History Through the Eyes of a Samurai
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The city of Yanagawa was made for exploring. Nicknamed the “Venice of Kyushu” for its hundreds of kilometers of canals and the many small boats steered by boatmen that traverse them, it is one of Japan’s most picturesque cities. With a 400-year history, much of which was spent as a castle town fortified by an army of samurai, Yanagawa retains many aspects of its past, including the infrastructure of waterways and historical buildings from its merchant and samurai past.
Given its well-preserved history, it is the perfect place to explore dressed in Japan’s unique form of attire: kimono. To do this, we pay a visit to a local shop that has been in the kimono business for over 100 years, Koga Shin Kimonokan. The “Kimono de Machi-aruki” plan offers over 100 colorful kimono to choose from, along with all the accessories you need to complete your attire. For a complete makeover, women can choose an optional hair styling service. In about 30 minutes (a bit longer if you need hairstyling), you’ll be ready to step out of the shop in style, looking dazzling in your new outfit.
From the shop, it is a short stroll to the dock where you will board one of the narrow boats taking passengers on a tour of Yanagawa’s famous waterways. You can choose from a 30 or 70-minute cruise, on which you’ll be guided by a friendly boatsman (or woman) who will introduce you to the history and culture of Yanagawa. Along your journey, your boatman might sing you a song about Yanagawa or point out wildlife that inhabits the river.
The scenery of the cruise changes with the seasons. Many visitors enjoy the spring flowers, but the coolness of being on the water in the summer and the fiery colors of the changing foliage in autumn and the view of the waterways from the kotatsu (a Japanese heating device consisting of a desk covered with a futon and a brazier)in winter, are also very attractive.
One location you will pass on your journey is the Johori Suimon (water gate), a sluice gate built initially for the castle’s defense. It is the only entrance to the canal system, and its masonry of large, perfectly cut stones serves as a reminder of the skillful craftsmen who helped build the city.
You’ll pass many historical merchant buildings along your cruise as well, some of which are still in use. The Namikura are three stately red-brick warehouses that will instantly catch your eye on the banks of the canal. They are currently used a the miso storehouse of the Tsuru Miso Brewery and are one of the most photogenic locations in Yanagawa.
Concluding our river cruise and bidding our friendly boatwoman farewell, we walked to Ohana, the nickname of the beloved estate of the Tachibana family. The current owners of the estate are descendants of the original samurai family who inhabited Yanagawa Castle in the Edo Period (1603–1867). Ohana was not part of the castle but a home where the lord of the castle could enjoy spending time with his family.
Today, you don’t have to be a member of the ruling class to enjoy this beautiful estate that the Tachibana family has lovingly maintained. For a small admission fee, stroll the Tachibana Garden of Ohana and explore the buildings, most of which were constructed about 100 years ago. Somehow, being dressed in kimono adds to the authenticity of the experience, as you might imagine being an honored guest of Lord Tachibana himself.
Inside the buildings, enjoy displays of colorful Japanese handicrafts or rest your feet in the enormous 100-tatami-mat main hall with a perfect view of the garden. Ohana is a place loved by visitors and the residents of Yanagawa alike, and it is easy to understand why after spending an afternoon here.
After your leisurely visit to Ohana, it is a short walk back to Koga Shin Kimonokan to return your kimono and to your life in the 21st century. But don’t rush back to the shop; enjoy strolling through the streets of Yanagawa and the delightful buildings so full of character. After all, in Yanagawa, you’ll feel like the passage of time is virtually meaningless.
You can get to Yanagawa from Hakata Station (Fukuoka city) by train using the Kuko (Airport) Line to Tenjin Station and transferring to the Nishitetsu-Tenjin-Omuta Line to Nishitetsu-Yanagawa Station. It takes a little over an hour.
By car, take the Kyushu Expressway from Fukuoka city and exit at Miyama-Yanagawa IC. It also takes a little over an hour.
Koga Shin Kimonokan(Kimono Experience) (Japanese Website)
24-5 Asahimachi, Yanagawa City, Fukuoka Prefecture
Yanagawa Tachibana-tei Ohana
1 Shinhokamachi, Yanagawa City, Fukuoka Prefecture
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