The Venice of Japan: Canal Cruises, Colorful Festivals, and More in Yanagawa, Fukuoka
With around 930 kilometers of canals, southern Fukuoka Prefecture’s Yanagawa has rightfully earned its nickname “The City of Water.” Lined by willow trees and other luxuriant greenery, this aquatic labyrinth can be toured on blissful traditional row boat cruises, taking you into the depths of the city without having to lift a finger. Yanagawa is also famous for its host of fascinating historical landmarks, vibrant festivals, and local “unagi” eel cuisine. In this article, we’ll introduce 8 Yanagawa spots, events, and more to help finish off your Fukuoka itinerary!
Feb 15 2023 (Feb 14 2023)
*This article was written in collaboration with the Fukuoka Prefecture Tourism Association.
What Is Yanagawa?
Yanagawa is an idyllic, picturesque city with a population of just over 60,000 residents located in the south of Fukuoka Prefecture. It is nicknamed “The City of Water” owing to its expansive network of crisscrossing canals, waterways, and rivers, many of which are lined with lush greenery like willow trees. It is a popular tourist destination visited for its relaxing canal cruises, historical sites, flamboyant festivals, and local cuisine, and is home to several designated National Sites of Scenic Beauty.
How to Get to Yanagawa
Yanagawa can be accessed from Nishitetsu Fukuoka (Tenjin) Station, a 25-minute walk from Hakata Station in Fukuoka City, by taking the Nishitetsu-Tenjin-Omuta Line to Nishitetsu-Yanagawa Station, which will take between 50 to 60 minutes, depending on the service.
The History of Yanagawa
Yanagawa flourished as a castle town for several hundred years under the Kamachi Clan. Afterwards, major work on Yanagawa Castle commenced under the new samurai ruler Tachibana Muneshige, however, he lost his rank after supporting the Toyotomi Clan in the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 and the Yanagawa Domain was instead handed to Yoshimasa Tanaka, who had achieved great success on the battlefield. Yoshimasa contributed a lot to Yanagawa Castle, adding a tower, turrets, and moat. However, rule was soon returned to Tachibana after the Yoshimasa lineage ended with no heir, continuing for 12 generations until the domain system was abolished in 1871.
Many of Yanagawa’s most famous historical landmarks were built by the Tachibana Clan, and the family’s successive lords resided in Yanagawa Castle until it was destroyed by fire in 1872, with only ruins left today. However, Yanagawa remains full of well-preserved sites reflecting its captivating history, and the layout of the streetscape and canals is said to be virtually unchanged since the Edo Period (1603-1868).
Rent a Kimono at Kogashin Kimonokan Yanagawa
Blend into the evocative ambience of Yanagawa by slipping into a kimono! Kogashin Kimonokan, a 10-minute walk from Nishitetsu-Yanagawa Station, is an esteemed kimono store founded in 1894 boasting a fabulous lineup of colorful, high-quality kimono and more. They have kimono rental options specifically designed for sightseers to Yanagawa, with a selection of around 100 to choose from plus additions like “obi” belts and “zori” sandals included. The service comes with professional dressing, and is available for both women, men, and children alike. There are also plenty of add-ons, such as hair setting, photo sessions, and more. Message Kogashin Kimonokan on Instagram to make an appointment.
Unwind on a Yanagawa Kawakudari Canal Cruise
The height of Yanagawa’s charm is a traditional cruise on one of its many willow-lined canals. Much of this vast network was constructed around 400 years ago alongside the expansion of Yanagawa Castle for defense, flood control, and agricultural purposes, playing a vital role in the lives of townsfolk. Nowadays, the canals continue to serve as a core attraction for tourists, navigated by ferrymen donning conical hats in long, slender “donkobune” boats with nothing but a thin sculling oar called a “ro.”
Without the roar of an engine, the soothing sounds of splashing water and lulling rock of the boat on a “kawakudari” canal cruise will send you into a state of bliss as you gaze upon the seasonal splendor and enthralling riverside architecture. The friendly ferryman will also point out the local highlights while singing folksongs, adding to the buoyant, cheery atmosphere.
