Japan’s Weird Food: Street Stall Ramen

In Toronto they have hot dogs, in Berlin, doner, in Fukuoka, Ramen. Fukuoka is famous for its Tonkotsu Ramen, with broth made with pig bones, pork, noodles, sesame seeds, green onions, and seaweed.

While ramen is available in restaurants all around the city, the best place to get it is from the street stalls all over Fukuoka called Yatai. Open late at night, these stalls usually serve variations on ramen and oden. For 500 yen you get a bowl of ramen, and an additional 100 yen gets you a refill of noodles.

At this particular Yatai the owner, depicted in cartoon on the bowl, was playing the harmonica for our entertainment.

Cheap, delicious with free entertainment?

The perfect street food.

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Sumo Wrestling in Fukuoka

Every year there are six grand Sumo tournaments in Japan, held in Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, and Fukuoka. Each tournament lasts for 15 days, and we were lucky enough to see the second last day of the Fukuoka tournament in November.

A quintessentially Japanese experience, the sumo tournament begins at 9 and lasts until around 6, making for a very long day for the spectators. The lower ranked wrestlers compete early in the day, with the matches leading up to the grand champions in the the evening. Many attendees don’t show up until around 4, just in time to see the higher ranked wrestlers compete. We were there around 2, as we wanted to have time to explore and learn a little about Sumo. It gave us a chance to see the Sumo wrestlers walking around outside in their traditional uniforms, and marvel at their sheer size. As well we had plenty of time to buy Hello Kitty’s dressed like Sumo wrestlers, Sumo magnets, Sumo ear cleaners and other hilarious memorabilia.

As the sumo wrestlers enter the ring, they take their place around the circle and are introduced to the crowd. Wrestlers compete in two groups – east and west, and are paired off with someone else in their skill level from the opposite group. Every day they compete against a different opponent, and the scores from the tournament are added up at the end to declare the grand champion.

Each bout lasts only a few seconds, and the first wrestler to touch the ground outside the marked ring loses the match. Thought the matches were often short and anticlimactic, the mental preparation component before the bout could last up to four minutes, with each wrestler stomping his legs, shouting and throwing salt in the ring.

Sumo has faced many problems lately: allegations of match fixing prompted organizers to cancel the spring grand tournament in Osaka and attendance at tournaments is declining, as most of the fans are elderly, with few young people interested in the sport. However, I thoroughly enjoyed our time at the Fukuoka tournament, and would go again if I had a chance. One of my favourite parts was the advertising. Instead of traditional sporting event advertising of billboards or panels, Sumo wrestlers carried out banners advertising many Japanese brands, and of course, McDonalds.

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Dazaifu Tenman-gu

The most famous shrine in Fukuoka is Dazaifu’s Tenman-gu shrine – dedicated to the God of learning and built on his grave. Ever year thousands of students come to rub the horns of a lucky bull, buy omamori, good luck charms, and pray for good studying and good grades. We went to visit just as the plum blossoms, Fukuoka’s prefectural flower, were blooming. Beautiful!

Plum blossoms at Dazaifu

As you approach the shrine you cross a pond built in the shape of the Japanese character for heart. The two bridges signify past and future, and you apparently shouldn’t walk over them with your current boy or girlfriend, as it leads to the end of relationships. Whoops.

Dazaifu is also home to the Kyushu national museum, where we saw the visiting exhibit on Van-Gogh.


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Where in the world…

Part 2. Kyushu!

Japan has four main Islands: Hokkaido – with lots of snow, Honshu – with Tokyo, Kyoto, and Hiroshima, Shikoku – with not much, and Kyushu – with us! Kyushu, the most southern main island, means ‘9 prefectures’, but they amalgamated one somewhere, and now it’s left with 8: Fukuoka, Oita, Nagasaki, Kagoshima, Miyazaki, Kumamoto, Saga and Okinawa.

Map of Kyushu

Map of Kyushu

Okinawa is actually a set of smaller islands far to the south of Kyushu, so it doesn’t really count either.

Fukuoka has the largest city and is the one closest to Honshu. Fukuoka city was voted in the top twenty ‘livable cities’ in the word in 2010, so not too shabby. It is also famous for Ramen and a weird food product, Mentaiko, which is marinated pollock roe. I tried it for the first time this weekend, and it will not be something I am trying again.

