Fukuoka, the biggest city in Kyushu and a key gateway linking Japan to the rest of Asia, has the air of a modern metropolis. But the city is also rich in traditional culture and its residents’ long-standing hospitality toward visitors is well known.
To enjoy visiting Fukuoka’s historical sites — while being given detailed explanations (in either English, Japanese or Korean) of what you are seeing — a good way is to take a walk around the city that’s home to almost 1.5 million people with a member of a group named Fukuoka City Volunteer Sightseeing Guide (FCVSG).
So it was that, in steamy mid-September, I met Rinzo Irie, a retired businessman who is now one of FCVSG’s guides.
From JR Hakata Station, the railway hub of Kyushu where we met, we set off on a walking tour that would take in many historic highlights.
To start with, as we strolled from the station down a main street named Taihaku-dori Avenue, I asked Irie if he could answer a simple question about the city that had bugged me for ages.
“Why does Fukuoka have another name — Hakata — for its railway station and for the names of local foods such as Hakata ramen?”
Irie took that one in his stride and straightaway explained that the place name Hakata has appeared in historical documents from as long ago as the Nara Period (710-784), when it began to prosper as a merchants’ town.
But then in 1600, Irie continued, when a warrior lord named Kuroda Nagamasa was given land adjoining Hakata by Tokugawa Ieyasu — who three years later was to seize control of the whole country — Kuroda built a castle there and named it Fukuoka Castle after his hometown in present-day Okayama Prefecture. Since then, the area around the castle — where nobles and samurai had lived — has been called Fukuoka; while the old town — where merchants had lived — continued to be called Hakata.
“But around the middle of the (modernizing) Meiji Era (1868-1912), the local government here needed to decide on what to officially call the Fukuoka / Hakata metropolis,” my guide explained, adding that “heated debate took place among the public before the assembly then governing both Fukuoka and Hakata finally voted for the name Fukuoka. But as a sop to those who’d backed the name Hakata, that became the name of the station and that part of the city,” he said.
Newly armed with this fascinating nugget of information, I strode with Irie into Hakata town itself, where there are many old temples and shrines.
One of those temples, named Jotenji, impressed in particular with its beautiful rock garden. Irie told me that the temple, dating from 1242, was established by a Buddhist monk named Shoichi Kokushi who had studied in China. He also explained how the origin of Fukuoka’s famous annual Hakata Gion Yamakasa summer festival rested with the self-same monk. That was because, when plague struck Hakata in 1241, young people carried Shoichi Kokushi around town as he sat on a pallet sprinkling the citizens with holy water to ward off infection.
In fact the festival, held from July 1-15 and designated as an Important Intangible Cultural Property of the nation, still features water — though nowadays not in quite the same way. In the festival’s highlight, seven teams of 30 bearers each carry huge, one-ton floats called yama and compete with a passion to be the fastest round the 4-km route starting from Kushida Shrine. As well as the 30 load-bearers, however, each team has hundreds more supporters similarly clad in short happi kimono and loincloths who dash through the streets with them and urge them on. All concerned get very, very wet as spectators douse them with water from start to finish.
But how did this festival get to be so competitive, I wondered. After all, countless other festivals around the country in which mikoshi (portable shrines) are borne around the streets and fields are far more casual and fun-filled.
True to form, Irie had the answer to that on the tip of his tongue. Back in 1687, he told me, there was some social friction in the air after a beautiful woman from the Doi nagare (borough) of Hakata married a man from the Ebisu nagare.
“Because men in the home area of the bride didn’t like the bridegroom, they overtook the team from his nagare in what up till then had been a typically relaxed summer parade,” Irie said. “Then, affronted, the team from the bridegroom’s nagare also started to run and they both kept overtaking each other — and that is the origin of the competition.”
Armed with my new knowledge about the famed festival’s mixed religious and down-to-Earth origins, I then headed off with Irie to Kushida Shrine, which dates from 757 and is where the tutelary gods of Fukuoka are enshrined. In the shrine, visitors can see a 10-meter-high kazari yama (decorated float), which is there to be admired throughout the year, not carried. During the festival, such floats adorned with samurai dolls or ones representing characters from ancient tales are placed at 14 locations around the city.
In the shrine, too, there is a box containing written oracles in English.
“It’s popular among visitors from overseas, but as you speak English, why don’t you try it too?” Irie urged. So I shelled out ¥30, and the sacred lot I drew predicted “great fortune.” Lucky me!
As I floated out of the shrine on a cloud of contentment, my guide led me across the street to the Hakatamachiya Furusatokan museum, built in the style of a traditional Hakata merchant’s house. There, visitors can watch a video of the Hakata Gion Yamakasa and see a variety of traditional Fukuokan crafts, including ceramic Hakata dolls and Hakata-ori silk textiles.
In fact the museum was the final stop on my two-hour walking tour. After bidding farewell to Irie, I headed to Tenjin, Fukuoka’s main shopping and business center, to meet Nobuo Oshiumi, the president of a Hakata-ori textile company. Oshiumi explained that the fabric dates back to 1241, when a local craftsman named Mitsuda Yazaemon returned from China, where he had learned how to weave silk. Subsequently, his descendants added new and original techniques of their own and the end result — which soon spread throughout Hakata — is this uniquely thick and beautiful textile that’s ideal for making into obi (kimono belts).
“Hakata-ori is the toughest silk textile in the world,” Oshiumi said proudly, explaining that weaving the thick, dense fabric was physically demanding work, and thus all the weavers were male. One of the popular traditional patterns these artisans create, Oshiumi told me, has three different elements — a series of plates with a flower motif; a Buddhist ritual stick to banish worldly desires; and a pattern of thick and thin stripes symbolizing the love of parents and children.
“The concepts expressed in the pattern are universal, so I believe people from other countries can enjoy using goods made of this textile,” Oshiumi said. And indeed, since 2000, his company has been using Hakata-ori to make Western-style items such as bags, lampshades and blinds that it markets as its “Hakata Japan” brand. Later, at the Hakata Japan shop, I bought a wallet made of pink Hakata-ori. Although the pattern embodies the idea of shedding desires, I enjoyed looking at it so much that I kept taking it out of my bag to look at and would then wind up buying something from the city’s great range of shops and eateries.
That was especially true in the evening, when Fukuoka’s famed range of roadside yatai stalls selling food and drink come to vibrant life. At one such yatai in the Tenjin district, I’d hardly sat on a stool before the owner-chef cheerily said: “Hi, oneesan (ma’am). Would you like a beer?”
“Yes, please,” I said, turning to the menu.
“I recommend mentai gyoza,” he said. That variety of gyoza (pork dumpling) also has chili-spiced cod roe inside, and these mentaiko, as they’re known, are a Fukuoka specialty. Coming at the end of a hot but fascinating day, the friendliness I’d met everywhere and the fine combination of hot gyoza and cold beer ensured this would not be my last visit to Fukuoka/Hakata.
Fukuoka City Volunteer Sightseeing Guide offers a variety of two-hour walking tours for ¥3,000 per guide. Applications are accepted in advance only, and if public transport is used or admission fees are required, clients are expected to pay the guide’s fare. For more information (in Japanese only), visit www.fukuoka-city-guide.com