A Food Scene Blooms in Fukuoka

Zen monk and bartender Kanwa Takeuchi in Vowz Bar.

The Inori, mixed with matcha liqueur and a prayer from Takeuchi.

THERE’s AN OLD JAPANESE expression, ichigo ichie. It means ‘one opportunity, one encounter,’” says Zen monk Kanwa Takeuchi. He’s reaching for a bottle of sake behind his bar in Fukuoka’s bustling Hakata district, and anyone on the hunt for some bartender wisdom would be hard-pressed to find a better sage. Takeuchi’s robed figure is partially obscured by a thin rag of smoke; I’ve lit a stick of incense, a standard gesture in Buddhist rituals, and part of the recipe for one of his signature cocktails, Inori, the Japanese word for prayer. “Every experience is unique and will never come again, so each moment should be cherished,” Takeuchi says. With an unhurried elegance, he captures the smoke with a cocktail shaker, cupping it over the top of the glass, and, in doing so, mixes my prayer into the drink. 

The noodles at Samurai. Udon are topped with seasonal tempura vegetables.

Chef Hiroyuki Soma scoops up his potentially conflict easing udon.

Port city Fukuoka, the capital of Kyushu, Japan’s most southwesterly island, exemplifies ichigo ichie better than most—the city’s urbanity is distinguished by its ability to reinvent the present with innovative ideas, while also treasuring the past, and nowhere is this felt more deeply than in its local cuisine. Many Japanese culinary traditions trace their origins here: tonkotsu ramen— the city’s star—characterized by its fatty pork bone broth, as well as hot pot dishes motsunabe and mizutaki. Jotenji Temple, built in 1242 in the heart of Fukuoka, even has a stone marker bearing the inscription, udon soba hassho no chi, or, “the place where udon and soba were first made.” But, like the seemingly misplaced monk Takeuchi, today a new generation is reinventing Fukuoka’s eating and drinking scene through cross-cultural fusion and modern food trends.

Framed by crimson walls accented with calligraphy brushstrokes, at first glance, Takeuchi’s Vowz Bar (fb. com/vowzbar.hakata; drinks from ¥1,000) looks like a stylized fantasy of the East, but his egalitarian approach to booze consumption dispels any stereotypes. Most might think monks and alcohol don’t mix, but Takeuchi holds firm that his Buddhism-inspired cocktails can bridge the gap between spirituality and the daily demands of modern life. “It can be difficult for people to

meet with a monk for spiritual guidance because of work schedules,” he tells me. “But most people drink alcohol at night after work. If monks go out to bars with the people, then we can meet, talk, and bring people closer to Buddhism.”

At Vowz Bar, Buddhist tenets are reimagined through specialty cocktails. The Ichigo Ichie can be personalized with your choice of alcohol, reflecting the phrase’s ephemeral wisdom. A spicy vodkabased cocktail, Samjiva, named after one of the realms of hell, offers a kick. “Every drink has a special meaning, a story behind it,” he says, hopeful that these messages will act as a catalyst for spiritual connection.

With a similar attitude to his culinary ethos, chef Hiroyuki Soma’s samurai-like dedication to Fukuoka’s most underrated noodle suggests it’s udon, not rock and roll, that will save the world. Samurai.Udon (samurai-udon.com; mains from ¥850), his aptly named restaurant, is a standout for its handmade noodles and locally sourced ingredients. Yet it’s Soma’s eagerness to collaborate with other chefs from all cultural backgrounds that makes his shop special.

Soma says udon’s base components—flour, water and vinegar—are the key to merging cultural borders, “its ingredients make it a very versatile dish, so as long as I have those three parts, I can blend udon with many other cuisines to create something new.” Balling his hand into a fist for emphasis, Soma proposes that “udon culture could even ease international conflicts, like North Korea and Donald Trump.” His brand of optimism, characterized by the breadth of its vision, has resulted in an impressive array of culturally experimental dishes—more than a hundred, according to Soma—and nearly two dozen restaurant collaborations. Whether he uses Korean sauces or horse meat, or buries his noodles beneath a mound of spicy South Asian curry, Soma is eager to infuse his udon with a global awareness. Despite his restaurant’s mounting popularity, Soma remains modest: “I don’t know if my restaurant is that unique. This is just the most natural way for me to express myself.”

