Southern Japan – Fukuoka
I’ve deliberately started this post using a Google Maps (© Google) image rather than a great pic of the city as I’m fairly sure most people will be a little unsure where this city is located. To be honest, we knew almost nothing about Fukuoka before we entered Japan yet were oddly drawn to this southern Japanese city that does not feature on the standard tourist itinerary. I think our inspiration came from an article in Monocle magazine where the city was awarded the world’s 7th most livable city in 2016. Sounds worth a couple of hours on the shinkansen to check out right?
Our first mission on arrival was to go in search of cherry blossoms. When planning the trip we knew our timing would be very close to the start (and possibly peak bloom) of the season especially at our last couple of destinations so our timing for Fukuoka should have been almost perfect. We headed to Maizuru Park, which has thousands of trees and is meant to be spectacular in full bloom. Unfortunately, we were a few days early and only a handful of trees had started to open. The other attraction of the area, the ruins of Fukuoka Castle, were pretty disappointing and not worth the trip – grumpiness started to impact the group, especially Jen who was starting to get the feeling we had failed to time the blossom season. Fortunately, we found a very cool food stall / market area in the park that had a university student meets carnival style vibe (and most importantly sold great local craft beer). We knocked a couple of crafties back and enjoyed watching the young (20 something year old) local crowd and immediately sensed a different culture and more relaxed, less traditional vibe in Fukuoka versus the rest of Japan.
For day two we handed control of research and planning to Rob who (after consulting the Lonely Planet) set us off on a trip to Shika Island (Shikanoshima). Getting there required a train ride then a 45 minute bus ride (we hadn’t used many buses in Japan so this was cool – tip, no cash needed just touch on and off with same contactless card you use on the metro). Rob made a friend on the bus, a local lady from the island who although spoke little English would not stop chatting to Rob the entire time. We jumped off the bus, realised there was very little around and started a search for food. Google revealed only two real options. We walked past the first only to discover Rob’s special friend was inside – this seemed a good sign to check out option number two, a local restaurant named 海鮮レストラン 遊. With the help of Google translate giving us a very approximate idea of what we were ordering and my few words of Japanese we managed our way through for a pretty tasty lunch.
After lunch we had a quick look around – the town is a very small fishing village and only took us 15 minutes to explore. We then set off to walk up a pretty steep path to Shiomi Park which offers views across the area. Lila and Rob made a good effort at walking up with us but eventually decided to bail out – our recent hiking has put us in pretty good shape for powering up hills – we may have found it harder at the start of the trip. Afterwards we waited an hour or so (buses are infrequent) and headed back to the city.
Excercise and hiking covered I can move on to the food and drink scene in Fukuoka as this is where it excels.
We had behaved (mostly) in Japan but had one night where the memories are a little blurry. We started out at a cool, organic wine bar (Ecru in the Tenjin area) for a glass of red. A nice place but very expensive. The real target though was to try out the Yatai stalls – the tiny open air food stalls scattered around the city. Each stall seats around eight people (at a real squeeze) and serves a range of foods (including ramen, gyoza and yakitori) and plenty of booze! There are around 150 around the city, each starts to open around 6 or 7pm and must be fully packed up by 2am. There are a few clustered around Showa Dori street in Tenjin which is where we explored. We hopped around a few of these, drank a few sakes, beers and whiskey highballs and made friends with the locals. I had a great time trying to have long conversations with two couples (involving each of us using Google Translate) – it was a very special night but sadly we did not stop eating, drinking and chatting long enough for photos.
We cheated one night and went out for a pizza. It wasn’t until we got there that we realised it was a branch of L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele – the famous pizza from Napoli featured in Eat, Pray, Love (and which incidently opened its first European branch outside of Italy in Stoke Newington just after we left – the queues there are massive but in Japan we just waked right in). The pizza was great and a nice mix up from local food.
