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Tsunagi: A Town of Greenery and Sculptures

As you drive along the seaside road lined with expansive citrus groves, you are greeted by towering rock formations, and you start to feel a sense of calm wash over you. This is Tsunagi Town. Facing the Shiranui Sea to the west and surrounded by mountains on the southeast, south and north, Tsunagi Town is located in southern Kumamoto Prefecture, and the Amakusa Islands are visible across the inland sea.

The former Akasaki Elementary School and Bentenjima islands / 熊本県南部にある津奈木町のシンボル、旧赤崎小学校と弁天島

The purpose of our trip to Tsunagi was to experience art. With the information from Town Hall in hand, we made our way to this small town—population: 4,400—that we had never visited before to experience Japanese painting at an elementary school that appears to float on the sea, tour the sculptures scattered throughout the town, and view the Buddhist statues carved into the trees in the forests.

Art workshop at the former Akasaki Elementary School and Bentenjima islands / 津奈木町の旧赤崎小学校でアート・日本画体験

The first place we visited was Tatzu Butsu, which we had been curious about ever since we saw a photo of it. Here, the entire forest is a work of art, which was created in 2017 as a “place to pray for a bright future for humanity.” Buddha statues are carved into live trees in the forest, a former recreational area that is no longer in use. This is the work of internationally renowned contemporary artist Tatzu Nishi, and it is his only permanent installation in a public space in Japan, and only his second in the world after an installation in France.

Tatsubutsu - Tatzu Butzu in Tsunagi town, Kumamoto / 津奈木町にある 西野達の野外展示アート、達仏

Your first impression is of surprise: Why is this here? Each of the 33 Buddha statues, carved into live trees and painted gold, has a different appearance and expression, and the way they shine in the sunlight through the trees is almost mystical. This small forest at the mouth of the Tsunagi River, where it flows into the Shiranui Sea, is open to the public, so anyone is free to stroll around.

Tatsubutsu - Tatzu Butzu in Tsunagi town, Kumamoto / 津奈木町にある 西野達の野外展示アート、達仏

Right next to Tatzu Butsu is Ishidama Garden. This is a work by contemporary artist Yukinori Yanagi, completed in 2021. He used a large number of stones that were sitting unused in storage to create a landscaped area in a ginkgo forest near Town Hall, and the work expresses the idea that sacred sounds can be heard from within the stones.

In this way, Ishidama no Mori was created using things that just happened to be available in the area. Stones of various shapes represent the diversity of human beings, and if you listen closely to the time-worn boulders, you can hear a variety of voices. The literature of Michiko Ishimure, a writer and poet who described the devastation of Minamata disease, and the culture and turbulent history of the region resonate throughout the ginkgo forest as sacred sounds.

Stone Spirit Forest - Ishidama no Mori by Yukinori Yanagi in Tsunagi town near Minamata, 現代美術家・柳幸典によるアート作品、石霊の森

Yanagi created Ishidama no Mori as a place to confront the past because he was shocked to learn that the area does not have any works by Ishimure or Eugene Smith, a photographer who documented the tragedy of Minamata disease, which also affected Tsunagi Town.

In 1984, Tsunagi Town launched a community development initiative to become a “town of greenery and sculptures,” and since then it has actively used art as a cornerstone of its town planning efforts. Many of the works have been developed together with local residents to ensure they are not regarded as temporary, and the various artworks and sculptures created in past projects can be seen throughout the town.

Sculpture standing guard over the town from Tsunagi Bridge / 津奈木大橋から町を見守るようにたつ、彫刻「薫風」岩野勇三作。

Past art projects

16 outdoor sculptures

From the downtown area, where the station and Town Hall are located, we enjoyed views of the azure sea and citrus groves as we headed to our next destination—the old Akasaki Elementary School, which is considered the symbol of the town. The school was built in 1976 in the image of a passenger ship. The center of the building juts skyward like a ship’s smokestack, and at high tide, the entire building appears to float on the sea. At the time of its completion, the school was featured in a newspaper article that had a photo of elementary school students fishing from inside the building. Since the school was shut down in 2010, the building has been closed, but it is still used as a site for art projects.

