By Helen Foster
Despite the fact that I’ve travelled to Japan many times, my trips have always been concentrated around Tokyo or a few hours either side of it, on my last trip though I branched out; flying into Fukuoka, the biggest city on Japan’s Kyushu island, I went on a journey around Western Japan – and realised, I’ve been missing out. From shrines that took my breath away to one of the most beautiful gardens in the world, it seems there are a lot of extraordinary things to see and do in Western Japan. Here are some of my highlights.
1. Visiting The Amazing Buddha at Nanzoin Temple, Fukuoka
In this age of Instagram, it’s unusual to be so shocked by the sight of something, you literally stop in your tracks when you see it, but that’s what happened to me when I first came face-to-face with the reclining Buddha statue in Nanzoin Temple. It’s immense. Weighing as much as a jumbo jet , 41 metres long and 11 metres high it literally dwarfs the people praying in front of it.
What makes the Nanzoin Buddha truly amazing though is that it’s completely hidden from prying eyes. The first time you see it is when you walk into the vast open space that surrounds it and it’s breathtaking. Don’t miss it if you’re in Fukuoka. It’s just a 30-minute train ride away from Hakata station on the Fukuhoku Yutaka line. Get off at Kido Nanzoin – and follow the signs to the temple.
2. The Intriguing Architecture of Ohana, Yanagawa
About an hour’s journey from Fukuoka, Ohana was the home of the Tachibana family who ruled over the city of Yanagawa from 1620-1871. With such a venerable Japanese pedigree, it’s a bit surprising to enter Ohana via opulent green metal gates to find a white stone building that looks more like a palace in France than a traditional Japanese home. Head further inside though and the style changes and as you’ll soon find yourself in a banqueting hall lined with 100 tatami mats laid end-to-end overlooking of the properties beautiful Shoto-en style garden.
The mix of styles occurs because the front of the home was added by the Tachibana family in the early 1900s and at this time the fashion among the wealthy was to have a western-style front of the house leading to a traditional Japanese home at the back – and it’s the most beautiful example of how two very different styles combine. You can visit Ohana between 9am-6pm – but try and come around lunchtime so you can enjoy their speciality dish of Unagi no Seiro-Mushi – steamed eel – at the onsite restaurant
In summer, you can arrive at Ohana by boat after a trip along Yanagawa’s pretty canals, just as the feudal lords did back when it was first built. Visit the Ohana website for more details.
3. Tasting Unusual Sake in Kurume
The town of Kurume is famous for its sake – and the breweries here make a sweet sake that reflects the sweet cuisine of northern Kyushu.
Sake is only brewed here in winter and February sees the celebration of the new sake season. Thousands of people come to celebrate and try the year’s newest bottles, but you can taste sake in Kurume, any day, visiting one of the many local sake breweries.
I went to Ikekame, who have won many awards for their sake. It’s particularly unusual as it’s made from a dark fungi usually only used to make the drink shochu, this gives it a distinct light citrus taste. You can visit the brewery’s on-site shop between 10-4.30. It’s a short ten minute taxi ride from Daizenji Station. Note that the shop is closed on Sundays and public holidays
4. Marvelling at the Motonosumi Inari Shrine
After a few days in Fukuoka, I left the island of Kyushu and travelled to the western side of Honshu island – and, again, I’m blown away by the sights. This time though it’s literally as well as figuratively as I stand on a desolate, wind and wave-battered clifftop looking down at the beautiful Motonosumi Inari shrine.
The shrine was built in 1955 after a local fisherman dreamt he must build a shrine on the cliffs where he usually fished –and let’s just say, he didn’t do it by half; the line of 123 vermillion torii gates that lead you to the shrine snakes 100 metres up the hill. While the wind might bluster outside, head inside the gates and you’ll feel completely cocooned by their scarlet warmth.
When you reach the top a small shrine is waiting to receive your prayers and wishes, but if you want them to come true you need to make an offering – by throwing a coin into a box located five metres up on one of the shrine’s gates. It’s pretty hard to do – but a lot of fun to try.
The nearest large town to the shrine is Nagato. To get there get the train to JR Nagato Furuichi station. The shrine is a 20-minute taxi ride away.
5. Exploring the Tower at Matsue Castle
Once upon a time Japan was full of beautiful castles; however an official order in the Meiji era (around the early 1900s) decreed they should be destroyed. Only 12 castles escaped the order –and of these, Matsue Castle is the second largest and third tallest left in Japan.
You’ll need to remove your shoes to climb the five storeys to the top of the tower to protect the delicate wood inside but once you reach the top you’re rewarded with a 360-degree view of town. The castle’s park-like grounds are a peaceful place to sit – and have been voted one of Japan’s Top 100 Places to See Cherry Blossoms (so don’t miss that if you’re there in season). Also make sure you visit the small Matsue shrine to the left of the castle with its pretty heart shaped prayer plaques.
Matsue castle is open daily, but visit their website for the seasonal opening hours. The nearest station is Matsue which is about a 30-minute walk to the castle. You can also take the local Lake Loop bus.
6. Appreciating the Gardens at the Adachi Museum of Art
It might seem strange to highlight gardens in a museum – particularly a museum that houses one of the most impressive collections of Japanese fine art in the world – but these are no ordinary gardens.
First, they’ve been voted the Most Beautiful Japanese Gardens in the World sixteen times by one US magazine, but more interestingly, they’re not actually made to be walked in. Instead, the museum’s creator designed the gardens to be viewed from inside the museum via windows that act as frames. It turns the gardens into living works of art and is really unusual.
A short train ride from Matsue to the town of Yasugi, brings you close to the Adachi Museum of Art – the museum’s free shuttle bus will take you to the door. Visit the Adachi website for more details.
I could talk about more amazing sights I saw in Western Japan – I could talk about tiny unspoilt towns like Tsuwano, the relaxing hot springs hotels that dot the district or delicious meals of Tonkotsu ramen or the ‘only for the brave’ pufferfish known as Fugu that the area is known for – but why not go and discover this amazing region for yourself – you won’t regret it.