March 29, 2019

Saga Prefecture

Rarely on the radar for visitors to Japan, Saga Prefecture is a place that is all about high-quality ceramics, good sake and foxy shrines.

A porcelain vase on a bridge in Saga Prefecture's Arita area

Welcome back to another installment in my area guide series. As always, I’ll be going incredibly deep to ensure that you, the reader, are equipped with all that you need to know to get off the beaten path. Today we’ll be taking a look at the inviting but bucolic Saga Prefecture. Located down on Japan’s southernmost island of Kyushu, Saga is a prefecture that strikes a Goldilocks-like balance that few other places can achieve. Though chock full of many attractions, the prefecture somehow manages to maintain all of its rural charm. Alas, all of this comes at the hefty price of things being rather spread out. To properly see it all, you’ll need to budget for at least a day and a half. Trust me on this one. I had two whole days and could barely fit in everything that I wanted to see.

Now, before we dive into the weeds, let’s first quickly cover what type of traveler Saga most appeals to. For starters, like with all prefectures in Kyushu, Saga is great for those who are looking for something a little different than the mainstream Tokyo and Kyoto experience. Additionally, Saga is also great for connoisseurs of artisanal crafts. The prefecture is known both in Japan as well as overseas as a Mecca for porcelain wares. Moreover, you’ll also find a slew of other creators in Saga such as sake breweries and seaweed cultivators. Hell, Saga even lays claim to some of the best beef in Japan. All in all, if you’re a repeat visitor and have an appreciation for fine work, Saga is a great destination to consider adding to your itinerary.

Getting to Saga Prefecture

Donny Kimball holds an ANA ticket for a flight to Saga Prefecture

As with all locations in Kyushu, access from Tokyo or Osaka isn’t exactly what I’d call convenient. While you certainly CAN make the trek by train, you’ll lose the better part of a day in the process. Instead of trying to milk your JR Rail Pass for all it’s worth, I suggest that you simply bite the bullet and purchase a flight like I did. It’s certainly not cheap but it beats losing a day. If you are eager to maximize your time like I am, you can even follow my lead and take the very first flight down so you can hit the ground running. In my case, this was an ANA flight from Haneda that got me in as early as 9:30 AM. Note that if you’re looking to make use of one of my travel hacks and are coming from East Asia, there may actually be a direct flight for you into Saga.

Anyway, once you’re in Saga, things get a bit tougher. For those of you who can drive, your best option is to simply rent a car. While you might think that this would be expensive, compared to alternatives, it’s actually quite reasonable. The added convenience easily makes up for whatever you’d save on a combination of trains and taxis. Alas, schleps like me who have never driven a car before have little recourse but to make use of public transportation. In the interest of looking out for readers who cannot drive, I’ll be authoring this guide from the perspective of someone who doesn’t have the luxury of a rental car. If you do, just rely on Google Maps for directions.

Now for you poor souls who need to cart yourselves around via public transportation, know that your first step involves getting to the JR Saga Station. To do so, you’ll want to exit the airport and turn left. There, you’ll find a bus waiting for you. This will take you into the city for the cost a mere 600 yen which thankfully can be paid either in cash or with an IC Card like a Suica. To confirm if you’re on the right bus or not, simply look for “佐賀駅バスセンター” in Japanese. This reads “Saga Prefecture Bus Center.” I was initially a little confused but rest assured that this is right next to the actual train station itself. Should my directions still be perplexing, just ask the driver in basic English if this is going to Saga Station or not.

Once you’ve managed to navigate your way to the JR Saga Station, your options really open up as this hub connects to all the major destinations in the prefecture. Just be aware that departures are relatively infrequent as this isn’t a major metropolitan area like Tokyo. Be extra careful to plan your connection with a service like Hyperdia. Missing a train here could mean that you lose out on an entire hour or more of adventuring. Moreover, there’s little else to do around the train station so don’t make this mistake! While the JR Saga Station has a handful of cafes, you probably didn’t come to Japan to relax over a good old cup of joe.

Saga Prefecture’s Kashima & Tara Areas

Donny Kimball eats a sake-flavored ice cream at Hizen Hamashuku in Saga Prefecture

OK, let’s get this show on the road! The first areas that I’d like to introduce are the seaside towns of Kashima & Tara. Located along the coast of the Ariake Sea, an area known for its seaweed, these two hamlets have a surprising number of attractions to see. To kick things off, I suggest that you first visit Hizen Hamashuku in Kashima. Here, you’ll encounter a handful of sake breweries along a charming little street called Sakagura-dori. In days gone by, this area prospered greatly as a post town along one of Kyushu’s main highways, the Tara-kaido. Not too long thereafter, during the Meiji period (1868–1912), Hizen Hamashuku evolved into what it is now. Even today, there are still a host of breweries and shops that line this 600 meter-long stretch and many of them sell yummy treats like the sake flavored ice cream seen above.