Below us is Kumamoto, which has a large and famous castle, and below that is Kagoshima, famous for its volcano. To the left we have Saga, which has a balloon fiesta every year, and Nagasaki, which is known for not only being the site of the second A-bomb dropping, but for it’s Chinese and Dutch settlement and extremely large hamburgers. On the right is Oita, famous for hot springs and Miyazaki, which has really nice beaches, and used to have the worlds largest indoor swimming pool.

Kumamoto Castle

Kumamoto Castle

So far Scott and I have been to Saga for Balloon Fiesta 2010, Nagasaki to see the Chinatown, Oita, where we visited the nine hells of Beppu, and Kumamoto for the castle and a beautiful garden. We plan on hitting up Miyazaki and Kagoshima this spring to complete the Kyushu set.

Scott and Aya at the Balloon Festival

I am very happy to be living here. It’s full of beautiful natural sites, history and culture, and an area of Japan I would have missed out on had I been a tourist.

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Where in the world…

do Heather and Scott live?

Often Japanese people ask me “what do foreigners know about Japan?” They usually guess Samurai, Tokyo, Ninjas and Sushi. Which I suppose is mostly correct, if you add “Domo Arrigato Mr. Roboto!”

Scott Arrives!

So I assume most people don’t know where we actually are. When we were placed by the JET program they gave us our second choice prefecture, Fukuoka. Of course, when we choose it as a second choice, way back in November 2009, we didn’t know much, or anything, about it. I think my reasons were as follows: south Japan must have nice weather, I hear the mountains are nice, and Fukuoka is a big city.

Japan with Fukuoka in Pink!

When we landed in Fukuoka, I couldn’t look out the window at our new town because the airport is located directly in the city, and I was terrified we were going to hit the buildings. Yeah, I am a bit of a nervous flier. Fukuoka does indeed have a big city, 3 million people, but it turns out that there are mountains everywhere in Japan, and the weather here is not that great after all. In the summer it was hotter and more humid than any other place I’ve ever been, and now in the winter it is really cold, with no insulation or central heating in our buildings. I hear the rainy season is next…


Despite the weather issues, we love Fukuoka. The city is new and clean and full of Karaoke joints and good restaurants. Scott lives in the city, or at least on the subway line, and I live about an hour away from the city in the countryside. Or at least as countryside as Fukuoka gets. My city is called Chikugo, and has a population of about 40,000 people. I commute every day by bike or train to Omuta – a former mining town, and Setaka – a town famous for nothing and Scott takes the bus to his school in the mountains near the city.

Map of Fukuoka City

Fukuoka is also conveniently close to South Korea – only 3 hours by ferry, and on the Shinkansen line – 3 hours to Kyoto. So while we are not basking in the southern sun as I hope we might be, it turns out it’s a pretty nice place to be!

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Kurume Fireworks Festival

On the day I arrived in Fukuoka, my supervisor and Vice Principal picked me up from the airport. After taking me to the school to meet the Principal and staff while I was still soaked in sweat, they brought me to my apartment for the first time.  The apartment, or Jutakku, as we call it, is a large cinder block building located next to a junkyard of some sort. My first impression was… a year? here?

Luckily, there are 8 other ALT’s living in my building and I was not forced to suffer alone. Four of them are in their second year and immediately they took us under their wing and brought us to a festival in the nearest town. A fireworks festival. One of the largest fireworks festivals in western Japan.

Japan is obsessed with quantifying statements about tourist or other attractions. I have seen ‘one of the three best castles in Japan’, ‘one of the three best views in Japan’ and ‘one of the largest sake festivals in western Japan’. It reminds me of the Elmira Maple Syrup Festival ‘the world’s largest outdoor, one day, maple syrup festival.

Anyway, the Kurume fireworks festival was an excellent introduction to the festival culture of Japan. We’ve been to a lot of festivals now, but the first was something special. Rows and rows of food I actually recognized as Japanese food, which was not the case at the grocery store, festival games, and beautiful, gigantic fireworks. Women and men were wearing yukata, or summer kimonos, and pensioners were showing us to seats along the river bank.

Festival Stalls

When the fireworks began, we Japan newbies were astounded by their length and beauty.  The show had two central points along the river, so people around the bend could also see. It went on for an hour and a half, and the finale was spectacular. Of course, on the way home I got completely lost trying to find that cinder block apartment, and wandered around my new town for over an hour. By that point I was glad to see the building and I have been happily, mostly, living there since. Just don’t get me started on the bugs…

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