An Eventful 24 Hours in Fukuoka

Fukuoka - Naka River
Fukuoka’s Naka River: a lovely place to stroll

Hello sumo fans! I’m here on the ground in Fukuoka, where I will be providing some coverage from Days 6 and 7 of the Fukuoka basho. I landed about 24 hours ago, and have been spending some time enjoying the city as I get fired up for a couple days at the Fukuoka Kokusai Center.

Auspicious Beginnings

I did manage to catch the final bouts of Day 4 live, and the withdrawal of Kisenosato wasn’t half as shocking as the manner of his defeat to Tochiozan. The Yokozuna’s total capitulation has been the only thing I’ve seen this trip more stunning and surprising than what awaited me as I entered Fukuoka Airport’s arrivals hall: the camera and interview crew of TV Tokyo’s Why Did You Come To Japan?, which chased me down for an impromptu interview. We spoke for about 10 minutes about why I love Ikioi and how I was looking forward to Tonkotsu ramen and hanging out with my friends, but apparently that wasn’t interesting enough for them to follow me around for the rest of the week. Given that I spent 3 days flying to Fukuoka, I acquitted myself very poorly, but it was still fun to get what felt like the paparazzi treatment upon my arrival.

Chashu, Coffee & Conveyors

Chashu Ramen at Hakata Issou
Chashu Ramen at Hakata Issou

After this, it was time to check out some ramen at Hakata Issou. I chose this location first based on its proximity to Hakata Station, as I had to kill some time before checking into my nearby Airbnb – and what better way to kill time than crushing a bowl of tonkotsu ramen for the first time in Hakata? I discovered this spot through Ramen connoisseur Ramen Beast‘s mobile app. If you don’t follow Ramen Beast on Instagram or have the app, you are missing out on a good way to upgrade your Japanese culinary experience, as he’s done a lot of the hard work for you. According to Ramen Beast, Issou’s master is a former Ikkousha trainee whose “pork bone based soup is constantly mixed as it simmers, which mixes the animal fat and water and creates bubbles, almost frothing like a cappuccino.” Afforded a seat at the bar, I got a live chashu slicing show, which I’d have paid to watch all day, frankly. It was a worthy bowl.

Rec Coffee Fukuoka
An award-winning brew at Fukuoka’s REC Coffee

The next morning, I ventured out early in search of coffee and ended up at REC Coffee‘s tastefully appointed Kencho Higashi shop. According to HereNow, the shop is home to the two time back-to-back Japan barista champion. One of the many things I love about Japanese food culture that sometimes misses headlines in other countries is the extreme love and attention to detail from the coffee shokunin. Make no mistake, this is a country with an incredible coffee heritage, and I enjoyed their brown sugar latte with a thick slab of buttered toast.

Hyotanzushi Fukuoka
Hyotan-zushi in Fukuoka: a bustling, packed restaurant where you will stack your plates high.

Finally, today I took in lunch at an incredibly popular sushi spot with the locals, Hyotan-zushi near Tenjin station. Hyotan has two locations, and I opted for the earlier-opening conveyor belt-powered spot at Solaria Stage. Despite rocking up not long after the 11am opening time, it was already completely full and a line soon formed out the door. It was however worth waiting for: despite the conveyor belt containing a large variety of excellent catches, it was an old-school style venue with the chefs in close enough proximity to call out quick custom orders. The shop served up possibly two of the best pieces of anago I’ve ever had and it was a nice treat to enjoy a buttery, luxurious otoro at a much more affordable price point than I’m accustomed.

Shopping & Shrines

It’s clear to me already that Fukuoka is a city that over-indexes on shopping options, given its population relative to other places in Japan (certainly Nagoya, for example). I’ve had enough time to visit a few of its mega-malls, and the shopping around the main Hakata and Tenjin stations, both in the large depato as well as the underground walkways, is fairly remarkable. I also managed to check in at the city’s impressive Canal City shopping district, home to numerous shops, arcades, a Bellagio-esque choreographed water fountain display, and the ominously titled Ramen Stadium – a venue which promises to showcase several different varieties of ramen, and one I may yet take in later in the trip.

Hakata Gion Yamakasa float
One of the Hakata Gion Yamakasa festival’s famous floats

Even more remarkable than the capital excesses of the city are its shrines, and I’ve visited two already: the Kushida Shrine and the Sumiyoshi-jinja Shrine. The Kushida Shrine, located near the famous Kawabata Shotengai, contained a float over 10 meters tall from the Hakata Gion Yamakasa festival, which started 900 years ago in “an attempt to secure protection from a plague.” Every year these famous massive floats are carried down a 5km course through Fukuoka. I always love walking around the grounds of a shinto temple and while I do not know much about the religion, there is a very overwhelming, difficult to describe feeling one gets while walking under a row of red torii, which can be experienced at the Kushida Shrine. The Shrine additionally features an omikuji stall, where fortunes can be purchased in many languages. I did this, and disappointingly retrieved a somewhat grim fortune!

