Just a 30-minute train ride from Fukuoka lies Dazaifu. Established in the 7th century, it served as the administrative centre for the entire Kyushu island for over 500 years. These days, Dazaifu is a small, historic town lined with pebbled streets and shrines that’s just perfect for a day trip. The main attractions of Dazaifu are all located within walking distance from the Dazaifu station, and can be easily explored by foot.
We started early in the morning, just before the hordes of tourists descended. We had the whole street to ourselves and it was a nice, peaceful stroll on a beautiful spring day.
And what better way to start the day than with a cuppa from a familiar favourite. But unlike the hundreds of cookie-cutter Starbucks outlets located throughout the world, this one is unique and uber cool. Designed by architect Kengo Kuma, this store strikingly different, and catches your attention the minute you walk by. More than 2,000 wooden batons line the 2,260-square-foot shop, creating a loosely woven lattice that extends beyond the storefront’s edge. The wooden weaving gives the store an incredible sense of depth and wonder, and it made me feel like I was drinking coffee in a bamboo garden.
Warmed up by our caffeine fix, we headed for Tenmangu Shrine – a shrine built over the grave of Michizane Sugawara, venerated by the Japanese as the God of literature or calligraphy.
This shrine is popular with students hoping to pass entrance examinations. On the day we visited, we saw hundreds of students, from high school students to adorable pre-schoolers (always good to start early I guess :))
Within the shrine grounds are also beautiful camphor trees, Japanese apricots, and irises. Visit in late February and you’ll enjoy the 6,000 plum trees around the shrine bloom.
From Tenmangu Shrine, we make our way to the Kyushu National Museum. There’s a covered escalator that links the shrine to the museum. This bridge between the two sites brings visitors from traditional to a massive, modern glass structure. The main exhibition is on the fourth floor and is divided into five chronological sections that span Japanese history from the Prehistoric Era to the Edo Period. I loved the spacious architecture of the museum but wasn’t blown away by the permanent exhibitions.
The other shrine worth checking out in Dazaifu is the Komyozenji temple, a zen temple founded during the Kamakura period. The temple’s main attractions are its beautiful Japanese gardens. The front garden is composed of fifteen rocks laid amongst a plot of raked pebbles and are said to be distributed so that they form the Japanese character for “light”.
The other garden at the back has a lot more greenery. Branches of maple trees hang over the garden and make the temple a popular autumn leaf spot around mid November. These gardens are incredibly peaceful. I wish I could tell you I came away with some deeply profound insight. But truth is, I just sat there on the cool wooden platform, breathing in the calm, and immersed myself in the silence.
And what would a day trip be without food? The approach to the Temangu shrine is lined with teahouses selling umegae-mochi, a local specialty glutinous rice-cake that is believed to ward off illness. It is grilled on special machines and filled with a sweet red bean paste. Eat it hot off the grill, and it is absolutely delicious. Although every store along the street sells the exact same speciality dessert, only one store, Kasanoya, has a super long queue.
In the name of research, we ate 3 that day. The first one was from Kasanoya, the second one from a randomly selected stall with no queue and then just to double confirm, we ate a third one from Kasanoya. We would have eaten a fourth but that would just have been pushing it 🙂 Our verdict : Kasanoya wins hands down. The texture of the mochi from Kasanoya is firmer and yet, softer – strange I know but you just have to try it to know what I mean. And the adzuki bean filling from Kasanoya is of a better quality with a mix of whole red beans in the paste.
It’s hard not to compare Dazaifu to Kamakura. Both boast of century old temples and shrines and are an oasis of history and serenity in modern Japan. For those visiting Fukuoka, I urge you to visit Dazaifu for the day. You may not come away with spiritual enlightenment, but you’ll certainly leave rested with the lingering sweetness of umegae-mochi.
How to get to Dazaifu:
Dazaifu is the terminal station of a small branch line (Dazaifu Line) off of Nishitetsu’s main line (Tenjin Omuta Line). The main line begins at Nishitetsu Fukuoka Station, which is directly beside the Tenjin subway station and can be accessed from Hakata Station by subway (5 minutes, 200 yen).
From Nishitetsu Fukuoka Station there are frequent trains to Nishitetsu Futsukaichi Station (15-25 minutes, served by all train categories), where a transfer can be made to the Dazaifu Line that leads to Dazaifu Station (5 minutes, departures every 10-15 minutes). The total journey from Nishitetsu Fukuoka Station to Dazaifu takes 25-40 minutes and costs 390 yen.