To visitors from Fukuoka and further afield, Karatsu is best known for the spectacular Karatsu Kunchi festival in early November, the historic Karatsu castle, or the famous seafood of Yobuko, the birthplace of live squid sashimi. While these are all great reasons to visit, the area also has countless hidden treasures amongst the big-name items.
Only a short train ride from Fukuoka and with a new Kyushu Olle hiking course recently opened, Fukuoka Now decided to explore deeper – here are a few of our recommendations of places where you can experience Karatsu’s rich historic, cultural and natural beauty. These only begin to scratch the surface, and we’ll certainly be back again.
View Karatsu Getaway! in a larger map
Nijinomatsubara is one of the three largest pine-covered areas (matsubara) in Japan, stretching along a 5km arc of the Karatsu coastline in the shape of a rainbow (niji). With a road running along its length amidst some 1 million black pine trees, Nijinomatsubara acts as a scenic gateway to Karatsu.
Those coming by train can use Nijinomatsubara station in the middle of pine grove, a charming little wooden building straight out of a picture book. From there, a short walk allows access to the beach or to the foot of nearby Kagamiyama, the top of which will have a newly-renovated observation deck at the end of March 2014.
The matsu tree and leaf are prominent images in the area, including the designs of Karatsu ware (Karatsu-yaki).
Kyouzangama – Kiln, gallery and hands-on pottery workshop
Situated at the foot of Kagamiyama* just 7 minutes walk from Nijinomatsubara Station, this traditional Karatsu-yaki workshop is known for crafting beautiful ceramics used in tea ceremonies. These creations can be viewed in the main gallery, along with a nice warm cup of tea.
Kyouzangama also offers a rare opportunity to tour the workshop and even experience making or decorating (etsuke) Karatsu ware for yourself, not offered by other workshops with such close proximity to the city center. The craftsmen demonstrate the deft strokes used to create the simple Karatsu-yaki patterns and designs, but ultimately visitors are free to decorate as they please. While you can’t take it home with you on the day, the pieces can be picked up or even mailed to address overseas after they have been fired in the kiln and completed. For those who like to get creative, this is a fun and unique way to make a lasting Karatsu souvenir.
The workshop also features an Anagama (穴窯) kiln, one of the techniques used for making Karatsu-yaki that was imported from Korea over 400 years ago. The multi-chamber wood-fired kiln is a sight to behold.
DATA: Kyouzangama （鏡山窯）
• Open: Gallery 9:30~17:30, Workshop 9:00~17:00 (booking recommended, especially Dec.~Feb.)
• Decorating fee: Small plate ¥1500+tax, Tea cup ¥1100+tax
• Creating fee: 1kg of clay ¥3000+tax (decorating included)
• Tel.: 0955-77-2131
• Address: 4958 Kagami, Karatsu
• URL: www.kyouzan.co.jp
*Kagamiyama is a great vantage point to look out over Karatsu and will have a new observation deck completed by end of March.
Matsukin Shoyu – Local soy sauce and a special ice cream
Yobuko’s famous squid ikitsukuri, or live squid sashimi, is hard to imagine without quality soy sauce, and local maker Matsukin provides around 90% of the soy sauce used in the area.
They have also put their efforts into developing a more unique product – amazake ice cream. Amazake (甘酒) is a traditional non-alcoholic Japanese drink made from kouji (麹), or fermented rice, that is said to be very healthy (think Asia’s yoghurt). Recognized benefits include prevention of high blood pressure, obesity and memory loss.
While it is made to be enjoyed by people of all ages, amazake is usually only drunk warm in the winter by the elderly. Dating back to the Edo period, the drink tends to have an old-fashioned image that hasn’t found much popularity with youth. Looking to promote this healthy drink to be enjoyed by many all year round, Matsukin developed Amazake icecream some 10 years ago. This rare specialty can only be found here in Karatsu, and is made with locally-produced milk and rice.
While ‘fermented rice’ may not sound too appetizing, the flavour is simple with an added interesting texture from the rice. Interestingly, the koji is also finding popularity in other areas, including as a sauce for grilled meats.
Amazake icecream, as well as Matsukin’s traditional line of soy sauces and miso products can be bought directly from their Tenyuan (天佑庵) gallery, opened inside a renovated storehouse dating back over 100 years.
