For any fan of the ice skating anime Yuri on Ice the natural destination in Japan is the coastal city of Karatsu, on which Katsuki Yuuri’s fictional hometown of Hasetsu is based. Since I’m lucky enough to live in southern South Korea, I’ve been able to visit Karatsu a few times, and each time has brought with it new adventures. The residents of Karatsu are, by now, well aware of their city’s famous alter ego, and happily welcome the increase in visitors and tourism that comes along with it.
If you happen to find yourself in Japan and want to walk the streets of the city that inspired the beauty of Hasetsu, I hope the guide below will help you to make the most of your trip. No matter what time of year you go, you’ll find beautiful views, delicious katsudon, and plenty of picture-taking opportunities.
How to Get to Karatsu
Whether you come by ferry, plane, or train, your entrance to the Saga area (Karatsu is located in Saga Prefecture) is most likely going to be through the city of Fukuoka. Fukuoka is a bustling port city on the northern shore of Kyushu, and is the most populous city on the island. You may want to build in an extra day to your travel (if possible) to enjoy the sights, shopping, and food to be had in Japan’s only specially-designated economic zone for startups.
To get from Fukuoka to Karatsu, board the city subway’s Kūkō Line (the orange one) in the direction of Nishikaratsu. You can ride the train straight from Fukuoka to Karatsu Station in the heart of the city of Karatsu. Just make sure that you know whether you’re getting on a direct train or one where you have to switch lines (for station-to-station train directions your author recommends the Japan Travel app. In May 2018, the cost of traveling one-way from downtown Fukuoka (Tenjin Station) to Karatsu Station was ¥1170, and the trip takes about 1.5 hours.
Once you arrive at Karatsu Station, take a moment to look around. You’ll be coming down the same stairs that Yuuri descends when he finally comes home from Detroit (the real life Karatsu still has stairs rather than an escalator). You’ll also start to see Yuri on Ice posters on the wall.
Your first stop should be at the tourism info booth actually located within the station itself:
The incredibly friendly staff here speak at least a smattering of English, Korean, and Chinese, depending on who’s on staff and they are very aware of the rising popularity of Yuri on Ice pilgrimages to their city. The city of Karatsu has recently produced helpful maps showing the location of Yuri on Ice points of interest around the city and the staff will be happy to help you find whatever you’re looking for.
Tip: Make sure to check out the big stylized lion statue just outside the train station. Sadly, it isn’t the giant squid that Yurio encounters on his arrival in Hasetsu, but it’s still pretty cool!
From the station, you can walk to Karatsu Castle, finding many points of interest along the way!
The “ninja castle” that Victor is such a fan of rises dramatically above the Karatsu skyline and offers beautiful views of the city and ocean below. By the time you’ve climbed the stone steps to reach the top of the hill, you’ll understand why Yuuri used them to exercise! As of Spring 2018, the construction which frustrated so many fans who wished to climb the castle tower itself has been completed, revealing a beautifully done interior museum and gift shop. The museum holds pieces from archeological digs in the area as well as reproduction pieces showcasing the history of the Karatsu region.
— Unfortunately, pictures are forbidden in the museum, so here is a shot of the gift shop.
You can enter the castle and gift shop for free, but the museum and the viewing platform at the top require a ¥500 ticket (there is a self-service ticket machine with multiple language options at the entrance to the gift shop). After buying your ticket, you can climb the stairs up through the museum levels to the observation deck on the top floor and try to stage your own podium family photo. The view from the top of the castle is truly spectacular, and looking down on the city and the beaches with their gently lapping waves, you will fall just a little more in love with this place.
(Naked climbing is still frowned upon, Victor…)
Before or after climbing the castle itself, make sure to take a walk around the grounds! You can find the spot to take a perfect Instagram selfie with the castle in the background, just like Victor and Makkachin (hint: it’s near the benches if you make a U-turn to the left after the last set of stairs up the hill). And if you turn right instead of left, you can rest for a moment on the bench that Yuuri and Victor sat on – well, Victor sat while Yuuri exercised – overlooking the bay…
How to Get There: Walk out the north exit of the train station (the doors are right next to the tourist info booth) and head diagonally northeast, zigzagging through the streets until you cross the river. At that point you’ll be able to see the castle and can triangulate your way there. It’s about a 15-20 minute walk at a moderate pace.
