More than just a gate to South Korea
This posting aims at documenting a very personal stroll through the city of Fukuoka – not really an article one would print in one of those guide books. But a story that can be followed easily, if one has a map of Fukuoka at hand (and who wouldn’t….).
The list of places visited is everything but complete, but even this small selection should be able to demonstrate what Fukuoka has to offer. And it may also show: It doesn’t have to be Kyōto (or, like in my case: Tōkyō) all the time.
To start with, some explanatory words on Fukuoka:
Fukuoka (福岡 / ふくおか) is the biggest city on the southwesternmost of the main islands of Japan, Kyūshū (九州 / きゅうしゅう), and it is at the same time the capital of the prefecture with the same name. With its roughly 1.5 million inhabitants it could be somehow compared with Germany’s Munich – however, aside from a way of life that might be called “casual” (by Japanese standards), the list of similarities isn’t very long. Fukuoka is situated at the shores of the Bay of Hakata (博多 / はかた) and thanks to the quick ship route to South Korea it is of considerable importance as a commercial hub.
By the way: Fukuoka is on the same latitude as Casablanca, but it enjoys a much more tropical climate that reminds more on a Hawaiian bliss of palm tree atmosphere than on the dry heat of northwestern Africa.
While the region of Fukuoka has been inhabited since oldest days and an active trade with China is traceable back for about 2,000 years, the deepest historical impact came from two attempts by the Mongolians to invade the country, here at the shores of Kyūshū (1274 and 1281). Both attempts were eventually fended off by typhoons. The term “kamikaze” (神風 / かみかぜ) (“Wind of God”) was forged at that time – and not, as one might think, during the last months of World War II. when Japan recruited special units of suicide-willing men to stop the advancement of US-American troops. Anyway, the kanji “神風” for these special units were read “shinpō” and not “kamikaze”. But enough of this wise-ass behaviour.
Interestingly, the city isn’t really top of the list with Western visitors to Japan, even though there is hardly a more international one in Japan. It also doesn’t lack tourist features, not to speak of the very special charm it has. It seems to me that it just shares the same destiny as most of the other Japanese cities (including Tōkyō) do: Foreign tourists simply concentrate too much on Kyōto. Which should give us yet another reason to engage in this city and to leave the stereotypical trails of ordinary tourists.
If you travel from Tōkyō (東京 / とうきょう) to Fukuoka (福岡 / ふくおか), you might consider air travel. The flight takes about 1 ½ hours, and might not only save you time (compared with more than 5 hours of trip by Shinkansen (新幹線 / しんかんせん), but also money. However, if time and money are not your prime concerns, you may very well enjoy the long Shinkansen ride. Nevertheless, if the weather is fine, the landscapes you see from above, especially the cliffy coast you can see before landing in Fukuoka, are marvellous. No wonder that some Japanese consider their country the most beautiful in the world. Outside the cities it can really be lovely.
Landing on Fukuoka Airport is spectacular, as the airport is located in the middle of the city. Some may feel set back in time, when landing in Hong Kong also provided this opportunity of peeping into peoples’ homes. Due to its really central location, also the transfer from the airport to the city is most convenient. The main railway station “Hakata” (博多 / はかた) is just two subway stations away (in order to prevent confusion: “Hakata” is one of the districts of Fukuoka).
When I arrived I went from the airport to the Gion (祗園 / ぎおん) district of Fukuoka directly (three subway stations from the airport). Already when leaving the subway station there, I was taken by surprise, buy the most charming temple, the Tōchō-ji (東長寺 / とうちょうじ). It was a surprise, because this temple wasn’t even on my list of things I wanted to see. That’s obviously the price you have to pay, if you rely on things “Mr. Baedeker” writes about in his voluminous travel guides.
Though the whole urban quarter of “Gokushomachi” (御供所町 / ごくしょまち) consists of mostly temples, the Tōchō-ji seems to be the most impressing. And that’s not only because it peaks out of the “sea of temples” with its shining red pagoda. After all, it houses the graveyard of the second, the third and the eight’s of the rulers of the powerful Kuroda dynasty. If that isn’t something? It’s rather incomprehensible why such an easy-accessible jewel isn’t even mentioned in notable German travel guides. But it confirms my basic perception: Don’t believe a word written in those travel guides!