One of Hizen Hamashuku’s most appealing allures is its well preserved traditional architecture. Here, you’ll find row upon row of historical homes and warehouses that have persisted for hundreds of years now. What’s more, much of the region has been selected as an Important Preservation District for Groups of Traditional Buildings. For those who have visited my beloved city of Kawagoe in Saitama Prefecture, know that a stroll along Sakagura-dori will evoke a similarly feel. While a certainly bit off the beaten path by normal tourists’ standards, Hizen Hamashuku offers a level of authenticity that is all but missing in more commodified areas.

To get to Hizen Hamashuku’s Sakagura-dori, you’ll need to hop on one of the local trains that run from Saga to Hizen-hama Station. Note that these do not accept IC cards like Suica or Pasmo. Because of this, you’ll need to make sure that you purchase a ticket in advance if you don’t already have a JR rail pass. From the station, Sakagura-dori is only about a five to ten minute walk. Just head to this point and turn left. By the way, for those coming by rental car, know that, at least from what I can gather, there should be parking nearby so keep your eyes out for a convenient spot.

The venerable Yutoku Inari Shrine in Saga Prefecture

After you sample some sake while strolling along Sakagura-dori, it will be time to move onto my next recommendation in Kashima, Yutoku Inari Shrine. Like with the ultra-famous Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto, this 300 year-old sepulcher is dedicated to the fox deity Inari Okami. In fact, along with one other (that is often debated), the sanctums in Saga and Kyoto make up a trifecta of shrines to Inari Okami. One of the most impressive facets of Yutoku Inari Shrine is that it built directly into the steep hillside of a valley. Thanks to the support of 18 massive beams, the main hall is suspended high in the air in a surprisingly similar fashion to another Kyoto attraction, the Buddhist temple Kiyomizu-dera. While visiting, see if you can spot any of the many other examples of the syncretic union of Shinto and Buddhism.

Like with the progenitor Inari sanctorium in Kyoto, Yutoku Inari Shrine also has a trail that leads further into the wooded hillside behind the shrine. Of course, this too is lined from start to finish with countless vermilion torii gateways. In fact, the only discernible difference from its Kyoto cousin is that Yutoku Inari Shrine is FAR less crowded. As such, it’s much easier to snap a good selfie without the hordes of other tourists crowding your shot. In addition to its favorable photography, Yutoku Inari Shrine also afford a great views from the summit for anyone who can endure the climb. Believe me when I say that panoramic vistas of nearby Kashima and the Ariake Sea is well worth the sweat.

Unfortunately, reaching Yutoku Inari Shrine is no easy task. Assuming that you’re not blessed with a rental car, you’ll either need to take a taxi (hailable from here) or hoof it to get there. While there are a few buses that depart from the next station over form Hizen-hama, these are both inconveniently timed and hard to understand without fluent Japanese. Instead, stick to the basics and make your way via either of the two means that I’ve recommended. While putting one foot in front of the other is free as always, taking a taxi will run you around 1,600 yen each way.

Three seaside torii gates at Ouo Shrine in Saga Prefecture

Before ending your time in this part of Saga Prefecture, there’s one more spot in the area that I suggest you check out. Often hailed as the “Floating Torii Gates of Ouo Shrine,” this trio of archways stands in the shallows of the Ariake Sea. When the tide comes in, there’s as much as a 6 meter difference causing the torii to rapidly become submerged. In fact, the water levels change so much that this part of Japan has become notorious as a spot to witness the power of the moon. By the way, the name of Ouo Shrine is derived from the word meaning large fish in Japanese. According to what I’ve read online, the legend of the site’s mythological founding is quite the tale. While not required reading to appreciate the beauty of Ouo Shrine, it’s a quirky and interesting story.

Though Ouo Shrine technically in the neighboring town of Tara and not Kashima, this highly Instagrammable spot is only a 3,000 yen taxi ride away from Yutoku Inari Shrine. While it can be easily reach on foot from the station, the local trains that run to Tara Station are quite infrequent. So that you do not end up with a serious case of the countryside humdrums while waiting, just invest in a taxi if you’re going to visit this hidden gem. After all, the shot you’ll get for Instagram easily makes up for the additional costs. Moreover, the more people you have to split the cost, the cheaper taxis becomes. Of course you folks that can drive rental cars don’t need to worry about this so just plug the destination into Google.

