Did you know that Fukuoka in Japan is a sister city to Ipoh in Perak? We were informed of this interesting fact during a recent media trip to Fukuoka, the largest city on Kyushu island.
This connection between Fukuoka and Ipoh has existed for over 30 years. Since 1988, the Ipoh City Council has maintained a close relationship with Fukuoka city through visits, cultural and sports events, and other interactions.
Although Fukuoka may not be as well-known as other Japanese cities like Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka and Hokkaido, it is a buzzy modern city steeped in culture and history, and there is much to see, do and experience here as we discovered.
The place is also a gateway to Kyushu where there are many other cities and districts to explore.
Kyushu is Japan’s third largest island. It is situated south of Honshu island, where Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka are located. There are many cities that you can visit when you fly into Fukuoka, including Kitakyushu, Shimonoseki, Oita, Kumamoto, Shimabara, Tosu and Nagasaki, as well as towns like Inasa.
You can hire a car and drive around the island or take public transport like the bus or train.
Our trip was organised by AirAsia and Japan National Tourism Organization to celebrate AirAsiaX’s first direct flight from Kuala Lumpur to Fukuoka.
We explored Fukuoka city in a double-decker open top bus, where you can enjoy a view of the city while a live guide or “basuana” provides information along the route. Although this was done in Japanese, there were audio guides available in other languages such as English, Mandarin and Korean.
There are scenic ferry rides that you can take in Fukuoka too. We went on a ferry boat ride across the Kanmon Straits from Moji in Kitakyushu across to Shimonoseki where we saw the Kanmon Bridge.
We went from Kumamoto to Shimabara via ferry, too.
The next day, we headed out to Mojiko or Moji Port in Kitakyushu. The waterfront has a nostalgic atmosphere with many historical buildings, including the Japanese Railway and Old Moji Mitsui Club (now a museum) where physicist Albert Einstein stayed when he visited Japan in 1922.
We even got to see the bedroom and bathroom that Einstein and his wife Elsa Lowenthal used while they were there. Other interesting buildings in the area include the Moji Customs Building, now an art gallery; Mojiko Retro Observation Room which offers great views of the port and Shimonoseki city across the Kanmon Straits; and Kanmon Kaikyo Museum.
The Glover Garden in Nagasaki is an open-air museum on a hill where a few mansions of the city’s former foreign residents are exhibited. You can explore the buildings to get a glimpse into the past. They include the former Glover House, the oldest Western-style wooden building in Japan. From the hilltop, we got quite a good view of the city and harbour.
Also in Nagasaki is the Atomic Bomb Museum. Among the exhibits and photographs in the museum is a clock where time stood still at 11.02am on Aug 9, 1945, the exact moment the atomic bomb exploded in Nagasaki. There were replicas of the two bombs used on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, known as Fat Man and Little Boy.
Next to the museum is the Peace Memorial Hall and Peace Park. The visit was a grim reminder of the atrocities of war and how important peace and good relations among countries is.
Traditional Heritage And Culture
The Shinto religion is deeply rooted in Japanese culture, so when in Japan, a visit to a Shinto shrine is a must. At the Motonosumi Inari Shrine in Nagato, we were entranced by 123 beautiful red torii gates that lead all the way from the top of the cliff to the Sea of Japan. The view was breathtaking and offered many photo opportunities.
According to our guide Masumi “Sammy” Shimizu, the inari or fox is the guardian of this Shinto shrine where locals come to seek blessings in business.
“Those who want their wishes to come true can try throwing coins into a little box at the top of the torii. If the coin goes into the box, their wish will come true,” she said. After many attempts, my coin finally went into the box, but I don’t know if my wish will come true … yet.
Closer to the city, we visited Kushida Shrine in Hakata. The guardian shrine is well known because of the Hakata Gion Yamakasa and Hakata Okunchi summer festivals which take place here.
It is said that drinking water from the well at the shrine would grant one eternal youth or longevity. You can also get omikuji or fortune papers from the shrine. “If the fortune is good or ‘lucky’, then you can keep it. If not, then tie it on the tree and the breeze will blow away the bad luck,” said Sammy.
