Beyond Honshu: Fukuoka, Japan’s Zestful Gateway to Asia

Fukuoka offers a taste of all the things that Japan has to give, from historic shrines and Zen gardens to modern skyscrapers, fantastic dining (both fine and low-brow), bustling nightlife and world-class shopping – all with a laid-back approach and authentic Japanese sensibilities (not to mention the beach).

Fukuoka panorama

The locals are famously some of the warmest and friendliest in the country, and there’s an uncomplicated vibe to the whole city. Unlike some of Japan’s larger cities, Fukuoka is perfectly suited to walking, with manageable distances and pleasant walkways, and the relaxed pace allows for unhurried exploration and discovery.

Fukuoka

In 1889 the two cities separated by the Naka river (the castle town of Fukuoka and the port town of Hakata) joined to create modern day Fukuoka, now Japan’s 5th largest city. Note that both names are still commonly used: the airport bears the name Fukuoka, while the main train station is still referred to as Hakata Station.

Fukuoka

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Long held to be a great place to live in Japan, it has just as long been overlooked as a desirable travel destination, and we think it’s about time that changed.

Sights

Some people claim that what keeps Fukuoka from becoming one of Japan’s top destinations is its lack of standout attractions, but we beg to differ. On display in this city is the country’s oldest Zen Buddhist temple, collections of cutting-edge contemporary Asian art, some of the finest and most beloved places to marvel at the blooming of the cherry blossom trees, and a pleasant man-made beach and seaside park for the hot summer months, to name just a few.

Fukuoka Momochi beach

Zen Buddhism, like many other foreign concepts, technology and practices, came to Japan through Fukuoka, once an important port city due to its proximity to other great East Asian cities, such as Shanghai and Seoul (Fukuoka is actually closer to Seoul than to Tokyo). The first Zen temple was built in 1195 and has since become one of the city’s most recognizable landmarks: Shofukuji temple.

Fukuoka temple

Other notable temples worth visiting include Jotenji, a green oasis in the middle of the Hakata district, and Tochoji, another centrally located temple which features a 5-storey pagoda and a wooden statue of Buddha measuring almost 11 meters (36 feet). Kushida shrine (below), a small Shinto place of worship that dates back to the year 757, is the epicenter of the yearly Hakata Gion Yamakasa festival, and is thus greatly beloved by Fukuoka residents.

Fukuoka Kushida Shrine

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Modelled after the much admired classical style gardens of the West Lake in Hangzhou, China, Ohori Park is a pleasant central park with a lovely pond surrounded by a 2 kilometer walkway. Just to the east of there lies Maizuru Park, which contains the remains of Fukuoka Castle, and together these charming green spaces serve as one of the city’s best places for hanami when cherry blossom season comes around, with around 1000 sakura trees populating the parks. Nishi Park and Atago shrine also deserve a visit during the fleeting hanami season.

Fukuoka Momochi Beach

During the hot summer months, crowds flock to Momochi Seaside Park (pictured above), a large artificial beach located not far from the city center with a small number of shops and restaurants, wildly popular for swimming, beach sports and general summer merriment. Just off-shore is Fukuoka Tower, the city’s tallest building (and the tallest seaside tower in Japan), which boasts impressive views from the observation decks of both the city behind (visits after dark are especially recommended if you enjoy illuminated cityscapes) and the bay ahead.

Fukuoka Tower

Right next to Fukuoka Tower lies Robosquare, a small, free expo space that showcases the city’s technological innovation in the field of robotics, where visitors are welcome to interact with robots and learn all about what goes into the development of AI and how it is being implemented to improve people’s lives.

Fukuoka Robosquare

Daniel Valenzuela/ArrivalGuides

Shopping

Fukuoka has long been known as a shopper’s paradise (nicknamed ‘Retail City’ by a popular lifestyle magazine), with people flocking in from nearby Asian countries for retail therapy. Popular brands and large malls and department stores abound in the Tenjin area, including the fabulous Tenjin Chikagai, an up-scale underground shopping complex designed to look like a European-style arcade, cobblestone floors and all. Check out the JR Hakata City complex, as well, for 11 floors’ worth of shops and restaurants (around the JR Hakata train station).

