You are never far from the sea in Fukuoka – a fact that is easy to forget among its kaleidoscope of land-based glories. But let’s forsake the cradle of the city center and take a bus ride or a long walk to the Hakata Port area, the port’s famous red tower a reassuringly sturdy sight as the sea breeze grows and the horizon dwindles. Hakata Port has been a center for travel and trade with the wider world for centuries and today you can find more than just clunky warehouses, swarthy laborers and a tang of sea salt and diesel.
Between the heart of the city and the wine-dark sea sits a triumvirate of buildings where the people of Fukuoka come together to cheer, to convene and to celebrate under their wide welcoming roofs. The most of versatile these is the large open space of the Fukuoka International (or ‘kokusai’) Center. In spring 2019 alone it is holding a music concert, a judo tournament, an interior design fair, a recruitment expo, and a fashion business seminar. From the main road, you can see the long low front of the Kokusai Center set back from the traffic by a large stone-clad plaza, replete with flagpoles and attendant shrubberies. Stand in the plaza and above your head the Kokusai Center rises on four sturdy light brick corners, supporting an imposing cobalt-grey low roof. The tinted glass panels on each face of the building illuminate the interior with natural light.
To your right, you will see the striking curved edifices of the Sun Palace Hotel. Look further down the road and you will see the imposing, column-clad mass of the Fukuoka International Conference Center. The Kokusai Center is the smallest of the three and opened in its current incarnation in 2004. Every November there is a popular sumo tournament so here is your best chance to see the traditional Japanese sport in Kyushu. The sea breeze is noticeably stronger here so keep warm if you visit in the cooler months and make sure your hat doesn’t blow off.
As you enter through one of the many glass front doors, you’ll find yourself in a broad illuminated foyer, bookended with toilets and vending machines for your comfort and refreshment before the rigors of the interior begin. The main area is 3425 square meters with several entrances also leading out the two car parks on the west and east side of the center. If you do drive to the Kokusai Center then come via the road on the north side to access the car parks; the south road only allows access on foot across the plaza. The interior may look smaller than it is on the outside, depending on what event you have gone there to see as there is a rising stage in the floor for music events and the like.
The second floor is more like a mezzanine that runs along the edge of the main hall on all four sides. Here also are toilets. Look up and you will see some fixed seating above your head. The wooden drawers you see all along the mezzanine pull out to provide extra seating for sports and music events. You may be impressed at how many people could fit into such a space!
The Fukuoka Kokusai Center is not open to the public on non-event days so I hope you didn’t jump on a bus after reading the first few paragraphs of this article. The environs around the Kokusai Center may seem rather unromantic to say the least, but respite and relaxation are closer than you think. Your journey was not wasted! Bayside Place Hakata shopping mall is a short walk north. There is even Minato Onsen hot spring if decide to round off your evening of sumo wrestling in November with another thoroughly Japanese experience. Speaking of buses, the Kokusai Center is well-served by regular Nishitetsu buses to and from Hakata and Tenjin. There is also the longer yellow BRT ‘bendy’ buses which go from Hakata Port to Hakata Station to Tenjin. The nearest subway station is Gofukumachi.
If you can’t wait until November for sumo wrestling, you might find an event at any time of the year at the Fukuoka Kokusai Center that will interest you if you check the website regularly. The events are as varied and exciting as the city itself.
Fukuoka Kokusai Center
Written by Roger Ferrari