I look at the tar-coloured black skin of the thumb-sized fish in front of me. It sits meticulously plated, its plump little belly diagonally sliced, head on its side, eyes withered and sad.
“Oh, it’s our friend, the mudskipper,” one of my dinner companions half-laughs, half groans. “We spent hours watching them yesterday; they’re so cute.”
“Mutsugoro [mudskipper] is a real Ojisan [old man] delicacy,” says our guide, with a knowing smile; she’s obviously seen our lame display of shock before, “they’re a real Yanagawa speciality.”
After a full day of exploring the canal-lined streets of Yanagawa, a city on the southern coast of Fukuoka Prefecture, I can think of far more specialities that more adequately represent the charms of this picturesque town than the sticky, mud-dwelling, sweet-soy drenched, googly-eyed fish I’m trying for dinner.
Ah well, I think to myself, let’s give it a go. After all, I’m a guest; I’ll show my appreciation to these modern-day samurai through gluttony and a display of culinary bravery!
Before I know it, I’m happily five or so plates deep into a kaiseki (multi-course) meal in the Japanese dining room of Ohana, the home to one of Fukuoka’s most legendary and centuries-old samurai families, the Tachibana Clan.
Given my very Australian habit of tall poppy syndrome and near constant suspicion of social hierarchies, I’ve never been the type to be impressed by family titles, royal connections, old money and the like. But these mudskippers for dinner and my Tachibana hosts, they’re very different.
“I want to play with the cultural assets we have,” explains Chizuka, Ohana’s CEO and an 18th generation Tachibana clan member.
That night we’re swooned by Chizuka over a series of alcoholic and non-alcoholic aperitif style post-dinner drinks.
Ohana commissioned an artisanal freelance drink artist – maybe the only person with said title in Japan – Emmy, to create the tasting flight after the pair connected on Instagram.
“The new theme for Ohana is ‘the future’,” Chizuka continues, “mixing elements from old and new cultures, trying new things.”
The family isn’t resting on the laurels of what their great-great-great-someone did two centuries ago. They’re spearheading new tourism initiatives, including envisioning an online platform that allows individual travellers to curate their own Yanagawa experience, scaffolded by the rich Tachibana familial network.
Part of why I’m visiting is to give Ohana’s experiences a trial run— a pretty sweet gig even with all the mudskipper munching we’re doing.
On arrival I receive a blessing from the town’s chief priest – Chizuka’s cousin, Seitaro – and the next day I learn the cultural history of the mikan (a Japanese citrus fruit) at Kikko’s Orchard. The Orchard is the clan’s campsite, farm, and occasional music festival location that’s run by Chizuka’s uncle, a 17th generation Tachibana.
Welcoming tourists into your home is a rare move for any royal family, but it’s a natural evolution for this family when you look at the history and context of why they did it in the first place.
Chizuka’s grandmother, Ayako, first decided to open Ohana in the 1950s as a restaurant and hotel. It was a way for her to contribute to the future of Yanagawa, while also saving her family from financial post-war ruin.
In many ways, Ohana today is the embodiment of the entrepreneurial energy that surges right through Fukuoka. Fukuoka City was actually Japan’s first to launch a specific start-up-visa, which is an immigration program dedicated to helping international businesses looking to shake things up in a fresh environment. A bold move for a nation where following rules and tradition – particularly in the corporate world – is considered of the highest virtues.
In many ways, Ohana today is the embodiment of the entrepreneurial energy that surges through Fukuoka.
Like many other prefectures across Japan, Fukuoka Prefecture is misunderstood as just being a singular city, when in fact the name of the prefecture just coincidentally matches its capital. Many think Fukuoka Prefecture is just about Yatai and Fukuoka City’s famed Canal City Hakata shopping mall. But go beyond the bright lights and escape this busy metropolis and you’ll discover a region filled with outdoor adventures and quaint mountain villages.
Hiring a car from the city will give you great flexibility to adventure through this lush and idyllic landscape, stopping in places such as Hoshino-mura. Like a jewel, this town is cradled in the mountains of southern Fukuoka. Better known for its rice-field structures, if you’re visiting Hoshino-mura from late May you may also bear witness to one of the greatest firefly displays on the planet.
After a busy few days dining with ancient samurai families, I reluctantly leave Yanagawa and head north to cycle the circumference of the beachy Shikanoshima Island. Later gorging myself on cheap but deliciously fresh oysters along the waterfront of the charming, up and coming port town of Itoshima. With its new water view cafes, restaurants and a burgeoning creative art scene that would rival most European cities, Itoshima’s main beach is also fast becoming a surfer’s paradise. For arguably the best view in all of Kyushu, you might also attempt to hike to the top of Mount Tateishi which will certainly test your fitness.
This is a hidden coastal corner of Japan not many tourists have seen. A true representation of the experience-rich prefecture that exists far beyond Google searches and Trip Advisor reviews. For example, did you also know Fukuoka Prefecture is one of the first places in Japan where the Cherry Blossoms bloom? So to get your dose of hanami (flower viewing) skip the busy March crowds of Tokyo or Kyoto and be sure to head here instead.
The best part? You’re just a 35-minute drive from Fukuoka City’s international airport.
So after my coastal road trip and dizzying stay at Ohana, I meander back to the centre of Fukuoka City with a few hours to kill before a flight back to Tokyo. I ask a local for some advice and she points me in the direction of Manu Coffee. Turns out it’s the perfect antidote for my rabid Australian caffeine addiction.
Manu is cool and very trendy, but in a cosy, worn-in way. You can tell that the walls and furniture here have stories to tell; from first dates to new business ideas and creative projects. This is a cafe built for social interaction, not Instagram flexing. In fact, this is a true microcosm of Fukuoka City.
After a brief moment flirting with the almost disorientingly-long list of flavoured coffee options — including something called the intriguing ‘Geisha Guatemalan’ — I’m so flustered that out of panic I simply order what I always do, “cafe latte, hot.”
Taking up residence in the back corner, I open up my laptop and already start researching my return to this intriguing region, which is when one of the great travel paradoxes hits me.
For all that I have done, I become aware of all that I missed: Fukuoka is a leader in olle trekking, a Korean-inspired type of hiking based around blending cultural landmarks with sensory experiences. There’s the prefecture’s new love of both forest and coastal style glamping, with new accommodation options popping up almost monthly.
Fully caffeinated, I head to the airport with my next Fukuoka adventure already planned.
It seems Ohana’s mantra of looking to the future is already rubbing off on me.
Japan Airlines and ANA are running flights from Melbourne and Sydney to Fukuoka via Tokyo.
Stay with the descendents of ancient samurai in this spectacularly refurbished home.
1 Shinhokamachi, Yanagawa, Fukuoka 832-0069
From AU$322 per night
A slick, centrally located lifestyle hotel with an affinity for book hoarding, Bunshodo is minimal in design but maximum in charm and personality. Oh, and there’s an espresso bar on the first floor for good measure.
2 Chome-12-13 Hakata Ekimae, Hakata Ward, Fukuoka, 812-0011
From AU$62 per night
Fukuoka is closer to the capital of South Korea than Japan’s. Fukuoka to Seoul is just 540 kilometres.