9 Days of Rustic Kyushu, Day 5 (Part 2): Yanagawa Canal Boat Ride + Tosu Premium Outlet

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Day 5: Yutoku Inari Shrine --> Yanagawa Canal Boat Ride (柳川川下り) --> Tosu Premium Outlet (鳥栖プレミアム・アウトレット) --> Hotel
Once we were done at the Yutoku Inari Shrine, our driver proceeded to bring us for a tofu onsen-hotpot meal: . According to him, the tofu was homemade and said to be extremely good for the skin.

When we got there, it was very obvious that we were the only group of tourists around. The rest of the restaurant was filled with local Japanese (especially ladies!). I guess this is one of those "you won't know unless you're a local" places. I couldn't even find a proper English translation of the name of the place. It's Japanese website says Saga-Hirakawaya, so I'm just going with that.
The proprietor of the shop was very lovely and took the time to try to explain to us (with some translation help and sign language) how we were supposed to enjoy the tofu. During the course of our meal, she also kept topping up our tofu! So much so we had to stop her as we were just too full!
Unfortunately, my family was divided on this meal. I like my tofu and I loved the taste of the homemade tofu in the hotpot! In fact, it was even good on its own with the accompanying sauce and sesame seeds. However, my dad's (who's not a tofu person) barely stomached any. He just scooped up all the vegetables in the hotpot. However, we all agreed that their home-grown green tea was one of the best! Immediately after our meal, Mom bought a bag of the green tea leaves.

Once we were done with lunch, we proceeded to the next item on our itinerary: the Yanagawa Canal boat ride.
Yanagawa is primarily known for its water canals. It was originally a farming village and the canals were built initially for the purpose of irrigation. Later, the canals evolved to also become a source of water transportation. Today, these canals continue to be a source of income for the people in the form of tourist revenue.
There are several companies offering the boat rides (also known as punting). All of them also provide free shuttle bus services from the nearest train stations. Just google and you should be able to find and compares their prices and services. Some of these companies have also collaborated with the cafes and restaurants along the venue to offer complimentary drinks or discounted meals. So just be mindful about what you're paying for.

Since ours was already pre-arranged, I didn't really bother to check out which company it was. Instead, I just happily followed to put on the hat and board the sampan like vessel.
I've got to say this. THANK GOD for the hat! The boat ride, while enjoyable, was more than an hour in the blistering afternoon sun! If not for that triangular straw cap, I think I would have been thoroughly sun burnt!
This was our punter. Well, I assume that's what they'll be called (punting --> punter). I didn't catch his name since he was conversing with everyone else in a thick Japanese accent. From what I understood, most of the punters are older. The younger generation isn't apparently too interested in punting anymore. And unfortunately, most of the older punters aren't conversant in any other language.
A pity since I could tell that ours was a humorous dude. Everyone else on the boat kept laughing at his story-telling and jokes. I would have loved to find out what they were all laughing about. On a few occasions, he even broke out into Japanese songs. While I didn't understand anything of what was being sung, our punter had a lovely voice reminiscent of folk singing. Our guide was kind of useless by now, he didn't really bother to translate much of what was said even when I asked.


The ride itself was quite scenic. There were several lovely photo points, be it of buildings, flora and fauna. There were even a couple of mini altars/shrines built along the route. One of them even had Kirin beer cans as offerings! The trouble though was because you were on a moving vessel (and it moves surprisingly quickly!) you need to calculate your angles pretty darn quick.
Another obstacle, you won't be the only person on board that vessel who'll want pictures. I've lost count of the number of times I had to shift because of someone's raised phone or camera. So if photos are what you're after, you should grab seats at the front of the boat to avoid those photo-bombs. Or else, move to the rear.

The next exciting bit about the ride was the amount of ducking we had to do. And by that I mean whenever we approached any of the low bridges or tight tunnels.
These boat punters have amazing skills and stamina. No matter how tight the tunnel would look, the boats were all able to pass through unscratched. When we approached the first tunnel, my mom actually looked bewildered when our punter started moving towards it. She even grabbed my arm and wondered if we were able to get through safely!

Very quickly, we came to learn to duck each time our punter started his weird song-song English of "Put your head down". English because it was obviously meant for us who didn't understand a single word of Japanese. Weird because he was definitely not a speaker of the language and did so in a heavily accented sing-song voice. Nevertheless, it had a fun effect and by the fourth or fifth one, even mom was laughingly ducking her head along with everyone else.
And I'm super amazed that these punters had the muscles and stamina to keep bending up and down, all the while pushing a boat full of people for more than an hour! Apparently, some even perform acrobatic jumps across those bridges! They must be damn fit!

