Closer to mainland Asia than Tokyo, the lively port of Fukuoka welcomes travelers to a cosmopolitan oasis of food, shopping and nature-tripping. It’s a young, modern city — built on hundreds of years of feudal history — replete with gorgeous landscapes. This three-day itinerary that lets you dip a toe into these complex waters without paying an arm and a leg.
Day 1: Culture and history are just a subway ride away
The Hakozaki and Kuko subway lines run along many of Fukuoka’s major sites, so get a one-day pass for US$5.60. Then it’s on to Muromi Station and hilltop Atago Shrine, the oldest in the city, where you can take in the view and try a hot mochi cake with tea at Bintsukeya (2-6-37 Atago; US$5.40).
Next, alight at Ohorikoen to see the Fukuoka Castle ruins and stroll through the gorgeous Japanese garden at neighboring Ohori Park (pictured above). If you’re feeling peckish, grab the daily lunch set and creamy matcha pudding at chic new café 1101sai (3-1-13 Otemon; US$11).
Once your tummy is filled, it’s time to feed your mind. Hop off at Tenjin Station to behold the gorgeous architecture of Akarenga Cultural Center (1-15-30 Tenjin), an 18th-century red-brick building done in the English style. Then make your way to the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum (3-1 Shimokawabata-machi; US$1.80), a sleek, glass and concrete building that houses a permanent collection of about 2,900 works of modern and contemporary Asian art.
End the day with a visit to Gofukumachi Station for the stately Shofukuji (6-1 Gokusho-machi), the first Zen temple in Japan. Congratulations, you’ve earned a ramen dinner at Hakata Ramen Zen, where the pork-bone broth and noodles start at under US$3 a bowl (1-10-13 Tenjin).
Day 2: Explore the great outdoors
This is one of the best times of the year to visit the nearby island of Nokonoshima, famous for romantic fields of flowers — showing off their beautiful blooms this month: scarlet sages, dahlias and bougainvilleas. Hop on a bus to the ferry terminal and get a round-trip ticket (US$4.10). From there, you can either take a bus (US$2.10) to Nokonoshima Island Park or walk or bike (US$9 for a full-day rental) a variety of nature trails. The trail along the eastern coastline is particularly scenic and takes you through the charmingly named Contemplation Forest. Entrance to the park is US$10.80.
In addition to Instagram-worthy flower fields, you can enjoy a petting zoo, an obstacle course, grass sledding on a huge hill and a unique sport called nokonokoball, a fusion of croquet and golf (US$4.50 for nine holes). Take the ferry back to town and head to the Nakasu area, the hotspot for Fukuoka’s famous yatai, raucous open-air booths selling food and drinks. We love the eggplant with mentaiko cheese at Yamakou (3 Haruyoshi; US$8.20) and Kajishika’s (5-14 Narayamachi) creative yakitori skewers such as bacon-wrapped grapes (US$1.80).
Day 3: Day trip to Dazaifu
Historic Dazaifu was once the center of political power in Kyushu, but now it’s a perfect day trip from Fukuoka for shrine fans, history buffs and those who just want to feel a bit of the old-school vibe. Alighting at Dazaifu Station, you’re deposited onto a stone-paved pedestrian walk lined with shops. Stop by Kakuda (3-2-65 Saifu) for a sweet umegae mochi rice cake (US$1.10), a toothsome local specialty stuffed with sweet bean paste and branded with a plum blossom seal, or the Kengo Kuma-designed Starbucks for a stylish caffeine fix. Saunter on, stopping to check out the colorful all-purpose cloths at Tenogoiya (2-7-26 Saifu). The end of the road is the majestic Dazaifu Tenmangu shrine, where kids come to beseech the god of learning for good exam scores. From there, you can head to the Kyushu National Museum (US$3.90) for a history lesson or Komyozenji temple to meditate at their Zen rock gardens. Grab a filling vegetable curry at Wakiaiai (3-2-24 Saifu; US$8), a restaurant in a renovated traditional home, then head to Hakatayu (1-14-5 Yumachi; US$2.70) in Futsukaichi Onsen for a soak in hot springs with a 1,300-year history before heading back to town.
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Stamp of approval
One way to make visits to shrines and temples more fun is to get a shuin-cho, a book for collecting official seals. They can be purchased for around US$9 at larger shrines and temples, while the seals themselves cost around US$2.70. The staff will write the date of your visit and the name of the temple or shrine in calligraphy and impress their unique seal in crimson ink.
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Fukuoka is fairly compact, so you can easily get around on foot or on two wheels. There’s also a convenient subway system, although some farther-flung sights are only accessible by JR train lines, which use different tickets, so plan your itinerary before purchasing a day pass.