I recently realized that if I have friends visiting Fukuoka for sightseeing, I wouldn’t let them miss Dazaifu. It’s the perfect place for a day trip from Fukuoka. You ask why? Well, why not? Let me give you my top 10 reasons:
1. Getting there. Dazaifu is just a short train ride away from Fukuoka’s city center. Unlike other destinations that would take an hour or two, Dazaifu is a convenient 20-minute train ride from Tenjin (Fukuoka’s center). Just look for the Nishitetsu Tenjin Train Station and buy a ticket to Dazaifu for 390 yen. Don’t forget to change trains at Futsukaichi station and make sure to board the correct train going to Dazaifu! (We made the mistake of just boarding the nearest train without reading and it cost us precious time.) When in doubt, ask! Don’t be afraid if they don’t speak English, just ask “Dazaifu?” and they will (hopefully) understand …
2. Accessibility. Every destination in Dazaifu is walking distance! The tourist sites are very near each other. They have complete directions and signs that walking tourists can easily follow.
3. Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine. This is one of the most important shrines dedicated to Sugawara Michizane’s spirit, a well-known scholar of the Heian Period. He died in Dazaifu and the shrine was built on the site of his grave.
This shrine is associated with the Shinto deity for education, so students often come here to pray for exams, studies and other academic-related requests. The shrine is quite popular, especially among students taking entrance examinations.
4. The plum trees. Plum trees are abundant (if 6000 trees are abundant enough for you) in and around the shrine. The plum is Mishizane’s favorite tree. Just before the sakura, the plum trees bloom here around mid-March. Seeing the ume (Japanese word for plum) flowers is really a treat!
5. Kyushu National Museum. It opened just last 2005, and is Japan’s fourth and latest National Museum (the other three in Tokyo, Kyoto and Nara were opened 2 centuries ago) . The unique architecture is a pretty cool, not that I’m any expert. I just love the way it looks: different. The big infrastructure should look out of place in such a small and traditional-feel place, but it works for me. The exhibits are also pretty interesting, a very good lesson in Asian history. There are some volunteer guides just standing around the exhibits, waiting for clueless-looking tourists. The guides are mostly old Japanese folks who wish to practice their English, and they’re a good source of insider information. The entrance fees to the museum are reasonable, only 420 yen for adults. Students only need to pay 130 yen, and Kyushu Unniversity students can enter for free (Yey! Just don’t forget to bring your ID card).
6. Komyozenji temple. This is a zen temple with two wonderful gardens. At the entrance of the temple premises is the front garden that consists of raked pebbles with large rocks laid out. The rocks are said to form the kanji for ‘light’. A 200 yen entrance fee is required to enter the temple, though there is nobody to give the money to. The honesty system is being implemented, with only a small wooden box asking silently for the entrance fees. The garden at the back of the temple is quite a sight. The trees and the raked pebbles all add up to give an impression of serenity. The garden felt so quiet and peaceful that I had the impulse to sit and meditate. It’s as Zen as any garden can get.
7. Mt. Homan. This is one of the most popular mountains to climb in Fukuoka. It is a 20-minute bus ride or an hour’s walk from the Dazaifu train station. It is around 800 meters high and only takes 2 hours to climb, though it is a bit steep. But if young kids and old ladies can climb it, I’m sure it’s not that hard for the average tourist 🙂 The path to the top is built with steps made from rocks (which I personally do not prefer, but hey I’m not complaining) to make it easier to climb. The mountain is also filled with trees so the sun could hardly penetrate through the tree canopy, making the ascent very comfortable. There are some technical parts near the summit, where you have to use ropes and ladders to climb, which adds to the trail’s appeal. My favorite part (as in any climb)is the summit. It is a nice place to relax and enjoy the view of the plains below.
8. The shopping street. The souvenir shops lining the main street leading to the Tenmangu Shrine is really a feast for the eyes. The goods being sold range from Japanese souvenir items to native delicacies. Most of the food being sold can be tasted for free (this is one of the best parts of buying food souvenirs: free taste!). The shopping street leading to the shrine depicts the typical shopping street near a major tourist attraction all over Japan, but I haven’t seen any street like this anywhere else in Fukuoka.
9. Umegai-mochi. This dessert is a signature delicacy of Dazaifu. There are a number of shops in the shopping street that specializes in this dessert (always try to look for the shop with the longest line, and you’ll know where the best umegai-mochi is sold). It can be a little hypnotizing to watch the cooks prepare the mochi with their special machines. The umegai-mochi consists of mochi (pounded glutinous rice) with bean paste inside. I am not a big fan of beans, but I can tolerate this dessert, because the mochi is really good, especially when it is hot (they give it to you hot!).
Dazaifu has all the elements that traditional Japan has to offer. It has that small Japanese town appeal, and offers an interesting lesson in Japanese culture and history. The stuff I listed are just my favorites, but this is not all that Dazaifu has to offer. There are more sights to visit (like the Kanzoenji Temple and the Government Ruins, although these sites are a kilometer or two away from the main station) and more stuff to discover about Dazaifu, and I intend to go back for another day trip soon 🙂