Monocle magazine and I agree on a lot of things. Ever since I flipped through its first issue in February 2007, I’ve felt like it’s one of very few Western media that really ‘get’ Japan. I was convinced of that when Monocle first named Fukuoka one of the world’s 25 most liveable cities. The ranking debuted in 2008 – with Fukuoka at number 17 – and the city has featured every year since. The magazine seemed to recognize what I already knew and was trying to tell others. Ever since I moved to Fukuoka in 1990 and launched English-language entertainment magazine RADAR three years later, part of my mission has always been to show the world what a great place Fukuoka is.
Note: Part 2 of this report is here.
Let me tell you how I discovered it for myself. Beginning in the mid-eighties I spent about three years in the megalopolis of Tokyo and one year in Osaka. I loved my time in both. I didn’t care that I could touch the walls of my apartment with stretched-out arms, or that the trains were always crammed. I was young and living in Japan was a thrill. But after a year back in Canada, I moved to Japan a second time and had a hunch that it might be for longer. I had to start thinking about comfort and quality of life.
Compared to Tokyo or Osaka, the cost of living in Fukuoka was significantly less and commute times were only a fraction. I had access to unspoiled beaches and hiking trails, yet the city was vibrant and rich in culture. It was the right choice. I ended up loving life in Fukuoka so much that I’ve made a career out of publishing magazines and web media about it for most of the past three decades.
As the years passed, life in the city only got richer. The Dome, Canal City, Hakata-za Theater, the Asian Art Museum and more opened up. Fukuoka, while still off the global map, was becoming a sophisticated city with enviable quality of life. But I knew that just 25 kilometers to the west, the living was even better.
I found myself drawn to an area I’d discovered within months of moving to Fukuoka: Itoshima.
Despite being only 40 minutes’ drive from downtown, Itoshima felt like another world. I first entered it via Sunset Cafe on Futamigaura beach, which at the time was literally a surf shack and, as hard as it seems to imagine now, pretty much the only place on the coastline. With a chilled-out, bohemian vibe, it was popular with the surfer crowd and became a meeting spot for the tiny international community of the early nineties, a place where reggae set the beat and locals let their hair down.
After ten years in Fukuoka, I bought an unserviced lot of land with a tiny one-room cabin and used it as my base to enjoy weekends in Itoshima. In the back of my mind I knew I wanted to move out and live there full time. Finally, in 2013, my wife and I built our home and moved for good.
We had some concerns at first: would we become disconnected from city life, from our community? Could we handle the daily commute? The drive to and from the city, while not so long by some standards, was a cost and limited opportunities to go out for drinks at night. But we soon found that morning walks on the beach, post-work sunsets, fresh country air, wide open space and all the other pleasures of Japanese rural life made it more than worthwhile.
Fast-forward to 2020, and it seemed that Monocle and I were on the same page once again: as the pandemic gave people more reasons to consider moving out of the metropolis, the magazine named Itoshima its third best small city in the world. They praised its nature, food scene and burgeoning craft culture, which they say add up to “an excellent quality of life”.
I agree with all those reasons – and I’d add some more of my own. Below you’ll find my personal guide to why Itoshima deserves a spot on the list of the world’s most enjoyable places to live.
It’s not my goal to encourage everyone to move out here. Truthfully speaking, I hope Itoshima stays uncrowded and relatively undeveloped. But I – and Itoshima – do welcome people who share the values of respect for nature, local culture and sustainability to consider settling here. If that’s you, I hope what follows will help.
A significant share of Itoshima’s population lives off farming, fishing and livestock. In fact you’ll often find Itoshima-grown produce on the menus of fine restaurants around Japan and even overseas. When it comes to fresh food, Itoshima is a bountiful bread basket for nearby Fukuoka City and for those who live here – a benefit you can enjoy at every meal you cook at home.
Buying groceries becomes a pleasure at one of Itoshima’s 18 farmers’ markets offering a variety of locally sourced vegetables, fruit, fish, meat, and more. Cutting out wholesalers means the produce is fresher, more seasonal and comes in smaller batches, while you get to experience a direct connection to the people growing, rearing or making your food. After a while you’ll start looking out for your preferred producers’ names on the labels: we have our favorites for tomatoes, another for kale and another for strawberries. It’s quite a different experience from shopping in a city supermarket, and can be considerably cheaper too.
