Voices of Fukuoka’s international residents
In recent posts, I’ve shared updates on Fukuoka City’s urban planning and support of its citizens’ well-being. And the city consistently ranks high in media surveys on liveability. But what do the people who live here think? In this installment, I share the thoughts and experiences of some of Fukuoka’s international community.
This is the last installment of this five-part series on Fukuoka City. As the city and world edge out of the pandemic, we expect Fukuoka City will continue to lead and innovate. What do you think? We’d love to hear your comments on Fukuoka City as it is now and the direction we have shared. Email: editor (@) fukuoka-now.com
Stephen Lyman has one of the coolest titles I’ve come across, Shochu Ambassador. It sounds like a license for good times. But actually it’s a serious pursuit, and Stephen has gone deep, very deep into the domain of Kyushu’s favorite distilled beverage, shochu. When a position at Kyushu University opened up, he grabbed the opportunity and moved to Fukuoka to be closer to his passion. That was a few years ago, so I asked him how things were going.
Today marks your fourth year anniversary since moving to Fukuoka. Still happy with the move?
It actually exceeded my expectations. I moved here in my late 40s, so making friends has been a challenge, but I think that would be a challenge anywhere. Although I feel like now I have a nice community of people that I can spend time with and that I can rely on, which has obviously been a hugely important aspect of the social side of living anywhere, but I found Fukuoka to be extremely comfortable.
It’s safe, it’s convenient, it’s affordable. The food is incredible. And the access to nature is fantastic. I mean, coming from New York City, where anytime I wanted to get out of the city took me at least an hour and it was a headache. Here, head 20-30 minutes in almost any direction, and you feel like you’re in the countryside. It’s really nice.
Ok, but nowhere is perfect, what could be improved?
I’m a cyclist and a pedestrian primarily, and there are a number of intersections around the city that are. Let’s say, not convenient. But overall, Fukuoka is an incredibly easy place to cycle. It’s safe and convenient to go almost anywhere with a bicycle.
How much time do you spend on your bicycle?
Probably ride about an hour a day. I would say 30 minutes each way on my commute, plus errands.
How would you rate Fukuoka as a city for cyclists?
Very good. Lots of lanes (some could be improved), lots of bicycle parking and it’s mostly flat. I love riding along the rivers and coast line.
There’s a lot of urban development underway in the city. How do you feel about that?
I like the older areas and shopping arcades. I hope the city can support or provide incentives for young entrepreneurs to open cafes and coffee shops and, whatever their interest is to keep those places alive. They are such a large part of Japanese culture. I support the Startup Cafe, Fukuoka Next initiatives, but hope the City will provide opportunities to the little guys as well.
Can you recommend Fukuoka to?
For me, because of proximity to shochu distilleries, this is really the right place for me. It’s just so much more livable, so much more convenient and so much more affordable. And I know a number of people who have started successful businesses here. So if that’s what you’re interested in there are some very good resources available to people trying to start companies.
I lived in New York City, and garbage pickup was always noisy and inconvenient. For everyone involved, right? And here it’s quiet and convenient. In Fukuoka they pick up late at night when there’s no traffic, which makes perfect sense, and yet the trucks are quiet. Another thing Fukuoka gets right!
I don’t know many expats who have lived here longer than myself, but of course, there are some. One of them is Linda Saza, who was born in New York. Linda has lived in Fukuoka since 1981. She has taught English, raised two children, and has spent most of her free time on the water! Linda currently sails out of Imazu Port on Sazanami, a 30ft. sailboat. She also skippers sail training trips out of Pearl Sea in Sasebo, Nagasaki, on a seasonal basis. You’ll often hear people boast about how close Fukuoka is to the sea, but few actually spend as much time on it as Linda.
Now in your 43rd year here, what do you still like about it?
I’ve traveled the world and been to lots of major cities and minor cities, and Fukuoka’s got it all. Well, I mean, it’s got what I want! It has the mountains, and it’s got the sea, it’s got good food, good water, friendly people, a decent economy—just the quality of life you can achieve here without burning through your worldly savings. Take housing for instance. I have my own home, but even if you were renting, it’s not exorbitant like New York or Tokyo. And it’s super safe and clean no matter where you go.
What about transportation?
Everything is compact. I like the fact that you can easily get across the city in a short time… I can arrive at Fukuoka International Airport and be home in about 10 minutes. I have a car, but even if I didn’t, I don’t think it would take much longer by subway. The public transportation system here with the subway, trains and buses is amazing. And it is not just Fukuoka. All over Japan, transportation is efficient, safe and clean! Who knows, it might even be #1 in the world these days. A car is nice, but you could get by without one for sure.
What’s changed since you first lived here?
You’re getting more and more influence from outside; things like Costco and Ikea. Those little things that make life for foreigners a little bit easier. When I first came to Fukuoka, we didn’t have any of that. There were a few services, like the Foreign Buyer’s Club, where you had to order your Cheerios by FAX from Kobe or some far away place. Now, all you have to do is stroll down the street, and you have almost everything you want.
You raised your two children here. What about the schools?
The schools here are good. I don’t think there are any places in Fukuoka where you’d say, “Oh, I don’t want my kids going to that public school”. In the States, where you live and what school your kids attend is a major deal breaker. My children went to the local Japanese elementary school, and I was satisfied with the quality of the education they received, but they knew they wanted to eventually go to university in the States, so we decided to switch to the International School from Junior High. For one, they would be in a more competitive position when applying to US colleges, and also, I felt more equipped to assist them in English, in a system more closely resembling my own experience. But back to the question, the local public schools are fine. If the Fukuoka International School wasn’t literally around the corner from my house, things might have gone very differently.
