Karatsu - Kyushu's Castle Town Where Samurai and Ceramic Traditions Merge
We recently got to visit Kyushu's enchanting Saga Prefecture in southern Japan. When we started planning the route for our trip, there was one thing we were absolutely sure about: we wanted to visit Karatsu! This charming castle town from the Edo period not only embodies a rich samurai culture, but it is also regarded as a place of ancient ceramic tradition. No way would we have missed a place where such distinctive elements of Japanese culture merge! So, read on to discover its many historical wonders, crafts of delicate beauty, and must-try local food.
Dec 25 2020
Best Things to Do and See in Karatsu
Former Oshima Residence - Find Peace in the Traditional Villa of a Key Historical Figure of Karatsu
Once we arrived in Karatsu we couldn't wait to get a taste of the rich local history, so we decided that there wasn't a better place than the Former Oshima Residence to begin our tour with. This beautiful traditional Japanese villa was the home of Kotaro Oshima, a key figure in Karatsu's modernization at the turn of the 20th century. Kotaro Oshima was the eldest son of Okiyoshi Oshima, the last lord of the Karatsu Domain, and his contribution was fundamental to the city, which benefited from his innovative and dynamic spirit. During his career, Oshima established the Karatsu Bank, set up the Karatsu Industrial Railroad Company, and started the Karatsu Electric Company. Oshima was such a relevant figure that he served as the head of the Karatsu Chamber of Commerce, and even worked for the Saga Prefectural Assembly.
The residence, which was built between the year 1879 and 1880, is considered one of the most beautifully preserved examples of a samurai villa in Saga Prefecture, as well as a building that perfectly incorporates traditional Japanese architectural elements and a beautiful traditional Japanese garden. We were very lucky to visit on a sunny day, since the gentle and warm light coming through the windows enhanced all the charming details of the interior even more. We were welcomed by the intricate woodwork that adorned the trimmings of the doors and windows, showing a striking variety of delicate designs, from plum blossoms, to birds, to "asanoha" (a traditional Japanese pattern representing hemp leaves), and we started our tour already amazed by the allure of this house.
The woodwork was not the only impressive detail of the Former Oshima Residence, and one room after the other, the house offered an ambience full of tradition that we won't easily forget. Be it the enchanting translucence of the "shoji" (traditional dividers consisting of sheets on a frame), the demure magnificence of the tea room, or the mesmerizing glow of all the golden flowers and maples leaves decorating the walls, when we finished the tour we couldn't decide which space of the house we liked the most. Caught by the traditional atmosphere, we sat on the "tatami" (traditional flooring material made of soft rush) for several moments, as the sight of the sparkling decor inside and the view of the autumnal scenery in the garden outside rewarded us with some true peace making it difficult to leave.
Former Takatori Residence - Be Mesmerized by the Golden Decor of This Traditional Japanese House
As the second stop of our Karatsu visit—the Former Takatori Residence—was nearby, we were able to easily reach its entrance with a five-minute walk. Guarded by a majestic Japanese pine tree, the highly-ornate traditional facade let us foresee the grandeur of its interiors. This beautiful Karatsu villa, built in 1904, was the home of an influential local coal baron named Koreyoshi Takatori who used to operate the important Kishima Coal Mine and who also performed a relevant role in the city's history and modernization. In 1998, thanks to its many unique features and the high artistic value of each room, the Former Takatori Residence was recognized as an Important Cultural Property. As we were thrilled to witness such beauty, we couldn't wait to start exploring the house and learn more about another part of Karatsu's history.
Once we stepped inside, we were surprised to find a very different atmosphere to the one of the other residence we've just been to. Although located in the same city, the two traditional houses were each characterized by astonishing uniqueness. The Former Takatori Residence's spaces were filled with suffused light and darker colors that tinged the rooms with an aura of mystery, and the building had a more complex structure that made us want to explore more than relax. The focal points of all the different rooms we went through were the carved "ranma" transoms above the doors depicting plants and animals, and the "sugito" paintings on sliding doors made of cedar, both of such exquisite beauty we could just imagine all the craftsmanship that went into realizing them.
We were particularly impressed by the golden sugito, as we have never admired such a huge variety and refined designs elsewhere. From cherry blossoms cocooned by clouds of gold, and forested mountains covered in mist, to flock of swallows flying over the sea, and enigmatic sacred figures; we were holding our breath waiting for the next painting to appear, curious to see what type of scenery we would be presented with. We proceeded on the tour one surprise after the other, until we arrived at the highlight of the visit, the "noh" (a form of traditional Japanese theater) stage. Noh stages that could be converted into tatami rooms for the guests were not an unusual feature in Japanese mansions built at the beginning of the 1900s. However, the one at the Former Takatori Residence is the only one still standing today. The room left us in awe of the most spectacular sugito of the house, an elegant pine tree emerging from a golden background.
