When I was at school, one of the favourite things I looked forward to was riding my bike with my friends after school. You can go anywhere, like the secret hills and the countryside streams that were framed by reeds. All you would hear is the gentle trickling of a stream and maybe the sound of a cow mooing beyond eyesight, but just close enough to make you look twice. The setting for Kita-Kinokura Yotsumiya Shrine is a bit like that, out of the way of any tourist attraction, and actually, a kind of place you would not go to, but just stumble across, like if you were getting lost on a cycling expedition from Kumamoto city or the airport to the green mountains of Aso.
The shrine is located in Mifune, a land of rice fields, wheat and other crops, framed by high mountains and the odd grain silos. It is a land of plenty and the Shinto traditions play to the natures blessings. While this shrine won't win any beauty contests, with parts of the shrine looking like it is in a state of disrepair, with moss covered stone tori gates and ancient looking ruins that wouldn’t look too out of place in Angkor Wat. You get the feeling that there's actually no one around, so much so that you may initially feel that you are the first to discover it, like some lost city in the jungle. It is just you and nature itself, which is the essence of Shinto.
Growing up in this area means that you can actually experience this sanctuary in every season. In the early hours of New Year’s Day, the temple attendants spruce up the grounds and the rhythmic sound of the drums can be heard, preparing for the Hatsumode celebrations. Spring sees the first blossoms from March 26, while in May there is a Children’s Day festival. The highlight of the year though would be the Gion Festival on the second Saturday of July, with cicadas in the air and happy children of all ages brightly dressed and celebrating the summer festival.
Nearby are a number of attractions worthy of visiting in any season, including the Mifune Dinosaur Museum, the Mifune Country Club and golf course, as well as various hot spring Onsens. The locals here call the volcanoes of Aso the land of fire, making an abundance of hot springs and ensuring that Kumamoto remains as Japan's top five prefectures in terms of quantity of onsens.
In 2019 Kumamoto would also host the Rugby World Cup, making this area an ideal retreat after a big day watching titans clash on the field.