Yanagawa, in Fukuoka Prefecture, almost doesn’t feel like a castle town. After all, the castle’s remains (several heavy stone walls covered with greenery) now have two schools sprawling over them, and today the city is more associated with water, willow trees and writers. However Yanagawa’s most distinctive feature, its canals, were originally built as an orderly system of moats surrounding this castle. Flanked by ancient, lush trees, its canals make Yanagawa unique.
To merely walk around Yanagawa would be to miss the point. Although the city’s neat, gridlike streets take the visitor to its major sights, a boat ride along the canals — some merely a meter wide, others the width of a small river — takes you through the most leafy and beautiful sections of the city. Along some canals private homes rise straight out of the stone banks, Venetian-style. Other canals are landscaped with adjacent walkways and submerged flower beds, where irises bloom a brilliant blue in early June. Your boatman will point out Yanagawa’s numerous points of interest (and may even burst into song, if you’re lucky).
Fans of photographer Nobuyoshi Araki may have seen his photos of Yanagawa, intensely personal and erotic documents of his visit with his beloved wife, Yoko. He also photographed the diverse mix of treasures at Ohana estate, Yanagawa’s sightseeing centerpiece, with Yoko posing nude in unusual accompaniment.
Araki visited Ohana again years later, before Yoko died. “Tokyo Biyori,” a 1995 film about Araki and Yoko, transformed these episodes in the photographer’s life into a teary romance, but the scenes of Yanagawa’s lush, quiet greenness at least do the city justice.
Yanagawa grew as a castle town after 1620, when feudal lord Tachibana Muneshige returned to the city as lord of its castle after a 20-year absence. His predecessor had built the city’s moats, a grid of large and small waterways spiraling inward to the castle in the center. Tachibana’s return was the beginning of a long dynasty: 17 successive generations of the Tachibana family have lived here, and today manage the lovely Ohana villa and garden. Ohana was built close to the castle in 1697 by Tachibana Akitora, the fourth lord of the castle.
After Japan’s surrender to the Allies in 1945, many noble families were forced to change their lifestyles. In 1950, the 16th head of the family, Kazuo Tachibana, decided they would have to vacate Ohana. He opened to the public for the first time ever Ohana’s sprawling Japanese- and Western-style buildings and impressive garden; a literal sculpture of rocks and gnarled, ancient pine trees. A museum now houses the estate’s collection, including a suit of Western-style armor, noh theater costumes, tea sets for cherry-blossom viewing and more. Much of Ohana’s surrounding forest was cut down to make it accessible, and a restaurant and inn were opened.
This caused great excitement at the time. “The media were shocked that one of Japan’s oldest families would open their property to all,” recalls Kiyoe Kitajima, Ohana’s folk museum director and a dedicated employee of the estate for nearly 60 years.
Journalists trickled in from Tokyo — not to photograph the family heirlooms, which seemed an obvious choice, but to pore over the kitchen and other areas that represented the daily life of a noble family.
Kazuo Tachibana also began promoting Yanagawa’s unique canals.
“There are cities in Japan with beautiful rivers,” acknowledges Kitajima, “but such an extensive system of clear, clean man-made canals is rare.” Because Yanagawa’s canals are diverted from the nearby Okinohata River the water is always moving and (except for surface garbage which is cleaned up daily by the tourism association) is basically clean. As late as the Meiji Era, it was clean enough to drink. Today, waters are murkier. Fish and eels are still seen here but the innumerable eels that end up as local specialty dishes are all farmed.
The city was also home to several literary greats. Particularly famous is Meiji Era poet Hakushu Kitahara, whose birthplace is worth a visit. The ground floor depicts the area’s fishing and folk history, and the second floor is devoted to Hakushu himself. Some of Hakushu’s children’s songs and folk songs may sound surprisingly familiar when you hear them here — they are still popular around Kyushu. Back toward the canals, you’ll see stones engraved with the poetry of Ken Hase and Kazuo Dan, two more prize-winning Yanagawa writers.
Yanagawa’s waterways are beautiful year-round, particularly from spring to autumn. Time your visit carefully during summer — midday on the canals is painfully windstill and hot, but evenings are warm and sensual.
Be sure also to sample Yanagawa’s eel dishes. Although rich, eel is particularly popular in summer as it’s believed to rid the body of the excess damp of Japan’s hot, humid summers. Eel dishes are so intrinsic to Yanagawa that an eel-blessing ritual is held once a year at a shrine, to give thanks for the rich trade it brings to the area.
Apart from the canals, much of Yanagawa’s folk culture stems from its location near the Ariake Sea. Many locals still make a living from the sea, and you’ll see dozens of fishing boats line the Okinohata port area. The area’s extensive mudflats are home to a rich variety of unusual fish, shellfish and seaweed.
Sadly, the Ariake Sea is now suffering greatly from pollution and landfills, and one can only hope that the same fate will not befall Yanagawa’s magnificent canals. After all, water is one of the most magical things about Yanagawa.