The former Akasaki Elementary School floating on the sea / 海に浮かぶ小学校、旧赤崎小学校

This time we visited the covered outdoor stage set up in front of the sea. Together with Yukari Ohira, a Japanese-style painter who lives in Tsunagi, we started by finding stones that are crushed to make paints.

Collecting for materials for mineral pigments for Japanese painting / 赤崎小学校沿岸で日本画体験の岩絵具材料探しから。

Collecting for materials for mineral pigments for Japanese painting / アートワークショップ日本画で使う岩絵具の材料

A special art experience at the elementary school on the sea with Yukari Ohira, Japanese-style painter / 日本画家・大平由香理さんと海の上の小学校でとっておきのアート体験

At low tide, when the timing is just right, you can walk across to Bentenjima Island to pick up the stones. As we thoroughly enjoyed this creative experience, Ohira taught us about the interesting aspects of Japanese-style painting, such as how the color and texture of the stone changes depending on the degree to which it is crushed. You can take the works of art you make in Tsunagi home with you as a reminder of your trip.

Japanese-style painting experience with Yukari Ohira
Original paint-making at a “floating” elementary school: Painting scenes of Tsunagi with locally sourced colors (2.5 hrs.)
Details and reservations:

Japanese-style painter Yukari Ohira first came to Tsunagi in 2019 as part of the town’s artist-in-residence project and spent four months here. The following year, she relocated to Tsunagi where she continues to work on her own painting while lending a hand at the Tsunagi Art Museum. In this art experience, you will work with Ohira to make your own painting using paints made from stones found on the coast. “Tsunagu”, the piece Ohira painted during her residency, is now on permanent display in the lobby of the Tsunagi Culture Center, a two-minute walk from Tsunagi Art Museum.

Yukari Ohira’s Japanese Painting Works at Tsunagi City center / つなぎ文化センターに展示される大平由香理の作品「つなぐ」

Eating is an important part of any trip, and Kyushu is home to an abundant array of delicious, natural ingredients. Lucky for us, we were in Tsunagi during oyster season, so we visited the newly built Tsunagi Oyster Bar.

Oyster BBQ at Tsunagi Oyster bar / つなぎオイスターバルで牡蠣焼き

Tsunagi Oyster Bar, which is run by the Tsunagi Town Fishing Cooperative, is located in a former elementary school building on a hill overlooking a fishing port, and the members of the cooperative visited Itoshima for training before opening the bar. The location affords a stunning view, and you can see the Amakusa Islands across the water.

New gourmet spot Tsunagi Oyster Bar in Kumamoto / 熊本 津奈木町の新名所・つなぎオイスターバル

Tsunagi’s large, milky oysters are delicious just grilled over charcoal, but they taste great with the bar’s original basil sauce, which is made from a mixture of basil, garlic, and oysters. In this ultimate farm-to-table experience, you can enjoy local oysters at a producer-owned place with a view of the beautiful sea where the oysters were cultivated.

Tsunagi Oyster Bar
Official facebook
3503 Fukuhama, Tsunagi Town, Ashikita, Kumamoto
Tsunagi Oyster Bar is an oyster hut run by the Tsunagi Town Fishing Cooperative that is open only on weekends and holidays during oyster season (January to late April). Upon entering, you buy oysters that were cultivated in the Shiranui Sea and grill them yourself on the charcoal braziers on your table.

Tsunagi also holds seasonal local seafood fairs, and when we visited in early spring, cutlass fish, a local delicacy, was in season. The fatty and tender white fish tastes great as sashimi, grilled or as tempura. We enjoyed a set meal at Shikisai, a restaurant located in the Tsunagi Onsen area, a popular relaxation spot for the townspeople of Tsunagi.

