On your first visit to Japan, you will be struck by how much towns and cities use the spaces under our feet to make up for the narrowness on street level Japan is often famous for. In many cities around the world, places spread out. In cities like Tokyo and our Fukuoka, they go up and down. Whole floors of restaurants are perched atop department stores and intricate underground walkways spread from underneath stations like roots from a tree. Sometimes, you can find a variety of shops in these walkways. Fukuoka has gone one step further and turned the exit from the Tenjin subway station into an entire underground shopping boulevard. A twilit parade of small stores, cafes, and restaurants give the Tenjin shopper a respite from the rigors of the street.

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The Tenjin underground street (known as the Tenjin Chikagai) sits directly below the main street, running from Loft in the south to the central post office in the north. It can be accessed by stairways from many points on the main street as well as from the lower levels of Tenjin’s department stores. Each exit from the Chikagai is well-signposted for what street you will emerge on and any nearby city feature (e.g. the city hall or Kego Park). A shopper could go about their business without having to even step outside on to the street, using the Chikagai as a thoroughfare. You don’t even have to cross the roads as the Chikagai passes right underneath. And why would you want to be outside? When the summer comes or the weather is less than pleasant, the Chikagai is ever in a calm evening. Glass lamps high in the walls between the shops and spotlights in the low wrought-iron ceiling infuse the Chikagai with an almost soothing atmosphere no matter how busy it gets. The two parallel thoroughfares open up at the ends and at the subway station. Here, the space is held up by pillars garlanded by large lightboxes covered in stained glass, as if the spirit of a grand cathedral from distant Europe has trickled through the ceiling like water in a cave.

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There are maps and signs aplenty if you get disorientated. Each map shows the shops in the Chikagai, the exits and where each exit leads. The exits are numbered from north to south in eye-catching yellow boxes.

Let’s enter from the Tenjin subway station on the Airport Line. Here, the walkways also run east and west. Westwards you will come out on the verge of Akasaka. Eastwards you will emerge inside Across Fukuoka. You could travel to Across Fukuoka, see a classical concert and go home without ever stepping above ground outside. But for now let’s return to the crux of the Chikagai itself, where it meets the subway entrance. This open area has maps, help desks and phones. There is even a currency exchange machine if you left the airport in a hurry.

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If you know where you’re going, check the signs and maps and off you go. Otherwise, just let your feet wander. You might not get lost in the Chikagai but you might get tired if you decide to walk around all of it! A good exploration, however, will show you curious little details. The subway entrance is graced with a replica stained glass image (one of several, making the Chikagai feel even more like the depths of a European cathedral) and a clock with moving models that ring chimes on the hour.

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There are plenty of cash machines along the Chikagai to keep you shopping without having to emerge mole-like to the surface. The south end towards Loft is particularly well-served with a convenience store and toilets. The entrances to Daimaru, Tenjin Core, Parco, Mitsukoshi, IMS and so on are the closest the Chikagai gets to ‘big shopping’. There are no large shops and few international chain stores except perhaps Starbucks. The Chikagai opens with the first trains and closes late into the night. After ten o’clock in the evening, the shops are closed are the only people are work party revelers saying goodnight and folks who have gone to the cinema in Solaria Stage. Now the serenity of the Chikagai passes through hushed solemnity to a warm sigh, the buzz of the daytime somehow still lingering.

You may spend a day or a year in Fukuoka without using the Chikagai. Its charm lies in its homely unobtrusiveness, like the downstairs of an old pub or the hidden corner of a large library. Let yourself use those street steps under their glass boxes next time you’re in Tenjin. Look down from Tenjin’s neon heights, and down to its earthy heart.

Written by Roger Ferrari

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