Visiting our distant sister
Neil Porten has a short, but sweet, reunion with Auckland’s sister city, Fukuoka
I’m here to visit a sister. Well, a sister city. Fukuoka, on the northern coast of Japan’s Kyushu island, has been a sister city of Auckland since 1986. Sister city relationships don’t have a high profile these days but, in Auckland at least, the connection was re-established in 2017 with the opening of the redeveloped Fukuoka Garden in Western Springs Lakeside Park, which is about a 10-minute walk from my house. The original garden was gifted to Auckland in 1989 and built at Auckland Zoo but was removed years later during expansion.
Fukuoka has a similar population to Auckland and it too is growing — unusual in Japan where the overall population is declining. Both are port cities with an international outlook; Fukuoka’s proximity to China, Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines attracts trade and tourists from Asia and the rest of the world. And it is the history of this ancient city which draws the visitors.
Whether you arrive in Fukuoka by cruise ship or train, the Hakata Old Town is within easy walking distance and is a great place to begin to experience the city’s history. Hakata Sennen-no-mon Gate welcomes tourists to the historic temple area. This impressive, four-pillared timber structure may have boards made from a 1000-year-old camphor tree, but it was put up in 2014. Carved into the transom is a traditional Hakata-ori textile pattern, strongly reminiscent of Maori tukutuku designs.
Jotenji Temple, built in 1242, is regarded as the birthplace of Hakata-ori textiles and also soba and udon noodles and manju, the sweet red bean paste so popular in confectionery. Every morning the wavy Genkai Sea motif is newly raked into the fine grey gravel at the temple entrance.
Shoichi Kokushi, who built the Jotenji Temple, is said to be the founder of the Hakata Gion Yamakasa festival held every July. You can see an example of one of the heavy floats carried through the city at the nearby Kushida Shrine.
The shrine of Dazaifu Tenmangu is approached over three bridges representing the past, present and future. The main shrine dates from 1591 and is built over the grave of famed poet and calligrapher Michizane Sugawara, now deified as Tenjin, the Shinto kami, or god, of scholarship. Among the 10 million visitors a year are students hoping for divine favour and educational success. The heads of ox statues may be rubbed to make you smarter. Small embroidered amulets, omamori, can be bought to carry home the good luck. My son, much to his relief, is now fully protected from all academic “calamities”.
Before my ship leaves, I head up the Hakata Port Tower to take in the view. The Muromi River winds southward through the high-rise buildings and out beyond the pencil-thin breakwater Nokonoshima and Shika Islands mark the channel for our departure.
It’s been a too-short family reunion with this sister from another country. But once I’m back home, I know just the garden where we can meet.
The Hakata Gion Yamakasa festival is held every July at the Kushidajinja shrine.