Why visit Saga? Just an hour train ride away from Fukuoka, this small prefecture on the beautiful island of Kyushu is rich in nature and nestled between both sea and mountains. It offers a wide range of experiences from gourmet dining, deep cultural history, plenty of natural landscapes, globally famous potteries, hot springs and colorful festivals to name a few!
Here are a few reasons why you should visit Saga Prefecture…
How To Get There:
By Air (via Fukuoka Airport):
There are many direct flights from Manila via Philippine Airlines and Cebu Pacific. To reach Saga from the airport, you may avail of the direct coach service or take a train via Hakata Station.
1. YUTOKU INARI SHRINE
This shrine is like a merger between Kiyomizudera + Fushimi Inari—visually stunning yet not completely overrun with tourists.
There are over 30,000 Inari shrines around Japan, characterized by their numerous bright vermillion red torii gates. Yutoku Inari, surrounded by greenery and incredible architecture, is proudly one of the three major shrines.
You’ll find Inari-gami deities, the spirit of agriculture and industry, in the form of foxes before you climb the stairs. For singles, Senpai told us the shrine is famous for the god of matchmaking. There’s also a special ceremony for kids to grow tall and healthy, which I jokingly told Alyosha she needed because of her height.
Did you know that there is a custom of dedicating a torii to a shrine to show gratitude when a wish is granted after going to an Inari Shine to pray?
Upon sunset, the crowds stood in front of the unlit bonfire for the 300-year Ohitaki festival, a bonfire festival held on December 8th, that’s said to get rid of bad luck and cure diseases. It’s also a time to wish for happiness before the New Year starts. Toshikoshi Oharai (the New Year Purification Festival), on the other hand, is held on December 31.
Note: Between Maybes featuring Gerald and Julia did shoot in Saga but not in Yutoku Inari Shrine. It’s JADINE’s “This Time” (2016) that was shot in the Shrine.
2. SAGA BEEF
Of course, a trip to Saga would not be complete without sampling the esteemed Saga Beef.
Saga is known for one of the most high-quality beef varieties in Japan, alongside Matsusaka and Kobe beef. Imagine a cow that never experienced stress throughout its lifetime, that has a BMS of 7 and above—the only kind that can pass as genuine Saga Beef. Have a taste of marbled perfection, buttery melt-in-your-mouth texture and sweet beefy richness that can only come from one of Japan’s best Wagyu beef brands.
I admit Saga Beef is not cheap but, if you love beef, it’s well worth the price, considering Saga’s Wagyu is cheaper compared to that of Tokyo and Osaka.
The finer the marbling, the higher quality of the meat. The meat is very soft and high in fat content that it simply melted in my mouth. A must try!
3 Chome-9-16 Otakara, Saga, 840-0811, Japan
3. SAGA HOT AIR BALLOON FIESTA
(End of October-Beginning of November) There are three major events in Saga, and one of them is the biggest hot air balloon festival in Asia. Held at the riverbed alongside the Kasegawa River, you’ll find hundreds of balloons of different colors and shapes participating from around the world, floating in the night sky to be released in the morning for an incredible scene.
I also heard there’s a contest of the cutest balloon-shaped character called Balloon Fantasia. Kawaii!
Saga Hot Air Balloon Fiesta
2598 Morita, Nabeshima-machi, Saga City
4. LIVE SQUID SASHIMI
Upon serving, the legs of the squid were still moving, a sight we were unlikely to forget. The translucent squid sashimi meat glistened and tasted irresistibly sweet, with a bouncy texture flavor that went very well with the soy sauce. The legs, on the other hand, were cooked tempura style.
A must-try for daredevil foodies!
1-15 Shimodamachi, Saga 840-0031, Saga Prefecture
telephone: +81 952-23-5115
5. KAICHU TORII
This is the underwater floating torii gate in the Ariake Sea in Saga Prefecture.
It is located in Tara Town that’s famed as the “The Town to see the Power of the Moon” due to the large 6 meter tide difference between low tide and high tide. Here the red torii can be seen in different phases, depending on the tide. Too bad, we visited during low tide. Imagine seeing the torii gates floating underwater in their own reflection.
One of the best times to visit is during autumn in time for the Yukino Lantern Festival when 500 lanterns line up the beach with the toriis and the ocean as background.
Tara town, located in the southern part of Saga that borders the Ariake Sea, is where you can find superior quality oysters being farmed. The oysters here are characterized by a rich deep flavor, courtesy of the high nutrient content of the Ariake Sea.
We had a fun time shopping for ingredients and cooking our own food at the SONA OYSTER BBQ restaurant. The grilled oysters were very easy to cook in their shells on the charcoal grill. The heat from the grill steamed the oysters and popped the shells open while poaching the oysters inside.
It was so easy to cook and so delicious!
You can buy a bag of these for 1000 yen. You can either dip the oysters in ponzu or soy sauce, but we preferred to top it with cheese.
Besides oysters, we also had to try the “Takezaki Crab.”
The famed diamond-shaped shell crab feeds on rich phytoplankton from the Ariake Sea and is distinguished by its soft flesh and distinct sweet concentrated flavor.
Senpai TsuTsu recommended that we pour sake in the shell and enjoy the alcohol with the sweet crab flavor.
Oyster BBQ Restaurant SONO
Tara – Tsunoura
7. MIFUNEYAMA RAKUEN
They said it took three years to build this garden. Come spring you’ll find 5,000 cherry blossom trees and 50,000 rhododendrons blooming.
