Situated in the north area of Saga prefecture on the coast is Karatsu city. The city, which still has a small town atmosphere, is one of Saga’s most popular tourist destinations with beautiful sites like Karatsu Castle and its biggest festival, Karatsu Kunchi in November each year.
Karatsu city is easily accessible by train, both from Saga city and directly from the Fukuoka underground. Karatsu station connects to Saga city on the Karatsu line, where there is only one rail line between Kubota and Karatsu station. The ride takes just over an hour and gives you a chance to see some of Saga’s stunning natural beauty. From Hakata station in Fukuoka there are trains running directly to Karatsu city taking around an hour and twenty minutes.
Probably the best, be it also the most crowded time, to visit Karatsu city is during its famous Karatsu Kunchi – a festival dating back over hundreds of years. It takes places annually from November 2nd to 4th and attracts hundreds of thousands of people. Not only is it the biggest festival in Karatsu but also one of the biggest in Kyushu. Coinciding with Saga’s Balloon Festival, this weekend becomes the busiest of the year for Saga prefecture. During Karatsu Kunchi, 14 floats – called “hikiyama” – each with unique and interesting designs are pulled around the city accompanied by traditional music and chanting. The route for the parade goes throughout Karatsu so it is easy to find from the station. The floats used now were made in the 19th century, and if you visit Karatsu at another time of year they can be viewed in the Hikiyama Float Exhibition Hall. The floats are beautifully designed and well worth a look even if you don’t visit during Kunchi. Some of the designs include dragons, samurai helmets and sea bream. There is a special atmosphere in Karatsu during Kunchi which is wonderful to experience. As in many Japanese festivals, the streets are lined with food stalls but local people also open their doors to visitors serving them food and drinks. If you don’t like crowds however, it may be best to avoid it and take the time to look at the floats in the exhibition hall during a trip to the city. This also gives you a chance to take your time and admire the work gone into creating them.
Visible from around the city is Karatsu Castle. Situated by the sea, this stunning structure is a reconstruction of the original castle from the Edo period. The current reconstruction was built in the 1960s and is open every day from 9-5 (other than over New Year). Entry is 500 yen and the castle is around a 20 minute walk from Karatsu station. The castle is on a hill and there are stairs leading up, or you can use the lift which costs 100 yen. Raised up above the town, the castle with its traditional Japanese design stands as a landmark of the city. On the way up to the castle though you can look around Maizuru park and enjoy the view of the sea. The park is a lovely spot for cherry blossom viewing around the end of March, while in May there is a beautiful canopy of wisteria. Inside the castle you can see old artefacts, such as samurai armour and old pottery known as Karatsu yaki, and learn about the history of the castle and Karatsu. There are five floors and from the top there is a viewing spot with stunning views of the sea and nearby islands.
Along the coast is the forest Niji no Matsubara. This pine forest stretches for around 4 kilometres and was planted 360 years ago. With a road running through it, you can drive or cycle along surrounded by nature as you take in the sights. It is a popular spot for tourists with hotels and parking close by and only 25 minutes from Karatsu station on foot. Here you can also try the local speciality, Karatsu Burger which has a unique sauce with a slightly sweet taste and the most popular “special burger” is topped with egg, cheese and ham. Alongside Niji no Matsubara is the popular Hamatama beach. This white sand beach stretches along the length of the forest and is visited by people from around Saga during summer. Another beach- Nishi no Hama- is the site of the Kyushu Fireworks Display every summer taking place in mid-July and with Karatsu Castle in the foreground it is a stunning spectacle.
Karatsu has a rich culture and history and is certainly worth a visit to make for an unforgettable experience. Although Karatsu Kunchi is the most impressive time of the year, the city has plenty to offer at other times of the year.[cft format=0]