Yesterday I had a bit of choice paralysis when I was researching where to go today. It’s my last day in Fukuoka, and I had all of Kyushu at my fingertips, so where to go? Friends’ recommendations and web searches turned out lots of suggestions but no consensus. So I began looking into each one: there’s Kagoshima, which has a volcano, but apparently the volcano’s too active right now and so they cordoned off the area because of the toxic fumes. There’s Kumamoto, which has a castle, but apparently the castle was damaged in a 2016 earthquake and is still closed for repairs. There’s Beppu, which has famous onsen with all kinds of hot springs, but while I enjoy the occasional onsen I didn’t feel like making an entire day trip just for that (I think it’s like a 2h train ride from Fukuoka).
So in the end I opted for Dazaifu, which is a small town just 20 km south of Fukuoka. I did feel bad for picking such a close destination having an entire island to choose from… But if it makes things any better, for such a short distance it’s a bit of a pain to get to, because it’s not on any JR lines so you have to take a private Nishitetsu train from a private Nishitetsu train station, meaning of course you have to pay for the ticket even if you have a JR Pass.
Anyway, the main attraction at Dazaifu is the Dazaifu Tenmangu shrine, a Shinto shrine built in memory of a philosopher/scholar who was exiled from the capital to Fukuoka during the Heian period (this is around the 11th century, same era when Murasaki Shikibu and Sei Shonagon were writing their books). He died shortly thereafter, and Japan was ravaged by multiple natural disasters in the months that followed, so people assumed it was punishment for the court’s mistreatment of the poor philosopher and built a shrine in his honor.
The shrine then went on to become associated to Tenjin, the Shinto god of learning and education, just like other Tenmangu shrines across Japan (you may have been to Kitano Tenmangu in Kyoto -I may have been too, for all I remember! I need to check my notes). This is the national Tenmangu shrine, though, and as such thousands of students from all across the country make their way here to pray for success in their exams or dissertations.
It is a gorgeous shrine, with a beautiful pond crossed by two red moon bridges, and enormous ancient trees resting on crutches. It’s also extremely popular, with lots of tourists coming and going -practically all Japanese, Korean and Chinese, I would say in that order. It was hard to take pictures without a dozen people in them, but other than that I didn’t really mind the crowd: there’s ample space so that you never bump into anyone, and since it’s free and there are multiple gates you never have to queue for anything either.
When I walked through the streets lined with shops, and the torii gates, and the garden, and the first enclosures, I arrived at the main shrine, which turned out to be in the middle of some kind of ceremony. I couldn’t understand what it was for, but there were people dressed in ceremonial robes and what I assumed to be a priest performing prayers and a ritual of some sort. It was interesting to watch, if obscure.
After walking around the grounds for a bit I made the short trek up the hill to the comparatively quiet Kyushu National Museum, an enormous -and I mean gigantic- modern building surrounded by forest. When I got there someone important was having a full-on press conference right there in the museum lobby, so I may have appeared in Japanese news as “background tourist buying museum ticket #10”!
The permanent collection is in fact just one floor inside the giant structure, so it’s not as big as you may think, but it’s pretty interesting. They have a section for Ice Age artefacts, which I don’t much care for, for the rest of the exhibit is focused on trade between Japan and neighboring countries, and so they have a collection of Chinese pottery, Indian or Nepali holy statues, European kitchenware, and so on. It had a sitting area with a water fountain, too, which in my present condition was much appreciated!
For my last item on the list, as I crawled my way back down the sun-scorched hill, was to check out Komyozenji, this small temple hidden away right next to Tenmangu. It’s JPY200 to get in, and that’s if you find the door (you pretty much have to know you want to visit and have looked it up on your phone). It’s really tiny, mostly just one big room with a veranda from which you can see its garden… but what a garden it is! It’s a small but spectacular Zen garden, more natural than most: instead of being just gravel and rocks around a courtyard, this one had trees and moss growing in it too, forming small green patches on the ground. The sun shone through the leaves, and it made for an enchanting view. Tragically, photography was prohibited, but you can find pictures online if you’re curious. As an added bonus, it was just me and one other person, while a mere two minutes away hundreds of people fought for selfie spots around the main temple!
These were the three main sights I wanted to check out in Dazaifu and it was only around 13:30, so I briefly considered doing a last effort and going to Kurume, which is another nearby town highlighted in the Lonely Planet guide, but… it looked like I had to take at least a couple more trains, and the sights there didn’t look all that compelling, and really I needed an afternoon’s rest, so I decided to call it a day and return to Fukuoka. On the way back to the station, I walked by all the omiyage and food shops that line the street leading up to the shrine, always an interesting array of souvenirs and local specialties.
I got back to Fukuoka shortly after 14:00, which is a perfect time for lunch, because it’s normal lunchtime for a Spaniard but slightly late for the Japanese so it’s less busy. I took a look at Ichiran, which is with Ippudo the other famous Hakata ramen place (Ichiran is a chain, but I guess we forgive them for being a chain)… but it still had a sizeable queue. Reader, I turned right around and got into a hipster burger place two streets down. This time it’s come later than in other trips (I’ve been here for 10 days already) but there always comes a point when, after eating local food with every meal, I get a craving for something recognizably Western and, goes without saying, caloric!
So now I’m resting my feet and writing these lines before going out for dinner somewhere (I am currently favoring the ramen stadium in the mall down the street…). I also need to do some scheduling, as I have to take the shinkansen to Osaka tomorrow.
So indeed I went to the Ramen Stadium in the mall! Honestly, when I got to the fifth floor I almost turned around and ran away like the coward that I am. I got a bit of choice paralysis once again when I saw that there’s like eight different ramen shops all crammed together in that one floor, all filled with Japanese-only signs advertising their different regional dishes (they all looked the same to me in the pictures). In the end though, I saw that one had more people inside and decided to try it. As with many noodle restaurants in Japan, in this one you have to order and pay at a machine near the entrance before you go in and hand the waiter your ticket. I always find it annoying, but at least this one was available in English. I ordered miso ramen, which I hadn’t tried yet, and turns out it’s ramen in a very strongly flavored broth; not overpowering, though, just really strong miso flavor where you’d expect a very plain broth.
I’ll be honest with you, I’ve never been that big of a fan of ramen (I don’t like soup, and ramen are soup-adjacent), but as with sushi, eating it in Japan has ruined this dish forever and I will never be able to enjoy it back in Europe. It had never occurred to me that the soup could be… flavorful! And tasty in its own right!
So that’s a fitting goodbye to the Japanese (and therefore world) capital of ramen, then. Tomorrow, it’s off the Japanese (and therefore world) capital of okonomiyaki, Osaka!