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Fukuoka, the largest city on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu, was the home of the samurai and today is the terminus of the famous Shinkansen Line bullet train from Tokyo, 730 miles (1,168km) away. Originally, the town of Hakata was the centre of the region, acting as a gateway to Japan from the rest of Asia, which lies just across a short strait.
The feudal town of Fukuoka, however, grew rapidly just across the Nakagawa River, clustered around a castle. In the late 19th century, the cities united under the combined name of Fukuoka. The modern city is busy and bustling, with an international flavour and plenty of innovative architectural development.
The Tenjin underground shopping arcade brings the wares of the world to Fukuoka, while a sandbank in the bay has been turned into the largest entertainment district in western Japan, with more than 2,000 eating and drinking establishments congregated under the neon lights.
The Naka River promenade and riverfront park make for pleasant strolls, while top class theatres, theme parks, and art establishments abound. There are some sightseeing attractions in the city itself, and the surrounding area in Kyushu Island has plenty to offer within easy reach of the city.
Founded in 1195 by the priest Eisai who introduced the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism into Japan, Shofukuji was the first Zen temple to be built in Japan. In the temple grounds are the remains of two other ancient temples, as well as a number of other structures. Sadly, the ancient buildings cannot be entered but visitors can explore the lovely grounds and examine the facades. Although the temple complex is a historic and ancient site, it's not frequented by tourists and is seldom crowded. As a result, it's peaceful and serene, with its age and history almost palpable.
Fukuoka's Asian Art Museum is found in the heart of the city, housing more than 1,000 works including paintings, sculptures, prints and handcrafts. This popular modern museum offers a wide array of contemporary Japanese art and art from many other Asian countries. It's fairly small but gives an impressively comprehensive overview of current trends in the region. And while the permanent collection is wonderful, there are regular temporary exhibitions and special events too. The museum should appeal to those both uninitiated and well-versed in Asian art.
One of Fukuoka's best-known shrines is Kushida, founded in 757. It's situated in the heart of ancient Hakata with a huge 1,000-year-old gingko tree shading its forecourt. The shrine honours the grand deity, Ohata Nushina-mikoto, and was built for the common people during the Heian Period. Today it's much enjoyed by locals and visitors alike during the summer's major event, the Hakata Gion Yamakasa Festival. On the last day of the festival, the Kushida Shrine becomes the starting point for this fun run where hundreds of young men clad only in loincloths carry heavy wooden shrines through the streets along a set route, vying to clock the fastest times. The shrine itself contains several items of interest, particularly the Eto Arrow plate bearing carvings of the Chinese zodiac and a brace of anchor stones, recovered from the harbour, that were once attached to ships of the Mongolian invasion fleets. The Hakata Historical Museum is also situated in the shrine grounds, which are pretty and well-kept.
Fukuoka has a subtropical climate with hot and humid summers and mild winters. During summer (June to August), temperatures can reach around 99°F (37°C), while winters (December to February) are relatively mild, with temperatures rarely dropping below 32°F (0°C). The city does, however, occasionally experience snowfall in the winter. Fukuoka's rainy season is between June and July. Autumn is often considered the best time to visit Fukuoka but beware, the typhoon season occurs during this time (September to October). Spring is also a popular time for visitors as the city's beautiful cherry blossoms emerge in full force.
Fukuoka is rapidly growing in popularity with tourists as it is an exciting and cosmopolitan city, making an effort to attract and entertain visitors. The attractions of the city tend to be modern rather than traditional or historical and it is known for its contemporary architecture, its fun nightlife, its great cuisine and restaurant scene, and its love of baseball.
That is not to say that there are no traditional sites of interest: Fukuoka has its share of traditional shrines and temples and two of the best are the ancient Kushida Shrine and the Shofukuji Temple, the first Zen temple to be built in Japan. Tourists can therefore enjoy the fine dining, partying, sports events, and modern amenities of the city with some worthwhile sightseeing thrown in. The best areas to seek out some night time fun are Nakasu, Daimyo, and Tenjin.
For culture vultures there are also some good museums and galleries in Fukuoka, including the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum. If you want to enjoy some peace and natural beauty in the city head to Ohori Park or Maizuru Park for some fresh air.
Fukuoka is also a great base for excursions and daytrips. The ruins of the ancient city of Dazaifu, and the sprawl of the modern city of the same name, are nearby, and the active volcano of Mount Aso attracts many visitors to its lush slopes. The lovely port city of Nagasaki is also within easy reach. Nokonoshima Island, a beautiful scenic area where visitors can camp, hike, and swim, is one of the region's most popular attractions.
In the northern part of Kyushu Island in southwestern Japan lie the ruins of Dazaifu, a city that during the 1st century was the seat of government for the island and first line of defence against threat from East Asian nations. Dazaifu also boasts one of Japan's most important shrines, dedicated to a great scholar named Sugawara Michizane. It's now a pilgrimage site for students from all over the country, especially when examination season comes around. The ancient Komyozenji Temple is also worth a visit, mainly for the stunning gardens, which are particularly beautiful in the autumn when the leaves turn a magnificent array of colours.
The volcanic Mount Aso lies almost in the centre of Kyushu Island. Among the largest in the world, it's also Japan's biggest active volcano. It also boasts one of the world's largest caldera, stretching about 11 miles (18km) from east to west and 15 miles (24km) from north to south. While one of its volcanic peaks (Naka) is still active and regularly emits smoke and ash, the rest of the landscape inside the caldera is beautifully green, with horses, livestock and several towns. In the city of Aso there is a museum dedicated to the volcano which is worth visiting for those interested in the region's remarkable geology. There is a cableway up to the Mount Aso crater lake, allowing visitors to see the steaming turquoise water up close.
The beautifully situated port city of Nagasaki lies at the southern end of Kyushu Island. Nagasaki was open to the world for centuries between 1639 and 1859 while the rest of Japan was secluded from foreign contact. The exposure to foreign cultures has left the city with a sophisticated and liberal air that makes it popular for tourists, enhanced by the many attractions in the city itself and surrounding prefecture. Here you can enjoy Feudal castles, samurai houses and smoking volcanoes, as well as hot spring baths, rugged offshore islands and beautiful beaches. The most important site in the city is the Peace Park, commemorating Nagasaki's darkest hour on 9 August 1945, when a nuclear bomb was dropped over the Urakami district, killing approximately 80,000 people. A black stone column marks the blast's epicentre, alongside the Atomic Bomb Museum.
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