3 Days in Kyushu: Exploring Hidden Gems and Rich Culture in Nagasaki, Saga, and Fukuoka Via Public Transportation

Travelers may think that visiting Kyushu in southern Japan is something possible only when traveling by car. But if you are like me and don't particularly like driving, does that mean you have to put aside your dreams of an ideal vacation in this attractive part of Japan? Not at all! Read on to discover how we planned the perfect route through the scenic areas of three of Kyushu’s majestic prefectures: Nagasaki's superb coastline and food, Saga's traditional ceramic towns, and Fukuoka's mesmerizing Dazaifu Shrine area - all without relying on rental cars a single time. Still, we were able to tick some truly hidden gems and historical wonders off our bucket list.

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*This article was written in collaboration with Kyushu Tourism Promotion Organization.

[Day 1: Nagasaki and Saga Prefectures - Ariake Sea Coastline's Bounty of Hidden Gems]

Instead of focusing on Nagasaki City and its surroundings, have you ever thought of exploring the Ariake Sea's charming coasts? The quaint shores of this inland sea hide a plethora of natural treasures, photogenic spots unknown to most, temples and shrines of touching beauty, and food from land and sea so delicious that it will make your mouth water for days. 

Konagai - Have Fun at the Cutest Bus Stops in the World (Hint: They Are Shaped Like Fruit)

The name Konagai may not ring a bell, but we actually had this place on our bucket list for a few years. Imagine the cutest little seaside town with the cutest little station that looks like a dollhouse tinged with pastel colors, and last but not least picturesque bus stops that are shaped like fruit. Konagai has all this and more and is a hidden gem in Nagasaki that will fill any Japanophile with joy, including us enthusiasts of all those weirdly cute buildings Japan likes to incorporate into daily life! Originally built by Konagai locals in 1990 for the Nagasaki Travel Expo with hopes to provide a pleasant journey to those commuting from the town to Nagasaki City, the fruit bus stops remained as a local landmark.

There are sixteen scattered in the area (14 along the national highway and 2 along the prefectural highway,) imitating strawberries, melons, mandarin oranges, tomatoes, and watermelons. So we didn't have any time to waste and as soon as we stepped off the bus in front of the "ichigo" (strawberry) bus stop we started our exploration looking to hit as many fruit bus stops we could. The fruit bus stops make for the cutest excuse to explore Konagai's peaceful shores and lovely nooks, taking fun and unique photos with the marine background and a vividly-colored flower field grown by local "obaa-san" (grandmas) right behind one of the strawberry bus stops. Cosmos and sunflowers were in full bloom when we visited, creating scenery reminiscent of a Ghibli movie, and the sun and wind were so gentle and warm that we could easily have spent hours just wandering around the picturesque seaside town. 

Kaki Yaki Seaside Marine - Try Your Hand at Grilling the Freshest Seafood Ever

Kaki Yaki Seaside Marine is another building that contributes to the cute appearance of Konagai. Painted pastel pink with an air of nostalgia, we could easily spot this local institution from afar, standing on a corner of the tranquil Konagai beach. This area of the Ariake Sea is particularly renowned for its locally fished and incredibly fresh shellfish. So, we entered the restaurant with our stomachs rumbling in anticipation of a seafood banquet. We were pleasantly surprised to find out that half of the restaurant is set as a miniature fish market where you can freely roam around freely and personally pick what you'd like to eat from the selection of fish of the day. We were already holding a kilo of local oysters and some delicious-looking prawns in our baskets when some rainbow-colored shellfish called "hyogi" caught our attention. Intrigued by these of giant scallops that we've never seen before, not even in Tokyo, we bought a couple to try. 

By the time we finished our market shopping the staff had already prepared the table for us, so that we could start grilling our seafood. Everything was so fresh that even without any seasoning or sauce it could have easily been some of the tastiest fish we've ever had. The oysters and prawns were delicious, but we were so impressed with our first ever bite ever of hyogi to the point that we were seriously considering buying some more. Just as a note: if you can, we suggest you to take your time, because oysters take longer to cook and also because the rustic atmosphere and the soothing sound and view of the sea from the windows will set the mood for a relaxing, slow-paced afternoon. The place and food were as lovely as its owner, who was kind enough to give us a ride back to Konagai Station just in time for our train. Konagai was only the first stop on our 3-day trip here in southern Japan, but we already got a taste of how welcoming the people of Kyushu are. With such thoughts and broad smiles, we got onboard our first local train of the day. 

Oouo Shrine - Stroll Under Dreamy Torii Gates Floating in the Sea

The JR Nagasaki Line covers a portion of the Ariake Sea coast, crossing the border between Nagasaki and Saga Prefectures in a zigzag that goes through unspoiled shores, fishing areas, and tiny villages so beautiful that we spent our 30-minute journey with our faces stuck to the train window, admiring the charms of the sea rolling outside. In this particular area, the Ariake Sea is so calm and the horizon so flat that the water works as a mirror reflecting the sky and the clouds above, shining in surreal silver and lilac hues. We were already in awe thanks to this mysterious panorama, so when we arrived at JR Tara Station we couldn't wait to see the next spot. 

