Ask most Europeans or American visitors to Japan “where do you want to visit?” and you’ll hear the usual suspects. Tokyo, Kyoto, Kobe and Osaka usually make it into most people’s top 5. For winter sports enthusiasts, the likes of Nagano, Niigata and Sapporo have always been popular draws.
However, for those choosing to visit Japan from the neighbouring countries of South Korea, China and Taiwan, there is another alternative. That alternative is Fukuoka.
Of the 2 million annual visitors to Fukuoka, around 85% of these hail from the adjacent Asian nations. Frequent flights between Fukuoka Airport and the likes of Beijing, Shanghai, Kaohsiung and Seoul are now commonplace. But in recent times more and more westerners are also beginning to have their eyes opened to the charms of this great city.
Photo : mariusz kluzniak on FlickrLocated in the northwest quadrant of the southernmost of Japan’s 4 main islands, Kyushu, Fukuoka enjoys a noticeably warmer and milder climate than the likes of Tokyo and Osaka. These mild winters make Fukuoka a popular New Year holiday destination for both Tokyoites and Osakans alike.
Getting to Fukuoka is also relatively straightforward. The Shinkansen from Tokyo will get you there in a little over 4 and a half hours. Please remember that despite being in Fukuoka City, the Shinkansen Station is actually named Hakata. For the less patient amongst you, there are also plenty of budget flights between Fukuoka and both Kansai and Tokyo on a daily basis. If you fancy a little bit of good old fashioned luxury and time isn’t a major concern for you, there is also the option of taking a cruise from Osaka port down to Kyushu.
Whatever way you choose to get there, its once you reach Fukuoka that the real fun begins.
Although it is hardly a sparsely populated city, with a population of around 2 and a half million, Fukuoka does, at first glance appear noticeably less crowded than other similarly sized Japanese cities. This is due in no small part to the abundance of green space that criss-crosses the city centre. This gives the whole downtown district a very relaxed, cosmopolitan feel, quite different from most other Japanese cities.
Photo : heiwa4126 on FlickrThis is probably one of the main reasons why Fukuoka was named 10th in a survey of the world’s most liveable cities. As urban populations increase globally, many cities are struggling to balance the realities of corporate commercialism with the desire of the people to maximize their living spaces and quality of life. Fukuoka however seems to have managed to find a pretty good equilibrium.
Fukuoka is known across Japan and indeed Asia as something of a cultural hub. This is reflected in the many museums dotted around the city. The Fukuoka Asian Art Museum showcases the best of Japanese contemporary art alongside art from nearby nations such as China, Korea, Thailand and many others.
Further Japanese works can be seen in the Fukuoka Art Museum alongside collections from great European masters such as Rothko, Lichtenstein and Salvador Dali.
Photo : MichaelWu on FlickrIf history is more your thing, then be sure to pay a visit to the Genko Historical Museum. This fascinating place houses Japanese and Mongolian, weapons, armor and other artifacts from the Mongolian invasion of Kyushu, which began under the great military leader Kublai Khan in 1274.
Khan made several failed attempts to take Kyushu over the next few years before suffering a final catastrophic defeat in 1281. Despite outnumbering the Japanese forces by more than 3 to 1, it could be said that luck was definitely on the side of the Japanese that day as a devastating typhoon swept through the Mongolian forces. This typhoon came to be known as the Kamikaze or “divine wind”. In later years this same phrase was given an altogether different meaning by the Japanese Imperial Army.
If you like your history a little more peaceful then why not stop by the Hakata Machiya Folk Museum. This delightful little museum was built with the purpose of preserving not only historical artifacts but also the culture, language and way of life of Fukuoka in years gone by.
Photo : Nelson Cunnington on FlickrThe Kyushu National Museum in the nearby Dazaifu district is also worth checking out, as it offers culture art and history with a distinctly local flavour.
Photo : Lakuda-san on FlickrAnother popular tourist attraction in Fukuoka is the Marine Park Uminonakamichi. This vast complex on the northern sector of Hakata Bay comprises an amusement park, petting zoo, hotel and beach resort, and a huge marine life aquarium. Close by, you will also find the Fukuoka Tower, which overlooks the beach at Momochi.
Photo : takosaka on FlickrThe main shopping and nightlife attractions can be found in the central districts of Tenjin and Nakasu. Here you will also encounter another of Fukuoka’s local charms, the Yatai.
In many ways similar to Osaka, Yatai are street stalls that sell rapidly prepared and delicious local food like Ramen and Takoyaki. However, you will also find many restuarants selling one of the great delicacies of the area, Motsu Nabe.
Nabe, as most Japanese food connoisseurs will know, is the Japanese equivalent of a hotpot. Served primarily in winter time, nabe is a favourite among Japanese. In Fukuoka however the nabe differs somewhat from the usual meat and vegetables. Motsu is a type of entrails boiled and served up in the nabe soup. If you can get past the somewhat rubbery texture. The dish itself is quite delicious. As a proud Scot and lover of Haggis, I have to say I find it delicious.
Photo : Shinya ICHINOHE on FlickrFukuoka has always been one of Japan’s more international cities, and as such the cuisine isn’t necessarily restricted to Japanese dishes. In the Tenjin district you will find a variety of European and Asian restaurants. I can honestly say that one of the best Indian curries I’ve ever had was in one such restaurant.
Fukuoka is also a great place to base yourself for exploring the rest of Kyushu. The luxurious onsens and historic monuments of Kumamoto are but a train ride away. You’ll also find plenty of tranquil retreats over in Miyazaki prefecture too, one of Japan’s sleepier regions.
So next time you fancy a Japan trip with a difference head on down to Fukuoka and find out just what you’ve been missing all this time.