Guidebook to famer’s markets (Japanese)
While not the biggest market in Itoshima, Shimanoshiki offers a broad variety of local produce, and thanks to a link with the Itoshima Fishermen’s Cooperative Association, it’s particularly strong for fish and seafood. For a fee you can have a fish cut and cleaned while you shop for fresh fruits and vegetables, local beef and pork, handmade tofu, konnyaku, ham, soy sauce, salt, and other Itoshima specialties. The instore diner, Shima no Kaisendonya, also offers excellent seafood bowls; but arrive early, or expect to wait!
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Fukufuku no Sato
This farmers’ market in the Nijo area is especially popular for fresh fish and seafood, including catches from the Fukuyoshi Fishing Port just minutes away. It also sells a wide variety of fresh local fruits, vegetables and other foods. In spring the field in front is planted thick with mustard seed: for ¥100, visitors can cut as much of it as will fit into a bag to take home. Even better news, from April 2021 an eat-in restaurant will open on the same lot.
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Managed by Itoshima-based cattle rearers the Nagaura Farm, this market is unsurprisingly the best place to buy their local brand of beef. The market, one of the longest-running in Itoshima, sells other meats too as well as a modest selection of local vegetables and flowers. Its casual eat-in space is popular for steak hamburg and yakinikku set meals – both made with Itoshima-brand Nagaura beef.
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Eggs are the specialty at this farmers’ market: laid on a nearby farm, they’re so fresh you can pick them with a pinch of their yolk. Alternatively try them at the sweet shop across the road, baked into its famed roll cake. You’ll also find poultry and a small selection of high-quality organic vegetables at this market, as well as an outdoor barbecue and oyako-don (chicken egg rice bowl) to snack on. In winter there’s also a barbeque oyster hut.
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Ito Sai Sai
One of Kyushu’s largest farmers’ markets, Ito Sai Sai offers locally sourced vegetables, fruits, flowers, meat, and fish. Located just off a major road and on the closest side to Fukuoka City, it attracts many shoppers and restaurant owners from outside Itoshima. Despite its popularity, it’s still worth visiting to find items not available elsewhere, or if you want a lot of a certain item.
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Farm to kitchen
Some farmers sell directly to consumers, shipping boxes of seasonal veggies to anywhere the courier companies deliver. But living in Itoshima might give you the chance to meet them and see their fields for yourself.
Oki Farm / おき農園
Oki-san is one of a younger generation of farmers renting underutilized farmland to grow vegetables with as few chemicals as possible. In June 2018, after a successful crowdfunding campaign, he opened shop inside a refurbished railway car to sell his veggies face-to-face.
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In 2014, the couple began farming less common vegetables in small quantities without using pesticides or chemical fertilizers and selling them directly. Although their produce is mainly for restaurants they hold markets, open to the public, on the first and third Saturday of the month between April and February.
Pick your own
Pick-your-own farms are another way to enjoy Itoshima’s bounty. Day-trippers usually flock to these places on weekends, but living in Itoshima means we can visit on weekdays and have them to ourselves.
Plenty of Itoshima’s strawberry farms offer the chance to pick your own, and Isomoto is one of the best. Berry picking runs between January and early May, and July to late August they have melon and mango. The farm also produces its own jams, compote, and a delightful strawberry vinegar drink.
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It’s hard to keep track of the many varieties of citrus grown year round in Kyushu, plenty of them in Itoshima. Between October and November at this farm you can pick mikan – preservative-free and unwaxed – and sweet potatoes too.
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Beauty might be subjective, but everyone can agree that Itoshima has some of the most scenic landscapes in northern Kyushu. Dotted with a mix of coves, sandy beaches and ports, its coastline is a beauty to behold and mecca for water sports enthusiasts. Further inland, Itoshima boasts broad rice fields and forested mountains with waterfalls and hiking trails – all less than an hour from downtown Fukuoka City.
For many it’s the beaches that Itoshima is best known for, and for good reason. Swimming, surfing, kayaking, fishing, boating, horseback riding, dog walking, frisbee… There are so many ways to enjoy Itoshima’s coast. We take seaside walks at sunset almost every day of the year, and in summer I often squeeze in a swim or SUP session before driving into the city.
Below I’ve introduced just a few of the best known spots: the locals have their own favorites and you’ll discover them in good time. Just remember to treat Itoshima’s precious beaches with respect, and help keep them as clean, peaceful and pleasant for others as you’ll find them when you visit.