Kyushu is a wonderful place for foodies. There’s the usual Japanese dishes to try such as soba, sushi, sashimi, ramen and grilled beef, as well as some unconventional fare like fugu or blowfish, and horse meat. At the Karato Market in Shimonoseki you can see how fugu is prepared by the vendors. The fish must be cut skilfully as parts of it are highly poisonous.
On our first night, we went on a yatai or Japanese streetfood adventure in the Hakata area. There was gyoza, mentaiko (cod roe) omelette, yakitori and more, as well as alcoholic beverages like sake, soju, beer and chuhai (fruit-flavoured alcoholic drinks).
Fukuoka city also has a Muslim-friendly restaurant guide for visitors so do ask for it at tourist information centres or at the airport if you need it.
There are traditional teahouses that you can check out, as well as modern cafes with Japanese-Western desserts and drinks to savour. On our last night in Japan, we went to an izakaya, a Japanese-style pub for some drinks, food and merriment.
If you’re into architectural wonders, there are two bridges worth checking out in the area.
The Tsunoshima Bridge is the second longest bridge in Japan. At 1,780m, it connects the mainland to Tsunoshima across the cobalt blue waters of the Sea of Japan with a view of the mountains in the background. We caught a spectacular view from the Amagase Park just before the bridge.
If you have time, you might want to drive across the bridge which has been likened to “flying across the sea”.
Kokonoe “Yume” Otsurihashi or Big Bridge is in Oita. This is Japan’s highest pedestrian suspension bridge. This bridge is a sight not to be missed, even for someone like me who has a fear of heights.
Crossing the bridge has been described as “walking across the sky”.
It is not your regular suspension bridge as the structure is very stable and feels very safe when walking across, and it doesn’t sway from side to side. The view of the surrounding countryside, Naruko River, and the green valley 173m beneath is spectacular, plus you will see two magnificent waterfalls in the distance.
Fukuoka and its surrounding areas also offer natural wonders such as Mount Aso (Mount Daikanbo).
It was raining and misty when we visited so we didn’t get to see the famous “sunshine above a sea of clouds”.
If you are in Kumamoto, check out the Suizenji Jojuen Park which houses its own miniature Mount Fuji. This Japanese garden is landscaped around a natural spring pond.
In Nagasaki, we took a bus up to Mount Inasa to enjoy the night view or yakei. The view of the city’s night skyline was pretty amazing at 333m high up. Its coastal location makes this a good spot for enjoying yakei as the city lights reflect on the waters of the harbour.
At a teahouse in Suizenji Jojuen Park, we participated in a traditional Japanese tea ceremony. We were served green tea and had a taste of Japanese desserts like izayoi (a round-shaped mousse dessert) and kaseita (a flat rectangular biscuit filled with quince jam and bearing a family crest).
Later, we unleashed our creativity at the Hakata Machiya Folk Museum, where we tried our hand at Hakata doll painting. These traditional clay dolls are not just fun to paint but also make good souvenirs to bring home.
Fukuoka has many trendy malls such as the Canal City Hakata which houses shops, cafes, restaurants, cinemas, an amusement park, a game centre, a hotel and a canal that runs through the complex. Just a 20-minute walk away from there is the JR Hakata City at Hakata Station, where you can do more shopping.
For hardcore shoppers, though, you might want to try the Tosu Premium Outlets where you can find many international brands and well-known Japanese labels. The Kawabata Shopping Street, meanwhile, dates back more than 130 years. This covered shopping street comprises arcades measuring 400m in total, and there are about 130 stores operating. You can find souvenirs, handicrafts, clothing, Japanese tea and locally produced food products here.
There is also the Tenjin Underground Shopping Centre which stretches for 590m from north to south in downtown Fukuoka.
It is the largest underground mall in the city and connects to Tenjin and Tenjin-Minami subway stations.
For something different, Shinchi Chinatown in Nagasaki is said to be the oldest Chinatown in Japan. At this place you can find shops, stalls and restaurants.