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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[Day 2 : Saga Prefecture - Travel Through the 3 Traditional Ceramic Villages]

In contrast to our first day in Kyushu, which was all about the sea, the shores, and their hidden gems, our second day brought us in the inner area of Saga Prefecture. Among forested mountains covered in mistery and mist, breathtaking autumn colors, and secluded ceramic villages that have centuries of history, we got to unveil another layer of Kyushu. 

Tozan Shrine - Arita's Unique Shrine Made of Ceramic

As soon as the train we were on dropped us off in Arita we noticed how much the scenery had changed in just a few kilometers. Now surrounded by dark-green mountains crowned with subtle mist rolling down their silhouettes, we were so struck by the mysterious aura of the village that we were thrilled to start exploring. Arita is one of three villages in Saga Prefecture that are famous for ceramics, as well as one of Japan's major producers of high-quality pottery. But that's not it, Arita's historical importance lies in the fact that it was the first place ever in Japan to produce porcelain when kaolin (the mineral required to make porcelain) was discovered here at the beginning of the Edo Period. Arita's most classic ware can be distinguished by its iconic blue and white designs but it can also come in more baroque patterns that display gold, red, blue, and white together.

The porcelain tradition of Arita is so deeply rooted in the village that ceramic is not limited to ware, but even extends to decorations on people’s houses and to its shrines, making Arita’s appearance one of a kind. Arita’s Tozan shrine is probably the most striking example of this, where the “torii” gate, lanterns, “ema” (plaques to write prayers), and even the “komainu” (lion-like creatures guarding the entrance of a shrine) are all made of Arita’s porcelain.

We’ve been dreaming of coming to this ceramic shrine for so long that when we spotted it from afar we couldn’t believe we finally did it! The shrine is placed on top of a long set of stone stairs, guarded by a giant ginkgo tree at its entrance. Lucky for us, the timing of the visit was perfect, and the surrounding woods were already undergoing their autumnal transformation, with ginkgo leaves glowing golden and maple trees flaming red. Once we reached the main hall at the highest point of the shrine, the view of the traditional village framed by the fragile, sacred gate standing against the towering mountains was so incredible that we didn't want to leave.

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Tombai Walls - Visit an Area Built With Pottery Scraps and Firebricks From Disused Ceramic Kilns

We finally left Tozan Shrine behind, and after passing a series of beautiful traditional buildings and ceramic shops, we arrived at the Tombai Walls area, another spot that shows how much Arita is one with its ceramics. This area of the village has a different feel to it, being partially constructed from pottery scraps and what were once firebricks of kilns. It's more rustic, yet earthy tones perfectly blend with the natural surroundings.

In this quaint area, the unique Tombai Walls run along the borders of houses, temples, and wooden buildings, dotted here and there by small wildflowers freely growing at the corners of the streets. The walls stretch to the nearby riverside hit by the gentle light of the first hours of the morning, there on the edge of the village we were even able to see an artisan polishing a newly crafted porcelain vase in the backyard of his workshop.

Gallery Arita - Eat a Traditional Japanese Meal On Arita’s Ceramic Tableware

Needless to say, after all the climbing and walking we did in the morning, it was time for an early lunch, and what else to expect from Arita if not a cafe where you can eat delicious food while cocooned in beautiful ceramics? Gallery Arita has a collection of more than 2,000 coffee and teacups made from Arita’s porcelain and beautifully displayed in the rooms of the cafe itself. The owner of Gallery Arita told us how passionate he is about collecting the cups he stores in his shop, each one representing a tiny piece of Arita’s traditions, and some of which are even unique artworks made by highly-prized Japanese artisans.

The most amazing part of having lunch at Gallery Arita is that we got to use Arita’s tableware. When our orders came, every dish, from the soup bowl of “yaki kare” (curry with grilled cheese and local beef) to the flower-adorned tofu plate, and even the smallest dishes, were served in Arita’s ware. Surrounded by the multitude of colorful cups and beautiful plates laid on the table, we felt like we were really experiencing the beauty and uniqueness of Arita, feeling connected to the history of the birthplace of Japanese porcelain.

Finally, it was time for some well-deserved coffee and dessert. At Gallery Arita, every order of hot beverages also comes with the privilege of personally selecting your own cup from the infinite collection available. They all were so alluring we had the hardest time of our lives picking just one, but in the end, we decided on the most Arita-esque cups we could find, covered in very intricate golden, red, and blue details. We sipped our coffee without any rush since, conveniently for us, it only takes 10 minutes to get from Gallery Arita to the station, from where we could easily catch the train bound for our next stop. Okawachiyama, Imari’s secret village of ceramics.

