Small update about me before this post: still alive. Still good. The last few weeks haven't seemed particularly 'post' worthy but I take that as a good thing in that life here is starting to feel 'normal'. I have established a good routine and am feeling more comfortable every day at work while teaching. Things are good! Okay, now Fukuoka.
Fukuoka is the largest city on the southern island of Kyushu. With a population of 1.5 million people, an international airport, and apparently the most beautiful women in all of Japan (true story) it is a major metropolis worth a visit for anyone visiting Japan. I was only there for approx. 8 hours and I have already deemed it as one of my favourite cities in Japan. I was awaiting a night ferry to take me home and spent the time wandering around and, of course, eating. You might be thinking 'wow-- high praise for such a short visit' but, even in that short amount of time, Fukuoka left an impression on me.
What left the biggest impression on me was the design of the city itself, namely their use of public spaces to bring people together and make the city itself an experience. In researching the design of the city, I learned that Fukuoka was the first city in Japan to develop a 'Master Plan' which severely curtailed chaotic urban sprawl and created a streamlined vision for what Fukuoka would become.
Fukuoka is criss crossed with canals and rivers with large walkways on either side to stroll or bike. As we were wandering along the river with the setting sun, we stumbled upon a building that was part regular office building and part jungle-viewpoint-walkway-sanctuary. As pictured below, the roof of what turns out to be the ACROS building is a pyramid of lush trees, greenery and flora of all kinds. You can walk all the way to the top of the building up staircases and walkways for a breathtaking view of the city, as pictured in the top photo. We arrived just as the sun was setting and it definitely made all those stairs worth it. The building itself houses office buildings, shops, and exhibition spaces but from the outside you wouldn't suspect it. You can see a lot more photos of the building design here.
On the descent, we heard music coming from the distance and decided to check it out. It turned out to be a two day free music festival at this big outdoor amphitheatre-- right in the middle of downtown. We watched these two hilarious and excellent women sing and play the accordion to a large crowd lounging on the grass, drinking beer and eating food from the numerous vendors around the perimetre. The group was Charan Po Rantan and I bought their CD and would highly recommend checking them out if you're into Japanese whimsy or just looking for something fun. It was a perfect summer evening and the music could be heard echoing through downtown as people got off work.
Even the malls are an experience and use every space to the fullest. Oh man, any city that can turn something like a shopping mall into an enjoyable experience deserves every award. Hakata Canal City is a metropolis, but the mix use of indoor and outdoor shopping, abundance of greenery, even a fake canal running through the entire thing, and entertainment made for an enjoyable experience rather than an overwhelming one. An outdoor stage in a central plaza was the site of a singing/dance performance that had several hundred teenage girls screaming the words.
One of Fukuoka's signature food experiences are the Yatai. At sundown, men arrive along the bank of the river on motorized bikes with what appear to be large wooden boxes in tow. They find their spot and begin unfolding these boxes into an impossible puzzle whose finished form is a food stall, giving meals on wheels a whole new meaning. The river bank is lined for several hundred metres with the stands that look straight out of Spirited Away. The stands are also found in parks, street corners, and just about any space you don't think is big enough for a pop-up restaurant. The smells spilling out are enough to make anyone risk turning into a pig and the hardest part is just picking one to sit down at. Some of them have small queues forming along the railing of the river as people wait for one of the 7 or 8 stools available. You sit touching knees with strangers that I'm sure if I spoke the language better would be less strange by the end of the meal. It's impossible not to exchange a few words at least as your elbows jostle reaching for your beer.
The best thing about Fukuoka's design: they make it easy. You don't need to go seek out a park or building you heard about outside of the CBD. You don't need to plan to use this space. It's almost impossible not to use it. It's easy, it's there, and people are using it. Coming from Ottawa, a city which could use a bit of help on the public spaces front (cough Sparks Street), it was refreshing to see what's possible with careful planning and creativity.
I walked around a ridiculously small fraction of Fukuoka and found numerous engaging and creative uses of space to bring people together. In further researching the city, there are so many other attractions throughout the city that I can't wait to return, discover, and document.