The rustic city of Yamaga is located in the Kikuchi River basin at the far northern edge of Kumamoto Prefecture, near the border with Fukuoka Prefecture. Rich in history, culture, and natural beauty, the town has many sites worth seeing, including hot springs, burial mounds, and the cityscapes along the old Buzen road that linked the Kumamoto Castle with Kokura in Buzen.
Yamaga’s best-known contribution to traditional culture is the Yamaga lanterns. These lanterns are crafts made entirely of Japanese paper, held together with a dab of glue – they contain neither wood nor metal fittings. In the past, the techniques for manufacturing these lanterns were a jealously guarded secret that was kept in Yamaga and passed on only from master to pupil. The techniques of these skilled craftsmen have been handed down since the Muromachi period, and are still evident today in the gold lanterns and other works modeled after castles and shrines. Many people outside Kumamoto Prefecture are enthralled by the lanterns, and they flock in great numbers every August from throughout the country for the Yamaga Lantern Festival. The origins of the festival lie in the legend that the imperial retinue of Emperor Keiko, the 12th sovereign, was brought to a standstill by heavy fog, and that the villagers of Yamaga went out to guide the procession with torches.
When people think of Yamaga, this traditional festival immediately comes to mind. It’s not surprising – 1,000 kimono-clad women wearing illuminated gold lanterns on their heads and dancing in a circle is bound to make people sit up and take notice.
At this time of year, however, the attraction in Yamaga is the Romance of the Lantern Festival. The old, picturesque area along the Buzen road is transformed every Friday and Saturday during the month-long festival by illuminated figures made of bamboo and Japanese parasols, and visitors can watch the lanterns being made at the Yamaga Lantern Folk Craft Museum.
Other events are also held throughout the town during the season. Local traditional arts, such as the compelling Yamaga Taiko and the impressive Yamaga Toro Odori, a brilliant dance, are performed. During the festival period, performances also are held at the Yachiyo-za, which offers the opportunity to experience at close range the pounding of the taiko drums and the dance of the women wearing the lanterns.
Built in 1910, the Yachiyo-za is a kabuki playhouse housed in a venerable structure still in use, where one can still view authentic kabuki in an Edo period atmosphere. A large-scale, once-in-a-century renovation was carried out in 2001, further enhancing the presence of this building symbolic of the city.
And there’s more. The Komekome Somon Tour is a walking tour of the old Buzen road, with a local guide pointing out the sake and soy sauce breweries and other commercial establishments. You also can enjoy a tour of the city streets in a rickshaw. There’s nothing like savoring the atmosphere of Yamaga, a tranquil city pervaded with the air of history, while enjoying the warm light of the lanterns in the cold, clear winter air.
Komekome Somon Tour
One hour walking tour: 500 (beverage included)
Every day except Wed.
Yamaga Rickshaw Tours
One way, around 1 hour, 2,130
Return, around 3 hours, 4,030
Daimyo area plan, around 4 hours, 8,530
Yamaga Zanmai Special: Discounted tickets, limited to two pairs per day. Reserve in advance at the number below (in Japanese only).
Yamaga Hot Springs Tourism Association: 0968-43-2952
OLD BUZEN ROAD HIGHLIGHTS
Hot spring footbath
The natural spa waters are soothing to the skin, and the small stepping stones provide a slight stimulation. The water is not too hot – just the right temperature for a restful, relaxing soak. There are over 60 onsen in the city!
1565-2 Yamaga, Yamaga City
08:00 ~ 22:00
Sakura-yu (Public bathhouse)
Even Miyamoto Musashi, who was known for hating baths, was able to relax here. That’s the story behind his statue marking the site. Visitors also can take water from the spa to drink at home.
1 Yamaga, Yamaga
06:00 ~ 24:00
150 yen (500 yen for the use of a common lounge and unlimited entry to the bath during the day)
Closed: Third Wed. of the month
Yamaga Lantern Folk Craft Museum
The building which houses the museum is a striking, Western-style facility with the ambience of the Taisho Era. The museum features exhibits of different objects made in the traditional style with paper. These include models of castles and shrines in addition to lanterns.
1606-2 Yamaga, Yamaga
09:00 ~ 18:00
210 yen (100 yen for primary and junior high school students)
Closed from Dec. 29 ~ Jan. 1
Chiyonosono Sake Brewery
This sake brewery is one stop on the Komekome Somon Tour. Visitors can catch a glimpse of the way sake was brewed in the past at this facility, which opened in 1896.
1782 Yamaga, Yamaga
08:00 ~ 17:00
Closed on Sun., hol., and two other days during the month
Toro Monaka / 600 yen~ (pack of 6)
Discover the perfect souvenir from Yamaga, known as the town of lanterns. This monaka, a sweet-bean jam confection, is modeled after the gold lantern headgear worn during the toro dance, and is sold at four shops in town. They are made in several shapes and degrees of sweetness, enabling you to pick the one that suits your fancy.
Where to Buy
Abe Iwa-do 0968-43-2556
Hayase Nishiki-do 0968-43-3389
Yasohachi (88) Bread / 500 yen
The fluffy and moist Yasohachi bread is baked into generous portions using locally produced rice flour. It is very popular for fully bringing out the sweetness of the rice. There are also kinako and miso flavors.
Mizube Plaza Kamoto
1257 Kajiya, Kamoto-machi, Yamaga
10:00~ 19:00 (to 20:00 on Sat. and hol.)
1 hour / 1,900 yen
Dazaifu Interchange – Kyushu Highway (50 min. / 1,900 yen) – Kikusui Interchange – Prefectural Route 16 (10 min.) – Yamaga
2 hours / 3,750 yen
JR Hakata Stn. – Kagoshima Main Line (1 hour 10 min. / 2,990 yen) – JR Tamana Stn. – Kyushu Sanko Bus (50 min. / 760 yen) – Yamaga Bus Center
1 hour 45 min. / 2,400 yen
Tenjin Bus Center – Nishitetsu Bus / Kyushu Sanko Bus / (1 hour 15 min. / 1,950 yen) – Ueki Interchange – Kyushu Sanko Bus (30 min. / 450 yen) – Yamaga Bus Center
Yamaga Tourism Promotion Department
Yamaga Tanbo Navi
Yamaga Lantern Festival
January 26 ~ February 24 (Fri. and Sat. only)