Sponsored by Kyushu Tourism Board.
Kyushu Island, the southernmost one amongs the four islands that creates the archipelago, is not the most chosen destination for a first time traveller in Japan. As we mostly rely on the JR Pass to travel across the country and that unfortunately makes our travel limited, we would end up going for the classics, namely Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka or Hiroshima. If you are about to travel to Japan for the second time however, or if you simply feel a bit more adventurous, going slightly off the beaten path never be disappointed. With wild and omnipresent nature, rich history and culture, welcoming inhabitants and of course delicious local specialties, Kyushu Island is full of treasures to discover.
And if visiting the island’s seven prefectures in just a couple of days time is likely to be unrealistic, you can start by focusing on the northern part of the island around Fukuoka. After providing you a few tips and sightseeing inspiration for the Oita Prefecture, let’s now discover Fukuoka Prefecture throughoutly!
But before we start with this itinerary of discoveries, please note that if it is absolutely possible to travel through the island with public transportation, this might not be the most convenient nor flexible way to do it. In order to make the most of your trip, and in particular the suggested route below, the ideal option would be to rent a car for several days in order to explore the area at your own pace. You can find all the practical information on that topic at the following link.
Side note : to find all the practical information related to addresses and attractions below, please go check the clickable map at the end of the article.
Hiking on Kawara Olle trail
As Fukuoka boasts the largest city in Kyushu, we tend to think that Fukuoka is a rather urban prefecture, not noticing how vast its nature is. To bring you proof of that, start your jounery to hike in Kawara area, a small town located one hour away from Fukuoka City by car.
What I discovered there is a hiking concept coming straight from Japan’s neighbour, Korea: olle. Olle simply means hiking trails with marked paths and amenities along the way, allowing beginner hikers to give it a try. The path not only is well marked, but it also includes resting areas and toilets, as well as several points of view and attractions to see along the way.
The olle hiking trail of Kawara opened very recently, this past year, under the initiative of the local community who wanted to boost the area. Everything was actually developed by volunteers from the town, using recycled materials to landscape the paths. The trail starts at Saidosho Station and ends at Kawara Station, with a total distance of 12km. A local train line connects the two stations, so you can park your car at Kawara Station, take the train to Saidosho Station to start the trail and end up where you left your car. A few years ago, Kawara Station, which is now the ending point of the Kawara olle trail, was empty and did not have any staff. Today however, you will find an office dedicated to hikers, where you can ask the staff all the questions you may have or even buy a few souvenirs.
As you start hiking, you will soon spot the very clear marking system. The path is indicated with either arrows, ribbons or forged iron little horses.
The blue color indicates the way in, while the red color shows you the way back if you wish to go back to the starting point.
Besides this marking system and a few amenities here and there, you will be fully surrounded with nature and greenery! Rice fields on one side, forested mountain slopes on the other and a lot of fruit trees along the way (kaki, mascot, chestnuts, Japanese citrus called kabosu…).
You may also witness a few grass hoppers, dragonflies and frogs. Some signs also recommend to watch out for snakes (which I fortunately did not encounter during my hike)… Among the highlights of the Kawara olle trail, you will comme across a very narrow train tunnel where only one train can fit at the time, a blessed cave, in honor of the miners who used to work at the town’s copper mines, or a view point on Kawaradake mountain.
Local specialties: tonkotsu ramen and bamboo charcoal soft cream
I am sure this hike will make you hungry, then it is a perfect timing to savoy local specialties, and not the lightest one there is: tonkotsu ramen. Tonkotsu ramen, or Hakata ramen, is different from a classic bowl of ramen as it is made out of pork bone broth. Requiring several hours of preparation (up to 8 hours!) before the marrow dissolves into the broth, it remains however a daily dish, and a very affordable one. I tied to have ramen at Yamagoya, the restaurant where I got to taste it for the first time.
With orders made on a terminal and a really fast service, you come here to eat a comforting meal among locals, who are quickly slurping down their bowl of ramen before getting back to work. As you enter the dining room, the broth smell is striking, but not unpleasant, and the slurping noises made by the guests will titillate your ears. A simple bowl of tonkotsu ramen, served with a few slices of pork, a soft boiled egg, bamboo sprouts and sea weed, will be more than enough to fill your stomach. The broth, almost white, has a much more pronounced and richer taste than a traditional ramen.
