Sean Sheehan travels 700 miles south of Tokyo
Fukuoka, Japan’s sixth largest city, is a refreshing alternative to the ultramodern, neon-lit skyscrapers and anime shops of the bustling capital.
Compared to Tokyo, where you have to strain your neck to see the sky, its low-rise cityscape feels liberating. Surrounded on three sides by mountains,Fukuoka has much to offer: a brand new metro system, underground shopping malls and great places to eat. Plus broad sandy beaches and great mountain walks.
A fun way to start your Japanese experience in Fukuoka is to visit a tea house. Japanese green tea, unlike Chinese tea, is not fermented so has a taste which is very different to the green tea teabags found in British stores. At hip Yorozu in Akasaka Chuo-ku, a quiet street off the main shopping area, staff serves green tea in a traditional style, carefully boiling water, roasting some teas and just steeping others. Tiny, beautifully prepared cakes accompany the tea.
If the weather allows, a fun thing to do in Fukuoka is to ride the open top bus tour. This not your typical city tour at all. The best part is the crazy, adventure park ride over the raised expressway bringing you to Momochi, the Fukuoka Tower and the beaches. A trip to the tower’s viewing platform gives an eagle-eyed view over the city, the flat Momochi area of reclaimed land and the curving sheltered Hakata Bay.
This area is a grand place to make the base of your stay in the city. The Fukuoka Hilton Seahawk Hotel reaches out into the bay, a model of futuristic design, its pointy end like the bow of one of the many ships that still service the shores. There are great sea views from the upper floors and the executive rooms have their own breakfast room, avoiding queues in the main area. For a special treat, stay in one of the suites with a jacuzzi overlooking the sea.
If your preference is to stay in the city the tiny sixteen-room With The Style is the place to hunker down. More like a private members club than a hotel, this place tempts you to stay inside rather than explore the city. The jacuzzi, room minibar and all drinks in the fourth floor lounge are all complimentary. Rooms have balconies overlooking the central courtyard, cool bathrooms and iPads for guests’ use.
The city overflows with places to try out some of Fukuoka’s stranger cuisines. First on the list has to be Hakata Izumi, a two-star Michelin fugu restaurant. Fugu is the Japanese name for blowfish, the deadly poisonous creature also known as pufferfish for its ability to rapidly swell its body to scare off predators. Bacteria in the gut of the fish produce tetrodoxin and it takes a training course of four years to teach chefs how to prepare the fish without killing diners. The thought that eating it might be a once-in-a-lifetime experience didn’t put me off. The chef and owner of Hakata Izumi has been preparing it for over four decades and hasn’t had a fatality yet. The restaurant is traditional Japanese, private tatami rooms or a counter overlooking the garden.Kaiseki is the haute cuisine of Japanese dining, nine courses presented in beautiful dishes, little works of art in themselves. In this case eight of the courses consisted of fugu, prepared all ways from Sunday and it takes a strong palate for a Westerner to get the testes in custard down. Like I said, once in a lifetime.
A less challenging kaiseki meal is to be had at Sushiko Honten, 2-11-18 Minatomachi. Private tatami rooms again offer an elegant feast of more recognisable dishes: sashimi, sushi, tempura, miso soup, rice and pickles. For a little extra you can have food served by geishas who will entertain while you eat.For a less formal meal there are several lunch offers on the menu.
For a quick lunch two places spring to mind. No No Budo in the IMS building has a vast all-you-can-eat buffet filled with seriously healthy and tasty dishes; all labelled in Japanese but you can have a good guess at what’s in them. The oddest dish here consists of little balloons filled with tofu which you have to burst with a toothpick. For an extra charge you can have all the house wine or beer you can consume.
Hakata Ippudo in Daimyo district is the original noodle restaurant of what is now a chain of places in cities that include London. It looks like a fast food kind of place with bare wooden tables, condiments stacked up beside paper napkins, throw-away chopsticks and staff that yell as you walk in the door. But don’t let its workaday appearance fool you. This place is considered by many to be the apotheosis of ramen preparation, close to the core of the Japanese soul. Its two signature dishes are shiromaru and akamaru, the first being a pork dish with thick noodles steeped in a complex broth which takes eighteen hours to prepare and even more to steep. Akamaru is pretty much the same but uses the less traditional thin noodles. The broth, it seems, is the key to quality noodle dishes and here you get free refills or just load up with tempura and other delicacies. The taste of the broth is really quite an experience with subtle hints of its many different ingredients.
You can’t leave Fukuoka without a visit to a yatai – a mobile food stall, complete with cookers, seats, racks of beer, deep fryers – everything a good restaurant needs but on wheels. Seating is sheltered by sheets of plastic in bad weather and the stall and its customers become cheery little enclaves where new friends can be found as you tuck into family recipe noodle dishes, grilled items and tiny handmade pasties. Yatai only come out at night and get towed away in the early hours. There are about 140 yatai in Fukuoka, each with its own range of home-made dishes created by and preserved in the families of the stallholders for generations. Just pick a busy-looking one and dive in.
Good times to visit the city include the cherry blossom season – the city has its share of the flowering trees and the weather is still quite cool –and the Yamakasa festival in the first two weeks of July when men wearing loincloths race through the city carrying floats dedicated to the shrine of Kushida.
Flights to Japan are affordable with Air France and Fukuoka is smoothly accessed from Tokyo by a two-hour internal flight with Japanese Airlines.