Saga Prefectures’s Imari & Arita Areas

A porcelein statue of a woman in Saga Prefecture’s Imari area

No guide to Saga Prefecture would be complete without mentioning the areas of Imari and Arita. In fact, it’s arguable that these towns are the very reason why one should even consider visiting Saga in the first place. What makes them so special you ask? Well, the short version is that these sites were the first places in Japan to produce porcelain, a substance far stronger than traditional clay wares. After essentially uniting all of Japan in the late 16th century, the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi attempted to invade Korea. Though he was ultimately unsuccessful, one of his allies, the Nabeshima clan, forced several prominent Korean craftsmen into service back in Japan. In the year 1616, one of these discovered kaolin (a mineral critical to the production of porcelain) in the mountains or Arita and the rest is history.

Now technically speaking, unlike Arita, Imari is not one of the areas that produced porcelain. Instead, that honor belongs to the nearby, isolated mountain village of Okawachiyama. Given its proximity to the ocean, rather than be a center for production itself, Imari came to serve as a distribution hub for the goods coming out of Arita and Okawachiyama. During the Edo period (1603–1868), Imari even served as a gateway for overseas exports of the regions wares. Though they eventually had to make their way abroad via the port of Dejima in Nagasaki due to the shogunates isolationist policies, the porcelain goods flowing out of Imari became prized all throughout Europe.

These days, there’s little left in Imari of historical significance. As such, I’d encourage those who visit to not dilly dally here too long. The town is essentially little more than a place to hail a taxi to Okawachiyama. That said, there are a few attractions that you could spend thirty minutes or so exploring. Of these, the sparse collection of Edo period (1603–1868) buildings that line the river are perhaps the most alluring. Nowadays, these former merchant residences houses a gallery with a small selection of antique pottery pieces. By peeking inside, you can get a glimpse of what life would have been like back during Japan’s feudal era. In addition to these historic buildings, the Imari Nabeshima Gallery on the second floor of the train station is also worth perusing too.

The ornate Nabeshima Clan Kiln Bridge in Saga Prefecture’s hidden valley of Okawachiyama

While Imari is a bit sparse when it comes to things to do, the real reason to visit the area is the village of Okawachiyama. Stashed away in the nearby mountains, this location was a well kept secret. In fact, the Nabeshima clan was so protective of Okawachiyama that they place it directly under their control in order to keep the means of production from falling into their rivals hands. As such, the town earned the moniker “Village of the Secret Kilns.” When you visit Okawachiyama in person, you’ll feel in every fiber of your being how the Nabeshima clan took whatever measures that they could to ensure that the village remain as off the radar as possible. Given how much more durable porcelain is than traditional pottery, it’s easy to understand their paranoia regarding the technology.

Today’s Okawachiyama consists primarily of pottery workshops and their related storefronts. In total, you’ll have the opportunity to sample about thirty different shops so take your time to leisurely savor the village. Though hilly, it is easily explorable on foot. Also, make sure that you keep your eyes out for the traditional architecture. Many of the workshops have gone to great lengths to maintain their tradition tall chimneys and this adds an additional air of authenticity to Okawachiyama. Craftsmen aside, two other spots that I insist that you check our are the ornate Nabeshima Clan Kiln Bridge (pictured above) and the pyramid-shaped object in the nearby graveyard. The former is simply a magnificent sight to behold whereas the later is a monument that’s dedicated to the craftsmen brought to Japan by the Nabeshima clan.

Alas, getting to Okawachiyama is no easy task. As alluded to before, you’ll certainly need to hail a taxi if you don’t have your own rental car. The entire journey form Imari Station will run you around 1,600 yen or so. These can easily be hailed from the train station. Note that while the trip there is easy enough, it can be hard to get back since there won’t be taxis just waiting around for you. Here, my advice is to just pop into the Imari Nabeshima Ware Exhibition Hall. If you ask nicely, the staff will call a taxi company for you though you might want to consider buying something or alternatively ordering a beverage while you wait. Note that his is one of the only spots in Okawachiyama where visitors can order something to eat or drink.