Sumiyoshi-jinja Shrine Fukuoka
The tree-lined entrance of the Sumiyoshi-jinja Shrine

Finally, the Sumiyoshi-jinja Shrine is located about a ten minute walk from Hakata Station. The lovely tree-lined entryway called to mind the Shrine at Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park, where I welcomed the new year a couple years back. I arrived in time to see a Shinto priest conducting a number of rituals, many of which will be familiar to the casual sumo observer given the sport’s origin story, even if you do not know much about the religion itself. This shrine also featured an omikuji stall, where all of the fortunes were tucked into lovely wooden sea bream. It’s a lovely souvenir, however the fortunes here are only available in Japanese.

After all of this, I’m looking forward to tracking down a great yatai, even more tonkotsu ramen… and, oh yeah, experiencing some great sumo!

Creating a Trip to Experience Sumo in Fukuoka

Fukuoka
The Fukuoka Kokusai Center

Hello sumo fans! I’m on my way to Japan to experience sumo in Fukuoka. As you may be a person thinking about doing the same, I want to share with you the story of how I put this trip together. It may give you some ideas on how to construct your own trip! I’ll talk more about the basho experience itself in a later post.

Booking the flight

Typically, as an international visitor to Japan, you’re going to fly into one of the main international airports – for example Haneda, Narita, or Osaka Kansai – and catch a connecting flight to Fukuoka (it is less likely, but also possible that you may be able to fly into Nagoya). Fukuoka Airport is served by Japanese international carriers ANA and Japan Airlines, a handful of international carriers from around the region and world, and a number of low-cost domestic carriers such as JetStar, Peach and StarFlyer. It’s possible that the best, or lowest cost combination of flights includes multiple airlines or an overnight stopover in Tokyo or Osaka (which is never a bad thing). I recommend playing around with Google Flights in order to find the best result from your city. Before you book, however, I recommend taking advantage of one of the site’s best features – the ability to save and track a fare. While there is always a risk that your fare will go up, it’s possible also that you can take advantage of sales or trends to save money. I tracked my flight for the upcoming Haru basho for 47 days before booking it, and ended up saving $300 on the original fare – but more on that in a future post.

For the Kyushu basho, I decided I wanted to take a very unorthodox route. This will almost certainly not apply to you, unless you are a glutton for punishment and like obscure airplane routes that have you crossing the Pacific Ocean at among its widest points in a relatively small plane. I decided I wanted to cross-off a bucket list item and take United’s Island Hopper route, an old US government essential air service route that serves Micronesia and delivers things like mail and groceries and brings some of our friends in the military to their outposts. It even has an on-board mechanic that you can talk to. The Island Hopper travels from Honolulu to Guam, where United operates a hub which connects to several destinations in Japan, including Fukuoka.

After I spend some time at the basho, I’m going to hang out in Japan for another week with friends, so the overall super-hacked-together trip looks something like this, but still actually cost me less than I once paid for a normal nonstop flight from New York to Tokyo a few years back. This is the magic of Google Flights:

Island Hopper - Google Flights itinerary
The author is a crazy person, assisted by technology

Booking the stay

I have booked virtually every type of property there is to book in Japan, from western style hotels to Japanese style hotels to actually renting an apartment from a broker (which is not easy). This time, I opted for a local “business style” hotel I found with a cheap nightly rate on Kayak, before I cancelled said reservation and switched to a local Airbnb. The Airbnb is located in Hakata Ward and while it is slightly less accessible to the train (approximately an 8 minute walk), I ended up saving even more money and getting a much larger apartment that’s fit for 3 people – more spacious than the average Japanese hotel room. While a run of the mill hotel in Tokyo with a small room during the Natsu basho during tourist season could go for $200 a night (deals, certainly, can be had), the beauty of the Fukuoka region is that not only are hotels much cheaper, but you can stay in a Japanese style apartment, which can be had for less than $80 per night:

FukuokaAirbnb
c/o AirBnb

Again, it is possible to get even lower prices depending where you’re willing to compromise (area, amenities, etc).

Buying the tickets

As I have done in the past, I used BuySumoTickets.com for my ticket purchases for this tournament, and got a discount on international shipping for being a repeat customer. It’s no secret if you’re a punter in the sumo world that the demand for tickets has been incredible over the past couple of years, and BuySumoTickets has certainly felt the strain. I managed to score tickets to two days of sumo (Days 6 & 7), with one of my tickets being downgraded to a lower section. You should anticipate if you use a 3rd party broker that the section you request may not always be available due to demand. That being said, I am obviously very thankful for the BuySumoTickets crew, and their ability in situations of overwhelming demand to make sure those of us coming from areas outside of Japan, and who may not have the best Japanese language ability, are able to score tickets to the basho.

Getting around town

While not as expansive as the other honbasho host cities, Fukuoka does offer a somewhat significant local train service. The Fukuoka airport is located on the aptly titled Kukō line which runs east-west through the city from the airport through the main Tenjin and Hakata stations, and will be the main artery of my travel through town. As opposed to Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya, the airport is actually incredibly well situated – just two stops from the major Hakata train station (compare this with Osaka and Nagoya’s airports which sit on man-made islands close to an hour outside the city).

