This article by Junot Díaz appeared in Condé Nast’s Traveler. Here’s an excerpt. Follow the link below for the complete report. For a related post, see our May 2010 post Juan Luis Guerra takes bachata around the world. Our thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.
Fukuoka began—the way all important love affairs should—with a meal. This was on my first trip to Japan, way back in the ’90s. My flight landed after supper, and by the time I hauled myself from Narita to Shimokitazawa, that coolest of Tokyo districts, I was straight starving, so my boy Michi took me to his local ramen-ya. Remember: This was before there was any Ippudo NYC. Before Totto. Before Jin. I’d never had real ramen in my life, but that simple bowl of Hakata-style tonkotsu—the pork-bone broth of your dreams—just tore open my brain, my soul, my tongue. Afterward, in a state of jetlagged exaltation, I swore to myself that, no matter what, I would go to Fukuoka, which Michi had identified as the birthplace of the ramen we had just eaten. Yes, that first night in Shimokitazawa, under the lights of the old train station (now demolished), I swore a sacred ramen oath.
Turns out I suck at sacred ramen oaths, however, because over the years I visited Japan 13 more times and never once made it to Fukuoka. What can I tell you? Something, it seems, always came up: trips up north, trips down the coast, a love affair with Osaka, with Kyoto, with Tokyo—always Tokyo. In the end, I never made it farther south than Miyajima.
And yet despite everything, Fukuoka seemed to stay in the picture. Close friends visited the city and brought back glowing reports and even better photos. An ex-girlfriend, Dominicana, revealed out of nowhere that she had visited the city in the ’80s and loved it. Monocle named it one of the most livable cities in the world. And then, weirdest of all, in 2010 the Dominican superstar Juan Luis Guerra dropped his single “Bachata en Fukuoka.” Legend has it that JLG had gone to Fukuoka to play a gig and was so blown away by the Japanese audience—by their energy and by the fact that they knew all the words to his songs and could actually dance bachata—that he recorded the song in Fukuoka’s honor. “Bachata en Fukuoka” became a number one hit in the Latin market, and just like that, Fukuoka entered the Dominican lexicon, guaranteeing that even my country-ass relatives know that Fukuoka is a city in Japan. (It’s a good song, too.) Anyway, I took that shit as a sign. And yet clearly I must not be big on signs, either, because another four trips to Japan passed before “Bachata en Fukuoka” came on one last time and I had finally had it. Enough, I thought. Enough. I bought my tickets and, nearly 20 years after the whole Fukuoka affair began, it was on.
And now that I’ve been, I can say in my best public service voice: Folks, please don’t be like me—go to Fukuoka as soon as possible.
With its canals and river walks and nighttime neon spectacle, Fukuoka is the kind of place that inspires songs, that makes latecomers like me wish we had visited sooner. The town is the perfect size for taking in: The weather is salubrious; the inhabitants are both welcoming and famously handsome (Fukuokan women recently ranked third hottest after Akita’s and Kyoto’s, according to a national survey); and if the masses of Korean and Chinese shoppers are any metric (they were snapping up everything from the latest PlayStations to multiple Bao Bao Issey Miyake bags), the retail options are endless. There are cool museums and some Yayoi Kusama and Keith Haring sculptures and even a Rem Koolhaas–designed housing complex. Just outside the city stands one of the loveliest Shinto shrines in all of Japan, Dazaifu Tenmangu, the final resting place of Japan’s great brain, poet-scholar Sugawara Michizane, a.k.a. Tenjin, the god of scholarship. Throw in Hakata Bay, around which Fukuoka has grown like a lobster claw, and the nearby beaches and easy access to Korea, and you can understand why the city is a favorite of both travel cognoscenti and bachateros.
And the eats? Well, as I sensed that first night in Japan, the grub in Fukuoka is the absolute tops—the city’s gift to the world. Our little group of three started eating as soon as we landed and didn’t stop until we were boarding our train to go. As a diner, you simply cannot go wrong. (Well, maybe you can, but I suspect you have to really try.) There’s Fujiyoshi for out-of-this-world yakitori and ridiculously savory chicken butts. For the famous local chicken hot pot, mizutaki, run to its famed creator, Suigetsu Honten. (They also do a mouthwatering chicken sashimi—yes, chicken sashimi. The way I see it, if you’re going to try semi-raw chicken, it might as well be in super-hygienic Japan.) There’s even swell eats on the approach to the Dazaifu shrine: The fragrant, densely delicious black sesame ice cream should not be missed.
