The boatman sings a low-pitched, wistful air as he poles our craft down the watery freeway. Some of my fellow passengers obviously know the melancholic song, and join in on what passes for a chorus as we’re propelled otherwise noiselessly down the wide canal.
I recognize only a handful of words, though the two that stand out relate directly to my day’s adventure. One is unagi (freshwater eel), the first Japanese dish I ever tasted and the one that still makes my mouth water when I spot it on a menu. The other is yanagawa, whose characters mean “willow tree” & “river” — and it’s in this city in northern Kyushu that styles itself “town on the water” that I am now enjoying a leisurely cruise on its numerous canals.
Water seems to be the driving force behind my visit to Yanagawa, as it was the torrential rain of a late-summer typhoon that caused my flight to Kobe to be diverted to Fukuoka and so launch me on an unexpected adventure. Even here in Kyushu, my train to Yanagawa is doused with passing showers throughout the ride. Thankfully, by the time I arrive the heavens have brightened and I can safely pack away my umbrella.
Yanagawa draws tourists for various reasons — it’s the birthplace of Hakushu Kitahara (1885-1942), one of Japan’s most popular modern poets; and it attracts foodies eager to dine on those eels served piping hot and smeared with sweet and sticky brown sauce.
Apart from these two not-inconsiderable attributes, Yanagawa — a city of some 72,000 formed in 2005 from the merger of the towns of Yamato and Mitsuhashi — is also one of Japan’s more attractive small metropolises. Shady paths, studded with monuments and perfect for strolling, crisscross the city out of earshot of any major traffic, while canalside cafes seem to call out “coffee” or “beer” at every turn.
But to really understand the city, you have to take to its 470-km network of waterways aboard one of its characteristic donkobune boats. And so it is that I put my trust — and ¥1,500 — in the capable hands of boatman Yoji Masamori, whose sun-darkened face breaks into a smile. With a towel wrapped like a corpulent bandanna round his head, and a bamboo-fiber hat perched on top, Masamori deftly maneuvers our wooden dinghy down Yanagawa’s watery boulevards punting with his more than 2-meter bamboo pole to steer and power us along.
Though Yanagawa was once a castle town, only ruins of its fortifications now remain. Instead, the feudal legacy lives on with its canal-like waterways that were in fact originally irrigation ditches and horiwari (moats) dug to protect the low-lying castle and its occupants.
While some of the channels remind me of multilane roads, a handful span no more than the width of two boats — as we discover a mere quarter hour into our 70-minute sightseeing trip. Masamori ducks as we pass under a bridge fit for Lilliputians and enter a time-warped aquatic alley. No sound intrudes from the nearby paved routes and the waterway here only laps at the back of genteel homes that line its banks. Stone steps descend from each property to the water — whether for waterborne merchant deliveries or personal boats, or both, I know not. As Masamori launches into a lengthy Japanese commentary, I find myself daydreaming, picturing boatmen from the romanticized but feudal Edo Period (1603-1867) poling by in their happi coats.
The “alley” eventually leads us back to a larger canal again, where ducks playfully follow our boat in hopes of a snack. We oblige them with some crumbs and — polite little things that they are — they seem thoroughly appeased, paddling off to shelter beneath shady butterfly bushes near the water’s edge and munch their prize in peace.
Recent winds have blown petals from the bushes into the water, dusting the canals with a delicate floral tapestry. It’s the sort of scene that would have inspired nature-loving Hakushu and, indeed, stone markers bearing verses of his more notable poems can be seen on the pathway that hugs the bank here.
We glide along past a series of lamps, their tops barely visible above the waterline. They serve to light the canals in the evening, when private charter boats cruise the area. In November, the evening entertainment is stepped up considerably: waterside musical performances featuring strings and drums serenade boaters in celebrations to mark the anniversary of Hakushu’s passing.
Around a bend, I spy a statue of a reclining kappa (water sprite) hidden among the reeds. The beastie appears to be surveying its domain, waiting to spring its next prank on an unsuspecting boatload of tourists.
The kappa myth is famed nationwide, but its origins are in nearby Saga Prefecture. And while some view them as comical characters — with a bowl built into the top of their head and an oversized beak — Yanagawa’s boatmen take no chances. Near the end of our tour, we pass by a shrine dedicated to the kappa, its altar loaded with gifts to appease the legendary troublemaker.
It’s noon when we disembark under elegantly sagging willows in Yanagawa’s old district, and lunch is clearly the next order of business.
From the boat dock, I spy five unagi restaurants, most in black-and-white former kura (storehouses). As unagi is Yanagawa’s specialty, I don’t bother considering any other meal, so the question is which eatery to visit. I gamble and head for Owakamatsu, the oldest and possibly most frequented of them all. Normally, I prefer to seek out an untouristy cafe in the backstreets of a town, but this establishment has been recommended to me twice and I don’t feel like searching on an empty stomach.
Fortunately, I’m lucky to be able to grab the last seat at the counter during the busy lunchtime rush and ask the waitress for the “special” — Kyushu-raised eel steamed in a bamboo box. Thankfully, Owakamatsu hasn’t let fame or fortune affect its quality, and the delicacy arrives prepared to perfection. Here, though, instead of relying on a heavy sauce to coat any unwanted “fishy” taste, a topping of sweet egg strips provides the ideal complement to the naturally strong-flavored dish.
After lunch, I amble around the corner to Ohana, the Victorian-inspired villa of a local daimyo family, the Tachibanas. This corner of Fukuoka Prefecture was once known as the Field of Flowers, a moniker the fourth lord of Tachibana borrowed to name his property. While the original house was constructed in 1697, extensive renovations at the beginning of the 20th century have left it with a distinctly Westernized feel.
The carpeted house, a rarity among Japanese properties, is sparsely furnished and rather uninspiring — but the garden at the rear, laid out to replicate the islands of Matsushima off the coast near Sendai in Miyagi Prefecture, is a work of art. Though some 300 pine trees shade its gravel paths, it is best viewed from a large tatami room with open sides. However, eagle-eyed visitors may like to try to spot the 14 stone lanterns concealed along the winding walkways.
But as I exit the mansion a cloud darkens the sky and the threat of rain hangs in the air once more. It’s Mother Nature’s cue to wrap up my day’s explorations and head back to the railway station, leaving Yanagawa to the watery elements that both took me there and make it such an enjoyable escape.
Yanagawa is 45 min. from Fukuoka’s Tenjin Station on the Nishitestsu Tenjin-Omuta Line (¥830 one way). Canal cruises are ¥1,500 for 60 to 75 min.; no children under 6). The villa and garden at Ohana are located near the boat dock in the old part of town (¥420, usually open 9 a.m.-5 p.m.).