Wellness, culture and vegan cuisine in Hitoyoshi

A two-day trip in Kyushu’s valley of the crescent moon

Maybe it was just the excitement of that first trip in a while, but as I made my way from Kagoshima Airport deep into the Kyushu countryside I was struck over and over again by the sheer beauty of the surrounding landscape; a thick carpet of rice fields, vivid green in the summer sun, and in the distance a ring of mountains covered in thick, lush forest. My destination was Hitoyoshi - a charming rural town known for its scenery, hot springs and the high quality of its rice.

Like many parts of Kumamoto Prefecture, Hitoyoshi suffered terribly when floods devastated the area in July of 2020, but in the course of my two-night trip focused on wellness and delicious vegan food, I was delighted to discover a truly vibrant community that has already begun to shine once again.

Day 1

With repairs still ongoing to parts of the local rail network, the only access to the city is by road. In my case, the journey involved taking an airport bus as far as the Hitoyoshi interchange, then changing to a shuttle bus to my accommodation for the night - the Ayunosato Ryokan (0966-222-171; Japanese and English).

Arriving at the main entrance, I was met by three friendly staff with matching kimono and smiles. In contrast with some traditional stays where the atmosphere can feel a little stiff, the feeling here was instantly relaxed and warm. Stepping inside the lobby, that feeling was perfectly matched by the decor - an elegant mix of traditional and modern, with beautifully crafted wooden furniture and fittings.

After checking in I met up with the Ayunosato's COO, Arimura-san, for a quick tour of the facilities, starting with an upstairs gallery space revealing the devastation caused by the floods and the area's subsequent recovery effort. Looking at the photos on display, I marveled at the scale of the destruction and the incredible resilience shown by the community in its aftermath.

Next, we made our way back downstairs to the ryokan's shochu lounge - a new addition, highlighting the region's proud tradition of shochu brewing. Originating in Kyushu at least 400 years ago, shochu is a distilled liquor typically made with barley or sweet potato, but sometimes - as is the case in the Kuma region - just with rice. Here, guests can relax and pour themselves a glass or two from a selection of local bottles - all at no extra cost (I made a mental note to return as soon as possible).

We finished the tour on a breezy rooftop terrace directly overlooking the Kuma River. As we took in the view, we spotted a lone fisherman up to his knees in the fast flowing water. Arimura-san explained that the river is well known for ayu, or sweetfish, a popular delicacy now in season.

With a couple of hours to spare before dinner, I decided to check out my room for the night. Whatever my expectations had been, it surpassed them - known as the panorama suite, my room included not one but two bedrooms, an enormous balcony space looking out onto the river, and best of all a generously-sized outdoor rotenburo bath.

At dinner time, I made my way downstairs where a special feast awaited, combining kaiseki - an elaborate, highly traditional course meal - with vegan ingredients and methods (non-vegan options also available). As beautifully presented as any kaiseki I've eaten during my time in Japan, each course was packed with delicate flavor and allusions to the season, and all of it fully vegan-friendly. Fortunately for me my server, Miyazaki-san, was on hand to patiently explain the details.

An appetizer of mashed tofu salad in a hollowed-out persimmon was followed by turnip, or "winter melon" soup, delicately crispy vegetable tempura, simmered eggplant, colorful vegetable sushi (an especially surprising treat) and a fruit dessert to finish. Feeling very satisfied indeed, I made my unsteady way back to my room for a well-earned dip in the rotenburo and an early night.

Day 2

My first full day in Hitoyoshi began with an early rise to make the best of my own private outdoor bath, followed by a vegan take on the traditional bento breakfast with delicious bitesize morsels arranged neatly in a box. Next, I was off to the lobby to meet Mike, my guide for the day and owner of Canyons Minakami in Gunma Prefecture. As we made our way to the first stop on our itinerary, Mike told me about his work supporting tourism in the area and how it had developed into a genuine fascination over the course of many repeat visits. After just two busy days of sightseeing, it would be easy to see why.

Our plan for the day was to take a pair of rented e-bikes along a guided cycling route available to visitors from 2023. It was my first time using one, but I soon came to appreciate the option of an added boost on uphill stretches. First up was the site of Hitoyoshi Castle, just a few hundred meters on the opposite side of the Mune River.

