All Dolled Up
Photography Alfie Goodrich
In a small studio on the outskirts of Fukuoka, Kuniaki Takeyoshi lovingly applies the finishing touches to a samurai warrior.
Fashioned from white clay, the lifelike doll is intricately detailed with flowing robes and a typical ‘topknot’ hairstyle. It has taken almost three weeks of careful craft, but the master artisan’s latest piece is nearing completion.
The finest quality Hakata ningyo (dolls) are renowned for their refined appearance, with a subtle beauty that comes from the carving, firing and colouring process. Most show famous historical characters, such askabuki (drama) players, religious figures, sumo and samurai.
"I still remember the first ningyo I made when I was 17," explains the aged craftsman Takeyoshi, as he delicately paints in a pair of jet-black eyes with an ultra-fine brush.
"It was a small boy holding a water melon. From then on, I was hooked. I’m as passionate about my work as I was when I started out, although hopefully my skills have refined themselves a little."
The largest conurbation on Kyushu (the third largest and most southwesterly of Japan’s main islands), Fukuoka is actually two cities – Fukuoka and Hakata – rolled into one.
In times gone by, Fukuoka housed the nobility and Hakata was home to the merchants. While the two merged a little over a century ago – and the name Fukuoka applied to both – many of the city’s residents still think of their home as Hakata.
Today, Hakata dolls are one of Fukuoka’s most famous products, along with local baseball team the SoftBank Hawks, its high- and new-tech industries, sustainable energy, robotics, electronics, the look of the city’s bijin (stylish women), and more ‘traditional’ industries like consumer electronics.
"The legacy of old Hakata still endures in many ways in this city," says local guide Noriko Nakamura. "The vibrant craft industry, manufacturing traditional items such as the ningyo and textiles, is one example. Fukuoka’s split personality offers visitors a chance to really experience Japan throughout the ages – from the cultural to the truly contemporary."
Fukuoka has been a cosmopolitan port for centuries, sitting close to mainland Asia, and nearer to Seoul than to Tokyo. Last year, the magazine Monocle rated this city of 1.5 million citizens the 11th ‘most liveable’ on earth.
The month of July is highlighted in the calendar of many a Fukuoka ningyo maker. At this time every year, the city plays host to the spectacular Hakata Gion Yamakasa Festival, one of Japan’s biggest, most vibrant celebrations.
To get things started, floats called kazariyamakasa are set up in different parts of the city. Made by skilled artisans such as Takeyoshi, these huge constructions are sumptuously decorated with magnificent dolls illustrating historical tales and legends.
The crowning glory of the Hakata Gion Yamakasa is the highly competitive oiyama race, when seven teams each pick up a massive kazariyamakasa and run with it through central Fukuoka.
"It’s a breathtaking event to watch," says Nakamura. "You’ve got several hundred men wearing traditional costumes, struggling to carry these one-ton floats for five kilometres. Tens of thousands of spectators turn up to throw water on the men and cheer their team on."
Those not passing through Fukuoka in July can still see a magnificent kazariyamakasa on display outside the delightful Kushida Shrine (the starting point of the oiyama), which makes a great place to kick off any city tour.
Dating back nearly 1,300 years, this is Fukuoka’s most venerated shrine, dedicated to the three gods of Shinto. While the original building burned down, the current structure, built in 1587, is suitably splendid, with ropes, white paper and vermilion torii gates, and a wizened gingko tree in the main courtyard.
Fukuoka housewife Sahoko Matsuo is particularly fond of Kushida Shrine, because it was here that she had her latest car, a pint-sized Suzuki Swift, blessed by a Shinto priest.
"Look, I still don’t have any dents or scratches," she says proudly, pointing out a gleaming red automobile parked across the street. "Japanese people don’t like dents."
Getting your car blessed is a common ritual at Kushida, so don’t be surprised if you see a new Nissan or Toyota pulled up in the grounds.
"The ceremony usually lasts about 15 minutes," explains Nakamura. "The priest chants and waves a wand with strands of white paper dangling from the end. He asks the gods to keep the car and its owners out of accidents and ensure their safe driving. I heard Toyota once flew a priest to Newcastle in England to bless a new car factory."
Close to Kushida is the Hakata Machiya Folk Museum, which celebrates the history and cultural heritage of Hakata, concentrating primarily on Japan’s Meiji (1868-1912) and Taisho (1912-1926) periods.
It occupies three buildings, two of which are ornate Meiji-era replicas, while the third is an authentic, 150-year-old house that once belonged to a weaver.
"The Hakata Machiya is one of my favourite local museums," says Fukuoka expat Philip Beech. "You can see displays depicting festivals, everyday street scenes, and the typical home of a Hakata merchant family. Also, check out the artisans at work on Hakata’s most famous products, including Hakata dolls, wooden containers, and the Hakata-ori cloth, used for obi sashes and the loincloths worn by sumo wrestlers.
