Visit Fukuoka once and you’ll soon understand why the city ranks highly for quality of life. Compact, young and convenient, Fukuoka also has the fastest growing population in Japan – plus it’s the jumping off point for exploring the southern island of Kyushu. Add to that tasty ramen, shogun-era castles and steamy onsen and you’ll see why Fukuoka deserves consideration for your next Japan trip.
Here’s a selection of the very best things to do in Fukuoka and wider Kyushu to add to your itinerary.
THE EXPERIENCE: Seven Stars in Kyushu
The Seven Stars in Kyushu is to Fukuoka what the Orient Express is to Paris and Istanbul. The Japanese are obsessed with bullet trains, but few realise they’re equally smitten with slow ones – and the country’s foremost luxury cruiser is a treat. Launched in 2017, the locomotive follows a loop to Kagoshima, before trundling up the sunset coast to Kumamoto. Inside, the deluxe cabins’ standout feature is an expansive rear-facing window, parading Kyushu’s greatest hits in slow motion.
THE HOTEL: Agora Fukuoka Hilltop Hotel and Spa
Cinema prop lamps, upcycled retro armchairs and design museum chairs aren’t the norm when it comes to Japanese hotels, but neither is a postmodern onsen that’s more in keeping with a Scandi spa. At Agora Fukuoka Hilltop Hotel and Spa, it’s still possible to reserve a traditional room with shoji doors and tatami flooring, but the smart money is on a suite with pinch-yourself views across the top of Fukuoka’s skyline.
THE ESCAPE: Yakushima Island
Yakushima’s haunting cedar forest inspired Studio Ghibli’s anime hit Princess Mononoke. While the Japanese fetishise the island’s Unesco-listed wonder, its macaques, deer and dragonflies; equally spectacular is the Sankara Hotel & Spa, a hotel prone to showing off its best bits at every opportunity. The infinity pool, with a view to the Tanegashima Space Center launch pad, is fit for royalty as well as astronauts.
THE SECRET BAR: Bar Kara Kara
Like tumbling down the rabbit hole, Bar Kara Kara (+81 099-223-0214), in Tenmonkan district of the southern city of Kagoshima, is covered from top-to-toe with plastic Barbies and Pokémon, manga characters and superhero figures. Kitsch gimmick or not, few locals know about it, which makes it all the sweeter when you land a candy-coloured armchair at the teensy-tiny bar.
THE RYOKAN: Yamabiko Ryokan
Kurokawa Onsen, a small town of immaculately packed with timber-framed ryokans, hot springs and bamboo-trimmed natural pools about two hours south of Fukuoka, can get a little tense in high season. Get hot-pink in your yukata gown instead at Yamabiko Ryokan, a time-warp inn set back from the main throng; then dine on its kaiseki tasting menu of sashimi, sweetfish and wagyu.
THE MARKET: Hirado Seaside Seto Market
Hirado Seaside Seto Market is a fish bazaar that comes without the crowds and is famous for the region’s delicious flying fish. If Hirado sounds familiar, the small island northwest of Nagasaki was where Jesuit missionaries first landed, a story now retold in Martin Scorsese’s Silence, starring Liam Neeson.
THE THEME PARK: Huis Ten Bosch
A theme park near Sasebo, Huis Ten Bosch recreates Dutch life – from fields of tulips and sail-flailing windmills to a full-size royal palace built brick-by-brick using stone from the Netherlands. Inside, merchant houses and warehouses are the absurd home of virtual reality rollercoasters and a disco.
THE RESTAURANT: Suito Fukuoka
Dinky 12-seater Suito Fukuoka is more than a chef’s table placing you in arm’s reach of the open kitchen. The upstairs has been recast as a low-key cookery school, offering classes in making takoyaki (fried, battered octopus balls), sushi rolling and mentaiko (salted pollock roe) tastings.
