Fukuoka: Tenjin, Nakasu

Today I set out to explore Fukuoka, specifically the Tenjin district, as I had a nice walk around Hakata yesterday. I probably didn’t need to go at it as hard as I did, but I’m planning to do day trips for the remaining two days of my stay here so I had FOMO and wanted to cram as much as possible into the itinerary!

I started by walking over to the Fukuoka Prefectural Hall, also known as Kihinkan Hall, whose main claim to fame is that it’s a 19th century French Renaissance building in the middle of Fukuoka. There was construction all around the building, so it was difficult to snap a good picture of the building itself.

After paying the JPY200 ticket (€1.6), I saw that they make you take your shoes off, which is fine, but they also make you wear slipper, which is not because there’s never going to be a pair my size! So I had to put on a tiny pair of slippers and kind of tiptoe my way around the inside of the building. As soon as I walked in, to make matters go, an overzealous attendant wanted to make sure I could get the English audioguide so I wouldn’t miss out on the history, and I said thanks that’s very kind, but then she stayed to verify that I indeed went onto their website and got the guide. Too much trouble for a lacklustre exhibition: although well preserved, the rooms are pretty bare, with barely any furniture to imagine what life must have been like for the dignitaries who stayed over during the Meiji era. Give this one a pass.

After that, I crossed the canal into Tenjin proper, and the difference is immediately noticeable: the buildings are taller and there are way more and bigger shops and restaurants, and all the streets are super busy. I visited Junkudo, an enormous library with a well-stocked English-language section if you run out of reading material mid-trip. I thought I might try to look for new manga but the offer was so vast that I didn’t even know where to begin (and, since every single manga book is wrapped in its individual plastic sleeve, I couldn’t check whether it was within my reading level).

Having taken a glimpse of the commercial section, I then walked further still to the Fukuoka Castle or, more accurately, the park where the Fukuoka Castle used to stand. The castle itself is gone, but the old walls remain, and the enclosure has been turned into a beautiful, leafy park. It was hot and sunny, with barely a cloud in the sky -it bears pointing out that mid-June is supposed to be smack-dab in the middle of tsuyu, the rainy season, so it’s supposed to be raining every day all month, but apart from that torrential Saturday when I arrived I haven’t had a single drop of rain ever since. How did I get so lucky? (The world is dying.)

When I got to the very top of the hill, I found a platform with great 360-degree views of the city all around it. Here, finally, is where I saw other Westerners, because up until now I was the very only white guy in all of Fukuoka, to the point where people stare at me as I walk down the street (sometimes people stared at me as I walked down the street in other Japanese cities, too, but usually this was because I was on the wrong side!). There were also Chinese and Korean tourists.

 The castle walls were, of course, designed to make reaching the castle difficult and time-consuming for invading armies, so it’s easy to get lost, but between the maps propped in the intersections and my Google Maps I was able to follow a meandering path all across the park and out to the other side, to the Fukuoka Art Museum.

The ticket to the permanent collection (also JPY200) gives you access to the pre-modern art gallery, which didn’t really hold my interest, and the modern and contemporary art galleries, which finally are worth the visit. They have paintings and sculpture, abstract and figurative, Eastern and Western influences alike, so it felt like a very varied and diverse collection. The building itself isn’t much to look at but it has gorgeous looks to the Ohori Park lake outside.

That’s where I walked out, and it felt like yet another different Fukuoka. This one had a nice, pleasant walk around a lake, with trees for shade and benches for resting, and lots of people jogging, cycling or just taking a stroll around the shore like I was.

I didn’t have to walk very far, though, as I was going to the Japanese Garden very close to the art museum. The garden dates from the 1980s, to it’s not exactly a historical site, but it is beautiful and more than worth the price of admission (JPY160, if you get the “welcome discount” [?] like I did).

The garden’s most attractive feature is its central pond, surrounded by garden paths and stone walkways that hide three small waterfalls. As with all good Japanese gardens, the landscape changes and features appear and disappear as you follow the path.