Mid-way through the ride, our punter "drove" us past this shack selling snacks! I was seriously amazed that even soft serve was offered! Actually contemplated but since I was still quite full from all the earlier tofu, I decided to forgo the ice-cream. It would otherwise have been heavenly in that heat!

If I'm not mistaken, there are 2 options for how long you want your boat ride to be. Our tour agent had apparently arranged for the longer option without us realising it. If you're with young children or elderly parents, you may wish to consider the shorter option as they may get bored. Afterall, there's only so much interest buildings and trees can offer for some.
By the 45th minute mark, mom kept asking when the ride was going to end. On the other hand, dad got excited seeing a group of photographers on the bridge (picture above). Apparently he had thought that they were the tourist-commercial sort and were taking pictures for sale later. He actually kept waving his hands around because otherwise there was nothing much else to do...
The minute we were done with the boat ride, my parents hurried into a restaurant for their complimentary drinks. Not because they wanted the freebie, but more because they were too hot from the sun beating down on them. Mom also desperately needed the loo.
Actually, if not for the earlier meal, I would also have contemplated sharing a unagi don with my parents. Apart from the canal rides, Yanagawa is also famous for their unagi rice bowls! While seated in the restaurant, the smells wafting from all those unagi sets were just wonderful!
Heh. To be honest, I might have eventually caved if it wasn't because we had to catch the next shuttle out.

By late afternoon, we finally reached Tosu Premium Outlet, the trip's first major shopping stop. Whenever I bring my parents to Japan, I always make sure to arrange to drop by an outlet mall for them. They love the discounts from some of the major brands that are on offer. In fact, I always have to inform them beforehand what brands are available so that they can anticipate what to buy.
While my mom always grumbles about my shopping in Singapore, she has never once complained whenever I shop at these outlet malls with them. Heh. Another reason why they're always in my Japan itineraries with my parents.

We bought quite a lot in the short time we were there! I had a lovely Godiva Special Anniversary drink while I was there and bought tons of Godiva chocolates back for friends. Also bought 2 Coach bags (the 2 at the bottom corner right in picture below) for myself while mom got another 2 for herself. I also got quite a bit of clothes from Gap while dad (who hates shopping) bought 2 pairs of Hush Puppies shoes.
I swear. We were there for less than 2 hours.
What contributed to the speed at which we shopped was mainly because I had already printed out a map and studied where each brand was located in the mall. So in essence, we already knew which shops we wanted to go and just aimed straight for those.
I could have still continued for sure, if not because mom started to complain that we were going to miss our dinner time...

Tourist Information
Saga Hirakawaya (佐嘉平川屋)
Yanagawa Canal Boat Ride
Address: Takahata, Yanagawa 8320065
Local address: 〒832-0065高畑
There are many companies offering the canal rides. Please google and check for what suits you.
Tosu Premium Outlet (鳥栖プレミアム・アウトレット)
Address: 8-1 Yayoigaoka, Tosu 841-0005
Local address: 〒841-0005弥生が丘8-1
DID: +81 942-87-7370
Operating hours: 10 am to 8 pm

9 Days of Rustic Kyushu, Day 5 (Part 1): Yutoku Inari Shrine

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Day 5: Yutoku Inari Shrine (祐徳稲荷神社) --> Yangawa Canal Boat Ride --> Tosu Premium Outlet --> Hotel
Day 5 saw us winding down a little on the itinerary. I was pretty ill by day 5 and I could also tell that mom was exhausted from all the walking around yesterday.
The thing with bringing elderly parents around, is that you need to watch out for their physical activities and limitations. My dad's almost 70 years old and yet he's still raring to go most times. In fact, I'm the one who usually holds him back in fear of him exceeding his limits unconsciously. On the other hand, my mom's almost a decade younger than dad, but she's the one with all the leg, knees and walking difficulties. Mom actually needs help standing up after she's seated for a long time and all that.
So I had a little discussion with our driver-guide, and we decided to amend our itinerary to something a little more relaxing for my parents.

Hence, our first stop of the day, Yutoku Inari Shrine (back towards Saga). Our driver-guide assured me that mom would be able to deal with this one as part of their recent restoration, they had added a lift to their main structure!
Even then, mom was quite apprehensive when we first set eyes on the shrine from across the road. I don't blame her really. The place does look impressive! All that red that's set against the green mountains! It feels like the Kiyomizudera Temple in Kyoto all over. Even if there were no lifts and we couldn't climb, the view from below would have been well-worth a trip out!

