It might be missing the Doge’s Palace and St. Mark’s Square, but Yanagawa—a small city in southern Fukuoka prefecture—has canals that could rival the famous Italian city.
Around 2,000 years ago, a portion of the nearby Ariake Sea turned from tidal wetlands into more solid ground. However, locals living in the vicinity dug a series of trenches and ditches to preserve water for agricultural use on the small settlement’s rice paddies. By the seventh and eighth centuries, more official channels of transportation were dug and paths between the rice paddies were linked. Life in Yanagawa revolved around the water, and the routes remained vital as transportation arteries until near the end of the 19th century.
Today, visitors can travel a small portion of the 470 kilometers of canals that remain on a kawakudari (“downstream”) tour. Shuttle buses deliver boat passengers from the Nishitetsu rail station on the eastern side of Yanagawa to the boat loading dock. Tours last an average of 70 minutes, and passengers are treated to the stories—and occasional song—of the capable boatmen who pole the crafts through the canals. Unfortunately, the commentary is only in Japanese, but English speakers can follow the route on the maps provided.
Tours run year-round, and each season has enjoyable aspects. In spring, the banks are lined with cherry trees and, if you time it during March’s Hina Matsuri (Doll Festival), you might even catch the water parade of living dolls. In winter, kotatsu heaters are added to the boats to keep passengers cozy.
For the most part, the ride through the canals is a calm one. Be alert, however, for the occasional narrow passage or low-clearance bridge. There’s also a statue or two of kappa (water sprites) hidden along the route. Keep your eyes peeled for these mischievous fellows.
All boat cruises end just southwest of the old Yanagawa castle site. If the ride leaves you with an appetite, don’t miss out on the Yanagawa specialty of unagi (freshwater eel). At least a half-dozen restaurants serving the local delicacy are within a stone’s throw of the disembarkation area.
How to get there:
Train access by the Tenjin-Omuta Line, Kagoshima Line and Kyushu Shinkansen. Air access via Fukuoka and Ariake-Saga airports. More information and full English travel and contact details at www.yanagawakk.co.jp/index_e.html