Yanagawa canal cruises can be boarded throughout the city, with four ports within a 5-10 minute walking distance of Nishitetsu-Yanagawa Station, and bookings are generally not required. See below for info on one recommended kawakudari cruise:
Discover Local History at Tachibana Garden Ohana
Tachibana Garden Ohana is the heart of classical culture in Yanagawa, embodying the city’s development, prosperity, and modernization over the generations.
The site was founded in 1738 as a villa centered around a traditional strolling garden by the 5th Yanagawa Domain lord Tachibana Sadayoshi, who wished to use it as a residence for his concubine and children. Originally named “Ohana-batake” (Flower Garden), the villa sat on the quiet southwest corner of Yanagawa Castle, and grew into the resting place of the Tachibana Clan for generations to come.
Centuries later, in 1910, Tachibana Tomoharu, the 14th head of the family, revamped the complex into its current design. The iconic chalk-white “Seiyokan,” a Western-style building used as a guesthouse for visiting dignitaries, became the heart of the complex, and its extravagant interior still remains largely intact. Tomoharu also built the equally striking traditional Japanese-style “Ohiroma” at the back of Seiyokan, which is a spacious hall covered by dozens of straw tatami mats. The Ohiroma looks out over the exquisite Shoto-en Garden, also built by Tomoharu, which utilizes the original Ohana-batake layout with a large pond surrounded by a ring of short, stubby black pine trees and adorned by all manner of ornaments, including stepping stones said to have come from the foundations of Yanagawa Castle itself.
Also within the complex is the Tachibana Museum, which displays samurai armor and other artifacts possessed by the family over a 400 year period. There is also the bookable accommodation “Shotokan,” the “Shukei-tei” restaurant with both private and casual dining, and more. The facility is also currently represented by the 18th-generation descendant of the Tachibana family, who provides heartfelt, top-notch service to convey the ancient culture and character of Yanagawa.
Bask in Nature and Spirituality at Mihashira Shrine
Like Tachibana Garden Ohana, Mihashira Shrine bears deep ties to the Tachibana family. It venerates the samurai warrior and first head of the Tachibana Clan, Tachibana Muneshige, along with his wife Tachibana Ginchiyo and father-in-law Tachibana Dosetsu. It was originally established within the grounds of Yanagawa Castle in 1783 by Tachibana Akinao, the 7th head of the clan, however, it was moved and rebuilt in its current location in 1826 by 9th head Tachibana Akikata, and has since stood as the center of Shintoism in Yanagawa.
A 10-minute drive from Ohana, Mihashira Shrine’s spacious, leafy grounds host a charming collection of attractions including the stately wooden main hall, a grand, solemn “romon” gate modeled on the famous Yomeimon Gate at Nikko Tosho-gu Shrine, and more.
Also on the grounds is Takahata Park, a well-frequented local hangout presenting whimsical scenes of canal-side cherry blossoms and other natural vistas. Around 300 cherry trees bloom in profusion between late March to early April, which is celebrated by an annual festival with after-dark light-ups, traditional “yabusame” horseback archery, and more.
Feast on Bamboo-Steamed Unagi Eel, the Delicacy of Yanagawa
Yanagawa’s culinary pride and joy is bamboo-steamed unagi eel, called “unagi no seiro-mushi” in Japanese, which has enjoyed unwavering popularity since the Edo Period. Like the common Japanese “unaju” eel dish, the eel in Yanagawa is coated with a “kabayaki” sweet soy sauce-based marinade and grilled. However, before being served, the eel is sat upon a helping of similarly flavored rice and topped with strips of egg to be steamed in a “seiro” bamboo basket to tenderize the eel while the rice absorbs the umami flavors. The dish is then presented in a dazzling red lacquerware box, bursting with mouthwatering aromas when opened.
Eel has long been plentiful in the Yanagawa area, and there are around 30 restaurants specializing in bamboo-steamed eel beloved by locals and tourists alike. One of these is the eminent “Ganso Motoyoshiya,” which is said to have first pioneered the recipe around 300 years ago. Bamboo-steamed eel is also on the menu at Tachibana Garden Ohana’s Shukei-tei restaurant, making it a convenient spot for a taste while sightseeing.
