Welcome to Fukuoka! You might not know it, but you’re in the city of startups, salons, sci-fi stadiums, strangely large strawberries and, um, snazzy sewage treatment. Whether you’re a first-time visitor or a long-time local, there are always more things to discover that make Fukuoka fabulous. Read on for some facts about our fair city that you won’t find in a guidebook.
1. Seoul sisters
Right now, you’re closer to South Korea’s capital than Japan’s. Fukuoka is 883 kilometers (or around an hour and a half by airplane) from Tokyo, compared to just 540 kilometers (or an hour and 20 minutes’ flight) from Seoul.
2. Hakata then, Fukuoka now
If history had gone just a little differently, we would have been welcoming you to Hakata, not Fukuoka. The two were once separate places: Hakata, a busy port that served as Japan’s gateway to East Asia, and Fukuoka, a samurai town that sprang up around the castle built by a 17th-century feudal lord. (You can admire what remains of it in what is now Ohori Park.)
In 1889, it was decided that the two towns should merge — but what to call the new city? The council was called to vote; the result was a tie. The decision fell to the chairman who, being from Fukuoka himself, declared in favor of his hometown. And so Fukuoka + Hakata = Fukuoka, despite the fact that Hakata was the larger city at the time. As a gesture to disappointed Hakatans, the council named the shiny new train terminus Hakata Station — which is why anyone traveling here by Shinkansen still arrives in Hakata today.
3. Boom town
Today, Fukuoka is Japan’s fifth biggest metropolis with around 1.5 million inhabitants. If it keeps growing at its current rate, though, it might soon climb the rankings: between 2010 and 2015, Fukuoka’s population increased by 5.1 percent — more than any other city’s in Japan.
4. Saved by the storm
Fukuoka owes its survival to kamikaze — but not that kind. Back in the Middle Ages, the Mongol Empire was one of the greatest threats to Japan. Having conquered Korea, they prepared to invade the closest part of the archipelago from there: Kyushu. In 1274, a Mongol fleet attacked. They made it as far as Hakata Bay before a typhoon wrecked their ships.
Wary of a second attempt, the Japanese built a wall along the coast for defence, the remains of which are still visible today. Sure enough, in 1281 the Mongols tried again, this time with a vast force of some 140,000 soldiers. The wall couldn’t withstand them. The samurai on shore were outnumbered. But what’s this? A second storm rolling in? To everyone’s amazement, another typhoon turned up at just the right moment and scattered the Mongols’ fleet.
The Mongols never attempted to invade Japan again. The Japanese put the triumph down to “divine winds” — kamikaze — which is the origin of the word.
5. There’s really no excuse to miss your flight…
… when you can get from the city center to Fukuoka Airport in just 11 minutes flat. And that’s by public transport.
6. Tuna’s a steal
A trip to the grocery store will cost you less in Fukuoka than in most other Japanese cities. Here you’ll find some of the lowest food prices in the country — including, at just ¥286 per 100 grams, Japan’s cheapest tuna.
7. Fukuoka made Japan Zen
Next time you’re sipping on a green tea and contemplating the nothingness of existence, remember that you can thank one of Fukuoka’s historical characters for both. A roving Buddhist monk, Eisai, first learned about Zen — and its practitioners’ favorite drink — in China during the 12th century. He returned to Kyushu bearing both Zen scriptures and tea seeds. He would go on to found Japan’s first Zen temple: Shofukuji in Hakata. The temple continues to train monks to this day — and still practices one of the oldest forms of tea ceremony in Japan.
8. Every Fukuokan has just enough beach to dip a toe
Fukuoka City boasts an impressive 133.6 kilometers — 83 miles — of seashore. That works out at 9.1 centimeters per inhabitant. We’re calling dibs on the golden sands of Ikinomatsubara.
9. Eat out every night for the next 25 years
With 4.2 restaurants for every 1,000 people, Fukuoka is second only to Tokyo for the highest concentration of restaurants in Japan. In fact, in those terms it beats Singapore, New York, Hong Kong and most other major cities in the world. TripAdvisor currently lists 9,398 restaurants in Fukuoka — which means that if you dined at a different one every day, it would take you around 25 years to try them all.
You’d also have to eat a heck of a lot of motsunabe, the offal hotpot that’s a specialty of Fukuoka: the city has more motsunabe restaurants per capita than any other Japanese city. It’s also got the second most gyoza restaurants, the third most ramen restaurants and, more surprisingly, Japan’s highest concentration of Spanish and Mexican restaurants.
10. Fukuoka is no place to be a chicken
Fukuokans are Japan’s biggest chicken-eaters, with each household purchasing an average of 21,446 grams of the meat per year. And that’s just the stuff they cook at home: Fukuoka has some 660 restaurants that specialize in yakitori — grilled chicken skewers — to feed the city’s poultry habit.
