In Japan’s ‘Gateway to Asia’: Street Food, Night Life and a Thriving Arts Scene

There’s a soothing hum to laid-back Fukuoka, the largest city on the Japanese island of Kyushu. It’s hard to miss on a weekend afternoon as you stroll down Meiji-dori Avenue, the city’s wide downtown spine, passing places like the Kabuki theater Hakata-za and the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum. Eventually, you’ll reach the slow-flowing Naka River, whose banks are lined with the traditional open-air food stalls known as yatai, a signature attraction in this culinary and arts haven.

With a sprawling commercial port that was Japan’s largest between the 12th and 16th centuries and which, to this day, links the country with China, Korea and other parts of the Pacific, Fukuoka has long been considered Japan’s “Gateway to Asia.” A popular destination for vacationing Japanese, the city is also drawing tourists from abroad, especially noticeable since the country reintroduced visa-free entry last October. They come for the city’s lauded cuisine, its casual atmosphere, vibrant arts and nightlife scenes and temperate climate. And then there are the historic sites like the beautifully preserved Tochoji Temple, and the natural beauty found in places like the lush Ohori Park and the splendid experimental rooftop garden atop the ACROS building.

Here are some places that visitors might want to include on their itineraries.

At the restaurant Motsunabe Ikkei, the chef Kazuichi Matsuo has mastered the excellent hot pot stew known as motsunabe, made with pork or beef tripe, cabbage, bean sprouts and garlic.Credit…Erik Augustin Palm
In Fukuoka, a delicious range of Japanese cuisine is readily available, from classic ramen dishes at places like Ippudo Ramen in the Daimyo neighborhood, above, to regional specialties like mizutaki (chicken hot pot).Credit…Erik Augustin Palm

A culinary haven

There is no end to restaurants offering typical Japanese cuisine like sushi and ramen and the Japanese multicourse fine dining known as kaiseki.

But what distinguishes Fukuoka’s culinary scene is its emphasis on local specialties like motsunabe (beef tripe hot pot), mizutaki (chicken hot pot) and mentaiko (marinated pollock roe), dishes that are often served at yatai, which typically have small open-air kitchens, a counter and limited seating.

One innovative yatai owner is 29-year-old Akihiro Korehisa. After finding it difficult to open his own restaurant during the pandemic, he turned to operating a yatai as an option, counting on less overhead and more excitement.

Yatai dining, Mr. Korehisa said, celebrates the city’s first-rate seafood and produce. His stall, HEROs, which moves around downtown Fukuoka (its current location is always available on its Instagram account), is a lively place, attracting both locals and tourists with dishes like seiro-mushi (beef and vegetables prepared in a bamboo steamer) and chawan-mushi (a steamed egg custard). A full meal here will cost about 2,500 yen, or just over $17.

“Authentic yatai atmosphere can only be experienced in Fukuoka,” said Mr. Korehisa. “Here, you can very quickly make friends with even the stranger sitting next to you.”

You’ll find that same sort of instantaneous camaraderie at the city’s wine, sake and craft beer boutiques. Take Todoroki Saketen in the Yakuin neighborhood, where the 36-year-old sommelier Kazuya Ishida has worked since 2016. In the shop’s kakuuchi (standing bar), customers can sip from hundreds of natural wines — many from Japan, as well as sake (including sake from 20 breweries in Kyushu), shochu (rice or barley liquor) and umeshu (plum wine).

“Many tourists here are interested in food as a form of sightseeing, and with that comes drinking,” he said. “Wine with food has become more common in Japan, and I think natural wine is more popular in Fukuoka than other places because it pairs well with our dishes.”

Food and drink in Fukuoka are delicious and cheap — which creates a certain level of competitiveness between restaurateurs. The chef Kazuichi Matsuo calls the dining scene “an intangible cultural heritage born from friendly rivalry.” After 27 years in Fukuoka’s kitchens and 15 years at the lauded but humble Motsunabe Ikkei, Mr. Kazuichi has mastered the excellent hot pot stew known as motsunabe, made with pork or beef tripe, cabbage, bean sprouts and garlic (1,580 yen).

“Initially derived from the soul food of coal miners in the city Kitakyushu, motsunabe has taken root in Fukuoka,” he said, adding that diners often share the stew as a communal dish. “It’s an excellent tool for communication,” he said.

On the west side of the Naka River, in the fashionable neighborhood of Daimyo, is another culinary innovator — Yoshimitsu Obara, the 37-year-old owner of the bar Citadel. Perhaps Fukuoka’s most experimental mixologist, he has operated his intimate, wood-framed haunt since 2018. Here you can drink beverages featuring blue cheese, Doritos, curry and basically anything the charismatic Mr. Obara thinks of. (A new recipe includes distilled green curry gin, pineapple tequila, lime, coconut, soda, tonic and shishito peppers.) With illuminated wooden shelves of glass jars labeled with handwritten notes, Citadel’s ambience evokes a snug laboratory. Most of the cocktails are unique to the bar.

