During the Edo Period of Japanese history, Nakatsu was a mid-sized domain, and the town itself has recently expanded to include outlying towns and districts and now comprises almost 500 square kilometers with a population of almost 85,000.
The main sites of interest in the central town area of Nakatsu can easily be visited by walking.
Nakatsu is also convenient for a trip to Usa Hachimangu.
For foreign visitors the main attraction is probably the reconstructed Nakatsu Castle, one of "The Three Great Water Castles in Japan," but for Japanese visitors the main attraction is the childhood home of Nakatsu's most famous native son, Fukuzawa Yukichi.
To get to Nakatsu Castle and Fukuzawa Residence the best route passes through the Teramachi district, with one main street lined with Buddhist temples. Quite a few have interesting statuary in their grounds, and there is some nice landscaping with some Zen-style raked sand, but the most noteworthy temple is Goganji, easily noticeable by its dark red walls rather than the more typical white plaster or plain mud.
According to the legend the local daimyo, Yoshitaka Kuroda, slaughtered some samurai of his rival Utsunomiya Shigefusa here and their blood stained the white plaster walls. Whenever the walls were re-plastered the blood stains showed through so they decided to paint it dark red.
973 Teramachi, Nakatsu. Tel: 0979 22 2037. Open from 7am to 6pm. Entrance free.
Also of note in Teramachi is the Taiga-do at Jishoji Temple. They have an unusually large collection of works by Ikeno Taiga, a famous painter of the Edo-Period.
Walking from the station area towards Teramachi you pass a small shrine on the main road, Shimada Jinja, worth venturing inside to see the Dosojin in front of the main building. Dosojin, sometimes called Sainokami, were protective stones marking the boundary of a village.
Nowadays they are most likely to be a male and female dressed in Heian Period costume holding hands, but here at Shimada Shrine they are the more traditional phallic representations of male and female genitalia. The shrine is also worth a visit in late November when kagura is being performed as part of the area's autumn festival.
Nakatsu was a center of rangaku, or Dutch Learning, during the Edo Period, and some of the displays inside the castle museum are to do with that, but there are several other sites in Nakatsu connected with rangaku.
Both the Oe Family Museum of Historical Medical Data and the Murakami Family Museum of Historical Medical Data both exhibit material mostly to do with medicine, but also other aspects of Dutch Learning, which spread out in Japan from contact with the Dutch on Dejima in Nagasaki. Unfortunately there is no information in English.
There are numerous shrines, especially in the area around the castle, two worth visiting in July are Nakatsu Shrine and Kuranashihama Shrine, both being connected to the big festival of the summer, the Nakatsu Gion Matsuri.
The major shrine of the area, located about 5km southeast of the town center and accessible by bus from Nakatsu Station, is Komo Shrine. Founded in the ninth century, the shrine has been destroyed and rebuilt many times. Its spacious grounds are good to visit when the fall colors are out. Of particular note is the ornate two-story gate, constructed in 1622, a National Important Cultural Property, and the "floating torii" in the large pond that borders the shrine.
Komo Shrine, 209 Osada, Oaza, Nakatsu. Tel: 0979 32 2440.
659 meter-high Mount Hachimen is a popular leisure destination south of Nakatsu. Known for hiking, hang gliding, etc it was the home of a big outdoor music festival Concert On The Rock for many years. Not served by public transport, if you do find yourself in the area then Jingoji, a temple on its lower slopes is well worth a visit. Having few buildings, it does however have dozens and dozens of statues reachable by paths that wind through the forest, and includes a nice example of a Reclining Buddha, not so common in Japan.
There is a small tourist information booth in the main Nakatsu railway station that has helpful staff and some materials in English.
Yansa Matsuri is known as a "Naked Festival" (hadaka matsuri), and, like the larger and more famous naked festivals such as at Saidaiji in Okayama, there is actually no nudity, rather men and boys just wearing fundoshi, loincloths.
The Yansa Matsuri is believed to have begun in the 14th century and involves 33 almost naked men pounding rice to make mochi (rice cake) all the while shouting "yansa!" The mochi produced is then offered to the local god. The festival takes place on the first Saturday in December at Ono Hachiman Shrine in Yabakei Town to the southwest of central Nakatsu.
During the last weekend in November, usually coinciding with Labor Day, many of the shrines and villages in the Nakatsu area hold their Autumn Festival that culminates with a night of kagura. A convenient one to visit is at the Shimada Shrine, close to Nakatsu Station.
In the late afternoon there is a procession around the town with mikoshi and musicians and then in early evening the kagura dancing begins on an open air stage in the shrine grounds. The great thing about these festivals is that they are free.
Nakatsu Gion Matsuri is the biggest festival in Nakatsu and takes place for three days over the last weekend of July. The festival begins with a firework display and there are many events throughout the town but the two main events are the Shudan Yamamise and the Nerikomi. Like other Gion Matsuri throughout Japan, such as the famous Gion Matsuri in Kyoto, this one involves huge wheeled floats weighing more than a ton.
Activities begin in early July at two shrines, Nakatsu and Kuranashihama, where teams from the 12 "towns" of Nakatsu begin preparing their floats. The festival originated here almost 600 years ago, and a surviving example of traditional float is put on display at Nakatsu Station for the month. For the Shudan Yamamise all 12 floats are displayed on the main street of the town and then in a slow parade taken to the two shrines, six floats to each, where the Nerikomi takes place on the Saturday night. At Nerikomi the teams pull the floats in a circle as wildly and as fast as possible.
Accommodation in Nakatsu
Like most Japanese cities, the area around the main railway station is dotted with a variety of hotels. Many of the major chains are here as is the typical red brick Station Hotel, usually a good budget option. Also at Nakatsu Station is the Toyoko Inn Nakatsu Ekimae, the Hotel Route Inn Nakatsu Ekimae and the Super Hotel Nakatsu Ekimae. There are also numerous ryokan and minshuku in town.
Access - Getting to Nakatsu
Nakatsu is located on the JR Nippo Main Line and can be reached by express train from Kokura in just over 30 minutes and from Hakata Station in 55 minutes. From Hiroshima it is 2 hours to Nakatsu and from Osaka, 3 hours and 15 minutes. The closest airport is Kitakyushu, just over an hour away by train and bus.
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