Karatsu Castle - Climb up a Japanese Castle Facing the Open Sea
Our Karatsu historical-spot hunting concluded with the famed symbol of the city, its castle. Karatsu Castle was originally built in 1608 using materials from the nearby dismantled Nagoya Castle, a castle built by Terazawa Hirotaka, a vassal of Toyotomi Hideyoshi (an influential Japanese warlord who completed the unification of Japan in the 16th century) south of today’s Karatsu City. The castle stands on a hilltop facing the bay and the open sea, and it is also often referred to as “Maizuru Castle”, which means the “castle of the dancing crane,” because of the nearby beach that looks like a crane with open wings. This silhouette is reminiscent of a crane about to take flight over the water.
As we were approaching the castle arriving from the direction of the two residences, we could see it from afar sitting on top of the hill. This gave us the chance to admire and take photos from many different angles, including reflected on the seawater, standing across the iconic Jonai Bridge, and outlined against an orange sky at sunset. At the end of the day, climbing the thousand stone steps that lead to the castle grounds required some willpower (an elevator is also available, but by that hour it was already closed) but we didn't mind the extra effort, since even more charming views of the castle were waiting for us at the top.
Some of the maples in the garden were already bright red, so we could enjoy a few glimpses of the castle in its autumnal setting. Judging from the trees around, it is sure to offer stunning scenery both in spring (thanks to the many cherry blossoms) and in summer (when the giant wisteria tree blooms). For those who have more time, the interior of the castle is open to visit and provides a vast collection of valuable materials and weapons that let visitors learn more about the story of Karatsu during the feudal era. Artwork made of Karatsu's ceramic and archaeological pieces can also be found inside. The top floor is made into an observatory that provides an outstanding view of the surroundings. We couldn't enter the castle, but luckily, we made it just in time to the garden to view the breathtaking panorama of the bay tinged with vivid, warm colors of the sun sinking over the sea horizon.
Karatsu Ware - Discover the Traditional Craft of One of Kyushu's Renowned Ceramic Centers
Descending from the castle, we were very satisfied with the exploration of Karatsu’s historical wonders we managed to complete in just one afternoon and had only one regret: we didn’t get the chance to take a look at Karatsu's prized pottery. In fact, Karatsu is renowned as one of Saga Prefecture's ceramic villages and one of Kyushu's most important pottery producers. The tradition of Karatsu ware dates all the way back to the late Muromachi period (1336-1573) and seems to find its origins in the area of the Kishidake Castle (today's Kitahata area of Karatsu) under the patronage of the Hata clan, the ruling family of that area in the past. Following the introduction of new porcelain making techniques by Korean potters who arrived in Japan after Toyotomi Hideyoshi's attempt to conquer Korea, the production of Karatsu pottery expanded, and the variety increased.
Karatsu ware was considered so refined that it started to be traded throughout Japan. Tea bowls were particularly prized, as the simple appearance of the ware is reminiscent of natural landscapes, which is a property that is appreciated in the world of tea ceremony. Being particularly loved by the local feudal lords during the Edo period (1603-1868) Karatsu ware was even selected as the official ceramics of the Karatsu Domain. These famed ceramics fell into decline during the Meiji period (1868-1912) after losing its patronage, but luckily was saved during the 20th century thanks to the intervention of Muan Nakazato, an esteemed Japanese ceramics artisan who even received the title of Living National Treasure for his dedication to protecting Karatsu pottery and revitalize its tradition. This led to an increase of craftsmen in the area, and over 70 kilns are still active today in Karatsu, each one with its own style without forgetting Karatsu's long-history pottery techniques.
We thought it was too late to attempt a visit to any shop, but, as if it was waiting for us, we noticed a small, lovely pottery workshop at the foot of the castle that was still open! The owner and craftsman of Sashiyama Kiln was kind enough to let us wander around the shop and unveiled details about Karatsu ware. Nowadays, it is well-known for its practical products that have the quality of artwork but that can be used in everyday life. It is also known for its wide variety of styles, something that is unusual in other kinds of pottery.
It was interesting to have the owner of the kiln himself showing us the many faces of Karatsu ware, from ceramics that reproduce the simple beauty of nature, to pottery that displays traditional motifs such as seashells and pine trees, to pieces carved in intricate geometric patterns. Sashiyama Kiln Store is the perfect place if you want to bring back home souvenirs that are not only precious, but are also hand-made pieces that embody the history of the city. That's exactly what we did, and after a round of souvenir shopping, we could leave for dinner even more satisfied than before.
Steak House Caravan - Feast on Kyushu's Mouthwatering Saga Beef
During our travel through Saga Prefecture we tasted its delicious hand-made tofu recipes and amazingly fresh seafood. What was still missing on this list of delectable treats, however, was Saga’s mouthwatering and renowned beef. So, as Karatsu was one of our last stops in the prefecture before heading to Fukuoka and then back home, we wanted our final dinner to be as memorable as possible. This is why we decided on Steak House Caravan and its very attractive menu, which includes local A5-rank (highest rank for quality) Saga's "wagyu" Japanese beef.
