A lot of people flock to Tokyo or any of the other more well known touristy places when they plan a visit to Japan but there’s a city that a lot of tourists have yet to really explore but really should--and that is Kitakyushu City. It’s in Fukuoka prefecture
, in Kyushu, the southern part of the country. So here's at least ten reasons why you should hop onto the next bullet train or plane to good 'ole Kitakyushu.
1. Kawachi Fuji Garden
It's only open twice a year, for spring and fall so you better check their website to see which dates they're open. I went here one day before they were to close for the season, so I felt pretty lucky that I got to catch the flowers still in bloom, in early May. There's a free shuttle you can take from Yahata Station that goes directly to this beauty. Kawachi Fuji Garden is on many people's bucket lists, you've probably seen a photo of this place somewhere on the internet as it is getting more and more famous. The hype is real though because when you get there, it won't disappoint. The flowers are just amazing, they will take your breath away. It made me wish I had a better camera to really capture everything. Walking through it felt like a dream to me, something magical, that's the effect they had on me—like I was in a movie and I'm suddenly transported into this secret garden filled with the most beautiful wisteria flowers. You can't help but marvel at these flowers
2. Kokura Gion
One of my favorite summer festivals, best known and celebrated is the Kokura Gion. Every July, there's no missing it
—early during the month you will already hear them practicing, a distant taiko
drumming throughout the streets. Taiko means drum in Japanese and is also their style of drumming. There will be lots of festival food—like takoyaki
, fries, crepes, beer, cotton candy, the works. It will be colorful and loud and if you know the words, you can shout along. It's a tradition here that's been going on for 400 years, and the drumming is to pray for prosperity and safety of Japan, peace on earth and more. It's a competition between different taiko groups and they all play the same beat just with a variation on the melody. It is centered around Kokura Castle and it is a big colorful event and there is a big parade around the city.
3. Kokura Castle
Kokura Castle blanketed in snow in winter
Built in 1602 and reconstructed again in 1990 after it was burned down by a clan war in 1866, this castle is a sight to behold
. The castle grounds are spacious like a big park. Every cherry blossom season in spring this is where most people go and have a picnic under the trees. I've done hanami,
or flower viewing, here twice and it is just wonderful. Pretty hanging paper lanterns, people on the grass laughing and eating—it is my favorite Japanese tradition. I have also been to the museum inside where you can learn about the local history, there are dioramas and interactive exhibits and on the top floor is a wonderful panoramic view of Kokura. I love this area of Kokura, because there is so much to do and explore. The castle is ten minutes away from Kokura station and beside it there's a garden and a nearby temple, and you cannot miss Riverwalk—a shopping mall a few feet away.
A picnic with friends under the cherry blossom trees, Kokura Castle grounds
4. Mojiko Retro
A beautiful Mojiko day, sit on a bench and enjoy the view of Mojiko plaza
Two train stops from Kokura station, you can visit this charming town
—sit on a bench and read or take a walk and enjoy the scenic view, two things that I love to do when I'm here. Perfect place to get some fresh air, whether on a breezy day out or a romantic stroll at night. The architecture here is rather quaint and pretty. You must also try the yaki curry
here, the town specialty. It's baked curry with cheese and it's quite a treat. If you've got room after that, enjoy the fresh seafood or a cold one at their local brewery. There are also museums you can check out here after you're done at the plaza. If you go on a weekend, they usually hold events like antique car shows, vintage markets, ramen festivals, oyster fairs—you can consult a local events calendar or, if you're feeling spontaneous, just show up and be pleasantly surprised!
5. Mount Sarakura
View from the top of Mount Sarakura, a paraglider seen from a distance
A 2,041 ft. mountain in Yahatahigashi
, I've been here three times with different people in different seasons. Once I went with my family on a Sunday morning, it was nice and windy, while eating bread and sipping coffee, we watched paragliders from a distance. The second time I went with friends for a simple night time drive up to the mountain. The view overlooking the city at night is spectacular. I've even heard that it's now one of the new three major night views of Japan. Third time, I went with a significant other and it was in winter, everything was blanketed in snow. So no matter what time or season you visit here, it will be beautiful no matter what. You can come up via the cable car, drive up or I hear even some people hike up—the view will still be scenic whether the leaves are green, red or speckled with white. There's an observation deck up top as well as a restaurant.