Futamigaura is home to Itoshima’s most famous site: the Meotoiwa or “Couples’ Rock”, a Shinto shrine set in the sea. A large torii gate stands in front of two large rocks that represent husband and wife, joined by a large straw rope. Impressive at any time of day or season, it’s postcard perfect during a summer sunset. And despite drawing the tourists, it’s still a popular surf spot and the gateway to Itoshima’s beach culture.
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Nestled inside a protective cove, the water here is ideal for swimming. In the summer umienoie (beach huts) are set up and the beach gets very busy. Take a boat out to visit Keyano Oto, a sea cave famed for its unusual basalt columns, or head behind the beach to find the trail up to Mount Tateishi and its stunning views over the coast. The facilities are only open in summer, and in cooler seasons it’s blissfully quiet.
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Further west, almost at the point where Fukuoka meets Saga Prefecture, this long, straight beach is a popular surf spot offering some of Itoshima’s most consistent waves. It also has a more surprising claim to fame: ‘singing’ sand. Seriously – the sand squeaks as you walk on it, especially on a hot or dry day, an effect caused by granules of pristine quartz rubbing against each other. You’ll find a tourist information office in the parking lot nearest the beach.
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The crisp fragrance of farm fields: it’s something I never knew existed before moving to Itoshima, but now I’m addicted to it. As a center of agriculture the area is carpeted with fields and paddies, and now I go out of my way to walk or cycle between them. Have you ever smelled the fresh scent of a wet rice paddy? Or the sweet tang of strawberry plants? Strolling along the fields of Itoshima – largely unnoticed by locals and missed altogether by tourists speeding by in cars – is a simple pleasure that feels like a luxury.
Itoshima is ridged with seven peaks that deliver fresh water to the fields below and shelter wildlife in their forests. They also give the area some of its most beautiful scenery, from stunning lookout points to hidden waterfalls. Hiking trails, parks and campgrounds offer plenty of ways to explore.
Living in Itoshima is particularly appealing for those who love the outdoors. The wide choice of fresh-air activities is why many choose to move here, whether for their own sake or their children’s. And as I discovered for myself, doing sport isn’t the only way you’ll get a workout: mowing grass, cutting back weeds, chopping wood and clearing out drains may not be included in the Olympics, but they’re great exercise and satisfying stress relief (and a whole lot cheaper than joining a gym). The novelty might wear off a bit during a sweaty summer, but I’m truly thankful for all the opportunities that living out here presents for me to use my hands and body.
Itoshima’s flat plains and winding coastal roads make it ideal cycling territory for riders of all abilities. Cycle clubs often roll through, and you can get chatting to other cyclists at meetups or in one of the local cafes with busy bike racks outside. If you don’t have your own, you can rent a bicycle from the city’s tourist information center at Chikuzen Maebaru Station, among other places. Just be sure to follow the rules of the road, be considerate and ride safely.
While the summer seas are mostly calm – unless a typhoon is on the way – Itoshima’s main surf season is in winter. The colder months bring the most consistent waves, and at daybreak you might see the sea invaded by what looks like large black porpoises: it’s wetsuit-clad surfers looking to catch a few waves before work. It’s known as a pretty friendly scene, but get the lowdown on local rules and customs before heading out with your board.
Golfers have their choice of six well-established courses including the Keya Golf Club, host to the annual KBC Augusta Tournament with top-level international and domestic players. All of Itoshima’s golf courses boast stunning scenery too. Picture here is the Shima Seaside Country Club.
Itoshima maintains a network of public hiking trails through its mountains, with options suitable for all ages and levels. Free maps with detailed information (in Japanese) are available at some trailheads and online.
For a spectacular view over the brilliant blue Genkai Sea, try the hike up Mount Tateishi. You can start the climb from two different places, and whichever route you take you won’t need more than a pair of sneakers. From the trailhead at Keya Beach, it’s 25 minutes of easy hiking to the top, or if you have a car, you can start from the highest point along the mountain road linking Keya to Fukunoura. From there it’s less than 20 minutes to the summit at 220 m, where you’ll find that stunning view.
The hike up to the summit from Yuralinko Bridge is about 90 minutes on a well-marked and travelled trail. It begins by following a stream and continues up a moderate slope that’s easy to climb with just some sturdy shoes. Halfway up there is a small shrine and water fountain. The views of Itoshima from the top are some of the best to be had.
This hike takes about 80 minutes up and is slightly more gentle than the one to the top of Mount Nijo. Climbers will still be rewarded with sweeping views over the coast and Karatsu in the west.
