Fukuoka is anything but historic.
Yes, the area was invaded by the Mongols in 1274. Yes, there are the ruins of the 1603 Fukuoka Castle. And, true enough, we are staying in the very traditional Ryokan Kashima Honkan, a delightfully creaky old building.
But this is a back story quickly lost among the sleek towers of the city. This is Japan’s fifth largest city. It’s the place to come if you are a start-up company. The buildings are shiny, modern, new and Western. It’s a place to shop, to eat, to have fun.
This is the city we have come to see.
There is no better way to start than with a steamy bowl of ramen. Fukuoka is famous for its tonkatsu ramen, made with a rich pork broth. Our ramen tour kicks off at Ichiran, a tiny subterranean shop hidden below the Sun Plaza Building. The adventure starts as it does with many ramen restaurants. We select our meals from a vending machine at the entrance, push one button for our main course, others for any extras and one more for a beverage. Money is deposited. A set of small tickets is printed. Gail and I are ushered to our seats, in this case to side-by-side cubicles. Each is a private little booth lined with a dark wood-grained melamine. In front is a small curtain. Soon, a hand appears through my curtain and draws it aside as another hand pushes a bowl of ramen out onto my counter space. The hand retracts and the curtain closes, leaving me alone in this strange place with my bowl of broth and noodles.
Our quest for ramen continues that night. For supper we drop into the well-hidden Mengekijou Genei. Outside, it’s no more than an industrial shed clad with corrugated steel siding (it took the help of an English-speaking local to guide us to the front door). Inside is ramen theatre – literally. We are seated in a long a row of banked seats overlooking a proscenium stage. Here the spectacle is ramen as two young performing chefs carefully assemble our food. One prepares the tonkatsu broth. The other theatrically dishes the noodles. Then the final plating with chashu (sliced pork), negi (Japanese leeks) and other tasty bits.
As we later head back to our ryokan, we drop in for another bowl of ramen. Ippudō is a fairly famous chain of ramen restaurants that can be found world-wide. But it all started here in Fukuoka. An important stop for two aficionados, no matter how full we may be.
Over two days and between ramen bowls, we find time to explore a few of the city’s many worthwhile sights.
Stepping back in time is the Hakata Machiya Folk Museum. Hakata was originally a separate city from Fukuoka, just next door, before the two merged in 1889. The museum recreates a typical Hakata nagare (neighbourhood) with three reproduced machiya (Japanese townhouses). Inside, traditional crafts are demonstrated and displayed in one of the houses while another emphasizes the intricate craftsmanship of a typical machiya interior. It is a rare enclave of history in this future-forward city.
A more unlikely destination is Robosquare, a small interactive museum demonstrating the latest things robotic. Robosquare effectively draws us out of central Fukuoka and into the suburbs by subway. Departing from the station, we make our way through the orderly streets lined with brand new houses, apartments, grocery stores and colleges, until we arrive at Fukuoka Tower. Robosquare is housed on the second floor. At the top is the requisite observatory, with views looking over the expansive city in one direction and, in the other, the Momochi Seaside Park.
A group of young students arrive just after us, all wide-eyed and scrambling to wrestle the controls for this or that robot. There’s a classroom at the back where they can presumably build and program their own robots. For us, it is more of a Jetsons experience, our chance to see how those 1960s animated dream toys from Saturday morning TV are now a reality. We interact with a glossy-white humanoid as well as a small furry seal that responds to our loving strokes. That critter is designed to stimulate seniors in care homes and is perhaps a little too close to our own reality.
Our way back to the subway station is short-circuited, first by lunch at the airy, modern, totally chic Conbrio restaurant and then by the Fukuoka Citizen’s Disaster Prevention Centre. The Centre’s intended audience is local citizens, but others are welcome. And we’re intrigued. So we saunter in and register for a “training course”. We’re locked in wind tunnels to experience the force of a typhoon (hurricane). In a mock room, we sit at a table that vibrates wildly to simulate a Magnitude 5 earthquake. We navigate through smoke-filled corridors to escape a simulated fire. And we are trained in the use of fire extinguishers to quickly put out a domestic fire.
It’s night once more and we are back in the heart of the city. Back for another Fukuoka dining experience. Lining the boulevard in front of the fancy Tenjin departments stores and along the banks of the Naka River are the small, temporary, even ramshackle food stands called yatai. Groups of women, and still-suited salarymen promenade up and down the rows of yatai, looking for a good bowl of ramen, a skewer or two of yakitori and a refreshing beer.
We settle on a riverside yatai, take our place at the tight counter and start pointing to this dish and that. Plates of fish, chicken yakitori, grilled peppers and other delights make their way to us. Passersby press in behind us, examining our choices. Our lone chef madly, cheerfully serves the patrons. They quickly come and go. This is not a cheap experience. We could have easily eaten at a nice restaurant for the same price. But this is Fukuoko in all its frenzied glory and this is an experience not to be missed.
This is the city we came to see.