KOKURA, Aug 14 — Weary of the hectic metropolitan lifestyle of Tokyo and Osaka when you visit Japan? Discover some old-school Japanese charm in Kokura, a quiet town that is considered the heart of Kitakyushu in Fukuoka Prefecture, on the island of Kyushu.
A couple of hours by rail from Osaka or a quick flight from Tokyo, this sleepy town straddles its feudal past with its modern status as the region’s commercial and transportation hub. Though it used to be a steel town, Kokura also has an abundance of natural diversity, so it has a certain serene beauty.
Perhaps Kokura’s most well-known resident is none other than peerless Japanese swordsman Miyamoto Musashi (c. 1584-1645). His legend stems from his undefeated record in 60 duels, using a double-bladed sword-fighting technique, and for writing The Book of Five Rings (“Go Rin no Sho”), a guide on strategy and philosophy is still studied today.
Miyamoto had moved to Kokura as an honoured guest of Ogasawara Tadazane, a Japanese samurai lord, in 1634. His place of residence was none other than Kokura Castle, the only castle left standing today in all of Fukuoka Prefecture. (In fact, the main dojo or training facility of Miyamoto’s school of swordsmanship, Hyoho Niten Ichi-ryu, is located in Kokura.)
Built in 1602 by Hosokawa Tadaoki, Kokura Castle has had a tumultuous history. First the castle got burned down by fire in 1837, requiring two years of rebuilding. Not quite three decades later, in 1865, it was damaged again during the battle between the Choshu and Kokura clans. It wasn’t till the 20th century that restoration began, first with the donjon (castle keep) in 1959, then the rest of the buildings by 1991.
Throughout this turbulent period, Kokura Castle stood proud as the symbol of the city. Today the grounds of the castle are a beloved relaxation spot for Kokura residents and visitors alike. The castle garden has a traditional Japanese garden layout with red-coloured torii gates, well-kept rows of cherry blossom trees and stone memorials, all accessible on foot via aged cobblestone paths.
The castle itself is partially surrounded by water, as though framed by a pseudo-moat. Look up at the roof and you may observe small ornamental creatures. These are the shachihoko, mythical beasts with the head of a tiger and the body of a carp. The ancient Japanese believed the shachihoko could bring rainfall, and as temples and castles in the olden days were often in danger of being burned down, Kokura Castle now has plenty of them on its roofs as protection from fire.
In Kokura, Shinto devotees flock to Yasaka Shrine, located next to the castle. The shrine was originally called Gionsha, having existed since the start of the Heian Period (794 to 1185), and was moved over to its current location from Imoji-machi in 1934.
Legend has it that Hosokawa Tadaoki, the lord of Kokura in the early 17th century, encountered the shrine during a hunt. Peeking inside for a closer look at a deity’s statue, he was surprised by a falcon that flew out and damaged his eyes with its talons. Taking this as a sign of divine punishment and seeking forgiveness, Hosokawa rebuilt the shrine into a more magnificent building. His plea worked as his eyes were healed afterwards.
Today the shrine is relatively quiet and peaceful other than during the matsuri festival, when the mikoshi (divine palanquin) of the shrine is paraded through the streets of the city. Worshippers will pull the long, thick rope in front of the shrine to ring in good luck. Tame cats bask on the grounds.
You cleanse yourself at the purification fountain — watched over by a wooden owl totem — by filling one of the ladles provided with fresh water. Rinse both hands, then transfer some water to your cupped hand to rinse your mouth next. In the small garden next to the shrine you may observe a row of ojizosama statues wearing colourful bibs; these are guardians of children, especially those who have died before their parents.
Next to Yasaka Shrine is the modern Riverwalk Kitakyushu, a retail and entertainment complex that is a stark contrast with the traditional architecture of the shrine. Designed by Jon Jerde, an American architect who also designed the Mall of America in the USA, the Riverwalk Kitakyushu is also home to the Kitakyushu Performing Arts Centre and a branch of the Kitakyushu Municipal Museum of Art.
Besides fans of art and architecture, nature lovers can also enjoy the scenic Murasaki River that gives the complex its name. Bird-watchers will enjoy spotting waterbirds such as herons, admired for its stoic presence in local folklore.
Feeling hungry? Head over to the 100-year-old Tanga Market, known as the Kitchen of Kitakyushu. The market started as the spot where fishing ships would discharge their cargo after coming up the river Kamigoku during the Taisho Era (early 20th century). After the war, the market introduced trade in fresh produce — local fruits and vegetables — that allowed it to prosper.
Tanga Market now has approximately 220 stores selling all manner of goods — besides fresh fish and produce — that the Kitakyushu region is famous for, such as karashi mentaiko (spicy pickled cod roe), nukamiso (salted rice-bran paste), kokuragyu (local beef) and ogura-an (fine red bean jam).
Of course, for those seeking a meal on the spot, there are plenty of eateries offering Japanese food such as sushi, tonkotsu ramen (pork bone broth noodles), takoyaki (octopus balls) and okonomiyaki (flat pancakes fried with various fillings on a griddle).
But you really can’t visit Tanga Market without a stop at Tanga Udon for their teuchi (home-made) udon. The small, unpretentious shop also serves other no-frills dishes such as champon (noodles mixed with seafood, pork and vegetables in a clear but hearty broth) and oden, a classic Japanese winter dish that is now served throughout the year.
It’s the latter that Tanga Udon is perhaps most famous for, despite the shop’s name. Typically oden comprises different ingredients such as daikon (Japanese radish), yaki chikuwa (tube-shaped fish-paste cakes), yude tamago (stewed hard-boiled eggs), konnyaku (a firm, savoury jelly), and rooru kyabetsu (spiced ground pork wrapped in cabbage leaves). You select whatever ingredients you desire and these are served in a light dashi broth they were stewed in, with karashi (yellow mustard) as a condiment.
Feeling sleepy after your meal? Take a leisurely stroll around town, absorbing its old-school charm and escaping the frenetic pace of cities like Tokyo and Osaka, before you catch your flight or train back. Who knows? You might enjoy Kokura so much you decide to stay another day or two. That’s not a bad idea, really.
Fly in via Kitakyushu Airport (which operates 24/7, unusual for Japan) from Tokyo Haneda Airport or fly to Fukuoka Airport (less than 30 minutes away by train). By shinkansen train, JR Kokura Station is less than 5 hours from Tokyo and about 2 hours from Osaka.
2-1 Jonai, Kokura Kita-ku, Kitakyushu, Fukuoka, Japan
Open daily 9am-6pm
A 5-minute walk from JR Nishi- Kokura Station or a 10-minute walk from JR Kokura Station
2-2 Jonai, Kokura Kita-ku, Kitakyushu, Fukuoka, Japan
Open daily 9am-6pm
Located next to Kokura Castle
4-2-18 Uomachi, Kokura Kita-ku, Kitakyushu, Fukuoka, Japan
Walking distance from JR Kokura Station; hours vary according to shops
4-1-36 Uomachi, Kokura Kita-ku, Kitakyushu, Fukuoka, Japan
Open daily 11am-6pm
At the far end of Tanga Market, away from the main entrance