Legend has it that the Tōchō-ji was founded in 806. The object of worship in this temple is thousand-armed kannon statue that has been registered as a national cultural asset. The most imposing octagonal building on the temple’s grounds displays unique engraved calligraphies on the inside of its doors. And, since 1992, the temple houses the “Great Buddha”, the biggest wooden statue of a seated buddha in Japan.
The neighbouring Myōraku-ji (妙楽時 / みょうらくじ) appears to be a bit more “secretive”. That is: It’s hard to gain access to its buildings as all entries are usually locked. But the temple is quite interesting even if just seen from outside. It was founed in 1316. Its “temple mountain name” (Sekijōzan / 石城山 / せきじょうざん) pays tribute to the fact that in the old days and outside Japan Hakata (博多 / はかた) was called “the castle surrounded by rocks” (sekijō). The temple’s original location was directly at the Bay of Hakata, but, after it was destroyed by fire in the second half of the 16th century, it was moved to its present location.
Just a few steps away, you’ll find the Shōfuku-ji (聖福寺 / しょうふくじ), the probably most important of all temples of Fukuoka. It is regarded as the first Zen foundation in Japan and was built in the year 1195. It is said that the temple was build by the Zen master Eisai, supported by the first ruler of the Kamakura shogunate, Minamoto no Yoritomo. Even today the temple follows the strict rules of Zen buddhism. It is one the national historic treasures of Japan. By the way, this Eisai is also said to have brought the tea plant to Japan and that it was cultivated in Japan with Fukuoka as its starting point.
Even though I loved this temple and enjoyed its romantic atmosphere, the impression remained incomplete as one of the main buildings was under construction when I visited the place.
An even shorter visit I paid the Genjūan (幻住庵 / げんじゅうあん), as this temple could not be entered either. It was founded as early as 1336, but only after several moves it finally reached its present location in 1648.
Well, maybe it’s not that important to see every temple in detail. The temple district as a whole is worth the visit.
On my round tour I headed northeast for the Mikasa river (御笠川 / みかさがわ) which I crossed via the Saimon bridge and than, immediately afterwards the impressive, two-stories highway (Fukuoka Urban Express Way Route 3).
Just a few 100 meters later I passed a building that must have been a triumph of architecture and a futuristic spectacle when it was built in the 60s of the last century: the building of the prefecture administration. Playing a little pyramid, aren’t we? On the other hand: Courageous architecture of this kind is, unfortunately, not ventured any more these days.
First I wasn’t quite sure why I had marked the area of the Higashi Park (東公園 / ひがしこうえん) in my map, but then I realised already on its south boundries why I should have come here anyway: Here is were one finds the Toka Ebisu Shrine (十日恵比須神社 / とおかえびすじんじゃ) – a gem, even though also not even mentioned in my Baedeker. The shrine is, however, so pretty, that I’m absolutely happy to have made this little detour. The numerous small and bigger statues of the happy god “Ebisu” which can be seen on the shrine’s grounds are worth the extra steps. I’m so excited about the shrine that I completely forget the other sights the Higashi Park would have offered: A memorial reminding on the Mongolian invasions and a statue of the buddhist sect founder Nichiren (日蓮 / にちれん) (1222-1282) and one of the Emperor Kameyama (1249-1305) can be seen in the park. But stuffing one day in Fukuoka with too many things is also something I’m trying to avoid.
Taking the Meiji-Dōri I return to the centre of the city, crossing the Papillon-Dōri (the name plate for the street shows a pretty example of what happens, if foreign words are “translated” back from katakana into western letters: it reads “Papiyon-Dōri”) and, again, the Mikasa river. On the right hand side of the street I pay the Zendōji (善導寺 / ぜんどうじ) my respects and take a few pictures. While I was there, people were busily sweeping the gravel in the temple’s yard.
I’ve planned my route in such a way that ensured that I would pass the Hakataza (博多座 / はかたざ), the theatre in which I was planning to see a performance by Tendō Yoshimi (天童よしみ / てんどうよしみ) the other day. In reality the theatre complex which was built in 1996 looks even a bit more honourable than on the pictures I had seen on the internet. I take a few pictures of the building, the lobby and the giant posters of next day’s performance. And, of course, the large floating dragon with the red lampions next to the entryway to the theatre’s lounge, is most impressing.
