Kokura Bar Guide - The best bars and Cafes in Kokura, Kitakyushu, Japan.
My first chance to explore Kokura properly was Golden Week in April 2007. I'd been in Japan for about a fortnight, had no money and was waiting for my first wage packet.
The first few days of the holiday were a bit miserable, I wandered around with the impression that everything was concrete, dusty and uneventful to say the least. The 12 months ahead seemed grim and I started inwardly doubting if I could stick out my contract.
However, a change of perspective and adjusting from a big city (Manchester) to a smaller, more spread-out one made me appreciate Kokura. So did a year's worth of evenings and weekends meandering through little back streets, arcades and stations to discover the surprisingly varied nightlife going on there.
Most people living in and around Kitakyushu (Tobata, Yahata, Kurosaki, Kokura, etc...) will probably go to Tenjin in Fukuoka for a good night out.
But, anyone (JET's, OWL's or other teachers/expats/workers) finding themselves in Kitakyushu for a long stretch should check out these places in Kokura.
Despite what they may first think, there is something for everyone and venturing into the smaller, weirder bars really makes for a memorable evening. You also tend to make some good friends, or at least get used to some regular faces.
I went wandering on more than several occasions and as a foreign woman on her own, did find it daunting at first.
But people are so friendly, or just plain curious, and they'll pretty much welcome you gladly once they relax a bit. Have a good one in Kokura and don't be scared to explore....enjoy!
PS) A map is on the way, apologies for the geographical guessing game until then.
Righa Royal Hotel (23rd Floor) Cocktail Bar
This place is amazing, a great bar to start your night. Don't be put off by the upmarket feel-you can turn up in jeans and T-shirt for a casual bar crawl or stay in there all evening in your best dresses/suits and jewellery. Cocktails are a reasonble price of around 1,000 Yen (approx £5) each, and are generous on the spirits. The decoration is minimalist, the lights and celings are low and a pianist and singer emerge from the rising curtain every night purring out slinky jazz (mainly Western) tunes. This is glamorous stuff, maybe the most top-end bar in Kokura. Plus, it also affords THE best 360 degree view of the city, including the starry lights across the straits. Lovely stuff.
The Rihga Royal cocktail bar can be reached by leaving Kokura Station through the North (back) and simply following the tallest building you can see. Even better, just head for the large glass tunnel leading from the back of the station, which takes your right to the hotel door.
This place is a restaurant, but can be visited for a (massive) beer and a great atmosphere with friends. It's also good for some food before heading out, or home, for the night as you can order as much or as little as you like and enjoy the laid-back, very Japanese atmosphere. Quirky surroundings include a glass floor with rock gardens and sand, sliding paper doors, moody lighting and old wooden benches.
More to come....
This the best place around for a cheap beer, a bit of reggae, projected Tom and Jerry movies on loop and a laid-back atmosphere. Marvel at the massive candle on the bar, shelves of spirits and very friendly owners. Last time I checked (April 2009), a beer was 400 Yen, one of the cheapest around. Can't go far wrong here.
Standing bar, tucked away in Kokura's arcades, is a bit difficult to find, but rewarding once you do. Slot some cash into the machine for a voucher that you swap for beer and/or bar snacks, such as some shredded squid. Very welcoming, always some salarymen to chat to and a nice upstairs space to sit in.
Whether its the conspicuous English language sign outside, the cheap drinks and quirky surroundings or its relative easiness to find, Lucky Moon is one of Kokura's biggest expat magnets. Decked out inside like an old ship's galley, Lucky Moon has an impressive shelf of spirits and lots of cocktails and beers on offer. Friendly and reliable. No air con in summer, so be prepared to get your sweat on.
This may be the most memorable bar in Kokura and one of it's best-kept secrets. If you can find it. From the outside, Moon Shan looks like a paper-covered wooden-framed window. If it wasn't for the misshapen bicycle decoated with fairy lights keeping watch outside, non-Japanese would not look twice at the place. However, once you've slid the door aside, a row of eyes look up surprisedly and you will find yourself in the smallest, messiest and most interesting bar in the town. 500 yen a beer and surprisingly good food on offer. Slide down the small alleyway next to 24-hour supermarket Maruwa to spot it.