Fukuoka’s venue for sumo (which, again, we will cover more in depth in a later post) is the Fukuoka Kokusai Center which is located about a 13 minute walk from the nearest station, Gofukumachi Station; and about a 20 minute journey from either Tenjin or Hakata stations (by various combinations of bus, train and/or walking). I’m excited to use this well situated network to explore the city, and fulfil some of my wishes for the trip (including Fukuoka’s famous food scene)!

Now that we’ve covered the journey, let’s cover some sumo!

It’s Jungyo Time!

Are you ready for Jungyo? The winter jungyo begins tomorrow, 12/3. For the Aki Tour, Herouth provided a great map which you can reference under the features menu. I’ve replicated her map for the winter tour. This 1500-mile journey will cover 10 locations over the next two weeks. The first 8 events will be a 660-mile course of one-day stops in eight different venues on the island of Kyushu. The last two stops will be on two islands in Okinawa with each of those events lasting two days. As the final event will wrap up on December 17, this will give rikishi almost a full month to prepare for the Hatsu Basho starting 1/14.

Two Week Winter Tour

Of particular interest in these events will be the attendance of sekitori. We already know that we are down one yokozuna with the retirement of Harumafuji. I hope he gets to sleep in late tomorrow and enjoys a late afternoon tee-time at a picturesque golf course while the other sekitori prepare to haul their luggage around Kyushu.

Two other yokozuna, Kisenosato and Kakuryu have nagging injuries to worry about. Their health is a priority for the Sumo Kyokai and they are expected to come back to sumo at full force, or join Harumafuji on the links. That leaves us with Hakuho as, likely, the sole yokozuna participating.

Nagoya Tip #1: Toyota Museum

Last summer, I had the distinct pleasure to travel to Nagoya to watch Harumafuji win on senshuraku. In response to several requests, I will definitely provide tips about Nagoya. But since I only spent a few days there, I don’t know nearly as much about places there as I do about Tokyo.

Nagoya was a great trip. Shinkansen was very fast, clean, and prompt. My wife and I had our two young children with us, so navigating Tokyo station with them (and luggage) was a challenge. But once we got to Nagoya, we were ushered around by either taxi or a friend of ours.

The sumo venue is right next to Nagoya Castle. I hear it is undergoing renovations in preparation for the Olympics in 2020. I will post about that soon. I have pictures. Also, I will post about the food. There are distinct culinary styles for Nagoya food. But first, I wanted to post about the real highlight of the trip: the Toyota Museum.

This was a fascinating experience. Some of you may know that Nintendo was actually started as a company that made Hanafuda cards. I actually have some Nintendo Hanafuda cards and will post pictures. Likewise, Toyota has a history in the textiles industry before making cars.

Toyota Museum Textile Machinery Pavilion

In the museum, you see the steady progression and advancement of the textile industry, starting with hand spun cotton and moving through modern automated spinning, weaving, loom technologies underlying cloth manufacturing. They have a hands-on demo where they take a ball of cotton and show you how it gets spun into thread.

From that huge room — which I spent far too much time in — they go to forging metal, then to pressing steel and making cars. It really is a great place to spend at least a few hours. I spent a whole day there with the kids. They’ve got more hands on demos of the manufacturing processes and little toys that the kids can make. We laughed when we found this giant piston with a museum staff member hiding, asleep, underneath. They’ve also got a robot band. There’s a restaurant there and a bit of an arcade for the kids.

Recommendations Threads: General Caveats

I want sumo fans to go to Japan and enjoy the sport (and the country) first hand. I also hope to expose more English speakers already in Japan to the sumo world. In that vein, I will offer my recommendations and encourage others to do the same. But, be open and frank with your relationship to the service and/or restaurant. Let’s face it, it’s very different to hear a recommendation from a customer, employee, owner or paid spokesperson. All I need to do is point at a supermodel and say, #FyreFestival, and you should get my point:

General recommendations and advise are always helpful, and I’ve got a few of those I’m going to share with you now. Don’t expect the same level of “food customization” that we have in the US.

Grilled Rooster Comb

The “Have it your way” philosophy just doesn’t seem to have taken off over there. In many cases, it’s easiest to do the “omakase” (chef’s recommendation), but have an open mind. And if you’re crazy like me, and open to eating stuff that even native Japanese don’t touch, like eel heads, 白子, 馬刺し, or grilled rooster comb, it should go without saying not to whinge afterwards. BTW, 馬刺し and grilled rooster comb are awesome. Just for the record.

So, I’m going to create a page for travel-related recommendations to focus on the four sumo venues: Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, and Fukuoka. It will be in the menu bar next to the link to the Youtube video, for easy access. I know that finding posts on this site can be a bear, especially if the post was written a few months ago. But I want it to look nicer than what I’ve got for the “Japanese Lessons” page right now that’s basically just a series of links. It may start out that way but I’d love to have a way for people to share their own recommendations, and maybe even photos.

Also, Twitter is another great medium for sharing photos. Please Tweet to us or Instagram. I just signed up for Instagram on @tachiaiblog. I don’t have anything up there yet but will start sharing some of my sumo related pictures there.