If you have a smartphone with internet access, you can type “Karatsu Castle” into Google Maps and it’ll guide you perfectly.
Maizuru Bridge is the one just below Karatsu Castle, which we often see Yuuri running (and Victor biking) across – apparently the fictional Yu-topia is set in the part of Hasetsu across the river. I’ve often seen cosplayers here, recreating the scene of Yurio shouting Victor’s name over the railing and startling a nearby fisherman. The bridge looks exactly the same as in the show, even down to the benches and fishing spots along the sides. It’s also a great place to take pictures of Karastu Castle from below.
How to Get There: The bridge is located right below Karatsu Castle. If you walk just a block or so past the entrance to the castle stairs, you’ll be on the bridge.
Vying for the title of most-obvious destination for Yuri on Ice fans is Yu-topia, the onsen run by Hiroko & Toshiya Katsuki. The creators of Yuri on Ice took multiple locations into account when designing Yu-topia, but the inspiration for the inside (both the restaurant and the hot spring itself) came directly from Kagamiyama Onsen Chaya. Sadly, Kagamiyama does not include a hotel, so you can’t stay overnight. But you can enjoy a wonderfully relaxing soak in the hot spring and then indulge yourself with a bowl of their specialty katsudon.
The onsen is a short trip from central Karatsu, located just three stops away from Karatsu station on the train, at Nijinomatsubara station. In fact, the onsen is several train stops before Karatsu, so if you’ll be arriving in the area around a mealtime, it might be a nice place to stop for a bite to eat on your way.
When you arrive at the onsen, the first thing to do is buy an entrance ticket from the ticket machine in the lobby. This machine is just for entrance to the hot spring itself, so if you don’t have time for a soak, skip down to the next paragraph. The machine has a multitude of buttons for the different options: Do you want just a soak? Do you want to rent a yukata? An extra towel (one is provided, but maybe you want more)? Etc, etc. The last time I was there, only the most basic buttons had been annotated with English translations, so a smartphone with a translation app or a Japanese-reading friend might come in handy. However, if you have neither, I’m sure the lovely staff behind the desk will be willing to help you find the basic options if you say the magic word “onsen”. As of May 2018, the basic entrance fee for the onsen is ¥600 (that includes access to all of the bathing pools as well as one body-size towel for drying and one hand-size towel to carry with you while you soak).
Your next step (no pun intended) is to put your shoes in one of the small, shoe-sized lockers right next to the entrance. Lock in your shoes and take the key with you. The shoe lockers require you to deposit a ¥10 coin in order to lock them, so make sure you have some change! (The clothing lockers for the bathing area also require a coin deposit.)
If you purchased a soak in the onsen, proceed to the front desk to receive your supplies. The staff will direct you to the locker rooms to get naked (remember, blue is the men’s room and red is the women’s room). The locker rooms have assorted useful items – for example, the women’s locker room has hair dryers, lotion, tissues, etc. – for when you are dressing after your soak and otherwise making yourself presentable again. You can enjoy the various indoor and outdoor pools of various temperatures for as long as you like (my favorite was the outdoor rock pool that’s just hot enough to relax sore muscles), until you get hungry for some katsudon.
NOTES: If you have never been to a Japanese onsen (or other Asian spa of the naked variety) before, some quick tips:
If you are a person with long hair, please make sure to bring a hair tie to tie it up before using the baths.
Make sure to rinse yourself before and after your soak (no one wants you bringing that road sweat into the lovely clean pools). You will see an area with hand-held showerheads for rinsing are as soon as you enter the bath area from the locker room.
