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Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2001

Yanagawa: a castle town crisscrossed by canals

Special to The Japan Times

Barges no longer unload their cargo at the stone quays in the same numbers as before, but the labyrinth of canals and old moats in the former castle town of Yanagawa, Fukuoka Prefecture, is still vital to its economy. These days, though, the cargo is more likely to be tourists than sacks of rice or tubs of soy.

News photo
Old Meiji brick houses that line the canal

Yanagawa, with a population of 44,000, is small enough to get around on foot -- but most visitors elect to view the town from the repose of a canal barge. The willow-lined canals that flow by old samurai villas, luxuriating back gardens and old brick storehouses are the town's chief attractions.

Each season offers a different sensation. My first visit to Yanagawa was in spring, then more recently on a day of diluted sunlight that turned gardens into the mezzotint and sepia of autumn. During the winter months, the boats are installed with quilts and heaters, becoming cozy kotatsu-bune.

Boatmen looking like Oxbridge punters pole the barges along. Cruising the canals is the intimate way to see the town, and -- where the channels shrink to a width of barely one meter -- it is the only way to gain access to views of gardens that run down to the water

The angularity of Yanagawa's water grid contrasts with the winding lanes of the old town that transect it -- an aerial view would no doubt reveal something like an octopus on a checkerboard. Like many older towns in Japan, Yanagawa consists of two parallel sectors: a modern, architecturally traumatized area of the sort seen everywhere in Japan, contrasting with a graceful older quarter.

News photo
Barge passengers covered in quilts

Indeed, there is something endearingly old-fashioned about Yanagawa. Genuinely antique buildings remain, along with a disproportionately large number of shrines and temples. Many are in need of restoration, their roofs weather-beaten, copper guttering distorted, bronze finials oxidized and their capstones blotched with moss. Mihashira Shrine in Takehatake Park is the town's spiritual center, and with its low, squat appearance, full of worn, uneven flagstones stained green with time, the shrine looks far older than its 1826 foundation date.

Tradition has survived in more than just material form. Yanagawa still stages numerous festivals, many of which are (aptly enough) waterborne affairs. The Onigie Festival at Mihashira Shrine, an autumn event, is regarded as Yanagawa's premier matsuri. Floating orchestras (dorotsukudon) dedicated to the shrine glide under canal bridges.

The national Hina Matsuri, or Girls' Day, assumes a picturesque form, as barges bearing children dressed as hina dolls, and women in court attire float beneath the town's bridges. The boats are decorated with sagemon, mobiles bearing vividly designed cloth balls, birds and miniature dolls, which are traditionally sewn by mothers when a child is born.

Another Yanagawa custom is eating baked and steamed unagi no seiromushi (rice and eel steamed with a sugar-and-soy sauce, topped with a finely sliced omelette), especially during the dog days of summer. At midday, when kitchens are at their fastest and most furious, the whole town seems to smell of eel, said to increase a person's stamina and virility. (A caveat, then, for those who dislike the fish: Visit early, and leave before lunch is served.)

In winter, visitors will be invited to sample duck, a captive stock of which can be seen sailing along the canals. Yanagawa nabe, small fish cooked with local vegetables and egg in an earthenware pot, is another local dish.

Likewise, much tourist mileage is extracted from the fact that Yanagawa is the birthplace of the poet Hakushu Kitahara (1885-1942), a prolific writer best known for his children's poems and folk songs. His debut, "Jashumon (Heathendom)," a collection of sensual lyrics in the tanka form, caused quite a stir at the time.

A fair sample of his poetry would be the following observation of scenes along the canals:

Weeping willows are swaying along a canal,
Over which there are many lovely bridges.
Boats are passing by under them. Boys, are you enjoying the cool water?

Perhaps something has been lost in translation. . .

If your curiosity is aroused, nonetheless, visits can be made to Hakushu's family home, the Hakushu Seika, today also serving as the Yanagawa Municipal Folk Museum. It conveys a good sense of what it must have been like to live in a Japanese merchant house during the Meiji and early Taisho periods.

In Hakushu's day, "gracious lotus flowers" were to be seen surrounding the site of the now-razed castle -- but other flowers, too, bloom along the banks of the town's canals, especially in spring.

For those looking to take their watery experience one step further, why not view Yanagawa's canals from the most soothing spot of all? In traditional inns lining the banks, or at the town's public spa, bathers can take the waters even while gazing down on the canals through discreetly steamed-up glass panels: the ultimate water immersion.

Regular trains on the Nishitetsu Omuta Line run from Fukuoka Station in the city's Tenjin district. The journey takes 55 minutes. The standard cost for a one-hour canal cruise is 1,500 yen, excluding food and drinks.

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