The farmstay in Hitoyoshi-Kuma has to be one of the most memorable experiences I’ve had on my travels. I got to dig for bamboo shoots in a farm. I got to cook dinner with a group of Japanese farmers. I got to stay in a 200-year old house with a local family. I was in Japan, in a foreign land, but the whole experience gave me a warm, fuzzy feeling — like I was home.
Hitoyoshi-Kuma and its Farmlands
Hitoyoshi is a city in the Kumamoto Prefecture, in the center of Kyushu Island (Japan’s southernmost and third largest out of its main four). The city has a long history with the Sagara Dynasty, a clan that ruled the area for a period of 700 years from the Kamakura period to Japan’s Meiji restoration in 1868. Hitoyoshi was give a national heritage status for this unique history.
Hitoyoshi-Kuma is said to be one of the best places in Japan to experience the local culture through its historical sites, beauty of its natural surroundings and the warmth of its people. The city and its surrounding area is famous for its natural hot springs, the fast moving Kuma River and the delicious Ayu (river fish) from its waters, historical remnants like castles and shrines, its very own Kuma Shochu, and of course, the vast farmlands and its farming community.
Kyushu, Japan with Parlo Tours (Pt.4)
I was traveling on a media familiarization tour to the Japanese island of Kyushu with Parlo Tours. It was a 6-day trip around the island, and Hitoyoshi-Kuma was a special stop to experience a local Japanese farm stay; after coming from the southernmost prefecture of Kagoshima (Pt.3). The other cities and towns we visited on our grand tour were Beppu, Aso and Fukuoka. To find out more about this Malaysian travel company and the other different tours they offer, click here.
Getting to and Around Hitoyoshi-Kuma
We traveled into Hitoyoshi-Kuma on our tour bus from our last stop at Sogi Falls in the Kagoshima Prefecture. However, there are many other ways you can get to Hitoyoshi. From Kyushu’s capital city of Fukuoka (we got to Fukuoka from Kuala Lumpur on AirAsia), the Shinkansen bullet train connects the Hakata Station to Kumamoto Station, where you can transfer to the Hisatsu Line train to Hitoyoshi Station. The total train journey would probably take about 2.5 hours. There is also a steam locomotive that connects Kumamoto to Hitoyoshi — it’s a fun thing to do, but only runs one trip a day. There are also highway buses that connect Hitoyoshi to Fukuoka and Kumamoto.
To get around the Hitoyoshi area, there is a local bus that costs JP¥500 (US$4.5) for a day pass. We had it slightly easy though — we stayed with a local farmstay family, and our ‘mum’ was sweet enough to drive us around in her car!
Hitoyoshi-Kuma Farm Stay
Our visit to Hitoyoshi-Kuma was specifically to visit its farmlands, and to get to know the local community. The city has developed a farm stay for tourists as part of its green tourism program, where we could stay with a local farming family and learn about their culture, profession and way of life. And of course, for them to learn about ours.
When told about the farmstay, I guess everyone was nervous and didn’t know what to expect. I think the first few things that entered my mind was if it was going to be awkward and if we will be able to communicate. I have always wanted to experience a homestay, but still — will I be comfortable living in a complete stranger’s house? The closest experiences I’ve had staying in a stranger’s house are those on AirBNB, and most of the time I always end up choosing to have the entire home to myself.
As our group had slightly more than 10 people, it was impossible for everyone to stay in one farmstay house. So we were divided into a few groups and assigned a ‘family’ to live with. I was partnered with Khai Sin, and we were to stay the night in Nobuko-san‘s house — which she lovingly named Tsubakizaka.
Digging for Bamboo Shoots
Before meeting our farmstay families, we were brought to our first stop in Hiyotoshi-Kuma — a bamboo farm. Our first activity for the day was to dig for bamboo shoots! I’m going to sound like a complete city girl for saying this — but I really had no idea how bamboo shoots look like, I did not know how people farm for bamboo shoots, and I didn’t even know that you can actually eat bamboo shoots. I’m so glad for this experience because now I finally know all this.
I had a really fun time digging for bamboo shoots. The local farmers showed us how it’s done; and then gave us a hoe and left us to fend for ourselves! It was just like me to choose the biggest bamboo shoot I could find, so it took me a while to dig up the soil around the shoot before I could attempt to pull it out. And in complete Mynn-style, I fell as I broke off the shoot — but what a sense of accomplishment I felt for completing the task. I managed to pull out two bamboo shoots altogether, and then spent the rest of the time admiring the bamboo forest and taking pictures deep inside the grove.