The Yutoku Inari Shrine, affectionately known to the locals as Yutoku-san, is apparently considered to be one of the top three Inari shrines. Pretty easy to see why actually. The Inari is apparently one of Shinto's most popular deities and is associated with rice, prosperity and foxes.
The newly revamped side hall (photo below) is now air-conditioned and has lift access. I could hear my mom's sigh of relief when she finally caught sight of the lift. She was actually prepared to forgo and just wait inside the car for us. Well, the main and side halls stand on tall wooden beams 18 meters above the valley floor. If there were no lift, I would still climb, but it sure as hell would be done with a sigh of resignation.

For the fitness buffs, if you eschew technological conveniences such as the lift, stairs are plenty around for you to reach your goal too.
Do note though that the lift ride does cost a little. It also comes with a little good luck charm (photo below). So if you don't think you want to pay a little for a bit of convenience, stairs are always available.
I've got to say though. While we were there, there were many (and I do mean many!) elderly locals who were climbing the stairs up and down. Unaided and looking as if they weren't breaking any sweat over it! There were even a pair of grandparents (and I do mean grandparents with white hair and all!) jogging after their grandkids! Seriously! What's their secret?! Is that why people always say that the Japanese have longer life span?!
I was so completely ashamed of myself huffing and puffing up the trails that these seniors were bounding up and down on...
Anyway, the view once you get to the level of the main hall is pretty good. What was more amazing was that the place was done in such a way that it's quite wheelchair-friendly on that level! However, any further exploration would be limited. The rest of the walking trails are as called; a lot of walking and stair climbing needed.

Still, the main level provided for some architectural eye-candy. My mom got exasperated waiting for me to get my pictures of the gorgeous wall paintings and all.

The Yutoku Inari Shrine was really perfect for my parents. Dad was soon raring to go explore some of the trails. So I left my mom on the main hall level (she was so glad there was air-conditioning!) with our driver-guide and followed my dad for his morning-exercise of the day.
The walking trail leads from the main level further into the wooded hill. Sections along the trails were also covered by tori gates (according to our driver-guide, donated by persons and corporations for good luck and prosperity). There were also smaller shrines along the way that were dedicated to foxes.

To be honest, while I was huffing and puffing away, it really didn't feel like a pain walking that trail at all. Firstly, there were too many Instagram-worthy pictures to be had. It's just too bad my dad isn't the best model.
Secondly, I was also too busy trying to keep an eye out for dad. Do note that sections of the trail are paved with stones and some parts were wet the day we visited. Not the best combination; wet stone paths can get slippery-dangerous. I know since I fell a couple of times before on those. I didn't want dad to fall and I sure as hell didn't want to myself. Plus I was carrying my newish (then) expensive camera.

Dad and I spent some time climbing the trail until we reach a point where the paths were just stones (photo above). I refused to let dad climb further and we both headed back. Would have been interesting though to continue on just to see if the shrines also got more primitive further in.

For those of you who are interested in visiting the Yutoku Inari Shrine, do also note that there is a small traditional Japanese garden at the base of the hill. It was quite a tranquil place with flowing streams, low-arched bridges, sitting areas and lovely flowers in bloom. The garden is supposedly famed for its peonies blooms as well. Unfortunately, we missed the season. Instead, we saw some pretty azaleas instead.
However, there is an admission fee to the garden. I personally thought that it was quite small for the price we paid. So if you're not into the flower scene, you may want to consider skipping this altogether.

Do note also that there is a small snack stall open at the side of the entrance to the Yutoku Inari Shrine. My dad got himself a well-deserved matcha soft-serve which he happily declared to be one of the best after a morning climb.
Tourist Information
Yutoku Inari Shrine
Address: 1855 Furueda, Kashima 849-1321, Saga Prefecture
Local Address: 〒849-1321古枝乙1855
DID: +81 954-62-2151
No closing time
Admission to shrine is free
Shrine Garden
Admission fee: 200 yen
Opening hours: 9 am to 4:30 pm

9 Days of Rustic Kyushu, Day 4 (Part 4) : Samurai Houses + Dejima

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Day 4: Kazusa Dolphin Watching Cruise --> Unzen Jigoku Hell --> Shimabara Spring Group (Carp Streets) --> Shimabara Castle --> Samurai Houses (武家屋敷) --> Dejima (出島) --> Hotel

Once we were done at the Shimabara Castle, our guide drove us a short distance away to the Samurai Houses of Shimabara. The area is also known to the locals as Teppo-machi or "Gun Town". It is where the samurais of the past used to reside. Now, these old samurai houses have been preserved and restored, and are open to the public free of charge.
Unfortunately, I found these houses to be creepy. They've put up life-sized mannequins to mimic the lifestyles of the old samurai families, but honestly, these were just creepy. Like the one in the picture above, just peeking through a hole, as if any moment, it would disappear and re-appear beside you.
*too much Hollywood shows*

