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Dazaifu

If you have 4 or more hours to spare, I heartily recommend taking a side trip to Dazaifu, a pleasant village that is home to a shrine that is immensely popular with Japanese, and the Kyushu National Museum. Dazaifu has a festive atmosphere, and one of the main reasons to visit, in my opinion, is to see everyone else.

The best way to reach Dazaifu is from Nishitetsu Fukuoka Station in Tenjin (in the Mitsukoshi department store). Take a tokkyu (limited express) of the Nishitetsu Tenjin Omuta Line (there are departures every 30 min.) 12 minutes to Futsukaichi (the second stop); transfer there (across the platform) for the 8-minute train ride on the Nishitetsu Dazaifu Line (two stops) to Dazaifu Station, the last stop (though there are a few trains that go directly from Fukuoka Station to Dazaifu). If you don't catch a limited express, the trip to Dazaifu can take about 50 minutes. In any case, the fare is ¥390 one-way. The Dazaifu City Tourist Information Desk (tel. 092/925-1880; daily 9am-5:30pm), located inside Dazaifu Station, has an English-language pamphlet.

Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine, 4-7-1 Saifu Dazaifu (tel. 092/922-8225; www.dazaifutenmangu.or.jp), is a 5-minute walk from the station, reached by taking a right onto a pedestrian lane lined with shops selling souvenirs, sweets, and crafts, followed by three bridges (representing the past, present, and future) spanning a turtle-filled pond shaped in the kanji for "heart." The shrine itself was established in 903, soon after the death of Michizane Sugawara, who was demoted from his position as Minister of the Right in Kyoto and exiled to Dazaifu, where he continued his scholarly studies despite extreme hardship. Today, Michizane is deified as the god of literature and calligraphy, which explains why this shrine is so popular. As the head office of 12,000 Tenmangu shrines spread throughout Japan and presided over by the 39th-generation Michizane descendant, it draws six million visitors a year, many of them high-school students praying to pass tough entrance exams into universities. Behind the main hall, which dates from 1591, hang wooden tablets, written with the wishes of visitors -- mostly for successful examination scores. Also behind the main hall is an extensive plum grove with 6,000 trees; the plum blossom, in bloom from late January to March, is considered the symbol of scholarship.

Whatever you do, a must-see is Komyozenji Temple (tel. 092/922-4053), just a 2-minute walk from the shrine. This Zen temple, built in 1275, boasts Kyushu's sole rock garden, arranged to form the Chinese character for "light." In the back is also a combination moss-rock garden, representing the sea and land and shaded by maple trees. It's a glorious sight and is almost never crowded, except in autumn when changing maple leaves make it even more spectacular. To see it, take your shoes off, throw ¥200 into the donation box, and walk to the wooden veranda in back where you can sit and meditate. It's open daily from 8am to 5pm.

Behind Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine, to the right, is an escalator that will take you to the Kyushu National Museum, 4-7-2 Ishizaka (tel. 092/918-2807; www.kyuhaku.jp), which in 2005 opened as Japan's first new national museum in 100 years. Perched on a hillside, it's a strikingly modern structure that undulates down the slope in mimicry of the hills around it, with surrounding woods reflected on its glass facade. Through permanent and special exhibits, it focuses on Japan's cultural heritage, how that heritage has been influenced by other Asian cultures through the ages, and the role Kyushu has played in cultural exchange. Religious objects, musical instruments, ceramics, lacquerware, art, and other items from ancient to modern times from a number of nations are on display in permanent and special exhibits, including goods that reached Japan via the Silk Road and European trading ships. It's open Tuesday to Sunday from 9:30am to 5pm and costs ¥420 for adults, ¥130 for university and high-school students, and free for children. Special exhibits cost more.

Space World

Space World, 4-1-1 Higashida (tel. 093/672-3600; www.spaceworld.co.jp), in the town of Kitakyushu, is a space travel-theme amusement park with thrill rides, including roller coasters, water rides, a 100m-high (330-ft.) Ferris wheel, a movie theater with seats that move in sync with the action, an IMAX theater, kiddie rides, and Space Dome, in which visitors take a "shuttle" to a space station and then, from there, embark on roller-coaster journeys around the solar system or through a black hole. You'll probably spend a minimum of 4 hours here. An all-inclusive pass costs ¥4,200 for adults (12 and older), ¥3,150 for children ages 6 to 11, ¥2,100 for seniors (proof of age required), ¥1,050 for children ages 4 and 5, and free for children 3 and younger. It's open daily 10am to 5pm, with extended hours holidays and weekends. It's closed the first 3 weeks of December and the last 3 weeks of January, except on weekends. To reach Space World, take a JR Kaisoku (express) train from Fukuoka's Hakata Station directly to Space World Station. The trip time is about 60 minutes, and the park is a 5-minute walk from the station. If you have a JR Rail Pass, it's quicker to take the Shinkansen bullet train 20 minutes from Hakata Station to Kokura Station, transferring there to a local line for the 10-minute ride to Space World. Likewise, if you're coming from Honshu via Shinkansen, transfer in Kokura. If you have luggage to stow, there are lockers at Kokura Station and at Space World's entrance.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.