Rich in history, nature, cuisine, arts and culture, Saga prefecture was formed in the division of Hizen province during the Meiji Restoration with half becoming Saga and the other half becoming Nagasaki. Today Saga is a mostly rural prefecture situated on the northwest corner of Kyushu. It is bordered by the Genkai Sea and the Tsushima Strait on the north and the Ariake Sea on the south. With a population just over 800,000 people, nearly one-third of whom are living in the capital Saga City, this is one of the least populated prefectures in Japan. Karatsu is the second largest city with a population of about 120,000.
Given its proximity and contacts with China, the western part of Saga has become famous over millennia for its production of pottery and porcelain. Then the majority of economic activity in Saga is comprised of agriculture, forestry and coastal fishing. The area is well known for its fresh sea food, beef, onions, strawberries and greenhouse mandarin oranges. There are only about 15 English conversation schools in Saga that hire native English speakers and half as many other educational institutions that may hire foreign teachers. Thus, employment opportunities will be sparse, but most of those that do exist will be in the one of these two major cities.
Japan's ancient past can be viewed at the Nabatake ruins in Karatsu. This is an excavation from the end of the Jomon era (6th century BC). Then, there are artifacts and reconstructions from a middle Yayoi period (1st century BC) village at the Yoshinogari site. There are nearly a dozen castles in Saga with the most picturesque being Karatsu Castle, which was restored in 1966, and Saga Castle (Shachi gate) is located in the capital city. Yutoku Inari Shrine, which is one of the most famous Inari shrines, is located in Kashima City and immensely popular at New Year's. One of the principle Shinto kami, Inari is the god of foxes, fertility, rice, tea and sake, agriculture and industry, general prosperity and worldly success.
Other points of interest in Saga include: Nijinomatsubara, which is a 360-year-old pine forest (4km by 0.5km) that gently envelops Karatsu Bay in a half circle. It was planted in the 1600s as a barrier against strong winds and tides, but today it a popular tourist destination and listed as one of the 100 most beautiful places in Japan. In the southwestern Saga, Ureshino Onsen, which is known for the beautifying properties of its water, is one of Japan’s most famous natural hot springs. North of Karatsu, there is the Yobuko fish market, which is considered to be one of the top three in Japan. The Kyushu Ceramic Museum is located in Arita, and several smaller ceramic museums are spread throughout Arita, Imari and Karatsu.
Over three days starting on November 2, the world-famous Karatsu Kunchi festival attracts half a million visitors to Saga. In celebration of 400 years of successful harvests, fourteen hikiyama (massive colorful character floats made of paper mache) are pulled through Karatsu's narrow streets from Karatsu Shrine to Nishino Beach with crowds chanting "Enya!" and float people shouting "Yoisa!" There is also a local custom for Karatsu residents to open their homes to friends and strangers for eating, drinking and lively conversation. The floats, which can be viewed throughout the year, and parade have been designated as an Intangible Folk Cultural Property of Japan. Then, the Saga International Balloon Fiesta is held concurrently with this festival. Started in Fukuoka but later moved to Saga for more space, the hot air balloon fiesta attracts balloonists from around the world as part of an international competition circuit. Spectators can expect to see more than 100 balloons with accompanying festival food and activities.
Local cuisine in Saga is centered around plentiful fresh seafood. This includes oysters, which are farmed on the Tara coast, yobuko skquid, and takezaki crab. Then, the odd-looking mutsugoro (mudskipper), which is an amphibious fish that can be seen hopping along area beaches, is served as sashimi, grilled as well as soaked in sake. Kakinoha zushi is seasonal fish wrapped with vinegar rice in a persimmon leaf, which is supposed to help preserve the raw fish. The mineral-rich hot spring water at places like Ureshino is credited with producing the unique texture and taste of the area's zaru tofu, and Saga beef, produced in the mild climate, is a wagyu (marbled) beef that is prized throughout Japan.