If you’re flying into Kyushu, or indeed arriving via Shinkansen from Honshu, you’ll most likely turn up in Fukuoka, on the North of the island. It’s a great city to stay in, with a particularly good street food culture – I visited in late 2013.
First, a quick word on names. You’ll notice that there’s a Fukuoka Airport, but no Fukuoka Station (well, there is – but it’s in Toyama pref, Honshu – another Fukuoka entirely). Instead, the main JR station is Hakata Eki, named for the Hatata-ku ward. From Hakata Eki you can get a subway train straight to the airport, or downtown to the Tenjin area (where you’ll find the second, non-JR station, Nishitetsu-Fukuoka), and beyond towards the rather less interesting area around the Fukuoka Dome and Tower. If you’re used to a big subway system like those in London, NYC or Tokyo, Fukuoka’s will be a doddle (map here).
Or, you can just walk. Heading straight out of the West exit, less than 1km later you’ll hit the river and the area around Canal City (a huge, rather naff shopping mall) – cross that, walk on a bit and you’re in Tenjin. You could walk all the way to the Dome area, but I wouldn’t bother. The subway system takes Fukuoka’s own IC card (the brilliantly named Sugoca), but Suica, Passmo and all the usual suspects work just fine.
It’s hard not to like Fukuoka. The city’s smallish and walkable, the food’s great (see below), and the whole place generally gives off a relaxed impression. That said, it’s not bursting with obvious touristy things to do. I spent a lot of time eating and just generally chilling out – there’s a lot of green space in the city centre, and it’s a good city to just stroll around.
One bit of sightseeing I did do, though, involved a quick hop to Dazaifu (two short trains from Nishitetsu-Fukuoka – it’s very well signed in English for this particular trip). A bit like Nara, Dazaifu was once important politically, but now dominated by tourism – the Kyushu National Museum is enormous and fascinating, a giant Japanese barn-like structure filled with historical artefacts, and just down the road there’s the Tenman-Gu temple. When I visited (in the very heavy rain) three women were giving a shamisen recital to a mostly drowned crowd. It’s well worth the quick trip (oh, and there’s a good noodle restaurant right outside the station).
Back in Fukuoka, if you find yourself kicking around of an evening, I’d head for the food stalls near Hakata station (see below). But there’s a limit to how much any one person can eat, so after that you could visit the Fukuoka Tower – it’s not the best of Japan’s observation towers, but you do get a great view at sunset.
Fukuoka is the home of tonkotsu ramen, which you can find just about everywhere – at first I found myself staring at menus in vain for the characters 豚骨, only to realise that you don’t need to specify it – in Fukuoka, you just order ramen, and it’ll come in tonkotsu broth (and, obviously, it’ll be delicious).
The other culinary oddity are the streetside food stalls that pop up everywhere at dusk, and hang around until late by Japanese standards – like mobile izakaya, these serve up oden, yakitori, ramen and the like. And beer, of course – some even have it on tap. These would be ideal if you’re with a group of people, but even as a solo traveler you can sometimes find a space on the crowded benches to eat and chat. As well as the Tenjin area, a few stalls appear around Hakata eki (east exit).
I stayed in Fukuoka twice, on the way in and the way out. On arriving I stayed in The B Hakata – a perfectly nice if very slightly expensive business hotel 5 minutes from Hakata Eki’s east exit, which you can easily book online. Nothing unusual here other than free coffee (thank god for free coffee). On the way out, I got stuffed by Asian Pacific Festival, which booked up all hotels around Hakata, but found a room in the Seaside Twins Momochi. It was, literally, the last hotel in town, and it was fine on that basis. Otherwise, the location (near the dome) isn’t great.