuta no Ie in Kajiyamachi, visitors can play and learn about the game, which is designated an Important Intangible Folk Cultural Property.
Riding rapids in inflatable rafts, approaching the massive stone ramparts of Hitoyoshi Castle on wooden pleasure boats, or perfecting your balance on a guided stand-up paddleboard tour are some of the many ways to experience the scenery and history of the Kuma River.
The river was the heart of the Hitoyoshi Kuma region during the Edo period (1603–1867), facilitating trade and agriculture. Over time, the river has become a destination for recreational activities, from rafting to canyoning. Tour operators in the Hitoyoshi Kuma region offer half- and full-day rafting as well as other river activities. Some packages include lunch, a hot-spring bath, or accommodation. Reservations are generally needed for these activities and can be booked directly through the tour operators. A list of local operators is available on the Kumagawa Rafting Association website (in Japanese only).
Kuma Shochu—Types and Characteristics
There are 27distilleries in Hitoyoshi Kuma, each with its own distinct range of Kuma Shochu. These distilleries combine the rich traditions of rice shochu distillation with new techniques and innovations to create a wide range of single-distilled, premium shochu. The flavor profiles of Kuma Shochu are determined by a variety of factors, including the type of rice and koji mold used for the mash, the yeast used in the fermentation process, the pressure at which distillation takes place, and the period of aging. Kuma Shochu can range from light and refreshing, to fruity and floral, to rich and full-bodied. The four categories are Light Type: crisp and delicate, produced through vacuum distillation; Rich Type: intense, full-bodied flavor and aroma, distilled at atmospheric pressure; Flavor Type: defined by the aroma, typically fruity or floral; and Character Type: aged or with a very distinctive flavor produced through non-traditional methods.
Kuma Shochu can be enjoyed straight, on the rocks, with water or soda water, or in a cocktail. The Flavor and Light types are often served on the rocks or with soda water, and many Flavor types are used in citrus-based cocktails. Character and Rich types may be served straight or on the rocks, and Rich types are also typically enjoyed with warm water. The alcohol strength (alcohol by volume, or ABV) of Kuma Shochu can range anywhere between 25 and around 44 percent.
More information on Kuma Shochu, including the different types, drinking styles, and food pairing advice, is available at Kuma Shochu , the official website of the Kuma Shochu Makers’ Association.
The below link will direct you to a third-party site. KUMA SHOCHU
Hitoyoshi Hot Springs
Hitoyoshi has been popular as a hot spring (onsen) town since the 1940s, but people have enjoyed hot-spring bathing in the area since at least the late fifteenth century. Records indicate Sagara Tametsugu (1447–1500), the twelfth Sagara lord of Hitoyoshi Kuma, bathed in a hot spring at a local temple for his health. While there, he composed a waka poem recording his experience and expressing reverence to Kannon, the bodhisattva of compassion.
Each of the bathing facilities in Hitoyoshi has its own hot-spring source. The water from these springs tends to be slightly alkaline and may contain carbonates, which is a combination said to leave the skin feeling silky smooth. There are around 30 hot-spring facilities ranging from large open-air pools in garden surroundings to lively neighborhood baths in rustic bathhouses. Some have private baths that can be reserved for a fee. Public baths are segregated by gender, and bathing is without swimsuits. Some facilities have policies prohibiting tattoos, so please check in advance.