Proximity to the sea means the seafood in the Kanmon Area is bar none! Shimonoseki is number one in Japan in both fugu (blowfish) and anglerfish landings by volume, and it is also well-known for sea urchin and swordtip squid. The seafood across the straits in Kitakyushu is also fresh and delicious, and the local offerings that evolved in the blue-collar city—like udon noodles and kaku-uchi standing bars—will delight both your stomach and your pocketbook. Stimulate all your senses with a visit to the various retro markets and shopping streets, or stop by Mojiko Retro for some baked curry and craft beer. Last but not least, if you need a sweet souvenir for someone special, be sure to pick up some nut-and-bolt-shaped neji-choco.
Baked Curry and Craft Beer
If you ask a local what to eat in Mojiko, chances are they will suggest baked curry. Many restaurants in the port area specialize in the dish, which consists of a spicy Japanese-style curry baked in a casserole or stone pot and topped with melted cheese and a soft-boiled egg. If all the walking has made you thirsty, then try Mojiko Retro Beer, a small-batch craft brew launched in 1998, well before craft beer became a household term in Japan. Choose from a German-style weizen, a pale ale, or the Mojiko Station Beer (amber lager). Available at the brewery’s on-site restaurant and a few other select shops.
Mojiko Retro Beer Factory
Address: 6-9 Higashiminato-machi, Moji-ku, Kitakyushu
Open: 11:00~22:00 (L.O. 21:15)
Closed: May ~ Dec.: Never, Jan. ~ Apr.: 2nd & 4th Sun. (or the following day if holiday)
* May also be closed temporarily in winter for maintenance
Shopping Arcades in Kitakyushu
Several shopping arcades are located just a few minutes’ walk from JR Kokura Station. Uomachi, founded in 1951, is the busiest street in Kokura in terms of foot traffic. Together with Torimachi Shokudogai and Kyomachi, these covered arcades offer a plethora of options for both eating and window shopping. The streets are home to Kitakyushu originals like the Shiroya bakery and pork dumpling purveyor Yosuko as well as popular chains like Sukesan (udon) and Ichiran (Hakata-style ramen). If you need to stock up on cosmetics and medicines, then you’ll want to make a pit stop at one of several drugstores, including the ever-popular Matsumoto Kiyoshi.
Kokura’s line-forming bakeries
Before you even see Il Forno del Mignon (Main Shop, Kitakyushu), you will smell the sweet aroma of its trademark chocolate croissants. If it smells familiar, then maybe you have walked past their outlet inside Hakata Station in Fukuoka City. Across the street is Shiroya, which usually features a long but fast-moving line of people picking up reasonably priced baked goods, like the chou crème-esque Sunny Pan (3 for ¥280) and the aptly named Omelet, a cream-filled silver dollar-sized piece of soft bread (only ¥40!).
Kogetsudo and Tsujiri
If you are looking for more traditional souvenirs, then stop by Kogetsudo, which has been making and selling Japanese sweets since 1895. Try the ever-popular kuri manju (chestnut bun) or the Gion Daiko, sweet red bean paste inside a pie crust. Nothing goes better with Japanese sweets than green tea, and nearby Tsujiri has you covered. Get your favorite tea to go or stop and savor it in the courtyard in the rear of the store. You can also enjoy a variety of green tea flavored desserts, including soft serve, sundaes and floats.
Known as “Kitakyushu’s Kitchen,” Tanga Market is a short walk from JR Kokura Station. This jumble of tiny retro shops has been providing the people of Kitakyushu with their daily necessities for over a century. It got its start sometime around 1913 when sardine fishermen pulled their boats up to the bank of the Kantakegawa River to sell their wares in an empty lot.
Over 110 shops sell everything from fresh seafood to vegetables, and if you start to feel thirsty, there are also a few small cafes and Akakabe, a kaku-uchi (a standing bar inside a liquor shop). With reasonable prices, freshness and variety, Tanga Market is an important part of the everyday lives of both local residents and restaurateurs.
