November 26, 2020

Fukuoka Prefecture's Akizuki

Asakura City's former castle town of Akizuki is a representation of what samurai life would have been during the waning centuries of their power.

Donny Kimball wears a kimono in Fukuoka Prefecture's Akizuki and looks out at the autumn leaves

Dear cherished readers, if I asked you to conjure up a mental image of a Japanese samurai, what would you envision with your mind’s eye? Would it be a fearsome warlord like the courageous Takeda Shingen or a cunning warrior like the crafty Oda Nobunaga? Are they fully armored and garbed in the protective trappings of the battlefield? Whatever similitude you summon, it’s likely that the scene is devoid of cultural traditions like the tea ceremony, flower arranging, and other such arts. Wait, what? Weren’t we talking about Japan’s warrior class here? What gives? Oh boy. This could take a while but here we go!

Unbeknownst to many foreign visitors to Japan who are accustomed to overseas depictions of samurai, these esteemed warriors were actually closer to civil servants during the final chapter of their reign as the top dogs. Once Japan entered the Edo period (1603–1868), the country escaped a trail of bloody civil wars until its final years. After power had been consolidated under the Tokugawa shogunate’s iron grip, the warrior caste needed to reinvent itself. Given their status at the top of the societal hierarchy, the samurai gradually transition from being soldiers to being administrators.

Of course, this all presented a bit of a conundrum for the samurai class as a whole. Put simply, what’s a warrior to do when there are no more wars to fight? Well, the long and the short of it is that much of the masculine combat vigor was reallocated to the arts and the pursuit of “the way.” Practices such as archery, which were once essential for felling one’s enemies, took on a ritualistic significance. As a result, martial arts like kyudo were birthed from a rich pedigree of practicality on the battlefield. A similar obsession also emerged with conventional practices such as flower arranging and the tea ceremony.

A field of wild grass in Akizuki, a rural part of Fukuoka Prefecture in Asakura City

This historical transition brings us to my recent trip down to Asakura City’s crowning jewel of Akizuki. Nestled amongst the southern mountains of Fukuoka Prefecture on the border of Oita, this former castle town is a rural getaway that can charm the hearts of anyone bit by the wanderlust bug. In addition to the echoes of the past, Akizuki is still home to numerous surviving artforms that are directly descended from samurai traditions. While these experiences would typically be inaccessible to foreign tourists, my good friends at Discover Deep Japan have been working closely with the local government to address these restrictions.

If you don’t mind getting waaaay off of the beaten path, and are looking for a real hidden gem, I cannot more highly suggest that you consider visiting Akizuki. While you’ll certainly want to take things slow and savor the countryside vibes, a trip to Akizuki is a much welcomed contrast to the hustle and bustle of a megalopolis like Tokyo or Osaka. Just remember to budget for ample time. Much like a rare blend of tea or a fine wine, Akizuki is something that is best savored leisurely.

Getting to Akizuki

An ANA flight sits parked at the gate awaiting passengers

Before I get too far ahead of myself and start introducing the allures of Akizuki, allow me to first cover some key logistics. As wonderful as the hamlet is, this part of Japan is not so easy to reach. To begin with, you’ll need to either fly down to Fukuoka or make your way via the bullet train. While air travel is more expedient, the bullet train can be more cost effective for those who can make use of their JR Rail Passes. So, on that note, I’ll leave figuring out how you’ll reach Fukuoka up to you, the reader.

Once you arrive in Fukuoka, things get a bit more challenging. You see, the former castle town of Akizuki is located deep within the mountains. Consequently, there are no trains that directly service the area. This means that your best bet is going to be a rental car. Should this not be an option, you can partially make your way via train by taking either of the two lines that service Amagi Station. From there, you’ll need to navigate the buses to Akizuki. While I haven’t ridden one myself, it looks like there’s hourly departures from the station.

Once you’re in Akizuki itself, know that most of the local attractions can be reached on foot. In fact, I’d encourage anyone who is up for walking to do so as strolling about is really the best way to take in Akizuki’s rustic atmosphere. Honestly speaking, a major part of the town’s allure is found in its countryside vibe (at least in my opinion).

Akizuki: Day One

Donny Kimball eats a kaiseki course meal at Akizuki’s Seiryuan ryokan

My adventure in Akizuki was part of a two-day event organized by Discover Deep Japan to explore the area’s samurai roots. As previously alluded, the village’s legacy as a castle town is still proudly honored. Even today, you’ll find both individuals and groups championing Akizuki’s samurai traditions that have been handed down through the years. Due to language obstacles and various other issues, many experiences are currently off limits to non-Japanese speakers however Discover Deep Japan is actively working to rectify these barriers.

To kick things off, the team and I headed over to a joint called Ikeda-ya. Here, our goal was to pick up some kimono for a photoshoot. Given that I am a giant in Japan, my attire was limited to one size that fit but luckily, the sole selection ended up looking quite nice on me (or so I’m told…). With kimono now in hand, we found our way over to a high end Japanese ryokan known as Seiryuan. Here, my companions and I got to sample a soak in the inn’s traditional onsen before we were assisted in getting dressed in our kimono.