Toshiyuki Morimoto is another local chef who is motivated to reinvent local dishes with a modern sensibility. At his izakaya-style seafood restaurant Number Shot (foomanlab.com/fish-market-1; mains from ¥1,250), his menu remains true to the cuisine’s roots. Despite Fukuoka’s diverse food scene, it isn’t a tourist hub like Tokyo or Kyoto; Morimoto hopes that combining French-style cooking with Kyushu cuisine and locally sourced ingredients will introduce the city as an international culinary superstar. My appetizer is a promising start. Mentaiko—Fukuoka’s famed spicy cod roe—is rolled in an omelet and wrapped in sliced Hakata-style pork belly, combining two local specialties into a deceptively simple concoction.

However, it’s Morimoto’s signature main, Number Shot Doria, that leaves me spinning in the best possible way. Though doria is Italian in name and origin, the rice gratin dish was introduced to Japan 90 years ago by a Swiss chef whose version bakes melted cheese over a bed of steamed rice and Bechamel sauce. Instead of rice, Number Shot’s re-interpretation showcases Kyushu seafood; mussels and crab pop on the tongue, delicately rich and buttery soft. It’s also one of the most attractive dishes I’ve ever seen, garnished with sea urchin and little orbs of roe that shimmer like precious stones. Like many foods I’ve encountered here, it’s never the same dish twice. The fish selection changes daily, and the vegetables are seasonal; in springtime, they’ll swap mushrooms for bamboo shoots.

Number Shot, and Fukuoka at large, are places of juxtaposition. Despite the trendy interior, and the larger metropolis surrounding it, this is not a place where one checks the time or hurries off to the next hotspot. Like many restaurants throughout Japan, the shoulder-toshoulder dining nature along the communal counter invites strangers to interact, while the exposed kitchen in the center evokes the theatricality of a playhouse.

Departing into the chilly night, I’m guided by the far-off lights of yatai, wooden food carts, an anachronistic culinary tradition that survives in Fukuoka despite the city’s modern urban landscape. Wheeled out at dusk and gone again by the break of dawn, yatai stalls date back to at least the 17th century, and were widespread throughout Japan. In preparation of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, however, many were shut down due to increased sanitation standards. Since then, their prevalence has diminished by more than half, though Fukuoka has taken strides to preserve the custom. Yatai ownership used to be exclusively familial until 2016 when Fukuoka’s local government began accepting new applications.

Chef Toshiyuki Morimoto utilizes Fukuoka’s port locale to source fresh seafood.

It’s counter space only at Number Shot.

Morimoto’s take on doria, a Japanese style gratin.

Enter: Rémy Grenard, a Normandy-born chef and baker living in Fukuoka since 2001, who is the first non-Japanese to operate his own yatai, called Chez Rémy, which opened last spring. (fb.com/yataichezremy; mains from ¥650). Grenard began introducing his homeland’s cuisine to Fukuoka when he opened his French bakery, La Tartine, in 2016, and continues to bake its authentic croissants, brioche and quiches before his work at his yatai begins in the evening.

At Chez Rémy, what sets his ramen apart is the French-style bouillabaisse broth topped with a hearty helping of mussels, shrimp and potatoes, instead of the usual sliced pork. It’s a savory dish that warms your belly, especially when paired with his boundary-pushing European sides, such as French-style pumpkin gnocchi, and seasonal mulled wine.

The decision to serve ramen began as a back-and-forth debate with a friend who insisted he add the dish to his yatai repertoire. Laughing, Grenard admits he was skeptical at first: “I don’t want to make what everyone else is making—I want to be myself,” he recalls saying.

This commitment to individualism has paid off. Chez Rémy draws large crowds each night, due in part to its original ramen dish, as well as Grenard’s willingness to accommodate vegetarian palates—not possible in most pork-laden tonkotsu broths— all of which is further buoyed by his breezy personality. As he hopscotches between French, Japanese and English, prompting conversation with customers, while calling out directions to his staff, he is both charming and impressive.

French Chef Rémy Grenard’s yatai stall.

Grenard fuses the cuisines of both his old and new homes in his signature dish, ramen bouillabaisse.

Vestiges of the past permeate Fukuoka’s landscape, from festivals celebrating centuries-old events to elderly women clad in traditional kimono boarding the rush hour train. Time is easily lost to idleness, but Fukuoka’s recent wave of culinary creatives has left a stamp on the present, transfiguring local staples through modernity, as they understand better than anyone else: this moment will never come back again.

Grenard makes a toast: “Ichigo ichie.”

“That’s an interesting adage,” remarks the diner next to me, a Tokyo-based expat visiting for work. “It means…”

But I stop him short. I’m well-versed by now in the divine opportunity of singular culinary encounters.


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