For around 800 yens only, this makes for a very filling and delicious meal! If you manage to do it, try to eat your noodles loudly, as it is a way to show the chef that you enjoy your meal!
If you still have a little room left in your stomach, you can find bamboo charcoal soft cream just a few minutes from there! A surprising local sweet, with a very dark color and a slight taste of chocolate.
Climbing up Mt Hiko
Located only a mere 30 minute drive from Kawara, our next destination is a place filled with a singular, mysterious energy. Mt. Hiko, or Hikosan in Japanese, is a sacred mountain rising up to 1200 meter high. Revered for centuries, this mountain is still today a pilgrimage and training place for Buddhist monks related to the Shugendo philosophy, who practice asceticism.
To reach the summit of Mt. Hiko, you will have two different options: hiking or taking a cable car. Since 2005, a monorail cable car was installed on the mountain slope allowing people to reach the top of Mt. Hiko in just a few minutes.
And the trip offers an incredible panorama, whether you look down at the mountain range in the distance, or up to Mt. Hiko’s summit, well hidden behind the trees. If you go for the hiking option, you will be welcomed on the trail by a massive copper torii, registered as Important Cultural Property of Japan.
As you get off the cable car, you will find yourself at a first shrine, Hikosan-Jingu, nestled in big trees. The shrine was unfortunately renovated and hidden behind scaffoldings when I visited, but simply going up there to feel the special atmosphere is worth the trip.
Surrounded by century old gigantic trees, you can watch the peaceful carps swimming in the pond, listen to the sweet sound of furin, small wind bells, hanged at the shrine’s office, or even take a sip of natural clean spring water coming straight from the mountain.
If you have a bit of time and enough courage, you can take the stairs leading up to the inner shrine 2km from here. Sitting at the top of Mt Hiko’s central spike, it is actually its main shrine.
It isn’t easy leaving this sacred place, but the beautiful panorama you get on the cable car ride back down will provide you a good enough reason to come back to ground.
Diving in the past in Iizuka
Next step, Iizuka known as the former mining town, located at about 30km to the east from Fukuoka. In the midst of Japan’s industrial revolution in the Meiji era (1868-1912), Iizuka rapidly developed as the main charcoal production center in the region. And if the town seems rather quiet today as a result of the mines closing down in the 1970’s, you have to imagine that at its peak time, it attracted to all the unemployed workers of the area. And what do miners need most after a long day of hard and dangerous work ? Entertainment and sweets! That is why a number of theatres and tea houses/bakery shops started popping all around Iizuka in those days, making the city famous for precisely that – and still to this day.
At the high of its mining activity, the town had no less than 48 theatres welcoming the miners and their families. And today, only one of them is still in activity: Kaho Gekijyo theatre. Its architecture is inspired by the one of kabuki style theatres from the Meiji era. It was built in 1922, but was first destroyed by a fire, and a second time because of a typhoon, before being rebuilt in its actual shape in 1931. Bad weather had another impact on the theatre more recently, with a major flood happening in 2003, but everything has been perfectly restored since, thanks to, among other things, the contribution of a few Japanese actors.
The outside architecture is already very impressive, slightly reminiscent of a temple. But it is actually once you have arrived inside that almost magical world can be discovered, far away from the style of Western theatres. Once you have removed your shoes and pushed the curtains separating the lobby from the performance hall, you are dating back to the olden days in Japan!
On the audience side, no red velvet seats in sight but instead, tatami, with small spaces where up to four people can sit are demarcated with wooden planks. In other words, the audience is sitting on small cushions on the floor to watch the show. This creates a rather unusual (at least as a Westerner) and graphic pattern on the floor. Complete with additional seats on a mezzanine and two areas reserved for VIPs, Kaho theatre can welcome a total of 1200 spectators. On each side of the audience, you will spot two wooden aisles leading to the stage, called hanamichi, which actors use to make their entrance on stage. Speaking of which! If the gaze is immediately attracted to it when entering the room, it is only possible to look at all its details from it… or underneath it!
