Fukuoka is often overlooked by travellers who stick to the tried-and-true; the so-called Golden Route that takes a U-turn at Hiroshima. But an hour away by bullet train lies one of Japan’s most coveted food capitals.
Whether it’s tonkotsu ramen, pan-fried gyoza, or eclectic fine dining, Fukuoka has it all. The city also boasts its famous yatai outdoor food stand culture, where you’ll rub shoulders with local while sampling the great variety of fare on offer.
And when your bellies are full, check out this harbour city’s rich cultural and shopping scene. Here are seven unmissable things in this underrated gem of a city.
1. Explore Fukuoka’s booming street food culture
Adored by visitors and locals alike, the yatai – an outdoor food stand – is one of the most iconic symbols of Fukuoka’s culinary culture. Every night, around 100 yatai stalls set up shop along the streets of Fukuoka, serving customers late into the night. You’ll find clusters along the river in Nakasu and around the Tenjin district. The recent influx of new yatai owners in the Nagahama area (famous for its ramen) has also put that area firmly back on the map.
You can experience the wide gamut of Fukuoka cuisine by visiting these food stands. A wide array of dishes beckon, from Fukuoka’s famous tonkotsu ramen to yakitori chicken skewers to gyoza dumplings. Your best bet is to embark on a hashigo, or yatai crawl, sampling one stall after another until your tummy fills up.
Each stand only seats around ten people, so it is a great place to rub shoulders with the locals and other visitors to the city. But with other people always looking for a seat at the counter, it is always best to think of these food stands as pit stops rather than a leisurely dining experience.
2. Visit Fukuoka’s only fish market open to public
Make like Fukuoka’s top chefs and peruse the stalls at Yanagibashi Fish Market for the best seasonal catches. Also known as Hakata’s Kitchen, this 120m long arcade of over 70 different stores is a feast for the senses.
Once you’re done squeezing with the locals and taking in sights of the stalls decked out with fresh seafood and produce, stop by the restaurant Yanagibashi Shokudo in the middle of the market for some of the freshest sashimi around. Order at the counter on your way in and wait upstairs for the food to arrive. They have a menu that will satisfy even the most discerning gourmand, including sashimi teishoku (a set meal of sashimi accompanied with rice, miso soup and a seasonal side dish).
3. Sample some sublime tonkotsu ramen
Fukuoka and ramen are inseparable. The creamy pork-broth tonkotsu ramen is one of the main gastronomic draws for tourists visiting the city, and no trip to Fukuoka is ever complete without indulging at least once in this mouth-watering regional speciality.
Long lines are common outside some of the most famous ramen shops in the city, like the ever-popular Shin Shin chain. But if you explore a little farther, you can find a restaurant that has quietly become a mecca for ramen-lovers.
Hakata Genki Ippai serves its iconic creamy ramen to customers from a humble shop on the side of a nondescript building. With no sign or advertising board, you can only tell the shop is open when a blue bucket is hanging outside.
The shop has a list of rules on the wall for newcomers. These include: taste the soup first before the noodles; savour the noodles before adding takana (pickled Japanese mustard) greens; strictly no photography; no looking at smartphones while eating; and no asking the master about the ramen or the soup. It’s a sanctuary for serious ramen lovers – find it and be converted.
4. Indulge in inventive Indian-French cooking by celebrated chefs
GohGan is the result of a longstanding collaboration between Fukuoka-native chef Goh Fukuyama and renowned Indian chef Gaggan Anand. Collaborating on sporadic pop-ups since 2014, Fukuyama and Anand’s latest endeavour blends Fukuyama’s background in French cooking with Anand’s skilled use of spices. Leave yourself in their capable hands by choosing their omakase set menu.
Here you’ll sample GohGan’s unique combination of flavours and ingredients in diverse plates such as a chickpea paste starter, grilled fish and pork cooked to perfection as well as crab curry with rice.
5. Shop for traditional souvenirs in Fukuoka’s oldest shopping arcade
If you’re looking for traditional Japanese products to take home as a souvenir, drop by the historic Kawabata Shopping Arcade, Fukuoka’s earliest mercantile district. This array of around 100 shops includes some of Fukuoka’s oldest and most revered stores.
Stop by Masuya for Japanese textiles and dolls, Kadota Chochin-ten for traditional paper lanterns and Hirakawa for local products such as fans, traditional prints and chopsticks.
Every November, the shops in the arcade hold a massive annual sale called the seimon barai as a show of gratitude to their customers.
6. Hunt for vintage treasure in the hipster haven of Daimyo
If trendy fashion is more your speed, check out the Daimyo district in the heart of Fukuoka. There you’ll find numerous tiny, independent vintage clothing stores, cafes and vinyl record shops.
Going Bellbo is one such spot for the keen-eyed shopaholic with a love for sifting for vintage treasure. This shop is packed to the rafters with retro Japanese fashion from the ‘60s to the ‘80s along with plenty of accessories to boot.
7. Savour umami bliss at the local mentaiko HQ
One of Fukuoka famed exports is the salty, savoury mentaiko, or spiced cod roe, and there’s no better place to go to sample mentaiko products than the Fukutaro Headquarters Store near Takeshita Station.
Fukutaro is also behind the recent snack sensation menbei, a combination of spicy cod roe and other seafood pressed into a flat, crunchy (and slightly spicy) potato wafer. These snacks pair perfectly with an ice-cold beer and come in a variety of delicious flavours, so it’s no wonder that they’ve been flying off the shelves.
You can find menbei in shops across the city, but head here if you want to go to the source and check out all the other mentaiko products on offer.