Tsunaki Town's specialty, swordfish tempura and Sashimi Set Meal / 津奈木町の名物、太刀魚の天ぷら定食を地魚フェアで。

435 Iwaki, Tsunagi Town, Ashikita, Kumamoto
This day-spa style onsen sits at the foot of a large rock formation called Chohangan. While locals come here to relax in the large indoor bath, the open-air bath and the family baths, what makes the place unique is the monorail (¥100 round-trip) that takes you up to the open-air bath halfway up the rockface. From here, you can see the entire town of Tsunagi, and if you go at just the right time, you can enjoy a view of the sunset over the Shiranui Sea.

Tsunagi Onsen Hotspiring public bath / 津奈木町にあるつなぎ温泉

Chohangan, the symbol of Tsunagi Town, rises high above Tsunagi Onsen.

The national flag on the top of Chohangan rock, the symbol of Tsunagi Town / 津奈木町の象徴・重磐岩の頂上に掲げられた国旗

The top of the rock formation affords a panoramic view of the entire area. If your lower body is in good shape, you can hike to the top in about 20 minutes, but a more convenient option is the monorail that departs from the Tsunagi Art Museum. In March 2022, the cars began running again after a redesign by contemporary artist Yukinori Yanagi (¥300 round-trip).

Chohangan rock, the symbol of Tsunagi Town / 津奈木町の象徴・重磐岩

The neighboring Maizurujo Park, which is home to the ruins of Tsunagi Castle (originally built in 1334), is a popular spot for viewing cherry blossoms. The castle was also called Maizuru Castle because according to legend, even if you were to attack it, it could not be easily taken because it would take flight like a crane. (Maizuru literally translates to “dancing crane.”)

Maizurujo Park
Iwaki, Tsunagi Town, Ashikita, Kumamoto
A park built around the ruins of Tsunagi Castle (built in 1334; also known as Maizuru Castle) and Chohangan, the symbol of Tsunagi Town. The top is accessible by walking paths, but you can also take the monorail that departs from the Tsunagi Art Museum (¥300 round-trip).

Vew from the Chohangan rock, the symbol of Tsunagi Town / 津奈木町の象徴・重磐岩からみた不知火海

Monorail to/from Tsunagi Art Museum designed by Yukinori Yanagi / 柳幸典デザインのつなぎ美術館発着モノレール

Maizuru Castle Park Observatory in Tsunagi town / 津奈木町にある舞鶴城公園の展望台

Tsunagi Art Museum
494 Iwaki, Tsunagi Town, Ashikita, Kumamoto
A municipal art museum run by Tsunagi Town. The museum houses and exhibits approximately 450 works by artists associated with Kumamoto Prefecture, but what makes it unique is that it actively implements art projects that involve local residents and focuses on art-related exchanges both within and outside the region. A collection of 16 outdoor sculptures is scattered throughout the town, and you can experience and appreciate works created as part of past art projects.

Tsunagi Art Museum in Tsunagi town / 津奈木町の町営、つなぎ美術館

Ishidama Garden
An outdoor installation by contemporary artist Yukinori Yanagi inspired by the literary works of Michiko Ishimure, a writer from Minamata. Voices associated with the area emanate from the cracks in the megalithic stones positioned throughout the gingko forest.

Tatzu Butzu
An outdoor installation of Buddha statues carved into live trees by contemporary artist Tatzu Nishi.

Old Akasaki Elementary School and Akaojima
The only elementary school in Japan built on the sea. The school was closed due to earthquake-proofing issues, but it is still being used as a venue for art projects. Akaojima, which consists of the three islands of Hadakajima, Bentenjima and Kuroshima, connects to the mainland at low tide.

The only elementary school built on the sea in Japan, Akasaki elementary school / 日本で唯一、海の上に建てられた小学校、赤崎小学校

Yanagi / 柳幸典のアート作品として石牟礼道子の詩「入魂」から引用した芸術体験ができる宿泊施設「入魂の宿」が旧赤崎小学校のプールにオープン予定

Nyukon no Yado, which is scheduled to open in the pool of the former Akasaki Elementary School this summer, is a lodging facility where visitors can experience art. The second work of Yukinori Yanagi in the area based on the idea of growing together with the local people, it is named after “Nyukon,” a poem by Michiko Ishimure.