Cooking Dinner with the Local Farmers at Himawari-tei
Those bamboo shoots we dug out were for dinner! Our next stop was at the Himawari-tei Restaurant in Hitoyoshi. When we arrived at the restaurant, we were greeted by all our farmstay families who were already gathered there, with plenty of welcomes and smiles. We were then given aprons and ushered into the kitchen because everyone was to prepare dinner together! I was given the important task of slicing the bamboo shoots that we had gathered earlier, and then putting them into a pot to boil. Everyone helped out in the extremely busy kitchen (between plenty of hand-gestures and laughter) — it seemed as if we were going to have a big feast for dinner.
And indeed we did. Dinner consisted of boiled bamboo shoots, seaweed and mushrooms; local fresh vegetables; tempura; glutinous rice wrapped in leaves; some sort of jelly-like dish that came with a spicy sauce; and my favourite dish of all — the salted grilled Ayu fish caught from the Kuma River. I enjoyed it so much that I nibbled it down to the last bone, which delighted the cheerful restaurant owner very much!
Staying with Nobuko-san in Tsubakizaka Farm House
After dinner, we had a little welcome session before being properly introduced to our respective farmstay families — Khai Sin and I were introduced to Nobuko-san, who is a shy lady, but always with a smile on her face. Most of the farming families do not speak English (Nobuko-san doesn’t either), but we were lucky to be provided with a local translator, Naoko-san (though we had some difficulties understanding each other too). For most people, a translator is not available — but Google translate does a pretty good job in getting the conversation going. We used it a couple of times to communicate with Nobuko-san… and it always got her laughing and answering our questions on it too!
The farm house, Tsubakizaka, is about a 45-minute drive from Hitoyoshi. It is a lovely little Japanese farmhouse, and our room was in a separate smaller house from the main one. It can fit about 5 people on tatami mattresses, and Nobuko-san even installed a closed shower in what was once an outdoor bath area. That night, she and Naoko-san dressed us up in pretty kimonos and invited us over to the main house for tea. We had a lovely time talking to both the ladies, and despite the language barrier, had a really good time. Noboku-san told us about her husband (who was sick in bed during our visit) and his ancestors who once lived in this 200-year-old house; and her farm where she grows cereal crops, bamboo shoots, shiitake mushrooms, chestnuts and several different kinds of fruits. She even told us that she was a champion tennis player! It was lovely listening to her stories, and her life.
In the morning, Nobuko-san prepared us a lovely Japanese breakfast spread made from her farm produce — we had rice with fish, vegetables, Japanese omelette and bamboo shoot soup. It was delicious.
Morning Stop at the Aoi Aso Shrine
Nobuko-san ferried us to and fro from our pick-up and drop-off location; and when I told her that I love visiting temples, she suggested to bring us to the most famous shrine in all of Hitoyoshi — the Aoi Aso Shrine. So after breakfast in the morning and before sending us off, we made a pit stop at the shrine.
The Aoi Aso Shrine and five other pavilions within its vicinity has been designated a National Treasure of Japan. The shrine was founded in 806 AD as a protector of the Kuma District and its people. However, many of the current buildings were constructed in the early 17th century by the Sagara clan (who then ruled the domain), and the shrine became home of the Sagara clan‘s guardian deity for as long as they governed over Hitoyoshi. The shrine is constructed in the Momoyama-style architecture — black exterior, steep thatched roofs, and decorated with colorful and detailed patterns and engravings.
Nobuko-san and Naoko-san brought us around the shrine and explained some of the local rituals and practices; and they even showed us how to do a proper prayer at the main shrine. Nobuko-san also told us that she was one of the contributors for the on-going restoration of the shrine. I really appreciated this visit to a Japanese temple with a local.
My Farm Stay Experience in Hitoyoshi-Kuma
When our tour group gathered again in the morning, everyone was so attached to their farmstay families that it was so hard to say goodbye. Even though we only spent a day with the local farmers, their warmth and hospitality really touched many of our hearts. There were lots of handshakes and hugs — some for some, tears too! For me, the Hitoyoshi-Kuma farmstay was a new experience, one that I had always thought of doing but never got around to. I’m glad that it turned out enjoyable, educational, and absolutely memorable.
Everyone in the tour group had a different farmstay experience; so during the bus journey to our next destination, we had a little sharing session that filled the entire bus with laughter and excitement. Some of the stories were pretty intense and hilarious — we were told of basin tubs, dark hallways and flower gardens; and tables laden with food and all night drinking. At the end of the day, everyone had a wonderful time at their farmstays.
… And Next Up on the Tour!
And then from our farmstay in Hitoyoshi-Kuma, we were to head back to the starting point of our tour — Fukuoka. The trip around Kyushu island has finally come full circle, and where better to end it than at the capital city (and the Prefecture) itself? To read more about my day around Fukuoka, click here.
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*She Walks the World was a guest on a trip to Kyushu, Japan with Parlo Tours. The farm stay in Hitoyoshi-Kuma was one out of the many city/town stops on the familiarization tour. And as always, all opinions stated here are my own.