■Kumamoto – a town with a Samurai spirit

Located in the center of the island of Kyushu, close to the western coast, you’ll find Kumamoto— a city that won my heart, touched my soul, and inspired my creativity. Far away from the bustling and noisy streets of Tokyo, Kyushu offers a traditional Japanese flair. The city prides itself upon its deep-rooted love for culture and craftsmanship, talented and famous artisans, modern and openminded people, and a unique samurai history.

It feels as though the samurai never left Kumamoto. To this day, you can feel their presence and impact throughout the city. From Kumamoto castle, to the grave of one of Japan’s most legendary samurai and swordsman, Miyamoto Musashi. Kumamoto is celebrating its roots in the most stunning manner.

To find out more about Kumamoto’s samurai, artisans, culture, and beauty, I travelled through the city and met four extraordinary people that could tell me more about the cities history.

■Mr Morimitsu Hosokawa – The family that connects culture and tradition

The first person I met in Kumamoto was Morimitsu Hosokawa, the domain lord of the city and successor of the notable Hosokawa clan, a family line that is integral to the history of Kumamoto.
There is no way to talk about the region, its history, culture, or craft without mentioning the Hosokawa clan. The family was one of the ruling Japanese Samurai clan during the Muromachi, Sengoku, and Edo eras. Amongst many accomplishments, the Hosokawa clan is known for influencing impressive financial reforms, spreading art, and building up infrastructure throughout the nation. Hosokawa is an artist himself— primarily practicing pottery.

To kick off the tour of Kumamoto, I met Mr. Hosokawa at an incredibly special place— the Hosokawa family’s mansion. The expansive property is located next to the Tatsuda Nature Park and the Taisho-Ji ruins, the family’s temple. Over the last 400 years, the beautiful mansion has hosted a plethora of famous samurai, including the legendary Musashi Miyamoto.

Hosokawa told us more about the family’s beautiful role in the cities history. About 400 years ago, during the Edo era, the shogun ordered the Hosowaka family to govern the region. The family’s goal was not to merely govern Kumamoto, but instead strived to keep the land’s culture and tradition alive and thriving.

Hosokawa told us about his ancestor, Tadaoki, the son of the first Hosokawa Fujitaka. He was not only an extraordinary samurai, but also a revered apprentice of the master of the traditional tea ceremony, Sen no Rikyu. The ceremony is a cultural activity involving the preparation and presentation of matcha. The “Way of Tea” was considered a necessary sign of respect when hosting guests. The importance of the ceremony is still felt in one of the most beautiful gardens Kumamoto has to offer, located right next to the mansion. The park contains the remains of the Hosokawa family temple and a beautiful tea house that was originally constructed by the blueprints of Tadaoki Hosokawa. You can feel the importance of the tradition and the Hosokawa’s care for culture most vividly here.

Hosokawa explained that the park also holds graves of his ancestors and a memorial monument dedicated to Miyamoto Musashi. The samurai spent the last years of his life in Kumamoto, where he wrote “The Book of Five Rings”. The family supported Musashi and made sure to protect his legacy.

Talking to Hosokawa and watching him prepare a traditional tea ceremony for us in a house that connected all of the legendary samurai, his ancestors, and Kumamoto’s history was a special moment. It clearly showed the family’s and town’s deep connection to its history and reminded us just how vital the Hosokawa clan was and still is to the city.

There was no better way to start learning about the towns cultural heritage— a perfect introduction to Kumamoto. Now, we must meet, Mitsumasa Oota, a master of Iaido, a traditional Japanese martial art.

■Mr. Mitsumasa Oota – Iaido: art wins over war

Iaido is a very special Japanese martial art because, unlike many forms of martial art, it isn’t about hurting or killing the opponent. The way you draw your weapon and the sequence of movements following, called “型 kata”, is meant to prevent battle. The sequences used in Iaido are designed to overwhelm the opponent in the midst of an attack and make them sheathe their swords. Because Iaido requires complete control of the practitioners mind and body, it is typically practiced alone and considered a serious art-form. The mindset of the art focuses on balancing your thoughts in order to manifest an honest, humble, and thankful approach to life and its surroundings.

Mitsuma Oota, an Iaido practitioner, exemplifies all of these attitudes in a way that both impressed and inspired me greatly. Oota’s mantra— “Instead of cutting your opponent, you cut away your ego, your arrogance,” describes his headspace perfectly.

Oota awaited our arrival in the Dojo he and his father own in order to tell us more about the art’s own connection to the samurai. Amongst the Iaido lessons he gave us, he taught us more about how to live, think, and act more clearly than simply telling us about a fighting technique. “Art wins over the war. Iaido is a spirit of not to battle and that is really important. Not to fight with others. And this is the philosophy I want to teach and spread,” he said.

His entire appearance symbolized calmness, serenity, and love for what he was doing. Every move he made and every word he spoke were in peace with our surrounding and rooted by a clear mindset, body, and vision. He explained to us that one needs to express thankfulness to master the art. Before he starts practicing, he first bows down to his swords and thanks his surrounding. To succeed in this art, he had to go even further. The martial art is about the ego and negativity you let loose inside your mind. When I asked him how important winning was when the ego is cut away, his answer impressed me and taught me a lot about Iaido’s beauty. “Before the final match, my master told me, that I had to thank everybody— the people around me and my rival. I have to thank him for practicing Iaido, so I have the chance to practice Iaido too. And This made me realize it all. First I only wanted to win, but when I understood this mindset, I could clear my mind. Only then, I could really win,” he said.

A complete and rounded thankfulness is required for this art. Mr. Oota and his father show this to everybody. They teach 30 students for free at their Dojo and give four lessons each week. The spirit of the martial art and the message motivate them to train and educate people continuously. What you learn inside of the Dojo is carried out into your daily life— its a mindset and way of living. Mr. Oota said “Iaido it is not about killing people, instead of that, it’s to kill your ego, envy and arrogance. Instead of cutting your opponent you cutting away the negativity.”

STEP INTO KUMAMOTO

DELVE DEEPER

Where is KUMAMOTO

Access

1 h 40 min by plane from Tokyo. 1 h 05 min by plane from Osaka. You can travel by shinkansen, 3 hours from Kyoto/Osaka. 1 h 35 min from Hiroshima.

Profile

Kumamoto is one of the major Prefectures in the southwest part of Japan known as Kyushu. Amongst its splendors is the breath-taking volcanic caldera Aso, one of the most beautiful castles in Japan named Kumamoto castle, the great dolphin habitat Amakusa facing the South China Sea, the WTO designated production area for the distilled rice liquor Kuma Jouchu and many other versatile and stimulating places found nowhere else in Japan.