Yanagawa, Japan, canal tour by punt: A beautiful town you won't find in the guide books

Of all the ways to travel, none is more relaxing than punting on a canal beneath willow trees, charcoal brazier at your knees, Japanese ladies giggling beside you while a puntsman warbles about lost love.

That's what I imagine he's singing about, at least. The melody sounds sad and romantic. The 77-year-old who poles us along has a wrinkled walnut face beneath a straw hat. His reedy voice makes heads turn on passing bridges. Water plops and slurps as he works his bamboo pole. The ladies giggle again, behind polite hands. Someone ought to write a haiku about this moment.

I'm travelling around Japan's southern island Kyushu on a self-guided adventure with Inside Japan Tours. The company helps with logistics and bookings but, happily, I'm free to devise my own day. Yanagawa is just one of the suggestions in its useful booklet, and I feel I've done enough sights, temples and museums. A happy morning afloat in a boat sounds rather pleasant, and so here I am.

For centuries, the countryside around Yanagawa has been criss-crossed with hundreds of kilometres of canals built by farmers for irrigation. Then, in the second half of the 16th century, local overlord Tanaka Yoshimasa harnessed the canals to defence and trade.

Yanagawa Castle burnt down in 1872, but much of the old town that grew up around it remains. You can see leftover defensive walls, some impressive family tombs and various shrines and temples. We float past old warehouses that were once part of the canals' trading network, and little factories that still make soy sauce and nori seaweed paper for wrapping sushi.

Yanagawa's wooden punts, which once hauled goods, take only tourists around these days. I've boarded at Rankan-bashi bridge for my four-kilometre jaunt. We settle onto benches and wrap legs in blankets against the winter weather. There are many pleasures of travelling Japan in winter, and off the beaten track. There are no crowds here, just a scattering of visitors strolling along canal-side promenades.

None of the puntsmen speak much English, but a helpful Japanese passenger translates for me. We pass Yoko Ono's grandfather's house and Ryujo Junior High School, which has produced national high-school champions in tennis 33 times. The old man's plaintiff singing, I discover, isn't about love after all. All the puntsmen sing famous Japanese children's songs written by composer Kitahara Hakushu, who came from Yanagawa. Sometimes passengers join in as we drift under the willow trees.

It makes me happy. This is something I'd never have heard about, and never experienced, without good insider advice. Yanagawa will never merit more than a passing mention in guidebooks. There's no single wow factor, but a lovely accumulation of pleasant moments.

We pull up at a waterside shop and buy snacks and cups of hot sake. Then we pole onwards past old samurai houses with rusting tin roofs, and fishing platforms on stilts with giant scooped nets on a wooden arm. Tangerines glow orange on trees in the gardens of canal-side villas. The first plum blossoms are just appearing on winter twigs. At times, we have to duck our heads as we pass beneath bridges.

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We finish at Ohana Boat Stop. Before we even alight, I can smell the grilled eel from the town's speciality restaurants. My Inside Japan Tours expert has told me which restaurant is best. I eat from a wooden box packed with rice that has been steamed with eel and strips of omelette to infuse the flavours. The owner bows as I depart contented.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/japan

welcomekyushu.com

FLY

Japan Airlines flies daily from Melbourne and Sydney to Tokyo Narita with onward flights to Fukuoka, a 70-minute train ride from Yanagawa. See jal.co.jp

TOUR

Inside Japan Tours organises self-guided adventures across Japan, including Kyushu and punting in Yanagawa. See insidejapantours.com

Brian Johnston travelled as a guest of Japan Airlines, Inside Japan Tours and Kyushu Tourism.

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