Leaving Kyoto, we headed by Shinkansen to the most southwestern of the four islands which make up mainland Japan - Kyushu. Though Kyushu is not on the well-trodden path of most foreign tourists in Japan, this was an area I had heard good things about and decided to spend a few days exploring. From the open-air yatai stalls selling Hakata Ramen (noodles in thick pork broth) in Fukuoka to grumbling volcanoes and steaming hot spring onsen (shared, communal baths) in Beppu, and the moving Atomic Bomb Museum in Nagasaki, there is a lot to be discovered.
|Yatai Stall in Fukuoka|
Fukuoka is a modern and vibrant place, the biggest city in Kyushu. It is made up of two formerly separate towns - Hakata and Fukuoka. The shinkansen JR station is called Hakata, rather confusingly, and divides the two halves of the united city. If you visit, I suggest staying in Fukuoka where most of the restaurants, bars and shops are although accommodation is more affordable in Hakata, particularly around the JR station. This is where you will find most business hotels (Japanese equivalents of Travelodges) in the city for around 8,000 Yen for a double room (£67 at 120 yen/£).
Gastronomically speaking, Fukuoka is most famous for Fugu fish - a poisonous blow fish eaten only in winter. It is also known for Hakata Ramen (noodles in thick pork broth), Gyoza (fried dumplings) and Mentaiko (spiced fish roe) normally eaten on top of white rice or mixed in pasta.
|Fukuoka - a modern and vibrant city|
What to Do in Fukuoka
On our first night, we walked towards the entertainment island of Nakasu in the middle of Fukuoka in search of the Yatai stalls for which the city is renowned. Having walked for a couple of hours in torrential rain with no yatai in sight, we discovered that they normally come out after 10pm. The few yatai that we stumbled upon were completely full so Dr G and I decided to head off to Canal City - a newly built, state of the art hotel, shopping and restaurant complex nearby.
Where to Eat in Fukuoka
At Canal City we found "Ichiran", a bizarre restaurant at which diners can order and eat their food without any visual contact with waiting staff or other diners. We just had to try it. After purchasing tickets for our food and drinks from a machine located at the entrance to the restaurant, we sat at individual booths with partitions on either side, and a screen preventing us from seeing more than the hands of the waiting staff. The idea is to allow 100% concentration on the food in front of you.
Although we felt claustrophobic and came out in a terrible sweat in that tiny enclosure, the Hakata ramen (speciality of this city) was perfect - the broth was rich and highly concentrated with tender slices of pork belly and a perfectly soft boiled egg to accompany the silky noodles. It was a delicious dish and at only 790 Yen (£6.60 at 120 yen/£), it was also a bargain. A refill of noodles was also available at 180 Yen (£1.50), and free water and tea was also provided. I loved the food, but doubt the concept would ever translate outside of wacky Japan.
Before leaving the next day for Nagasaki, we had a quick bite to eat at Yayoiken Cafe (see Travel Essentials below for details).
This is a modest but decent restaurant, just two minutes from Hakata JR Station, serving everyday home-style Japanese dishes at very affordable prices. We had a delightful Sukiyaki and Spicy Pork Nabe for 890 and 860 yen respectively (£7.40 and £7.20).
Considered one of the most picturesque cities in Japan, Nagasaki is located between steep hills and a very long, narrow harbour. The city has a long history of foreign contact (including during the two hundred year period when the rest of Japan was closed to the outside world), and so has an unusually cosmopolitan feel.
Nagasaki offers a wide range of accommodation widely dispersed around the city. The more budget hotels are around the main JR Station, but another area of choice is Chinatown in the southern, downtown district where Dr G and I stayed.
What to Do in Nagasaki
Without doubt, the main reason why people go to Nagasaki is to see the Peace Park, and the Atomic Bomb Hypocentre and Museum. As shocking as Hiroshima's own account of the bomb, it is a sombre and heart-rending experience, but unmissable for any visitor.
The city also has some impressive temples, including the Fukusai-Ji (Chinese Zen Temple), and the wooden Shofuku-Ji (Japanese Zen Temple) which dates from 1715, and miraculously survived the bomb intact. If you tire of temple-hopping, you might indulge in some Pachinko voyeurism at one of the city's many parlours, or go for a walk along the canal to see the famous but underwhelming Spectacle Bridge.
(Punters ranging from the too young to those old enough to know better spend their days and savings at Pachinko parlours across Japan - the music is deafening, the air thick with cigarette smoke, another quirky facet of Japanese popular culture)
What to Eat in Nagasaki
Portuguese, Dutch and Chinese heritage in Nagasaki extends to its most famous speciality cuisine - Shippoku. This multi-course meal is made up of many small dishes combining European, Chinese and Japanese influences, eaten at a round table, Chinese-style. It starts from 4,000 yen per head (£33), and needs to be reserved with a day's notice. Kagetsu is considered to be Nagasaki's finest Shippoku restaurant with meals starting from about 5,000 yen per person, see "travel essentials" section below for more details.