THE DISH: Basashi
The idea of eating horse meat makes some people squeamish. But if you’re open-minded about equine delicacies, then the place to visit is Kumamoto, a coastal city 90 minutes south of Fukuoka. Known variously as basashi (horse sashimi), baniku (horse meat) or sakura niku (cherry blossom meat) for its pink colour, it is a delicacy in the prefecture. Thin slices of chilled raw horse meat are served wrapped in shiso leaf and dipped in sweet soy sauce seasoned with garlic, wasabi or fresh ginger. Suganoya serves locally raised horse meat in four locations in Kumamoto and one in JR Hakata City in Fukuoka.
THE ROAD TRIP: Hita
During the Edo period, the city of Hita in Oita prefecture came under direct control of the shogun and was modelled after Kyoto and its merchant culture. Today, the city is known as Little Kyoto, and its history can still be felt in the architecture of the white-walled machiya-style townhouses of Mameda Old Town. Visitors should pay special attention to the kote-e – imaginative reliefs sculpted into the clay walls of the houses.
THE FESTIVAL: Hakata Dontaku
With more than two million attendees, Dontaku is by far the most popular event during Japan’s Golden Week, a holiday usually held during late April and the early May. The festival dates back to the Edo period (1603-1868), when the merchants of Fukuoka’s Hakata district organised a New Year’s parade in honour of their feudal lord. Today, locals dressed in traditional costumes – some playing the shamisen or beating drums; others clapping wooden spoons – join in the merrymaking.
THE INSTAGRAM SPOT: Kushida Shrine
Held in the summer, the thrilling Hakata Gion Yamakasa festival is one of the best things to do in Fukuoka – but you can still get a feel for it year-round at the 1,260-year-old Kushida Shrine. Take your picture in front of the shrine’s kazariyama, a 13-metre-high float decorated with fantastical scenes of historical and mythical events.
THE NEIGHBOURHOOD: Daimyo
Fukuoka’s Daimyo neighbourhood has it all: high-end shops and fast-fashion chains to independent, vintage hip-hop fashion retailers, as well as some of the best bars and restaurants including Kamakiri Udon and Mujinzo. For fans of Japanese anime and manga, Mandarake, a second-hand anime goods shop, is a must.
THE HIKE: Mount Kuju
A volcanic wonderland filled with luscious greenery and steaming gas vents, Oita prefecture’s Mount Kuju is the highest peak on the island of Kyushu. While the climb itself takes a few hours, the real challenge is getting there, as train and bus connections to the hiking trails are limited. Your efforts will be rewarded as the slopes of the 1,791-metre-high peak are ablaze in reds and pinks in June when the wild azaleas bloom, but offer gorgeous panoramas year-round.
Infographic: KUMAMOTO CASTLE APPEARED IN THE 1994 FILM GODZILLA VS SPACEGODZILLA
THE CASTLE: Kumamoto
The original fortifications of Kumamoto Castle date back to the 15th century. It was the scene of a pivotal siege led by Saigo Takamori in the 1877 Satsuma Rebellion, during which the tenshukaku (castle keep) burnt down. Although Kumamoto Castle was damaged in the 2016 earthquake, visitors can still view the castle from limited areas, such as Kato Shrine. Restoring Kumamoto Castle is expected to be a long-term project, but the first sections were unveiled to the public in 2019 and the city has pledged funds to continue the restoration.
- Central Fukuoka (Hakata) is a 16-minute bus ride from the airport’s international terminal or a six-minute subway ride from the domestic terminal. A free shuttle service connects both terminals.
- The Fukuoka Tourist City Pass is a convenient one-day ticket giving unlimited rides on buses, trains and the subway. The more expensive pass gives you access to the Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine.
- For further tips on what’s happening in the city, visit fukuoka-now.com, run by Fukuoka native Emiko and her Canadian husband Nick.
- Tsuyu, or the rainy season, usually begins in early to mid-June, bringing with it unpredictable weather. If travelling at this time, you’ll want to pack a compact umbrella – or buy a cheap one at any convenience store.
This story was originally posted in December 2017 and updated in September 2020