On this edition of Journeys in Japan, American photographer Kit Pancoast Nagamura discovers the rich culture and history of Kumamoto, where spring is celebrated and children have been cherished since ancient times.
Address: 43 Kajiya-machi, Hitoyoshi, Kumamoto Pref.
Open: 8:30 am - 5:00 pm
Address: 1749 Oe, Amakusa-machi, Amakusa City, Kumamoto Pref.
Open: 8:30 am - 5:00 pm (closed Wednesday)
Address: 1296 Amakusacho Shimodakita, Amakusa City, Kumamoto Pref.
Open: 8:30 am - 6:00pm (Mar-Nov.)
8:30 am - 5:00 pm (Dec.-Feb.)
Address: 5-18 Jotocho, Chuoku, Kumamoto City, Kumamoto Pref.
Open: 2:00 pm - 7:00 pm (Sunday and holidays)
Address: 104-1 Nishiki-machi, Kuma-gun, Kumamoto Pref.
Address: 2 Kawaramachi, Chuoku, Kumamoto City, Kumamoto Pref.
Open: Mon-Sat (closed Sun. and holidays)
Traveler: Kit Pancoast Nagamura > More Info
Occupation:Poet, photographer, editor, and long-term columnist for The Japan Times
Length of residence in Japan:Over 20 years
Reason of coming to Japan:I'm the fifth generation of my family to adore Japan. When I won a year-long fellowship from Brown University to interview artists here, I fell in love with the food, the profound culture, and the people.
I flew to Kumamoto in search of harbingers of spring: ume blossoms; and hina-ningyo, the traditional dolls that are displayed each year for Girl's Day, on March 3rd.
My journey started in Hitoyoshi, a castle town ruled by the Sagara clan for 30 generations. Exploring the original massive walls of the castle ruins, I found two recently rebuilt turrets that help to conjure its former glory. Next, wandering the traditional blacksmith's neighborhood, which once served the castle, I located the last extant smithy. The master, Masatsugu Minoda, simultaneously shy and proud, stoked swarms of sparks at his forge as he demonstrated the age-old Japanese finesse at hammering out sharp knives.
In local shop windows, I spied whimsical Hina dolls handmade by local school children. At the Tateyama Shoten tea store, I perused the family's collection of antique dolls spanning the Edo, Meiji, Taisho and Showa periods. I learned from 90-year-old Yasuko Tateyama and her daughter-in-law that Hina dolls were once believed to absorb evil spirits, thereby protecting their human counterparts. I also saw tsuchibina, dolls of glazed clay fashioned for people who could not afford expensive dolls. Picking up one of them, I marveled at the thoughtfulness behind its creation.
Next I moved to Sakitsu, on the island of Amakusa, off Kumamoto's west coast. There, sea hawks and herons swooped over boats bobbing on turquoise waters. The sleepy village seemed lost in time, inhabited by elders and sunbathing cats. The focal point of Amakusa is the spire of Sakitsu Catholic Church. It is also famous for a statue of the Virgin Mary on a nearby promontory, bidding fishermen safe voyages and swift returns.
In this part of Japan, dolls once took on heavy significance. Christianity was banned in Japan for some 240 years, from the early 17th century. Christians in Amakusa kept their faith in secret. Fearing persecution, they created clay dolls disguised to look like Japanese traditional figures, which they worshiped as icons of their religion. Viewing a famous example from the Edo period exhibited at Rosario Kan, a hall dedicated to the “hidden Christians", I noted that in certain lights, the doll looked remarkably like a Renaissance depiction of Madonna and Child.
After a fabulous seafood dinner and a dip in the spa at Gunpokaku Gracia Inn, I stopped to meet two men who are actively preserving the tradition of creating these clay dolls.
I then headed back to Kumamoto City. There, I visited a community library/ art center involved with making and selling dolls. I began to sense how toys often play a crucial role in connecting generations with tradition, craftsmanship and social awareness. I toyed with that notion as I toured the magnificent Kumamoto Castle, awash in ume blossoms and the promise of spring.
Kumamoto is a lovely place where people are kind and gentle.
You can also find wonderful sake and food!