Saga’s Hidden Gems
Unfortunately, Saga, the capital of Saga prefecture on Kyushu Island, doesn’t receive too many reviews. That’s a shame, a real shame. The city, just over an hour from Fukuoka International Airport by bus – slightly less by train – is a wonderfully relaxing mini-Japanese city that ticked all the right boxes for me. Its wide avenues attract more bicycles than they do cars while the numerous open green spaces beckon travellers to rest their weary feet under a canopy of centuries-old trees.
From a tourist’s perspective, Saga has a quite a few aces up its sleeve. The first is Saga Castle, which was built in 1591 and happens to be a bit of a rarity in Japan as it is surrounded by massive walls rather than being built on top of them. The second is the annual Saga International Balloon Fiesta, held every autumn and now one of the biggest hot air balloon events in Asia drawing more than 100 local and international balloonists. Then, there are the seven wise men of Saga, Saga Prefectural Museum & Art Museum, Saga Balloon Museum, Saga Old City, Saga’s thriving night life and the people of Saga themselves, who are never too busy to help.
But let’s start with Lord Nabeshima Naomasa – tenth and final lord of Saga – who helped Japan import Western technologies from Dutch sailors in 1850 and then watched helplessly as the American navy forcibly ended Japan’s isolation policy in 1853. After retiring from his official duties, Lord Nabeshima joined forces with other feudal lords in 1869 to oust the ruling Tokugawa shogunate and return power to the Imperial Court of Emperor Meiji. For his assistance, the Emperor appointed him as a councilor to the new Imperial government, a role he later relinquished to return to his native Saga.
Back in his home, Lord Nabeshima gathered he closest allies Shima Yoshitake, Sano Tsunetami, Soejima Taneomi, Oki Takato, Eto Shimpel and Okuma Shigenobu to map out the future of Saga. Lord Nabeshima assigned each of his charges a task such as creating new laws and modifying old ones, improving education, architecture, medicine, weaponry and military tactics as well as banking and finance. These new ideas quickly spread throughout Japan and today statues of these seven wise men can be seen throughout Saga.
Saga Castle, Lord Nabeshima’s former home is a magnificent example of Japanese architecture with the archetypal massive stonewalls and wooden castle, only in this case the castle sits within the walls and not on top. The largest such structure in Japan, Saga Castle is surrounded by large moats and hidden by large pine and camphor trees, which earned it the nickname the ‘submerged castle’. There is no admission fee to enter the castle, although you can give a donation.
Inside, the huge ceremonial hall contains no less than 320 tatami mats, while the main north corridor measures an astonishing 45 meters. The wooden framework and the many windows give the castle an airy feeling, while a balcony running along the south corridor is the perfect place to sit and reflect on the history of the castle while enjoying the peaceful surroundings. As you leave the castle, just in front of the main gate stands a large brass statue of Lord Nabeshima, who still looks over the city he once guarded.
Not far from Saga Castle is the Saga Balloon Museum, a two-storey building that showcases the history of hot air ballooning as well as that of flight in general. The museum has some rather fascinating interactive exhibits including a balloon simulator, a balloon video wall, ballooning memorabilia from around the world and a brilliant 3D floor display. At just ¥500 for adults and ¥200 for children, the museum is a great place to learn more about ballooning. You can relax in the coffee shop or buy some balloon-themed gifts after your visit.
Although Saga is a large city with a population of just over 230,000, you never feel crowded as the city is well spread out. To make getting around quicker, we hired bicycles from the Tourist Office located at Saga Station for ¥500 for the day. Opposite Saga Castle is the Saga Prefectural Museum & Art Museum, a grand 1970s style building housing some stunning exhibits. Here you can learn the rich history of the region from the Stone Age right up to the modern day with information on pottery making, Samurai swords, arts and crafts and folk traditions. Like many of the public buildings in Saga, entrance to the museum is free but there is a ¥500 charge for any art exhibition being held.
While Saga has undergone much transformation over the past 100 years, the old part of Saga is home to numerous period buildings, temples, shrines and public parks. Many of the former homes and buildings along Yanagimachi Street have been turned into working museums such as the Saga City History & Folklore Museum, which was formerly Koga Bank and Hagakure Miraikan also a former Sansho bank, while Holland House a short distance away is also well worth a visit.
Saga is not without its own shopping malls once you’ve toured the city’s tourist attractions. Chuo Odori Avenue runs from the railway station all the way south to Saga Castle and is full of small shops and fancy boutiques. On the Saga By-pass, north of the railway station, you’ll find YouMe Town, a shopping mall catering to all the leading fashion brands as well as Muji and Loft plus restaurants and bookstores all under one roof.
Once the sun goes down on Saga, the city’s restaurants, bars and clubs open for business. From fresh steaks Western style to Japanese sushi and sashimi, there is something for every budget and taste in Saga. And, if you fancy a few late night cocktails and a dance, head to the south side of the railway station for hostess bars, pubs, yakatori snack shops and noodle stalls. For live music, try G Collection where local bands play pop, R&B and local tunes.
How to get there: Thai Airways International flies direct to Fukuoka every Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. For more details go to www.thaiairways.com
Where to stay: Within easy walking distance to Saga JR Railway Station and Saga Bus Terminal are:
Toyoko Inn Saga Ekimae (www.toyoko-inn.jp)
Comfort Hotel Saga (www.choice-hotels.jp
Hotel Route Inn Saga Ekimae (www.route-inn.co.jp)