Foodie hotspots: Fukuoka City (Nakasu, Tenjin, Oyafuku Odori, Daimyo, Hakata, Gion, Yakuin), Kurume, Yuzawa, Yokote, Mojiko, Kitakyushu, Tenmado, Yukuhashi.
Foodies Look Out For: Hakata ramen; fugu blowfish; Outdoor yatai dining; mentaiko spicy cod roe; Tagawa horumon; yaki udon; Kurume yakitori;
The Basics: Fukuoka prefecture is the thriving, commercial center of Northern Kyushu, with the 'twin city' conurbation of Hakata-Fukuoka at its heart. Originally Hakata and Fukuoka were separate cities, but today they make one huge, if slightly schizophrenic, metropolis. The airport is Fukuoka kuko, the bullet-train station, Hakata eki. The names are often used interchangeably. Whatever you call it, it's a cosmopolitan city, with strong connections to its Asian neighbors. Kitakyushu is a major port city, and Kurume and Mojiko smaller cities worth visiting.
Foodies Go Fukuoka: Fukuokaites love fugu-ryori blowfish served as tessa – finely sliced sashimi – or in zosui (soupy rice), and a dish called game-ni or chikuzen-ni vegetables stewed with chicken meat. They also occasionally consume live shirouo ice goby in the practise known as odorigui, literally the 'dancing eating'. They also produce and consume huge amounts of karashi mentaiko spicy cod roe, not least in the bar and restaurant enclave of Nakasu, where some of Fukuoka’s best is to be found.
Yet for much of Japan, Fukuoka means but one thing: ramen. It is Hakata that lends its name to the strong, white tonkotsu pork-broth ramen that is found on every street in the city, and nowhere is it more popular than at Fukuoka’s famed outdoor food stalls known as yatai.
During the 1990s, municipalities around Japan clamped down on the outdoor food scene, citing concerns that they were breaking 'health and hygiene' regulations, though common wisdom has it that they were miffed at losing tax revenues to the 'dark economy'.
Most yatai (pictured above, photo by Jackbee from Wiki Commons)are found in the central district of Tenjin, or west of the Canal City entertainment district on the banks of the Nakagawa River. Eating at the noisy, people-filled yatai is a wonderful experience. Every local has their favourite, and comparing spots and trading secrets is half the fun. There are approximately 150 to choose from, most accommodating less than ten customers at a time. The narrow confines encourage communication, sometimes whether you like it or not!
Yatai Donryu (Hakata Ramen) in Minami-Tenjin, Nagahama Nanbawan (Number One, Nagahama Ramen), Tomo-chan at Tenjin 1-14-16 (ox tongue), Yama-chan (oden, tempura and ramen) in Nakasu beside Seiryu Koen park, and nearby Take-chan (handmade gyoza dumplings, ramen) are all excellent options. For something completely different, Remi Sanchi in front of the Tenjin Loft department store offers, in addition to ramen, a distinctly non-Japanese dish: escargots.
The Fukuoka Budget Gourmet
Tagawa Horumon; Kokura yaki udon; Kurume yakitori; Tenmado yakiudon or yakisoba with an egg in the middle; chanraa champon noodles in udon dashi in Kitakyushu city; men burger (Yukuhashi city, pictured above) in which the bun is replaced with ramen noodles - gross! This might be the 'so bad it's good' prizewinner. Apparently it has made it all the way to Los Angeles.
The Ramen Professor Recommends:
This may be blasphemy, but my favorite ramen shop in Fukuoka prefecture isn't in Hakata, Nakasu, Tenjin or Nagahama. It's in Kurume. The Maruboshi Chuka Soba Center, in the Takano district of the city, makes fabulous Kurume-style ramen. Locals say that Fukuoka copied its pork broth ramen from their own shop, Nankin Senryou, which opened in 1937. The latter still operates at several locations in Kurume, but Maruboshi Chuka Soba Center edges it for me. With its thick pork broth, friendly staff, it's straight out of the movie Tampopo, with parking for haulage trucks, and it is open 24 hours. Serves good oden too.
Ramen stalwarts Ippudo and Ichiran (I can't stand the place - it is how I imagine they'd serve noodles in Guantanamo Bay) are so famous that they attract long lines of punters, with the resulting wait. Why not try Hakata Issou Eki Higashi Honten, Hakata Ikkousha, Ganso Nagahamaya (The Guardian's Matt Goulding's favorite) or Mengekijo Genei Ramen. The latter, in Yakuin, features a 'ramen theater' where customers are seated auditorium-style while the staff prepares your ramen as if on stage. It's all a bit gimmicky, but the ramen itself is fine, and - unusually - it is MSG free to boot.
FGL Favorite Tipple: Check out Fukutokucho Shurui’s 'Hakata No Hana Sannen Chozo'. It is an excellent, smooth, award-winning mugi-jochu barley spirit.