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And as for the ramen that started this whole odyssey? All I can say is that what I ate at the source of the tonkotsu broth Nile exceeded all expectations. I know the world is supposed to be all global now, but from where I chow, what counts as outstanding in a ramen periphery like New York would only rate as pretty good in a ramen metropole like Fukuoka. Rather than perorate needlessly, I simply recommend that a traveler hit any of the branches of Ichiran, which styles itself as “the most dedicated Ramen Company to the study of Tonkotsu Ramen in the whole world,” as well as the more local Shin-Shin. Sit yourself down, order your bowl, and observe as bite by bite, slurp by slurp, your mind gets blown. Every bowl of ramen is said to contain a universe, and this universe is a celestial symphony of tender noodles, farm-fresh green onions, and pungent porky splendor. If it’s true that the culinary gods shine their glory on Japan, then that glory shines a little brighter in Fukuoka.
So okay all of us food and travel heads agree: The dining in Fukuoka is divine!
And yet this ain’t even half of what makes Fukuoka so fascinating. For real. As corny as this might sound, and believe me, it is super-corny, Fukuoka’s real draw—the umami of its broth, if you will—is its people. But it’s true. In all of my trips to Japan, I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting a friendlier, more welcoming bunch. They are almost Latin in their warmth, in their simpatico. (Maybe Guerra shouldn’t have been surprised; if any Japanese were going to know bachata, it would be the Fukuokans.)
And, man, do they ever talk. Inscrutable Asians, nothing. Everywhere we went, locals engaged us at length without the least bit of encouragement. And it was awesome. In Yanagibashi Market, where you can buy everything from sweet mochi to gasping fish, one of the merchants, a Mr. Yoshida, told us about his father who had emigrated to Hawaii in, I’m guessing, the ’20s; the old man started a sweetshop somewhere on the islands but eventually returned to Japan. Well, recently Mr. Yoshida and the wife took a vacay to Hawaii and managed to track down the old sweetshop and guess what: His father’s name was still on it. The new owners had kept it. Amazing, right? And then there was the night we were on the Deaibashi Bridge, enjoying the reflection of the neon sizzle across the surface of the Naka River, and a guitarist selling CDs got us all talking. He wasn’t the “Bachata en Fukuoka” type, but he did serenade the girls with some sharp Whitesnake and Aerosmith covers, and under the first of the year’s cherry blossoms, bathed in lights, you couldn’t have orchestrated anything more sublime. Human moments like these are naturally what cities are all about—they just seem to happen at a higher rate in Fukuoka.
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It is this spirit of the contact zone that is the true soul of Fukuoka, and why I fell so hard for the city. (For I too am a child of a contact zone and therefore highly vulnerable to such enchantments.) And why, despite all the fancy eats of the city, I found myself returning again and again to, of all places, Fukuoka’s famous yatai. These little food stalls serving home-style cooking, like oden and yakitori, were once widespread in Japan but now survive only in Fukuoka and its vicinity. In general, yatai get almost no love. Travel guides dismiss them as touristic one-offs, and every Japanese person I mentioned them to gave me the same spiel: Yatai are for tourists; locals don’t eat there; the food is expensive and not that great.
Bueno. Maybe I’m just a gaijin dummy, but I did a whole series of yatai and found the food, on average, to be delicious and affordable, and even when the food was so-so it didn’t really matter, because the camaraderie inside those haphazard wood-and-tarp walls was about the best thing in Fukuoka. I urge you to sit down at Mami-chan’s yatai on Showa-dori, and after she warns you about the yatai near the river (“Same food as here, but overpriced”), tuck into the first complimentary wing she dishes out, followed by her glorious handmade gyoza and her special yaki-ramen—noodles in a very small serving of broth (another local invention)—and let the spirit of Fukuoka, the spirit of contact, take hold of you. Let it put its hands on you and let it, like in a bachata, carry you along. On a good night, everyone will be talking: to your group, to Mami-chan, to one another. There will be men in suits welcoming a new colleague from Nagoya. A pair of young women who just graduated from high school and are celebrating while crammed alongside a tall, handsome elder, another local, who hasn’t been in a yatai in 30 years. “Back when I was young,” he will explain, “yatai were where the hungry boys ate.” And something will tell you that when this prosperous businessman was young, he too was one of the hungry boys.
Sit in a yatai and its secret will be revealed: Yatai are nothing less and nothing more than diminutive contact zones—places where the foundational physics that made Fukuoka (and the nation) play out in miniature. Sit in a yatai, shoulder to shoulder with locals and, yes, with tourists, and what you will hear, smell, taste, and participate in will be nothing less and nothing more than the simple magic from which nations like ours are born.
For the original report go to Condé Nast Traveler, October 13, 2014