Friday, February 21, 2020

Journey to the west

Feb 02. 2016
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Kyushu Island in Japan’s Southwest that is, where destinations like Shimabara, Unzen Jigoku, Takeo Onsen and Karatsu have much to offer the Thai visitor
A long-time favourite destination with Thais, Japan tends to see high concentrations of tourists in Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto as well as increasingly on Kyushu Island, where they favour smaller cities like Fukuoka, Beppu or Kumamoto. 
Sometimes, though, it’s fun to venture out of our comfort zone and spend time off the grid, as our small group did last autumn when we travelled through Nagasaki and Saga Prefectures and spent time in Shimabara, Unzen Jigoku,, Takeo Onsen and Karatsu.
These semi-rural areas are understandably less impersonal than the country’s major cities. Local residents are friendly and hospitable, and more than willing to lend a helping hand despite the obvious language barrier. 
Our group was there at the invitation of the Nippon Travel Agency, part of a trip that also took us to Busan in South Korea as part of a cooperative agreement on tourism between Fukuoka and Busan, which are separated by less than an hour by plane and three hours by ferry.
Our visit starts some two hours south of Fukuoka in the small and quiet town of Shimabara in Nagasaki Prefecture, which is so pristine that we can clearly see shoals of colourful carp swimming in the canals that run parallel with the streets. Old houses near the canals have been converted into resting places, among them Yusui Teien Shimeiso, where visitors can sip hot tea while listening to an elderly resident recounting the history of the house and the carp that frolic in the clear spring water in the garden.
The area is also an outdoor classroom for students who set up their easels along the footpath in the quiet city. We glance at their creations as we walk to nearby Shimabara castle with its five-layer tower where we are treated to a brief dance performance by a group of young people. 
Shimabara is located in the Unzen Volcanic area and is thus blessed with a multitude of hot springs including one facility in the square where we are quick to refresh our tired feet. 
Unzen Jigoku – “Jigoku” means hell – is perhaps the best known and it is easy to see how it got its name, as volcanic gases, urea and hot water bubble like a witch’s cauldron, creating a strong sulphuric odour and sending clouds of steam into the air.
The second morning sees us setting off for Saga Prefecture in the northwest corner of the island, which is bordered by the Genkai Sea and the Tsushima Strait to the north and the Ariake Sea to the south. We stop first at the hilltop Kagemiyama Observatory and take in the magnificent sight of Karatsu City spread out below and Karatsu castle in the distance before heading to Hado Cape Underwater Observatory where we watch fascinated as the fish try to swim against the strong tide. 
Saga, though, is promoting a different kind of tourism, one that focuses on the attraction of movie and TV drama film sets. We start our journey into this world of make-believe by staying in Takeo Onsen, itself a popular film location.
Unlike in South Korea, which has an established tourist trail through the most famous of the sets that appear in its internationally popular local dramas, Saga Prefecture’s film commission has looked further afield, playing on its success in encouraging Thai film and TV dramas to shoot in the area to attract Thai visitors to spend more time here.
One of the most popular places is the Yutoku Inari Shrine in Kashima City, which we visit on our third day. Three major productions have been shot here: Nonzee Nimibutr’s 2013 movie “Timeline” and two TV dramas, Channel 3’s “Kol Kimono” and Line TV’s “Stay Saga”, directed by Songyos Sukmakanan.
Built in 1687, the Yutoku Shrine is one of the three largest Inari Shrines in Japan, the most famous being Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto, and is venerated as home to the guardian deity of plentiful harvests, prosperity in business, and protection from automobile accidents.
The chief monk Nabeshia Asakotobuki welcomes our group with an enthusiasm that demonstrates how much he appreciates Thai tourists. He confirms that the number of Thai visitors has increased significantly since the shrine became the backdrop for Thai TV dramas and says he is impressed by the devoutness of visitors from the Land of Smiles, who rather than strolling around the ground floor and praying prefer to walk up to the top and pay their respect to the spirits.
He is now returning the favour by adding the Thai language to the leaflets detailing the visitor’s fortunes.
Our last stop is one that is already popular with Thai visitors – the theme park known as Huis Ten Bosch or “House in the Bush”, which is home to replicas of old Dutch buildings. Some 30 minutes away from Nagasaki Prefecture’s Sasebo city, it offers visitors a Thai language map and details of the attractions in their own tongue. The buildings and landscape give off the ambience of Amsterdam and visitors can have fun with the wealth of activities and games on offer, such as parades, the thriller zone, the Once Piece Ride Cruise that allows you to live in your favourite comic and, at night, the wonderful sight of the theme park lit up by 13 million light bulbs. 
We spend the night at the adjacent Henna Hotel where we are welcomed by two robot receptionists, one a Japanese woman who can only speak Japanese and the other a T-Rex robot in a Santa costume, who speaks fluent English. A smart hotel where robots and high technology provide most of the service, the 72-room facility opened last year and is the ideal accommodation for anyone visiting the theme park. Rooms are accessed by a face-authentication system and the air-conditioned rooms are fitted with radiation panels that can save up to 20 per cent of energy, thus reducing the visitor’s carbon footprint.
< Thai International and Jetstar both offer daily flights between Bangkok and Fukuoka.

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