Vibrant Fukuoka

We can’t remember whether we decided to go to Fukuoka because it is one of Japan’s largest cities and the furthest South West we’d go, or because every November, for a week, Fukuoka is thrust into the nation’s spotlight as visitors flock to the city that hosts one of Japan’s six Sumo Grand Tournaments. Either way, it’s not one of the most well known  Japanese cities. However, we absolutely loved the size and pace of this fabulous place. Fukuoka is the biggest city on Kyushu island and is growing fast. With over 1,5 million people, it has recently passed Kyoto and Kobe to become Japan’s sixth-largest city.

Our research revealed that Fukuoka has a long history going back over 2000 years and is made up of two former towns; the castle town Fukuoka and the merchant town Hakata. There are compelling reasons to stay either in the Hakata area near the main railway station, or Tenjin, which is the more modern downtown. We opted for the latter. 

We stayed at lyf, Tenjin, positioned as a “co-living hotel”, where we could “enjoy authentic local experiences and creative living spaces”. We couldn’t decide if this sounded truly awful or refreshingly delightful, but decided to take a chance and absolutely loved the experience! It was surprisingly the most affordable of all the places we stayed in Japan and possibly one of the newest.

Our room turned out to be sparkling clean, cleverly compact and superbly convenient to the main bus routes, shops and a charming shrine. There are some well equipped communal areas for cooking, fridges for storing your food, lounge and games areas for reading or chilling, and a wonderful niche for doing your laundry. Breakfast was also included and it involved your choice of pastries and a coffee. We tried to avoid this as we were ‘saving’ ourselves for the feasts that awaited us elsewhere in the city. There was also an enticing looking wine tasting business operating on the ground floor that we were tempted to pop in to every time we went passed.

We checked in and dumped our bags. The good news was that our bag dispatched from Hiroshima had arrived safely. The bad news was that it was the bag intended for Kyoto. 😝 Oh dear. We decided to think through the implications later. The more exciting thing was that our sumo tournament tickets ordered a month prior from SA, were also neatly in an envelope, awaiting our attention.


Geoff’s understanding from reading about Sumo was that the higher ranked athletes competed in the afternoon and evening and the lower ranked competitors were wrestling in the morning. You could spend the entire day there, with your ticket allowing one exit and return. As a result the morning matches are less well attended and BONUS! you could sit in the “expensive” seats closer to the action and take pictures. (The access gets strictly managed later on in the proceedings).

Some cities are all about the subway (Tokyo), others the streetcars (Hiroshima), although Fukuoka has a well developed subway, this was a convenient bus destination for us. We wandered out of our hotel, went through a little park, crossed a busy shopping street and meandered through the grounds of a shrine. From here we could look out for a bus to Hakata station, from where it was easy to get either a bus or train to any part of the city. Our “lyf Guard” (don’t ask) at the hotel helped with bus numbers and we were lucky to find a bus immediately that took us directly to Fukuoka port. We disembarked at Fukuoka Kokusai Center. The excitement started to build for us immediately as we noticed the colourful event bunting and a pair of hefty sumos strolling by wearing traditional gowns.

JRrailpass.com shares fascinating insights about Sumo. Sumo is more than just a job – it’s a lifestyle – and the wrestlers must adhere to a rigorous schedule and set of rules in order to preserve their status.

The wrestlers accept rules that dictate the way they speak and even how they show emotion, as well as where they live and how they dress.

Sumo wrestlers live in ‘stables’ with up to 14 other athletes where they train and maintain their imposing physiques on a diet of hearty hot pots, sushi and deep-fried food. They are only permitted to move into private quarters if and when they marry.

Wrestlers are not allowed to drive, and they must always dress in traditional Japanese clothing. 

Six grand sumo tournaments are held in Japan every year, and the one in November lasts for two weeks.

We paused to admire some lovely ladies all dressed up in traditional kimono for the event, briefly browsed the sumo memorabilia and other goods on sale, but were excited to get stuck in to our first match.