Donny Kimball standing in front of Tozan Shrine’s porcelain torii gate in Saga Prefecture’s Arita area

To round out this section on porcelain, let’s finally talk about the town of Arita. Located in the next valley over to the south of Okawachiyama, this site was where kaolin was first discovered in Japan over 400 years ago. In homage to this legacy, all of the town's attractions are somehow linked to pottery. Unlike with modest village of Okawachiyama up in the mountains, Arita is a lot more built up. As you stroll through the area, you’ll encounter a collection of kilns, many porcelain museums and shops and the quarry where kaolin was first found in 1616. The following list are some of the spots that I visited during my adventures in Saga Prefecture…

  • Tozan Shrine
    Built in the mid 1600s, this former Hachiman shrine is dedicated the Koreans who brought porcelain to Japan. As can be seen in the shot above, what makes Tozan Shrine special is that its torii gateway and komainu lion-dogs are made entirely for porcelain.
  • Tonbai Walls
    Though Arita’s merchants peddled their wares along the main street, the actual act of making porcelain happened on the back alleyways. To keep their techniques hidden from competitors, these craftsmen built high walls out of old kiln bricks and discarded fragments of porcelain.
  • Izumiyama Quarry
    This is the very site where kaolin was first discovered in Japan thereby leading to the region becoming a center for porcelain production. While the quarry is no longer in use, those who swing by can view the historical site from an observation area.
  • Arita Porcelain Park
    This one is located well outside of the main areas and is therefore only recommended for those with a rental car. Although it’s a bit run down, the park is a bizarre collection of porcelain artwork including a massive reconstruction of the Zwinger Palace of Dresden.
  • The Tengudani Kiln
    Though originally located near Tozan Shrine, this 50 meter long kiln has been faithfully reproduced at the Arita Porcelain Park. At an adjacent workshop, visitors can take hands-on pottery lessons and create their own wares for a nominal fee.
A porcelain cup with a rabbit on it at Saga Prefecture’s Gallery Arita

Note that all of the above the attractions are centered around the Kami-Arita Station and NOT Arita Station. This can be a bit confusing for those of you without rental cars. You see, Kami-Arita Station is a very, very, very local station meaning that trains are extremely infrequent (like one per hour). If you don’t have your own set of wheels, you absolutely must consult Hyperdia or a similar service. Alternatively, you can make the journey on foot in about 40 minutes. It’s a bit far but it’s also a nice walk if the weather isn’t rainy like when I was in Saga Prefecture.

So, what’s around Arita Station then? Well, for starters, there’s the charming Gallery Arita that I absolutely insist you check out. In addition to being a shop that contains a whole host of porcelain wares, this location doubles as a restaurant and cafe too. What’s more, patrons at Gallery Arita can actually dine on beautifully crafted porcelain dishes that have been made right here in Arita. When ordering a beverage here, you’ll even have the chance to select your own cup from among the hundreds on display. The one seen above is the cup that I ended up selecting.

After hitting up Gallery Arita, the other thing that I suggest you visit is the Kyushu Ceramic Museum that’s located right across the street. By far, this is the best museum in the area but unfortunately not all of the plaques are translated into English. Still, entry is free and the museum gives a good context to how the wares of Arita and Okawachiyama came to be prized all over the world. Even if only for a few minutes, the Kyushu Ceramic Museum is definitely worth popping into.

There’s Still More to Saga Prefecture

Saga Prefecture’s Yoshinogari Park, a site is the largest and most renowned Yayoi period (300 BCE — 300 CE) dig site in all of Japan

Disclaimer time. I have not actually visited any of the following destinations myself. During my time in Saga, I only had two days to explore as much of the prefecture as I could but this simply wasn’t enough time to get it all in. As such, what comes hereafter is simply what I’ve been able to research online. If any of these strike your fancy, be sure to do a bit of investigation into the logistics yourselves before committing to visit.

  • Yoshinogari Park
    This one is great for history buffs who like exploring archeological dig sites. Pictured above, the sprawling compound has a number of elevated store houses and over 2,000 tombs. It is the largest and most renowned Yayoi period (300 BCE — 300 CE) dig site in all of Japan and is therefore considered the best spot to visit to learn about the era.
  • Karatsu
    This coastal city was a major stop for ships journeying to and from Korea and China. It is most known for its castle as well as the ruins of a huge fortress that Toyotomi Hideyoshi used when attempting to invade Korea in the late 1500s.
  • Takeo Onsen
    This hot spring town has over 1,300 years of history to it. The areas waters have a silky smooth feel to them and are said to be great for the skin thanks to the high concentration of sodium bicarbonate. Unlike with some onsen, this one has many options for those who are making day tips too.
  • Saga City
    While most of the prefecture’s attractions are located away from the capital of Saga, from museums to the remains of a castle, there are still a lot of things to see and do here.

Before closing, note that all that I’ve covered is just the tip of the iceberg. There’s a ton more to see and do in Saga Prefecture so try digging around in Google a bit. You’ll be surprised what you can find. Just be sure that you don’t go home without sampling some delicious Saga beef!