Akizuki: Romantic scenes meet ‘Star Wars’ lore in picturesque samurai town

by

Special To The Japan Times

The sakura trees that line the main boulevard in Akizuki are far from blooming. That moment is still half a year away, when the trees along the avenue flower to become one of Fukuoka Prefecture’s best spots for cherry blossoms.

Now, at the end of September, the colors are fading from bright summer greens into muted autumn hues. The edges of the maple tree leaves are turning slowly yellow, heralding Akizuki’s other seasonal display, momiji, the turning of the leaves.

Up in the hills above the town’s center, farmers are harvesting their rice fields, making the best of a crop that was harassed by the intense storms that plagued northern Kyushu in early July — though Akizuki itself seems relatively unaffected. Its stone walls, which date back several centuries, have weathered storms, battles and bloodshed, and seem mute to the passage of time. Even the moss that covers them seems fixed in place.

I’m distracted by my stomach, which has been rumbling intermittently since my morning cycle from the city of Fukuoka, a 40-kilometer ride through the prefecture’s plains that sees the frenetic energy of the city fade into suburbs and then the simpler proposition of farmland and country life.

It is early, but a few restaurants along the boulevard have started their lunch service and Kuromonchaya, a quaint soba restaurant and tea house, catches my eye. Its interior is so copiously furnished in wood that it feels like an extension of the surrounding forests.

From my wooden stool at my wooden table I turn to give my order, but I’m stopped in my tracks by a burst of fluent English tinged with a Hong Kong accent. The speaker is Peggy Cheng who is, with her Tokyo-native husband and chef, Hitoshi Haraguchi, the new owner of the restaurant, having just moved to Akizuki.

“We were attracted to the town by its history and aesthetic. It is so close to Fukuoka, and at the same time is a true part of the countryside,” Peggy tells me. As it turns out, she is a keen advocate for the town.

I place my soba order and am encouraged to try a portion of the local sweet, kuzu-mochi, for dessert. Both come freshly made and in generous portions and are, of course, delicious. As I eat, an old couple is busying themselves happily about the restaurant and, when Peggy has a free moment, I ask who they are.

“Oh? That’s Yamamoto-san and Yoshida-san, the former owners. Yamamoto-san started the restaurant about 45 years ago but is getting too old now to keep it running by herself. So they agreed to sell it on to us, but continue to live and work here. I guess we’re the next chapter of the Akizuki story.”

I finish lunch and return to the town to continue my wanderings. It is a place of exceptional tranquility, where a lack of anything particular to do is almost the main attraction. There are many sights to be seen (the castle ruins and some expertly restored samurai houses being among the best), and great food to be eaten (the tofu restaurant shines alongside Kuromonchaya), but all of this falls to the wayside next to the sheer pleasure of just walking through the town and its environs.

For this reason, Akizuki is exceptionally popular with couples, who escape to the castle town for a romance-laden weekend of hand-holding away from prying city eyes. And while Akizuki, like many rural towns, is suffering a population decline, it fascinates enough visitors that some, like Peggy and Hitoshi, choose to stay.

Akizuki (which translates literally to “Autumn Moon”) is steeped in the history of the Akizuki and Kuroda clans that ruled it for centuries. So great was the town’s importance that on some old maps it reigns supreme in Kyushu, while the rest of the island remains blank. Akizuki’s prominence came to an end when a samurai rebellion led to its demise at the beginning of the Meiji Era (1868-1912), but it remains remarkably well preserved and has gained the local nickname of “Little Kyoto” for its fine collection of old buildings and cherry trees.

The town also has an unlikely connection to modern pop culture through the Akira Kurosawa film “The Hidden Fortress,” which plots the story of Princess Yuki Akizuki and her escape from a fortress in the mountains above Akizuki. The film inspired George Lucas’ first treatment for “Star Wars: A New Hope,” and though “Star Wars” was heavily rewritten, the two films remain similar in both their characters and visual composition, which tie “Star Wars” to the history of Akizuki.

In the afternoon I meet Kyoko Tonomura, another ex-Tokyoite who fell in love with Akizuki and hopes to open a two-bedroom hotel in April. We discuss this unlikely cultural link and she quickly comes to a conclusion for me: “You must climb Mount Kosho, if you have the time, and explore the ruins of the fortress.”

I agree to spend a night in the town and set out early the next morning to hike Mount Kosho, an 860-meter peak that stands above Akizuki. To walk in the forests around Akizuki is to discover forgotten temples and graveyards full of tombstones dedicated to long-dead samurai. The decay is authentic, and faceless statues emerge and disappear like sprites of the forest, so covered with moss that their rocky foundations are almost lost beneath a thick carpet of green.

At the top of the mountain are old signposts indicating the “general’s hiding place” and the “inner sanctuary,” the hiding places of the leaders of the Akizuki clan during times of war. I reach them via a trail that transforms from a hike into a scramble, and arrive first at the general’s hiding place — a gorge perhaps 2 meters wide, and then the inner sanctuary through a cleft in the mountain at most 30 centimeters wide. I must take off my backpack to squeeze into the inner sanctuary, an eerie, dead-end crevasse that offers shelter from the elements but little else. The idea of hiding from your enemies there is unappealing to say the least, but it is a fascinating feature of the natural landscape.

Mount Kosho acts as a natural filter for Akizuki’s rain, which percolates through the upper slopes into aquifers and underground streams that are connected to each house in the town, a point not missed by Tonomura. “In Akizuki, you shower in mineral water. Why buy bottles when you can get it straight out of the tap here? People come from miles around with their own canteens to bring water back home.”

Indeed, it seems the whole town is built on water; the sound of it is ubiquitous as one wanders the streets. Up in the hills, there are public water dispensaries, and on my descent of Kosho, I refill my water bottle first at a small water basin carved out of the mountainside, and then again at a dispensary offering 5 liters of “pure water” for just ¥100. After a day’s hike, the water seems particularly refreshing, and I can’t help but empathize with the people who first settled here in antiquity, who must have been drawn to the fertile plains and the gentle flow of the Notori River.

At the lower end of Akizuki, the river passes beneath Megane Bridge, inspired in build and design by the more famous Megane Bridge in Nagasaki. This is the starting point for the town’s annual samurai procession, which takes place in late October each year. This year, the festival coincides with the opening of the new Akizuki Museum on Oct. 21, which is another attempt by the town to modernize in order to meet new tourism demands, while celebrating and preserving its history.

As I stand admiring the bridge, across the road a queue forms outside Tsukinotoge, a locally famous curry-bread shop. Though the autumn leaves won’t start in earnest for another month, it is clear the weekend crowd (not so large as to be overwhelming) is gathered in Akizuki in full force to enjoy this serene old castle town, so close to, yet feeling so far from, the city of Fukuoka.

Akizuki is a 45-minute drive from the city of Fukuoka. By train, take the JR Line to JR Kiyama Station and change to the local train to Amagi. A regular bus connects Amagi Station to Akizuki and has several stops in Akizuki, terminating at the base of Mt. Kosho. (One way: ~¥1,200/ 1½ hours). To learn more, visit www.bit.ly/2jVZw1d.