Historic town lights way for post-pandemic travel

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Staff set up lanterns in front of the Hakata Machiya Folk Museum.

FUKUOKA — In Hakata Ward, Fukuoka, there is a historical area lined with old temples and shrines.

The Fukuoka city government has been working on redeveloping this area as Hakata Old Town, spreading northwest of JR Hakata Station. After being stalled last year due to the spread of the novel coronavirus, efforts to attract visitors are now getting back on track.

The area was home to the largest trade port city in Japan during the Kamakura period (12th to 14th centuries) and later flourished as a merchant town that has a long history of autonomy.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Joten Temple

The 250-hectare area of Hakata Old Town is dotted with many historical temples and shrines such as Shofuku Temple, a Zen temple founded in 1195 whose precincts are designated as a national historic site. There is also the old esoteric Buddhist Tocho temple founded in 806, which was a family temple of the Kuroda clan, lords of the Fukuoka domain.

Every summer, the Hakata Gion Yamakasa festival is held in the old city. During this nationally famous event, many floats decorated with dazzling traditional dolls and other objects are dedicated to Kushida Shrine. Joten Temple, founded in 1242, is said to be the birthplace of the festival, as well as the birthplace of udon and soba noodles.

In 2014, the Hakata Sennen-no Mon (One-thousand-year gate), which was modeled after a gate said to have existed in the Edo period (1603-1867), was completed near Joten Temple. During autumn nights every year, an event is also held where temples and shrines in the area are lit up.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Hakata Sennen-no Mon is seen when it opened in 2014.

In 2017, the Fukuoka city government announced the redevelopment of the area, in which the old town’s streets would be paved with beautiful cobblestones and all utility wires would be run underground. In contrast to Tenjin, another district in Hakata where new office buildings are being built, the municipality wants to attract attention to the old district with a historical town that is especially appealing to visitors from abroad.

So far, the about 230-meter-long road known as Kushida Omotesando (main entry to Kushida Shrine) and the 600-meter-long Gokusho avenue have been paved, and about 50 tourist information boards have been installed.

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Women in kimono walk on the paved Kushida Omotesando approach.

Last year, however, the number of tourists plummeted due to the pandemic and the Hakata Old Town Festival, an event that started in 2019, was canceled in 2020 to prevent the spread of infection.

In late July, six 50-centimeter-high lanterns were set up under the eaves of the Hakata Machiya Folk Museum, a tourist spot in the old town. The lanterns depict Hakata-ori silk textiles in Hakata or kazariyama, floats for the Hakata Gion Yamakasa festival.

The city government plans to prepare 70 lanterns and install them at stores around the area with hopes that the lights will unify the old town.

“I hope that the warm light from the lanterns brightens the depressed atmosphere caused by the pandemic, although we can’t yet invite tourists to visit,” an official at the museum said.

The municipality has been resuming the project gradually, and keeping an eye on the infection situation so it can accept tourists as soon as possible after the virus is under control. The installation of lanterns is part of these efforts.

The city has also launched an initiative to promote tourism products and services that showcase the district’s history and culture, registering them as Hakata Old Town Selection. At present, 27 products from 19 businesses have been registered in three fields; lodging, such as hotels’ plans for experiencing traditional culture; souvenirs, such as sake and sweets; and experiences, such as Zen meditation and wearing kimono.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
An illustration : Map of Hakata Old Town area