Now Reports

Chikugo Now! Tour Nov. 2017 – Small Town Secrets

What is there to explore in the periphery of Fukuoka? With this question in mind, we kicked off our day trip to Chikugo, the southernmost region of the prefecture. Organized in cooperation with local governments and Fukuoka Now, one aim of the trip was to see what makes a successful tour away from central Fukuoka for foreign travellers. As one of the twenty-one international participants on this trip, here is my recollection of our full-packed day.

World Heritage Sites in Omuta City

After an early meet-up in Tenjin, we hopped to the bus heading to our first destination, Omuta City. It became known as the home of two World Heritage Sites, the Miike Port and Miyanohara Pit at the Miike coal mines. Each of them played a role in the Meiji period of industrialization spanning across Japan in 19th century, right after the Edo period. It was interesting hearing how some of the technologies were purposely sought from the West, resulting to port and mine structures that reminded me of the equivalent scenes in the UK. Imagining how the mines were set up and operated was easy, thanks to the multilingual tablets that were provided. The tablets also included VR (virtual reality) images of the area in addition to photo and audio explanations. The realism was uncanny!

At each location, we were given detailed presentations of the history in the area. For example, we learnt that a 1908 stone wall at the end of the hummingbird shaped port area was used to control water levels to allow larger ships to enter. On the way back, we were also introduced to some coal inspired snacks in Omuta area, including “black” ice cream, bread and mint sweets.

Cruising through Yanagawa

Our next stop was at the city of Yanagawa, sometimes referred to as the “Venice of Kyushu” due to the popularity of its canal cruises. In traditional Japanese style, we took off our shoes and wrapped into pre-provided blankets while sailing through the canal spreading across the city. It was already late autumn, but we could still spot some trees changing colors. We passed by a mix of locations on the way, including a miso factory, a floating kiosk, launching area for wedding boats, a large vintage clothing market and some famous residences, including one where Yoko Ono’s (wife of John Lennon) grandfather once lived. Threading through various bridges, listening to the stories and songs of the oarsmen, spotting exotic birds and waving back to locals passing by made this cruise my personal highlight of this trip.

Unagi (eel) lunch and museum visit

After the 70-minute boat ride, we docked by Ohana, the former residence of the Tachibana Family (feudal clan of Yanagawa in the Meiji period) and now a hotel and museum in central Yanagawa. The complex has an expansive traditional Japanese garden and a sizeable collection of artifacts such as samurai armors and helmets that we could examine. Before though, was the time for another cultural experience: tasting unagi, Japanese eel, for lunch. Many of us were excited about trying this well-known, often pricey delicacy of the region as part of this trip. As someone who likes fish, I much enjoyed the steamed and grilled unagi with sweet sauce on steamed rice. Our vegetarian friends were also offered a delicious-looking option including vegetable tempura and tofu hotpot.

Lattice workshop at Okawa

After a brief visit to the Japanese garden and museum in Ohana, we quickly headed to the next destination, the city of Okawa. With much expertise in woodwork, including a furniture company that became famous for making small-scaled furniture for cats as testament to their skills, we seem to be in the right place to learn about Japanese craftsmanship. The first visit was to the lattice workshop of master Kenjiro Watanabe. He has won two Prime Minister’s Awards for his intricate lattice woodwork combining traditional and new designs. We saw how 0.3 ~ 0.8 mm thin chips were ground to the exact right size to be attached without any glue or nails, yet so steadily that it can sustain through fluctuations in humidity. These pieces would then build into larger structures which can take up to a year to complete.

Vinegar brewery and tasting

The next stop was at the over 300-year-old Shobunsu vinegar brewery. Upon entering the yard, we could already smell the biting scent of vinegar, getting stronger and stronger as we approached the fermenting vessels. This family brewery is one of the few in the country still adopting the traditional method of fermentation. Local bacteria is allowed to rest under a blanket cover that is adjusted according to weather conditions. While this process takes longer than modern methods of industrial production, it is supposed to give the vinegar a milder taste that is more pleasant in drinks and dressings. We also had a chance to try some of the other vinegar products at the brewery, including hot drinks and pickles spiced with their vinegar.

Mushroom products

Our last stop was at the Oki michinoeki roadside farmer’s market. With farming being its main industry, the town of Oki is involved in many eco-friendly projects, including one aiming to achieve zero emissions through biomass energy production. In addition to being a popular source of large strawberries in winter time, it is also the number one producer of mushrooms on Kyushu island. A few of us therefore made use of this opportunity to buy freshly grown mushrooms from the roadside shop. One of the more surprising mushroom products was caramel-mushroom flavored ice cream that I could not resist trying. With mushrooms giving more texture to the ice cream, I strongly recommend this odd-sounding flavor.

My overall impression of the day was a dense and fully structured visit to a variety of regions in Chikugo area. Even the time during bus journeys were filled with presentations, singing, videos, self-introductions and circulating local treats. The day was very informative and fast-paced, suitable for travellers with a tight schedule. On the other hand, those who want to explore these places in more detail would need to return for another visit. We were certainly left some things hanging, like what is this secret, apparently rare food item of Omuta City all about?

Report by Ludi Wang
December 14, 2017

For more information:
Chikugo Area Tourist Information

Chikugo Bus Tour Jan. 2018 by Fukuoka Now
Join Fukuoka Now’s tour of Chikugo (including wine tasting and strawberry picking!) on Jan. 20, 2018 – click here to learn more and signup! English guide included.

Fukuoka Prefecture
Published: Dec 14, 2017 / Last Updated: Dec 21, 2017

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