Saga; A Summary of the Prefecture and City

Saga is the capital city of Saga Prefecture, the former capital of Saga Domain in the Edo Period and the largest city of former Hizen Province. Located on the island of Kyushu, Japan, in the southeast portion of Saga Prefecture, the city has an estimated population of 235,000 with a density of about 540 persons per square kilometer and a total land area of 431.84 square kilometers. This is not to be confused with Saga County, an area in Tibet.

More Quick Facts About Saga

Known as Saga-shi, it borders both the Sea of Japan and Ariake Sea. Saga City is also considered to be part of the Greater Fukuoka metropolitan area and by extension, the Fukuoka-Kitakyushu Metropolitan Area. The urban areas consist of Karatsu and the smaller towns of Imari, Kanzaki, Kashima, Ogi, Takeo, Taku, Tosu, and Ureshino.

Presently, approximately 40% of Saga Prefecture’s total area is designated as arable land, which is twice the national average. The Genkai Quasi-National Park, Hachimandake, Kawakami-Kinryu, Kurokamiyama, Sefuri Kitayama, Taradake and Tenzan Prefectural Parks constitute 11% of the prefecture and is considered preserved and protected land. The Saga countryside is uniquely featured with many terraced rice fields. A collection of about 300 rice terraces comprise the famous Rice Terraces of Hamanoura, which provide a spectacular sight when in a water-filled state in May.

The History of Saga: The City and the Prefecture

Saga once belonged to a domain ruled by a daimyo (a feudal warlord) and his ruling system, which existed until 1871 when a prefectural system was established following the Meiji Restoration. It was the 8th largest of about 250 domains in Japan and was ruled by the Nabeshima Family and its domain included part of present-day Nagasaki Prefecture.

In 1642, the Saga domain was given the responsibility by the Shogunate of guarding the Nagasaki Port, which was Japan’s single opening to the outside world (Netherlands and China).  Consequently, it became Japan’s first and most significant pathway to science and technology coming from the outside world at the end of the Edo period. 

It was also in the Saga Domain that Dutch technical books were first translated to learn how to manufacture cannons. Subsequently, the Saga domain provided the most advanced technology for building cannons. The shogunate even ordered a battery off the coast of present Shinagawa, Tokyo to defend Edo Bay against the warship squadron of Commodore Matthew Perry at Uraga in 1853.

Saga During The Edo Period

The Saga Domain included three sub-domains: the Hasunoike, Ogi and Kashima Domains. The Saga Domain and its sub-domains were ruled by the Nabeshima clan and the area was politically stable for a time. However, the great Kyoho Famine and the Siebold Typhoon of 1828 made the financial situation difficult and the cost of defending Nagasaki became too high. 

In the mid-19th Century, Noamasa Habeshima tried to improve the domain’s financial affairs by reducing the number of government officials and encouraging local industries such as Arita porcelain, green tea, and coal. Also, new technologies were introduced from overseas for the first time, such as the reverberatory furnace and steam locomotives. 

The Story Behind Saga Castle

Saga Castle, home to the Nabeshima clan and known as “Submerged Castle”, was surrounded by a wall instead of being constructed on a stone base. In 1726, a fire destroyed most of the castle, including the donjon.  

There was another fire in 1835, and the buildings were reconstructed by Nabeshima Naomasa, Saga Domain’s final daimyo. In 1874, the castle grounds were used as a court building and a prefectural office.  The main portion of the castle was restored in 2001 and is now the location of the Saga Castle History Museum becoming the largest wooden castle reconstruction in Japan.  Saga Castle now sports the title as one of the 100 fine Castles of Japan, according to the Japan Castle Foundation.

The Saga Rebellion

In 1874, during the early Meiji Period, The Saga Rebellion was led by previously high-ranking samurai Eto Shimpei and Shima Yoshitake from the Hizen Province. The revolt was due to three major reasons:  the loss of samurai privileges, the new Meiji government’s refusal to sanction an invasion of Korea, and Japan’s increasing westernization.  The uprising was easily quelled by government forces, which resulted in the beheading of both Eto and Shima.    

A Quick Travel Guide to Saga, Japan

Facing the Ariake Sea on the south and home to Saga Airport lies the city of Saga in Kyushu—the seat of the Saga prefectural government. The Saga Castle History Museum sits in the center of the city. Although the castle is no longer standing, the main keep has been reconstructed, and today is one of the largest wooden structures in Japan. A magnificent view of the moat running through the castle and the entire city may be enjoyed from the observatory hall on the 12th floor of the Saga Prefecture Office, near the History Museum.  

The city has several structures that have been preserved as historical folk customs museums, all imparting a feel of the city’s long history. There are old samurai residences and urban houses built during the Meiji Era in the latter half of the 1800s. There are also districts throughout the city, such as the Yaemachi District, which remains unchanged from the days of the Nabeshima clan that was partly responsible for the Meiji Restoration.  

Another place that you must see while you travel Saga City is the Yoshinogari National Park—one of the oldest remarkable sights in Japan.  It is supposedly the ancient ruins of a moated village dating back to the Yayoi Period from the 3rd century BC to the 3rd century AD.  

From around the end of October to the start of November, the Saga International Balloon Festival is celebrated.  Annually, more than one hundred hot air balloons and over one million people come to enjoy this spectacular event.

More Sights to See and Things to Do Around The Map of Saga

Yobuko, once prosperous as a whaling base, has a watchtower for whales and a memorial monument to captured whales on Ogawa-shima Island. There is a well-known morning market at Yobuko Port where a wide variety of fresh and dried fish are sold, and where fresh delicacies of the sea can be tasted.