Nukadaki and Fish Cake Canapé
Nukadaki, or fish simmered in miso, is a specialty of the Kokura region of Kitakyushu. Usually made with mackerel or sardines, it is often eaten with rice, or on its own as a snack to accompany an alcoholic beverage. Several shops in Tanga Market specialize in nukadaki. Also, don’t miss long-standing fish cake maker Kokura Kamaboko. Its trademark canapé is a lightly fried fish cake with minced onion and carrot (¥130).
If you want to eat your fill at a reasonable price, then your first stop should be Daigakudo. For just ¥200 buy a bowl of white rice and then head into the market to buy goodies to put on your rice bowl. Finally, come back to the shop to enjoy your original creation. This is known as the daigakudon. You can fill your bowl with fresh sashimi, or even try the local specialty nukadaki. In Japanese, daigaku means university. The shop gets its name from the fact that it is a fieldwork project run by the University of Kitakyushu and Tanga Market.
Address: 4-4-20 Uomachi, Kokurakita-ku, Kitakyushu (inside Tanga Market)
Open: 10:00~17:00 (Daigaku-don available from 11:00 until rice runs out)
Closed: Wed., Sun., hol.
Having supported Japan’s meteoric modernization by manufacturing everything from robots to toilets, Kitakyushu remains home to many factories, and by extension, many laborers. This means reasonably priced, quick, delicious and filling meals have always been in demand, and over the years, these have become the foods that Kitakyushu is known for. In the central Kokura area, the mainstay is udon noodles, but in the Yahata area, where the steel factories are, the go-to specialty are the Yahata gyoza, dumplings fried in an iron skillet.
If you like udon noodles, then Kokura is the place for you. For the meat lover, there is niku udon, a bowl of hot udon noodles topped with marinated beef, but one unique menu item that you will encounter in Kitakyushu and the rest of Fukuoka Prefecture is goboten udon, or udon topped with fried burdock root. Every shop has a different presentation style. Some chop the burdock into bite-size pieces, while others serve bowls of udon with a large round disk of fried burdock chunks resting on top of the noodles. Try a few different kinds and see which one you like best. You can also try yaki-udon, a variation of the standard soy sauce-flavored yakisoba that uses thicker, heartier udon noodles in place of soba (buckwheat noodles).
Photo: Tatsuo Yamashita
Stand-and-drink establishments have existed throughout Japan since the 17th century, but the blue-collar Kitakyushu developed its own distinct style of shop called kaku-uchi. In its truest form, a kaku-uchi is a sake shop that lets you stay in the store, typically standing at a table or counter, and drink what you buy. For a city full of laborers, it was a cheap and quick way to enjoy a drink after a hard day’s work. Today, there are still several such shops in the city, and not only do they offer more to drink than just sake, they are a great place to get a feel for the local vibe and strike up a conversation with the other patrons. Most shops also offer a small menu of snack foods that are typically served with alcoholic beverages, like dried squid and edamame.
With its location right next to the ocean, Kitakyushu is a great place to enjoy seafood any time of year. Proximity to the fish markets means restaurants in the city can offer extremely fresh seafood at affordable prices. Naturally, you can expect to enjoy fresh mackerel, sea bream, octopus and other seafood at high-end sushi restaurants, but lower cost conveyor belt sushi shops and even izakaya (traditional Japanese pubs) serve a wide variety of fresh, local fish and seafood. The latter is a good option if you want to try local seafood along with other a la carte dishes.
Kitakyushu is a well-known spot for fugu, the famous blowfish that is poisonous if prepared improperly. But not to worry—only highly trained chefs are permitted to slice up this delicacy. Most fugu restaurants serve fugu in courses, so you can enjoy it in many different ways, including thinly sliced sashimi (dipped in a tangy ponzu sauce) and fried.
Another delicacy you can enjoy in Kitakyushu is eel. In Japan, protein-rich eel is prized as a so-called stamina food and is customarily consumed during the hottest part of summer. You can enjoy farm-raised eel any time of year, but if you want to experience wild eel, Inaka-an in Kokura does its best to use wild eel procured from the Ariake Sea and the Buzen Sea when they are in season (between May and November). The Kyushu-style eel offered here is first grilled and then steamed on a bed of rice with a coating of the restaurant’s original sauce. Please understand that quantities are limited, so high-grade domestic farm-raised eel may be used when wild eel is not available.
