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Death by Retail in Fukuoka City

Despite being Japan’s second largest island, Kyushu is often viewed purely as a getaway spot for city dwellers in need of a break. While there can be no dismissing the wealth and abundance of rugged countryside, shopaholics would be unwise to write off Fukuoka, the commercial capital. We gave Natalie Thomas ¥30,000 and told her not to come back ’til she’d found us some bargains. 


Alighting at JR Hakata Station, the first thing I notice is a freshness to the air that I’ve not tasted in years – surprising, given that Fukuoka is Japan’s 8th city, with a population of some 2.5 million. It seems they’ve got their pollution issues well under control, though that could have something to do with neighboring Kitakyushu bearing the brunt of the industrial decades that closed the last millennium. Either way, a mere 5 hours from Tokyo by shinkansen and I’m able to breathe again. It’s a good feeling.

I’ve got two days to sample the best of Fukuoka at Japanzine‘s expense, and I’m damned if I’m going to let culture, nature or history get in my way. Not that Fukuoka has a shortage of all that (Dazaifu Tenmangu, the Buddha of Sasaguri, Itoshima and Raizan, etc, etc), but I’m here to get in touch with my inner shopaholic, and the word on the street is that a weekend in this corner of sunny Kyushu will leave me tired and skint, but blissfully, fashionably happy.

It’s around 11 am and, after getting the lowdown from the girls on the station info desk (English spoken, we can’t be that deep in the sticks), I duck onto the subway and head for Tenjin (¥200, Fukuoka Kuuko Line), apparently where it’s at. I’m immediately struck by a different level of chic. The youngsters sitting around me are uniformly smarter than I’m used to. The gyaru fashion is prevalent, of course, but carried off with a level of sophistication absent from the junkie prostitute look currently de rigeur in Nagoya or Osaka. It’s like most of these lovelies have stepped out of a Uniqlo advert; no bad thing, given the alternative.

Tenjin is a matter of minutes away, and I spill out amongst the gyarus and their effeminate boythings into what appears to be a subterranean Parisian walkway. This, according to a friendly young creature in belt-high boots, is Tenjin Chikagai; several kilometers of underground passages that house boutiques, restaurants,  kimono makers, conbinis and 2 subway stations. I also locate a couple of banks down here, so I withdraw my allotted cash and dip into the Core building. Chikagai is not easy to navigate, but has the bonus of being directly connected to many of the large department stores. Core seems to be where the gyarus are heading, and I presume they know best.

I’m right, too. The gyarus know exactly what’s best – for gyarus. Core is the kind of store you take your friends to show them that Japanese fashion is exactly as the foreign media depicts: a mad hotch-potch that walks the fine line between forward-thinking and visual harrassment. It’s 8 floors of Shibuya, crammed together so tightly that they’ve provided a floor of gyaru-friendly eateries (karaage and icecream, often mixed together), just incase you can’t battle your way out again.

Vaguely less monstorous is the attached Vivre building. The editor of Japanzine is big into 60s mod fashions, so I’m pleased to pop my shopping cherry on a Stax Records t-shirt from Marvelous on the 6th floor, right next to the music shop. Must be a copy, though. I pay ¥3000 and hope he doesn’t notice it’s a reprint. It’s worth noting that they’re selling FRANKIE SAYS RELAX replicas next door. Nobody seems too bothered about continuity in this place, which bestows a friendly, haphazard charm. Recommended.

I take my lunch cue from a passing gaijin. Asking for something cheap and cheerful, he points me in the direction of Nishi Dori – a central street that lies between the Iwataya Department Store and the sprawling shoppers’ retreat known as Daimyo. Iwataya sits within the same square kilometer as its main competitors, including IMS, Daimaru and LOFT, reflecting the general handiness that stands out amongst Fukuoka’s many graces. Of course, several of these are national chains, and as such hold less interest for our current mission. However, the IMS building has a certain aging charm, standing out on bustling Watanabe Dori like some misplaced NASA experiment left to the mercy of the elements. All are too pricey for my purse, so I step across the road into Ippudo, a restaurant that deserves its renown.

