9 Days of Rustic Kyushu, Day 1 (Part 3): Karatsu Castle

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Karatsu (唐津市)
Once we were done at Dazaifu, we moved out of Fukuoka to Karatsu in Saga Prefecture. Historically, Karatsu served as an important trading between Japan, China and Korea.

Day 1: Fukuoka Airport --> Kawachi Fuji Garden --> Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine --> Karatsu Castle (唐津城) --> Ryokan
The drive from Dazaifu to Karatsu was not particularly long and by late afternoon, we had arrived at our next destination, Karatsu Castle (唐津城). Unfortunately, I probably over-estimated ourselves. By the time we arrived, we were feeling pretty tired. I was also developing a headache on top of feeling feverish. In fact, by then, I was so out of it, I actually forget to change the aperture on my camera when taking photo. It's fortunate the pictures didn't turn out too terribly.

Needless to say, we didn't explore very much of Karatsu Castle.

This was the view of Karatsu Castle that greeted us when we parked. The carpark is just across the road, opposite from the castle. The castle is easily accessible by an underpass.

Karatsu Castle was built in 1608 and is also known as Maizuru Castle or the Dancing Crane Castle. The castle itself was said to resemble the head of a crane, while the pine groves at either side were the extended wings of the crane.

Unfortunately, there was also quite some bit of constuction going on when we visited. Hence, I couldn't really appreciate the dancing crane resemblence.

Karatsu Castle is a hilltop castle, which is probably why it's visible from afar. Once you're out of the underpass, you have the option of getting to the castle grounds via this long flight of uneven stairs. The stairs are to your right as you walk along the path.
Fortunately, if you're daunted by the flight of stairs like my mom (she has knee problems), fret not. There's actually a lift nearby that brings you to the castle as well. Based on travel blogs' and Trip Advisor reviews, this lift doesn't seem to be particularly well-known., so here's some directions to get to the lift:
Continue on the route to the left. You should be following along the perimeter walls of the school pictured below with the flight of stairs to your right.


If I don't recall wrongly, there's an abundance of pine trees along the path. Eventually you'll get to a small, white building with pretty flowers (in picture above). That'll be where the lift is.

I took a photo of the price indicated for taking the lift. It's free for seniors (70 years and above) and for young children who are not yet of schooling age. However, for primary and secondary students, it would cost 50 yen each, while adults pay 100 yen each to take the lift. Prices are one-way only, which means you'll have to pay to get down the same way.

As Karatsu Castle is built right next to Karatsu Bay, you'd get wonderful views of the ocean. There are benches all over the castle grounds where you could sit and enjoy the sea breeze and views. Don't get too caught up though, because the view at the top of the 5-storey castle is even better! Plus, like I mentioned earlier, the castle is under-going some construction, so the grounds itself isn't exactly all that pretty now.


These are the panoramic shots I took from the top of the castle. Yeah. I'm kicking myself for forgetting to change the aperture on the camera. But still, you should be able to tell how pretty the cityscape is from the top of the castle.

Take note though, you'll have to take the stairs all the way to the top. The museum is built within the first 4 storeys though before you get to the 5th (which is the viewing platform). I thought this was a great way to break up the tedium of climbing 5 flights of stairs for some.

The museum (obviously) focused on Karatsu Castle and its history. There were several artefacts, models and even weapons displayed. We were however, too tired to properly appreciate it. Instead, it was quick glimpses and we quickly moved on.

There is also a wisteria trellis within the castle grounds (bottom left of my photo above). Apparently, the castle is pretty famous as a cherry blossom and wisteria viewing ground when they bloom in spring.


What did strike me though were the numerous tori gates that surrounded the castle. Each of these tori gates also appeared to have stacks of stones that appeared to be deliberately piled on them. When asked about the significance, our guide explained that the stones were stacked there as forms of prayer wishes.


Karatsu Castle is one of the smallest castle I've visited. If you were to visit, it should not take you very long to tour the place. I estimate anywhere between 45 minutes (if you're very fast) to 2 hours (for those who'll enjoy taking their time with the museum).

My mom was very eager to get to our ryokan but our driver made us stop for an additional spot that was not on our itinerary: Nijino Matsubara (虹の松原). I have to say, it was the first time I met with the homeless in Japan. Apparently, some of them would park themselves within the vicinnity of the Nijino Matsubara as it was a quiet place.

