Thursday, 6 November 2014

Mooching in Kyushu: Karatsu

We have another three-day weekend right now due to a public holiday - this one is Culture Day, 3rd of November. There's another one later this month, which will be "an occasion for praising labor, celebrating production and giving one another thanks". Other holidays include Respect for the Aged Day, Mountain Day ("a day on which to appreciate Japan's mountains") and "a day to commune with nature and be grateful for its blessings". Having reviewed the evidence closely, I would like to argue for Japan to take over the arrangement of public holidays, not least because they have more than twice the number our miserly government is prepared to offer.

In fairness though, Japan's minimum holiday allowance is a mere 10 days and there's a chronic addiction to unpaid overtime, often followed by compulsory socialising with alcohol, so maybe I'll stick to the British system after all.

I decided this would be a good opportunity to get out of town and visit another one of the places near Fukuoka. As I apparently can't visit places that don't begin with K, I chose Karatsu, which is a little way to the west, lured by promises of a castle and extensive pine forest.

As the weather was okay, I saved some time by strolling north to the Airport Line, rather than riding into town and transferring. This wasn't a particular problem, but the rest of the journey was a bit perplexing. The map gave the impression that I'd have to transfer at Meinohama station from the orange underground line to the grey railway. I started getting off at Meinohama, but realised other people were staying on, so it couldn't be a terminus. Luckily the doors stayed open for a little while, and I was able to quickly check with another passenger. This was a big relief, as if it had gone off without me the next one wouldn't have come for ages.

Having apparently settled down to a full-length journey, I was then bemused a few stops later to see that everyone was getting off the train. Maybe this was just a very important stop, and hardly anyone continued on to the next city? I did see a couple of schoolkids in uniform getting on, which reassured me slightly. Then the doors shut, but nothing else happened. Luckily, a train porter was coming down, so I buttonholed him for an explanation. It turned out that in fact, this train was going to turn round and go back to Fukuoka Airport. I could only be grateful that the doors opened again and gave me a chance to escape.

I did eventually make it to Karatsu, but I'm still a bit confused by the whole business. I presume that, for some trains, they find it more efficient to do a partial run to this significant intermediate stop (whose name I've forgotten) rather than go the whole distance. It just seems unusual to me to reverse a train somewhere other than a terminus.

It's always nice to get out of the city for a bit and into the slightly-more-countryside areas. Being able to see more than a few dozen yards is a rare treat! I've never really got comfortable with the confinedness of the inner city, away from fields and hills to roam over. The train also offers nice views of some of the islands around the coast, which are about as densely populated as a steep tree-covered cone can be. I do wonder what the people living there do for a living; I suspect many are just able to afford either to commute constantly, or not to work at all. There's probably some fishing too.

There are also a few traditional-looking houses with a bit more breathing space than the city allows them. They look far more comfortable with a bit of land around them, rather then the walls six inches from fences on all sides.

Arriving in Karatsu, I quickly grabbed a map and headed out.

Karatsu is known for its pottery, although I saw no particular reason to buy any. It was very pretty from what I saw of it, but so is much pottery. Also, bringing pottery back in a plane sounds like a recipe for disaster.

This is a Buddhist temple, Anrakuji. I wasn't entirely sure at the time, and didn't like to go in through the large, heavy gates.

This is a rather nice bank, apparently. It's important enough to be listed on the tourist map, so I took a detour from the recommended route to check it out. Also, because I don't like being told what to do! Going through the squirrely side-roads filled with little shops was much more interesting than the main route.

This seems to be a remnant of an older building complex, presumably once part of the castle's outermost defences.

This, too, is a bit of a mystery, but I thought it was interesting. Apparently it's a clock tower that was once part of the outlying area of Karatsu castle. This area is now just houses, shops and so on; the grounds are long gone. What appears to be yet another concrete-bound river nearby is actually the remains of the moat.

Houses rather precariously tucked onto the riverbank.

For some reason, this little car in this dusty car park with its background of seaside trees makes me think of 70s-80s album covers.