If you love sushi and are willing to spare no expense to experience the best of the best, then you will want to book a seat at Tenzushi Kyomachi. Be forewarned: there are only five seats in the restaurant! The second-generation owner carries on the tradition of using only the freshest locally sourced seafood.
Conceived by a local business owner to draw attention to the inscription of the old Yahata Steel Works as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Neji Choco (literally, “screw chocolates”) have been a big hit. Not only are the chocolates shaped like nuts and bolts, they actually fit together. It’s a delicious little souvenir that pays tribute to the industrial heritage of Kitakyushu. You can find them at souvenir shops in and around JR Kokura Station.
Price: 15 pcs. ¥1,080, 5 pcs. ¥432, 1 pc. ¥64
Food of Shimonoseki
Given its location at the end of the island of Honshu, Shimonoseki is surrounded on three sides by ocean—the Seto Inland Sea, the Hibikinada Sea and the Sea of Japan—so it goes without saying that the seafood here is bar none. Be sure to stop by the Karato Market or any one of many restaurants to sample the seafood.
If you want to try something local that doesn’t come from the sea, then choose the kawara soba. This unique dish dates back to the 1870s, when Japan, still in the nascent phase of its modernism, was dealing with the last of the samurai revolts. Soldiers from the Satsuma Domain are said to have used hot kawara (baked clay roof tiles) to cook meat and vegetables in their camps, so drawing inspiration from this story, kawara soba was born. This dish features green tea-infused buckwheat noodles typically topped with beef, egg, seaweed, grated daikon radish and lemon with dipping sauce on the side. The Kawatana Onsen district is where kawara soba was first conceived, so you can try this dish when you visit the area for a dip in the hot springs, which have been attracting bathers for 800 years.
Fugu blowfish is hands-down what Shimonoseki is best known for. The fish, toxic if prepared the wrong way, is abundant in the nearby waters, and only registered chefs with special licenses for fish cleaning can prepare fugu dishes. In fact, eating fugu was outlawed in the 16th century, but later, Shimonoseki became the first place in Japan permitted to catch and eat fugu by order of Hirobumi Ito, Japan’s first prime minister and native of Yamaguchi Prefecture. Shimonoseki ranks number one in Japan in fugu processing, with a huge percentage of the nation’s share, because its Haedomari Market is said to be the only one that specializes in fugu. This means that fugu properly processed here can receive the coveted “Shimonoseki” brand designation. Although offerings will differ from place to place, a full course will typically feature an exquisitely arranged platter of sashimi, which you are meant to dip in tangy ponzu sauce instead of soy sauce, fried fugu, a fugu hot pot, a fugu rice porridge and hirezake, hot sake with a grilled fugu fin in it. Although fugu comes into season in the winter, in Shimonoseki, you can enjoy it year-round. Fun fact: in the local dialect, fugu are called fuku, which happens to be the same word for luck!
Other marine delights
Fugu may be the main attraction in Shimonoseki, but don’t let it overshadow the other wonderful seafood you can enjoy here. The city also ranks number one in Japan in anglerfish landings, a fish prized for its liver, which is often called the foie gras of the sea. You also don’t want to miss the creamy, vividly colored sea urchin, which comes served in small wooden boxes. Tsunoshima and the areas along the Sea of Japan coast, where there are an abundance of fishing grounds, are known for swordtip squid, a soft and meaty sweet-tasting kind of squid usually eaten as sashimi.
Shimonoseki is famous for fugu, but all kinds of locally-caught seafood can be found on the waterfront at the Karato Fish Market. The best time to visit is weekends and holidays during Iki-iki Bakangai when all the vendors’ offerings can be purchased individually as sushi toppings. You can try all the different varieties of seafood for a low price. Eat on a wooden deck with an ocean view or on the rooftop lawn on nice days.
To learn more about Kitakyushu, Shimonoseki, and the Kanmon Straits, click on the following links
Originally written in Jun. 2018.
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NOTE: The information presented here was gathered and summarized by the Fukuoka Now staff. While we have done our best to check for accuracy, there might be errors and details may have changed. If you notice any errors or changes, please contact us. This report was originally written in Jun. 2018.