Fukuoka Now had the opportunity to join Nishitetsu’s new Suito train on its first ever journey, and to explore the adorable and rustic city of Yanagawa.
You don’t have to be a train buff to see that the Suito train is something special. As the gleaming new train pulled into Tenjin station, towing six carefully themed carriages along behind it, media and train fans alike immediately descended upon it with cameras drawn. Locomotives experts and design enthusiasts alike can appreciate this ride; each carriage is emblazoned with the phrase “The Four Seasons of Yanagawa”, and is designed around a particular festival or event which occurs in Yanagawa each year.
The sixth carriage, which was my particular favorite, celebrated a Traditional Craft Product of Yanagawa: Yanagawa-mari. These balls of cotton and wool are combined to make mobiles, and given to girls at the Doll Festival (held on March 3, this is the event where families wish for health and happiness for their little princess). To fit the theme, the sixth carriage was decorated in rich reds and purples, and the outside had huge Yanagawa-mari painted on the exterior. Once the paparazzi had finished capturing every plane and angle of the train exterior, we climbed aboard to be whisked away to Yanagawa.
You can’t help but appreciate that someone has really laboured over the details of this train. Above the luggage racks are informative posters with images of and facts about Yanagawa, and the theme of each carriage is carried through in the patterning on the ceiling, doors and headrests, even the handholds have been coloured to match.
Each carriage also has a collectible card dispenser, and many of the enthusiasts who had come out to inaugurate the suito train were moving through the carriages to collect them all. One carriage also had a display case in which specialties of Yanagawa (or wax models of specialties of Yanagawa) were displayed. My inner magpie was particularly entranced by the window-frames, which were painted a lovely rose gold.
The train journey takes over an hour, so some extra entertainment was provided. A man dressed as a samurai was touring the carriages, as were two perky girls dressed in matching outfits – complete with sashes decorated with Yanagawa-mari. Various presenters also visited the different cars, drawing a whole carriage of passengers into games like janken pon (rock, paper, scissors).
Soon we had arrived at Yanagawa station, and had to bid adieu to this luxurious locomotive. We then set our sights on another mode of transport, one which is synonymous with Yanagawa: the donkobune. These boats are similar to gondolas, except larger and they can comfortably accommodate over ten people at once.
We had bought limited edition special tickets at Tenjin station (the return train journey, donkobune ride and lunch at one of the co-operating restaurants are all included for only ¥5,150), so we were directed straight from the tourist office to the shuttle bus. This bus runs every half hour or so, and will drop you at one of the main donkobune departure points, where you queue to board a boat. While you’re waiting in line, you can rent a fetching conical hat for a mere ¥100, which serves the double benefit of keeping the sun off you face and getting you in the mood for a traditional boat ride.
Yanagawa has 470 km of canals, which is why it is often called the “Venice of Japan”. A boatman pushes his boat along using a long pole, giving information about sights you pass and singing traditional songs. En route, we saw not only several creatures, including a heron, a turtle and the skin of a snake (which was perhaps less cute, but certainly added colour to the journey), but our guide was also careful to point out seasonal plants, such as the enormous orange trumpet flowers.
As we passed by adorable houses which backed onto the canals, many of which had a miniature jetty to which they attached canoes and boats, it was difficult not to feel jealous that they lived in such a gorgeous location! Willow branches tickled the water, dragonflies and butterflies skimmed passed the boat, and we spotted floating lanterns which reportedly make the canals magical during twilight boatrides. Just beware of the 13 low bridges you have to duck under!
The cruise takes a total of an hour and ten minutes, though there is a brief stop for snacks at a riverside shop; salespeople hand down ice cream and kakigori to hungry passengers. At the end of the ride, you disembark in a cute, traditional area, with many restaurants and quaint shops.
Starving at this point, we rushed off to our pre-agreed lunch spot: Yoakejaya. This fish shop has a restaurant in the back which serves a number of fish themed teishoku.
Presenting your special ticket here will get you one of their biggest sets, which includes a range of seasonal fish dishes. We particularly enjoyed the crab; we needed some help getting them open, but once we had done so, the white crab meat was tender and sweet.
This is a restaurant for those who really, REALLY enjoy fish, as even the accompanying salad had squid in it, but you can’t beat it for rustic charm and true local flavours. At the end of the meal you can purchase some fresh fish or shellfish to take away, or buy something from their small market of seasonings and seafood-related products – such as packets of mutsugoro ramen (mudskipper ramen) and fugu ramen (blowfish ramen)!
With our tummies now teeming with fish, we set off to see some sites and do some shopping. We snooped around a couple of shrines, but we liked Okinohata Suitengu Shrine the best, as it is perched right next to where the canal turn, meaning it has water on two sides ( it’s also conveniently not far from the departure point).
Tsubakiya is a good place to browse for souvenirs (like gorgeous cups and pretty furoshiki – Japanese wrapping cloth); the owner is welcoming and there is a large selection of different products made in Japan. One of the best things to do in this area, however, is to simply walk around; it’s full of gorgeous buildings with bags of rustic charm, all reflected prettily in the canal water.
We boarded a shuttle bus back to the station (they depart every half hour or so from the gondola disembarkation point), and with twenty minutes or so to kill before the next train back to the city, we stopped by Caffe Rabista. This cafe serves tasty cakes and adorably decorated coffees in a relaxed atmosphere, and it’s less than a minute from the station!
Our Yanagawa adventure was over, so we boarded the train back to Tenjin, sated with memories of delicious fish, beautiful canals and pretty architecture. This is the perfect destination for those who want a relaxed day trip, meandering through a historical, handsome town. This trip was made all the more relaxed by the special price-ticket, which covers food and transport, plus offers discounts for tickets to some of Yanagawa’s other attractions; what we really valued was that this ticket took away the worry of how we were to get to and from the station, so we could just enjoy ourselves. We can only recommend that you seize the opportunity of this limited-time special ticket to have a special day in this very special town!
94-1 Inarimachi, Yanagawa
Lunch: 11:00~15:00, Dinner: 17:00~22:00
Closed: Tue. (unless Hol., in which case closed on Wed.)
46-2 Okinohatamachi, Yanagawa
25-1 Mitsuhashimachi Shimohyakucho (2F), Yanagawa
10:00~20:00 (Mon. ~ Thu.). 11:00~22:00 (Fri. ~ Sun.)
Closed: Tue. & 3rd Mon. of every month (next day if Hol.), Hol.