The Nijino Matsubara is a 360 year-old pine forest. It is also known as the Black Pine Forest of 1 Million Trees.

I don't know if it was because she was tired and eager to get on to our ryokan, but my mom didn't like the place and found it creepy. Within minutes of stepping into the grand forest, she wanted to leave. Perhaps as a result of her complaints, I found myself visualizing stalkers and beasts. Even in the photo below, I could see it as part of a Japanese horror show; you know, like some ghost swinging away?

Needless to say, we didn't get to explore the place very much. Given my mom's insistence, we were off to our ryokan very shortly.

Tourist Information

Karatsu Castle
Website: http://www.karatsu-bunka.or.jp/shiro.html
Address: 8-1 Higashijonai, Karatsu 847-0016, Saga Prefecture
Local Address: 〒847-0016東城内8番1号
DID: +81 955-72-5697
Admission fees:
Adults (15 yrs and up) 410 Yen
Children (4 and up to 14 yrs) 200 Yen
20% Discount for a Group of 20 or more
Operating Hours: 9 am to 5 pm. Closed from 29 to 31 December.
Nijino Matsubara
Address: Hamatamacho, Karatsu 849-5131, Saga Prefecture
Local Address: 〒849-5131浜玉町
Admission fees: Free

9 Days of Rustic Kyushu, Day 1 (Part 2): Ippudo + Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Once we were done at Kawachi Fuji Garden, we doubled back to Dazaifu. As I mentioned in the previous post, Kawachi Fuji Garden was the one item that was out of the way in this itinerary. Hence if it isn't the wisteria or autumn foliage season, you should strike the garden out of the itinerary.

A short paragraph about Dazaifu before I start writing about the day proper.

Dazaifu (太宰府)

Dazaifu used to serve as a administrative centre for Kyushu. While the imperial court ruled the country from the Kansai region, Dazaifu was recognised as being pivotal for Japan's diplomatic relations and organizing the country's defences.

Today, Dazaifu is considered a quiet suburb on the outskirts of Fukuoka city. Given it's history as a administrative centre, there are a couple of historical sites that you can visit. Dazaifu is also home to the famous Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine which I'm going to cover in today's post.

I've included the website for Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine right at the bottom of this post. There's a download-able PDF version of a Dazaifu City map with various attractions. Good to see if you're intending to spend a day or two within Dazaifu.

Day 1: Fukuoka Airport --> Kawachi Fuji Garden --> Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine --> Karatsu Castle --> Ryokan

By the time we were back in Dazaifu area, it was lunch time. Our driver shared with us that there was an Ippudo outlet on the way to the Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine. Of course, being a ramen fan, I happily agreed to stop for lunch there.


Ippudo (一風堂, pronounced as yi feng tang), is a pretty established ramen chain that has outlets even in Singapore. I had originally planned to visit the Ippudo original store (大名本店) in Fukuoka city, but agreed to swap it to Ichiran's original store instead.

I only had 2 days in Fukuoka city in this itinerary. As much as I love my ramen, I was sure my parents didn't want to consecutively have ramen in Fukuoka city. However, for those of you who don't mind doing consecutive ramen meals, or if you have several days in Fukuoka city, you might want to take note that Ippudo's and Ichiran's original stores are based in Fukuoka city. Both are well worth a visit and you'd earn bragging rights to having the ramen at the original stores. I'll write about the Ichiran one we visited in a later post.


This particular Dazaifu outlet wasn't big but mid-way through our lunch, it became so packed, there was a queue waiting for seats. Thank goodness, we came in 5 minutes earlier!

Mom and dad shared a bowl of ramen and a plate of fried rice between them, while I simply slurped away at my own ramen bowl. We also ordered a plate of gyozas to share but all agreed that the Santouka ones we had at Hokkaido was still the best.

Otherwise, the ramen bowl was good. A hot bowl of ramen on a rainy Fukuoka day always makes for a good meal. I liked it better than its Singapore version, but then again, I'm in Japan on a holiday mood, I could be entirely biased. Whichever, it filled the tummy, warmed the tired bodies and perked us up.

