A Weekend in Kitakyushu, Japan
Besides the Kawachi Fuji Wisteria Garden, which we had already explored by early Saturday afternoon, there didn’t seem to be much else to do or see in Kitakyushu. But as we only had a weekend and it would have been too tight of a trip to try to fit in another city, we decided to see what we could find.
We took the rest of Saturday to walk around and get our bearings, counting all the vending machines along the sidewalks and stocking up on Japanese snacks at a nearby convenience store, and then relaxed in our air-conditioned room at Chigusa Hotel, a ten-minute walk from Yahata Station. Everyone from the hotel staff to the locals who said, “Hello, have a nice day!” as we passed was so lovely. We shared a delicious steak lunch at the hotel’s cafe (and went back to have the same meal each the next night) and had cup noodles (or instant ramen) for dinner. And it was confirmed—they are better in Japan.
On Sunday, we started our morning on a train to Kokura Castle.
Our hotel provided us with a phone that we sometimes used to navigate, but Andrew opts to use and is always impressed by Google Maps on his data-less and Wi-Fi-less phone. One of the things I love most about traveling is that my phone is disconnected, so except to view my Notes app where I had written possible places for us to go to, I didn’t take it out much.
Kokura Castle is quite small, but the traditional Japanese architecture, with adjacent ponds filled with large fish and turtles, is striking against the surrounding modern buildings of the city. Across from it is a shopping center with a Starbucks where naturally, as Americans, we stopped for a drink. To be fair, it was mostly because it was the only coffee shop open at the time. And I did order a matcha latte. The city was more quiet than we imagine is usual as it was a holiday weekend. Just outside of the castle, an adoption organization had set up a stand with the sweetest dogs and cats that I cooed at for a while before we made our way to lunch.
Past the riverwalk and across from a department store is Yomohei, a delicious and affordable ramen spot run by a sweet older couple. We ordered two ramen sets which come with sushi rolls, and gyoza if you want to add them (we did). Most places in Kitakyushu, including Yomohei, are cash-only, but our meals only came out to 1,500 yen (~$13.67 USD). I was stuffed halfway through, but the broth was too good to not lap up!
I don’t know how Andrew ever navigated us to UMIE+, tucked away in a pocket of the city and with me often wandering off to snap a photo of some alley or flower or other, but he did, and it was open even! It’s a beautiful, warm shop filled mostly with ceramics and other wares.
I so wanted to take home this miniature but weighty Ganesha figure and really should have (it sparks so much joy!), but took the ceramic mug pictured in the middle and the tiniest golden spoon with a thin, branch-like handle instead. The sweet shop owner also gifted us a tenugui hand towel from the Zentsuji Temple as a “souvenir.” We were able to communicate a little with the help of her iPad translator.
English is quite limited in Kitakyushu, so if you’re not used to navigating foreign countries (especially ones with non-Roman alphabets or character-based languages) or communicating and interacting with speakers of other languages, I would highly suggest preparing in advance. I only knew the phrases konnichiwa, ogenki desu ka, genki desu, and arigato gozaimasu and even that helped, and I was able to match characters to ‘read’ and confirm the airport bus stop. Also important to note, for the beginning of May, it was hot.
dotto milk stand
Dotto Milk Stand is located at the heart of the city, close to a four-way intersection with diagonal crosswalks, similar, I imagine, to Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo. We didn’t need to but crossed diagonally just for the fun of it.
Talk about a hole in the wall—if it weren’t for all the pretty signage, you might just miss it. The storefront is the size of a small closet, narrower than the owner’s arm span, and the two benches outside are just wide enough for the edge of your bum. All of this only adds to its charm. Fortunately, we had one 500 yen coin, enough to afford us one soft-serve cone which was more than enough for us to share. It made me smile to think we were sitting on a bench on a street in Japan, just sharing an ice cream cone.
Our final stop was REVERSE, so named because it changes from a cafe during the day to a bar at night. Upstairs is GIFT, their smoky, incensed concept shop with, you guessed it, more beautiful ceramics. As I get older, I truly become my mother’s daughter with my increasing love for wares. We browsed the shop during our wait for a seat in the cafe. There was a wait not because the cafe was particularly busy, but rather because everything was done at a slow pace and that was okay (so unlike in Seoul).
Everything about the cafe and shop can be described as artisanal. We were seated at the counter and served fresh pear juice, a light cheesecake, and a palate cleanser. Andrew’s coffee was prepared slowly and carefully; the barista even sampled the brew before serving it to make sure it was just right.
A couple places we didn’t mind missing but that were on our list: Chiin, a restaurant that specializes in sake, natural wine, and tea, and Tanga Market.