The quality of the gastronomic offerings in Japan’s southern island of Kyūshū could keep a food-focused traveller satisfied for decades. The culinary scene here is diverse and always comes with a story – an nth-generation recipe, a centuries-old technique, a tea-bearing monk – making the experience about more than just the tasting.
Fukuoka and Saga prefectures, in northern Kyūshū, are accessible places to start a food-inspired tour of the region. From ever-popular ramen to the more nuanced flavours of fermented vinegar, here is a small selection of the many local specialities worth savouring on your trip.
Ramen in Fukuoka
Any conversation about food in this corner of Kyūshū has to begin with ramen (and for some it ends right there, too). The ubiquitous noodles may have their origins in China, but they are hugely popular in Japan, with every region having its particular variations. Fukuoka is the country’s top ramen destination, famous for its signature tonkotsuramen, also called Hakata or Nagahama ramen: straight, thin noodles in a thick, rich pork-bone-based broth. You can slurp back a bowl at one of the many food stalls around Fukuoka city. There are about 150 of these hawker-style stalls (yatai in Japanese), which typically have a simple counter with a few stools and start service in the evenings. Most stalls set up along the river in the Nakasu area, in the Tenjin area, and in Nagahama near the docks.
Or, for ramen indoors, head to 40-year-old Ichiran, where customers dine in individual cubicles (presumably so one can give the noodles their full deserved attention). Fukuoka city is also home to the now international Ippudo ramen restaurant chain. There are a few Ippudo dotted around the city (the flagship store, established 1985, is at 1-13-14 Daimyo); a collaboration between Ippudo and the Kyushu-based Drum Tao performance group means that the ‘Ippudo Tao’ store at 1-13-13 Tenjin (ippudo.com/store/tao_fukuoka) has taiko drums as decor.
Kudzu in Akizuki castle town
All that remains of the castle in Akizuki is a large gate and some hulking stone-wall ruins, but the 800-year-old village still draws visitors, especially when the laneways flush with pink in cherry-blossom season. Amid the old samurai residences, pretty bridges and temples of the historic centre is the similarly historic store Hirokyu Kuzu Honpo (0946-25-0215; 532 Akizuki), a 9th-generation family business. The speciality here is kudzu (or kuzu), also called Japanese arrowroot, a kind of woody vine whose large roots are processed into a starch powder. Heated with water and set, kudzu forms the basis of Japanese summertime favourites such as kuzu-mochi – a chilled firm jelly-like ‘cake’ sweetened with syrup or topped with nutty-tasting kinako(roasted soybean flour).
Hirokyu uses traditional methods to process the kudzu root at its Akizuki factory, dishing up kudzu-based fare at the attached cafe and store, which is housed in a 260-year-old wooden building. The cafe interior – with its stone floors, low tables, and old scrolls and photos – is worth a look even if you’re not keen on kudzu. Akizuki is about 40km southeast of Fukuoka city.
Fermented vinegar in Ōkawa
Shoubun Vinegar (shoubun.jp; 0944-88-1535; 548 Enokizu, Ōkawa), run by the Takahashi family in the small riverside town of Ōkawa, has been a purveyor of rice vinegar for some 300 years. In a world of short cuts and mass production, Shoubun has kept true to handed-down techniques, fermenting organic brown rice in half-buried earthenware pots and allowing it to mature in wooden vats (kept warm in the winter months with a snug layer of straw matting).
While the original vinegar recipe may have been passed down from the ancestors, the modern-day Takahashi clan have developed a wide range of vinegar products, which you can peruse in the 250-year-old townhouse that fronts the factory. The yuzu-flavoured drinking vinegar (you mix it with water like a cordial) makes a great souvenir for that foodie friend who has tried everything. Upstairs from the shop is the small, low-ceilinged Ristorante Shoubun. In former times this would have been a storage area, but now visitors can dine under the dark-wood beams on a multicourse lunch in which every item features vinegar as an ingredient – from the soup and salad to the fish and even the (surprisingly tasty!) dessert. Ōkawa is about 60km south of Fukuoka city, and 12km southeast of Saga city.
Beef in Saga
If you’re more a meat-and-potatoes kind of eater, never fear, this part of Kyūshū also has some of the best wagyū (Japanese beef) in the business. Saga beef, of Saga Prefecture, is on par with Kōbe and Matsusaka beef when it comes to fine marbling and melt-in-the-mouth tenderness: a result of farmers paying careful attention to quality feed, clean air and water, a long fattening period, and providing their prized bovines with a relatively stress-free life. Not just any beef raised in Saga can be officially labelled ‘Saga beef’. It must meet strict certification standards (the right kind of cow, the right farm environment), and score above seven (out of 12) on the ‘beef marbling standard’ scale. If it doesn’t meet those standards then it’s just wagyū.
Kira (kira.saga-ja.jp; 0952-28-4132; 3-9-16 Otakara, Saga city), not far from Saga Station, specialises in serving both official Saga beef and other wagyū in various styles – try it as a chef-prepared steak, grill your own thin slices at your table, have it in a shabu-shabu or sukiyaki hotpot, or steamed. There is also a Kira in central Fukuoka city.
Tea in Yame
After all that eating, a nice cup of tea might go down well. The forested, mountainous Yame region of Fukuoka Prefecture has been producing tea for centuries. The story goes that Buddhist monk Eirin Shuzui brought tea seeds and growing methods here from China in the early 1400s. A bronze statue of Shuzui (with tea seed in hand) stands outside Reigan-ji, the temple he founded in the area around the same time. Yame is particularly renowned for its gyokuro tea (translated as ‘jade dew’ or ‘pearl dew’), one of the highest grades of tea in Japan. Gyokurohas a slightly sweet taste – in part a result of the plants being shaded for a few weeks prior to harvesting.
Among the most well-established local tea merchants, Konomien (konomien.jp; 0120-72-0201; 126 Moto-machi, Yame city) got into the tea wholesaling business in 1865 and runs a small store for the public selling packets of tea leaves, tea bags, and tea-flavoured sweets and biscuits. At Konomien, the gyokuro leaves are dried using an old-school method: the leaves are scattered and gently swirled around by hand on a sheet of heavy paper, which is fixed atop a wooden box over a charcoal fire. (You’ll know if this process is happening by the earthy aroma wafting from behind the store.) Konomien also has a 120-year-old tearoom where you can sample the lauded gyokuro, a sencha or matcha, with a side of wagashi (Japanese sweet). Reservations to partake in tea should be made by noon of the day prior to arrival (reservation form online: konomien.jp/contents/about/kissa).