Kyushu: Northern Kyushu

Kyushu: Northern Kyushu | Central & Southern Kyushu

The north of the island contains its two biggest cities, Kita-Kyushu and Fukuoka. Neither are particular interesting for the visitor except perhaps during the summer festivals: during Hakata Dontaku Festival on May 3-4, citizens dressed as the Seven Deities of Good Fortune parade the streets of Hakata in the eastern part of Fukuoka; Hakata Gion Yamakasa Festival runs from July 1-15th and sees colorful kazari-yamakasa floats paraded through the streets. Huge excitement is generated when the kaki-yamakasa are raced in the Oiyama on the final day. The festival dates back to the 13th century when a priest was carried through the city spraying holy water along the way to rid the city of an epidemic.

O-kunchi festival

A dragon dance at Nagasaki's O-kunchi festival

The peace memorial in Nagasaki

The peace memorial in Nagasaki

Fukuoka also has Shofukuji temple, the first center of Zen teaching in Japan, and about 40 minutes away by train is Dazaifu-Temmangu shrine, built in 1591 and one of Japan's highest ranking shrines. The nearby Komyo-ji temple has a very nice Zen garden. To the south and west of Fukuoka, there are several towns famous for their pottery and porcelain, such as Arita, Karatsu and Koishiwara.

About 2 hours 40 minutes west of Fukuoka by train, Nagasaki is a popular destination. The small Peace Park, a memorial to the victims of the 1945 atomic bombing, is located near the main station. The Nagasaki Kokusai Bunka Kaikan (International Cultural Hall) houses an exhibition of photographs and remnants. The city has a lot more to offer than its tragic past, however. There are several historic sites, such as Glover Park, Oura Church and the Meganebashi bridge. Glover Park is set on a hill and overlooks the city and the bay. It includes the elegant Glover Mansion, thought to be the setting of the opera 'Madame Butterfly'. Built in 1863, it was the home of Scottish trader Thomas Glover. Among other things, Glover participated in the building of the Kosuge shipyards, forerunner of the Mitsubishi shipyards which became the target for the atomic bomb. Nearby, Oura Church is the oldest Catholic church in Japan. Built in 1865 as a memorial to 26 Christian martyrs crucified in 1597 under the orders of the military ruler Toyotomi Hideyoshi, it has been designated a National Treasure. Sofuku-ji temple (also known as Nanki-dera, or Chinese Temple) was built in 1629 contains some excellent Ming Dynasty Chinese architecture. Spanning the Nakajima River, Meganebashi is the oldest Western-style stone bridge in Japan. The bridge looks like a pair of glasses and hence its name - megane means glasses. Suwa Shrine sponsors the annual Nagasaki O-kunchi festival, which is held in October and features dragon dances. Nagasaki is known for its castella, a soft cake, originally from Portugal. Other local dishes include champon - noodles in chicken broth with a variety of toppings - and shippoku, a vegetarian dish originally from China.

Just across the bay (but a couple of hours by bus), on Shimabara Peninsula, is the hot spring town of Unzen. One of the neighboring volcanoes, Fugendake, erupted in 1991, killing 40 people. In Shimabara, you can find a reconstruction of Shimabara Castle, scene of the massacre of 30,000 Christians in 1637 as well as relics of old samurai houses.

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