By the way, you can also purchase Ippudo ramen packets to bring home. I forgot to grab a picture, but they're often displayed near the cashier's counter on your way out, so it's hard to miss. We (or more like just me) opted not to get any this round as I had brought these home previously. I was keen to try other brands this round. 
Next stop, the Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine.
You'd know you've reached the place when you see the main walking street that leads to the temple. As we had visited just off the Golden Week, we were spared from the crowds that had just descended on this place. Otherwise, the other indicator that you've reached would be a) the crowds of tourists and b) the crowds of students visiting the shrine to pray for their studies.

The Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine is one of Fukuoka's more well-known shrines after-all.
Walking along the street to the shrine would have been great if I wasn't half a zombie by then. Seriously, the red-eye flight (and in hindsight, more likely me falling sick) took a bigger toll than I'd expected. All in all, good reason for me to stumble into what is possibly Japan's most famous Starbucks for a much needed cup of coffee.
Now, even if you were rushed for time in your itinerary, you HAVE TO find some and stop by this particular Starbucks outlet that's designed by world-renowned architect Kengo Kuma. If you enjoy photography or architecture, then all the more you have to spend some time here.
I'm no architectural student or fan, but I was seriously impressed. In my layman's eyes, it was seriously one of the coolest coffee places I've ever visited. The entire Starbucks was covered with Cedar wood batons interlaced for a latticed, woven deco. This interior weave also draws the visitor's eyes inwards towards the natural light at the end of the café. Actually made me feel like I was in a huge basket. Seriously amazing.
Initially I felt shy trying to grab shots of the place, but the barista assured me that there were many people who came in doing exactly that plus selfies. Heh. I didn't do the selfie, but I did myself a favour and grabbed a cup of latte - extra shot.
If my parents weren't rushing me, I would have taken the time to enjoy that cup of latte (caffine really) within the café itself, just so I can admire the coolest Starbucks for a little while longer.
Since I didn't have that luxury, it was onwards to the Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine. From here though, I had to up my balancing act; an umbrella, a Starbucks latte cup, my notebook and a camera. I'm pretty amazed at my skills.
While Starbucks Dazaifu is (possibly) Japan's most well-known, the Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine is Dazaifu's most famous Shinto shrine. And as with most famous places, there's always a legend tied to it.
Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine is dedicated to Michizane Sugawara, a 9th century scholar. Now the story goes to say that Michizane had been a high-ranking official in Kyoto who was later demoted and banished as a result of evil plots by rivals. Michizane then led a hard and miserable life while in exile in Dazaifu but continued to persevere in his scholarly studies. Unfortunately, he died 2 years later.
Now this is where the story becomes fancy.
Apparently, Michizane's funeral was attended by only a few people, including his faithful disciple, Umasake No Yasuyuki who tried to send Michizane's body to Kyoto. During the procession, Michizane's coffin was carried by an ox. According to the legend, at a point, the ox stopped and simply refused to move any further despite all attempts to get it going. People believed that the soul of Michizane wished to stay in Dazaifu, and his disciple hence buried him at the very spot where the ox stopped.
In his time, Michizane had also written many poems about his favourite plum trees. It's also said that Michizane's favourite plum blossom tree in Kyoto uprooted itself and flew to Dazaifu to be reunited with Michizane in death.
Subsequently, those who plotted evil against Michizane died. Disasters also befell Kyoto and people started believing that it was the work of Michizane's vengeful spirit. Hence, a shrine was built in Dazaifu (obviously Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine) and another in Kyoto (Kitano Tenmangu Shrine) to appease his spirit. The royal family also reinstated Michizane's position and rank posthumously. Michizane, now deified as Tenjin, hence came to be associated with education or the literary arts. Many students hence visit this shrine to pray for academic success.
Now, you'll have to bear in mind that it is a Shinto shrine that you're visiting and those are often shrouded in legends and stories. As a religion, Shinto is based on customs, a reverence for ancestral traditions, and actions according to the guidance of the gods.
So fancy stories aside, whether you believe or not, please just be respectful towards another's beliefs. I happened to overhear a tourist who loudly mocked the story when it was being shared merely to enhance his appreciation of the place.