Having decided not to go for Shippoku, Dr G and I headed to Chinatown for dinner at Kouzanrou, reputedly one of the best Chinese restaurants in town. The three local speciality dishes we wanted to try were Champon, Sara Udon and Buta Kakuni, one of my favourite Japanese dishes also known as Nagasaki-Style Pork Belly (in fact I learnt in this trip that Buta Kakuni is the Japanese version of a Chinese dish).
Champon, also known as Chanpon, is a Japanese-Chinese noodle dish made by frying pork, seafood and vegetables in lard and adding a stock base from chicken and pork bones. A particular type of ramen noodle made for champon is added to the cooking broth and cooked. Our Champon also had fish cakes, beans sprouts, and cabbage. Dr G and I both felt underwhelmed by this dish - there were far too many competing flavours in one bowl, and in our opinion it lacked the clarity and depth of flavour of other less fanciful Japanese ramen soup noodles.
Sara Udon is a similar dish to Champon, containing pretty much the same ingredients which are stir-fried but using a thicker Japanese white noodle. Having been rather disappointed by Champon, we decided to skip Sara Udon and order a plate of steamed chicken in soy sauce. The chicken was very tender and tasted really good, reminiscent of the Singaporean Hunanese Chicken dish we both love.
The best dish however was the Nagasaki-Style Braised Pork Belly with Chinese Bread - meltingly tender meat in a rich, sweet sauce, a perfect Buta Kakuni.
Beppu is a rather sleepy town, but is situated in one of the world's most geothermically active regions, which produces the world's second largest volume of near boiling water per day after Yellowstone Park in the USA. This is the main reason for visitors to come to the region of Beppu (which has a JR station) - to enjoy a long soak in one of the many onsens (natural hot spring communal baths).
The Tourist Information Office staff on Ekimae-Dori gave excellent service, spoke good English, and kindly booked accommodation for us as well as and advising on onsens (they had a large book with pictures of dozens of onsens in Beppu and Kannawa). Their recommendation was to visit Kannawa, 30 minutes away by bus from the JR station, where most of the smarter onsens are.
What to Do in Beppu
During our very short stay in Beppu, we headed to Kannawa to visit Hyotan Onsen. Arriving in Kannawa, we were surprised to see enormous billowing clouds of steam emerging from drains, buildings and springs all over the town - a dramatic sight.
Hyotan Onsen was a large complex that catered for men and women separately. The age range was enormous, with extended families from infants to grandparents enjoying naked hot spring baths together. There was a variety of indoor and outdoor pools, as well as a steam rooms, and waterfall-style showers falling 5 metres from bamboo pipes to provide water-massage. There is also the option of a hot sand soak.
The outdoor pool was stunning, set in a beautifully landscaped garden with the traditional Japanese motifs including large black rocks, Acer trees and stone lanterns. The Japanese have used these onsens as a place for relaxation and bonding family and friends for hundred of years.
Photography was not allowed for obvious reasons, but if you are ever visiting Japan to enjoy an onsen experience, I would recommend this one highly. It was clean, efficiently run, and elegant. It is opened from 9am to 1am daily and is priced at 700 Yen (around £6) per person. It also has a very good restaurant, including many dishes steamed in the hot spring.
What to Eat in Beppu and Kannawa
Jigoku-Mushi is the method of cooking food by geothermal steam which has been traditional in the region for over 400 years.
At Hyotan Onsen, we had dinner at the canteen where this cuisine is available.
Of the traditional local dishes we were advised to try, we particularly enjoyed mushi-dofu donburi @ 650 Yen (a rice bowl topped with soft tofu steamed in the onsen's hot spring, and bonito flakes) and dango-jiru @650 Yen - a delicious dashi and miso-based soup with vegetables and rice-flour dumplings (dango in Japanese), very similar to the dish my grandmother used to make in Brazil. It brought back fond memories.
We also had the local specialty of tempura chicken, with a crispy batter thicker than is the custom elsewhere in Japan, but equally delicious. All the dishes at the onsen were very reasonably priced, and the restaurant was packed with families eating after an afternoon's soak.
For delicious pork ramen with "faceless" service, visit Ichiran Canal City - 1-2-22, Sumiyoshi, Hakata-ku, Fukuoka (Canal City Theater bldg.) Website: http://www.ichiran.co.jp/
For everyday Japanese home cooking at reasonable prices, head to Yayoiken Cafe - 1 - 22 Nakagofukumachi, Fukuoka Hakata Ward, Fukuoka Prefecture 812-0035, Japan, t: 092-273-1727.
For Shippoku dining, visit Kagetsu Restaurant - 2-1 Maruyama Machi, t: 095/8222-0191
For excellent Chinese food and local dishes, go to Kouzanrou in Chinatown - 12-2 Shinchi-Machi
For an elegant and relaxing onsen experience as well as some good local cuisine, I highly recommend Hyotan Onsen - 159-2 Kannawa, Beppu-Shi, Oita-ken, t: 0977-66-0527, www.hyotan-onsen.com