Inside the stadium it was, as described, still very low key with few attendees. However the sumo matches were already underway and we tried to look like we knew where we were going and scooted into a Japanese-style box seat which has the capacity for four people and contains plush cushions. We had to remove or shoes. Box seats are sold as entire boxes even if there’s only two of you. It made a huge difference being so close to the ring. The arena is not that big, so even the cheapest seats (high up at the top) give you a good view of the sumo action, but being able to see the facial expressions, the physical exertions, the attitudes up close was very interesting and exciting. It was ideal for photography too.

The sumo wear a formal apron garment known as keshō-mawashi, for the ring entering ceremony.
In this shot of the wrestler and the referee, you can see the cloud of salt that he has tossed in the air.

The basic rules of sumo are relatively simple. It is full-contact wrestling, and a display of brute force, strength, and considerable skill, in which one rikishi or sekitori (two of the names for sumo wrestlers by rank) attempts to force the other outside of the ring, which is known as the dohyo, or to touch the ground with anything other than the bottom of their feet. There are 48 permitted moves that sumo wrestlers can use against their opponent. If they use an illegal move, known as kinjite, they forfeit the match. The dohyo in which the two sumo collide is an elevated earthen ring, made from clay, covered in sand, and enclosed by a circle of rope. It is said that rice is buried under the ring to reflect the ancient origins of sumo, while the wooden roof that hangs over the dohyo in the arena is the same style and constructions as those of Shinto shrines. 

The rituals continue inside the circle too, with elaborate ring-entering ceremonies. The entrance of a Yokozuna grand champion for instance will feature a tachimochi, or sword bearer. When the two opponents enter the dohyo they look into each other’s eyes before turning to face their corners, which are always either south-west or south-east. Each wrestler then performs the shiko – one of the most famous and recognisable sumo rituals. This is basically the moment they squat, clap, and raise their right leg before bringing it down with a stamp. Once they have done this with their right foot they do the same with their left. After this, the wrestlers return to their respective corners where they are given water known as chikara-mizu, or ‘strength water’, to rinse their mouths out. This is connected to Shinto purification rituals.

Next, the two wrestlers assume the sonkyo position in the centre of the ring. This is a wide-legged stance to indicate they are willing to fight fairly. At this point, any prize money being fought for is displayed on banners by the ring. Purification salt is then thrown by each wrestler over their shoulder as they take their place on the starting line, or shikiri-sen. The wrestlers then perform one final shiko and the gyoji (referee) tells them it is time to begin. They are now ready to fight. It’s worth noting that unlike boxing, there are no weight classes in sumo, so adding extra weight to your frame is a big part of a sumo’s training regime and diet, although strength and skill are just as important as size.

The wrestlers match their breaths with their opponent, and the second that both of them place fists on the ground, the bout begins. While the bout is underway, the referee shouts “Nokotta!” (Remaining!) while the wrestlers are grappling with each other and “Hakkiyoi!” (Come on!) when the wrestlers are not moving

I was taken completely by surprise that an average bout is over within minutes, if not seconds! So much ceremony and posturing for so little action! Before each match the wrestler is introduced by a yobidashi, an announcer who steps into the ring. He’s not singing, but rather chanting the names of the rikishi who are about to compete. This has been a tradition of sumo for over 200 years. Yobidashi use volume and intonation to add to the appeal of their introductions.

Insert video of Sumo bout above.

The wrestlers were very young and it was astounding to see how unhealthy they looked. Surely all that blubber and violent exertion is a heart attack waiting to happen? 🤼‍♀️ 

We got into the spirit of things by choosing a man to back for the bout. In the same way as you would ‘study form’ in a racehorse, admiring the jockey’s silks and the steeds haunches, we selected a champion to back by the colour of his nappy, the degree of arrogance in how he tossed his salt, or how aggressively he smacked his hand against his hip. We groaned when our champ was tumbled from the ring and cheered when our man out-maneuvered his opponent, sending him stumbling into the dirt. We were gripped when both heroes dramatically fell off the stage simultaneously and the judges were summoned to agree on a winner or a rematch. We gasped at some of the injuries, shocked to see blood in some cases and frequent severe grazes and bruises.

We had to drag ourselves away for lunch.

