Walking through the crowded streets of Tenjin or Hakata, it might take a while for you to put a finger on it. Fukuoka, on the northern end of Kyushu island, might seem like any other regional hub in Japan. People mob around the department stores clustered on top of the city’s main train station, black-suited businesspeople scurry to catch their trains and shops selling every discernible product — and some not so discernible, in the case of the wriggling, squiggling offerings at the Yanagibashi fish market, the city’s answer to Tokyo’s Tsukiji (or it’s replacement, Toyosu) — try to beckon passersby with standoffish coolness or megaphone pleading.
But then it slowly dawns on you: the city, humming with a vibrant and youthful energy, is starting to reap the benefits of a concerted effort to style itself as a startup capital. As a special economic zone, it’s one of only two cities where newcomers availing of Japan’s new startup visa can pitch tents (the other being Tokyo). And Fukuoka’s relative affordability gives it an edge over the Japanese capital.
“We thought if we go to Tokyo, [our savings] would be gone in five minutes,” says Yasmine Djoudi who, along with partner Thomas Pouplin, became the first foreigner to receive Japan’s new startup visa, conceived specifically to attract founders like Yasmine and Thomas. The couple co-founded Ikkai, a platform that matches university students with paid tasks posted by individuals and companies. “For investment, like if you want to hire people, salaries are cheaper than in Tokyo, the rents are cheaper, the costs of living in general are cheaper,” she adds. “So we thought we could do much more here.” In fact, rents are half the price of Tokyo, and food and other sundries are around 30% cheaper. Your yen just goes a whole lot further all around.
I meet Yasmine at Startup Café, a work space that offers free WiFi, workstations equipped with power outlets and small wooden tables for meetings. Startup Café also hosts occasional events for people who want to start a business. On this Friday morning, it’s fairly packed with digital nomads hard at work, and the clickety-clack of laptop keyboards and laughter from the coffee shop next door provide a steady background buzz. Everything feels a bit like my grade school library, which isn’t surprising because the building is actually a renovated elementary school. The long, sunny corridors are still studded with signs declaring which class can be found in each room. Upstairs, the former classrooms have been turned into office and meeting spaces, as part of the public-private startup incubator Fukuoka Growth Next.
- Startup Café. This library-like space on the first floor of the city’s Fukuoka Growth Next startup incubator is open to all, making it a good place for traveling digital nomads to work (WiFi and charging of devices are free). You can also recharge at the cozy third-wave coffee shop Honey Coffee and bubbly Awabar, with evening drinks come 6pm. startup.fukuoka.jp/startup-cafe
The excellent public transport and compact layout were also a factor in Yasmine and Thomas’ decision. The average commute in Fukuoka is under 30 minutes, less than half the time Tokyoites spend squished like sardines into train carriages. Yasmine, like many of her young compatriots, opts to bike to work, and the city is supporting this by building pedal- and sneaker-friendly projects like broad pavements downtown and the Aitaka pedestrian walkway, connecting Higashi Ward with Island City via a picturesque bridge over the strait in between.
“Balanced living” is a big buzz phrase in Fukuoka, where many young residents have chosen the city because of the well-rounded lifestyle it affords them. Wedged between the mountains and the sea, residents don’t have to choose between urban and rural attractions, because both are easily at hand.
Fukuoka’s appeal is that it combines the entertainment, dining and shopping opportunities of bigger cities but is still close to the spectacular nature of Kyushu, says Emiko Szasz, who runs Fukuoka Now, a free multilingual paper that covers news and events in the city. Emiko herself lives in Itoshima — a small peninsula just to the west of the city famed for its beaches and natural beauty — but can be downtown in under an hour.
“You can work hard and have a good lifestyle. You can find a balance,” says Emiko. She’s witnessed the city develop into an Asian hub, leveraging its proximity to the mainland to attract new residents as well as a rising numbers of business and leisure travelers. Growing visitor numbers has compelled the city to up its game — Emiko and I meet, for instance, in the sultry outdoor bar of hipster hotel With the Style, near Hakata Station. With their attractive door staff swathed in black and whispering into earpieces, you’d be excused for thinking that this was an exclusive club in New York or Milan. Inside, the tables are packed with couples huddled together in the romantic lighting, sipping craft cocktails and making eyes over modern Italian cuisine. “Fukuoka is attractive
because it’s more relaxed,” adds Emiko. “You can have a connection
to nature without giving up professional opportunities.”
- Fukuoka by the numbers
- 1,537,475 Population
- 35,895 Foreign residents
- 4.2 restaurants for every 1,000 people
- 198 fitness clubs
- 17°C average annual temperature
With more time and increased spending power, Fukuokans are able to eat out and enjoy themselves more — combined with a contagious entrepreneurial bent, all that has resulted in a robust dining scene. With 4.2 restaurants for every 1,000 people, Fukuoka has more restaurants per capita than culinary powerhouses like New York and Taipei, and its diverse and vibrant food scene offers everything from yatai street stands to Michelin-starred restaurants.
One popular café is Saturday and Ready, run by local design, advertising and media firm Buzzhook. I sit down with their planning director Aska Ito, at their offices in Yakuin, just a short walk from the frenetic atmosphere of Tenjin, but several decibels quieter.
Passing through a surprisingly charming parking lot, bedecked in exotic potted plants that I later discover are part of Aska’s hobby, I enter the office and find another surprise. While one side of the room is a typical open-plan Japanese office, the other side is dominated by a test kitchen surrounded by glass partitions. Though Aska has lived in Tokyo and sees the attractions a big city like that can provide, she prefers Fukuoka’s easy lifestyle and the sense of community that it has. As a mother of two, this makes it an attractive place to raise a family. “The connections between people, and people’s relationships, are warmer here. In Tokyo, people tend to be really frank, whereas here it’s friendlier,” she says.
From a visitor’s perspective, that friendliness translates to a warm welcome and a point of access; a window into life as a local that can be hard for travelers to find in more closed parts of Japan. It feels like you are immediately being welcomed into a community.
That connectedness is something Aska is trying to foster in her café as well. “I want to offer a place where people can enjoy themselves, and through events and stuff like that, discover something new and forge connections between others.” Recently, the café celebrated the Japan release of Avengers: Infinity War with photo-ready menu items modeled on the popular superheroes, like a Captain Ameri-curry, and attracted comic book fans, families and social media mavens alike.
It appears to be a winning approach, as the café is fast approaching its third anniversary in Fukuoka’s notoriously make-or-break food scene, where about half the bars and restaurants fail within their first two years.
Of course, Aska’s design focus and media savvy haven’t hurt either. Like many millennials, she knows the advertising power of free platforms like Instagram and Facebook. The café has been attracting customers from as far away as Korea and China, with posts of ultra-kawaii menu items. Their signature lemon cake, with an old-timey twisted paper wrapper, has a retro look to it and a sweet-sour punch. In a number of ways, this charming little spot captures the essence of the city — laid-back but plugged in, with plenty of irresistible offerings.
This article first appeared in the November 2018 issue of Smile magazine.