Just a few steps further in the southwest I enter the endless-seeming shopping street “Kawabata Dōri“ (川端通 / かわばたどおり), which I walk full length. Naturally, I’ve seen longer and more luxurious roofed shopping streets in Japan, but this one as a very particular charm. There are all sorts of shops, coffee shops and restaurants. And the whole street is decorated with posters of the current German “Oktoberfest”. Do I really have to go there?
Next to the Kawabata Dōri there is one of the amusement districts of Fukuoka on the island Nakasu (中州 / なかす) in the Naka river (那珂川 / なかがわ). The early afternoon is probably not the right time for visiting a place like that. Like most amusement districts all over the world that come alive after sunset and allure people with their neon lights and colourful pictures, also Nakasu gives a rather sad picture during daytime. It reminds me a bit on Shinjuku’s Kabukichō – just everything a bit smaller and a bit dowdy. In the doorways you see either young men or elderly ladies waiting for the sun to set….
Anyway, I’m not spending much time there now and cross the river to reach the brandnew “Canal City Hakata”. By the way the river doesn’t really smell like “river”, but more like seashore – thanks to its brackish water. When I crossed it, the low tide also lowered the river’s water level considerably, revealing sandy grounds that also reminded more on a seashore than a river.
The “Canal City Hakata” (キャナルシティ博多) is one giant shopping complex which is obviously the result of building something to the architekts hearts’ content. Part of it looks like being built from Lego bricks. Everything is rather labyrinthine and playful, the visitors mostly young and the shops very much to their liking. The shopping centre boasts not only about 250 shops, but also a cinema, two hotels (the “Grand Hyattt Fukuoka” and the “Fukuoka Washington Hotel”), presentation rooms, offices and, naturally, quite a number of coffee shops and restaurants. A place very easy to get in to, but hard to get out of. Even if you have a good sense of orientation – don’t be shocked if it fails you here. I left the place when they started a “Pirates of the Caribbean”-show at the central fountain.
Eventually, I also managed to reach the last item on my list for the first day, the Sumiyoshi shrine (住吉神社 / すみよしじんじゃ). It’s located several hundred meters south of the “Canal City Hakata” and not too far away in the southwest from Fukuoka’s main railway station, “Hakata”, just at the Sumiyoshi Dōri (住吉通り / すみよしどおり). The Sumiyoshi shrine is the protective shrine of the seamen and is among the oldest in Kyūshū. Even today one of the main tasks of the shrine is the naming ceremony at the launching of ships.
It is said that the shrine has been run by the same family of priests for 44 generations. The shrine has a most quaint atmosphere, even though its main buildings (re-build in 1623) have just been re-painted with the most striking colour. The shrine’s grounds are kind of enchanted and maybe a bit dark, due to the thick forest that is surrounding it.
By the way: During my visit to Fukuoka I was staying at the rather inexpensive “Chisun Hotel Hakata” (チサンホテル博多) at the Hakata Ekimae Dōri (博多駅前通り / はかたえきまえどおり). Japanese business hotel standard – rooms are tiny as usual, but rather proper (well, at least unitl I moved in….).
If you have the chance to stay at a similarly central place, there is another walk you should not do without. Visit the Kushida shrine (櫛田神社 / くしだじんじゃ) in the evening hours after sunset. Even if you have seen other shintō shrines at nighttime, this one will be quite an inspiration. This shrine’s atmosphere is simply breathtaking. What’s more, this shrine which is said to be founded in 757, is dedicated to the oldest of all goddesses of all Japanese, the mother of the Japanses Imperial Dynasty, the sun-goddess Amaterasu (天照 / あまてらす) and her brother, Susanoo (スサノオ). But just as important as these historical and mythical backgrounds is everything that presents itself to the visitor’s eyes – it’s virtually impossible to describe it in words.
One of the most famous shrine festivals of the country, the “Hakata Gion Yamakasa” (博多祇園山笠 / はかたぎおんやまかさ), is held here every year in the first half of July. Monstrously gorgeous movable shrines are carried around the city by lightly dressed men. The most important part is a race against the clock at the beginning of the procession directly at the shrine.
And with these colourful impressions the first day in Fukuoka comes to an end…
To be continued…
Fukuoka, the Hill of Good Luck – 福岡 (Part 2)
– Old and new – so close together