6. Kanmon Kaikyo and Fireworks
This is the bridge that connects Kitakyushu to Shimonoseki. Kanmon Bridge is very picturesque, it's a walk from Mojiko station but it's very scenic with the view of Kanmon Strait and boats sailing by, the skyline of Shimonoseki in the backdrop. There's also Norfolk square and a playground nearby and the underground tunnel that you can use to cross to Shimonoseki, if you don't want to take the ferry or drive through the bridge. You can also rent a bike to get around and also cross it through the underground tunnel, but you can only walk your bike as there is no biking allowed inside the tunnel. There's a line in the underground tunnel that you can stand on and be able to say—I'm at two places at the same time, A Walk To Remember
style (if you've seen that movie
). You'll be standing at Mojiko and Shimonoseki at the same time. Also, at two islands at the same time—Kyushu and Honshu island, because Shimonoseki is already part of Honshu island—one of the four islands of Japan. And if you're here during August, this is the place to go to for the summer fireworks. Every year Mojiko and Shimonoseki compete to have the most amazing fireworks display and it's a spectacular show with the two trying to outdo one another. Check out their official website
The border line between Kitakyushu and Shimonoseki, between Kyushu and Honshu island
7. Mojiko Station
Photo: Yuki Shimazu on Flickr
This station is a classic
and a lot of people visit just to see this particular station, especially the train enthusiasts. It's special because it doesn't look like any other station—it's one of the oldest and has retained its authenticity, fitting for the whole town's retro theme. It's like a mini museum on the inside, with old photos inside and old fountains outside. Mojiko station is being renovated until 2018, but that's not too far away. A lot of people are awaiting to see the whole structure again and come next year it'll be back to its old glory with more tourists than ever.
Ringing the bell at Mojiko station (it's the end of the JR Kyushu line)
Hiraodai is a countryside park in the south of Kokura
. If you really want nature, this is the place to go. The mountain views are breathtaking and the air never smelled more cool and fresh. I went with my friends and we explored the limestone caves. We went to the Senbutsu
cave and you can get free slippers if you're wearing sneakers because your feet will get wet! It's like an underground river, it's chilly and dark and very fun, especially if you like spelunking or in general just like to go exploring. There's also mountain climbing and other caves to explore so one visit might not be enough. Afterwards we ate at one of the restaurants in the village zone, rode the cute train that goes around the park, went grass sledding (there's grass hills where you can use plastic sleds to go down on) and then hung outside in the wild side grass and took photos.
Exploring the limestone caves
Hiraodai mountain view. Photo by Szabolcs Arany on Flickr
9. Tonkotsu Ramen
In every city, the ramen tastes pretty different. Everyone's got their own favorite but my own personal choice hails from Kitakyushu—tonkotsu
style of ramen means that the broth is made mainly from pork bones. It varies but it usually has a boiled egg and chashu
or braised pork slices. I am a lover of ramen and I can't tell you how much healing powers a bowl of ramen has, especially this one. There are lots of chains to choose from, from the lesser known Rokunoya to Ichiran (if you want to be able to customize the taste–garlic, onion, spice level, etc.–to your liking) and the famous Ippudo which has already expanded to different countries. However, I must recommend that you try the yatais
in the evening. A yatai
is a small food stand or stall that is set up at night and closes early in the morning in walkways—it's one of the most authentic dining experiences you can have in Japan. It's also usually less expensive than restaurants. So for dinner or after a night out in the city—a hot bowl of ramen will really hit the spot.
Tonkotsu ramen is the best, in my opinion
10. Green Park
This is for kids and for those who are still kids at heart—so basically, this park is for everyone
! A huge park with lots of open space—bring a frisbee or a soccer ball and have a picnic! You can drive or take a taxi or bus from nearby stations like Orio or Wakamatsu to get to here. I went with my friends and we hung out in the rose garden and with the kangaroos (Yes, kangaroos!). There's a small zoo, a butterfly museum, playgrounds, pony rides and places to eat. Sometimes there are even food trucks around especially if there's an event going on, like a school soccer match. I had a blast here just spending the day hanging out in sunshine with the roses and the butterflies.
Hanging out with my friends and some sleepy kangaroos
I'd also like to add that Kitakyushu also has its own airport
. It's very accessible, it's connected through five bus lines and there's car rentals and taxis. Whether you're flying in or out from domestic or international, you can go through this airport that's so clean with lots of restaurants--without the hustle and bustle from the really crowded and busier airports.
So, there it is. And these are just my personal top ten, not including interesting museums, the friendliest people, the cleanest city ever, and so much more. Winter, spring, summer or fall—there's lots to do and see. Kitakyushu has won a place in my heart and just showcases how much Japan has to offer, and if you don't believe me, you'll just have to visit yourself!