February 26, 2021

Back to Asakura

Located in Fukuoka, Asakura was allegedly where Queen Himiko, the first Japanese known to history, held dominion over a land called Yamatai.

Asakura's iconic water wheels along the Chikugo River

It should really come as no surprise to those who already follow me on the Gram that Asakura has a special place in my heart. Not only is this provincial section of Fukuoka Prefecture a treasure trove of bucolic delights, it’s also under the jurisdiction of a close friend and his company, Discover Deep Japan. Thanks to their ever-helpful support with logistics, I was recently able to explore all of the many sights in Asakura that I would have never otherwise gotten to see without my own set of wheels (maybe one of these days, I’ll actually get an automobile license of my own).

My forays down in Asakura not too long ago were actually the second time that I had the chance to visit the region. During my initial adventure, I was limited only to the confines of Asakura’s crowning jewel of Akizuki. This former castle town is a real gem and is definitely worth checking out if you want to sample what samurai life would have been like during peaceful times. Seeing as my prior piece contains all you could ever want to know about Akizuki, I am going to instead opt to focus on other areas for round two.

While my personal connection to Discover Deep Japan first put Asakura on the map for me, understand that the area actually belies a huge historical finding. You see, if we assume that the archeological findings are correct, this pastoral part of Fukuoka Prefecture is actually the location of Queen Himiko’s ancient kingdom of Yamatai. Haven’t heard of Queen Himiko or Yamatai before? Well, I’d wager that you’re not alone. Hell, even many Japanese people don’t know about this venerable ruler!

So, who was Queen Himiko? That, my friend, is a bit of a complicated question as we don’t have too much to reliably go on. Looking just at her name, which literally means “Child of the Sun” by the way, we can tell that she was someone of great import. Here, one just needs to recall that the sun goddess Amaterasu Omikami occupies the highest echelon of the pantheon of deities in Japan. This fact alone should help to contextualize Queen Himiko’s significance.

Historically speaking, we unfortunately have little to go on when it comes to Queen Himiko. Unlike its neighbor China, early Japanese kingdoms were pretty poor at bookkeeping. From what we can piece together, she lived between the years of 170 and 248 AD. If we are to trust the few sources that we have, Queen Himiko was an early Japanese monarch who governed large swaths of the country. Her true claim to fame though is having appeared in a treatise with China, thereby making Queen Himiko the first Japanese person known to history.

The hilarious YouTuber and good friend of mine Linfamy has done a killer video on all that we know about Queen Himiko. To avoid going too far down the rabbit hole, I’ve elected to just embed the YouTube clip above. I suggest you give it a watch before continuing so that you can properly appreciate Asakura’s legacy…

Getting to Asakura

Trains pull into a rural station in Asakura, Fukuoka.

OK, so that I don’t end up going all #DonnyThings on you and rant for another thousand words about Queen Himiko, let’s take a quick breather to cover some key logistics. As mentioned above, Asakura is technically found within the confines of Fukuoka Prefecture. Though located only around a mere hour’s drive to the south of the city’s center, Asakura feels miles removed from the hustle and bustle of the capital. It’s truly a very rural region and is therefore perfect for those looking for a reprieve from Fukuoka City’s concrete jungle.

To get to Asakura, you’re going to of course need to first make your way down to Fukuoka Prefecture. By far, the most expedient way to do so is to hop a quick flight down from Tokyo (or wherever you’re coming from). Alternatively, you can elect to do what I did and take the nearly five hour bullet train ride down from Japan’s capital. If you’re doing a workation and need to bang something out, this can be a very productive period. Note that this might be a more affordable option for those with JR Rail Passes.

Regardless of how you actually make the trek to Fukuoka City, you’ll want to snag yourself a set of wheels immediately thereafter. While Much of Asakura can be potentially done via public transportation, this isn’t ideal and will greatly increase the amount of time that you’ll need to see it all. Given all of the amazing allures elsewhere in Japan, it makes little sense to waste precious time waiting hours just for a bus when there are other destinations that are more easily accessed.

If you’re concerned about traveling in the countryside, see this article for my top tips and other things to remember when in the boonies. Whether or not you ultimately go to Asakura, it’s a great reference for anyone considering getting off of the beaten path in Japan!