Cool, calm and slighty pretentious, Soap bar is angled firmly towards the arty crowd, but attracts a mixed bag of people of all ages and backgrounds. Sit on a matress surrounded by books and films being projected on the whitewashed walls. Regular art, film and music events are held here and the nonchalantly great-looking bar staff give it extra points.
Throwing plastic darts at a plastic board with pre-drilled holes is surprisingly fun and a lot safer than metal ones after a few beers. Darts bar is the place to come for a bit of this action, with weird board games also dotted around the room. Drinks are reasonably priced and Western-friendly restaurant Wara Wara is just one floor above. Also in the same building is Big Echo karaoke - food, darts and singing all under one roof.
Nombe's is an ultra-late closing reliable watering hole for those living in Kokura and is well worth a visit for those by passing through. It's not so much the cosy wooden benches and atmosphere, but its jokey owner Wacki that is the attraction - he can always be relied upon to provide a giggle and some good company. For the summer matsuri festival, when the town comes out in full force in jinbeis and yukatas, he may bring the bar upstairs and out onto the street so drinkers can enjoy the warm summer nights out of doors. A glass of beer costs around 500 yen and there are lots of international bottles on the menu.
This is an example of how, when the Japanese recreate Western culture, they go all-out to get it just right. Coltrane's is in the nightlife quarter of the city (hereby called 'the seedy quarter'), close to Bumblebees, Don Dada's and the Pitt Inn. A very limited number of guests can only just squeeze into the oblong shoe box-shaped bar. However, once in, a massive wall of spirits, brightly polished surroundings and a sole bartender dressed pristinely as a tuedoed, quiffed teddy boy will greet you. Watching the stoic ever-focussed barman mix your cocktails is a relaxing and impressive ritual. This doesn't come cheap, as one drink can often exceed Y1,000, but it's a good old treat nonetheless.
Kokura's ultimate summertime bar in a prime spot slong the Murasaki River means you probably couldn't miss Moonbeams if you wanted to. Oposite Rivewalk shopping centre on the wooden boardwalk, Moonbeams sells coffee, beer and hot dogs in the day and at night is home to a great open air summer drinking spot, DJs and music. Don't miss it.
This is as rough and ready as it sounds, but is fun, cheap and quirky with beers at around 400 to 500 yen. Throw the shells of the free monkey nuts provided on the floor and become a local. For some reason, they have shrine to the film 'Scarface' in the corner and the movie plays on a loop. I told you it was weird.
Booties Irish Bar
The only Irish-themed bar in the city, Booties is hard to miss, being on a major road, and is good for a Guinness or a whisky, if a bit pricey. The fish and chips are respectable for a hungry expat, but avoid the microwaved steak 'pie' at all costs.
Called simply 'shot bar', this little European-style cafe with chequered tablecloths opens from early evening onwards. It's name is a little misleading as it has a big menu of food and snacks (all written in English and Japanese) as well as soft drinks, magazines and a table of items, such as jewellery and hair accessories for sale. Film posters dot the walls. Good prices.
In the same building as darts bar, this restaurant branch has a similar set-up to the aforemementioned Shirokiya, but is busier, smokier and a little more rough around the edges. It is always a sure bet, however and the menus are translated in English and have huge pictures for failsafe pointing and nodding. You can find another Wara Wara just to the right as you leave Kurosaki Station - it's smaller and quieter, but no less tasty.
A small, but slightly-bigger-than-average bar based in a little room in the 'Wisteria' building, which is located on the edges of the seedy quarter. Bob's bar has free karaoke and a friendly American host (Bob). Good luck finding it - I think it's on the 6th floor...all part of the adventure, though!