Fukuoka Tenjin Underground City

Daniel Valenzuela/ArrivalGuides

Those looking for more interesting shopping opportunities should head for Daimyo, a trendy neighborhood with loads of independent boutiques, bars and restaurants, popular among the city’s fashionable youth. The area’s unmistakable character and charm shine forth in its second-hand shops, tiny galleries and hip cafes, and shoppers are sure to find unique items with local flair.

Fukuoka Daimyo

Even more one-of-a-kind purchases can be found in the upcoming neighborhoods of Imaizumi and Kego, home to countless boutiques and design studios peddling all manner of interesting clothes and accessories. Finally, be sure to visit Kawabata Shotengai, one of the oldest and longest shopping streets in the city, packed with small stores selling traditional Japanese products, such as tea, kimonos, fans, and more, as well as some fantastic restaurants.

Eating

Fukuoka is as famous for its cuisine as it is for its shopping, if not more so. Hailed as Japan’s best city for ramen (the wildly popular ramen chain Ichiran was born here), it is home to the irresistible tonkotsu ramen (also called Hakata ramen), a local variety made with tonkotsu broth (pork bone) that can take up to 18 hours to prepare.

Fukuoka Ichiran ramen

Individual dining booth at Ichiran

Another exceptional feature of Fukuoka dining are the famous and beloved yatai stalls, open-air food stalls that are set up and taken down nightly, seat around 8 people and serve some of Kyushu’s most delicious specialties, including yakitori (skewered chicken) and gyoza (Japanese dumplings), as well as the aforementioned tonkotsu ramen.

Fukuoka yatai stalls

These stalls often provide the most memorable meals for visitors, as one is likely to be the only foreigner at any given stall, and thus subject to the locals’ famous hospitality and warmth. Take an evening stroll along the Naka river and pop into whichever tickles your fancy for a night you won’t soon forget.

Nightlife

Speaking of unforgettable nights, here’s a fun fact: in Japan, only Tokyo has more bars and clubs than Fukuoka, which means that the people of this city know how to let loose. It is littered with izakaya (traditional Japanese bars) and ‘live houses’ – live music venues where the Mentai rock movement blossomed in the 1970s-80s and where young local talent still dream of stardom.

Fukuoka nightlife

Daimyo attracts young crowds to its live acoustic jams and DJ sessions, while a slightly more sophisticated vibe can be enjoyed at Tenjin’s lounges, clubs and jazz joints. But the epicenter of Fukuoka’s nightlife is Oyafuko-dori (‘delinquents’ street’), a short street in Tenjin full of karaoke bars, nightclubs, cheap kebab places and throngs of young locals chasing the night.

Accommodation

The AGORA Fukuoka Hilltop Hotel & Spa enjoys a privileged location atop a hill just 15 minutes from the main train station, making it a perfect place to find tranquility in the lively city while having all the major sights and attractions within easy reach. The hotel’s Japanese modernist style combines tradition and cutting-edge design in an effort to maximize both luxury and comfort, and pulls it off seamlessly.

Fukuoka Agora hotel

The rooms are spacious and elegant, the facilities are top-notch (the traditional hot spring baths are a particular highlight) and the views of the city below are truly something to be admired. In terms of amenity, service and convenience, there simply is no better place to stay during a visit to Fukuoka. Read more about the hotel in our full review.

Fukuoka offers a different experience from Japanese perennial favorites like Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto, but these experiences are just as authentic, interesting and memorable as you’re likely to find anywhere else in the country. It is a city often cited as an ‘unexpected highlight’ of a trip to the Land of the Rising Sun, and we’re inclined to agree. To discover all of this and more, be sure to plan your next trip at ArrivalGuides.com and find the best prices on the market for flights, hotels and activities in this wonderful city.