DATA: Matsukin Shoyu
• Open: 9:00～17:30
• Tel.: 0955-74-2468
• Address: 1-28 Watada-hyakuninmachi, Karatsu
Former Takatori Residence – A peek into a historic and unique residence
Just 800m from Karatsu Castle, the Former Takatori Residence offers a glimpse into a different period of Japanese history. This seaside Meiji Era estate of Saga coal mine magnate Koreyoshi Takatori (1850-1927) features magnificent gardens and more than 30 lavish rooms. It narrowly escaped demolition when the family could no longer afford to maintain it, and instead was kindly donated to the city in 1997. In 1998 it was designated an Important Cultural Asset of Japan, and has since been carefully restored to original condition and opened to the public in 2007.
The main residence was built over 100 years ago in a style that was very modern for the time. Takatori enjoyed the finer aspects of Japanese culture, with a tea house and spectacular Noh stage on premises, believed to be the only one of its kind remaining in Japan. His fine taste shows in the mix of western and Japanese style that is a special feature of the house, including imported European lamps, Italian marble, western fireplace and furniture.
Surrounding the house is an equally magnificent Japanese garden adjoining to a swimming beach directly on Karatsu Bay. The bright and open second floor rooms offer spectacular views of the garden, as well as the ocean and islands.
Tours are available with one of 20 volunteer guides, including two who are fluent in English*, as well as audio guidance in several languages. The English guide who showed us around was extremely knowledgeable and easy to understand, bringing the experience to life with interesting explanations of details that may otherwise be overlooked.
* English guidance usually available on Saturdays and Tuesdays, but can be reserved by phone in advance.
If you miss out on the highly-recommended guided tour, plentiful signage also includes information in English.
DATA: Former Takatori Residence
• Open: 9:30 – 17:30 (last entry at 16:30)
• Closed: Mon. (unless on or in between public holidays), Dec 29~31
• Fee: Adults ¥500, Children (ages 4~15) ¥250
Audio Guidance (Japanese, English, Korean and Chinese) ¥300
• Tel.: 0955-75-0289
• Address: 5-40 Kitajonai, Karatsu
• URL: www.karatsu-kankou.jp/takatori.html
Karatsu Burger – Fast food Karatsu style!
Open for over 50 years with the menu largely unchanged, the main store of Karatsu Burger in the Nijinomatsubara pine grove is well-known, and always has a long line of eager customers who pass through the scenic location. For those who want to see what the hype is about but don’t have a car or time to line up, there is also a small storefront burger bar located in the center of Karatsu where you can experience the famous flavour without the queues (details below).
Situated amidst the shopping arcade just 5 minutes’ walk from Karatsu station, it also offers a feel of ‘local’ Karatsu and the relaxed small-town charm that is very different to Fukuoka. A leisurely walk through is recommended to peruse the various local goods on offer. One stop to consider is Kawashima Tofu, a charming store that makes tofu and also sells cups of fresh soy milk for ¥100.
DATA: Karatsu Burger Oteguchi Branch
• Open: 10:00~23:00 (20:00 on Mon. & Thu.)
• Fee: ¥280 hamburger, ¥460 special burger
• Tel.: 080-9101-6912
• Address: Nakamachi-dori, Karatsu
• URL: www.karatsu-burger.com
Saisson D’or – Sophisticated French dishes using local ingredients
Yobuko is famed for its live squid sashimi but there are also different ways to experience the area’s famous seafood. With beautiful views of the bay, Saisson D’or is the perfect place to catch the setting sun on a classy dinner date.
Certainly not your standard French restaurant, the menu is based on that morning’s catch, with quality local ingredients being served up in a French style. The food is ordered not as individual dishes, but rather as a course. As such, each dish is made to fit with the others, with subtle flavours that don’t overpower the senses.
According to owner-chef Hitoshi Maeyama, who has was born in the area and has been running the restaurant for 15 years, the enjoyment of each plate is a combination of great food, wine, conversation and even the occasional sea breeze blowing from the terrace.
Despite the high-class food, the restaurant has a cozy, at-home atmosphere unique to small towns. This is also one of the reasons that many Fukuoka residents are among the regulars.
With its dedication to local ingredients and flavours, it’s no surprise that dishes also come served on the finest Karatsu-yaki, including pieces from Doheigama.