On the way to the main shrine, you will cross this beautiful red arch bridge. The bridge is called the Taiko-bashi (Taiko bridge) and the pond, Shinji-ike (Shinji Pond). There are 3 parts to the bridge; the first arch represents the past, the middle flat ground represents the present and the second arch will be the future. I'm pretty sure that's some religious concept, except I couldn't find anyone who could explain it to me.
The Shinji Pond though is supposed to be shaped to look like the kanji character for heart. I guess one can only see that from an elevated position.

As is with all Shinto shrines, you got to "cleanse" yourself before heading in. Do you need the steps again?
  1. Take a ladle with your right hand.
  2. Ladle water and wet your left hand. Don’t do this above the water-vessel. Shift to the side so that the water doesn't fall back into the common pool. And don't finish up all the water you've ladled, there are still steps 3 to 6!
  3. Switch the ladle over to your left hand and wet your right hand.
  4. Now switch the ladle back to your right hand again and catch some water with the palm of your left.
  5. Take a "drink" with the water pooled in your palm. And when I use those inverted commas, I really mean that there is no need to swallow the water. Again, shift to the side and you can just spit it out gently. DO NOT touch ladle with your mouth.
  6. With the last of the water in your ladle (still in your right hand), wet your left hand again but this time, let the water run down the handle of the ladle. It sort of cleans the handle as well.
  7. That’s it!

You'd definitely pass by a statue of ox near the Taiko-bashi and then there's another smaller one within the shrine grounds. Given the story I shared earlier, you shouldn't be surprised by the significance of these ox sculptures.


Now that's the Honden, i.e. the main shrine. The tree to the right of the Honden, is the famous "flying" plum tree, also known as the Tobi-ume tree. Well, while I'm not too sure about flying trees, I was told that the grounds itself is also home to quite a number of plum trees. Apparently, the best time to visit the Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine is in late February to early March as it is quite a lovely sight to behold when the plum blossoms bloom.

Prayer ground.

The photo above is a pretty common sight in many shrines. Pay a token amount of yen and you can draw your own fortune. If its a good one, bring it back with you. If its not, tie it to the poles provided (like in the photo) and leave the bad luck behind.

And these are seriously the cutest prayer tablets I've ever seen. From the drawings, it's pretty easy to decipher which kind of prayer tablets these are!

The main grounds at the Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine should take you anywhere between an hour to two (to properly explore the place). Those of you who don't particularly fancy a lot of walking or standing around, it is possible to quickly cover it in under an hour.

Anyway, once we were done at the Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine, we attempted to walk over to the lesser known Komyozenji Temple (光明禅寺).

The Komyozenji Temple is adjacent to and within walking distance from the Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine. However, according to reviews, it's often over-looked. Without the throng of visitors, that would probably adds to the peace and serenity though.

There are signs to point you to the way of the Komyozenji Temple. It's also on the way to the Kyushu National Museum. However, in case you still need landmarks, here's a pictorial version of the walk from the Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine:

First, you'll first need to walk past this kindergarten.

Then past these rustic Japanese huts before you'd reach Komyozenji Temple.

Except when we got there, it was closed! Even our driver was surprised and we don't even know why it was closed! We didn't see any signs or notices!

Dang. A real pity to get there only to find it closed. I was looking forward actually as my homework indicated that this was a pretty impressive Zen temple with a rock garden and rear moss garden. Oh well. Maybe next time I'd pop by again and visit this together with the Kyushu National Museum.

By the way, the Kyushu National Museum is also located within the vicinity. So for those of you planning a visit here, you may wish to also include that in as an alternative. If I hadn't done the Kawachi Fuji Garden, I'd have brought my parents to the museum.

Since we couldn't get to the Komyozenji Temple, we headed back to the shopping street (aka the main walking street).


Heh. There's a lot of stuff to look at in this shopping street, from cups to bags and even Japanese dolls and home deco. But with me, the next thing you'll find me writing about, will be the food stuff that you can find here.

First, let me start with what this place is famous for: Umegae mochi (see photo above for sample).

Umegae mochi is essentially mochi first filled with a sweet red bean paste, and then pan-grilled. A pattern of a plum tree flower is often grill-stamped onto these mochi confectionery. These umegae mochi are strongly associated with the Michizane legend.

Now, the entire walking street has several stores selling umegae mochi. My homework indicated that the best umegae mochi is apparently from a store called Kasanoya (see photo below). It's been said that this is the only store with a queue.