The highlight of this theatre tour is that you can actually go below the stage to observe the mechanism turning it (an operation that requires no less than 12 persons) or to have actors enter the stage from underneath it. As for the decors and curtains, they are all still handled and moved by hand, with the help of a clever system involving ropes and bamboo.
The theatre also carefully preserved all the accessories and costumes that have been used since the last century. You will be able to look at these in one of the backstage rooms or upstairs, in the museum room. Masks, swords, hats… hundreds of treasures are gathered here.
You can also take a look at old posters or entrance tickets, a few actors’ autographs or even some of the wooden plates that were used to get back your shoes at the end of a play, also doubling as small ads.
Note that the theatre still programs about 50 performances every year and also welcomes the annual gathering of all kabuki theatre companies across the country, the Zenkoku Zacho Taikai event, during which performances are given all day.
Once your tour is over, you can move on to another one the town’s long established institution: Chidoriya Honten sweets shop. Much older that the theatre we just visited, this sweets shop opened its doors in 1630! The shop offers a mix of traditional sweets along with more modern desserts, all of which are mouth watering.
And everything is displayed with care, in refined packagings and boxes. The atmosphere and the decoration have a slightly old charm to them, as if we had just entered a small cocoon of nostalgia. Facing such a large choice of sweets, the discrete yet thoughtful staff recommends me to try its specialty: a sort of puff with a touch of honey, filled with white bean paste.
A small dessert that isn’t too sweet, with a texture that melts in the mouth. A shop you must visit to fill up on local and gourmet souvenirs that are as pretty as they are tasty.
Ohori Park in Fukuoka
If your itinerary does not leave you enough time to immerse yourself in the nature of Mt. Hiko or Kawara, go for a walk in Ohori Park while staying in Fukuoka.
Like a small oasis in the middle of the city, the park was landscaped in the beginning of the 20th century around Fukuoka’s old castle moats. I found it very peaceful and relaxing atmosphere, on a weekday morning in September, with a few runners and cyclists as only company.
Shaped in a circle with a large pond at its center, it is very pleasant to walk around it and through it via the small island in the middle and its Japanese bridges. The water is clear and calm which makes for the perfect mirror reflecting the city skyline in the distance.
And with water being its central element, no wonder that you can rent a boat or lovely swan shaped pedal boats to go on the water with carps, turtles and ducks.
The park entrance is free and you can complete your visit with a tour in the adjacent Japanese garden or Modern Art museum (both of which are not free. Note also that the Art Museum is currently being renovated and will only re-open in March 2019), a drink in one of cafés or take your kids to the play area.
Spending the night in Fukuoka at Stand by Me
To spend the night in Fukuoka, or even just the evening, go to Stand by Me, located just a few minutes by foot from Ohori Park. This new hostel concept opened its doors last year, in June.
A small building with only two floors, a modern and minimalist decoration, with a tachinomi kind of bar (a type of izakaya where you stand at the counter or on a high table) on the ground floor, and dormitories on the first and second floors (both mixed or women only) as well as a private room (only one of this type to be found). The place also comes with an equipped kitchen, two bathrooms and a lounge/rest room on the last floor.
On the hostel side, everything is carefully decorated and clean, but also very quiet (probably due to a combination of good soundproofing and Japanese manners…). The little extra touch in such a modern and urban setting ? A few murals, both white only or colorful, which can be found at every floor and on the hostel front window.
On the bar side, the atmosphere awakens around afterwork hours, where hostel guests and locals come together for a drink, elbow to elbow at the counter. The concept is simple: in exchange for 1000 yens, a staff member will give you small wood tokens with which you will be able to order drinks and finger food (you will find all the equivalence on the menu).
All the izakaya classics are on the menu, sometimes slightly re-imagined with a Stand by Me touch (I tasted for example a yuzu sour instead of the usual lemon sour, a shochu based cocktail with citrus and soda). The place is rather small and lively, and I bet you will end up talking to your table neighbors at some point or another during the night!
After a good night sleep, you will find a whole other ambiance, a much quieter one, at the bar where you can go to get your breakfast. Either savory and Japanese or sweet and in a Western style, you can enjoy it while looking at people passing by or while reading the map designed by Stand by Me with all the best shops and cafés in town.