11. Centuries at sea
Hakata has centuries of history as one of Japan’s most important ports. In the 12th century, it was the heart of Japan’s trade with China, and by the 17th, it was a point of entry for the earliest European seafarers, who marked it on their first maps of Japan as “Facata”. Today the port welcomes more long-distance travelers than any other in Japan, hitting a high of more than 1 million ocean-liner passengers in 2015.
12. A young city
Fukuoka has one of the sprightliest populations in Japan: 19.5 percent of its residents — nearly one in five — are aged between 15 and 29. And there are more on the way. With 9.6 new babies per 1,000 people, Fukuoka has one of Japan’s highest birth rates.
13. Fukuokans are always immaculately groomed
Or at least, we should be. The city has the highest concentration of beauty salons of any Japanese metropolis: 8.38 for every 10,000 female residents. And women certainly aren’t the only ones visiting them, as a glance at the ads for men’s shaves, facials, massages and — gulp — body waxing will prove.
14. Sumo wrestle blindfold? A Fukuokan can!
Every year in early December, a sumo wrestling match takes place at the Masue Goro Inari Shrine in Fukuoka Prefecture — with a difference. These wrestlers are fully clothed, for a start. And they’re women. And they’re blindfolded. No one’s entirely sure where the tradition comes from, but it’s supposed to symbolize life’s uncertainty and struggles, as well as the importance of relying on others for help. Why only women, though? Apparently because men’s egos would get in the way.
15. From toilet to tank
Since March 2015, Fukuoka is home to the world’s first hydrogen refueling station powered by… sewage. That’s right: the city collects wastewater, separates out the sludge (genuine technical term), allows it to ferment and turns the resulting gas into hydrogen — which can then be used to power clean cars. The process produces enough hydrogen to refill around 65 fuel cell vehicles every day.
16. Somewhere to sing about
Fukuoka provided the unexpected inspiration for one of the biggest Latin music hits of recent years: Bachata en Fukuoka by the Dominican singer Juan Luis Guerra. He penned it after performing here in 2010: so surprised was he by the crowd’s enthusiasm — apparently they knew all the words and even more impressively, all the dance moves — that he wrote a tribute.
17. Fukuoka has Japan’s crappiest museum (literally)
We don’t mean it’s bad. In fact, we’re pretty proud of it. It’s Japan’s only museum dedicated to… toilets. As anyone who’s used the high-tech facilities here will know, Japanese toilets are a wonder to behold (and bestride). Toto, the company that invented the famous built-in bidet model — and the world’s largest loo-maker — has had its headquarters in Fukuoka Prefecture for nearly a century, and last year it opened a museum to document its achievements. Attractions include some of the earliest flush toilets, an extra-wide model designed for sumo wrestlers and famous bathrooms that once served the prime minister’s office and state guest house in Tokyo.
18. Startup central
Japan isn’t especially known for its startup scene, but Fukuoka is doing its best to change that. The city already has the highest rate of new startups in Japan (7 percent) and, by offering incentives that include Japan’s first and only Startup Visa for foreign entrepreneurs, it hopes to attract even more. So far, made-in-Fukuoka ventures include Ikkai, a “task marketplace” where students sell their services, and anect, developer of a flea market app.
19. Our baseball stadium is the stuff of science fiction
Fukuoka’s Yahuoku! Dome, home of the SoftBank Hawks, isn’t always a dome: its glittering roof can be retracted to convert it into an open-air arena. When it was built in 1993, it was the first stadium in Japan to feature the mechanism, which explains why it made it into a science-fiction film. The Dome has a cameo in the 1995 monster movie Gamera: Guardian of the Universe, when scientists lure man-eating pterodactyls inside the open-topped stadium in order to close the roof and trap them inside. (Closing the roof in real life takes around 20 minutes, so we assume they took some artistic license.)
20. Japan’s second Valentine’s Day began here
If you’re new to Japan, you may not be aware that here we celebrate romance twice a year: once on Valentine’s Day, like the rest of the world, and then again exactly one month later. March 14 is White Day: the day that men reciprocate the Valentine’s gifts given to them by women. The tradition reportedly has its roots in Fukuoka, where, in 1977, local confectioner Ishimura Manseido dubbed March 14 “Marshmallow Day” and began marketing the gooey white candy specifically to male customers as a gift for the lady in their life.
21. Commuting’s a breeze…
The average Fukuokan spends a mere 34.5 minutes getting to work or school each day — that’s a precious four minutes less than the nationwide average. Hey, a lot can happen in four minutes.
22. Home of the world’s heaviest strawberry
Seriously. It weighed a whopping 250 grams, measured 25-30 centimeters around and was grown by Koji Nakao of Fukuoka in January 2015. He holds the Guinness World Record to this day (as for the strawberry, Nakao let his daughter eat it; she says it was delicious).
Compiled by Jessica Phelan
Most facts and all the illustrations presented here were sourced from the “Fukuoka Facts” website: http://facts.city.fukuoka.lg.jp/en/
Originally published in Fukuoka Now Magazine (fn211, Jul. 2016)