Itoshima’s calendar is full of events throughout the year – so many, in fact, that we can barely find the time to go to half of them. From open-air markets to food fairs, traditional festivals to concerts and outdoor cinema, there’s always something on. Check local listings (in Japanese) or this website (in English) for the latest info.
Meotoiwa Daisho Shimenawa Shinto Ritual / 桜井二見ヶ浦大注連縄掛祭
At Meotoiwa or “Couples’ Rock,” Itoshima’s famous sea shrine just off Futamigaura beach, an annual ceremony takes place in late April to replace the shimenawa (straw garland) that links the two rocks. At 30 m long and weighing 1 ton, the shimenawa takes the power of some 60 men to hang it over the rocks. It’s an awesome sight.
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Shiraito Cold Misogi / 白糸寒みそぎ
One of Itoshima’s most dramatic events, this festival sees local men plunge into a mountain river in the dead of winter. Late at night on the third Saturday of December, participants join in various ceremonies before heading into the mountains near Shiraito Falls and parading into the Kawatsuki River – all while wearing nothing but a loincloth.
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Itoshima Art Farm
An international art festival held once every two years in the nature-rich Nijo-fukae district. A variety of modern artists from Japan and abroad will participate in the event to foster Itoshima’s culture through this art festival. Organized by Studio Kura, which offers an artist-in-residence program in Itoshima, where artists from Japan and overseas stay and produce art. The 2020 event was postponed and is scheduled to be held around mid-2021.
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Itoshima Craft Festival
Craft studios from all corners of Itoshima gather to showcase their products at this festival, held once a year in a local park. Browse ceramics, wood, glass, jewelry and other crafts handmade by some 60 local artisans, all while chatting with the makers themselves. You can also try your own hand at woodworking, indigo dyeing, accessory making and other crafts at a variety of workshops.
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Coffee and Bread Culture
Let’s be real: no matter how much westerners might love Japan and its cuisine, most of us find ourselves craving quality bread and coffee. While you might have struggled to find them ten years ago, now there are numerous excellent options for both. Some bakers and coffee roasters are Itoshima natives, but most have moved to the area by choice. The result is a vibrant foody culture that’s sure to start attracting national attention before long.
This brand-new specialty bakery opened in March 2021. Tomohiro Okuzoe, a transplant from Kumamoto prefecture, bakes slow-fermented baguettes and rustic loaves. Inspired by traditional French bread, he specializes in simple recipes using top-quality ingredients: organic wheat only from growers he knows across Kyushu, Hokkaido and the United States, a mill he trusts, and select salt and water. Eventually Tomohiro and his Californian partner Tina plan to sell by order only, but for now you can purchase their bread directly at the bakery.
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Hiroshi Nagahama moved his family and bakery from Tokyo to Nijo in Itoshima to be closer to the sea and countryside. Sana is Spanish for ‘health’, so it’s no surprise that Nagahama is fussy about ingredients: he uses only domestic wheat flour and no oil, margarine, or butter. The result is fresh bread that tastes great, has plenty of chew, and is easy on the stomach. Stand-outs include their New York-style bagels and hot and crispy panini.
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What began ten years ago as two guys and a small roasting machine in a hut surrounded by farm fields has evolved into a full cafe, and a fixture in Itoshima’s growing coffee scene. Burlap bags of raw beans wait to be sorted by hand; the whirl of the roaster and aroma of fresh coffee fills the room. The cafe, inside a former doctor’s office, is a peaceful and friendly place to savour your cup.
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Tana Cafe + Coffee Roaster
One of the pioneers of independent coffee roasting in Itoshima, Hiroyuki Tanaka imports his beans directly from growers in Nicaragua and El Salvador. He shows the same dedication to detail at every step in the process, earning him accolades from fellow roasters and food critics alike. Hiroyuki Tanaka has two locations in Itoshima, both with free tasting counters: ask the staff for recommendations to discover the latest roasts. Tana Cafe, located on an old shopping street in Maebaru not far from the train station, shares the space with Itoshima Kurashi x Coconoki, an excellent place to shop for made-in-Itoshima woodwork, pottery, and other select lifestyle goods.
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This report continues. Be sure to read the second part here. Also, the Fukuoka Now team and I regularly share reports on Itoshima online here and on Instagram – for Itoshima Now!
Publisher / Fukuoka Now
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