Oh what’s that? Is that a spring holiday I smell?
Where haven’t I been in Japan yet? KYUSHU!
Actually, there are many places in Japan I haven’t been yet (despite a good friend accusing me of marking my territory like a dog) but I heard that Kyushu, the third largest island of Japan, had really good food. It’s not hard to see why it quickly became a priority.
Booking flights less than three weeks before, my mother, flying from London, and I from Tokyo, began and ended our adventure in Fukuoka, conveniently the birthplace of tonkotsu (pork broth) ramen, the most delicious type of ramen in my humble opinion.
Fukuoka is a laid-back place, stretching out from the port with large shopping centres and all the modern conveniences among older narrow alleys and streets, which have somehow prevailed.
The centre has two focal points: Hakata (where the main station is to be found, located only two stops from the airport on the subway) and Tenjin, a large shopping and entertainment district.
Never mind that my mother had an overnight flight and was now dealing with a 9-hour time difference, no matter that I had stayed up all night to get my 6am flight: we hit the town straight away, walking through the streets and using the street art for obligatory mother-daughter selfies.
Our first stop was Rakusui-en (adults 100yen, open 9am – 5pm, closed Tuesdays). This may be a tiny garden but it’s absolutely amazing for how much beauty has been crammed into it – if you have even the vaguest appreciation of gardens, or you just want a break from the city, duck in and sit yourself down on a bench.
There is a reconstructed teahouse that functioned as the second home of a merchant. Here, for just 300 yen, we enjoyed a cup of matcha (a type of strong Japanese green tea) and a beautiful sakura- (cherry blossom) themed sweet to go with it. The sweet is eaten first to prepare the mouth for the bitterness of the tea.
Next up, we popped into the nearby Sumiyoshi Shrine, who is worshipped as the god of Sumo. He has the character for power 力 on the palm of his hand – just to show you that he really is strong!
There is also a lot of sake barrels around for good measure, and sea bream fortune – hook a fish and then read your love fortune inside. I am quite content with being ignorant as to the fate of my love life so I kept the 300円 for another worthy cause, like ice-cream (no Bridget Jones jokes, please).
More walking ensued…
… but we weren’t just wandering aimlessly. We were on a pilgrimage into the Daimyo. To the original Ippudo store!
Ippudo 一風堂 大名店
Address: 1 Chome-13-14 Daimyō, Chūō-ku, Fukuoka-shi, Fukuoka-ken 810-0041 Telephone: 092-771-0880
Ippudo is one of the first places I ate after moving to Japan in September. There is one just seven minutes walk from my apartment. It serves up the fatty, salty pork-broth style of ramen, and, in my opinion, has a depth of flavour that outstrips Ichiran, the other famous chain originating from Fukuoka. Founded in 1985, Ippudo has become a worldwide success, opening their first branch in London last year (just a month after I moved to Tokyo – irony?).
After a short queue of ten minutes, we were seated at the counter – which I was very pleased about, as this visit was partly about giving mum an authentic ramen experience! A shy 13(?)-year-old boy next to me asked in his best English where we from, which meant, of course, that we then bombarded him with questions about what to order. We chose a store exclusive special – the Akamaru Modern (820 yen). This is a rich tonkotsu broth with charshu (barbecue pork) and soy-flavoured egg and a touch of spice. It was absolutely bursting with flavour, thick, salty and rich – like all good tonkotsu ramen should be.
In fact, it was SO tasty that my mother, in between contented slurps, announced with wonder that even my father would enjoy it! Let’s just say he likes his meat and potatoes, and none of that fiddly noodle rubbish. Ramen might make a convert of him yet…
There is some debate among ramen lovers as to whether one should drink the broth or not. My mother was aghast when I told her. In her most scandalised voice, she exclaimed, “Why would you not drink the broth?! It’s where all the flavour is!”
I wholeheartedly agreed, to which she replied, “I guess we’re just a couple of brothels…”
Overly full and rather thirsty from our salty soup indulgence, we spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the temple area to the west of Hakata Station. Here are countless temples and shrines interspersed among residential city life and some very pretty stone paths too. I recommend you spend some time wandering around and stopping at whatever takes your interest. The area is surprisingly peaceful given its proximity to large commercial districts and it gives you a chance to imagine a slower way of city life, as might have been a few decades back…
For the evening, there was absolutely no question what we were doing. Fukuoka is famed for yatai (屋台) little shacks that line the streets and dish up street food from rickety counters and under battered canopies.
Choosing a yatai is a complicated proposition. Some don’t have visible menus and some don’t have prices, meaning that you should ask before ordering. The trickiest task, however, is working out which we should choose. Obviously, no customers at all is a bad sign, but then many of the yatai waterproof sides and flaps fold down to obscure the inside – hiding both the customers and the food!
We walked past many before trekking back to near the beginning of our walk to visit Chiyo / 千代…
千代 Address： 福岡市中央区天神２丁目 (Tenjin area) Tel: 090-3328-4222 Hours： 19:00-2:00
Why did we choose Chiyo? Was it the tempting fresh eggs sign on the canopy? Sort of, actually. We knew we didn’t want ramen after lunch and I had been attracted by omusoba – fried noodles wrapped in omelette. I’d never eaten one and as everything was a ‘first time’ for my mum, I felt there would be no better time to try one.
So we sat down, ordered the omusoba (650 yen) and a beer, and sat soaking up the atmosphere (and cooking smells) whether we wanted to or not! A guy to the far left of the counter points to a plate of gyoza, dumplings, that wink merrily at us. “These very good, very delicious. You should try.”
Gyoza were ordered (400 yen). Despite gyoza being plenty available in Japan, and immensely comforting to eat, I often find myself feeling a little disappointed. Easily tasteless, or too sweet, or, just demonstrating how China really kicks Japan’s ass when it comes to dumplings. Not these.
Using the fry-steam cooking method, these teeny tiny gyoza had so much flavour that they didn’t need to be dipped in soy. God knows what they rubbed into the pork-mix but these are easily the best gyoza I’ve ever had. I could eat them every day for a thousand years, which happens to be what Chiyo roughly translates to – or just ‘a very long time’.
We spied the lady next to us eating a rather delicious looking beef stew. A few urgent words with the husband-wife(?) team running the stand and gyu-suji was sitting in front of us. It was slightly sweet with the spring onions cutting nicely through the flavour as well as the tender beef. On the side was yuzugoshō, a speciality of Kyushu – it’s a chilli paste made with yuzu, a very small, citrus fruit, commonly used in sauces in Japan. Fantastic.
Then our omusoba arrived. Not too sweet with the omeltter beautiful soft and the noodles gloriously greasy, we devoured it. Next thing I know one appears in front of the woman next to us, who told us about the gyu-suji. A little later on, the gyoza fan begins tucking into one. It seems food-inspiration works two ways…
As for the couple running the show? They threw out a few responses to the locals around, but they were just focussed on the task on the hand, utterly dedicated to cooking up tasty food. And we are so very glad they are.
There is an English menu so don’t be shy, sit down and start ordering!
Accommodation: President Hotel/ プレジデントホテル博多 In all honesty, this place couldn’t be any less presidential if it tried. A tiny box. A really tiny box (12m³). Grey, brown cramped ugliness. And, because it was end-of-term, every single place in the entire of Fukuoka was booked up. But this is a budget hotel – how pricey could it be? Only a whole 17560円 of crampedness for no breakfast and a bed that’s only 120cm wide (a semi-double). On the plus side, they have clearly mastered raising prices to meet demand.
President Hotel 2/5 – Fine, if you’re paying a budget price…