Dazaifu: Where Students Pray and Trees Can Fly

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Photo by Joshua Damasio

Fukuoka City is consistently ranked amongst the most livable cities in the world with good reason; it’s a thriving state-of-the-art metropolis without the problems of overcrowding and expense that you find in Tokyo or Osaka. There’s one thing, however, that often seems a bit thin on the ground compared to other cities in Japan, History. That’s where Dazaifu comes in. Located about 30 minutes south east of Fukuoka by car, or a 45 minute train ride from Hakata, Dazaifu offers a taste of old Japan and a welcome change of pace.

The city of Dazaifu goes back several thousand years, and for a long time was an important military and administrative center. It played a key role in the politics of the Heian period (794 to 1185), when many of the shrines it’s famous for were first built. The most important such shrine is Tenman-gu, which was built for the nobleman Sugawara no Michizane, whose grave is still there.

Michizane was a nobleman and scholar, and is considered one of the greatest poets of classical Japan. The story goes that upon learning of his demotion and forced relocation from Kyoto to Dazaifu, Michizane was so full of sorrow for his favorite plum tree that he wrote it a poem.

When the east wind blows, flourish in full bloom, you, plum blossoms!
Even though you lose your master, don’t be oblivious to spring.

The plum tree, allegedly, was so fond of it’s master in return that it uprooted itself and flew to Kyushu to be with him Dazaifu.

Whether you believe in flying trees or not, the plum and cherry blossoms of Dazaifu now number more than 6000 and in full bloom are truly one of the most spectacular sights in all of Kyushu. The traditional atmosphere of Tenman-gu is also well preserved by several ancient camphor (kusonoki) trees, including one particularly impressive specimen near the temple entrance which is said to date back over a thousand years.

Michizane is revered today as the guardian of learning, so when the examination period arrives in the spring the temple is inundated with students hoping for a little of Michizane’s learning to rub off on them. It’s also a popular spot to perform Miyamairi, the Shinto rite of passage similar to a Christian baptism, so extended families gathered around a newborn in their best Kimonos are another common sight.

Access to the main shrine is by the Taikobashi, a type of red bridge common to Shinto temples. The Taikobashi at Tenmangu is a particularly pretty example and it’s also said to contain the secrets of your past, present and future, so if you can traverse it without tripping over it will bring you good luck and health for many years.

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Once you’ve had your fill of ancient trees and prayed for good exam results you can head to streets around the temple and refuel at the many food stalls lining the streets. The umegaimochi (sweet red bean mochi) are a renowned delicacy, and there are dozens of places lining the streets where you can pick up piping hot freshly cooked mochi. The Dazaifu burger is another famous snack, a deep-fried chicken burger with ume sauce, served in various guises in burger joints around the town.

Those on the hunt for good coffee would be well advised to visit the historic Kazamidori Café (Windmill Café) and sample the Dutch Coffee (slow-brewed with cold water over several hours, can be enjoyed hot or cold, it’s strong and smooth). A short walk away, on a hill in the Uchiyama area, is Hitotoki, another restaurant with a longstanding reputation, where the apple pie is simply excellent.

As with many such venerable establishments in the lesser-visited parts of Japan, these places carry an air of faded glamour that sits in stark contrast to the gleaming modernity of Japan’s urban centers.

There are several simple but very good onsen in the hills around central Dazaifu, and once you’ve thoroughly refreshed yourself you can head to the Kyushu National Museum, where you’ll find a treasure trove of Japanese and East Asian artifacts. It’s worth the trip just to see the spectacular museum building, which was the last major project of Kiyonori Kikutake, one of Japan’s most important postwar architects. There are dozens of major exhibitions every year and a substantial permanent exhibition, with plenty to interest kids too.

So, whether it’s saplings that make your heart sing, burgers that give you heartburn, more blossom than you could shake a stick at or simply some tranquility and a stroll round the museum, Dazaifu has more than enough to make it worth your time getting out of the big city for a while.

Access (Tenmangu):

Address: 4-7-1 Saifu, Dazaifu, Fukuoka Prefecture, Japan
Admission to Main Hall: Free,
Admission to Dazaifu Tenmangu Museum: ¥400
Hours: 6:00 to 19:00 (Spring), 6:00 to 20:00 (June to August), 6:30 to 19:00 (winter)
No closing days (Main Hall)
Closed Mondays (Dazaifu Tenmangu Museum)
Tel: +81 92-922-8225
Website: www.dazaifutenmangu.or.jp

Access (Kyushu National Museum):

Address: 4-7-2 Ishizaka, Dazaifu City, Fukuoka, Japan
Hours : 9:30 to 17:00 (last admission: 16:30)
Closed on Mondays (If Monday falls on a public holiday or a substitute holiday, the Museum is closed on the following day.)
Admission: ¥430yen (Adults) or ¥130yen (Students). Free to under 18s.
Admission fee for Special Exhibitions is charged separately.
Tel: 092-918-2807
Website: www.kyuhaku.com

Take the Tenjin-Omuta line from Nishitetsu Fukuoka Station (directly next to Tenjin Station) to Futsukaichi. From Futsukaichi take the Dazaifu Line to Dazaifu. Total journey time 25-40 mins. Cost ¥400.

Driving from Fukuoka City to Dazaifu takes 25-40 mins and ample parking is available around the shrine and at Kyushu National Museum.

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