Everything they say about Fukuoka is true. The people are laid back, it’s not as crowded. No one seems in as much of a hurry or as stressed out as they are in Tokyo and other cities. It could be because it’s a city that’s by the ocean and filled with canals that gives it an airy quality. Let’s not forget the amazing food and you have the best of both worlds.
In central Fukuoka – the Hakata area is full of history. Take a detour down the side streets and you’ll find temples that rival those of neighboring cities but with far less tourists. Actually a temple or garden visit here is guaranteed some peace and quiet which is a really nice bonus.
Of the temples we visited Tocho-ji temple was impressive, claiming to have Japan’s largest wooden Buddha. Underneath the big Buddha is a tunnel you can walk through from left to right. The first section shows scenes from the wheel of karma and then there is a section that you walk blindly in the dark holding onto a rail for support that winds left and right. They say it is a way to clear the mind. It definitely puts you in the present moment, because you have to feel your way in the dark. At the end you come out to view some heavenly imagery of golden Boddhisatvas meditating and then another view of the big Buddha you were just underneath. Awe-inspiring, especially after a clear mind.
Rakusuien park is a lovely respite from the city. It sits in the middle of Hakata’s business district, but once you enter the ancient walls you feel as though you entered another world. It is a very small garden, but it has a very large tea house with a wonderful view. For a small fee you can get a bowl of matcha tea and a sweet. While we were visiting we joined a woman who was having tea. She was a tea ceremony teacher in Fukushima visiting for business. She showed us into a smaller tea room in the back that was closed off from the view of the garden. The scroll on the wall said, “listen to the boiling water, wind between the pine trees.” From the tea room it felt as though we could hear the waterfall in the garden a little louder because we couldn’t see it. http://rakusuien.net/english/
Along the canals between Canal City and Tenjin area are many yatai stalls. These are small and very intimate restaurant carts that open in the evening for dinner. They make for a very lively and romantic atmosphere next to the river. Snuggled up under a plastic tarp with others who are hungry and huddled together, you pull up a bar stool and have a feast of everything from seafood to skewered meat. Little boats with Christmas lights and musicians go back and forth. Lines form outside some of the popular stalls with everyone from young kids and old men to business people in suits. It’s a must-see and must-eat!
The famous food of choice in Fukuoka, besides the Yatai stalls, is ramen. It seems there is a constant battle for the best ramen joint. They even have a place called “Ramen Stadium” in the Canal City mall that harvests ramen joints from all around Japan. Here you can try Fukuoka Hakata ramen and ramen from Hokkaido and other regions. We tried almost all of them and each one is different.
A nice respite from the city is to visit the waterfront. We visited in winter so instead of the beach we checked out Bayside Place pier which had a tower you can get a great view of the city from, a pier with a few shops and best of all a nice onsen called Namiha onsen: http://www.namiha.jp/index.html
A great day trip from Fukuoka is the town of Karatsu. There’s hiking, the ocean, and a large pine forest near the sea but we were on a mission to find a tea bowl. Karatsu is one of the top threes styles of pottery for Chado – tea ceremony – and it is easy to see why. Karatsu-yaki is earthy, natural and a great example of the wabi-sabi aesthetic. It also appears in a variety of glazes and finishes to choose from. There is a lot of variety, which can either make it easy or hard to find a tea bowl, there’s so many wonderful pieces to choose from.
At the Karatsu train station, the tourist office can give you a map of pottery shops in town that sell various artists work. We went to all of them! You can also visit some of the kilns of local potters close to the station. If you are lucky or are able to organize a studio tour, you may even get a peek at some of the ancient and famous climbing kilns that they have used for many generations.