A city in southern Fukuoka Prefecture, Yanagawa is often called "the city of water" and "the Venice of Kyushu" because of its 470 kilometers of canals, which were originally built as irrigation channels using the waters of the Chikugo River. Yanagawa now offers slow, scenic cruises down the waterways in flatboats known as donkobune, poled along by boatmen in traditional wear.
While you're in Yanagawa, tour the former home of Yanagawa's dominant clan, the Tachibanas, who ruled during the country's feudal era. Also be sure to sample its signature dish, unagi—locally caught eel that's got a rich taste and plenty of protein. Unagi is especially good during the hot summer months.
Car is the best way to get to Yanagawa, although public transportation is available.
Yanagawa is located in the southern part of Fukuoka Prefecture. From Fukuoka, take the train from Nishitetsu Fukuoka Station to Nishitetsu-Yanagawa Station, which takes about 45 minutes. If traveling by car from Fukuoka, take the Kyushu Expressway to the Miyama Yanagawa Interchange. It's 30 minutes from there to Yanagawa.
Yanagawa's canals were fortified when Yanagawa was transformed into a castle town shortly before the start of the Edo period at the beginning of the 17th century. Now they are relaxing waterways you can explore on a cruise. Oarsmen with long poles push the narrow boats through the canals, telling you about the city's long and impressive history and singing nursery rhymes penned by Yanagawa's famous poet, Hakushu Kitahara.
Many of Yanagawa's festivals, including the aforementioned Hakushu Festival and the Ohina-sama Water Parade, center around the canals and the boats that ply them. You can arrange for a ride on one of these boats online—search for Yanagawa punting. You can even get discount tickets.
The Ohana residence was built in 1697 as the home of the Tachibana clan, the feudal lords who ruled Yanagawa. The huge residence covers 23,000 square meters and is surrounded on three sides by canals. The residence's main feature, its garden, was built in 1910 by the 14th Yanagawa lord, Tomoharu Tachibana.
The garden features a lake surrounded by black pines. Overlooking the lake is the residence's grand banquet hall, a large Japanese room with tatami flooring. Other buildings include the impressive Western-style Seiyokan and a museum with displays of the time of the Tachibana family.
A three-minute walk from Ohana is Suitengu, a beautiful riverside shrine, which hosts a small festival from May 3 to 5 with traditional dancing and singing.
Yanagawa is the birthplace of the Meiji era (1868-1912) poet and children's songwriter Kitahara Hakushu (1886-1942). A three-day festival is held every November here to celebrate Hakushu's life, complete with poetry readings, fireworks, music and evening boat rides. The home of Hakushu's parents has been transformed into a museum to celebrate his achievements.
The months of March and April are great times to visit Yanagawa. The city hosts a number of spring festivals, most notably the Hinamatsuri, or Doll Festival, held every year on March 3. During this festival, dolls are put on display in homes and businesses all over town.
The dolls are dressed in the style of the Heian era from the 8th to 12th century, creating a scene that evokes Japan's historic past. Some residents open up their homes to visitors so they can see these ornate dolls.
Unagi, freshwater eel, is one of Yanagawa's specialties and prepared in a special way—marinated and steamed over rice served in a lacquerware dish, topped with a sweet sauce. This dish, known as unagi no seiro-mushi, is said to have been invented by the local restaurant Ganso Motoyoshiya 300 years ago.
You can find unagi no seiro-mushi at a number of restaurants across the city. The dish is so popular in Yanagawa that many restaurants that serve it sell out during the day, so arrive early.