Eating in Fukuoka is easily done, especially if you’re a fan of the local specialties, tonkotsu ramen and mentaiko. Tonkotsu is a tasty broth refined from pig bones, which is probably why the smell is so hard to stomach. Anyone used to miso ramen or Tokyo’s bog-standard alternative should prepare for an unprovoked violation of the senses. However, if you can handle it, Ippudo is the place to be, as is obvious from the lunchtime queues. A decent bowl of the good stuff comes in at ¥650, and they have menus in English. If you can’t be bothered to queue, ask for directions to the Voodoo Lounge and slip down the side street opposite the large shrine. There, you’ll find the equally delectable, but less well-known Shin-Shin Ramen. Exquisite.

I still have a day and a half and the majority of my fund left, so I decide to check out local shopping landmark Canal City, tripping over there via the red-light district of Nakasu. From the IMS building, I walk towards the fabulous hanging gardens of the ACROS building, through the park and over the Nakasu Bridge. The area is immediately more seedy, and I’m amused by the sight of a lone butchers situated between a strip bar and a sex shop, combining various uses of the word "meat" in one easy photo opportunity. Quite why he set up shop in this particular location remains a mystery. I’m no sex-starved salaryman, but I’d think that the last thing on your mind after an expensive lapdance would be a half-kilo of tripe.

Canal City lies at one end of the antiquated Nakasu Shoutengai, a charming time capsule. Fashionable is hardly the key word here, but the strip (located between Hakata-Za and Kishida Shrine) gives you a clue as to how the city looked at the height of the Showa Era, complete with the friendly smiles and encouragement you miss in a modern metropolis. It’s also home to the well-known Fukuya mentaiko specialists, said to be one of the originals. I splash ¥1000 on mashed fish eggs and think of the delight it’ll bring to my Japanese colleagues. There’s no accounting for taste.

Canal City is Fukuoka’s piece de shopping resistance, or at least it was when it was unveiled 12 years ago. To be honest, I’m a little underwhelmed. As a piece of architecture it’s flashy, but as a shopping experience it feels a bit sterile. The building is centered around a water-bound stage, with each succeeding floor incorporating increasingly risky viewing boxes. Today’s performers are a totally anonymous boy-band, and their lackluster miming reflect the general feeling of the place. It just seems too big, and the energy I enjoyed at Vivre earlier in the day seems totally lost amongst the cavernous malls, theaters and cinemas. What’s more, the shops currently renting space are nearly all national chains. I could be anywhere. I might as well be anywhere. So I leave.

The walk back to Tenjin takes me along the banks of the Nakasu river, where the famed yatai are setting up for the night. The tightly packed yatai carts are a form of al-fresco dining considered to be the quintessential Fukuokan experience. They’re relatively new, too, having grown out of the ashes of WWII. At a time when people were under-nourished and in desperate need of the warmth of other human beings, the yatai trundled out of the rubble, lit their red lanterns and welcomed in the neighborhood. They’ve been there ever since. Again, the queues are beginning to form, and I’m struck yet again by how much of Japan’s domestic tourism relies on eating. I can think of few other examples where a foodstuff could be the sole reason to travel the length of the country.

Back in Tenjin I set about making plans for the evening. I’ve booked into a smallish establishment called the Etwas Hotel. It’s directly opposite the Fukuoka Now offices, so it’s easily located. I’ve chosen this location as it’s at the center of Oyafuko Dori (Delinquents’ Street), a neighborhood that is synonymous with Fukuoka’s burgeoning J-Pop scene (Fukuoka has given us more tarento than any other Japanese city, though it’s hard to forgive the birthplace of Ayumi Hamasaki). Next door to my hotel is Early Believers, a live-house rumored to have been christened by megastar Hikaru Utada after the owner recognized her potential and played her demos on his radio show. It’s one of several bustling venues along this thoroughfare, and I take in a show by local legends Roi Schaider at the pleasingly grimey Decadent Deluxe.

I find more gaijin activity over at The Dark Room, an indie-lover’s paradise that makes me nostalgic for my university years. The owner  Moses seems to have met everybody worth meeting, and is a good guy to shoot the shit with if you want to know more about the local scene. He’s got impeccable music taste to boot, and plays me a number of albums that really take me back. The Smiths, The Cure… I’m that kinda gal.

Before the night is through, I get swept along with a local crew to Off Broadway, home from home to local Americans, and then the wonderful Uprising, a reggae bar run by a charasmatic fellow called Hector. His fried chicken is to die for, and I realize it’s a long time since I had such a laid-back time. Nobody’s being uppity, nobody’s trying to pick me up; everyone seems to be in a rambling state of merry drunkenness,  and it suits me fine.


