Little Venice in Kyushu
Yanagawa is a small aquatic city crossed by waterways, located on the Ariake Sea side, in the south west of Fukuoka prefecture on Kyushu island in Japan. A pleasant boat cruise explores this ancient feudal city’s history and its unique waterways network.
Japan is home to several small water cities that used to exploit nearby rivers and streams of water to create an intricate network of waterways, similar to Venice in Italy. One can mention Kurashiki, Omihachiman or Sawara for example, that are now sightseeing destinations popular for their boat rides on canals.
Yanagawa rural village is located less than 1 hour by train 🚅 from Fukuoka, and is also famous for its fortified and navigable moats, preserved since the early Edo period (1603 - 1868). Yanagawa is an ancient feudal city, a jokamachi protected by the now gone Yanagawa Castle 🏯. The waterways were used for various functions, such as:
- The irrigation of rice fields;
- The navigation for trade; and,
- Averting flooding in case of heavy rainfall.
With the modernization and the industrial revolution, the canals have been abandoned, then restored by Yanagawa’s inhabitants who undertook the cleaning of the water and the maintenance of the channels. While traveling in the city in the early 1980, famous film-maker Hayao Miyazaki became fascinated by its landscape and the population’s collective effort to live in harmony with its past and the surrounding nature. From this trip, he and director Isao Takahata made an interesting documentary The Story of Yanagawa's Canals (柳川堀割物語 Yanagawa Horiwari Monogatari) released in 1987 in Japan. The city’s fame was increased thanks to Studio Ghibli’s highlight, and it is now in Fukuoka prefecture’s top sightseeing attractions.
Idyllic cruise on the city’s waterways
With 60 kilometers of navigable channels, the center of Yanagawa is easily accessible by boat and some of its inhabitants are still moving around the city by boat. The Kawakudari cruise, on a flat-bottomed boat called donkobune, is therefore the main activity.
A boatman leads the boat with a pole on the stream of water that goes back in the city’s feudal past, under the low bridges and in the bucolic setting of the canals’ surroundings, where majestic willows and large trees are thriving. The cruise lasts about 1 hour and at some point encounters a traditional floating shop from which it is possible to purchase a snack while still on the water.
Japanese-speaking passengers will enjoy the boatman’s stories and traditional songs they’ll perform along the ride. The songs used are usually the ones written by Hakushu Kitahara (1885 – 1942), a local Japanese artist whose family house is located in the town and has become a museum.
The city organizes several events with parades on the water all year round, with the most famous being:
- The one associated with the Dolls Festival Hina Matsuri on March 3, and,
- The Hakushu Festival in early November.
The waterways are also attractive to the many couples who come here to get their wedding pictures.
Scenic beauty of the Tachibana-tei Ohana Residence
The former Ohana estate of the Tachibana clan that once ruled the feudal domain can be found near one of the 6 cruise piers on the Yanagawa waterways. The historical site includes several buildings, especially the Seiyokan residence characterized by its white Western-style architecture of the Meiji Era (1868 – 1912), sided by a traditional Japanese dark wood villa.
The architectural mix and the color contrast perfectly match here, complemented by the beautiful Japanese garden Shoto-en that comes as a natural connection between the pavilions. Surrounded by many Japanese pine trees, the main pond evokes the view on Matsushima Bay in the Tohoku area.
As for food, Yanagawa has specialties based on fresh fish and crustaceans. It is particularly renowned for its original eel recipe, called Unagi no Seiro-mushi: the fish is marinated, then steamed and served on rice in a bento 🍱 box. The local nabe hotpot made with freshwater fish is also a delicious winter dish, as well as the crab caught in the Ariake Sea.