By now it was past one o’clock and I was positively exhausted, so I set course for one of my lunch objectives in Fukuoka: Ippudon, a famous tonkotsu ramen restaurant. When I got there, though, I found that there was a sizeable queue, and what’s worse, you had to wait under the blistering noon sun, which I’m pretty sure would make me melt into a puddle of goo on the ground (it has to be said that nearby restaurants had way longer queues, though, some snaking around the block). I had half a mind to just leave and grab a bite wherever, but I really wanted to try this place and one of the golden rules of travel, as you may know, is “eat when you can”.

In the end I split that hair by going to Mandarake, just two blocks over, the geek store whose main shop is in Akihabara in Tokyo. This one had nothing to envy in size and stock to its flagship store, and I almost got lost trying to navigate its many aisles full of action figures, comic books and various memorabilia.

When I returned to the restaurant, it must have been half an hour later at the very most, and yet the queue had magically vanished and there were only four people waiting -and I didn’t even have to wait that long because, being alone, they waved me in immediately to a seat at the counter. I had a delicious bowl of tonkotsu ramen (ramen with pork broth); they let you choose the ramen firmness level and everything, so make sure you order them cooked “kata” (al dente)!

After lunch I wanted to return straight to the hotel to rest -I really did- but then I had to quickly check out a 5-storey Muji that had a small farmer’s market and cafeteria inside, and then as I was really leaving I discovered a massive Loft nearby -so of course I had the obligation of checking that out too! If you’ve never been to a Loft, it’s this wonderful, crazy kind of shop where you can buy… everything. Seriously everything. From stationery to clothes to beauty products to kitchen appliances to phone accessories to craft supplies to… And they have lots of clever products. On my last visit to a Loft, a few years ago, I got an incredibly light umbrella that weighs barely 100g and is fantastic to carry around in your bag for unexpected rain; well, I was shocked to discover that they’ve improved the formula and now they have a 70g umbrella! (Naturally I bought it on the spot.)

I checked every floor and got some omiyage, and just generally marveled at the weirdness, and then for real made my way back to the hotel, where I will rest my feet until it’s time to go yatai hunting for dinner!

All right, I’m back! So here’s the thing: Fukuoka is famous for its yatai, food stalls with a counter around them where food is cooked and served. These pop up at night at certain spots of the city, and that’s where you have to go to get the true Fukuoka experience. I’ve read that there are three main spots for yatai: Tenjin, Nakasu, and Nagahama. I decided to go to Nakasu, not because it was the closest spot to my hotel (how dare you!) but because here the stalls are lined up along the river, making for an amazing night-time atmosphere as the lantern lights are reflected on the water mixed with the city neons.

Choosing a yatai is no easy task, because many are full and those which are empty make you think, there must be a reason why! As everyone’s huddled around their food, it’s difficult to get a good look at what people are eating, and I didn’t see any stall that had any kind of English menu or signage. I ended up choosing one where the food looked good and the stall was full. The atmosphere was convivial -when I approached, even though it was full, everyone scooched over to make room for me so I didn’t have to wait! I was given a Japanese menu, and the guy who seated me asked me in Japanese if I could read Japanese, to which I said that kanji are a challenge. He pointed at his colleague and said, “English master!”.

Said English master walked over, pointed at an item on the menu, and said “Steak”, then to another, and said “Chicken”. I felt like I needed more information, and after a quick back and forth I ordered yakisoba (stir-fried noodles) with beef, the latter apparently their specialty. I was served in like two minutes, and that plus a drink run JPY1300 (€10.65). It’s expensive for what you can get elsewhere -there wasn’t even that much meat- but it was very tasty and cooked to perfection. The ambience was great, instead of the usual couples most people seemed to be eating in groups of friends. To my left were two Korean girls, and to my right three Japanese middle-aged ladies who were having the time of their lives.

Both the guy who seated me and the guy who took my order laughed in disbelief when I responded to them in Japanese; I think this is the first time this trip that I got the “Nihongo ga jozu desu ne”. With very few exceptions, contrary to what you may expect, the majority of waiters, clerks and shop attendants address me entirely in Japanese from the beginning, show no reaction when I answer in kind, and make no effort to simplify their speech level for my benefit. Only when I am visibly stumped they try to find easier synonyms. Perhaps it has become more normal for foreigners to speak the language – this is a good thing!

So that’s another thing crossed off my list! Tomorrow’s plan: getting on a train and visiting Nagasaki!

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