However, there was a store nearby that appeared to still be using the more traditional hand-held pan grills. Mom and I hence decided to go with trying theirs instead.

Unfortunately, we were still pretty full from our Ippudo lunch. Hence, we only bought 1 to share. There was no space in the tummy to try an additional one from Kasanoya to compare.

This one that we tried wasn't too bad. It was definitely sweet so I needed a drink after that, but nothing too spectacular to write about. Still, it's worth a try, especially since it's a specialty in the area.

Also, the other reason why I didn't want to get another umegae mochi from Kasanoya to try, was because I really wanted to have this meat bun from the store in the picture below.

To get to this store, turn left at the first junction of the shopping street (facing the direction to the shrine). It's only a short distance there after.

This particular store is famous for its steamed pork buns. While doing my homework for the holiday, I found that there were very few blogs writing on Kyushu. I only chanced upon this when I was trying to translate a Japanese blog. Blessing in disguise!

Photo-taking was actually forbidden at the store! I only managed to snap this 1 picture of the many Japanese celebrities who patronised because I didn't see the No-Photo signage. I was stopped immediately after by the angry store-keeper. I apologised so profusely because I was so worried that he wouldn't sell me his famous pork bun!

Here it is, the famous pork bun! Apparently, the store only does take-out. There's no seats within the store to eat. I got to say, it definitely did not disappoint. The pork filling was succulent and the juices were still sealed within the bun. And that bun! So soft! I could eat that bun with no filling inside either and still be contented!

Take note though. That meat bun is huge. It's the size of my palm. You might wish to share if you're not sure about finishing it on your own.

The other thing that Dazaifu is famous for is their mentaiko. At the shopping street, there are also restaurants selling mentaiko meals. If not for Ippudo, if my tummy wasn't still full, I would have stopped in one of those restaurants for a bowl of rice with mentaiko.

Instead, I popped into Fukuya and grabbed a couple of their mentaiko-tuna cans. Another one where I regret not getting more. I forgot to take a photo of the store, so I only took a photo of the can back home. I'm including their website at the end of this post so you can take a look too.

And I got to tell you, that's my last can in the photo. This one's absolutely delicious paired with rice. Or just dump it into a salad. If there's anyone headed there, I'm definitely going to ask for help getting a couple more cans!

Tourist Information

Ippudo (一風堂), Daizaifu outlet (太宰府インター店)
Address: 3-12-11 Mikasagawa, Onojo, Fukuoka Prefecture 816-0912
DID: +81 92-504-1555
Operating hours: According to Google, it's 11 am to 12 am

Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine
Website: http://www.dazaifutenmangu.or.jp/en
Address: 4-7-1 Saifu, Dazaifu 818-0017, Fukuoka Prefecture
Local address: 〒818-0017宰府4-7-1
DID: +81 92-922-8225
Admission fees: Free
Operating hours:
6 am  to 7 pm
From June to August, 6 am to 8 pm
In winter, 6:30 am to 7 pm
No closing days indicated
Kasanoya Umegae mochi
Website: http://www.kasanoya.com/

Fukuya Mentaiko Store
Website: http://www.fukuya.com/
There's a tab for the English page. The website also contains locations of other Fukuya stores in Fukuoka, so even if you're not visiting Dazaifu, you can still get those mentaiko.

Alternative attractions within the vicinity:

Komyozenji Temple
Website: http://www.dazaifu.org/map/tanbo/tourismmap/2.html#_=_
Address: 2 Chome-16-1 Saifu, Dazaifu, Fukuoka Prefecture, Japan
Local address: 〒818-0117宰府2-16-1
DID: +81 92-922-4053
Admission fees: 200 yen to the inner gardens
Operating hours:
8 am to 5 pm, no closing days indicated
(So why was it closed that day we went!?)

Kyushu National Museum
Address: 4-7-2 Ishizaka, Dazaifu 818-0118, Fukuoka Prefecture
Local address:  〒818-0118石坂4-7-2
DID: +81 92-918-2807
Admission fees: 430 Yen. Entrance for special exhibitions are not included.
Operating hours:
9:30 am to 5 pm. Last entry at 4:30 pm.
Closed on Mondays. Closed on the following Tuesday if Monday is a national holiday.
Closed on New Year's Day.