Some Days Well Spent in Fukuoka
Hello again! I'm back as promised with an overview of my trip to Fukuoka, the largest city in Kyushu, the third largest main island of Japan. If you are so inclined, you can read a bit about how I got there by looking back at my post on the seishun 18 ticket, a great opportunity to see Japan on the cheap. In short, I spent about day and a half travelling by local train from Tokyo to Hakata, the main JR station in Fukuoka, making some stopovers in Fukuyama (unintentionally) and Hiroshima (intentionally). That I enjoyed the journey in hindsight is a certainty, and although I would say that some boredom along the way is to be expected, I wouldn't hesitate in recommending it to anyone.
But enough about the journey -- on to the destination! I arrived in Fukuoka on the evening of December 27th, in time to catch the Christmas, winter and pre-New Year's festivities and light displays spread around the city. Walking out of Hakata station for the first time, I saw what might have been my personal favorite light displays of the season. Right away I got the impression that I had come to a pretty cosmopolitan place.
After spending some time appreciating the light display, I started to make my way towards Nakasu, another part of town where my hostel was located (somewhere). As I walked along one of the main streets, Canal City, a mall that has made Fukuoka a major shopping destination, came into view. I can't say that I am a fan of malls in general, but this one is worth taking the time to explore. In my opinion its really very attractive, and you can tell that the designers put a lot of thought into the way that customers would interact with the layout itself. As the name implies, there is a sort of canal that runs through one part of the mall, very close to an ampitheater-like open area and a walk that runs along the water's edge. Even though I wasn't the least bit interested in going shopping at a mall during my time in Fukuoka, I found myself returning to Canal City at least two more times for the sheer novelty of it. Even if you don't buy a single thing, walking around this mall is entertaining in its own right.
After coming out on the other side of Canal City, I found that I was near a bridge that would take me from the Hakata side of town to Nakasu. As I crossed the river, I came to understand why Fukuoka is a canal city in its own right. At night the water comes alive with reflections of the city lights around it, as riverboats cruise slowly up and down the river. If I ever get a chance to go back, I'll be sure to take one of those night cruises!
After a long day of travel and even some brief sightseeing, I checked into my hostel and got some rest. Even though I had taken the trip solo, I was really pleasantly surprised to discover some fast friends in my fellow guests. After a breakfast of chocolate chip pancakes the next morning, a few of us decided that we would go sightseeing around the city together. With a list of places we wanted to go in mind, we set off on foot for the nearby "Acros" building, another landmark of sorts for Fukuoka.
Acros Fukuoka is a combination of many things -- government offices, a performance hall, and an observatory, but it is best known for its rooftop step garden. We went on a Wednesday, and apparently the observatory is closed except for weekends, so we decided to enjoy garden walk instead. I had expected the weather to be a bit warmer in Fukuoka, being farther south than Tokyo, but surprisingly it wasn't. Still, it was a nice day, the garden was still relatively green, and several flowers were in bloom. The Acros step garden is certainly a a Fukuoka-exclusive experience, and a great free view of the city.
View from the top of the garden
Next, I and one of my hostel friends hopped on a city bus to get a different view of the city from Fukuoka tower, the second tallest tower in Japan (after Tokyo Tower, although it is soon to be bumped down to third with the opening of the Sky Tree). After entering the tower, we paid a reduced price (the "foreigner" discount) and ascended to the top. It certainly earns its name as the tallest seaside tower in Japan, with spectacular 360 degree views of the city and ocean, complete with directions and distances to cities across the sea (such as Pusan in Korea and Hong Kong). After taking in the city from its highest vantage point, we walked over to the Yahoo! Dome, home to this past year's Japanese baseball major league champs, the Softbank Hawks. Nearby is Hawks town, a small mall that is presumably packed during the regular season and on game days, but looked to be doing a brisk business nonetheless.
Later that afternoon, we found ourselves walking through Ohori park, known for its running track and island in the middle of the large lake at its center. One understands almost immediately what makes this park such a popular spot for Fukuokans to spend time, particularly on days where the weather was as nice as it was then. Aside from its beauty, there is a theater in the park where performances are put on, as well as the ruins of an old castle, which we decided to visit after walking from one end of the park to the other across.
Next, we moved on to the ruins of the former castle, which are essentially an extension of the park itself. I found it to be an oddly quieting experience; apparently the castle's past is shrouded in mystery, and nobody is quite sure what it looked like. The foundation remains, and the top of the former battlements afforded us our third view of Fukuoka's skyline for the day, right as sunset began to come upon the city.
Another view of Ohori park
Finally, we returned to Nakasu for some dinner, looking forward to sampling some of Fukuoka's local fare. I would be remiss if I did not mention yatai, which are essentially food stalls, but that are a yearround tradition in Fukuoka rather than the exclusive domain of festivals or other kinds of events. They can be found along various streets and crowding corners around the city, but the most famous ones are supposedly located in Nakasu. The bridge I crossed on my first day was very close to some of the more attractive ones that line the side of the canal. Yatai stands are typically only open during the nighttime, and so if you pass by that way around 10 o'clock at night, you are almost certain to see groups of impatient diners waiting to enter the slightly cramped (perhaps "friendly" or "cozy" are better words, for that is more of the feeling) tents for a snack or meal.
Fukuoka is known for its tonkatsu ramen, chinese-style noodles in a thick (and somewhat strong-smelling) pork-based broth, and that is one of the more popular dishes served in yatai around the city. Another is mentaiko, fish eggs that are made into what I can only describe as spicy sausage-like packages (in a process I don't think I want to learn about) that are used in various local dishes, although they can be found in Tokyo as well. I was glad that I got the opportunity to try both of them in Fukuoka myself, especially being in one of the yatai stands that a local friend of mine living in Tokyo brought me to. It was great to sit amongst other locals and to get a real sense of what Fukuokan's are like: I have to agree with my friend that they seem light humored and friendly, yet hardworking and perserverant. Apparently many of Tokyo's top celebrities come from Fukuoka, which impressed on me how great their drive for success is. Sitting down to a meal with them was a certainly a great experience I won't forget soon.
mentaiko wrapped in egg
Looking back now, it seems amazing to me that I was able to fit as much in to this trip as I did; for being rather short, I felt that I covered a fair amount of ground in Fukuoka, and I certainly want to go back to get another look. I am very intersted in spending more time in Kyushu, and as the self-proclaimed "gateway" to the island, I felt that Fukuoka was a good place to start my wanderings outside of Honshu. Of the more useful things I learned, traveling solo does not necessarily always mean that you will be exploring a new place by yourself; although it can seem daunting, more often than not if you simply go a bit out of your way to establish some relationships with fellow sightseers, particularly those in your hostel or hotel, you are sure to make a friend. After all, nothing brings people together like a joint goals, and I found that sightseeing is definitely one of them. I'm looking forward to more such trips in the future, and I can only hope they are as pleasantly surprising as my last one to Fukuoka was.
Thanks for reading this semester, and please check back soon for more!