Fukuoka Day Trip: Visiting Southern Japan’s Most Vibrant Metropolis
As Southern Japan’s largest city and a major port of entry for the country, Fukuoka (福岡) is no stranger to international travelers. In my case, I have visited the city four times since I started solo traveling, although for one reason or another, none of these visits were more than stopovers.
I thus set aside an entire day for sightseeing in Fukuoka during my 2018 autumn vacation in Japan. Eager to “cover” more attractions, I also packed in a few hours for the nearby historical town of Dazaifu. In summary, this Fukuoka day trip was hectic but also colorful, educational, and invigorating. Like its larger siblings of Tokyo and Osaka, Southern Japan’s largest city is a place where the past and present harmoniously co-exist. The city is also fiercely proud of its heritage, particularly the 700-year-old Hakata Gion Yamakasa festival.
Morning: Exploring the Heritage and History of Fukuoka
I arrived at sprawling Hakata Station slightly after 9 am, having taken the Sakura Shinkansen Express service from Osaka at the crack of dawn. After depositing my bags at my hotel, which was just next to the station, I decided I was making good time and could thus spare a few minutes for a quick indulgence.
Like I mentioned in my Ekiben article, Fukuoka is the gateway city to Kyushu. The Ekiben shops of Hakata Station are thus full of exotically packed meals conceptualized to feature the gourmet diversity of Kyushu. It was truly a great way to start Fukuoka sightseeing with, enjoying these delightful morsels outside Hakata Station. The November autumn weather, incidentally, was also breezy and crisp.
Tōchō-ji (東長寺) and Kushida Shrine (櫛田神社)
Energized after my Ekiben meal, I hopped onto the Fukuoka City Subway for Gion Station, which is just one stop from Hakata Station. My first destination upon reaching was Tōchō-ji, located right beside the subway station and famous for its vermilion pagoda and big Buddha. From Tōchō-ji, I then strolled to nearby Kushida Shrine, considered by many to be one of the most important Shinto shrines of Kyushu. It was at the shrine that I finally realized I was visiting Fukuoka on Shichi-Go-San, the day on which Japanese parents bring children aged 3, 5, and 7 to Shinto shrines to celebrate passage into middle childhood. It was also at Kushida Shrine that I had my first encounter with the legendary Hakata Kazariyama float. Having never seen any up close before, I was positively stunned by the vibrant colors and ornate figurines.
Hakata Machiya Folk Museum (博多町家文化馆)
Located a stone’s throw away from Kushida Shrine, the Hakata Machiya Folk Museum is a compact showcase of the city’s cultural heritage, particularly the famous Hakata Gion Yamakasa festival (博多祇園山笠). Housed in the replica of a machiya, or townhouse, the museum has a wonderful diorama of the Yamakasa festival as its centerpiece, one that comes with VR headsets for those keen to experience the sounds of a matsuri too. On the upper level, there are also various displays depicting life in Fukuoka city in the past.
Afternoon: Side Trip to Dazaifu (太宰府)
It was near noon when I left Hakata Machiya Folk Museum. Hopping on the subway once more, I made my way to busy Tenjin Station, the heart of downtown Fukuoka, and there, I switched to a local train service operated by Nishitetsu Railways and headed for Daizaifu.
For readers who are unfamiliar, Dazaifu is an ancient town established in the late 7th century to be the administrative heart of Kyushu. While Fukuoka (Hakata) was the port, Dazaifu served as the imperial bureaucratic center. With the town nowadays practically a suburb of Greater Fukuoka, it makes for a very convenient day trip destination from Fukuoka. As for attractions, most visitors flock to the immensely popular Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine upon stepping off the train. Those with more time, like me, would then head over to nearby Kyushu National Museum.
Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine (大宰府天満宮)
Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine is dedicated to the spirit of Sugawara Michizane, a Heian Period scholar-politician who was persecuted by political rivals. After his death, Japan was plagued by horrible natural disasters, leading many to believe appeasement for the scholar’s angry spirit was necessary. To accomplish this, many “Tenmangu” shrines were built across Japan, of which the one in Dazaifu is one of the most important. Nowadays, the shrine is hugely, hugely popular with Japanese students praying for academic success. During my visit, the main prayer hall was filled with rows of students in pristine uniforms. All were silently bowing to Shinto prayer chants.
Kyushu National Museum (九州国立博物館)
Japan’s newest national museum is a pleasant 10 to 15 minutes’ walk from Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine, via a route that passes through beautiful landscaping and an Instagram-perfect travellator tunnel. Airy, modern, and featuring Japanese history from the Jomon Period to the Edo Period, the museum was an effective sum-up of what I’ve seen so far in Fukuoka and during previous trips. My only regret, or complaint, with the museum was that photography was strictly disallowed in the permanent gallery. The gallery had several huge and quirky Haniwa relics. I’d have loved some photographic memories of those enigmatic statues.
Before returning to downtown Fukuoka, I decided to have a late lunch at an Ichiran Ramen branch. The bowl I ordered was named “academic success.” My school days may be long over, but I guess one way or another, all of us could be considered students of life.
The sun was setting by the time I returned to Tenjin Station. Fatigue was also steadily kicking in. After some aimless moseying around the shops of Tenjin, I got on the subway once more and slowly headed for Nakasu-Kawabata Station. My destination this time was the Nakasu (中州) district.
For most international visitors, Nakasu is a Fukuoka place of interest for two things.
It’s a partying area i.e. Fukuoka’s red-light district.
It’s also where many of Fukuoka’s famous yatai food stalls are located.
My purpose for visiting, however, was neither of these. What I wanted instead was simply some quiet photography time at the area, this being because Nakasu was extensively featured in the Ryu ga Gotoku video game series. As a huge fan of this popular gangland series by Sega, nothing thrilled me more than to stand at the very spots that inspired the landmarks in the game. I am pleased to share that I had several euphoric moments during my hour there. On the other hand, passers-by there and then might have found my demeanor rather weird.
Night Time: Christmas Village at Hakata Station
I was worn out by the time I returned to Hakata Station at 8.30 pm, but I had one more Fukuoka attraction to cover for this day trip! While enjoying my Ekiben breakfast in the morning, I noticed signs announcing a Christmas market was happening outside the station every evening till the year-end. With dazzling light art installations, a variety of festive stalls, and even live performances, this celebration was thus the perfect end to my long day of sightseeing in Fukuoka. I returned to my hotel there about 10 pm. Exhausted, but deeply satisfied with my day in this beautiful southern Japanese metropolis.
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© 2019 Kuan Leong Yong