An important castle town for most of its history, Hitoyoshi was for 700 years the seat of the powerful Sagara Clan. Following his rise to power in the Gempei Wars (1180-1185), the Shogun Minamoto Yoritomo had granted them the fief as a reward for their loyalty - much like its neighbor Kagoshima, Hitoyoshi was resource rich, easily defended and distant from the capital, making it a dangerous territory in the wrong hands.

Interestingly, while the Shimazu Clan of Kagoshima were celebrated for their martial skills, the Sagara were highly respected as diplomats and strategists. Perhaps the best testament to this was that the clan continued to prosper during the turbulent Period of Warring States (1467-1590) and kept their holdings under the Tokugawa Shogunate despite initially fighting against it.

From its very beginning in 1198, the castle took on a special significance for the region when digging for its foundations revealed a large stone bearing a distinctive marking in the shape of a crescent - much like the shape of the Kuma Basin itself. Taking the stone's appearance as a sign of divine blessing, the castle's owners declared it to be sacred and proudly displayed it in the highest room of the castle's main tower.

Centuries later, the 18th Sagara Clan leader Yoshihi planned to redraw the city according to the principles of fusui (Chinese: feng shui). Ultimately realised by his second son, the design required the city's two main streets to be carefully realligned on a north-south and east-west axis, while seven key temples and shrines were relocated to form a protective circle around it. The clan's own family temple of Ganjo-ji was positioned to the north-east, guarding what was believed to be the most dangerous direction.

Today, little remains of the castle's defenses, and the inner bailey where the central tower once stood has been taken over by tall cedar trees. Climbing the steep stone steps to its highest point however, we were greeted with a panoramic view of the city and its surroundings.

Back on our bikes, we crossed over to the north bank of the Kuma River and followed it a little way to the west, on the way noticing some lingering signs of the damage caused during the 2020 floods. Our next stop was Aoi Aso Shrine, first built in 806 and today a registered national treasure.

The shrine's two-story gate is especially beautiful. Built in the early 17th century as part of the Sagara clan's fusui-inspired redesign of the city, it displays a number of features typical to Kyushu shrines, in particular its tall thatched roof.

Making our way inside to the main building, we were met by the chief priest, Fukugawa-san, who performed a short ceremony to bless us on the journey ahead before telling us a bit about the shrine's history.

The earliest settlers in the area discovered that the secret to its fertility was volcanic ash, carried by wind all the way from Mount Aso. For this reason, it was a natural choice for them to build a shrine to the god of the same mountain in hopes that the town would flourish in the same way.

Over time, the shrine was adopted by the ruling Sagara clan, who contributed first the distinctive front gate, then its main building in the early Edo Period. The shrine's design, including many intricate wall carvings, would serve as the blueprint for shrines throughout the Kuma region, where as many as 90% of Kumamoto's designated Important Cultural Properties can still be found.

Continuing on our way, we followed the Kuma river west and out of town. Turning off from the main road, we soon arrived at our next stop, Toshima Sugawara Shrine. Dedicated to the god of learning, the shrine was first built in the Kamakura Period (1192-1333). The main building, built by the Sagara clan in 1589, is notable for standing on one of 10 tiny islands in a circular pond (the name "Toshima" means 10 islands), as well as for its elegant thatched roof, which at the time of our visit was undergoing renovations by a crew of construction workers.

Pausing for a sip of water and a chat, we learned that the crew was one of just a handful in Kyushu with the skills needed to repair or remodel these kinds of traditional roofs, and as such were finding themselves much in demand.

Winding our way on through the countryside, we came to an area covered in neatly terraced rows of tea plants. Here we were greeted by Miyazaki-san, my server from the previous night and joint owner of this section of field. Against a gorgeous backdrop of tea fields, country houses and distant mountains, we sat down to a refreshing cup of cold, slightly smoky hojicha and a sweet, sticky tea dessert.

After a final cup of Miyazaki san's own high quality sencha, we were soon back on our bikes and threading our way north-west past fields, farmhouses and chestnut orchards. A slightly hair-raising descent through pine forest then brought us alongside the beautiful Kawabe River for one last push before lunchtime.