At Steak House Caravan, the chef loves receiving international guests and explained how he likes to decorate the restaurant with their flags whenever he knows foreign visitors are coming. In hopes to infuse his love for Karatsu and its traditions to others, he created a homely atmosphere that made us value the city even more. Apparently, we weren't the only people impressed by the hospitality of the place! As he started showing us souvenirs from all over the world which he had received from his many affectionate returning customers, we learned that Caravan and its owner deeply contribute to the uniqueness and inclusivity of Karatsu.
As Steak House Caravan is a "teppanyaki" (Japanese cuisine that uses an iron griddle to cook) restaurant, the chef invited us to the counter for the full experience. Since we had the chance to chat throughout the dinner with him, not only did we feel like we were regulars even though it was our first time there, but we were also able to get a first-hand look at all the skillful preparation and cooking of the meat.
We went for an "omakase" course, which means we informed the chef of our preferences and budget, and he decided the types of dishes to serve based on the available ingredients of the day. It was a great way to approach Saga wagyu. As the chef wanted us to get a taste of the diversity of the local cuisine, he prepared the delicious beef in many different ways, presenting it on beautiful Karatsu ware. We started our dinner with an usual “shabu shabu.” Shabu shabu is a hotpot dish of thinly sliced meat that usually involves cooking the meat in a broth. At Caravan no broth was involved and instead we used a preheated Karatsu-ceramic bowl. Swiftly passing the meat on the hot surface of the bowl made the beef slices softer and juicer than those of normal shabu shabu.
We also particularly loved both the seared sushi-style beef with rice, and the incredibly tender hamburger made from A5-rank Saga and Imari beef, which is so delicious that they only prepare ten per day (and they sell out quickly). Finally, we were served the highlight of the dinner, a fillet cooked on the griddle. The chef skillfully cut and flipped in front of our eyes before seasoning it with an extra show and theatrically lighting it on fire (and swiftly fanned out the flames) in a display worthy of a teppanyaki master. The fillet was absolute perfection, crispy on the outside with a thin layer of pepper and salt, and exquisitely soft on the inside; so good we won't easily forget about it.
Karatsu's Yobuko Asa Ichi - One of Japan’s Most Picturesque Morning Fish Markets
As we recovered our energy thanks to the amazing dinner and a good night of sleep, we started our day very early so that we could board a tiny local bus and see the last spot of our Karatsu's must-visit list at the peak of its activities. The Yobuko Asa Ichi is one of Japan's most important morning fish markets, thanks to the nearby sea, the village is blessed with an impressive variety of fish all year round. The market is still popular today, not so much for the size of its catch but mostly because it's so picturesque and traditional that one can't help but be fascinated by its atmosphere.
Once we arrived in Yobuko we could understand why this fish market is considered so unique, as we were welcomed by scenery totally different from that in Karatsu City. It is a quaint little port sitting in a fragmented harbor of dense forest, full of small vintage-looking boats with wooden buildings in the distance, and guarded by the giant signboard of a pink cartoon squid. Indeed we couldn't help but thinking that it was a place worth visiting.
Why was a giant pink squid chosen to welcome visitors? Well, squid is Yobuko's specialty, so the residents made great efforts to leave hints of the local delicacy around the village. Decorations on shops, street signs, signboards, a "gashapon" machine (a type of vending machines dispensing toys), and even the gate entrance to the market's main street are shaped like or depict cute squids. Of course, squid can also be found fresh or dried at the market, sold by the local elderly ladies along with other seafood caught on the day. There is also a selection of prepared foods and local vegetables and fruit. As we wanted to try the squid and hadn’t had breakfast yet, we searched for something easy to eat and were attracted by a rustic stall and its intriguing squid savory pancakes, which turned out to be a great choice!
The morning market was a pleasure to visit as it was so tranquil and picturesque, and it was easy for us to soak in the traditions of a place that has stayed so true to its origins. With a history of over a hundred years, visiting Karatsu's Yobuko Morning Market was like going on a treasure hunt in search of charming vintage details and heart-warming simplicity. We were completely enchanted by the simple market stalls—sometimes just made up of a couple of boxes—and the wooden front shops evoked an aura of nostalgia.
Visit Karatsu for a Full Immersion in Japanese Culture and Tradition
After visiting Karatsu we went back home, full of great memories and wishing we could stay longer. Through the city's many wonders we were able to feel the history and culture of Saga Prefecture, learn more about the traditions of this amazing part of Kyushu, and taste some of the best food we've ever had in Japan. We left Karatsu not only mesmerized by its artistic beauty, but touched by the hospitality of the locals. We had such a great time in the welcoming city of Karatsu that we hope you can experience the same on your next trip to Kyushu!
If you like what you read here, you're sure to fall in love with the rest of Kyushu. For more information about this stunning region, check out Visit Kyushu: https://www.visit-kyushu.com/en/
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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.