Sex, Drugs and Rock N' Rock (SDR)
SDR is a filthy, peeling, painted, amazing little bar on the 4th floor of a building in the seedy quarter on the same road as Bob's Bar. It's great for its (fluctuating) happy hours, when beer is just 300 yen and cocktails 400 yen. Rock, metal and all kinds of great music is blasted out into the bar, which is painted like one giant tattoo and often attracts the expats.
Having being set up and owned by Scottish expat Colin, 'Xelah's Tropical Paradise' is now under the new, very capable management of a local. This is Kokura's quintessental expat bar, the place that will provide, without fail, a multi-cultural, well-travelled (and typically loud) crowd. Home comforts come in the form of an international drinks menu (scotch whisky, spirits, Guinness and Strongbow cider etc... ) as well as everything from thai green curry and rice to fish and chips and mango-flavoured ice cream. However, the dancefloor is what people come for at weekends, as there's always guaranteed to be something going on and a mixture of indulgently cheesy and OK songs. A pint will set you back around 500 yen.
This is what aforementioned Colin of Xelah's resigned his original expat bar for. Marroon peddles itself as a more sophistocated, smaller and relaxed alternative to Xelah's. It has inherited some of the international facets of it's sister bar, but is decorated in red and white sixties-themed furniture, with the odd homely football strip and scarf gracing the walls. Reasonably priced beer, relaxed atmosphere and a bit of banter in English give this place its good qualities.
Serving the need for young, attitude-laden well-dressed loungers, Grassroots is a good place to go to relax and listen to a good range of cooler-than-thou dance/reggae/funk/soul music. A stint on the decks is not unheard of either, if you're nice enough to the bar staff. You also may catch sight of some locals kitted out in Blues Brothers-style outfits. They're probably not yakuza. Probably.
Break On Through
This bar can be hard to spot unless the sign is sitting outside of its heavy wooden door. However, the good news is, it's on the ground floor and once you're in, no more navigation is required. Beers come in at around 600 yen and you may be sitting in the company of some of Kokura's most dedicated rockers. Jim Morrison, the Who and sixties posters line the walls. The barman may show you his collection of strange memorabilia or put on a music video for drinkers nostalgic for some 60s sounds.
Unfortunately, Kokura is short on dancefloors, but Megahertz provides one of a few places to pull shapes. There are regular events held here, including live music and DJ nights. You can be sure of a friendly reception, decent prices and ambient surroundings, again, if you can find it, that is.
This roomy student bar is in the backstreets near to Kitakyushu University and can be reached from the University monorail stop. It is THE best place to see a band in Kitakyushu. Easily bigger than most other bars and decorated to resemble and old living room, the walls are lined with shelves of CDs, any of which you can hand to the barman for a spin. Beer is around 500 yen and gin and tonics 7/800 Yen for a double. The old chintzy chairs, tall lamps and worn rugs give it a grungy feel, and along with the computer consoles scattered around, make a great place to be. Watch out for the rough-and-ready, but fun, toilet, which is (not so) artistically placed in the middle of a storeroom.
If it's live music you like, the the Folk Village is a decent bet. Japanese artists rule the playlist, so the experience doesn't get much more authentic than this. Drinks can be pricey (all in cans) and if you go on open mic night, which is free, the musicians may throw a few English songs or phrases in for fun - something that can be a giggle, but also generate a bit of self-consciousness. Tickets for better-known artists begin at around 2,000 yen and rise steeply thereafter.
Finally, just for fun, the Kokura Bar Awards. Applause please...
Best place for...
Outdoor summer drinks
Kokura Castle/the shrine (get some cans and sit on the grass/stairs)
Gyu Kakku (great yaki-nikku)
Raamen from street stalls
Don Da Da
Japanese Racists/Xenophobics (will like to stare and possibly make fun of you...)
Break on Through
The Folk Village
Festa's (maybe closed)
Arty surroundings/ film showing's etc...
Booties Irish Bar
Hope you enjoyed this nonsense as much as me.
ETIHAD by Kate Feld
7 months ago