Fugu, festivals, cosplay and castles welcome visitors to this city sitting on the northern tip of Kyushu.
For many travellers, Kitakyushu is little more than a blur on their way to Fukuoka, Kumamoto or Hiroshima. But for those familiar with the area, Kitakyushu is a relaxing day trip, ripe with delightful eats, quaint castles and entertaining diversions. Only an hour from Hiroshima or 20 minutes from Fukuoka by shinkansen (bullet train), Kitakyushu sits on the edge of Kyushu just 700 metres from Honshu.
Known as an industrial and trade city, Kitakyushu’s claim to fame is its historic port, Mojiko Retro Port (門司港). Named for the historic Moji district, the port is home to numerous events throughout the year—festivals celebrating food, bountiful harvests, lanterns and seasonal fairs. Lining the port are shops and cafés selling cute character goods, local food specialties, delicious honey and banana-flavoured ice creams—and even shops renting out kimonos. When exploring the historic Mojiko train station, visitors will find an array of displays explaining the storied history of the building and port. The station was built in the Neo-Renaissance style and is one of the last remaining wooden train stations in Japan. The Kyushu Railway History Museum is nearby the station and showcases the history of rail in Kyushu with exhibits of model railways, dioramas, simulations and even authentic steam trains that can be boarded and explored! Next to the port is Mojiko Retro Central Square where cosplayers spend weekends flaunting their complex costumes, a microbrewery showcases locally made beer and an observatory allows visitors to gaze out over the shimmering Kanmon Strait.
Across the strait is the city of Shimonoseki. Located an hour’s walk via tunnel or 20 minutes by ferry, Shimonoseki’s Karato Fish Market is a perfect stop for lunch. Open daily, the market boasts stalls selling freshly caught and freshly cooked foods. The market is a great place to try infamous fugu (blowfish) and whale sushi, and to watch fish auctions. For visitors arriving outside of market hours, a sushi restaurant on the top floor sells the daily catch.
A little further inland is the Kokura district, home to Kokura-jō and neighbouring Riverwalk, a large open-air mall. Kokura-jō is a restored castle that was originally built in 1602 and burned down in 1866 by warring clans. Since rebuilt, the five-storey castle illustrates local history, and the top offers breathtaking panoramic views of the city. The Riverwalk Mall next door is home to many Japanese brands and cafés, as well as an NHK Broadcasting Station where visitors may watch shows being filmed live. The Kitakyushu Manga Museum is located in the Aru-Aru City Mall across the street from Kokura Station. While most exhibits are in Japanese, fans of classic series Galaxy Express 999 and Space Battleship Yamato will be delighted by the displays.
A blue-collar town, Kitakyushu’s favourite meal is delightfully rich and filling: a spicy curry over rice, baked with cheese until it melts into a gooey mess and topped with a soft-boiled egg.
For the inquisitive that always wondered how everyday objects are manufactured, there are numerous futuristic factory tours in the city—from the Nissan Motor Company to the TOTO (Toilet) Corporation. If an afternoon hike is more your style, Sarakura-san is a 622-metre-tall mountain, with a cable car that carries weary adventurers to and from the observation platform near the top. Visiting the summit as the moon rises offers the spectacular “$10 million night view,” voted one of the best nighttime views in Japan.
Sitting on the edge between history and the future, between historic districts and futuristic amusement parks, and straddling industrial factory tours and natural scenic hikes, Kitakyushu is a unique day trip away from the crowds of Hiroshima and commerce of Fukuoka.