Our next stop was at the charmingly named Oyaji no Ganko Tofu (dad's very particular tofu), whose staff had prepared a healthy vegan lunch for us to enjoy by the river.

After a quick paddle in the cool, clear water, we took our seats on a small pebble beach and tucked into delicious veggie burgers with sides of sweet beans and yuba tofu. Energy levels restored, it was time for a quick tour of the Tofu store by Makino-san, daughter of the original owner.

The process behind their tofu is a surprisingly simple one, although made much simpler with the aid of modern equipment. Dried soybeans are soaked in water, crushed - formerly with handscrews but these days with a handy pneumatic press - and boiled. The result is then separated into pulp (okara) and soy milk (tonyu), both packed with a surprisingly rich flavor.

Makino-san explained that the difference comes from two "secrets" - using only domestically produced soy beans, and exceptionally pure water drawn from a well dug by her father for this very purpose.

Back on the move, we continued along the river for a few minutes before crossing over, then hanging a left to follow the river back into town. The scenery was as idyllic as it gets, with dragonflies darting above lush fields of rice, and the afternoon sun shimmering on the water's surface.

Arriving in town, our next stop was at Sengetsu - largest of the 27 shochu distilleries operating in the region. Inside, I found a busy factory floor dominated by impressive-looking tanks; pea green for fermentation, silver for distilling and navy blue for the longer maturation phase. The process begins with only two ingredients - koji, or steamed and fermented rice, and yeast. After two fermentation cycles, the mixture is heated in a large stil, similar to those found in whiskey distilleries.

While many shochu makers prefer to do this at around 100 degrees, many of Sengetsu's offerings are instead distilled at lower temperatures creating a milder and more delicate flavor. Lastly, the liquid is allowed to mature for a period of months or years for a smooth and consistent taste.

On our way to the tasting hall, we stopped at a display of old black and white photos showing the many changes Sengetsu has experienced since its founding in 1903. Over the years, the distillery has known three owners and six master distillers, and has continued to prosper even through challenging times. Today, its popularity is on the rise throughout Japan and beyond.

After learning about the distillery's history and processes, it was finally time to taste the product itself. In addition to Sengetsu's flagship bottle, I had the chance to try some more experimental ones - one distilled at a higher temperature for a rougher, more traditional feel and another aged in oak barrels adding sweetness and vanilla notes.

After my ride along the Kawabe however, my favourite expression was the one named after the river, made from its water and rice farmed along its banks. This one was especially smooth, only slightly dry and very easy to drink.

Crossing the Kuma river once again, we dropped by one of the city's more recent tourist landmarks, called Hassenba. Set in an interesting building combining a glass and steel structure with a traditional roof, the site serves as a base for riverboat and rafting tours. Visitors can also get a seasonal bite to eat at the Kyushu Pancake Cafe or peruse local artisanal products at the attractively designed HITO X KUMA store.

The river has always been central to life in Hitoyoshi, even serving as its main thoroughfare in the centuries before industrialization. During the Edo Period, both the castle and the merchant quarter on the opposite bank would have buzzed with activity, but with only one bridge connecting the two, many relied on riverboats for their daily business.

With repairs to the river still ongoing, river tours from Hassenba have been significantly scaled back but look set to return to normal in the near future - I look forward to experiencing it on my next trip!

Located just a few blocks to the north-west, our final stop within the town itself was Kajiyamachi, a street known for its traditional products and crafts including a number of pleasantly preserved old merchant houses. Sadly, many of the stores had already closed when we arrived, but we still found ourselves welcomed in for a delicious glass of iced green tea by the owner of Tateyama Shoten, a beautiful old tea shop.

Saying our goodbyes, we got into Mike's car for the 25 minute drive to the little town of Asagiri, and our accommodation for the night.

The Ryukinka no Sato (0966-45-1660; Japanese only) resembles a typical countryside guesthouse but, as I soon learn, is much more than that. Its owner - an equally charming and formidable lady known to most as Settchan - has made it her mission to support her community and bring people together through the power of local food. As well as providing accommodation, the space serves as a training venue for agriculture, cuisine and country living.