Clad in full kimono, the group and I next made our way to a dining hall within Seiryuan for the ryokan’s kaiseki course featured above. Long time readers will know this already but I am absolutely atrocious when it comes to describing cuisine. If you asked me to recount the flavors of what I sampled in detail, I’d be at a total loss (this is why I am NOT a foodie). Quite frankly, there were just too many miscellaneous dishes to keep up with. What I can tell you was that all of the countless variations were nothing short of exquisite and featured the finest local ingredients.

Donny Kimball looks out at an old or samurai domicile in Akizuki, Fukuoka Prefecture

An hour later, and a few kilograms heavier from Seiryuan’s killer kaiseki course, we departed Seiryuan on foot. The next stop on our itinerary was a pair of preserved samurai domicles. The first of these, the Hisano Family House, is something of a standing museum. For a few hundred yen, visitors can pop inside and experience what the living quarters of a samurai would have looked like during the Edo period (1603–1868). The entire complex is quite picturesque as can be seen above and serves as a great backdrop to snap some eye-catching shots for Instagram.

As lovely as the Hisano Family House was, it was the second dwelling that really had me excited. Known as the Tashiro Family House, this ancient hovel was to be our lodging for the night. Registered as an Tangible Cultural Property and recently renovated, we were to be the first ever stay the night in likely a century. Unfortunately, the current local powers do not have any plans to make the Tashiro Family House into an Airbnb or rental lodging (though it seems that there may be potential for a similar building in Akizuki). This means that you sadly cannot stay where we did when visiting.

Donny Kimball sits in a samurai domicle in Fukuoka Prefecture’s Akizuki

Following a quick tour of the premises, my travel companions and I got ready for the next venture on the list. Our next objective was to personalize the Tashiro Family House in a way that would add our own unique flare to the building. To do so, we enlisted the help of a local chabana (a style of flower arranging) teacher. Under her skillful guidance, we created our own concoctions from a collection of blossoms that we had gathered while walking from Seiryuan. Generally, I don’t have a knack for these types of crafts yet this time I managed to assemble a beautiful arrangement of wild flowers.

At this point in our travels, the group dispersed leaving us with ninety minutes of freetime before dinner. Given that I am a huge history buff, I immediately made a beeline for the Akizuki Castle Ruins. Today, only the original gate of the former fortress stands but it nevertheless remains an impressive site to behold. As I meandered about the now naked stone walls, I brooded on the eight centuries that contributed to this stronghold’s history. Living in the modern world, it’s easy to forget just how impermanent everything really is.

Should you find yourself at the Akizuki Castle Ruins, be sure to check out the Sugi-no-Baba street that runs directly in front of the grounds. This lane is lined with numerous cherry trees. Every year in spring, the entire street comes alive with stunning pink hues as the cherry blossoms flower. What’s more, Sugi-no-Baba is equally as enchanting during the autumn months when the leaves are set ablaze. In all honesty, if you’re planning a visit to Akizuki, I’d highly encourage you to do so during either of these two seasonal timings.

Donny Kimball learns the Kogetsuryu style taiko drumming style in Akizuki, Fukuoka Prefecture

After wandering about the Akizuki Castle Ruins and some other parts of the town, I made my way back for dinner with the group at the Tashiro Family House. Once I had yet again stuffed my gullet with locally sourced delectables, we departed for the final destination of the day. To cap off the night, we were treated with a taiko performance by practitioners of the local Kogetsu-ryu style. This school of drumming has been passed down through the generations of Akizuki’s samurai and is distinct from other forms of taiko.

Following the presentation, my group and I got a chance to try our hands at playing the taiko drums in the Kogetsuryu style. While I made a complete fool of myself, it was interesting to observe how the local Akizuki style differed from other forms of taiko in Japan. Compared to more flashy displays that I had witnessed in the past (such as the Oga Peninsula’s Onga Namahage Taiko group), the Kogetsu-ryu style was definitely more austere and befitting of a dignified samurai caste.

Akizuki: Day Two

Local government staff work to dress Donny Kimball in samurai armor in Akizuki, Fukuoka Prefecture

So, I am not going to lie. Sleeping in an old samurai domicile during autumn is not what one could describe as “warm.” In fact, I woke around 6:00 AM shivering from the cold and wondering whether or not I’d make it. It’s amazing that over the centuries people were able to endure such conditions without the likes of heaters and other modern conveniences. It just goes to show how out of touch we are with our environment these days. Had it not been for my patented MeatTech™ that I wear around my waist, I very well might have frozen to death…

Anyway, day two started off with a bang. The first activity on the list was to don a traditional samurai set of armor. Known in Japanese as a yoroi, it took a dedicated team roughly fifteen minutes all in all to prepare me for battle. While my “Big in Japan” body didn’t really fit well into the armor, we did manage to capture some killer shots as can be seen above. It’s a shame the pandemic made it necessary to keep our masks on due to the rather close proximity of others while getting suited up.