We wandered around the area for a bit, but found nothing open, nor vaguely appealing and elected to head for Hakata station. After all, Japan is famous for its brilliant eateries located in railway stations of all places. We hopped on a bus, using our suica cards. 

Orientating ourselves in the immense station is always a feat. God forbid if a bus drops you at the wrong side of the station – it takes ages to work out where you in relation to things you recalled seeing before…like the food hall! Anyway we eventually chose a place that specialised in rice. What a great decision!

After lunch we headed back to the sumo stadium. Things had started to pick up and although we were relegated to the higher up seats, the atmosphere was awesome. We remained enthralled until the match ended and we joined the crowds to search for public transport back to the station.

We quickly became quite adept at finding a bus station, selecting the possible bus numbers that would take us to Hakata station, from where we would again find the right place to take a bus to Tenjin station – a short walk from our hotel.

Geoff has enlisted one of the hotel “lyf guards” to share her top ramen restaurants.  The first one we tried was very close to our hotel and was delicious. Once again we were reminded of the adage that its hard to have a bad meal in Japan.

We decided on a short day trip to Nanzo-in. From Hakata station, we took the local Sasagurii line to Kidonanzoin-Mae station.  Its a beautiful rustic and quiet station. The Sasaguri Pilgrimage is a very popular pilgrimage in northern Kyushu (it connects 88 Buddhist temples along an approximately 50 kilometre route). Similar to the Kumano trail, it is also set in glorious countryside and mountains. This pilgrimage route is visited by up to a million people a year who come for spiritual and religious reasons, or simply to enjoy walking and exploring in a rural setting.

There is a trail up to the temple which is about a 5-minute walk from the station. We first had to cross a little bridge. It wasn’t just an ordinary bridge however, it was a xylophone bridge. We’d come to see the famous reclining Buddha, known for its immense scale, but we were taken aback by the wonderful discoveries we found in the broader complex.

At the entrance to the temple is an epic statue of Fudo Myo-o, one of the 5 deities protecting the laws of Buddhism. Fudo Myo-o is known as the God of fire, and despite his menacing and formidable appearance, he is actually a defender of the faith who guides you past temptation towards the path of enlightenment. Yes I wouldn’t argue with him either. I was quite happy to rub the lucky bronze tummy of a far more cheerful statue.

Typically his statues and depictions are located deep within mountain ranges or near waterfalls, which was the case here at Nanzoin, tucked in between imposing rock formations.

The temple features several walking paths through the dense forest which lead to waterfalls, caves, ponds, and other natural features dotting the mountain top

A tunnel known as the Tunnel of the Seven Gods of Fortune links the Hon-do side and the Reclining Buddha side. Seven gods of good fortune are enshrined in the centre of the tunnel, and photography was forbidden.


Most impressive was a literal army of Buddhist statues. The more we explored, the more we found. They were are dotted all along the rockface of the temple and I’d say there’s at least 500 of them. Each one has a unique pose and expression.

Buddha statues are more than a physical depiction of Buddha, they all have meaning. Each pose, posture, expression and hand gesture is significant to the life of Buddha. There are over 100 different poses that illustrate the life and enlightenment phases of Buddha, also called an asana or attitude, and hand gestures are referred to as a Mudra. 

There were also some larger statues higher up along the route. They were dressed in little red capes. It was all so intriguing and charming. The amount of time and attention to detail that people spent carving these works of art is astounding.

Sasaguri town is designated as a “forest therapy base” where people can “bathe” in trees and seek the restorative benefits of immersion into nature. In this area we could immediately sense the tranquility. I’m not sure if it is the fresh mountain air, or the aroma of the pine and cedar, but all your senses are filled with complete peace. We were particularly excited by all the photographic opportunities on offer. 

Perhaps the most impressive site along the pilgrimage is the Buddha of Nanzo-in. The gigantic “Reclining Buddha” (Nehanzo) is said to be the biggest bronze statue in the world.

There are 3 main poses for Buddha:

  • Standing – Common everywhere
  • Sitting – Commonly seen in Japan, showcases meditation
  • Reclining – Common in South East Asia, representing the point of the Buddha’s death and ascension to Nirvana

The Buddha, lies horizontally and is 41-meters long, 11-meters high and is said to weigh around 300 tons. Fukuoka’s own Buddha, called Nehanzo or Shakanehanzou, portrays the scene where the Buddha is dying and reaching nirvana. It was a gift to Japan from Myanmar, as thanks for financial and humanitarian aid.

