This weekend I embarked on a small day trip to one of Fukuoka’s most famous shrines: Dazaifu Tenmangu. I chose this location since it was easily accessible by train (only 40 minutes from central Fukuoka) and there were some interesting foods to try. The trip was easy to do and was a nice way to get away from the city.
I started my day early in order to make one of the morning Express trains. The most direct way to Dazaifu from central Fukuoka is from the Nishitetsu Fukuoka Station in Tenjin. On weekends, the first express trains leave at 8:39, 9:16, and 9:47am. If you can make one of these I’d highly recommend it! You won’t have to make any transfers during your ride and the trains are quite nice. Mine was super clean, spacious, and even had free wifi.
You can also take a Limited Express train, but if you do, note that you will need to make a transfer at Futsukaichi Station and then take a local train to reach Dazaifu. (This isn’t hard to do though as there are signs in English that guide you the entire way). From Tenjin Station, the Express train took about 40 minutes and cost ¥410 each way.
After arriving and exiting Dazaifu Station, turn right to find the main street, Tenjinsama. This lively street has large stone torii gates leading up to the shrine as well as shops and restaurants on either side. The most popular item being sold was a mochi treat called umegae mochi – a freshly grilled mochi rice cake filled with sweet red bean paste. In front of the windows you can watch the workers expertly oil the grill plates, slap down mochi balls, and remove the freshly cooked mochi from the automated machine. Since it was still early in the day, I decided to wait until after visiting the shrine to get my mochi, but boy was I excited by what I saw.
Tenmangu Shrine is built over the grave of Sugawara no Michizane, a man who became deified in Shinto as the God of learning. It is said that when Sugawara passed away, the oxen pulling the carriage of his remains abruptly laid down and refused to move. Sugawara was buried where the oxen lay, the place where Tenmangu Shrine now stands. Since this time, oxen have become a symbolic part of the shrine and eleven bronze ox castings (shingyu) live on the grounds. When you first enter the shrine, the largest ox statue greets you. Because it is believed that rubbing its head will make you wiser, this ox’s head is very smooth and shiny.
Further into the shrine are three bright vermillion bridges, each one representing the past, present, and future. Below these bridges is a peaceful pond.
At the entrance to the shrine’s innermost grounds is the temizuya, the place where one purifies the body before entering. The temizuya at Dazaifu is carved from a large stone and its roof is also bright vermillion. Cool water flows through bamboo sections so that the hands and mouths of worshippers can be cleansed.
Next to the temizuya, you can see the statue of a kirin – a Chinese mythical creature with the head of a dragon and the body of a horse. At this shrine, this creature represents Sugawara no Michizane’s wisdom and magnificence.
Once at the honden, or main sanctuary, you can line up to say your prayers. It is customary to give a small offering, bow twice, clap twice, then silently say your prayers and respects. Afterwards, a final bow is given. In this main area you can also buy small amulets and blessings for future prosperity and good luck. Since this shrine is associated with education and wisdom, it is a popular destination for many students during exam time.
Visitors can also purchase special wooden ema. These have colorful decorations on one side and blank space on the other for wishes and prayers to be written. Once written, the ema can be hung on display or kept and taken home as a memento.
After taking in the main sanctuary, I started to make my way back to the entrance. Along the way there was a man selling mini plum trees and bonsais. The trees were so cute and on them, small blossoms were just starting to form. I really wanted to get one, but dissuaded myself rationalizing that it would be hard travel and move with. I was so tempted though!
On a seasonal note- there are over 6,000 plum trees throughout the shrine grounds that are in full bloom mid February to early March. Unsurprisingly, the shrine is extremely popular to visit during this time. I made my trip at the end of January so the first buds were just starting to open. Even a bit early, it was still incredibly beautiful to see the pink flowers brighten the trees. I can only imagine how stunning the grounds look at its peak…
Back at the entrance of the shrine is a small temple called Komyozenji. There wasn’t much to do here, so I just stopped for a quick look.
Nearby there is also the Kyushu National Museum, and another shrine called Tenkai Inari. I didn’t make it to these this time, but would check them out next time I visit!)
After my afternoon stroll, it was time to find lunch. I decided to try a place on the main street called Sakadoya after one of the meals on display caught my eye. Inside the restaurant, I was excited to see that the back section had a traditional tatami dining space and a large window that opened up to a beautiful Japanese Garden.
The restaurant had a slightly awkward ordering system requiring you to first find a table then return to the front to place your order. After a bit of confusion I was able to get my order in and then relax to take in the atmosphere.
I ordered tri-colored soba dipping noodles and tempura- look how beautiful it all was! The pink noodles had a refreshing pickled plum taste, and the fresh tempura was a great compliment to the cool noodles. I really enjoyed the soup which had a wonderful, light, seaweed flavor. Though simple, the soup bursted with flavor. As I sat on the tatami mat and enjoyed the food before me, I was filled with a feeling of satisfaction and happiness. My desire to move abroad was fueled with the hope that I would be able to live and enjoy moments like the one I was currently in- eating good food, exploring new places, and taking in a different environment.
After lunch, the last thing on my list was to finally get a taste of the popular mochi. Now that it was lunch time, the street was a lot busier and there were lines outside of each store. Thankfully the wait was short, and I eventually got my mochi (plus some to bring back to my host family ?). As a self proclaimed mochi enthusiast, I naturally enjoyed the dessert. The outside was deliciously crispy while the insides, full of chewy mochi and sweet bean paste, were piping hot. I would have bought another if I wasn’t so full already!
With my belly full, it was time to head back home. I took the train out of Dazaifu Station this time making the transfer at Futsukaichi Station before making it back to Tenjin.
The trip to Dazaifu was a great excursion from central Fukuoka. I would especially recommend it for anyone looking to experience and learn more about Japan’s Shinto history or for those looking to eat a delicious mochi snack. I hope to go back to catch the plum blossoms in full bloom later this spring!