© Matsuura-shi Tourism Bureau
Report by Isla Phillips, Photos by Nick Szasz / Fukuoka Now
Early on Saturday morning, I embarked on my adventure to Matsuura, a city bordered on three sides by mountains and the Genkai Sea on the fourth. It’s about 70 km from Fukuoka, just under two hours to drive, and is well worth the trip if not just for the beautiful scenery of the coast and countryside. The tour was attended by Japanese from other parts of Japan as well as three other foreigners. The purpose was to trail some activities that might tempt travelers to make the trip to Matsuura. It was a very busy two days!
Matsuura will be exciting for anyone with even a vague interest in Japanese history because it was the stage of the attempted Mongol invasions of Japan in the 13th century. This coastline was where Japan kept its fleet and is just across from Korea, consequently it incurred the wrath of Kublai Khan’s imperial fleet in 1274 and 1281. Fortunately for Japan, the Kamikaze (神風 divine wind) was on their side and the invasion attempts were thwarted. It also now means that the Matsuura’s coastline is studded with a huge number of artifacts, which have been the subject of underwater archaeology since the 1980s.
Our first stop of the day was at the Takashima Archaeological Center where a fantastic guide gave us an overview of the area’s history and tour of the displays. The visitor center is excellently laid out and displays the artifacts alongside information in a digestible and interesting way, so if you can speak Japanese and have a car then this is a morning’s visit. The Mongol invasions are considered a precursor to early modern warfare and one of the most notable technological innovations during the war was the use of explosive hand-thrown bombs, which we got to see along with Mongol helmets. We also got an insight into daily life on the ships. If you have the opportunity, you should also head into the adjacent research center. There we were shown how the finds get processed to preserve them and we also saw large parts from the ship, discovered in 2011, just 200 m from the Takashima shoreline. This was the find that prompted the area to be designated as a National Historic site in 2012 and subsequently the creation of this fantastic visitor center.
From the archaeological center, we next made our way across the incredibly blue sea to Takashima island, under the auspices of flying hawks which give the island its name (“taka” means hawk in Japanese and the island has a hawk-like shape). On board the ferry, you can learn more about the Mongol invasion and see it for yourself! The Mongol Invasion of Japan app, “AR Mongol Invasion” (available on iOS and Android) entertained us with a fun quiz and an AR section that allows you to look out from the ferry into the Mongol fleet itself (and take pictures). Whilst marveling at the size of the (thankfully virtual) invasion and playing with the AR weather functions, we feasted on an extremely impressive bento feast. Provided by the Matsuura restaurant, Yoshinoya, the tour group was treated to a selection of local seafood specialties. The menu included deep-fried local blowfish, blow-fish skin prepared Italian style, squid tentacles with sesame, miso-soaked aubergine, sazae (a gigantic sea-snail!) and some sweet mochi to finish. Along the way, we saw many fish farms that might have been the source of the delicious lunch we ate.
After our bento and boat-trip, it was time for naginata. Naginata is the name of both the sport and the sword, a long-handled sword to be precise. Naginata were originally used by the samurai class of feudal Japan and is the iconic weapon of the onna-bugeisha archetype, a type of female warrior belonging to the Japanese nobility. Twenty-year-old national champion, Ms. Sora Kawada, delivered impressive demonstrations and gentle instruction. Donning the traditional outfit we learned how to prepare for practice (kneeling, stilling your mind, bowing) and how to pick up the naginata correctly (kneel on both knees and use both hands). Next, each of us attempted to wield the sword (fortunately there wasn’t an actual blade) and try out the “simple” first-steps that Sora made look so easy. Shouting “MEH” we took turns to strike the head of a dummy enemy, who managed to evade our blows an unreasonable number of times. After the session, we went across the road to Haguro Shrine so that we could pose in our naginata outfits and enjoy the afternoon sunshine! Providing another Instagram opportunity was the nearby shrine featuring some very very old trees and a miniature replica of the Shikoku Pilgrimage along a stone stairway.
The next bunch of activities was held at the Old Tashiro Elementary School, a reminder of the declining population and the need for tourism in the area. Sitting at wooden desks we all got to have a go at shodo or Japanese calligraphy. Our teacher had chosen three kanji for us to mimic: flower (花), wind (風) and road (道). These kanji encapsulate all the basic strokes necessary to become a master calligrapher! Full of ambition we all practiced painting our kanji onto the mulberry paper (washi). It was very calming.
