Fukuoka is just a two-hour flight from Tokyo and a three-hour ferry from Busan, South Korea, and yet few Americans ever set foot in Japan’s sixth-largest city. Nestled on the northern coast of Kyushu Island, it offers sacred shrines, world-class architecture, and one of Japan’s wildest festivals, Hakata Gion Yamakasa. Culminating July 15, the celebration draws a million spectators rooting for men in loincloths and split-toe boots as they run through city streets with one-ton floats balanced on their shoulders. The 5k race ends at Kushida-jinja, an 8th-century Shinto shrine. It’s a fantastic sight (and one travelers must plan far in advance to see), but hardly the only reason to visit.
In a sea of mediocre business hotels and bougie mega-chains, the 16-room boutique hotel, With the Style, makes for a luxe home base. Whopping 656-square-foot double suites have skylit bathtubs, private terraces, and bubbly in the mini fridge. There is a steakhouse on site, but you probably want to eat out.
Fukuoka is the birthplace of tonkotsu ramen, defined by its rich, creamy, and sometimes pungent pork-bone broth. Tackle a bowl at Mengekijo Genei, aka Noodle Theater, which got its name because diners sit stadium-style in a tiered semicircle around the chefs. The kitchen moves fast but you’ll want to slurp your bowl in slow motion. It’s that good. Excellent soba-and-sashimi joint Chikae Fukuoka also has “ringside” seating; here, it’s around giant aquariums where diners watch chefs “fish” for their meal. Most notably, Fukuoka is known for its more than 150 yatai food stalls, or mobile food carts, where strangers eat elbow to elbow. To crawl from one stall to the next, head down to the north bank of the Naka River in Nakasu after dusk. The seating arrangements are so intimate, you’re bound to make friends.
The best self-guided tours of the city start at Tocho-ji, a Shingon Buddhist temple dating to 806 C.E. The grounds house a five-tier pagoda and 30-ton wooden Buddha—the largest of its kind in Japan. The compound is a throwback to the Heian period, but Fukuoka is famous for its contemporary architecture, too. Students travel here from around the world to study buildings designed by Rem Koolhaas, Aldo Rossi, and Kazuo Shinohara. ACROS Fukuoka, by Argentine architect Emilio Ambasz, is worth scoping out. The foliage-covered edifice resembles a 15-story hanging garden and houses Takumi Gallery and the Fukuoka Symphony Hall. The Fukuoka Art Museum is historic and grand, but it’s also closed for renovation until March 2019. Instead, make the rounds at the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum, which hosts edgier, more progressive shows and is the only museum in the world systematically collecting and exhibiting modern and contemporary art from 22 Asian countries. (A current exhibition surveys the work of Indian-born sculptor Anish Kapoor.)
Contemporary design is also at the forefront of D&Department, a chainlet of shops showcasing the unique character of the Japanese prefectures where they are located. Go here to load up on minimalist ceramics, good quality salt, and smart home furnishings. For a final dose of high design, duck into Dreieck Park (1 Chome-15-4, Imaizumi, Chuo-ku; +81 92-714-0309), an elegant cocktail lounge with an undulating wood bar. Soak up the fourth-floor view while suited bartenders prepare negronis with science-lab precision. For a glittering glimpse of the skyline, ask the GM if you can sneak a peek at the private rooftop.
When it comes to hot springs, Kyushu hit the jackpot. To experience a variety of indoor and outdoor pools, head two hours southeast of Fukuoka to the charming spa town of Kurokawa Onsen. A $12 onsen-hopping pass, available at the visitor center, grants you access to two dozen participating ryokans. (Don’t feel shy about wandering the cobblestoned streets in your bathrobe—everyone does it.)
If you have a few extra days to spare, hop a once-a-day, 60-minute Japan Air Commuter flight from Fukuoka to the remote fairytale island of Yakushima, a designated UNESCO World Heritage site for its ancient forests. Reserve a suite at the Sankara Hotel & Spa; a hot stone massage will be just the ticket after you return from a day of hiking. The moss-choked primeval rain forests here are dotted with 1,000-year-old cedars with gnarled roots, 150 species of bird, and red-faced Yakuzara monkeys. If the island’s Shiratani Ravine, in particular, reminds you of a movie set, you’re not far off: Yakushima was the inspiration for the forest setting in the 1997 anime hit Princess Mononoke. It’s a sight you won’t soon forget, yet one rarely seen—even by Japanese.