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Imari’s Ceramic Village, Okawachiyama - One of the Most Secluded Places in Japan

If you look for Okawachiyama on a map, you’ll only be able to find it after very attentive research; its is a tiny dot nestled at the exact center of some extremely steep mountains. But why would someone ever build a renowned site for the production of refined porcelain in the middle of the mountains? Did they want to hide it? The answer is: yes, that’s exactly what they wanted to do. During the Edo Period, porcelain was an extremely valuable product, and the kind produced in Imari was considered of superior quality. For this reason, Saga’s ruling Nabeshima Clan decided to hide the village in this isolated valley, which was hard to access and well-defended.

For centuries, Okawachiyama had not been open to the public, and its aura of mystery and secrecy still lingers today as the scenery has not changed much since then. The densely wooded mountains are so close to the village that they look like they might engulf the traditional buildings at any moment, giving you the sensation that no matter where you’re looking at the horizon from, you’ll just catch glimpses of the mountainous peaks.

The village center is a picturesque labyrinth of narrow lanes, pottery workshops, and old, tall chimneys towering over the kilns. Embedded in the core of the village is its ceramic which can be found adorning streets, walls, bridges, and signs. Here and there, peeking through the shop windows, we managed to catch  glimpses of the details of the local ceramics, similar in color to those in Arita, but with paint spread in a way that makes it look denser. Even if we couldn’t stay as long as we wanted, we had such a great impression of Okawachiyama that now it holds a special place in our hearts. We left the village already thinking about our next visit and how much we’d love to spend more time just relaxing and exploring all its lovely craft workshops next time.

Karatsu - Visit a Town Where Samurai and Ceramic Traditions Merge

To reach Karatsu, the third and last ceramic village of Saga, we had to catch another tiny train, sharing the only car with a large group of local students. More than just a village, Karatsu is the size of a town, and for the first time after landing in Kyushu, we could even find the most famous convenience store chains. Despite having more modern areas mixed with traditional ones, we didn’t find it any less attractive and enjoyed its many charms. Karatsu flourished as a castle town during the Edo Period and as a coal-mining center in the Meiji and Taisho Periods. For this reason, it’s blessed with many historical landmarks that were a joy to visit.

From traditional residences of enchanting beauty, such as the Former Takatori Residence  and the Former Oshima Residence (Meiji-period tycoons of Karatsu), to the majestic castle facing the open sea, Karatsu only gifted us with breathtaking scenery. As the castle is visible from a distance, we had fun trying to take photos from as many angles as we could before making it to the top in time for the sunset, where we were able to view the bay tinged with vivid, warm colors.

Descending from the castle we just had one regret. We were so caught up with visiting Karatsu’s historical wonders that we didn’t have time to get a look at its prized pottery. As if we had summoned it, right at the foot of the castle in a corner, we noticed a small, lovely pottery workshop that we didn’t pay attention to on our way up. Although it was already dark, its owner and artisan was kind enough to let us wander around the shop and explain to us details about Karatsu’s own way of crafting ceramics. After a round of souvenir shopping, we could leave for dinner with no regrets.

Dinner in Karatsu was all about Saga’s mouthwatering and renowned beef. At Steak House Caravan, the chef loves receiving international guests and is a passionate traveler himself, so he did all he could to make us feel at home. As he wanted us to get a taste of the diversity of the local cuisine, he prepared Saga’s delicious beef in many different ways, serving it as “shabu shabu” (a hotpot dish of thinly sliced meat,) grilled steak, and even sushi.

Through all of this, he performed his amazing “teppan” (Japanese cuisine that uses an iron griddle to cook) magic in front of us. Skillfully cutting, flipping the meat, and even theatrically lighting it on fire with sake and then swiftly fanning away the flames for an extra show, the meal was a treat for the mouth and the eye. Satisfied after such an amazing dinner and chat with our host, the only thing left was going to bed to have a nice rest. We needed to recover our energy for the very early start of the next morning. 

If you loved reading about Karatsu as much as we loved writing about it, you can find a more in-depth article about the town, its traditions, historical sightseeing spots, and delicious food here: Karatsu - Kyushu's Castle Town Where Samurai and Ceramic Traditions Merge.

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

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Stefania Sabia
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