Stereo Coffee is a hybrid record store and cafe.Credit…Erik Augustin Palm
An apple cinnamon latte macchiato at Citadel.Credit…Erik Augustin Palm

Too unique can be a hard sell, though. Fukuokans easily get excited by novelty, but it’s the warm hospitality that sticks,” said Mr. Obara, who on a Friday evening was sitting with his laptop, preparing to fly to Seoul the next day for a mixology competition. He mentioned Seoul as if it were around the corner.

At Citadel and elsewhere, foreigners still catch the eye of curious locals. At the record-store-and-cafe hybrid space Stereo Coffee, Haruki Shibata, a 23-year-old barista, approached me, politely asking me where I was from. Born and raised in the Hakata neighborhood, he directed my attention to the mingling of Japanese and Korean influences taking place in Fukuoka because of its proximity to Busan, less than four hours by ferry across the Korea Strait. This, he contends, contributes to the city’s cultural identity, not only on the culinary scene, but in the arts scene as well.

The ancient and well-preserved Tochoji Temple in the Hakata area of Fukuoka.Credit…Erik Augustin Palm
Credit…Erik Augustin Palm

A cultural haven, too

Fukuoka’s status as an incubator for the arts is nurtured by museums, art schools and creative spaces. Among these, Art Space Baku, founded in 1972 by the now-74-year-old Ritsuko Oda and her husband, Mitsuru, is one of the most well-known. Ms. Oda said she is dedicated to discovering new artists. “Fukuoka is a comfortable place for artists because of the good rent and transportation,” she said.

Walking up the narrow stairs to a dimmed kissaten (old-fashion cafe) on Oyafuko Street, I was transported back several decades — that is, until I noticed the abstract contemporary art, some of it digital, in an exhibit in the cafe’s gallery. Kazuya Itou, an artist from Nagasaki whose work this was, became familiar with Art Space Baku while studying at Kyushu Sangyo University in Fukuoka and has since been a frequent visitor.

“I think most of the people who present art in Fukuoka have a strong connection to this place,” Mr. Itou, 64, said, as he showed me his colorful, abstract “Mass of Coordinate Point K” exhibit.

Mr. Itou, who has had his work featured at the Busan Biennale and South Korean galleries, believes the art and the tech scenes in Fukuoka and Busan are intertwined — which the opening of the renowned Japanese digital art collective teamLab Forest underscores. “For better or worse,” he said, “a large part of Fukuoka’s culture today is shaped by us being at the forefront of Japanese culture and tech during the Korean Peninsula’s tech boom.”

Music, too, is thriving in Fukuoka, and again, there is an emphasis on nurturing talent. At the jazz venue Trombone Club, near the Naka River, I met the 41-year-old jazz pianist Sonoko Kawasawa who started playing six years ago and was encouraged by the club’s owner, Mihara-san, who was present behind the bar, as Ms. Kawasawa and the 37-year-old saxophonist Yuki Uryu performed jazz standards like “Autumn Leaves” and “Chelsea Bridge.”

“Fukuoka’s music scene has a humanistic feel to it,” said Ms. Kawasawa. “Artistic originality is strong here.”

A place where many of the city’s defining multicultural characteristics converge is the stunning 010 Building, also near the Naka River, designed by New York-based Clouds Architecture. The 010 Building is the brainchild of the arts entrepreneur Jiro Enomoto, a Fukuoka native who has been key to the city’s cultural scene since he started his company, Zero-Ten, in 2011 after a stint in the U.S. film industry.

I met Mr. Enomoto at the 010 Building’s bar, where he gave me an inspired speech about his city and the space, while in-house burlesque performers mingled nearby.

“I wanted to create a new cultural center, in a symbolic location by the city’s yatai stalls, ” Mr. Enomoto told me through a veil of theatrical dance-floor smoke and electronica music, adding that Fukuoka “is a good fit for this project because it’s still a gateway to Asia, flexible to new cultures.”

The same evening, over a roasted tea rum cocktail, a local 010 Bar patron mentioned that Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio stayed in Fukuoka during their honeymoon in 1954. Later, as I soaked in the onsen (natural hot spring) Manyo-no-yu in Hakata, I pondered this piece of Hollywood history within the puzzle of Fukuoka. And it seemed totally aligned with the city’s identity, past and present. How could Marilyn and Joe ever have missed out on this vibrant Asian port town’s many pleasures?

A popular travel destination for vacationing Japanese, Fukuoka is also drawing tourists from abroad, especially noticeable since the country reintroduced visa-free entry last October.Credit…Andrew Faulk for The New York Times

Where to stay

Mitsui Garden Hotel Fukuoka Nakasu is a modern, luxurious hotel in Nakasu, by the Naka River. A room for two people recently started at about 19,000 yen, or $130.

The Lively Fukuoka Hakata, a swanky, design-centric hotel in Hakata with an inviting bar scene, has double rooms that recently started at around 18,200 yen.

Lamp Light Books Hotel Fukuoka is a book-themed hotel in Fukuoka’s trendiest neighborhood, Daimyo. Doubles start at around 12,600 yen.

Hotel Mei Fukuoka Tenjin, in the heart of Fukuoka, has doubles with minimalist décor, starting at around 10,850 yen.

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