(To put those measurements in perspective, the Statue of Liberty from her heels to the top of her head measures about 34 meters (112 ft). She weighs in at a relatively modest 225 tons which gives you a sense of just how massive this reclining Buddha is.

After appreciating Buddha’s intricately designed feet and taking one last look at the statue in its enormous entirety, we bought a Matcha Tea ice cream and then made our way back to take some more photographs of the little Buddhas. 


We took the train back to the city and then spent some time shopping for electronics (I bought a set of Shokz earphones and Geoff bought a cool bag that doubles as a backpack).

Dinner time and we headed past the famous Yatai stalls located on the sides of the canal. Unfortunately it was raining quite heavily and only a few die-hard vendors were opened. We weren’t too disappointed as we had heard these yatai stalls are tourist traps. We were heading for the famous Ichiran Ramen restaurant.

In Fukuoka, ramen is an art. Most famous is the chain known as Ichiran, which started off as a small family-owned shop back in the 1960s. In 1993, the company opened its first concept restaurant, which features individual booths providing privacy with side barriers and a bamboo curtain in front. None of this social chattering nonsense with which restaurants have come to be associated. The private atmosphere allows patrons to focus solely on their bowl of ramen with zero distractions.

Like many Japanese restaurants, you order and pay for your meal through a ticket vending machine.

Ichiran specializes in Tonkotsu ramen, or pork bone ramen. The noodles are thin and straight. Once you are seated, the server  rolls up the bamboo curtain, greets you and takes your tickets. We were asked to fill out a customisation card, where we could choose the texture of our noodles, the richness of the broth, the amount of seasoning, and the toppings we preferred (spring onion and egg). Once we had finish filling the card out, the server prepares your dish. 

We went with the Ichiran recommendation, which was indicated on the card. It was great fun being able to fine-tune our ramen experience. 

Each booth is equipped with a water tap and a cup. There was therefore no need to be distracted again from your bowl of deliciousness.


Canal City is Fukuoka’s largest mall. It is a beautifully designed mall with an artificial canal and an an amazing illuminated fountain symphony and light show. We really enjoyed watching the water swirl and dance in time to powerful music and an array of dazzling, coloured lights.

Japanese shops are often quite intriguing. We stopped at a delightful store that was all about soft fluffy toys – characters such as Hello Kitty and other friends. We were amused at how many adults were shopping. Not to be left out, we bought a little black character that reminded us of Inky. He became our new travel mascot and fitted nicely into Geoff’s new backpack.

When the bakery queues runs 100 metres down the road and people are lining up to get in when there is an icy wind blowing, you know that you are in the right place for breakfast. 

Emboldened by his discovery of Andersen Delicatessen in Hiroshima, Geoff decided that Japan knows how to do boulangerie and patisserie as well as the French. Dacomecca is one of those places that you wish you’d discovered on your first morning. The sense of overwhelming choices, literally had me panicking. How to choose! How to choose and keep moving in the line and not double back for an oversight that you might regret later. Decisions, decisions!

When you finally get inside, there is a delicious aroma of sausages being grilled on the hibachi. This mingles with the smells of freshly baked bread in all sorts of shapes and flavour combinations.

The savouries are mouth-watering. The combinations are unusual. I kind of wanted to try everything, but we rationed ourselves to two savouries and a sweet thing. (I snuck in an extra sweet thing).

Fortunately we had the opportunity to go to the bakery twice. Once for a brunch and once to grab some take-aways for our train journey to Kyoto. (It is located right nearby to Hakata station).

We visited Fukuoka in the second half of November, and the street in front of Hakata Station was full of stunning illumination. There was also a Christmas Market with European food, Christmas ornaments, and of course my favorite – glühwein. Unfortunately, you had to purchase a ceramic mug to enjoy a glass of glühwein, which is rather counter intuitive when you plan to travel light. The intermittent showers of rain and the cooler weather, made it feel really Christmassy.



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