Saga prefecture, where you’ll find gleamingly fresh seafood, premium-quality beef and exquisitely fragrant fields of tea and rice, should appear on any Kyushu itinerary. Stretching from the protected bay waters of the Ariake Sea to the wind-whipped Japan Sea coast, here you’ll also explore centuries of fascinating history in Saga’s ceramics culture, including the world-renowned Arita-yaki, as well as the lesser-known—but no less alluring—Karatsu-yaki wares. Four days will most definitely not be enough in this intriguing prefecture, but read on for some of our top picks.
Begin your journey in the tranquil seaside city of Karatsu, an approximate 1.5-hour drive from Saga Airport. Stretch your legs in the garden of Karatsu Castle, which is particularly picturesque when its wisteria and cherry trees bloom in spring. Perched above Karatsu Bay and surrounded by water on three sides, the structure is also known as the Maizuru (“dancing crane”) castle due to its unique shape. Built in 1602, the castle’s onsite museum gives an informative peek into the city’s feudal history. It also features displays of local Karatsu wares, which have roots in the Korean peninsula, and are famous for their functionality and sturdy, earthy appearance.
Continue your exploration into local pottery at the Karatsu Choko Bar, where you can enjoy saké and snacks served in Karatsu wares. If necessary, work off your libation with a stroll along the banks of the Matsuura River before driving to your inn for the night, the exceedingly lovely Yoyokaku, located near the castle along the finger-like peninsula sandwiched between the river and the bay. After checking in, enjoy more walking along the adjacent coastline, which features dramatic scenery including white sand beaches and one of the country’s longest pine tree forests.
Yoyokaku is infused with calm energy, and its minimalist design features warm-toned woods including black pine, cherry, chestnut, and Burmese teak. Enjoy a sumptuous dinner of seafood and other local fare, and end the evening with a soak in your own private wooden tub. Just be sure to save time for a chat with the inn’s owners, the Okochis, a warm family who have fascinating stories from the inn’s long history of welcoming overseas visitors. Also browse the onsite gallery and shop showcasing the works of renowned local potter Takashi Nakazato and his children. Daughter Hanako, who was educated in the US, has developed a unique style rooted in Karatsu techniques that features her own creative twist; browse her eclectic lineup at her online store.
After breakfast, save room for a mid-morning snack at the harborfront Yobuko Morning Market—one of the country’s three largest, located further up the Higashimatsuura peninsula—which seethes with seafood from local waters.
A short drive away is the entrance to the local OLLE trekking course. Inspired by a similar tradition on the neighboring Korean island of Jeju, the courses are found throughout Kyushu. Karatsu’s version is a mammoth 11.2-km, all-day affair leading all the way to Cape Hado at the peninsula’s edge—but the abbreviated 1.3-km option makes for a perfect morning outing (around 1.5 hours). Set against a cerulean blue sky and flanked by fields of flowers, the short course leads toward the remains of Nagoya Castle, which was active at the end of the 1500s, and served as a base for shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s (unsuccessful) invasions of the Korean peninsula. Some 200,000 samurai and merchants resided in the town that sprung up around the castle, where Toyotomi also engaged in passionate hobbies such as Noh theater and the tea ceremony. Contemplate this history amidst sweeping ocean views, and enjoy a matcha refreshment at the Kaigetsu Tea House overlooking a scenic garden.
After enjoying your well-deserved lunch of ocean delicacies at the nearby Genkai restaurant, drive to the Terraced Rice Fields of Hamanoura for a glorious view of the rice paddies set against the seascape below. Next, drive to your night’s accommodation, the Mifuneyama Rakuen Hotel, in Takeo Hot Springs, which is also the site of a permanent installation from the iconic teamLab art collective.
Mifuneyama Rakuen is an expansive mountainside garden housing a stunning array of natural features, making it the perfect canvas for the creation of teamLab’s fantastical worlds via its signature digital technology installations. Inside the hotel lobby, thousands of lightbulbs crafted from Venetian glass dangle from the ceiling, immersing you in an exquisite sea of muted chromatics, from icy white to turquoise to striking vermillion red, that illuminate in synchronicity to surrounding movements. Contemplate what you’ve just experienced at the hotel’s onsen, which features open-air baths and a meditation sauna.
Before leaving town, consider a stop at the architecturally impressive Takeo City Library, which encompasses an onsite Tsutaya bookstore and Starbucks whose operator also designed the T-Site complex in Tokyo’s Daikanyama district.
Continue deepening your understanding of local pottery in nearby Arita, which has the distinction of being the first area of the country to produce the art form of porcelain—a kind of ceramics crafted from a special soft white clay known as kaolin that was discovered here in the early 1600s by Korean-born potter Yi Sam-pyeong. Arita ware is known for elegant patterning of mostly red and blue designs set against a white backdrop, and was widely beloved by European nobility.
Gallery Arita café and restaurant displays more than 2,000 Arita porcelain coffee cups within its shop, which is a masterpiece in itself. Sign up for a private tour of the iconic Arita-yaki Kakiemon Kiln, whose present master is a 15th-generation potter. Also visit the hands-on Kouraku Kiln, where you can pay a fixed fee to take home as much pottery as you can carry; and try your hand at transcribing traditional designs onto your own piece. Before leaving Arita, don’t miss the unique sight of the Tonboi Wall Alleys, which were crafted using old kiln bricks and discarded pottery fragments, and where potters once lived and worked.
Dinner awaits you a short drive away in the town of Ureshino, where you’ll find sumptuous Saga beef, known for its glossy marbled texture, along with rich-tasking local saké and fresh, high-quality local vegetables at Teppanyaki En. Stay overnight at the adjacent Warakuen, and soothe your muscles from all the recent exertion in the onsite onsen. The local sodium bicarbonate waters are excellent for skin moisturizing, and the unique open-air bath features hot water full of tea extract poured in from a huge stone teapot.
Work off your breakfast at the pleasant walking path alongside the 11-meter-high Todoroki Falls, known for its thunderous acoustics.
Next visit the Toyotamahime Shrine, dedicated to beautiful skin, and then splurge in a “tea tourism” activity such as cycling through local rolling tea fields with a rental from Shimomura Cycles, taking a local walk as you sip a cup of hot tea, or experience an exclusive tea ceremony led by local tea farmers in an atmospherically-designed setting amidst the fields. Get a green tea education at the Tea Exchange Hall Chaosiru, a venue that opened in 2018 with the purpose of sharing all things Ureshino green tea. The menu of workshops includes the particularly highly recommended tea-dying experience. (For more Ureshino experiences, see related feature article.)
Drive eastward toward the coastal city of Kashima, where freshly grilled ocean treats and locally harvested vegetables await for lunch at the Michi-no-Eki Kashima. Next, drive down the coast for ethereal views at the nearby Oouo Shrine, whose series of torii (vermillion gates) appear to float in the Ariake Sea. Similarly dramatic vistas await at the Yutoku Inari Shrine, whose torii-lined staircase leads upward into the adjacent forest.
Your evening flight home awaits, but first, don’t miss a stroll along the Hizen Hamashuku Sake Brewery Street. Enjoy a tasting, along with the atmospheric feel of the Edo era-style streets—one of Saga’s many charms that will undoubtedly soon have you returning.