As I wandered through the town, I noticed that preparations were in hand for a festival. The Karatsu Kunchi runs from the evening of the 2nd of November to the 4th, which meant that I would essentially miss it. However, luck was with me. Knowing the festival wasn't due to start, I made zero attempt to go anywhere relevant or check for goings on. As it happened, though, I was ambling through a particular street at just the time a trial run was beginning! So I was able to see two of the floats being carried out, as well as the various stalls setting out ready for the festival.

Since traffic is still allowed through here, it's not really possible to get a decent picture. Sorry.

You can try to scoop these goldfish with a paper scoop. If you succeed before it disintegrates in the water, you can keep it. It's like winning one on the shooting range at a British fairground. It's a staple of things like manga when they're portraying festivals, but I've always vaguely disapproved of this sort of thing.

Nobody was in costume, but it was interesting all the same. I considered staying a while after my sightseeing and eating from the stalls, but later developments would change this plan.

Karatsu Castle

My first intended port of call was, of course, Karatsu Castle.

This house was just along the way to the castle. Like I said, they take their pottery seriously. I have to assume this is a potter's house, but am surprised they leave it all just sitting outside. You'd think it would get damaged.

A map of the castle grounds. You'll note that what's left is far smaller than the parklike surroundings of Kumamoto or Fukuoka castles. Basically there's a hill to walk up with a turret on top. It seems a lot smaller when you're there than this picture implies.

The castle proved to be rather disappointing. What's actually there to look at is pretty small, and there's lots of scaffolding and hoardings around due to reconstruction or excavation efforts.

On the plus side, you can see the whole outside area free of charge, and the small fee is only for going in. I actually decided against this, because I’d already seen the inside of Kumamoto castle, and it seemed very unlikely this much smaller one would be more interesting. From peeking around, there were apparently displays of various artefacts and so on, but due to my very limited knowledge of the history and my poor Japanese, I assumed that I wouldn’t really be able to make much out of it, and so decided to spend my time elsewhere. The entry fee wasn’t much of an issue, but time was as this was only a day trip. Apparently there's a nice view from the top, but it's probably less nice when it's overcast and a bit misty.

There are some decent views from the hillside. Excitingly, at least half a dozen raptors were circling overhead, probably buzzards of some kind. I really wonder where they nest - maybe somewhere on the castle, or the nearby forest?

The remains of the castle. This is about all you can see, and it's actually a 1960s reconstruction! Very little was left.

It's hard to make out, but this is the traditional sort of compass rose you get on viewpoints in the UK as well, indicating the names of various hills, islands and other landmarks you can make out.

As you can see, the islands are pretty steep, so people can only really live on the outer rim. Presumably you could get a house built further up, but why bother? You'd only have to slog up and down.

An interesting caterpillar. Some local visitors saw me photographing it and thought this was hilarious.

This was the best I could manage of this leaf-like butterfly. The camera needs to be completely still for close-up shots, so couldn't get an overhead view with the whole thing in focus!

Niji-no-Matsubara (虹の松原) Pine Forest

This pine forest was one of the things that had attracted me to Karatsu. It's a ridiculously long time since I was able to walk on anything other than tarmac, paving slab or floorboards. The prospect of a long stroll through a wood was very appealing (although, on reflection, there's probably a tarmac path anyway!).

The forest is to the east of the castle, so I trotted off across a long bridge to the next peninsula.

This seems to be Anyoji, another temple. I didn't go in, as I was on my way to the forest.

The forest area proved to be baffling, at least from the angle I approached from. I’d seen mentioned in several places that you can walk there, but when I finally found it it wasn’t at all clear how. The only apparent route in turned out to lead to a graveyard, and though I wandered around here for a bit attracting confused looks from a few locals, it didn’t offer any walking route.