After Mike and I had each taken a well-deserved shower, Settchan served us up some simple but delicious vegan dishes - from "nasu-men" (simmered strips of eggplant served in hot soy milk with lashings of peppery yuzu sauce) to "awabi" tofu-stuffed shiitake mushrooms marinated in sweet koji (non-vegan options also available). The inventive dishes went only too well with several bottles of local shochu, and we chatted contentedly into the early hours.

Day 3

The next day began with another early start, followed by a drive to the top of nearby Mount Asagiri for a healthy vegan breakfast with quite a view. As we took our seats and looked out over the valley, Settchan busied herself with a portable stove, frying up a vegan take on tamagoyaki and sweet, chewy balls of mochi - the perfect start to another day on the move.

Saying our goodbyes, we left the Ryukinka no Sato behind and made our way by car to Mount Ichifusa, for some gentle hiking and a forest bathing experience. Located close to the headwaters of the Kuma River, the mountain is best known for its large area of virgin forest including many giant cedar trees much like those found on Yakushima.

Arriving at the trailhead, we were met by Nishi-san - manager of the nerby Ichifusa Kanko hotel, and an expert on the many kinds of animal and plant life found on the mountain. Following Nishi-san's lead, we passed through a torii gate and onto a hiking trail, learning as we went about the history of the mountain, the many varieties of tree and the benefits of spending time in nature.

The giant cedars themselves were an awesome sight - centuries old (in one case as much as a thousand years), and measuring up to eight meters in circumference. Nishi-san showed us the stump of one specimen, a full ten meters around the trunk, which had been cut down some 50 years ago as timber for renovations to the Tokyo Imperial Palace.

As we circled our way back towards the trailhead, Nishi-san encouraged us to choose a spot by a tree we liked and simply pause to experience the sights, sounds and feel of the surrounding forest. Settling down by a 500-year-old oak, I did just that and emerged 15 minutes later feeling refreshed and alert.

Back at our starting point, we tucked into delicious vegan lunchboxes provided by the local company Hikoroku, with rice balls, pickles, tempura and fresh vegetable salad.

The final two stops on my tour of the Hitoyoshi area were in the small town of Yunomae, a few minutes drive southwest of Mount Ichifusa. First up was the Hayashi Shochu Distillery, located in a riverside farmhouse that once belonged to high ranking samurai of the Sagara Clan.

In contrast with Sengetsu's well-oiled machine, Hayashi-san prefers a more traditional approach - a staff of just three including Hayashi-san himself, determining when the liquid has fully matured by taste alone, bottling done by hand and everything taught strictly by aural tradition.

Inside, the atmosphere was less sterile, earthy even - but as Hayashi-san explained, traces of minerals allowed to build-up on a surface or even harmless bacteria able to survive on the factory floor are all part of the delicate balance that creates exactly the right flavor.

Rolling back an ancient-looking wooden door, we stepped inside an Edo-Period storage building lined with half-buried clay pots, each one over three hundred years old. The pots are another vital part of the process, their slightly porous clay allowing air to circulate, while subtly enhancing the taste through its mineral content.

Our visit ended here with a very special treat - a sip from one of the distillery's still-maturing pots, already aged for thirty years. In its undiluted form, the mixture had a smooth, slightly tangy taste and a mouthfeel not unlike highland whisky.

From the distillery, we took a final short stroll to the Ota Family Residence, a beautifully preserved Edo-Period house with an elegantly-shaped thatch roof. Believed to date from the mid-19th century, the house belonged to a samurai family who had previously lived and worked close to the castle but later retired here to farm and brew sake.

Looking inside, I was especially impressed by the intricate construction of the roof, laid open to view from the ground. With all the standard fittings present and crafted to a high standard, it was actually one of the best examples of a preserved country house I've seen, and well worth a visit for anyone interested in traditional architecture.

With my short trip to Hitoyoshi already drawing to a close, it was time to jump back in the car and head for Kagoshima Airport. As we made our way out of Taragi however, we couldn't resist pulling into the Myoken Natural Forest Observation Park for a final, spectacular view of the Kuma Basin.


Due to damage to the local rail network caused by the 2020 floods, access to Hitoyoshi is currently possible only by bus or car.

From Kagoshima Airport, take the Airport Limousine Bus bound for Kumamoto (1600 yen, approx 50 mins) and disembark at the Hitoyoshi Interchange, from where it is a short taxi ride into Hitoyoshi city center.

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