Can you recommend Fukuoka to women as a place to work and live?
I think there are many opportunities for women. I don’t think there’s any more of a glass ceiling here than in other modern western cities. I’m sure there are some exceptions, like maybe inside major traditional , conservative corporations, but nowadays, if you have the right skill set and are in the right field for these times, I don’t think it makes that much of a difference if you’re a guy or a girl. I know several women who are architects here in Fukuoka and I know quite a number of women who are doctors; both those fields traditionally thought to be male dominated….I feel it is more of a case of where there is a will, there is a way.
How do you enjoy Fukuoka?
Marine sports. As long as I can see the ocean once a day, I’m happy. So I spend much time on my boat, and recently I’ve been getting into rowing. I’m involved in trying to make a rowing club. So, so yeah, SUP with my dog, rowing, swimming, and sailing. If you want to find me, look in the ocean; I’m probably bobbing around out there. Fukuoka? Yeah, it ticks off all my boxes.
James is from Taiwan and has lived in Fukuoka for five years since establishing a luxury car (Aston Martin and McLaren) sales company in 2017. He studied industrial design in Vienna, Austria, worked in various industries before joining this car dealer group in Taipei, and is now based in Fukuoka with his wife and son. I met James at his office to chat about his experience in Fukuoka so far.
What are some of Fukuoka’s strengths?
Location, meaning its place in Asia. Suppose you look at the map. It is situated in the center of the northeast. So you can go to Shanghai, Taipei or Tokyo within two hours. So it’s very convenient.
Why do you think Fukuoka ranks well in terms of liveability?
The weather, the public transportation, and the favorable cost of living. It’s safe and convenient, traffic is OK, and I’m impressed with the government’s generous support for children. Even though we are foreigners, we automatically receive financial child support.
If you’re happy with the income you can earn here; then I think it’s the best city in Northeast Asia. If I were working for the city in overseas promotion, I would brand it as Switzerland within Japan. High-quality everything and easy to do business in.
Does your company employ internationals?
Yes, including me, there are two others out of a total of twenty-five.
Fukuoka City’s population is growing. What do you make of that?
Growing but, I still feel many of the younger and talented are drawn to bigger cities like Tokyo for experiences and opportunities. Then after some years, fed up with the high cost of living, they return, But by then, they are older and less employable.
What do you think about Tenjin Big Bang?
Yeah, it’s good to tear down those old buildings and build new ones; to make the city look more modern. And I’m thrilled to hear about the opening of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, Fukuoka. Many of our Taiwanese customers like Japan very much and travel every year. With that class of hotel, they are likely to spend more nights in Fukuoka.
Advice to foreigners thinking about moving here?
Learn Japanese and kanji. If you do not speak Japanese, be prepared for some difficulties. Language is the biggest challenge, especially to Westerners!
Tim hails from near Byron Bay, Australia, and teaches at Fukuoka University in the Faculty of Humanities. He’s an accomplished Japanese tea practitioner, has studied noh dancing and music, and is a long-time participant in Fukuoka’s Hakata Gion Festival. The first time I met Tim, he was wearing a kimono at a tea ceremony at a well-known Zen in temple in Hakata. After more than 5 years in Kitakyushu, a city he is still very fond of, he moved to Fukuoka, where he and his wife raised their son on Noko Island. For most, the quiet and beautiful island is like a resort or retreat; for Tim, it’s the community called home. While not everyone can nor should move to Noko, the fact that Fukuoka offers such diverse options is remarkable.
How did you come to live on Noko Island?
I’ve been enjoying the ocean for a half century and I have got the skin cancers to prove it. I need to be near the water. When I got the job at Fukuoka University, the bicycle commute from the beach was part of the dream. I told a friend I wanted to live near the water and he organized something for me. It was straight into Noko.
What was it like moving there?
That was in 1996. It was like going a further 30 or 40 years back, but with all the pluses and minuses. For example, the thickness of human relations on the island. You’re dealing with an environment where people have a generational memory. Which is the foundation for how they interact with other people. I learnt to navigate that.
But as I mentioned, I wanted to live near the sea. I was into windsurfing. Like, on a good day, I could windsurf before breakfast, push the pedals to the factory, teach a few classes and come home on the 4:15 boat and go out on the water again and get two sessions in one day.
Do you still windsurf?
Now I’m more of a kite surfer, which is close to windsurfing. I do SUP, swim and people keep giving me kayaks. Maybe foiling is next …
Sounds like an amazing place to live.
If you go around the world, how many cities of the caliber of Fukuoka have an island just a 10 minute boat ride away? Seattle has a 35 minute ferry trip, but there’s likely only a few. And because it’s a Quasi National Park, you’ve got stacks of natural environment left here.
Is it easy to move onto the island?
Being a Quasi National Park limits how many households can be built on the island, so you can’t just build a new structure. Lots of controls like that.
Are there any other foreigners living on the island?
Not many right now, two Americans and two Canadians.
Any other place you’d consider moving to?
Nah. I think I cracked the lifestyle lottery! Kitakyushu has more thorough recycling regulations for households and the welfare support provided for people who want to die in their own house, rather than a hospital, is better there too. But I guess I will be here until I melt into the island soil!
Fukuoka City x Fukuoka Now
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• Choosing to live in Fukuoka means choosing well-being
• Living for what you love
• What’s Fukuoka City Really Like?