We then used our new-found skill to decorate what would become a Japanese fan. Painting our kanji onto one side of the specially-cut washi paper, we then proceeded to glue it to the bamboo frame, cut the edges, and bordered it with decorative tape. It was arts and crafts at its best, giving us a souvenir to take home for show-and-tell.
Next came tea time. The first step was to make the wagashi. Nerikiri is a traditional Japanese confectionery made from sweet mochi and filled with red bean paste inside. They are ornamental and some come in beautiful and intricate designs in gentle pastel colors. We got to choose either a plum blossom or a sea bream wooden mold to prepare our own pink treat. Looking, touching (squishing) but not eating was fun and mouth-watering.
Once our wagashi had been perfected we moved onto tea preparation. We were taught the process, from warming the cups to heaping the green tea and waiting patiently for the egg timer before pouring. After our first attempt, the tea master got us to compare the color of our brews, which were sadly a bit pale. Fear not, for there are second chances, and we were shown how to repour the tea to achieve the desired shade of green.
Finally, the tea and wagashi were prepared and we could sit down to enjoy our efforts. The Matsuura green tea was delicious, with a deeper and more bitter flavor than other green teas any of us had tried. The bottled product is in fact sold only locally and in Tokyo, so if you want to try it’ll you’ll have to make the trip! Whilst eating the sweet and tasty wagashi we also got the watch our wagashi instructor make a more complicated design (without a mold of course) of a chrysanthemum, which we then got to take home as a gift, along with a bottle of the delicious Matsuura brew and a sachet of tea leaves to enjoy.
Following our full day of activities, we were treated to a dinner that was definitely the pinnacle of the trip. Within the hall of Jushoji Temple, on tables laid with stunning flowers and centerpieces swimming with goldfish, we were treated to a phenomenal 12-course feast and mouth-watering cocktails made with fresh blood orange and strawberries. The menu was designed and prepared by the renowned chef, Tomofumi Ono of Nonoka restaurant in Saga, using only local Matsuura ingredients. Each course was spectacularly presented. We marveled at locally sourced tiger prawns with kelp foam, presented on a luminescent sea of jelly. There was charcoal-grilled horse mackerel to follow. We were shown swimming trout before seeing them return on skewers above smoking pine leaves. There was foie gras in baked rice macaron, presented on a log of wood, and sashimi that came with its own pipette of sauce skewered into its center. The field salad was accompanied by ground walnuts and was spectacularly colorful. Bite-sized mountain vegetable tempura was served with what looked like a cork log. Fascinating! There were prawn dumplings in miso soup, an exciting spring hassun and rice with salmon roe. Although mostly seafood, a chef used a blowtorch to set hay on fire adding aroma to slices of succulent Saga beef and quickly followed by thinly sliced, tender wild boar. To finish, the twelfth course was a delicate mix of white and pink strawberries, condensed milk, and smashed meringue. Every single offering was presented by incredible serving staff who explained the dish and ingredients. The range of fresh flavors was phenomenal and there was such imagination behind each creation.
After such a brilliant day, everyone was able to get an excellent night’s rest at Amistad Hotel. If you are making the trip to Matsuura from Fukuoka, staying overnight will give you the chance to really relax and enjoy a leisurely dinner. Amistad Hotel is situated right next to Matsuura Station and is a modern and well-equipped business hotel with very reasonably priced rooms. Despite having had such a feast on Saturday evening I managed to enjoy the breakfast buffet, which included both western and Japanese breakfast foods. I was particularly glad that I’d had the chance to have some coffee as Sunday morning’s activity was Zazen meditation. The group went back to Jushoji Temple and were privileged to listen to the temple’s main priest. He taught us more about the temple’s history and link to the Shisa Clan, a legendary pirate from the area! Then, he guided us through some mediation. Zazen literally means seated mediation and it is practiced within the Zen Buddhist tradition. Its precise meaning varies from temple to temple. We were shown that by just sitting and lowering your gaze, you can learn to still your mind. We all sat on cushions (zafu) atop a flat mat (zabuton), with crossed legs and good postures. Then the sound of a bell ringing three times signaled the beginning (shijosho) and end (hozensho) of the meditation. We were then invited to ring the temple’s bell, symbolizing a call to rid ourselves of human temptations.
Our final meal of the weekend was hosted at Matsuura Umi-no-Furusato-kan seaside restaurant and local produce store. We got to taste another Matsuura specialty, which is fried horse mackerel. We were also given an impressively large rice bowl topped with yellowfin sashimi. All-in-all, I feel very grateful to the people of Matsuura for hosting such a spectacular weekend and I hope that more people are inspired to visit this beautiful region!