[From October Issue 2013]
Saga Prefecture is located in the northern part of the Kyushu region. The Genkai Sea to the north in the Sea of Japan is popular for farming wakame seaweed and abalone. Nori (dried seaweed) is found to the south in the Ariake Sea, which is the number one area of production in Japan, both in quantity and quality. Since ancient times this area has had strong ties with the Asian continent, and there are many places and crafts that reflect that history.
Saga is known for pottery such as Imari ware and Arita ware. Generally, this kind of porcelain has a luxurious image, but Arita ware is an everyday item for locals, some of whom even use it as a container for school lunches. Pottery festivals and fairs are held throughout the year, and a number of places offer opportunities to experience the art of ceramics.
In order to prevent trade secrets from being stolen, top quality Imari ware was made at Hiyo no Sato Okawachi-yama (The Village of the Secret Kilns Mt. Okawachi), in Imari City. There, checkpoints and artisan’s homes have been faithfully reproduced. There, too, is Meotoshi Tower, where ceramic wind chimes make beautiful music, as well as Nabeshima Hanyo Park.
Every year between April 29 and May 5, pottery enthusiasts from around the country visit the Arita Pottery Fair held in Arita-cho. It’s possible to buy a wide variety of pottery, from everyday items to top-of-the-line porcelain, from the 550 stores set out side by side across roughly 4.5 kilometers. At Arita Hall, beautiful puppets made of pottery perform local legends. In addition, a pottery theme park and art museum can also be found in the town.
Saga’s most famous festival, The “Karatsu Kunchi,” is well-known throughout Japan. It’s an autumn festival, held annually between November 2 and 4 by Karatsu Shrine. Participants yell out “enya enya” as they march around the city of Karatsu, holding up fourteen portable shrines called “hikiyama.” The city’s symbol, Karatsu Castle, is also known as Maizuru Castle for its resemblance to a fluttering crane (maizuru). Because it was built facing the ocean, one can also enjoy such sights as the Niji no Matsubara or “Rainbow Pine Grove.”
Niji no Matsubara is a forest of roughly a million pines approximately five kilometers long. It’s a popular destination for yacht and windsurfing enthusiasts. Those who enjoy hang gliding, paragliding and other aerial sports visit Mount Kagami, located behind Matsubara. This area is part of Genkai Quasi-National Park.
Described as “art crafted by nature,” one of the highlights at the park is Nanatsugama Sea Caves. The caves have been carved out over centuries by the rough waves of the Genkai-nada. The mouth of the largest cave is three meters tall and goes back nearly 110 meters. You can view the caves up close by taking a pleasure cruise from Yobuko Harbor. Above the Nanatsugama Sea Caves is a meadow with a promenade and an observation deck for sightseers.
Straddling Kanzaki City and the town of Yoshinogari is Yoshinogari Historical Park, which is worth a visit even if you’re not a history buff. The Yoshinogari archaeological site dates from approximately the 5th century B.C. to the 3rd century A.D. and has been designated as one of the country’s “Special Historical Landmarks.” In order to preserve valuable cultural assets, it was opened to the public in 2001 as Japan’s second national historical park. Covering an area of 84.7 hectares, there is an Exhibition Hall inside the park that houses many reconstructions based on artifacts found at the site including the sanctum (the most important area where politics and rituals were took place), dugout dwellings, watchtowers, and the natural scenery of the period.
The ebb and flow of the tide along the Ariake Sea, in the southern part of the prefecture, is very pronounced, rising and falling a full six meters each cycle. Mudskippers and other rare creatures inhabit this area. If you visit the observation deck overlooking the Ariake Sea around November, you can view large red fields of shichimensou – a plant that grows only in salty environments.
From spring to autumn one can experience this area’s tidal flats. The Kashima Gatalympic (tidal flat races) is held every year from the end of May to the beginning of June. Unique games are played, including “Gata-chari,” in which bicycles traverse a narrow plank laid out along the tidal flats. During the tug of war, the harder players pull, the more they sink and get stuck in the mud, much to the amusement of the spectators.
Kashima City is the home of Yutoku Inari Shrine, one of Japan’s three largest Inari shrines. Entirely lacquered in vermilion, the shrine contrasts beautifully with the green summertime mountains behind it. The shrine attracts millions of visitors every year who pay homage to a deity thought to promote business success and traffic safety. Famous for its tsutsuji flowers, right next to the shrine is Higashiyama Park.
People from all over the world come to visit every autumn for the Saga International Balloon Fiesta. This is an international competition in which over one hundred hot air balloons take flight above the Saga Plain. Attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors, various events are held the banks of the Kasegawa River and around the area.
Saga’s trademark confectionary is youkan (boiled sweet beans solidified with gelatin or kuzu) and the prefecture consumes the largest amount of it in Japan. As a high-grade Japanese beef, Saga beef has many fans all over the country. With the open sea to both the north and the south, fresh seafood is readily available. Highway 207, running alongside the Ariake Sea, is called “Kaki-yaki Kaido” (grilled oyster coastal road), and from November kakigoya (oyster huts) line the road. You can enjoy barbequed seafood right along the coast.
A popular food at festivals or celebrations is suko-zushi, a traditional dish dating back 500 years. Local dishes of Saga City include Sicilian rice: rice topped with beef and onions stir-fried with a salty-sweet sauce, garnished with vegetables such as tomatoes, and sprinkled with mayonnaise.
There are many hot springs in Saga; as evidenced by an anecdote about a hot spring bubbling up when someone was digging a well. Among these, Takeo Hot Spring and Ureshino Hot Spring have a long history. Ureshino Hot Spring is said to be one of Japan’s three great hot springs for promoting beautiful skin. Meltingly soft tofu in a tasty soup, onsen yudofu (tofu boiled in a hot spring) is a tasty dish that utilizes hot water from this spring. At Ganso Ninja-mura Ureshino-onsen Hizen Yume-kaido (Original Ninja Village Ureshino Hot Spring Hizen Dream Road), you can enjoy a spectacular ninja show and get an opportunity to throw a shuriken, or ninja star, (a kind of weapon).
It takes one hour and 45 minutes to fly from Haneda Airport in Tokyo to Saga Airport. You can also take a bullet train from JR Tokyo Station to Hakata Station in about five hours. After that, it takes 40 minutes to Saga by express train and one hour and 20 minutes to Karatsu. You can obtain tourist information and discount coupons from “SAGAPP!” (available in Japanese), a free smartphone app.