In autumn, beautifully colored maple leaves, together with the cliffs of Mt. Mifune, make up a very picturesque landscape. Too bad we visited during wintertime, and the trees were already bare. But we weren’t disappointed because we actually came for TeamLab’s exhibit.
But before you leave the park, make sure to head over to Mifuneyama Rakuen’s hotel! If you haven’t been to TeamLab in Tokyo, I’m sure you will be excited to experience the magic of the permanent exhibit at the hotel lobby—the breathtaking IG-worthy area of the Forest of Resonating Lamps where you are surrounded by lanterns and their ever-changing colors!
8.ONSEN YUDOFU: (TOFU BOILED WITH HOT SPRING WATER)
No exaggeration, this was the best damn tofu dish I’ve had in my life… so far!
Ureshino hot spring village, located in western Saga, is famed for two things both vital to health and beauty: green tea and hot springs. Its waters (hot spring of beautification properties) have rejuvenating effects, making the skin very smooth.
The same hot spring water is used to boil the Onsen Yudofu. The alkaline component in the water reacts to the salt in the tofu, giving the tofu its signature smooth and mellow texture. The tofu dish continuously boils until the broth turns thick and cloudy. Even though yudofu is a very simple dish, we enjoyed it in a variety of ways depending on the restaurant, each of which had a particular sauce and serving style.
My favorite part was the last dish where in the hostess prepared the yudofu like a porridge and added some sweet sauce and plenty of sesame seeds that it tasted just like a tonkotsu broth! Oishi!
Otsu-1463 Ureshinomachi Oaza Shimojuku,
Ureshino, Saga 843-0301, Japan
8. CERAMICS & PORCELAIN
Saga Prefecture is a region synonymous with ceramics and porcelain specially Imari-Yaki and Arita-Yaki pottery. It’s so famous that there is a whole festival dedicated to ceramic enthusiasts with millions of attendees.
But what makes the ceramics in Saga unique? It was in Arita in Saga Prefecture where the first Japanese porcelain was made after a Korean potter discovered a rich source of porcelain clay.
(Look how the bowl shrinks after casting.)
The characteristics of the local type of porcelain is more durable with many of the features influenced by Chinese and Korean design aesthetics. Besides buying souvenirs, why not make one yourself?
Book a session with Rokuroza, a pottery studio where you can paint and make pottery on the wheel. It was such a fun experience and a chance for me to brush up on my artsy skills. Tadaa!! My artwork was not as good as I thought it would be, but I was very happy with it. I even wrote my name in kanji on the front and back.
If you want to learn more about pottery, visit the Kyushu Ceramic Museum that collects pottery and porcelain from different time periods throughout Kyushu and displays works from contemporary artists as well.
“The Sake Prefecture,” Saka has a flourishing sake brewing industry, having been blessed, for centuries, with all the right ingredients for brewing sake. The important factor that helps create the perfect sake is the water coming from the mountains that flow down into the wide plains of Saga, making it one of Japan’s best rice-producing regions as well.
In the history-rich and picturesque town of Hizenhama stands a sake brewery by the name of Hizennya. It is where you can enjoy a fascinating tour of the brewery and neighborhood, along with free tasting and purchasing of different sakes. Here you can drink and compare various kinds of sake freely.
The sake here is often sweeter, with fuller body and more cereal notes.
2761-2, Hama-machiotsu, Kashima City, Saga
10. TEA TOURISM (URESHINO CHADOKI)
Experience a unique tea ceremony held by tea farmers at the exclusive “tea space” inside a tea plantation.
Ureshino is well known as one of the best green tea producers in Japan, its methods of tea production dating back to 1504 that some may argue that Saga is where Japanese tea originated. The tea produced here has a distinctive color, a strong aroma and a clear, eloquent taste with deep undertones.
Terraces of tea fields sprawling out one after the next is a scene typical of Ureshino. As if these stunning surroundings weren’t enough, our teahouse was located inside an enclosed forest where you could hear nothing but the the swaying of trees with the breeze.
What we loved about the Ureshino Chadoki, was the collaboration between local tea farmers, hot spring keepers and potters to create this modern-day Japanese tea ceremony experience. It felt good to support the livelihood of the locals.
11. GEISHA DRESS UP EXPERIENCE
Meet the geishas of Ureshino whose secret life is as fascinating as their tradition. Get a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to transform into an elegant maiko or geisha at the Ureshino Traditional Arts Center. The makeover can go as far as the wig and the dramatic white makeup.
The experience was extra special compared to my previous kimono experiences because, this time, real life geishas were the ones who fixed our kimono, hair and make-up and even taught us how to pose properly.
Ureshino Traditional Arts Center
12. TOSU PREMIUM OUTLET
End your trip with some retail therapy! If you’re looking to purchase items at a fraction of the normal price and get bargains on foreign brands, consider stopping by the first full-scale manufacturer outlet center in Kyushu. You’ll find brands including Nike, Adidas, Coach, Armani, North Face, UGG, etc.
Our time in Saga was cut short and there were still a few places I would have loved to add to our itinerary, including Hamanoura Rice Feilds, Yoshinogari Park, Saga Castle and specially Higata Yoka Park when the sea of red shichimenso plants are in season. Let me know what else I should add to my itinerary! Till next time Saga!
P.S. If you want to learn more about Saga, Japan visit the SAGA JAPAN Festival 2020 – Tayo na sa Saga – this January 18, Saturday at SM Megamall to experience Saga in the Philippines!
Live an Awesome Life,
ABI of Team Our Awesome Planet
Disclosure: We were media guests of Saga Film Commission and TVQ. I wrote this article with my biases, opinions and insights.