With a thriving natural wine scene and restaurants remixing western and Japanese traditions, the city ofKumamoto should be your next destination in Japan.
Kumamoto Castle
Credit: Walter Bibikow/Getty Images

When I finally found myself sipping green tea out of a frosty glass in an otherwise empty café one steamy afternoon in Kumamoto, a sleepy city of 740,000 on Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s four main islands, it felt like the end of a treasure hunt. The entrance to Sakamura (5-15 Minamisendanbatamachi, Chuo) was obscured by green vines, and the place had no sign outside, so locating it had taken some work. I’d first heard about Sakamura from the hip, English-speaking baristas at a stylish café, And Coffee Roasters (11-22 Kamitoricho, Chuo); later, the young owners of other shops around town smiled approvingly when I told them I was headed there. So when I finally walked through the entrance, I felt a surge of explorer’s pride. Inside, owner Takeshi Sakamura’s twin passions of ikebana—flower arrangement—and wire sculpture were on display in Calder-like mobiles that dangled from the ceiling, slowly twisting and turning in a soft breeze. Jazz crackled on the stereo.

You won’t find a listing for Sakamura in any guidebooks. But if you want to find the best in a country where humility is valued over self-promotion, seeking out quiet, unadvertised wonder is always the way to go. This especially holds true in understated Kumamoto, which is most famous for its 400-year-old castle and pristine drinking water. In recent years, a loose collective of young chefs and artists have set up shop in this laid-back city, making it an ideal retreat for good, traditional food and great shopping.

What to Eat & Drink in Kumamoto

Kumamoto is home to an established natural wine scene; the wines’ slightly funky quality is an ideal accompaniment to the local food. At Kijiya (7-17 Minamitsuboimachi, Chuo), try the classic Japanese bar snack, okonomiyaki, deftly cooked right in front of you, alongside a 2015 Domaine de Saint Pierre Chardonnay from Jura, France. NINi(Tsuboi 2 - chome 3-37), a dreamy minimalist nightspot, serves natural wines from Italy and France with its mixed menu of Japanese (curry, pickles) and continental cuisine (quiche, spaghetti with bitter greens). If ramen is what you’re after, head to the old-school Tengaiten (2-15 Anseimachi) for its regional pork bone broth mixed with chicken stock, thick noodles, and a potent dose of garlic and scallions. Or, if you’re feeling adventurous (and willing to risk the raised eyebrows of friends back in the U.S.), head to Asunaro(7-17 Minamitsuboimachi) and ask for sakura nikku. Kumamoto’s most famous local delicacy, it translates to “cherry blossom meat”—a poetic name for horse. At Asunaro it’s lightly seared and served over rice. The restaurant also serves sashimi and vegetable plates; the young couple who runs it also offers a fine sake selection. Lastly, as in any up-and-coming city in coffee-obsessed Japan, serious coffee shops have colonized Kumamoto. In addition to And Coffee Roasters(11-22 Kamitoricho) and Sakamura(5-15 Minamisendanbatamachi), stop by Gluck Coffee Spot (5-52 Jotomachi), which has a more traditional vibe with its wood-clad interior.

Where to Shop

Off the main strip of the Shimotori, Lotus (10-7 Kamitoricho) hawks bohemian fashions from emerging designers. Below the restaurant NINi, Ajouter (2-3-34-2F-A Tsuboi) offers a mix of workwear, ceramics, and jewelry. At Kurasu (9-28 Suidocho) you’ll find handmade leather clogs and housewares.

Where to Stay

Check into Hotel Nikko Kumamoto’s Japanese Suite with its cypress wood bath (2-1 Kamitoricho; rooms from $100).