CHIKUGO VALLEY IN EARLY SPRING
Country walks, craft traditions and blossoms along the ‘Mother River’ of Kyūshū (8 DAYS)
The Chikugo River, the longest river of Kyūshū, rises on the flanks of volcanic mountains in central and northern Kyūshū. In its lower reaches, the Chikugo Valley opens up to extensive plains, where the fertile soils, abundant water and mild climate have supported a variety of human activities for millennia. It is little wonder that the region supports one of the most diverse craft, food and horticultural traditions in Japan, including indigo-dyeing and kasuri textiles, bamboo, paper and woodcraft, noodles, soy sauce, sake brewing, tea growing, azalea and Camellia breeding. In addition, the innovative nature of the region’s people is reflected in more recent traditions that include premium-quality fruit growing, artisan bread making, patisserie and winemaking. The region’s long history is apparent in the pockets of old townscapes and numerous ancient archaeological sites scattered throughout the countryside. The mountainous upper reaches of the river, by contrast, are a realm of ancient terraced fields, tea plantations clinging to hillsides, quaint pottery villages, and shrines and temples amid dense forests. This tour will provide you with a flavour of the diverse experiences Chikugo Valley offers, and a ‘sneak preview’ of Japan in spring as the blossom season starts. It includes easy to moderate-grade town and country walks, visits to small artisan textile and ceramic workshops, stays in traditional houses, and opportunities to sample local specialities such as the Yame green tea, and the Kurume ramen and yakitori.
DAY 1—KURUME: Meet in Fukuoka during the afternoon and travel to Kurume, the lively gateway city of the Chikugo Valley. Take a relaxed walk visiting historic riverside shrines and temples, before enjoying dinner at one of the numerous Kurume-style yakitori bars, or choose from a wide variety of other Japanese gourmet styles. Accommodation at a mid-range city hotel.
DAY 2—CHIKUGO AND YAME ARTISAN CRAFTS: Travel during the morning to the Chikugo area south of Kurume to visit a family-run workshop specialising in indigo dyeing and weaving in the celebrated kasuri tradition of Kurume. Try your skills in indigo dyeing a handkerchief, and shop for a fashion or household item all of which are handmade using safe, natural, plant-based dyes. Try a Kurume ramen or Chikugo udon for lunch, then travel to the old quarter of Yame, a treasure-trove of traditional crafts including traditional paper, Buddhist altars, dolls, lanterns, bamboo and woodwork, and home of the Yame tea, rated amongst the finest teas in Japan. Enjoy a slow afternoon stroll in the nostalgic 19th-century townscape, and observe artisans at work in their craft workshops. Unwind over a late afternoon tea in the elegant surrounds of a renowned tea house, and get insider knowledge on how to appreciate green tea. Accommodation at a beautifully restored traditional Yame-style townhouse (rental) in the heart of the old quarter.
DAY 3—YAME PLUM BLOSSOMS WALK: Travel to the outskirts of Yame and feel the spring in the air as you amble through groves of flowering Japanese plum (Prunus mume) trees. Marvel at a display of colourful bamboo lanterns inside a cavern, before returning to town to visit the Yame Traditional Crafts Centre for a dazzling overview of the regional craft traditions. Enjoy a relaxed dinner at one of the town’s atmospheric restaurants serving local specialities such as the motsuni (mixed chicken hotpot). Accommodation as for Day 2.
DAY 4—KURUME COUNTRY WALK AND AKIZUKI LOCAL DINING: Depart Yame in the morning for a few hours of country walking in a rural district of Kurume. Discover hidden delights along the way as you pass through historic towns, orchards, fields and flowering Camellia groves that form a colourful mosaic-like landscape. Admire the impressive collection of Camellia varieties from Kurume and other regions at the Kurume Camellia Gardens. In the late afternoon, travel to your accommodation at Harazuru-Onsen, a hilltop hotel with a magnificent panoramic view of the valley. Enjoy a restorative soak in the outdoor bath as the sun sets over the Chikugo River, followed by an artfully presented gourmet dinner showcasing the best of the valley’s produce.
DAY 5—CHIKUGO VALLEY ORCHARDS AND CERAMICS WALK: Depart Akizuki in the morning to explore the major fruit-growing district half-way up the Chikugo Valley. Walk through acres of carefully tended fruit orchards covering hillsides overlooking the valley, drop in at a country cafe for lunch using fresh valley produce, and visit one of the Ichinose-yaki pottery studios where you are sure to find a piece fit for your elegant dinner party or a daily coffee break. In the late afternoon, travel into the mountains to your accommodation at a traditional Japanese country house (rental) among terraced rice fields, where your meals will be prepared and served by the local villagers.
