Recently, having finally finished cleaning up and hauling furniture, the combination of the desire to relax and passable weather was enough to prompt me to get out and start exploring Fukuoka City in more depth. I had been to Atago Shrine previously, but according to the sightseeing materials I had collected from Tenjin, there was a number of small yet fascinating Buddhist and Shinto sites to see in the central part of the city, near Gion and Hakata Station.
I hopped on my trusty bike, and after a 300-yen (!) bowl of tonkotsu ramen from the nearest Toraya, I crossed the Nakagawa River and sped toward Gion. The first stop was Sumiyoshi Shrine, located in a rather quiet neighborhood a short ways south of the Canal City shopping mall. Ancient records indicate that, of the more than 2,000 Sumiyoshi Shrines in Japan, this is the oldest—in terms of establishment, of course, because the buildings at the current Sumiyoshi Shrine of Fukuoka are fairly new. Having come from Osaka, where the well-preserved head Sumiyoshi Shrine is located (in my opinion, the best temple within Osaka City limits), I was a bit skeptical, but the radiant oranges set against a blue sky and vivid green foliage made Sumiyoshi Shrine a refreshing visit.
After paying my respects to the local kami, the next stop was nearby Rakusuien, a small Japanese-style garden located in a 19th-century (late Meiji Period) villa once belonging to a wealthy Hakata merchant. While the winter foliage was a bit underwhelming, I could see the potential of this garden in more lush times of the year, and I intend to come back for another visit. The small waterfall, tea house and koi pond make Rakusuien a breath of fresh air amongst the urban hustle and bustle. I nicknamed one of the koi in the pond “Banana-chan,” because…well, I liked his banana-like coloring. I hope to see Banana-chan in good health when I visit again this summer.
Kushida Shrine is only a five-minute ride from Rakusuien (longer if, like me, you have no sense of direction), and it is the main stage for the Gion Yamakasa Festival, one of Fukuoka’s most famous festivals that features giant “floats” carried by large numbers of people (more specifically, men wearing no pants). The massive Hakata Dontaku Festival also takes place here. Some of the festival floats are on display, including one so massively huge I felt a little sorry for all the people who have to carry it around town half-naked.
Kushida Shrine is also home to a thousand-year-old ginkgo tree and some stone anchors left over from the Mongol invasion, as well as a spring, decorated with elegant metal cranes images, whose water is said to bring you long life.
Readers of my Osaka Insider blog may remember that I have an unhealthy interest in drinking strangely flavored beverages, especially the disgusting ones Pepsi Japan puts out. Feeling parched, I checked out the row of vending machines on the temple grounds, and my eyes stopped instantly on the hot drink labeled “ホットケーキ ミルクセーキ”–yes, that’s “hotcake milkshake.” A heated, hotcake-flavored (with maple syrup on top) “milkshake.” I was grateful for the small can, as this drink was almost too sweet to bear, but the taste actually wasn’t too bad. I must say, it takes some imaginative power to think up a hotcake-flavored hot milkshake, and real skill to actually take that idea and produce something passably tasty.
Just a short distance from Kushida Shrine is Tochoji Temple, a modern temple that doesn’t seem to noteworthy (aside from its huge size) until you step inside. If you enter the large chamber on the second storey, you can view Tochoji’s hidden gem: an impressive, giant wooden sitting Buddha statue–one of the largest in Japan. Those who read the account of my Lake Biwa trip may remember the infamous “Slipper Obaasan”; well, now there’s a new “obaasan” (aka grouchy old lady) to add to the list, the “Don’t-Take-Pictures-of-the-Giant-Buddha Obaasan” (let’s just go ahead and call her the “DTPGBO” to save space). My camera was still dangling from my hand by the wrist strap as I ascended to the second floor, where the DTPGBO was waiting to inspect each and every visitor. Unimpressed by Tochoji thus far, I stepped into the chamber, which appeared completely unremarkable from outside, to find the enchanting wooden Buddha before my eyes. Instinctively, I raised my camera to capture this splendid visage for all to see, as part of my unending efforts to promote the undiscovered secrets of Japan to my faithful readers, when the DTPGBO moved with uncanny speed (I swear she had been behind me half a second ago) to block my view and gave me a Medusa glare. I was thinking of trying the “I don’t speak Japanese because I’m a foreigner” routine, but apparently she knew just enough English for this occasion: “No photograph!!” I then asked her kindly if I could take one without using the flash, which was my original intention. “NO PHOTOGRAPH!!” This is the first time in Japan I had ever been told NOT to take a picture of a giant Buddha.
After this, I entered the suspicious-looking tunnel located beside the Buddha, entitled something like “A Journey Through Hell and Heaven.” Inside, there were some pictures of various levels of Buddhist hell (the DTPGBO was surely convinced I was headed here), followed by a creepy, pitch-black part of the tunnel visitors are forced to feel their way through using their hands, and finally some lovely pictures of Buddhist Nirvana. After exiting Nirvana, I headed out of the chamber. I paused outside, contemplating one final attempt at stealthily snapping a shot of the Buddha from outside of the doorway, when the mind-reading DTPGBO popped her head around the corner and scowled at me. Not a chance.
Ominous gray rain clouds were closing in quickly as I raced toward the final destination on my itinerary, Shofukuji Temple. Despite the detrimental effects of overcast late-winter weather and construction work on this Zen temple, the woody grove and natural-colored old wooden buildings left a distinct impression. A small Zen rock garden can also be seen near the main building. Apparently zazen (Zen meditation) sessions are held here for religious followers.
I have been fascinated by Fukuoka since I first visited here in 2010 because there is something charming and unique around every corner, and an almost intangible “feel” or “atmosphere” that sets it apart from other parts of Japan. This was brought home anew to me as I made the rounds of local temples and shrines, which gave me a number of surprising, rewarding, and memorable experiences. And while I regret being outwitted and out-stubborned by the Don’t-Take-Pictures-of-the-Giant-Buddha Obaasan, I would definitely recommend these sites to those who want to get a deeper look inside Fukuoka and Hakata culture.
I also recommend the hotcake milkshake. Go on, drink it.