"And make sure you listen to the recording of Hakata-ben – the local Fukuoka dialect – on the special telephone they provide," he adds.
"This is diﬃcult even for some native Japanese speakers to understand. It’s the Japanese version of cockney rhyming slang in London, though it sounds slightly more sophisticated."
Fukuoka is overflowing with religious treasures, like the gorgeous Tochoji Temple, a five-minute walk to the northwest of the Hakata Machiya Folk Museum. Built by a famous Buddhist priest called Kukai, this beautiful 9th-century temple features a bright orange pagoda and the largest wooden seated Buddha sculpture in Japan.
The grounds are lovingly manicured and make a great place to recharge your inner ‘chi’, especially in spring, when the fruit trees blossom.
It’s 5pm and at Canal City a crowd has gathered by the artificial waterway that bisects this new, giant shopping complex in central Fukuoka.
Teenage girls in knee-high socks squeeze mobile phones in excitement as they prepare for a local boy band to arrive on the waterborne stage. Fukuoka has plenty of modern attractions to complement its heritage. Perhaps the city’s most iconic modern structure is the soaring Fukuoka Tower, built on reclaimed land to the west of the city. At 234 metres, Japan’s tallest coastal tower dominates the surrounding skyline, and offers spectacular views over the city’s artificial beach and busy harbour.
That harbour has been key to the long history of international trade that has enriched the local culinary scene, and Fukuoka’s open-air food stalls, known as yatai, are one of its best-known features.
There are more than 150 dotted across the city, with the highest concentration in the Nakagawa District. Typical yatai dishes include mouth-watering yakitori (a type of kebab) and filling Hakata ramen (wheat noodles).
"Yatai are typically open from around 6pm to around 2am, except when the weather’s bad," explains Philip Beech. "They generally seat about seven or eight people and provide a cosy environment in which to eat and meet locals."
Slightly less appealing to some, but equally fascinating, is Fukuoka’s renowned fugu (blowfish) cuisine. In a world of over-packaged, over-processed food, in which the greatest danger is getting run over outside the supermarket, the thought of popping something potentially lethal into one’s mouth certainly adds a frisson to the dining experience.
"Yes, blowfish do have poisonous spines," explains Noriko Nakamura. "However, the dish can only be prepared by licensed chefs who know how to remove the toxin. It’s actually delicious and a must-try for the adventurous eater. Enjoy it raw as sashimi, in a hot pot with vegetables, or boiled with rice."
Whether you liven up your experience with a few fugu fillets or not, there are more than enough thrills and spills on hand to keep a sojourn in Fukuoka interesting. The city’s twin towns and their colourful environs make a great introduction to Japan, and a welcome break from the fast-paced sprawl of bigger Japanese cities to the north. Like its delicious yakitori and ramen, those visitors who have taken a bite generally find themselves coming back for more.
Kyushu island is awash with historical monuments. Beyond Fukuoka’s gems, Takachiho, Miyazaki Prefecture, has the sacred Amano-Iwato Shrine (www.jin.jcic.or.jp/en), which holds a special place in Japanese mythology. Amakusa (www.jnto.go.jp/eng) is an important spot for Japanese Christians. Not strictly historical, but remarkable none the less, is the Huis Ten Bosch, a theme park in Nagasaki modelled on Den Bosch in The Netherlands (www.english.huistenbosch.co.jp), complete with canals, windmills and tulips.
Step In To Spring
When spring hits Kyushu, typically in late March or early April, the island erupts with pink cherry blossoms. But other springs attract visitors all year round. Beppu, in Oita Prefecture, is probably Japan’s toponsen (hot spring, pictured right) destination, though Ibusuki in Kagoshima Prefecture and Kurokawa in Kumamoto Prefecture come close. Spring towns offer the chance to indulge in geothermal hedonism, with open-air baths, sand baths on the beach, hot mud springs, steam baths or conventional hot springs in public bath houses, hotels, Japanese inns, and even private homes.
Kyushu Fact File
From 3 april, KLM will operate three non-stop flights per week to Fukuoka from amsterdam airport Schiphol.
Where To Stay
Fukuoka is a gateway to Kyushu and the glorious Japanese countryside. Visit Miyazaki for the Takachiho Gorge and a walking trail tinted with cherry blossom. See Saga Prefecture for the rice Terrace of Hama-no-Ura in early May when the water-filled terraces create astonishing light. Kagoshima has the smoking Sakurajima volcano overlooking its bay, and the UNESCO-listed ancient forest of Yakushima. Or try Kumamoto for aso Kuju National Park’s mountains and volcanos.