DATA: Saisson D’or
• Open: Lunch 11:30~15:00, Dinner 17:00~20:00
• Fee: Lunch Mini Course ¥3,000 per person, Lunch Gourmet Course ¥4,200 per person, Full Courses (lunch or dinner) ¥5,000~ ¥15,000 per person
• Tel.: 0955-82-3655
• Address: Tono-no-ura, Yobukocho, Karatsu
• URL: www.saissondor.com
Doheigama – Well off the beaten track potter, gallery and tea house
Doheigama is certainly not the most convenient place to view Karatsu-yaki, but that is one of the reasons it offers a truly unique experience. Nestled amongst trees in the mountainside, this father and son workshop has been operating for 32 years, with separate gallery rooms for the two craftsmen.
This is a chance to see some high-class, artistic Karatsu-yaki (naturally with a slightly bigger price tag attached). Pieces ranging from tea ceramics to vases and tableware are made regularly by both craftsmen, and fired using two different types of kilns at various times throughout the year.
To see the ceramics in action, contact them before arrival to arrange a visit to the tea house, a small wooden room on a hillside behind the main workshops, surrounded by over 50 sakura trees. Being taken inside and offered tea by the person who made the cup in your hands; who until minutes ago was a stranger and now sits within arm’s length in this peaceful, personal space – this is an indescribably moving experience.
• Tel.: 0955-82-2970
• Address: 1315-3 Nomoto, Chinzei-machi, Karatsu
• URL: http://doheigama.hananusubito.net/index.html
What is Karatsu-yaki (Karatsu ware)?
One of the Karatsu’s most famous products throughout Japan is Karatsu-yaki (Karatsu ware).
Following the introduction of Anagama (穴窯) kilns and techniques from China by way of Korea some 400-450 years ago, the area became well-known for unique ceramics distinguished by an earthy, simple, natural feel and simple designs. The kilns can still be seen in workshops around the area.These traditional methods require the kiln to be raised over 1300C, a process that takes several days and burns a vast amount of wood. This is one of the reasons why most workshops are located in mountains or forests away from residential areas.
Now considered one of the top styles of pottery used in tea ceremonies around Japan, Karatsu-yaki was originally created as everyday tableware – pieces that were made to be used and enjoyed. This is evident in their sturdiness and simple style.
According to local craftsmen, their work is responsible for only 80% of the finished product, with the rest depending on the user. A piece changes colour and feel depending on how it is used, naturally becoming a unique and original creation.
Karatsu-yaki is an example of wabi-sabi, an aesthetic sense in Japanese art emphasizing quiet simplicity, imperfection and impermanence, also seen in other areas of Karatsu culture.
Currently some 70 workshops exist in the area.
Kyushu Olle Karatsu Course
In just over 11km, the Kyushu Olle Karatsu course manages to take in a wonderful balance of natural, cultural and historic experiences ranging from Japanese gardens, castle ruins and traditional farms and workshops, stretching from mountains to the unique coastline. There’s no better way to experience the atmosphere of the Japanese countryside than by traversing old paths used by samurai over 400 years ago. The variety of scenery on the Karatsu course is difficult to rival, and every season offers something new!
What is Olle?
Olle trekking trails originated on Korea’s Jeju Island as a unique way to see and experience the area, utilising old paths and routes inaccessible to cars. The courses are designed to be more than just a hike through the countryside – in addition to natural sights they cover local history and culture. After gaining great popularity, the growing trend was brought across the ocean with the help of Jeju Olle organization, and Kyushu Olle was born. With the opening of two more courses in March 2014, Kyushu Olle now includes 12 unique trails throughout the various prefectures.
Kyushu Olle signage
Kyushu Olle and Jeju Olle share the same logo: a small, wild horse, native to Jeju, known as a ganse. It can be found at major points along the route.
Signs used to indicate the route include blue and red ribbons (roughly every 30m all along the Karatsu course) as well as the unique Olle arrows, all trademarks of the original Olle courses from Jeju Island, Korea.
Some courses vary in the depending on whether you begin at the start or goal, which is why the ribbons and arrows are in two colours (Blue= start > goal, Red= goal > start). For the Karatsu course the two ribbons always hang together.
Kyushu Olle etiquette
• Do not trespass on private property when passing through residential areas.
• Always obtain prior consent for photographs of people or their personal property.
• Do not litter.
• Do not pick fruit or crops along the route.
• Do not bother livestock or other animals you may encounter.
• Be careful not to yell or make loud noises during your hike.
• Do not remove guide ribbons from the route.