Yes, you have to get all the way naked, and no you can’t wear your bathing suit. It’s okay, everyone else is naked too and folks generally just politely ignore each other (unless you’re a legendary Russian skater)
Just past the front desk is the entrance to the restaurant. There is another ticket machine there where you can select what you want to eat. You insert cash, press the button for your menu item, and out spits a ticket that you present to your server. Again, only a few of these buttons have English translations printed, but the staff have helpfully attached a picture of katsudon to the katsudon button. You should be able to recognize it easily! As of May 2018, the katsudon set – which includes a small soup as well – costs ¥950. These food tickets make the ordering process a lot smoother and greatly mitigate the language barrier for non-Japanese speakers. While you are waiting for your meal, feel free to help yourself to tea from the table nearest the kitchen and check out the many Yuri on Ice posters which decorate the walls!
The onsen also usually has a small amount of Yuri on Ice merchandise of some sort for sale, especially if there is a current collaboration with Saga Prefecture. Look around the front lobby to find the table with Yuri on Ice items, as well as locally produced foods and other gifts.
How to Get There: Take the train to Nijinomatsubara station. “Station” might be overselling it – it’s a tiny wooden cabin next to the train track (though it does have one of the ubiquitous Japanese vending machines in the small parking lot, if you’re parched from your travel). Nijinomatsubara is one of the three largest pine-tree forests in Japan (the name translates roughly to “Rainbow Pine Forest”), and you will feel for a moment that you’re standing in the midst of a nature preserve. Standing in the parking lot with your back to the station, turn left – you’ll find a dirt path paralleling the road so you don’t have to dodge traffic. Follow that same road as it curves through a small neighborhood and past several large grocery stores. When the road hits a big T-intersection (about a 10-minute walk) and you can’t go straight anymore, turn left. The onsen is about 3 minutes farther, on your left.
If you walk directly from the train station to the castle, you’ll go right past the Kyomachi covered shopping arcade where Yurio finds his tiger sweatshirt! The same shop faithfully has a tiger sweatshirt hanging outside for fans to see, and the PA system has the official Yuri on Ice soundtrack playing on a loop. I definitely did not twirl my way down the empty arcade singing along to “History Maker”, nope, not me…
The arcade is pretty quiet (at least on weekends), but there are usually at least a few shops open and proudly displaying various Yuri on Ice posters in their windows.
How to Get There: From the train station, walk north until you get out of the train station junction and take your first right. Walk straight one block and you’ll see the entrance to the covered shopping arcade with a big sign over it saying “Kyomachi”:
“Minako’s Bar” – Bar Tsubomi
One of the cozier places on the Yuri on Ice tour of Karatsu is the bar that provided the inspiration for Minako’s bar. When Victor goes looking for Yuuri in Episode 2, he finds Minako at the small “Kachu snack bar” that she runs. The bar in the show is pretty much a perfect replica of Bar Tsubomi – down to how tiny it is (it will start to feel crowded if your group is more than three people). The bar is not open in the daytime, but you can stop by the entrance to compare it with the animated version. At night, the owner serves sake and snacks, and it very much has the feel of sitting in someone’s well-stocked den.
How to Get There: Walking from the train station, walk two blocks north, turn right, walk four blocks east, turn left, and the bar will be on your left. If you’re Google-mapping, the exact address is: Japan, 〒847-0044 Saga-ken, Karatsu-shi, Kiwatamachi, 唐津市木綿町1967−2
The president of the Karatsu Yuri on Ice society is Chef Kawakami, the chef and owner of Caravan restaurant. The restaurant got a Michelin star a few years ago, and I can personally attest that the Waygu steak here is melt-in-your-mouth delicious, so it would be worth a visit even without a Yuri on Ice collection! But it makes the meal all the more special to be able to cuddle a stuffed Makkachin and admire the chef’s enormous Yuri on Ice merch collection while eating such delicious food. He even has the DVDs playing on a loop in one of the private dining booths, which lends a wonderful soundtrack to your meal.
If you’re lucky enough, you can sit at the bar and the chef will lightly (and entertainingly) sear your steak right in front of you, before serving it up piece by piece in all its pink and juicy deliciousness. This is definitely not a place where you can order your steak well-done – the chef knows his craft and his steak; trust him.
