Looking to experience Japan’s historical and rural side? You might be best off leaving Tokyo behind for Saga Prefecture in Kyushu.
Let’s be honest, if you’re considering a visit to Saga, there’s a good chance you’ve either visited Japan before or are lucky enough to live here. So I’ll take it as a given that you’ve already visited the usual Tokyo tourist hotspots like Meiji Jingu, Shibuya Crossing, and Kabukicho and are looking for something a little less crowded and more culturally stimulating.
If you’ve a spare day to spend in Tokyo, Shibamata offers an opportunity to experience the streets of old Japan without battling your way through crowds. Famous as the hometown of Tora-san from the long-running movie series, Otoko wa Tsurai yo (“It’s tough being a man”), the town has done well to preserve its streets and buildings—leaving the place positively brimming with old-school shitamachi (downtown) charm.
Once you’ve enjoyed the streets (and the many food vendors that line them), the impressive Taishakuten Temple is well worth a visit. For ¥400 you can also check out the intricate Buddhist wood carvings that adorn the exterior of the temple—as well as a beautifully maintained Japanese garden.
Bonus tip: don’t miss the eclectic Showa-style shop on your way back to the station for cheap old-timey snacks. Look for the vending machine robot—it’s hard to miss.
Saga’s best destinations and experiences
If Shibamata is your kind of sightseeing, then make your way to Saga Prefecture for the best of old Japan.
Hizen Nao Washi papermaking factory, Saga City
If you’re into any kind of papercraft, cardmaking or scrapbooking, you’ll probably already be familiar with washi (traditional Japanese paper). Hizen Nao Washi papermaking factory (in Japanese) is a rare chance to see Japanese paper being made the old-fashioned way.
The entire process is done by hand—and starts with stripping and treating the bark from mulberry trees. This is mixed with water and glue and run through a thin bamboo screen. Putting it simply, the water falls out, but the fibers remain in a flat sheet. Dry that out and presto—you’ve got paper.
If you’re lucky (and they’re not too busy) you might just get an offer to try yourself. Suffice to say it’s every bit as difficult and technical as it looks—every individual step requires the kind of practiced hand I don’t have. Once it had been dried, my effort looked more like a cloud trapped in a panini press than the uniform rectangle I’d expected, but I was still vaguely proud of my monstrous progeny.
Done properly though, you’re left with a crisp sheet of washi paper. Most of it apparently goes to make paper lanterns and banners for temples and shrines—as well as bespoke art pieces for independent buyers. Fortunately, there’s also a wide range of paper stock, stationery and sculptures in the adjacent gift shop.
Yutoku Inari Shrine, Kashima City
When you think of Inari (agricultural gods—usually associated with foxes), you’re more likely to think of this shrine’s super-famous cousin in Kyoto (Fushimi Inari Shrine). But as one of the three biggest Inari shrines in Japan, it has almost everything the Kyoto one has: a mountain, rows of bright wooden torii gates and a bunch of fox statues. The only thing it lacks is the enormous crowds of people bumping into you, standing around trying to get the perfect Insta photo and generally distracting you from the tranquil image you had in your mind.
Enjoy that while it lasts though because head priest Tomohisa Nabeshima has big plans. He believes that the gods here above all else want to attract visitors. To that end, he’s on a campaign to modernize Shinto shrines like this, and make them more approachable—especially to foreigners (hence the modern touches). They’ve even built an elevator to make the place more wheelchair accessible.
As one of Saga’s most important cultural spots, Yutoku Inari Shrine would be worth visiting for the history, architecture or scenery alone—making it a triple threat.
Kaichu floating torii gates, Tara
If you’re driving along the coast, you might consider taking a quick snap of the “floating” torii gates. Usually half-submerged by the sea, you can walk straight through them at low tide. Word is if you can throw a rock onto the middle beam you’ll receive some kind of vague good luck in your relationships.
This stretch of road is famous for oysters, and you’ll see plenty of fried oyster shacks in the area, as well as places you can barbecue your own seafood at reasonable prices. If you’re more worried about eating cheap than eating local, don’t worry—there are a few convenience stores dotted around too.
The gates are a 10-minute walk from JR Tara Station.
Hizen Hamashuku, Saga City
This Edo-era street is awash with beautiful traditional properties selling artisanal products. Once a famous rest area for travelers, the road is now known for its many sake shops. The award-winning Hizenya brewery in particular is well worth a visit. The staff there will be all too happy to talk you through their products and how they make them (in Japanese).
Access: 2696 Hamamachi, Kashima, Saga 849-1322
Most importantly, you can taste almost all of the huge range of sake, shochu and umeshu before you buy, making it a great place to train your palate and discover what suits your tastes. Be sure to explore the building too—there’s a surprising array of interesting vintage trinkets from Japanese daily life arranged into a small museum of sorts around the back.
Nabeshima Dantsu Yoshijima Residence, Saga City
Looking for a super expensive carpet to take home? This rug sales space also doubles a museum showcasing luxury handmade local carpets. If you call ahead, you may be able to see the workers creating their designs. Each knot has to be tied by hand, and the average completed rug takes as many as three months to make.
Address: 1-28 Akamatsumachi, Saga 840-0042
Take a walking tour of Yanagimachi, Saga City
Within walking distance of the station, Yanagimachi is famed for its old streets, restaurants, and many statues of the god Ebisu (a chubby, large earlobed chap associated with good luck and prosperity). It’s a great area to explore at your own leisure, but if you need a destination, the recent reconstruction of Saga Castle is well worth a visit.
The castle itself (including volunteer guides in multiple languages) is free, though there is a donation box if you’re feeling generous).
The nearby Saga Prefectural Government Office is also worth dropping in—the top floor holds a free 360-degree observation deck with panoramic views of the city.
Getting from Tokyo to Saga Prefecture
The easiest and more afforable way to get to Saga from Tokyo is taking an easy 2-hour flight.
|Tokyo Haneda => Saga||ANA||US$146.00||Jan 14, 2024||Booking options|
You can also get there by Shinkansen, but it will take over 6 hours with a few transfers—and total costs would be significantly more than a plane ticket.