My daughter, having a little girl’s predilection for princesses, turns out to be an excellent spotter of kids in kimono.

“Look Mama, another one!” she whispers to me and my friend Elaine excitedly, as we make our way down the back alleys of Yanagawa, a canal town in southern Fukuoka Prefecture. A young girl clips by on her traditional geta (wooden sandals), clinging to her mother’s hand. We spot another one as we round the corner, dressed in an elegant red kimono.

“Princesses” clad all in scarlet are thick on the ground as we turn onto the main quay, as are spectators gathering for the city’s annual parade of living dolls. While some communities celebrate Hina Matsuri (Doll Festival) in March with a few displays of traditional dolls, Yanagawa elevates the holiday to a living art.

Weaving our way through the crowd, we reach the docks along the willow-lined canal. Gaggles of kindergarten-aged girls are lined up in front of a series of boats, ornate golden lanterns strapped securely to their heads. As my daughter watches in awe, they’re helped down into the crafts. Taking their places on the wooden planks, a few giggles echo across the water to break the solemnity of the scene.

The crowds thicken, and we make our way back down the quay to select a spot from which to view the parade. Strung across the water right near our seat are a few sagemon, mobiles made from small good luck objects such as cloth animals or woven balls. The day’s chilly breeze makes them turn creakily above our heads.

Drumbeats from down near the boat dock signal the start of the parade and within minutes, the first of the flotilla drifts by, poled along by one of Yanagawa’s capable oarsmen. The young girls in the lead boat are joined by a female Shinto priest with a portable altar at her knees. Periodically, we see her hold up a branch and shake drops of something out over the water. In the rear of each boat sits a middle-aged couple, attired in the Heian-era outfits so often seen on the principal dolls in a Hina set. The final boat bears a floating orchestra, the flutes trilling a trifle discordantly.

Given the circuitousness of the watery route, we race down an alley to install ourselves further along the banks and enjoy a repeat viewing of the costumed revelers. As the boats wend through the waterways toward the eastern side of the city, we slowly retrace our steps to the main quay, indulging in a bit of sagemon meguri (sagemon viewing) on the way.

Yanagawa’s strong sagemon tradition starts at the birth of a local girl, when her female relatives begin stitching the striking Yanagawa mari (handballs) that will make up part of the hanging sagemon decoration. They’ll eventually add charms and cloth animals to the mobile, choosing creatures or objects that hold meaning for the new daughter, such as the zodiac creature for the girl’s birth year. The completed decorations are then prominently displayed on the daughter’s first Hina Matsuri, along with any other doll sets the family may own.

In recent decades, homes in Yanagawa that were celebrating a milestone Hina Matsuri began opening their doors to curious visitors. Hotels and business soon joined in the custom and now, at least four or five dozen locations boast sagemon displays every spring. All we have to do is look for the sign marking the place as open for viewing.

What follows is an enjoyable hour-long tour through a restaurant lobby, a few shops, several private homes, and the Edo-era Ohana villa and its attached garden, among a few other scattered locations. We marvel over the intricacies of the numerous Yanagawa mari, some set up in displays of over a hundred. We search out our own zodiac animals on the hanging sagemon and drool over the many multitiered Hina doll displays, some dating from as far back as two centuries. Even the local tourism satellite office gets in on the action, with a massive display of colorfully-stitched handballs.

Yanagawa is justifiably famous for its unagi (eel) and I’ve had the pleasure of eating in a few of the restaurants along the canal before. However, with both today’s crowds and the fish’s recent inclusion on the endangered species list, we decide to forgo the city specialty and head out of town, back towards the Kyushu Expressway. Not far from the Miyama-Yanagawa highway exit, we pull off into the packed parking lot of Dairiki Udon. Having heard inklings of a cheap udon joint in the region, we are thoroughly taken aback by the popularity of this seemingly workaday roadside diner. A tad apprehensive at the length of the queue, we nevertheless take our place just outside the main entrance. Happily, the line moves quickly and we’re soon inside, commandeering a low table for four.

It becomes clear quite quickly why Dairiki Udon packs in the crowds. The steaming bowls of wheat noodles arrive topped with green onions and a fried burdock root fritter. The tempura is shockingly light and not greasy in the slightest, and the depth of the broth elevates a simple lunch to a memorable meal. Even more surprising is the final bill. My massive bowl of udon totals under ¥300.

Leaving Dairiki Udon, we wind through the tiny roads on the way to the expressway. A few hundred meters before the ticket gates, a sign catches our eye for Kiyomizu Temple. As the only sight I know with that name is hundreds of kilometers away in Kyoto, we veer off to explore this similarly-titled temple.

At the base of the mountain, a sign for the temple’s peony garden determines our first stop. Unfortunately, we quickly discover that peony season has just passed, but a small arrow points us to a nearby subtemple. A caretaker gestures for us to drop our ¥300 entry into the donation box before leading us into a side room.

We’re greeted by a scene straight out of a classical painting. Three small waterfalls tumble down tiny hills into a carefully manicured lawn. Patches of moss piece together into a bright green carpet under the roots of a massive ginkgo tree. The nearby mountains form an imposing backdrop, a smudge of dusky green against the clear winter sky.

The parallels to art are unsurprising. The entire landscape was laid out by Sesshu Toyo, a famed painter and garden designer. Most of his gardens can still be found in Western Honshu’s Yamaguchi and Shimane prefectures; what brought him as far south as Fukuoka is unclear, but he certainly left his mark. We sit on the polished veranda at the temple’s rear and marvel at the solitude. Even my daughter is awed by the scene. A similar garden in celebrated Kyoto would be crawling with tourists, yet in the time we sit there only two other visitors enter.

Back at the parking lot, further hand-lettered signs lead us up the twisty mountain road to the shrine’s primary real estate. Standing a short distance from the main hall is a stunning three-story pagoda. Painted in a striking vermilion hue, it’s an incongruous but beautiful sight, hidden up here in the backwoods of Fukuoka. While I’ve driven the Kyushu expressway past here more times than I care to count, never did I realize what was hidden just off its busy corridors.

“Look, Mama! A princess tower!” my 3-year-old squeals. “It’s perfect!”

Even without the princess angle, I quite have to agree.

Yanagawa is easily reached from Fukuoka on a Nishitetsu Line limited express from Nishitetsu-Fukuoka (Tenjin) Station (45 minutes, ¥850). The city boasts sagemon displays from mid-February to early April. The living doll parade occurs annually on a Sunday in mid-March from 11 a.m.-12:20 p.m. Kiyomizu Temple is best reached by car or taxi and is a short three-minute drive from the Miyama-Yanagawa exit of the Kyushu Expressway. The prices at Dairiki Udon really ARE that low.

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