Places to Visit

Kameman Shuzo
1192 Tsunagi, Tsunagi Town, Ashikita, Kumamoto
Japan’s southernmost natural sake brewery. In operation since 1916, this long-established sake brewery uses a unique method called Nantan ice brewing, in which the temperature during the brewing process is adjusted with ice to produce sake unique to the southern Kumamoto region (which is called Nantan). Popular sakes include Konji (¥2,000), a junmai ginjo made only from rice grown in Tsunagi, and Hisui, a red sake brewed with shochu malt and made from a rare ancient wild variety of red rice. Speaking of red sake, Kumamoto has long been famous for red sake that is made by adding wood ash to the mixture, but Hisui, which is characterized by a subtle acidity and the sweetness of the rice, is more comparable to a red wine.

Sake Brewery Kameman Shuzo in Tsunagi town / 津奈木町の老舗造り酒屋・酒蔵 亀萬酒造

Un Cinq
2113-88 Kotsunagi, Tsunagi Town, Ashikita, Kumamoto
Un Cinq is the only patisserie in Tsunagi. People from the area flock to Un Cinq for the subtly flavored sweets handmade by the second generation pâtissier using local ingredients. Every day, the showcase is packed with cakes filled with fresh local fruit.
For a souvenir, we recommend the amanatsu pie made from local amanatsu citrus fruit (¥1,350), which keeps for 30 days at room temperature.

Uncinq patisserie’s owner in Tsunagi Town / 津奈木町の菓子店あん・さんくのパティシエ、長友 美波

Orange pie made with Tsunagi's famous citrus / 津奈木町名産の甘夏を使った甘夏パイ

Tsunagi Store
1601 Iwaki, Tsunagi Town, Ashikita, Kumamoto
Tsunagi Town Hall has taken the lead in promoting organic cultivation. Tsunagi Store features a plethora of local specialty goods including citrus fruits like Sweet Spring and Dekopon, fruit juices, jellies, seasonings, processed fish products and more.

Tsunagi Town Product Center Hyakkado / 津奈木町の特産品を販売するつなぎ百貨堂

Assorted oranges from Tsunaki Town's specialty / 熊本の津奈木町名産の柑橘の詰め合わせボックス

JA Ashikita Tsunagi Fureai Market
A produce stand selling agricultural and marine products, handmade steamed buns and boxed lunches. The variety of citrus fruits is mind boggling.
1604-1 Iwaki, Tsunagi Town, Ashikita, Kumamoto

Another local produce stand selling agricultural products, boxed lunches, prepared foods and marine products. There is also an eat-in space for ikinari dango, steamed buns filled with sweet bean paste and sweet potato.
24-1 Iwaki, Tsunagi Town, Ashikita, Kumamoto

Tsunagi Town farmers market / 津奈木町の産直マーケット、よりみち

Getting There (from Fukuoka City)

・ Kyushu Expressway Fukuoka IC >> Tsunagi IC >> National Route 3 towards Minamata: About 3 hours
・ JR Hakata Station >> JR Shin-Minamata Station >> Hisatsu Orange Railway, Tsunagi Station: About 1.5~2 hours
・ JR Hakata Station >> JR Shin-Minamata Station (About 1 hours) >> rental car (10 minutes): Under 1.5 hours

Art at Hisatsu Orange Railway Station 肥薩おれんじ鉄道津奈木駅のアート「つなぎの根っこ」

The sunsets in Tsunagi are beautiful. Click here to see our Kyushu Live tour of the town’s main attractions.

Beautiful sunset with Akasaki elementary school floating on the sea / 海に浮かぶ小学校と不知火海に沈む夕陽

Produced in cooperation with Tsunagi Town Public Office (Tsunagi Town, Kumamoto Prefecture)

Kumamoto Prefecture
Published: Mar 18, 2022 / Last Updated: Mar 22, 2022

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