Kyushu Olle Karatsu Course Details
Opened: 15 Dec 2013
Time: 4-5 hours
Start: Momoyama-tenkaichi (桃山天下市) Roadhouse
Goal: Hadomisaki (波戸岬)
Buses run infrequently from Karatsu Bus Center to the start and goal, with several stops near the course at various points along the route.
Coming by car is most convenient – to avoid waiting for the bus at the finish, drive to the goal in time to get a bus back to the start, then hike the course from start to goal back to the car.
The area covered by the Karatsu course was of particular importance during Japan’s invasions of Korea at the end of the 16th century. In preparation for the first invasion in 1592, some 158,000 troops gathered in the area under Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who was successful in unifying the various Japanese clans into a single force. It was for this purpose that Toyotomi built Nagoya Castle (名護屋城), the ruins of which stand as a central feature of the course.
Walking through the castle grounds gives a geat sense of its size – Nagoya Castle was the second largest in the country at the time. As the trail climbs higher amongst the former castle’s stone walls, the trees open up to a spectacular panorama of Yobuko, the surrounding islands, and the end of the course at Hadomisaki. Seeing the land and ocean unfold from this vantage point, you can’t help but imagine the atmosphere of that time.
In addition to Nagoya Castle, the Olle course also takes you through other historical sights from the era, such as the encampment of Hori Hideharu (堀秀治陣跡). While not much remains of the original buildings, the hilltop site hints at the grandness and significance of what once stood there.
The 400-year-old paths that connect these sites on the Olle course are said to have been used by the samurai coming in and out of the area at the time. Now seldom used, the scenery along these paths really feels like a slice of the past.
While their image is one of sword-weilding warriors, samurai also helped to protect and spread Japanese culture. Amongst the ruins of the Hori encampment are areas marked off as the tea house and Noh theatre. Having such a large gathering of samurai and daimyo prior to the invasion turned the Karatsu area into a cultural center.
The Olle course also offers hikers the chance to take a break from the trail and immerse themselves in aspects of traditional Japan. With its beautifully manicured gardens looking out onto the walls of the castle ruins, the tea house Kaigetsu (海月) is a perfect place to do just that.
For just ¥500, visitors are welcomed into the tea house by kimono-clad women bearing tea and Japanese sweets. Approaching the halfway point of the course, this is a great time to rest the feet as you gaze out at the magnificent gardens.
Along with tea ceremony, Karatsu ware was also growing around the same time thanks to techniques brought back from Korea during the invasion. With the ongoing popularity of Karatsu ware, there are many workshops in the area still using these traditional techniques. It’s only natural that the Olle course takes in this important aspect of Karatsu, and it does so at Hinatagama (炎向窯). With the owners very welcoming to Olle walkers, this charming workshop is perfect for taking a short break to peruse the items and find yourself a Karatsu souvenir that won’t weigh you down for the remainder of the walk. It also includes various materials about Olle in Kyushu and Korea.
The area around Hinatagama is also an opportunity to see beautiful old farm houses still being used today. As the course weaves through small streets lined with old farmhouses, a great way to see Japanese life of days now gone. The kind of place that brings out a feeling of “natsukashi” nostalgia in many Japanese, like visiting your grandparents in the countryside. The Olle course blends in naturally into its surroundings, with many homes displaying the blue and red ribbons.
Nearing the goal, the course finally opens up onto the spectacular coastline. The dark rocks and cliffs of this area make for a very unique view, and the nearby islands add an extra element to the ocean scenery. Facing west, it’s also a perfect spot to catch the sunset if you time your hike accordingly.
After winding along the coast, the course ends in a picturesque bay at Hadomisaki (波戸岬). Near the goal are huts which specialize in grilled seafood, giving hikers a chance to enjoy some local flavours and a well-earned rest. Those with a little energy left over can take an optional extra walk around the cape (1.3km) which features a “lovers’ monument”.
Karatsu Tourist Association
Free Bike Rental Service
Karatsu is very convenient to explore by bike, and the city offers a free bicycle rental service to foreign visitors.
• 1F Furusato Kaikan Arpino, right outside Karatsu Station
• 9:00~18:00 (unavailable if raining)
• ID required (passport or residence card)
Karatsu Volunteer Guides
English-speaking guides are available to show visitors around the sights of Karatsu.
• Karatsu/Yobuko area
• Free (visitors only have to cover the guide’s transport costs)
• Contact KVG office at Karatsu Chamber of Commerce and Industry Office by phone 0955-72-5141 in advance.