The unique Oouo Shrine we came here to visit is no less magical than the marine scenery we saw from the train, and it stands with its floating "torii" gates in the middle of the Ariake Sea. By the time we arrived, it was low tide, so we were able to walk a small portion of the Tara Undersea Road that only emerges when the water recedes, strolling under the bright red torii of the shrine. The path leading to the sacred gates, usually covered by seawater, was a carpet of white shells. At each step, you could hear them softly creaking, resembling the gentle sound of a wind chime. We loved spending several moments just silently viewing the silky sea, really soaking in the soothing atmosphere of this part of Kyushu. 

Hizen Hama - Explore Saga Prefecture's Secret Postal Town From the Samurai Period

The local bus we took from Oouo Shrine led us further north on the coast, right to the entrance of one of Saga's most well-kept secrets: Hizen Hama. This Edo-Period postal town known as Hamashuku is now recognized as an important preservation district of traditional buildings and one can easily imagine why. The samurai town, long renowned for its production of refined sake and soy sauce extends along the 600-meter-long Sakaguradori, a street lined with charming historical buildings, sake breweries, and sake shops. Normally, the town attracts Japanese sake enthusiasts who flock here to try Saga's best sake. When we visited, however, it was late afternoon on a weekday, so most of the shops were already closed with just very few locals making their appearance on the main street. This gave us the chance to feel like we had traveled back in time and to enjoy the traditional atmosphere, sunny weather, and pleasant sound of the water flowing in the canals at the side of the streets even more.

The thing that surprised us the most is how the precious Edo-Period buildings are not only perfectly preserved but also nicely fit into the more residential areas of the town. The Former Norita Residence is a prime example. This samurai house has free entry, no fences whatsoever, and even shares its garden with someone's current-day home. It was interesting to discover more about the lifestyle of the samurai living in rural areas of Japan, as opposed to those who lived in castle-towns like we are used to. Learning about Saga's typical architectural style, the "kudo-zukuri" (thatched-roof houses that look like a "kudo" hearth when viewed from above) was also quite fascinating.

Speaking of thatched-roof houses, Hizen Hama has some very impressive examples still standing today. Just 7 minutes from Sakaguradori is Hamasho Zumachi Hamakanayamachi, an area of tiny and rustic thatched-roof houses that were originally part of the Edo-Period port of Hizen Hama, where we had fun wadering around the narrow alleyways. The scenery we were able to admire there is very rare, since thatched roofs are not usually found near the sea. To make it even more magical the setting sun was tinting the ochre walls of the historical buildings in golden hues, making for a truly unforgettable memory of this part of Saga Prefecture. 

Yutoku Inari Shrine - Admire One of Japan’s Three Major Inari Shrines at Sunset

We arrived at Yutoku Inari Shrine just in time to enjoy it with the colors of the sunset, and we were blown away by the grandeur of its red buildings. The shrine, founded in 1687, sits on top of a forested hill, welcoming visitors with a majestic portal with turquoise and golden decor, and a bridge crossing over a beautiful pond with "koi" carp. Yutoku Inari is considered one of Japan's top three shrines dedicated to Inari, a deity associated with rice, prosperity, and foxes. For this reason, many visit the shrine every year to pray for the prosperity of their business, family, or even a large catch.

We climbed up to the main hall, a terrace built on wooden beams eighteen meters above the valley floor, to see the sun beautifully sinking over the mountains in the distance. From the main hall, a walking trail leads further into the hills behind for smaller shrines to visit. But as the sky was becoming darker and darker and lanterns around us were slowly lighting up, we knew our time at Yutoku Inari was over, and satisfied we redescended to catch our last bus of the day. 

Ureshino Onsen - Taste the Town's Unique Hot Spring Tofu: Yudofu

With our heads full of beautiful memories from the day but our stomachs empty we arrived at Ureshino Onsen, the hot-spring town where our hotel was located. Of course, we picked Ureshino Onsen for its popular "bihada no yu" (beautiful skin water) which is extremely soft on the skin. What we really couldn't wait to try, though, was the town's unique delicacy, called "yudofu,"which is tofu that has been boiled in local spring water. Shinpachi Sushi, a sushi restaurant that also specializes in Ureshino's delicious hot-spring-boiled tofu, offers its own take on the recipe by adding "udon" (a type of thick Japanese noodle) to the soup. The chef at Shinpachi explained to us that Ureshino's yudofu is special because of the specific characteristics of the local hot-spring water, which when boiled with tofu creates a very creamy soup, and that the same doesn't happen with other types of hot-spring waters. 

Yudofu was beyond delicious (we literally couldn't stop saying how good it was for the whole dinner,) and since we were particularly hungry, we appreciated the addition of udon and the abundance of tofu. We each ordered a set that came with a plate of sushi and a portion of sashimi or "karaage" (Japanese fried chicken) and weren't disappointed by either. At the end of the dinner, we found ourselves scooping in the soup pot hoping for more tofu and udon to magically appear. 

The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.

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