Once we had taken ample fodder for the Gram, the Discover Deep Japan team and I went on to enjoy a traditional samurai breakfast. Though spartan, the fare consisted of fish, rice, and pickles; indeed, a tasty and nourishing feast. What’s more, the backdrop of the Tashiro Family House, coupled with our typical warrior garments, made the entire experience feel nobly authentic. Even now, I still cannot believe that the local authorities let us both eat AND sleep in a Tangible Cultural Property.

Donny Kimball learns how to shoot a bow used for kyudo in Akizuki, Fukuoka Prefecture

Now, warmed by the sustenance of a good breakfast, we hopped into our cars and made our way over to Kansui. Here, we had two activities slated. First and foremost, we were to try our hand at kyudo. This martial art has its roots steeped in a millennia of Japanese archery on the battlefield and is practised by thousands worldwide. Prior incarnations of this discipline were known as kyujitsu but as the techniques gradually became infused with Zen thinking during the Edo period (1603–1868), kyudo emerged. Focusing more on “the way” of archery, kyudo places a higher emphasis on self-mastery.

Anyone who has ever fired a bow will tell you, archery ain’t exactly easy. For starters, it requires incredible focus to move your body in the precise manner needed to properly draw the bow. Likewise, there’s a critical upper back strength component to take into consideration. Even with the beginner’s longbows we used for practice, the kinetic energy built up in the string when at full draw was frightening. It’s only after you’ve tried your hands at kyudo that you’re able to understand that mastering both one’s mind and body while expressing it via an accurate shot is a true feat.

A teamaster prepares green tea as part of the tea ceremony in Akizuki, Fukuoka Prefecture

Following our failure at kyudo, the team and I made our way over to another area of Kansui. Here, we were to participate in a cherished part of Edo period (1603–18668) samurai culture, the tea ceremony. This custom was followed by what is known as cha-kaiseki, a mixed hybrid of the traditional tea ceremony and a kaiseki meal typically featured at an upscale ryokan. Much like the standard tea ceremony, cha-kaiseki comes with a complex set of rules on how to pass dishes, bowls, etc. This treasured ritual is yet another great example of peacetime samurai’s devotion to the process.

Again, stuffed following the to-die-for kaiseki experience, it was time to link up with the legendary Micaela of Fukuoka Eats fame at our Airbnb. For those who don’t recognize the name, Micaela is a rockstar in the region and has been living in Fukuoka Prefecture for over a decade and a half now. As is the case with many of the other Japan content creators, Micaela is an amazing human being and you should definitely check her out. Unlike not-a-foodie Donny, Micaela actually documents her gastronomic experiences and is therefore a great compliment to my odd interests.

Donny Kimball celebrates with the Discover Deep Japan team after the itinerary comes to a close in Akizuki

Day two was to end with a small Halloween party with Micaela, many of the local tourism officials and the Discover Deep Japan team that had organized everything. Seeing as we had a few hours to kill before the revelry kicked off, I took it upon myself to share what I had learned about Akizuki. With the few last moments of sunlight, Micaela and I departed our accommodations for a quick tour of Akizuki. Though time was limited, we managed to squeeze in the Akizuki Castle Ruins and several spots I had visited on the previous day.

All in all, my two-day stint in Akizuki was one to remember. I had really wanted to see the rest of Asakura City yet there was simply not enough time given all the samurai-related activities. Lucky for me, as an off the beaten path content producer, I had the chance to visit again in 2021 so see this article for more information about the area.

Attractions Near Akizuki

The historic buildings of Mameda-cho in Oita Prefecture’s Hita

Akizuki (and the rest of Asakura City) combines well with a number of other regional draws. In fact, you’d be foolish to come all the way down to this part of Kyushu and not visit nearby locations. The following list is what I would consider exploring when planning a visit to this neck of the woods…

  • Hita City
    Pictured above, Hita is a town that is located just to the south of Asakura City. Specifically, you’re going to want to check out the Mameda-machi. Similar to Saitama Prefecture’s Kawagoe, this part of Hita previously served as a castle town during medieval times. Thanks to the Tokugawa shogunate’s protection and its convenient location on a major highway, Hita prospered greatly and eventually grew into a hub of commerce.
  • Fukuoka City
    To be frank, I’ve never been to Fukuoka City outside of a short stint at the airport. There is just too much going on there to fit into a mere weekend. In fact, there are folks out there like Micaela who live in Fukuoka City and haven’t even come close to running out of things to do. Should you opt to visit Fukuoka City, be sure to budget for a couple of days.
  • Dazaifu
    Established in the late 7th century, Dazaifu was the former nerve center of all of Kyushu for much of Japanese history. The stronghold was built a short distance from an important port in Fukuoka City that served as a critical point of connection with the Asian mainland. These days, Dazaifu is a cultural getaway from Fukuoka City and boasts a myriad of temples and shrines. You’ll find this area sitting to the north of Akizuki and Asakura City.

Until next time travelers…