Fukuoka: Designed for living

by Stephen Mansfield

Inquiring as to the whereabouts of English-language bookstores in Fukuoka, the person at the Rainbow Plaza information center’s desk straightaway handed me a printout of English listings, maps and directions. This, I began to realize, is a well organized city.

Despite the riches they ooze, Japanese cities in general have not become comfortable environments in which to live — except for the very wealthy. Ordinary people must endure overcrowding, “rabbit-hutch” homes, commuter crushes and a relentless urban clamor. In the 1960s, the British architect J.M. Richards called such Japanese environments “terrifying wirescapes.”

In contrast, Fukuoka strikes the visitor as a carefully reimagined city, an urban center designed for living, where the sidewalks are broad, the amenities good and the “wirescape” at a minimum.

Fukuoka residents, at just under 1.5 million, represent a nicely manageable number given the size of the city, which in 1889 merged with its twin, Hakata, to create the nation’s eighth-biggest metropolis. Moreover, its populace — with an average age of just over 40 — think of their home as neither too big nor too small, but just right for their needs. In short, here is a city that has everything except teeming multitudes of people.

Fukuoka, the biggest city on Japan’s second-largest island of Kyushu, is also an international hub that’s happy to celebrate its polyglot culture. As Japan’s closest major center to mainland Asia, it has for at least a millennium been the country’s main port of entry for Chinese and Korean culture, lending it an attractive pan-Asian flavor the local government is eager to exploit.

It was through this part of the country that the Buddha’s teachings first reached Japan’s shores. Early Europeans also came here lusting after Christian converts, trade and local women. Although the early Catholic missions tried to suppress the practice, a 17th-century Italian named Francesco Carletti, who stopped off in Kyushu while on a round-the-world voyage, had this to say: “As soon as ever these Portuguese arrive and disembark, the pimps who control this traffic in women call on them in the houses in which they are quartered for the time of their stay, and inquire whether they would like to purchase, or acquire in any other method they please, a girl, for the period of their sojourn.”

After just a few weeks in the country, Carletti seems to have become rather well informed about such mores.

History aside, Fukuoka today presents a strikingly modern face to the visitor, one exemplified by the landmark ACROS Fukuoka Building, whose acronym stands for “Asian Crossroads Over the Sea.” A very slick cultural center with shops, exhibition spaces and a symphony hall, the curiously ziggurat-shaped structure is hung with foliage in a tiered outer mass of greenery called the Step Garden.

If the ACROS building in a corner of Chuo Park in the city’s main commercial district of Tenjin suggests an Inca ruin, Fukuoka City Public Library, with its sand-colored block towers and lozenge-shaped windows, speaks of a vaguely Yemeni provenance. Apart from its huge collection of books, the library has an extensive archive of Asian films, videos and historical documents.

Meanwhile, another daring design, that of Fukuoka Tower, dominates the reclaimed edges of the Momochi waterfront area. The structure, featured on all Fukuoka’s brochures and travel handouts, has become a symbol of the city’s rebirth. Essentially a communications pylon, with an observation deck at a height of 123 meters, the tower’s blue surfaces (its lower sections are covered with 8,000 sheets of reflective glass) bristle with lights and radio transmitters.

Visitors are also drawn to Momochi’s massive 1,050-room Sea Hawk Resort and the Soft Research Park, a company development that also houses Marizon Seaside Promenade and the spacious City Museum. Then, a little south of the tower, lies the highly original Saibu Gas Museum, a combined science and art venue housing an exhibition area called the Gallery of Flame — an otherworldly assemblage of art objects created with natural gas. When the supply is switched off, the installations vanish into the ether.

However, there is nothing vaporous about the buildings in which the museum is housed. Like many of the new structures in this exciting city, it is a solid testimony to what can be done with a little imagination, openmindedness and, naturally, the requisite funds.

Fukuoka Dome, part of the seafront Hawks Town complex, outclasses all such stadiums nationwide. The largest baseball venue in Japan, and one of only a handful with a retractable roof, it also boasts a remarkably long bar, called The Big Life, which overlooks the playing area. The bar’s roof, with a reflective quality akin to some rare alloy, contrasts with a row of red, pink and yellow woodframe shop fronts that might have been teleported from a wharf in Nova Scotia.

Fukuoka’s modernity, its willingness to experiment, is exemplified by the Canal City shopping and entertainment complex. This was created by California architect Jon Jerde, who also designed Universal Studios’ cartoon-like Universal CityWalk in Hollywood and the giant Mall of America outside Minneapolis-St. Paul in Minnesota.

Opened in 1996, Canal City was the first mall of its kind in Kyushu to mix shopping and leisure activities in one unified space. Curvaceous walls — looking like opera boxes or window balconies decked out with overhanging plants — overlook an artificial canal, or “spouting walkway” as it is termed, with outdoor retail booths and a performance space. Sleek cafes, restaurants, and several import clothing stores are represented here along with a 13-theater AMC mega-movieplex.

Also, in keeping with Fukuoka’s thoughtful planning and administrative ethos, Canal City’s exploding fountains use rainwater and wastewater treated within the complex. Altogether, it’s quite a sight to behold.

Where Europeans may be overawed by the architecture of the past, the Japanese radically deviate, firmly believing that they can improve on the past, or at least create something more apropos the times. In urban centers where the longevity of buildings is measured not in epochs but in decades, people here turn to the present for their architectural wonders — and there are few places better than Fukuoka in which to start exploring this phenomenon of perpetual change.

Fukuoka Airport is just a couple of stops from Hakata; while Nozomi shinkansen bullet trains between there and Tokyo take only five hours. City buses are good, but the subway is quicker. The gorgeous Grand Hyatt Fukuoka ([092] 282-1234) is not cheap, but has all the trimmings; while the Hotel New Simple ([092] 411-4311) is basic, but has a helpful, English-speaking staff and extremely reasonable rates. The Rainbow Plaza ([092] 733-2220; open 10 a.m.-8 p.m.) in the IMS Building in Tenjin has excellent city information, English newspapers and free Internet access.