As with every city we visit, we dedicated a few hours to hunt for great coffee. We decided to explore the Daimyo district which had a couple of good sounding options – this area is described on blogs we read as the hipster area and the Hackney of Fukuoka. The area didn’t disappoint and had a very chilled feel, cute little boutique stores and shops and one of our favourite coffee shops in Japan – Little Honey. The owner at this cute little place was exceptionally friendly and made excellent coffee which we enjoyed sitting in the beautiful sunshine on plastic chairs in the alleyway in front of the shop. They also had a great trio of mini pastries that were delicious.
The rest of the time we started with morning coffee at Rec Coffee in a department store inside Hakata station. These guys have several branches across town with the owner coming second in the world barista chanpionships. Very good coffee in a relaxed environment – a good place to start the day but lacked the character and atmosphere of smaller places like Little Honey.
When it comes to the foodie experience in Fukuoka though I’ve saved the best for last! Fukuoka is the birthplace of Hakata style ramen – a thick, creamy pork tonkotsu broth served with thin noodles. I love a good ramen and, while we’ve tried other types on this trip, tonkutsu style is my favourite by a mile. There are countless ramen restaurants in town – we considered going to Ramen Stadium (located on the 5th floor of the building with a cinema in Canal City Hakata shopping centre) where eight different ramen restaurants are grouped together offering smaller portion sizes so you can compare different ramen styles. This looked great but we didn’t want to play the field, we just wanted to find one to love. We chose Ichiran (they have a few restaurants, we went to the one also in Canal City Hakata which meant we could have a quick look at the stadium afterwards) who offer a traditional 1960s recipe Hakata Ramen dish that empowers you to customize the dish to your liking. This does mean some complexity though…
Step 1: Complete the card with your preferences (how spicy, how rich, how cooked for the noodles and more!)
Step 2: Put cash in the vending machine and take tickets.
Step 3: Check the electronic board that shows when a seat becomes free (in reality for tourists you will be taken to a seat and often seated together. The point here though is privacy and efficiency – you come here to eat ramen, you can chat later!)
Step 4: Sit in your assigned booth and place your ticket and preferences near the curtain in front of you then push the call button. The curtain opens and your order is collected.
Step 5: Curtain opens, ramen arrives. Devour, enjoy, smile! At this point you can turn your preferences card over and circle the option to order more pork or noodles – press the button and hand over correct cash and the sheet and magically more noodles arrive. Devour, enjoy, smile.
It really is that easy! A great experience and amazing food – a nap is required afterwards.
I feel bad here for not writing about some of the other great foods we had in Fukuoka but there were really too many to cover. This is a foodie city in a foodie country!
Now, time for a WARNING! As you can gather we ate a lot of great food, and a lot of sashimi! In one 24 hour period Jen had sashimi platters for maybe three out of four meals. All great until I looked at Jen in the evening and noticed her face had swollen, her cheeks puffy like I’ve seen in her baby photos and bags under her eyes almost as large as our rucksack! A quick Google search revealed Jen had Sushi Face – basically caused by dehydration from the saltiness of the fish and soy sauce, cured by skipping sashimi for a while (I think Jen skipped maybe for breakfast then was back into it) and drinking plenty of water! Sadly, I was not authorised to photograph sushi face for the blog. I should also note the diagnosis I found was from a quote from runway models before a show and not from a medical doctor. If swelling persists, please see a doctor!
An artist’s representation of Jen with sushi face.
We decided to mix up the accommodation and get an Airbnb for the four of us (Lila, Rob and the two of us) having stayed in hotels and ryokans for the rest of our time in Japan. The location was convenient (near Hakata train station where the bullet trains arrive) and overall it did a good job, gave us a chance to eat in (we took advantage and bought takeaway dinner from one of the amazing, and gigantic, food halls in one of the department stores which you see in all major Japanese cities – these are an experience in themself) and do some washing. The downside was a pretty wretched smell on arrival that never quite went away! Having failed (badly) in selecting an Airbnb for Kyoto on our last trip to Japan (which Jen happily reminds me of in her Kyoto post) and booking the wrong dates (non-refundable ARGH) on my first attempt at this one I’m starting to think maybe Airbnb + Japan just isn’t my forte.
Next up we board our longest bullet train journey (two actually but a five minute connection only) all the way back to Tokyo for our last couple of nights. Our Japan time has gone too quickly but time flies when you are having fun!