What to See in Asakura

Yayoi period dwellings recreated at the Hiratsuka Kawazoe Archaeological Park.

The entirety of the Asakura area is vast. In fact, you’ll need a solid two days or so to see it all even with your own set of wheels. What’s more, there’s simply no way for me to recommend a route as many of the attractions have niche appeal. For the sake of completeness, I am going to list out all of the spots that I visited during my two-day stint in Asakura. Feel free to pick and choose from these to concoct your own itinerary. As always, I’ll include some links for further reading…

  • Hiratsuka Kawazoe Archaeological Park
    While you’ll encounter paraphernalia related to Queen Himiko all over Asakura, this is THE spot to check out if you’re keen to learn more about life during the time of her reign. On the grounds, you’ll find a facility that acts as an experiential study hall as well as a reconstructed Yayoi period (1000 BCE— 300 CE) village that is indicative of what life would have been life during Queen Himiko’s reign. Back inside the main building, visitors can handle replicas of ancient jewellery, pottery, hunting tools, and weapons. Additionally, you’ll also find authentic relics such as spears, arrows and fire makers here too.
  • Asakura’s Water Wheels
    Water plays a key role in almost everything in Asakura. The region has developed a deep connection to its rivers and irrigation systems due to being completely surrounded by both dense forest and towering mountains. Perhaps nothing is more symbolic of this symbiosis than Asakura’s water wheels. Found along the Chikugo River, Kyushu’s longest waterway, these engineering marvels are a must see when in Asakura.
  • Eso Hachimangu
    Esteemed readers, did you know that Asakura was once actually the capital of Japan for a brief moment (and no, I am not talking about Queen Himiko here). Back in the year 661, the empress of the time temporarily moved the capital to Asakura as part of the budding Japanese empire’s campaign against the Korean kingdom of Baekje. Her son was sent on a mission to Usa Jingu, the progenitor shrine of all Hachiman Shrines. When he returned to Asakura, the gods sent down a white flag with the name of a powerful deity on it as a sign of victory. This fell on Mt. Eso and the locals later erected this shrine there.
  • Iwaya Shrine on Mt. Hoshu
    One of the great things about Asakura is that it has a nigh infinite amount of secret allures to choose from. Of all the many spots I visited though, few could compare to the grounds of Iwaya Shrine. Located on the slopes of Mt. Hoshu, this sanctum houses a meteor that fell from the sky in the year 547. Since then, the object has been considered sacred and anyone who looks upon it is said to go blind. Moreover, the Iwaya Shrine complex was also used for yamabushi ascetic training in the days of yore. This place very well might be the ultimate hidden gem!
  • Pottery, Kilns & Toho Village
    Located not too far away from Mt. Hoshu is the hidden Toho Village. This sleepy hamlet has been producing top tier pottery for hundreds of years. The specific variant that comes out of Toho Village’s kilns is called Koishiwara-yaki, a type of pottery that is named after Koishiwara City in Fukuoka Prefecture. While you’ll need some help overcoming the language barrier, those who have a thing for pottery are highly encouraged to try their hand at making something. While not really my shtick, it does add an additional layer of authenticity to your Asakura visit!

In addition to all these spots, there’s also an endless list of other neat little allures such as the Yamada Weir which oversees all of Asakura’s irrigation system. It’s amazing just how jam packed this rural section of Fukuoka is when it comes to things to check out!

Attractions Near Asakura

Donny Kimball sits in a Japanese garden in Asakura’s area of Akizuki.

If you’re going to come all the way down to Asakura, I really insist that you make some time to also see Akizuki. This former castle town is really one of the main allures in this neck of the woods. Though amazing all year round, Akizuki really comes to life in spring and autumn. As winter comes to an end, all of the cherry blossom trees in front of the Akizuki Castle Ruins reach their zenith. Alternatively, those visiting during fall will be greeted by vibrant hues as the foliage changes.

In addition to Akizuki, one other recommendation I have is Hita down in neighboring Oita Prefecture. This town was formerly directly under the jurisdiction of the Tokugawa shogunate. Over the years, it grew to be an important trade hub due to its location at a natural crossroad in inner Kyushu. Though not found within the confines of Asakura, it is an easy add-on, especially for those going to Mt. Hoshu and/or Toho Village.

Until next time travelers…