Saga isn't what many people would consider Japan's most exciting prefecture. It's the kind of place you've got to pass through when traveling somewhere else, which in my case is Nagasaki in the west or Kumamoto and Kagoshima in the south. That said, there are a few places in Saga that are worth visiting, one of which is the town of Karatsu.
An hour's drive from Fukuoka, or about an hour and half from Tenjin (Fukuoka City) by local train, the small coastal town is easily accessible and provides a interesting day's worth of sightseeing.
At the heart of the city is Karatsu castle, a beautiful white-washed structure rising above a promontory. Known as the "Dancing Crane Castle" (舞鶴城 Maizuru Jō), the original castle was constructed from 1602 to 1609.
The donjon pictured to the right is unfortunately a reconstruction. Like so many of Japan's once great castles, the original Maizuru Jô was destroyed after the feudal han system was abolished in the late 1800s in an ill-conceived attempt to eradicate vestiges of the former ruling system.
Like many provincial towns, though, Karatsu offers a nostalgic glimpse at what Japan once looked like before the economic bubble of the 80s when life was simpler, less uncertain. Bus stops, diners, and beauty salons are little changed. You can't help but feel as if you've stepped back in time to the Shôwa Period.
As you might expect with similarly historic towns, in the vicinity of the castle, you can still find some of the so-called "quietly dignified" residences of the former samura class. Known as buke yashiki (武家屋敷), the homes are often surrounded by distinctive stone walls, sometimes with hedges atop, recessed entrances, and beautifully manicured gardens. In the city of Chiran in Kagoshima prefecture, most of these homes are open to the public. In Karatsu, however, I couldn't tell if any of them were.
Throughout Karatsu there are buildings dating back to the Edo, Meiji (See Karatsu Bank) Taishô, and Shôwa eras that are have been fairly well maintained. That's often the case in Japan, though, isn't it? It's in the backwaters where the wealth of the postwar boom years failed to trickle down that many of the better examples of architecture can be still found. There wasn't the mad dash after cash so common elsewhere that motivated property owners to bulldoze their cultural heritage and replace it with shabby condominiums, parking garages, or pachinko parlors.
Recommended times to visit Karatsu depend upon what you'd like to do there. The summer months can be rather nice. There is a long stretch of beach that's not nearly as crowded with sunbathers on weekends as the beaches in the suburbs of Fukuoka city can be. The water is cleaner, too. Some the hotels even rent rooms for the afternoon so you can shower and rest after playing on the beach all day.
Karatsu's biggest event of the year, the Karatsu Kunchi festival, falls around the Culture Day holiday (Nov.3). While not as exciting as, say, the Yamakasa Gion festival in Hakata (Fukuoka City), it makes traveling all the way to this town worth the while.