DAY 6—CHIKUGO VALLEY RICE TERRACES AND TEMPLES: Take a morning walk among the amazing ancient rice terraces around your accommodation, a testament to the ingenuity of the locals working with nature to create a productive agricultural landscape. Travel in the mid-morning back into the valley, and take a short country walk that includes a stopover at a small, tranquil temple famous for its mineral springs. Enjoy lunch at a tiny Italian restaurant serving simple but tasty homemade pasta using premium Chikugo Valley wheat. In the late afternoon, travel to Hikosan, a sacred mountain associated with ancient ascetic practices dating to the 6th century. Arrive at your accommodation in the early evening, a mid-range tourist hotel with a vista across the forested mountains of northern Kyūshū.
DAY 7—HIKOSAN SHRINE AND KOISHIWARA POTTERY VILLAGE: During the mid-morning, walk from your hotel to the Houheiden hall of Hikosan-Jingu shrine, set in the dense forests of the sacred mountain where wild deer roam free. After soaking up the spiritual atmosphere, travel to the Koishiwara pottery village, where a number of artisans continue the 17th-century Koishiwara-yaki and Takatori-yaki ceramic traditions. Spend your day roaming between the small pottery studios, discovering the excitingly different styles that exist. Enjoy a lunch of Koishiwara soba, kara-age (Japanese-style fried chicken) and other northern Kyūshū specialities at an elegant traditional restaurant. Be awed by the giant Cryptomeria trees of the Gyoja-sugi forest near the village. Return to your accommodation (as per Day 6) in the late afternoon. [Depending on your interests, fitness level and weather, the Koishiwara pottery village visit can be replaced with a hike through the forests to the 1200 m summit shrine of Hikosan, which offers views across much of northern Kyūshū.]
DAY 8: After a leisurely breakfast, travel to Kokura where the tour will conclude around lunchtime. Direct Shinkansen connections to Fukuoka, Kagoshima, Hiroshima, Ōsaka, Kyōtō and Tōkyō are available at Kokura.
3 nights in traditional Japanese houses (private rentals) with Japanese-style futon bedding in town and rural settings
2 nights in a mid-range tourist hotel with a choice of Western-style beds or Japanese-style futon bedding in a forested setting
1 nights in a mid-range tourist hotel with a choice of Western-style beds or Japanese-style futon bedding, and public onsen baths (room-attached baths also available), in a semi-rural setting
1 night in a mid-range city hotel with Western-style beds
DEPARTURE DATE: Tuesday 20 February 2018; itinerary subject to change depending on, but not limited to, accommodation availability, transport timetabling and weather conditions.
BOOKING REQUIRED BEFORE: Tuesday 12 December 2017
MAXIMUM GROUP SIZE: 6 persons
COST: from AUD $4100 per person (4–6 persons); from AUD$4500 per person (3 persons); from AUD$5000 per person (2 persons); POA for 1 person.
FINAL PAYMENT DATE: Sunday 21 January 2018.
Full tour planning and guiding—8 days
Ground transport (rail, bus, taxi)—8 days, departing from Hakata, returning to Kokura
Admissions and fees for all attractions and activities listed in itinerary
Relevant information material
Physical fitness requirement—MODERATE (HIGH if selecting the Hikosan climb option on Day 7): all days of the tour involve periods of walking on surfaced and unsurfaced roads and footpaths on gentle to moderate gradients. Participants must be able to walk for up to 10 km per day, and continuously for up to 3 km at a time, on gentle to moderate gradients. There may be short sections of steep, uneven or slippery terrain, including stone steps. You may be required to walk on snow or ice in some areas.
The venue for the bamboo lantern display on Day 3 has poor air circulation and the air inside can be quite smoky—participants must be able to tolerate candle/kerosene smoke while inspecting the display, and accept the risk of smoky odour lingering on your clothes and belongings during and after your visit; you must not enter the venue if you suffer from existing health conditions that smoky air or soot may aggravate including, but not restricted to, conditions affecting your breathing, eyes and skin.
If selecting the Hikosan climb alternative option on Day 7, you must be a seasoned hiker who can negotiate steep terrain, including long sections of uneven stone steps. Participants must be able to walk for 3 km continuously at a time in forested and open terrain with moderate to steep gradients. You must not suffer from existing health conditions (or have a high risk thereof) that compromises your fitness, mobility, endurance, coordination or navigation skills, including, but not limited to, conditions affecting your heart, blood pressure, brain, nervous system, breathing, movement of your limbs, neck and the back, eyesight and hearing. The walking track, in places, may be narrow, rocky, swampy, slippery, icy, snow-covered, or have sheer drop-offs on one side. The upper sections of the walking track are fully exposed to the weather, which may include strong winds, rain and snow. Sun-sensitive people will require protection against strong UV rays and glare.
Cultural tolerance requirement—MODERATE/HIGH: Accommodation on at least three (3) nights feature Japanese-style futon bedding in traditional Japanese houses, with sleeping quarters separated by paper screens that are not soundproof or locked. Some meals will be traditional Japanese style served as a set menu, with non-Japanese food options unavailable. The onsen baths at the accommodation on Day 4 are shared public baths (requires nudity in presence of strangers); however, each room also has a private room-attached (non-onsen) bath, and private room-attached onsen baths are available on request (at the time of booking) at an extra charge.