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Wednesday, Oct. 6, 1999

Fall in Kyushu unique after all


By STEPHANIE GARTELMANN

AKIZUKI, Fukuoka Pref. -- "Japan," I am frequently informed, with looks of grave importance, "has four seasons." I always wonder if I should feign amazement at this fact, or be silly and ask whether this is because Japan is an island country and all foreigners hate natto. But I can never be told enough about how to enjoy the seasons in Japan.

Wind chimes and icy colors are essential in summer. Then it's autumn, when a host of goodies are harvested one after the other: chestnuts, matsutake mushrooms and persimmons. Cultural events abound. After the typhoons are over, the weather man brings reports of visual feasts: cosmos flowers in late September; autumn foliage from late October.

Certain seasons really bring some places to life, and two towns you shouldn't miss this autumn are Akizuki and Koishiwara. Akizuki, an exquisite miniature castle town, is a profusion of red and gold foliage in autumn. Nearby, the pottery village of Koishiwara offers up its best harvests in autumn. This coming weekend, Oct. 9-11, is your chance to catch the best of them, at the Koishiwara Autumn Pottery Festival.

Both towns are in far-flung mountainous corners of Kyushu's Fukuoka Prefecture, which means you basically need a car to get there -- although public transport is possible. During the pottery festival at Koishiwara, arrive either super-early or late to avoid traffic snarls: Everyone seems to arrive at the same time (11 a.m.-noon) and leave at the same time (3-4 p.m.).

Akizuki's history as a castle town, guarding the well-trodden route from Kumamoto Castle to Kokura Castle, has left it with tiny, winding streets full of beautifully preserved old buildings, and an air of elegance. Former samurai dwellings line the streets, and a Meiji-Era stone arch bridge, Megane-bashi, marks the town's original entrance.

The castle itself, built in 1623, fell to ruins in the Meiji Era with the dispersal of the shogun-daimyo system, but its foundations are still sprinkled around the town. Private homes, old trees and stone bridges sprout from the castle's former turrets, walls, canals and wells. A junior high school uses the bulk of its walls, gates and foundations.

Perhaps the most prominent remains are Kuromon, the former front gate of the castle, and Nagayamon, the former rear gate. Akizuki's wide, flagstone-paved main street, Suginobaba-dori, still marches up to Kuromon with an air of importance.

The town's centerpiece, Suginobaba-dori is flanked by a quaint mixture of tea shops, cherry trees and delicate red maple. The blossoms provide one of Kyushu's most romantic spring sights, and the trees form a gorgeous orange canopy in autumn. Takegama-meshi is the specialty at most of the tea shops. Rice, mushrooms and other goodies are steamed together in a bamboo dish -- it's delicious.

The crystal-clear stream that meanders through the town pops up picturesquely at every corner, and is clean enough to still be used in making arrowroot starch, one of Akizuki's oldest specialties. You can sample arrowroot, served here as a fragrant, glutinous dessert, and watch it being made at the authentic and beautifully restored Takagi Chusuke workshop.

Just outside Akizuki is the forest-covered Mount Kosho-san, famous for its giant box trees, a golden backdrop to Akizuki in autumn. Hiking trails crisscross the hills, starting from the camping ground. Stop into Dango-an, a tea shop located next to a waterfall gushing down from the mountains, and try the dangojiru, a hearty Kyushu country-style miso soup packed with dumplings and vegetables.

Akizuki is just the right size for a half day's wandering-about, so there's still enough time to get back into the car, and continue 30 minutes to Koishiwara. The twisted, tiny road to this village makes it an especially worthwhile place to actually get to. Its scenic location and mellow sights, at the top of a range of mountains, will keep you there a few more hours.

The village is famous for its earth-colored pottery marked with spiraling scratches, often with contrasting glaze poured boldly on top. The simple, practical wares have been produced since about 1682, during the 17th-century Kyushu pottery boom. About 50 workshops and display rooms line the long main street, ending all the way downhill at the tanada terraced rice fields with their distinctive, mossy stone walls.

To get an idea of what quality of pottery is available, first take a look at the large selection of wares exhibited at the Koishiwara-yaki Dento Sangyo Kaikan museum. The temporary stalls lining the street offer the best bargains, especially at the end of the day. Try your best imitation of a Tokyo housewife, and haggle for maximum deals.

Serious buyers should bring gloves to protect hands, and a sturdy bag to carry your loot home in. Wander off the main street to see old brick kilns and dozens of smaller workshops, two still featuring wooden water mills that were used to knead clay. Non-serious buyers should intersperse pottery buying with gourmet shopping at stalls run by local grannies, for delicious home-made miso, pickles, sake, garden-grown persimmons and nashi.

Koishiwara, as mountain entrance of the mystic training ground on nearby Mount Hikosan, also bears signs of the countless Buddhist monks-in-training that have passed through. A cedar forest with 200-500-year-old trees, and the giant cedar tree Gyojanosugi on the town's outskirts, planted by the monks to mark their route, are two of these.

If you take the road back via Mount Hikosan (or save it for another day) you'll find many more monuments to austere Buddhist practices. You'll also find plenty more autumn cosmos, maple trees, harvest festivals and seasonal delicacies.

After all, autumn really is unique in Japan.

To get to Akizuki take the Kyushu Expressway to Amagi Interchange, then Route 322 to Akizuki. By public transport, take the Nishitetsu line to Asakura Gaido Station, then bus No. 1 (about 15 minutes) to Akizuki. For more information contact the Amagi City Tourist Division (0946) 22-1111.

To get to Koishiwara follow directions to Akizuki, and continue on to Route 500 about 30 minutes up the mountain road. A Nishitetsu bus will operate direct to Koishiwara during the festival. For more information call the Koishiwara Tourist Information Center (0946) 74-2121.



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