Wade Deeper Into Local History at Kitahara Hakushu's Birthplace and Memorial Hall
One of Yanagawa’s most famous residents is the late Kitahara Hakushu, a beloved poet born in Yanagawa in 1885 and active during the early 1900s. He is also celebrated as the Japanese translator of the book that first introduced the nursery rhyme “Mother Goose” to Japan. Hakushu’s birthplace and family home, a gorgeous white-walled grid-patterned “namako” building also used to brew sake for the family business, is open to the public and provides profound insight into the architecture, decor, lifestyle, and fashion of the time.
While much of the home was sadly burned down during a fire in 1901, the distinctive white facade built in the mid-Meiji Period (1868-1912) remains intact, while the rest was painstakingly restored starting from the late 1960s before opening in 1985 to celebrate 100 years since Hakushu’s birth. Inside is a collection of Hakushu'’s books, keepsakes, manuscripts, photos, and more, along with exhibitions exploring the history of his cherished hometown, making it a great place to learn more about Yanagawa itself.
Enjoy a Springtime Spectacle at Nakayama Ofuji
If you’re unsure of when to visit Yanagawa, then we strongly suggest aiming for mid to late April. While you may miss the peak cherry blossoms, you'll instead be able to bask in the otherworldly aura of the blooming “Nakayama Ofuji” wisteria tree! This gigantic wisteria is estimated to be around 300 years old, and is said to have been planted by a local from a seed picked up in Noda, Osaka (one of Japan’s most famous wisteria spots) before being transplanted into its current location on the grounds of Kumano Shrine. Its sweeping branches are held up by a huge trellis, while its drooping purple flowers block out the overhead sky and enshroud those underneath in sweet, alluring aromas.
During this time, the Nakayama Ofuji Festival is held in celebration, allowing visitors to dine at food stalls under the wisteria trellis before rediscovering its beauty through breathtaking after-dark illuminations.
See the City Come Alive at the Yanagawa Hinamatsuri Dolls Festival
Another iconic Yanagawa event is the annual “hinamatsuri” dolls festival, which is held between mid-February to early April. Hinamatsuri, also known as the “peach festival,” is one of the five seasonal festivals of Japan and sees traditional dolls displayed on and around the 3rd of March to pray for the happiness and health of young girls. While practices often differ by region, Yanagawa’s “sagemon” tradition is by far one of the most offbeat!
Sagemon are colorful decorations made up of seven small and individually-designed hand-crafted dolls and figures, each imbued with a wish and strung up together with six other similarly-designed strings on a red and white bamboo ring. Two large “temari” balls, a traditional craft of Yanagawa, are also hung in the middle of the ring, forming a total of 51 ornaments on each sagemon - a deeply auspicious number tied with longevity.
Sagemon are said to have first been made in the late Edo Period (1603-1868) by maids of the lord of the Yanagawa Domain using kimono scraps. This custom developed and spread throughout Yanagawa, and while its popularity began to dwindle in modern times, it was reignited in 1995 with the founding of the “Yanagawa Hinamatsuri Sagemon Meguri” festival, bolstered by a dosage of pop-culture like the idol group “SAGEMON GIRLS” founded in 2016 and more.
During the festival period, sagemon are strung up all throughout the city, including over the canals, transforming Yanagawa into a dazzling, radiant world of color and allowing visitors to combine their regular sightseeing with a tour of sagemon displays. You can also purchase authentic, handmade sagemon to bring home, making for a wonderful souvenir of your time in Yanagawa. Another festival highlight is the adorable “Ohina-sama Water Parade,” where young children dressed extravagantly as hina dolls are rowed down the canals in donkobune boats in a treasured local ritual.
Get More Yanagawa and Fukuoka Travel Inspiration at “VISIT FUKUOKA”
Yanagawa and the surrounding Fukuoka Prefecture are packed with plenty more picturesque greenery, fascinating historical sites, scrumptious local cuisine, and charming regional festivals to explore. VISIT FUKUOKA, the official tourism site of Fukuoka Prefecture, has all sorts of tips and ideas on how to enjoy the prefecture on their official website. Plus, their Facebook and Instagram share gorgeous photos flaunting the best of the region. If you’re planning a trip to Yanagawa and Fukuoka, VISIT FUKUOKA is where you should start!
Official Website: https://visit-fukuoka-japan.com/
Top image: PIXTA
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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.