Pearl nets hang between undulating cliffs layered in stripes of cream, rust and brown, striking a sharp contrast with the glittering peacock-green sea. Kujukushima National Park—literally 99 islands—feels like the edge of the world. It includes just under half of the 208 islands that dot the sea around Sasebo Harbor, between Fukuoka and Nagasaki on the west coast of Kyushu. If the setting looks familiar, that’s because it appeared in the 2003 Tom Cruise movie The Last Samurai.
The mark of a perfect weekend destination is having enough to do to make it worth the trip, but not so much that you get burnt out. Sasebo can be done in a couple of days without working up a sweat, but a longer trip offers plenty in the way of camping, beaches and daytrips to the nearby Dutch-themed Huis Ten Bosch, by rail along the coast to Nagasaki, or by road to the westernmost point of the Japanese mainland.
Start any trip with a visit to the Saikai Pearl Sea Resort, where boats sail for excursions between the islands. Better yet, hop on the bus that leaves twice daily from outside the train station for a narrated four-hour tour (with English audio available via headphones) that includes a stop at the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force Museum and a boat trip around the islands. The tour finishes with a visit to Yumihari Lookout Point in Saikai National Park, which enjoys views of Kujukushima and the Sea of Goto. It’s the best way to get an overview of the area, as well as learn some of its history and legends.
One (possibly apocryphal) tale recounts that the city got its name when the harbor provided refuge to a ship in distress, only to learn that the Empress was on board. As the locals welcomed the vessel, they noted its torn sails, and the Empress called the place Sasebo after the word she heard them saying. Until the end of October, sunset cruises head out on many nights—and yes, there’s beer onboard. Kayaks and canoes are also available for rent, but watch out: the islands can be extremely disorienting.
Down by Saikai National Park, the parallel bridges of Saikaibashi and Shinsaikaibashi span the Hario Seto Straits, whose turbulent water and quick currents create the uzushio, or whirlpools, for which the area is famous. The currents are strongest during the spring, as the water from Omura Bay rushes through the narrow strait when the tide changes. Cherry trees and benches line the paths along the straits, offering ample views of the islands, whirlpools, bridges and blossoms. Beyond the bridges rise the macabre Hario wireless radio towers, which infamously broadcast the directive for the Japanese to begin the attack on Pearl Harbor.
People who like to get up early—or stay up really late—should walk down to the Sasebo Morning Market near the harbor between 3 and 8:30am to catch stalls of seafood so fresh it’s still squirming, then watch it butchered before your eyes. If that’s not really your thing, there are plenty of stalls selling fresh fruit and vegetables, flowers, pickled who-knows-what, and even a few bento boxes.
For shopping that doesn’t involve rising before dawn, head to the 403 Arcade, a kilometer-long strip of shops, restaurants and bars that’s known as “the Ginza.” Here you can try some of Sasebo’s famous hamburgers, Japanized versions of the ones brought over by US sailors in the ’40s. An American who patronizes the friendly bars along the strip said the area may be small enough to see in a weekend, but that’s how it earned the nickname Sas Vegas. “We manage to have a lot of fun in a really small area!” he said with a laugh. And who’s to say us city slickers can’t join in?
It takes less than two hours to fly from Tokyo’s Haneda Airport to Fukuoka. From there, take the train or a highway bus (available from the airport’s international terminal or Hakata station) to Sasebo. The Sasebo Tourist Information Center can be found inside the station, and also has an informative website at www.sasebo99.com/english.