Also, apparently not many people went there, because I kept running into bits of spiderweb, invisible in the light, populated with those enormous spiders I’ve photographed before. This was a trifle alarming. Eventually I gave up and left, deciding that the distant possibility of a nice woodland walk didn’t weigh up well against the likelihood of wasting my whole afternoon walking down a road looking for the entrance.

Further research suggests I was indeed in the right place, but that the only entrance points are much further east. Since I didn't see a single signpost pointing this out, I'm not sure it was possible for me to discover this, so I feel vindicated. Pro Tip: If you have a forest 5km long with a path through it, why not make the path accessible from both ends and advertise it with a big sign?

Turning back turned out to be a good bet, because the weather turned from overcast to leaden skies, and soon the heavens opened. I was very glad I had, in fact, brought my umbrella, because with howling wind and pounding rain, I was soaked to the waist even with it. I sought shelter under a roof for a while, and managed to traipse the rest of the way into town when it eased off. Here I hoped to find a restaurant, but this was surprisingly difficult, as presumably I was in the wrong part of town. I had passed some kind of café, but it looked very posh and I thought they wouldn’t be that happy to see a sodden foreigner just wanting a cup of tea. In the end I stumbled across a restaurant where I was basically herded inside by a lurking waiter (a common tactic in Japan). Despite some misgivings, I managed to secure a curry and a cuppa, and cheered up a bit. The quick-drying trousers once again proved a worthwhile investment, although my shoes would be out of it for a couple of days.

Takatori Residence

The final stop I'd planned was the old Takatori residence. I didn't know about it when I arrived, but in my wanderings I'd run across it and decided it would be worth a look. This was along the lines of the Hosokawa residence in Kumamoto.

This was a fairly interesting place, but that's quite difficult to convey here because there's an absolute ban on photographs and they don't sell postcards! So there's no way to show other people how interesting something was. I'm still a bit baffled by this cultural difference.

I went around on my own with the pamphlets, giving me time to read everything. However, there were tour guides showing people through as well. Since I didn't understand that much when they were near my, I don't feel like I missed out - there's too much historical, architectural and cultural information that I just wouldn't be able to catch. The downside for me was that they were often a bit in the way! They came fairly thick and fast, and went in opposing directions around the house, so not getting stuck behind one was a bit of an issue at times.

These interior shots are actually taken from the brochure, so I didn't break the rules, have no fear! This is a set of painted wooden doors.

This large reception room incorporates an entire stage for Noh theatre - the shiny part at the end next to the painting of the tree. Apparently the flooring of the adjacent rooms can also be taken up to provide extra space for musicians, people waiting to come onstage and so on.

Time to go

Sopping shoes, the unpromising weather (I'd spent a good half an hour fighting driving rain and wind on my way back into town) and the difficulty of finding any cafés to loiter in made me reluctant to hang around in Karatsu any more, so I strolled back to the station around 4pm. I'd planned to look around the festival stalls, but the prospect of doing this in the rain wasn't very appealing.

I bought this on my way back to the station, from one of the stalls. It's a kind of Taiyaki (鯛焼き , literally "baked sea bream") which is a cake filled with red bean or some other sweet filling. This kind is a croissant-style taiyaki, which sounded odd, but was pretty tasty. To my astonishment, I was able to find somewhere to sit down and eat it! This essentially never happens. I generally assume that Japanese people have some kind of untiring robotic legs.

Overall verdict

Karatsu was a bit of a disappointment, although that's not necessarily a fair assessment. The castle felt like a bit of a con, despite being free - it's advertised as a castle, but there really isn't enough left to justify the label. It's a tower on a hill. The difficulty of getting into the forest was partly my fault for not asking at tourist information, but then I wasn't expecting it to be remotely difficult, and finding it was easy enough. The weather isn't the fault of Karatsu, but it coloured my experience.

It was certainly not awful, but not nearly as interesting as I’d hoped. Other than the Takatori residence, I didn't particularly notice anything that made it a good place to visit. Most of the rest of the town seemed, alas, about as interesting as my own hometown; I can't particularly recommend it. When the festival is on, it's undoubtedly more exciting.

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