You will probably be offered a basket of tsums and other small Yuri on Ice merch with which to decorate your place setting while you wait for your food. The chef is a huge fan and will happily chat with you about the characters while you watch him cook. Here is a shot of the various merch around my placemat, while my steak cooks in the background:
NOTE 1: For those on a budget, please be aware that this is a Michelin-starred restaurant and the prices reflect that. The prix fixe menu starts at about ¥8000 and goes up from there – but if your budget can support that, I guarantee it will be the best non-katsudon meal you have in Saga.
NOTE 2: I was lucky enough to stumble in unawares on a night when they had had a couple of cancellations and Chef was incredibly kind to squeeze me in at the end of the bar. However, they are busy enough that I would highly recommend making a reservation in advance – especially if your group will be larger than one or two people. The restaurant’s phone number is 0955-74-2326.
How to Get There: Caravan is located right around the corner from Minako’s bar, in the middle of the Nakamachi neighborhood. From the train station, walk two blocks north, turn right, and walk about a block and a half east. The restaurant will be on your left.
The beach where Victor and Yuuri go for their heart-to-heart talk is Nijinomatsubara Beach (on the other side of all those pine trees from the area where the onsen is). You can see the beach from the top of Karatsu Castle, where it sweeps dramatically along the side of Karatsu Bay. There’s nothing much to do at the beach, besides take artfully posed photos, but it is a beautiful stretch of the coastline and it’s a wonderful place to sit and stare out at the ocean for a bit.
How to Get There: You can walk from Karatsu Castle, but it will probably take a good 20-30 minutes to walk to the nearest section of beach. It’s also possible to take a cab (you can direct them to go to one of the hotels along the beachfront and then walk from there).
There are plenty of places in Karatsu with significance to fans of Yuri on Ice, and more are being discovered all the time! The places that I know of which you’ll probably need a car (or taxi) to get to are:
The Waterfall (where Victor sends Yuuri and Yurio for some “training” to find Yurio’s inner agape) is modelled after the Mikaeri no Taki waterfall about a 20-minute drive inland from Karatsu. NOTE: The real-life waterfall is incredibly strong and under no circumstances will you be allowed to get anywhere near being under it. Please take your photos from a safe distance.
For more information on Mikaeri no Taki and how to get there, go here.
The Beach Showers (where Yuuri and Victor rinse off, and get into a water fight, in the end credits). The showers actually exist and are located on a section of beach closest to the Hamasaki train station. You can either take the train and walk, or order a taxi.
More information on these and many other places is available at the Karatsu Station tourist information booth. Again, I highly recommend that as your first stop, since they are the most likely to have up to date information, maps, opening hours, etc. They are also incredibly friendly folks!
TAXI: The phone number for one of the local taxi companies (Karatsu Kanko Taxi) recommended by the info booth folks is: 0955-72-4141.
Please Exit Through the Gift Shop
While there are plenty of places to pick up Yuri on Ice merchandise all over Karatsu, please take a moment before you leave to check out the many local products (including many items with Shachihoko on them!) that Karatsu has to offer! A very good selection of these can be found at the Karatsu City Furusato Hall Arpino, right next to the Karatsu train station. Arpino offers a selection of food products made in the region (some perishable, some not) as well as t-shirts, bags, keychains, postcards, kids toys, and every other kind of souvenir imaginable!
For any more general travel questions you might have, Saga Prefecture has a multilingual call center that is staffed 24-hours-a-day, 365-days-a-year. The staff there speak (deep breath): English, Korean, Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, Indonesian, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Russian! They will be happy to try to answer any non-Yuuri-related questions you might have about traveling or staying in the Saga region as a whole. Their contact information is as follows:
Local Number: 0952-20-1601
International Number: +81-952-20-1601
Skype: sagacall_f1 (that’s the number 1 (one) at the end)
Enjoy your time in Karatsu – See You Next Level!
Honorary Nerdventurist Anne
… is a recovering civil servant, current English teacher, and eternal travel enthusiast presently living in Busan, South Korea. She has lived in a handful of countries, including France and the USA, and has a long list of future homes on the horizon. Her favorite things to do in a new country include finding the local tea shop (or tea-equivalent) and attempting to learn really bad jokes in a new language.