Anyway, there were 3 samurai houses that we could have visited. We popped into 2 and decided that it was enough for the day. My parents were tired and I really didn't like the mannequins on display.
Needless to say, we were out of there pretty quick.
If this is something that rocks your boat, then I would suggest that you put the following 3 attractions together as they are really within very close proximity to one another. It would save you quite a bit on the travelling time.
Shimabara Castle, the Carp street and the samurai houses.
My guide then decided that we could still make it to see Dejima (出島), which was a small fan-shaped island built by the local merchants. Dejima was originally built to house the Portuguese traders but later became a Dutch trading post. Serious isolationlist policy Japan had back then. Today, Dejima is no longer an island as the surrounding land has also been reclaimed.
By the time we arrived at Dejima, we were cutting it a little close to the closing time. Hence, there was very little human traffic. By then, mom was also really tired but managed to put up a good sport and trudged through portions of Dejima. Good thing about the place, there are a lot of sitting spots. Mom would constantly find herself one of those many spots to rest while dad and I climbed the buildings to explore.

The Dejima now is more like a museum exhibit of (again) life back then in Japan as a foreign merchant. A lot of the exhibits pertained to the lifestyle (yes, again) of the people back then. What was interesting though, was that some of the exhibits were designed to be a little more interactive. At least, mom enjoyed herself more in Dejima than at the samurai houses.
Even then, after a couple of houses, you'll realise that most of the structures were similar. And after a while, we also lost interest in the exhibits. I mean, yes there's much to read and look, but there's only so much of our attention span to be had. And non-interactive exhibits (which was majority) isn't really the best way to hold one's interest.


There is also a scaled model of Dejima. However, it's all the way to the end and you'll have to trudge through a semi-grassy patch. Well, actually, it's not the grassy patch that's of issue, but that there were a lot of mosquitoes, flying insects and cobwebs around. And that's my biggest phobia: insects, especially of the flying variety. Yet I wanted at least 1 picture of the model. Once that was done, I was out of there pronto.

One of my biggest learning point of that day: Do not pack the itinerary if travelling with my parents. While my parents are still pretty mobile, they do tire easily. Particularly my mom, who does have some difficulty with her knees.
Day 4 was unfortunately, pretty packed with quite a bit of walking. Hence, before we were even done at Dejima (and we didn't spend a lot of time there), mom was asking for dinner to be served. So off we went to Chinatown for some grub.
Nagasaki's Chinatown is apparently one of the 3 Chinatowns in Japan, the other 2 being Chukagai in Yokohama and Nankinmachi in Kobe. Nagasaki's Shinchi (新地中華街) is the smallest of the 3 Chinatowns though. Like most Chinatowns, you can find medicine shops and shops selling Chinese wares, especially food. What's interesting though is apparently, this place also sells the Japanese version of the Chinese mooncakes! 

Unfortunately for us, apparently, Nagasaki's Chinatown becomes a deserted street when it comes to evenings. Most of the shops were already closed. So there was nothing much really to see. In addition, most of the restaurants appeared to serve similar things. So, we just went with one of the restaurants that was featured in my guide book: Sosyuurin.

The food wasn't too bad but we all agreed that our lunch the day before at Horaiken Bekkan was the best of all the Chinese-Japanese meals we had in Nagasaki. Plus, the service staff at Sosyuurin felt more like the ones we have back here in Singapore! None of the enthusiastic Japanese hospitality at all! Perhaps an indication of the place really being too touristy.

We also happened to chance on some really awesome looking sweets in one of the shops after our dinner. And they were so amazing crafted! I probably took the picture at a wrong angle but that's a persimmon and an apricot that these sweets were supposed to resemble. Mom and I decided to buy to try as they really looked too pretty!
Unfortunately, it looked prettier than it tasted. Mom said next time to just take pictures and not bother.  Heh. She sounded as if we could definitely come back again.
Nagasaki Shinchi Chinatown marked the end of our day 4 and the end of our stint in Nagasaki. By then, we were so whipped, it was back to the Crowne Plaza ANA Nagasaki Gloverhill for a much needed rest.
Tourist Information
Tip: To combine Shimabara Castle, Carp street and samurai houses on the itinerary
Samurai Houses
Address: Shitanocho, Shimabara 855-0052
Local Address: 〒855-0052下の丁山本邸、篠塚邸、鳥田邸
DID: +81 957-63-1087
Admission is free
Address: 6-1 Dejimamachi, Nagasaki 850-0862
Local Address:  〒850-0862出島町6-1
DID: +81 95-821-7200
Nagasaki Shinchi Chinatown
Address: 12-7 Shinchimachi, Nagasaki 850-0842
Local Address: 〒850-0842新地町
Located within Nagasaki Shinchi Chinatown
DID: +81 95-823-0778