Fukuoka, Japan travel guide and things to do: Nine must-do highlights


Today's gateway to Kyushu was once two settlements on either side of the Naka River: the castle-town of Fukuoka to the west and the ancient trading port of Hakata to the east. They  merged in 1889. Today, Fukuoka Castle is in ruins, but the elevated site offers panoramic views of the city, and its grounds and moat have become the city's green heart: Ohori Park, which has pedal-powered swans on its man-made lake and a two-kilometre walking/running track around it.


The exquisitely peaceful Japanese Garden is another feature of Ohori Park. Just over a hectare in size, it's a little world of calm, full of raked gravel, lovingly tended pines and stepping stones over rushing streams.  It's a popular spot for wedding photographs, which adds another dimension to a visit: seeing couples in traditional Shinto-style kimonos posing with paper umbrellas on small wooden bridges takes you back to another century. See ohorikouen.jp/en


Hakata, the part of Fukuoka east of the river, was Japan's largest port city between the 11th and 16th centuries. You can get a sense of how Fukuokans lived then by following one of the self-guided walks recommended on Fukuoka City Tourism's website. Each has written commentary and takes you down cobbled streets past former merchants' houses, textile factories, 800-year-old shrines and one of Japan's largest Buddha statues. See yokanavi.com/en/route


Fukuoka is closer to Shanghai than Tokyo, so it's fitting that it is home to the world's only contemporary Asian art museum. Fukuoka Asian Art Museum, on the seventh and eighth floors of the upmarket Riverain Mall, has a fabulous collection of contemporary, folk and ethnic artworks from more than 20 countries. Its Art Cafe is worth a visit, too, a serene space with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the city and a library of 10,000 books on art, philosophy and travel. See faam.city.fukuoka.lg.jp


For sky-high views of the city and its nearby beaches, islands and mountains, take the high-speed elevator up to the observation deck of the 234-metre Fukuoka Tower, the tallest seaside tower in Japan. It's a broadcast tower so mostly hollow, which makes for an exciting 77-second ride up through its middle, with commentary provided by "elevator girls" in mauve suits with pillbox hats. There's also a restaurant one level down (via stairs). See fukuokatower.co.jp/en


On the Hakata side of the river stands Kushida Shrine. Home of Hakata's protector god, it was built in 757, has a well you can drink from for eternal youth and is home to an elaborately decorated float up to 10 metres high and weighing up to a tonne, which is paraded through the city during Fukuoka's biggest festival, Hakata Gion Yamakasa, held July 1-15 this year.


Retail therapy is nothing new for Fukuoka. One of the best places for souvenirs is Hakata's 150-year-old shopping street, now a 400-metre-long covered arcade called Kawabata. Across the road from Fukuoka Asian Art Museum, it has about 130 shops selling everything from cat-themed homewares to traditional ceramic Hakata dolls.


Fukuoka is the ramen capital of Japan and famous for its "tonkotsu" or Hakata ramen: thin wheat noodles served with a collagen-rich pork-bone broth. The best place to try them is at one of the "yatai" ramen stalls set up along footpaths throughout the city centre every evening. Just pull up a stool, order "Hakata ramen" and a beer ("biru"), and within minutes you'll feel like a local.


With more residents under 30 per capita than any other Japanese city, Fukuoka's best accommodation is at the backpacker end of the spectrum; it has more quirky hostels than perhaps any other city in Japan. One of the best is Book and Bed Tokyo Fukuoka, an "accommodation bookshop" where you can curl up with one of its 1800 books, including some quality English fiction and non-fiction, and retreat to a cosy plywood capsule behind the bookshelves to sleep. See bookandbedtokyo.com



Like so much of Japan, Fukuoka is a contradiction, even in its relationship to technology. So while most bank ATMs don't accept foreign cards (you can withdraw cash from "international" ATMs at convenience stores such as Lawson, Family Mart and 7-Eleven), the city offers unlimited free public Wi-Fi at subway stations, attractions and other spots around the city. See yokanavi.com

Louise Southerden travelled with the assistance of Walk Japan.