The recent renaissance of Fukuoka (福岡), Kyūshū’s largest city, has been rather remarkable. Not too long ago this was an industrial nonentity, notable only for its transport connections to Korea and the rest of the island. Fast forward a few years, however, and we see a squeaky-clean metropolis whose energetic yet carefree atmosphere has propelled it into many a best-place-to-live list – witness the locals slurping happily away on their ramen at a rustic streetside yatai. Casual visitors may find actual sights thin on the ground, but Fukuoka boasts an undeniable charm that makes for a great introduction to Kyūshū, or indeed Japan as a whole, and it deserves a day or two of any traveller’s time.
Highlights here include one or two excellent museums and ranks of eye-catching modern architecture – most notable in the latter category are Canal City, a self-contained cinema, hotel and shopping complex built around a semicircular strip of water, and Hawks Town, which forms part of a major seafront redevelopment incorporating venues for shopping, eating and entertainment. The city is also renowned for its festivals and folk crafts, which are presented at Hakata Machiya Folk Museum. As with any self-respecting Japanese city of this size, Fukuoka maintains a lively entertainment district, in this case crammed onto the tiny island of Nakasu, though it’s safer on the wallet to head for the less glitzy bars and restaurants of Tenjin, the city’s main downtown area.
There are a couple of excellent sights just to the south of Fukuoka. First up is the ancient temple town of Dazaifu, once the seat of government for all of southern Japan, but now a pleasant backwater best known for its collection of temples and shrines, set against a backdrop of wooded slopes. For centuries, Dazaifu’s monks, priests and officials sought solace in the healing waters of nearby Futsukaichi Onsen. Both towns are easily accessible by train and can either be combined as a day-trip from Fukuoka or as a stopover en route to Nagasaki.
Hakata celebrates a whole host of festivals, of which the biggest are the Gion Yamakasa (July 1–15) and the Hakata Dontaku, now held during Golden Week (May 3 & 4). In feudal times, Hakata townspeople were permitted across the river once a year to convey New Year greetings to their lord. Today’s festival centres on a parade along Meiji-dōri to the old castle. On a similarly traditional theme, the sumo circus comes to town each November for Japan’s last basho of the season, at Fukuoka’s Kokusai Centre. A much more recent invention is the Isla de Salsa, a Latin music festival held mid-August on Nokonoshima island, a ten-minute ferry ride from Fukuoka.
Forget the sights – this is Fukuoka. Come evening, steam billows out from more than one hundred mobile street-kitchens, each cocooning a fascinating little world of their own. Customers push their way through a thin drape of plastic sheets to find a garrulous clutch of locals, crammed onto narrow benches and filling up on scrumptious food – pork-based tonkotsu ramen is the meal of choice, usually accompanied by flasks of sake and a few new friends. Mobile in nature, none of these yatai has a fixed location, but this being Japan they rarely venture too far from their original mark, and you’ll usually find them open from 7pm–3am. The greatest concentrations of yatai are around the intersection of Tenjin Nishi-dōri and Shōwa-dōri, and along the southwest bank of Nakasu Island. These are some of the most enjoyable places to eat in all Japan, and the focus on merry-making means that any noisy yatai is worth a go, but a few certainly stand out from the crowd.
Ebi-chan えびちゃん. All yatai have beer and sake, but this goes further, its menu containing no fewer than fifty cocktails, as well as Italian-themed food.
Shizue しずえ. The tricolour on the outside isn’t just a decoration: amazingly, this yatai serves no ramen; even more amazingly, its menu is based upon French cuisine. Beef in red wine sauce at a yatai? Somehow, it works.
Taka-chan たかちゃん. Kokin-chan is a local institution, having dished out ramen for over four decades. But here’s the secret – the place next door is just as good, and you won’t have to queue for an hour to get in.
Tsukasa 司 wyatai-tsukasa.com. The best of a clutch on the riverside (it even has a website), this shack specializes in mentaiko tempura – spicy cod roe fried in batter. Mmm…oishii.