Fukuoka: Japan's most architecturally forward-thinking city

By Simon Rowe

Ask Honshu folk what Fukuoka means to them, and odds are you’ll get ramen or rock stars. After all, the city is the birthplace of Ayumi Hamasaki, and the heady odor of tonkotsu ramen is pervasive throughout downtown. But there is much more to this breezy port city of 1.5 million people than just soup and song.

Present-day Fukuoka grew from two independent cities: a port town called Hakata, which was run by merchants, and a town ruled by samurai, called Fukuoka. And though they merged in 1889 and took the name “Fukuoka” (at the behest of the samurai), each district has retained a piece of its original character. Hakata is still the financial hub and home to lively entertainment quarters, while “old Fukuoka,” which lies across the Nakasu River, is known as Tenjin and brims with up-market department stores, restaurants and chic bars.

Beyond Tenjin, out past the docks of Hakata Port and over a pan-flat expanse of reclaimed land, a new city has emerged: Momochi. The first thing visitors notice here is the lack of overhead wiring. Hakata and Tenjin’s streets are strung with bird nests of telephone and electricity cables, but not so in this leafy city. Residents and businesses, many of them IT-oriented, demand high-speed networks, and these are neatly tucked away underground — a rarity in Japan.

But it is above ground that one really glimpses the future of Japanese urban planning. Office towers that could be spaceships, apartment blocks that look like extraterrestrial villages, and private businesses whose vibrant color schemes make them appear almost edible — these are the designs of some the world’s most dynamic architects who have taken advantage of Fukuoka’s building boom to showcase their ideas. A leisurely one-hour stroll along the Momochi shoreline will take you past the creations of Steven Holl, Oscar Tusquets and Rem Koolhaas, to name just a few. Simon Rowe

Slicing the Hakata Bay breezes like a huge fin at the east end of Momochi beach is Cesar Pelli’s Sea Hawk Hotel, the largest in Kyushu. Pelli, who designed Kuala Lumpur’s Petronas Towers, let wind and water themes shape his design and added a vast typhoon-proof glass atrium, which resembles a cone shell opening on to the sea.

Fukuoka Tower is the next building of note on Momochi’s skyline. Its swordfish-like profile and the 8,000 reflective glass panels resemble scales of a fish. Outstanding 360-degree views of the city are only a 70-second elevator ride from the ground floor to the 123m-high observation deck. (Film buffs might recognize the tower from 1994’s "Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla," in which it was, predictably, pulverized.)

Continuing west, one enters Momochi’s Nexus Tower, a building whose superstructure appears to have been turned inside-out with an intriguing rocket-tail design cresting its rooftop. Doubling back toward the Sea Hawk will take you past the silver silo-sized modules of the Hyatt residential apartments, a futuristic take on long-term hotel accommodation.

While more than a few Fukuokans aspire to enjoy the spacious lifestyles of these seaside developments, many seem content with their lot in the quiet leafy streets of the older downtown quarters. From an outsider’s point of view, this very contrast makes Fukuoka appealing.

This story originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (

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Actually it's Momochi-hama that is new. Momochi is an older area. I wish these writers would get things right.

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I think Japan's PM Taro Aso belongs to Fukuoka...forward thinking PM(!)

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I've only been to Fukuoka once, at the very beginning of the shoreline building boom, but it remains a fond memory--relatively compact, lots of interesting architecture, clean, bilingual public transportation, delicious food, and one of the best bourbon bars I've ever been to. Not to mention an utterly charming accent... still has the urban planning problems and aesthetic challenges that plague any Japanese city, but to a much lesser degree, and everything else is pulled off with panache and a forward-thinking attitude that I found refreshing.

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A pretty weak article considering the architecture that is in Fukuoka...

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That airport freaks me out.

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All we get in Sendai are rectilinear, glass-faced office buildings.

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Ive been living here for 3 and a half years, and im lovin it. It's also the shopping capital of asia, Even Marilyn Monroe and Joe Dimaggio stayed here on there honeymoon. I love spelling "Fukuoka" over the phone to companies in North America or people in North America see the word "Fukuoka" spelt usually thinks it's a bad word at first.

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Great city but nasty drivers.

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After a fantastic 4-year teaching stint in Busan, South Korea, decided to pass through neighboring Japan on my way back to the States. Having only been able to see the country 2 or 3 days at a time on visa runs, I wanted to see more and took 3 weeks to travel extensively. Entered through Fukuoka, stopping off in Kyoto, Nara, Tokyo before making my way up to Hokkaido. Although each area has its local charm, great food, fantastic people, I must say that in retrospect I was most impressed with the southern island of Kyushu, particularly the Fukuoka area.

A compact city easy to navigate with a beautiful coastline, Fukuoka pulsated with youthful energy yet was locally charming and traditional. I stayed centrally in the Tenjin district for a few nights, just long enough to befriend some locals who invited me to try MIZUTAKI (a traditonal Fukuoka dish of chicken broth and vegetables). Having had plenty of IMOJOCHU (the sweet potato wine from Kagoshima), my new friends took me to a stylish cafe-bar which they called their 'secret hideaway'. And it was just that. Located steps from ARK ROYAL HOTEL (where I conveniently stayed), there was an interesting, artistic, mixed/alternative clientel along with amazing atmosphere/drinks/music. I managed to pocket myself a business card with the following homepage info: www. ...... Very impressive HP indeed! For those in search of a quiet drink and/or a taste of trendy local fashion, this cafe-bar IN THE PARK would be a very nice alternative to the dance venues/foreign meat-markets. English and French were also spoken.

South of the city, don't miss DAZAIFU Shrine (try the UMEGAEMOCHI - traditional local sweets!). Further south, I discovered a quaint city called YANAGAWA. Take a walk along the canals through the old town. There are also canal tours available for small groups which looked like fun.

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I like how you are not allowed to hang out a futon out on your balcony in Momochi. Classy.

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I wanted to take a trip to Kyushu before we left Japan for NZ, and depart from Fukuoka after visiting my old host family in Kumamoto, but sadly we were out of time and budget, and also wanted to catch up with Mr Zaichik's Russian pals in Tokyo. Leaving from Fukuoka would have been a nice way to complete the circle, since my first arrival in Japan was at Fukuoka, on the way to Kumamoto for my year at uni there in 1995/6. My first night in Japan, my classmate and I wandered around the streets of Fukuoka, minds blown by the fact that we were actually in Japan. The canals and the ramen stalls on the street remain uppermost in my memory, along with some old hexagonal building (part of a temple?)

Since then, I've only ever passed through Fukuoka on the way to/from Kumamoto, but it's always seemed like it would be a cool place to live. Maybe I'll have the chance sometime in the future....

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I've been in Fukuoka for 7 years now.... it's so neat to walk through the back streets and see some of the homes from 40-50 years ago sitting next to 10-story 'mansions'. The people in Fukuoka are also great. They'll bend over backwards to help you.

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