I awake with the words of Withnail coursing through my tortured skull: I feel like a pig shat in my head! I imagine I’m going to feel considerably worse when I try and explain to the Japanzine boys that I’ve spent ¥20,000 on accommodation, food and drink (mainly drink). I don’t recall having spilt much on cover charges, but those ¥500 coins – beer tokens – don’t make saving easy.

I snack at Starbucks (Fukuoka is over-run) and then vomit it up outside a host club. The host looks disgusted, and busies himself admiring his golden locks in a small compact he produces from his handbag. Where are the men in this country? I’ve got two more destinations to look at, and one hangover to overcome. Feeling utterly sorry for myself, I stumble in the direction of Daimyo. I can’t face public transport just yet.

Daimyo, however, is a heart-warming delight. Stretching between Nishi Dori and the slightly more businesslike district of Akasaka, it provides the perfect contrast to the cold, corporate vision of Canal City. For a start, it’s a veritable maze. Streets seem to bump into one another without any warning, and few buildings rise above 2 or 3 stories in height. Despite the presence of the occasional designer name (Paul Smith, Tommy Hilfiger and Jean Paul Gautier have their stores here), it has a genuine village feel. The buildings are ramshackle, ready to collapse in some cases, and the contents are often of a similarly antiquated feel. All the better for retro me. There are vinyl stores a-plenty, and several rentable spaces that cater to local artists and passing exhibitions. There’s even another mod shop, and adverts for mod tailors (mods themselves, it must be said, are notable by their absence). I happily while away the morning shopping for bits and bobs, thinking hard about how I can prove my worth to my JZ benefactors. I decide to give the designer a makeover, and plump for a knitted cardigan in rainbow colors from a "thrift store" up the street from Borderline Records. ¥5000 – not quite as thrifty as I’d have liked, but he’s gonna look swell (or, perhaps, gay).

My last port of call is a ride away. Feeling a little better than I had several hours ago, I hop onto the subway and head for Meinohama Station (¥290, Fukuoka Kuuko Line), where I transfer to a shuttle bus heading to Marinoa City. This large outlet mall can be seen for miles, as its ferris wheel centerpiece was once second only to the London Eye. The mall sprawls across an area the size of several football pitches, and is notable for a number of chain stores offering their goods at discount prices. It’s the only logical explanation for the classy, Uniqlo style I noted on the train yesterday: Fukuoka’s population shops here. My guesswork is confirmed as we pull into the vicinity. The traffic jams are colossal – if you can find a good street map, I’d advise walking from Meinohama Subway or Shimoyamato Station. You’ll save time in the long run.

Marinoa City also has a wealth of restaurants, so I fill my nosebag at Il Forno (great salads, plus endless bread and pink lemonade for around ¥700) and head over to the Edwin outlet, where I’ve heard they’ve a section for "big" people (read gaijin and hiphop fans). I’m not disappointed either, picking out a couple of outsized jeans for around ¥4000 a pair, and a natty bag for ¥1000. There’s really too much to see and do here in one afternoon, so feeling happily sated, I head for the subway and make my way back to Hakata.

Fukuoka has been a veritable relief in more ways than one. Small enough for everything to be handy, yet cosmopolitan enough to make you feel as though you’ve arrived, the central Tenjin area has the bonus of great planning. The architects have laid the area out with real thought, meaning that similarities to other Japanese cities are few. It’s genuinely attractive! Plenty of open, green spaces, populated with al fresco eateries, give it an almost European feel on a sunny day, and in a city that shares latitudes with Casablanca, there are no shortage of those.

Fukuoka is the southernmost stop on the Sanyou Shinkansen line, connecting with Tokyo in 5 hours and Osaka in 2.5 hours. The international airport is less than 15 minutes from Tenjin via subway. Natalie Thomas stayed at Hotel Etwas (www.hoteletwas.co.jp) and visited the following bars and restaurants:

Dark Room: www.thedarkroom.biz
Decadent Deluxe: www.d-deluxe.jp
Early Believers: www.e-b.jp
Il Forno: 0
Ippudo: www.ippudo.com
Off Broadway: www.broadwayjapan.com
Uprising: 0
Voodoo Lounge: www.voodoo-clubvibe.com