Giving an impression of an unassuming town among the mountains, Ariga is the cradle of porcelain manufacturing in Japan. Located in the western part of Saga on the map, the Kyushu Ceramic Museum and the Arita Ceramic Art Museum are places that porcelain lovers must visit to see exquisite pottery and porcelain pieces.  White-walled houses from the 1930s and western-style buildings are still present in the Uchiyama area, where many potters once lived.  

Once an intermediary for east-west porcelain trade, Imari is a fine natural port that lies between the Higashi Matsu-ura-hanto Peninsula and the Kita Matsu-ura-hanto Peninsula along the coast of Imari Bay.  Okawachiyama, a pottery center secluded in the mountains, was the source of top-quality gift items for the Imperial Court and Shoguns.

The cities of Takeo and Ureshino are found in the western part of Saga Prefecture. Takeo onsen is more than 1,300 years old and is famous for the quality of its water that supposedly makes the skin smooth.  Ureshino, on the other hand, is known for its green tea.  This hot spring town produces silky and slightly creamy water, which has earned a reputation for making the skin smooth and supple.  

Four Things to Do While You Visit Saga, Japan

Here are some interesting, entertaining as well as educational ways to while one’s time away while in Saga, Japan. 

  • Visit Saga Castle. Located in Saga City of Saga Prefecture, this castle is unique among the major castles in Japan because it was built on flat plains rather than typically on top of mountainous regions.  It is one of the largest wooden reconstructions in the country and presents a pleasant visit for Japanese history buffs who wish to see how the region looked when it was still the Hizen Province as well as the tumultuous evolution that happened during the Bakumatsu and Meiji Restoration.
  • Enjoy the Views from the Saga Prefectural Government Observation Deck. This is the best way to get a gorgeous night view perspective of Karatsu, Saga from the outside.  This will provide a good idea of how big Saga City is and the landmarks that you may want to visit.
  • Stop by the Yodohime Shrine. Yodohime Shrine was one of two chief Shinto Shrines of Hizen Province and Saga Prefecture.  It was founded in the 6th Century and enshrines the grandmother of Emperor Jimmu, known as the first Emperor of Japan and the founder of the Imperial Dynasty.  A visit to Yodohime Shrine is one of the most relaxing and peaceful trips one can make in Japan.  The shrine has Buddhist and Shinto shrines and will bring you what is, in reality, a huge park.
  • Pass by Kodenji Temple. Kodenji Temple was built by Kyofusa Nabeshima in 1552.  The famous Dainehan Scroll in Kodenji Temple’s storehouse is one of only 2 precious items in Japan.  This scroll may only be viewed by the public at the Shakadou Festival on April 29 & 30.  Seven meters wide and 15.5 meters tall, the scroll is definitely worth seeing.  Kodenji Temple is also known for its plum trees.  A pink plum tree, the Reitokujubai, said to be over 400 years old, still blooms in all its glory, filling all its onlookers with a feeling of joy.

Eat Well in Saga, Japan: Great Food Recommendations

  • Saga Beef: Saga Beef is one of the highest grades of Japanese Wagyu in the country. Saga cattle are carefully bred, following an age-old long-standing breeding standard that matches the climate of the Saga area characterized by natural feed, mild climate, pure air, and water and, overall, a rich natural environment that contributes to its excellent quality. The "Saga Beef" brand’s meat grade of 5 or 4 and has been awarded only to the super premium marbled meat with marbling greater than (BMS) No.7.  Saga Beef lovers come from all over the world just to savor this renowned brand meat.
  • Saga Squid: When served as sashimi, the squid caught in Northern Saga Prefecture area in the sea of Genkai is transparent, sweet and melts in the mouth. The fresh live squid (prepared in less than one minute) and called Ikizukuri is something that can only be enjoyed in Karatsu’s hotels or restaurant chains and is also the best way to eat fresh squid. Squid is also delicious when grilled with salt or served as tempura. The delicious seasonal squid can be enjoyed all year round.
  • Takezaki Crab:  Takezake Crab is a kind of blue crab called the caught in the Tara region of the Ariake Sea coast. The Takezaki Crab can grow over 30 cm and features a long diamond- shape shell. It gains a markedly sweet concentrated flavor as it feeds on rich phytoplankton from the Ariake Sea. The exceptional taste of this crab is well known among food connoisseurs, and many international visitors visit the prefecture just to taste the Takezake Crab.
  • Japanese Tiger Prawns are known to be the finest and most delicious of all prawns. Whether eaten raw (sashimi) or as tempura, simply grilled with salt, their extraordinary sweet taste is one of a kind. The incredible sweetness fills the mouth when the prawns are unshelled and eaten raw. A large quantity of these famous tiger prawns is shipped across the country from Karatsu or Imari in Northern Saga Prefecture to other parts of Japan. 

The Best Hotel Choices in Saga, Japan

Saga has a wide set of hotels and ryokan to choose from for your stay. For those on a budget, accommodation options that have maximum value APA Hotel Saga Ekimae Chuo, Hotel Route Inn Saga Ekimae, Hotel New Otani Saga, and Comfort Hotel Saga. If you’ve got a little more to spend, try Akebono or Hotel Ryutouen. If you want top-notch service for a premium rate, there’s ONCRI, and Kakureisen. 

An information tip for traveling newbies - try to choose a hotel or ryokan that is close to train station, and has service that can speak and understand English if you aren’t familiar with the Japanese language. 

What’s the Weather Like in Saga, Japan?

Saga is known to for its mild, however rainy climate. It is classified to be humid subtropical. Every year, Saga experiences an average of 1849 mm of rainfall. There is no point in Saga’s weather when it stops raining, which makes it great for agricultural ventures. The hottest time of the year, August, is warm, humid, and muggy, and still, faces downpours from passing typhoons.