This week, two teams will embark on a three-day trip in northern Kyushu. They will ride on the JR Kagoshima Main Line and the JR Nagasaki Main Line, travelling across the prefectures of Fukuoka, Saga and Nagasaki. For the first half of the journey, two male travellers - Kazuyuki Aijima and Abarerukun - will take the JR Kagoshima Main Line and transfer to the JR Nagasaki Main Line at Tosu Station. Two female travellers, Akiko Matsumoto and Yumi Morio, will take over the second half of the trip.
The journey begins in Hakata Ward in Fukuoka City, Fukuoka Prefecture. The men board the train at JR Hakata Station and go to Tofurouminami, seven stations away. The Kagoshima Main Line was established in the Meiji era. The original route was between Mojiko in Fukuoka and Yatsushiro in Kumamoto. Now the trains travel across Kyushu via the Hisatsu Orange Railway. In 20 minutes, the men arrive at Tofurouminami Station. The next train is more than an hour later at 12.50pm.
The men ask a local about recommended spots and the person suggests Enokisha, where poet Sugawara no Michizane used to live. After Michizane was transferred to Dazaifu in 901, he spent two years at this shrine until he died. A festival called Donkan is held here, during which it is believed that his spirit returns from the Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine - 5km away - just for the night before going back.
Mr Aijima and Abarerukun walk to the Enokisha Shrine. Another highlight of this shrine is a plum tree which is said to have inspired Michizane to write a poem. It has been here for between 1,100 and 1,200 years. Legend has it that when Michizane was transferred to Dazaifu, this plum tree - called Tobiume - loved Michizane so much that it “flew” to Dazaifu to be with him.
The men’s next stop is Tosu, where they will later switch from the Kagoshima Main Line to the Nagasaki Main Line. On the train to Tosu, they speak to some high school students who rave about an udon shop at the station platform. Later, an elderly gentleman on the train recommends Yaoki Candy. Established in 1948, it sells nostalgic sweets from Tosu and is famous for its homemade ice cream bars. The train enters the neighbouring prefecture of Saga and reaches Tosu Station in 35 minutes. The present Western-style wooden station building was constructed in 1903. It is a traffic hub and has flourished as a junction between the Kagoshima Main Line and Nagasaki Main Line for many years. It is one of the oldest station buildings in Kyushu.
Mr Aijima and Abarerukun go to Chuo-ken, which started selling lunchboxes when Tosu Station first opened. In 1956, it became the first restaurant in Kyushu with a stand-up bar. The men order its popular Kashiwa udon, which uses soup made with sardines and kelp. It is topped with sweet and spicy chicken. The team then starts looking for Yaoki Candy, which was recommended earlier. They find out that the main Kyomachi store is not open, but some residents they speak to suggest they check out the shop’s Taishomachi branch instead. It sells 12 different flavours of ice cream bars. They are all homemade and no preservatives or colourings are used.
Mr Aijima and Abarerukun then return to Tosu Station and board the 2.50pm train to Saga Station, seven stops away. This time, they travel on the JR Nagasaki Main Line. It has been around since the Meiji period, when Kyushu Railway built the Sasebo Line and Omura Line. Back then, it took a long time to travel between Fukuoka, Saga and Nagasaki. In 1934, the present route along the Ariake Sea was established, which made travelling much easier.
The train arrives at Saga Station after half an hour. The men drop by one of the shops nearby to ask about accommodation recommendations. They are told about ONCRI at the Furuyu hot spring resort. They call the hotel and manage to book rooms. A hotel staff picks them up from Saga Station at around 5pm. ONCRI is about 20km away from the station. The car heads north along Kase River and reaches the resort hotel after 35 minutes. Renovated around seven years ago, it has 44 rooms and 15 different types of natural hot springs, including separate baths for men and women.
Mr Aijima and Abarerukun check out the hotel’s open-air bath before having dinner at the Uzuki restaurant on the first floor. They are served a colourful meal featuring both Japanese and Western cuisines. It includes pressed vegetable sushi, such as one with burdock and Saga beef. There is also seasonal sashimi like Spanish mackerel and young Pacific bluefin tuna served with different types of salt. Other dishes are bouillabaisse, a seafood soup made with sea bass, squid, shrimps and clams; and Saga's mitsuse chicken with Sakura pork served with teriyaki sauce.
The men ask the hotel’s manager for recommendations around Saga Station. He mentions the Sage Castle ruins. The castle is no longer there, but there is a gate which has been preserved, called Shachi no Mon. Mr Aijima and Abarerukun decide to visit the castle ruins the following day.
The next morning, the hotel staff drops the men at Saga Station, where they meet the next team, comprising Akiko Matsumoto and Yumi Morio. The four of them walk to the Saga Castle ruins. Along the way, they get to see the Matsubara River, which flows through the centre of the town. The city of Saga has been chosen as one of the 100 places with great waters. The two teams reach the castle ruins after walking for 20 minutes. On the site of Saga Castle, there is a replica of the Honmaru Palace of Japanese feudal lord Nabeshima Naomasa, which is now called Saga Castle History Museum. The Honmaru Palace is where the feudal lords conducted their political affairs. It was the central building of the castle where the lords also lived. It is one of the largest restored wooden buildings in the country.
1) Yaoki Candy near Tosu Station is famous for its homemade ice cream bars
2) The Saga Castle ruins are a must-see spot near Saga Station