Experience Japan’s Bushido Culture
in Ozu Town, Kumamoto
Ozu Town, an area that flourished into what was known as a relay station during the Edo-Period. It takes about an hour by car if you leave from the middle of Kumamoto. Ozu is famous for “Kara-imo” a special type of potato is only found in Ozu town. It is especially made from the irrigation which is also a world heritage site, that comes from Mt.Aso. You can enjoy the beautiful scenery as well as experience the traditional way of living in Ozu town.
LOCATION: 1189-2 Otsu, Otsu-cho, Kikuchi-gun, Kumamoto Prefecture 869-1233
OPERATING HOURS: 9：00～18：00
URL: http://higoozu-kankou.jp/(Japanese site)
If you travel a little ways East from Kumamoto city, a quaint, charming town called “Ozu” awaits near Mount Aso. At first glance, Ozu may not seem like a main attraction. However, the tranquil, old-fashioned atmosphere sprinkled with the sounds of birds singing and rivers flowing are sure to enchant those who wander there. Ozu town is rich in history, with structures that have been preserved since the Edo period.
In the peak of summer, I had the pleasure of experiencing this lovely town personally. It was astonishing to see how skillfully these ancient buildings, shrines, and even water wheels have been carefully conserved to help travelers experience the ambiance of the Samurai ages.
During my stroll around the area, I was able to take in the lavish nature of this nostalgic town at a leisurely pace.Traditional Japanese-style houses were abundant to see, and one of the owners were generous enough to let us explore the interior of one. I’ve always had a soft spot for antiquated homes that take you back in time. While I cooled off with some cold tea prepared by the owner, I admired the classic infrastructure of the old residence, complete with shoji doors and tatami. With cicadas humming outside, the simple and earthy vibes of this unique space elicited a feeling of peace and relaxation within me that couldn’t be beat.
Now let’s talk about one of the best parts of travel: Food! Walking down the historic streets of Ozu in the sultry summer weather is bound to make anyone a bit hungry after a while. I sure was! What better to satisfy my cravings than a delectable bowl of ramen? But, of course, not just any normal ramen.. In Ozu town, a small-scale local ramen shop called “Bunka Ramen” provides one of the most mouthwatering ramen dishes I’ve had during my extended stay in Japan. Bunka Ramen, which literally translates to “culture ramen”, serves Kumamoto style tonkotsu ramen using a white colored broth and melt-in-your-mouth slices of pork. Anywhere you go in Japan, it seems as if every prefecture has their own esteemed, special type of ramen available for travelers to experience. The Kumamoto-style ramen however sets itself apart from the rest. The deep, distinct flavor of the creamy broth glazed over the noodles and other ingredients gave such a satisfying and palatable experience, that I didn’t even need to add any extra seasonings. Inside the shop there’s a very laid-back and at-home feel, and was bustling with well deserved business from the locals.
While there’s delightful ramen and captivating sights to see that appeal to the history and culture of Japan’s Edo period, is there anything you can actually do in Ozu town? The answer is quite simple. Kendo! A traditional Japanese martial art, Kendo is an exclusive cultural experience that stems from the Samurai ages. If you have never seen or tried Kendo before, I highly recommend going in blindly. Walking into the practice area, I had no idea what to expect as people were walking around in royal blue robes, with what seemed to be birdcage-like helms. The sport itself appeared especially intimidating to me, and I was informed that Kumamoto is one of the staple places in Japan for practicing Kendo. As I observed the professionals getting ready to engage in combat, I braced for impact. What happened next was probably one of the most bewildering, amusing sights I’ve ever witnessed in Japan.
A member bellowed out a shrieking war-cry, swiftly sashayed forward, and struck the head of his opponent. During the move, he howled a drawn out “MEN”, which is a word used for “head” in Japanese. After striking his opponent, he continued shuffling forward in a manner that resembled a galloping horse. As this continued, I was intrigued by their unusual but skillful performance, which left me speechless.
Soon, it became my turn to try out Kendo first-hand. Coincidentally, I entered at the same time as some exchange students from Germany, who appeared to be wondering why I was suddenly joining in on their tour. It was quite the comical scenario, as we all immediately accepted that I’m now blending in as if I was part of their group from the beginning. When I suited up, I began to feel the Samurai warrior spirit behind the art. I anticipated the armor to weigh me down, yet I felt especially light on my feet. First we practiced shouting, which was one of the more cathartic aspects of the sport. One of the main takeaways I had after practicing Kendo was that the voice is a principal source of power. When we got around to swinging the sword, which is made of bamboo, that’s when the real fun began.
I was given constant encouragement as I drilled downward strikes and familiarized myself with the sword. I had no experience handling a sword of any kind, so the positive support from the teachers uplifted and instilled confidence in me to really go for it. The instructions given were simple to follow as well, so there were no language barrier issues! I practiced three types of attacks: one to the head, arms, and to the abdomen. For each strike, a different word is shouted. There’s a lot of yelling during Kendo, which made the sport all the more entertaining. The instructors then graciously let us batter them to practice our new skills to perfection. Time flew by and before I knew it, we were bowing to one another for a closing ritual. During the experience, I noticed that the German students and I couldn’t stop smiling throughout. Given the opportunity, I would absolutely participate again.
After an adrenaline filled afternoon of bamboo-combat, some well-earned relaxation was in store. Next on the list is one of the more widely known aspects of traditional Japanese culture: tea ceremony! The German exchange students and I ended up having the same schedule, which brought on additional bouts of laughter and merriment as I once again joined their group. We had the pleasure of trying on yukata before the ceremony, which allowed us to deepen our understanding of this ancient practice dating back to the 8th century in Japan.
Going from the lively, rowdy gymnasium clamoring with woody swords and roaring voices to the still, calm tea room highlighted just how dynamic experiencing Japanese culture can be. Even though not much movement is involved in the tea ceremony, that doesn’t make it any less physically demanding. The sitting style is main challenge here, as it is customary to sit with your legs folded underneath you, which puts all your weight on your lower legs. Remaining in this position as we observed the tea adroitly and steadily prepared by the host proved to be a trial of endurance. Following the tasting, we bowed in gratitude towards the host, which I noticed closely resembled the manner in which we concluded Kendo.
To finish off the tour, a more laid-back activity awaited us. Origami was the ideal way to wind down after an eventful trip loaded with cultural festivities. As we got in touch with our creative sides, the task was fairly effortless. We assembled paper airplanes, noisemakers, and a paper kabuto helm.
Smaller towns often yield more intimate means to get in touch with the customs and heritage of the places around us. What I thought would just be a brief getaway from the more mainstream locations in Kumamoto, turned out to be one of the more memorable and enriching experiences I had during my stay.
Overall, the stay felt rather short, and I found myself already longing to return before boarding the train home. The welcoming atmosphere of the town and the friendships I made with the exchange students from Germany left a lasting impression on me. I was also grateful to experience new hobbies and talents that I’m certain I’ll revisit in the future. Until then, Ozu!