Top 10 Places to Visit in Fukui

“Fukui? Eeehh! Sore wa doko?” This is the reaction I often get from Japanese people who I meet on my travels outside of Fukui.

The prefecture is almost unheard of in Japan, let alone in the world. Yet Fukui has some fantastic historic, cultural and beautiful places to visit. Here’s my top 10!

#10 Ichijodani Asakura Clan Ruins (between Echizen and Ono) 

I’m no Japanese-history buff, but at this reconstructed settlement I can really feel the history of the area and imagine what the bustling town of 10,000 people would’ve been like 500 years ago. It’s also in a gorgeous valley that would be excellent for cycling.

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One of the reconstructed streets from the samurai town that stood here 500 years ago before it was burnt down by Oda Nabunaga.

#9 Maruoka Castle 

Unlike many castles in Japan that have been reconstructed, Maruoka Castle, also known as ‘Kasumiga-jo’ (Mist Castle), has not been changed since it was built in 1576 and is Japan’s oldest castle tower. You can admire it from the outside or climb the steep stairs up to the top to get panoramic views over Maruoka town.

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#8 Ikeda waterfall and rope bridge

Ikeda offers serene vistas of rice-terraced valleys, cascading waterfalls and places to try or make delicious soba noodles. Read my post on it here.

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This 40 meter long bridge is woven with vines and is suspended 12 meters above Asuwa river and makes for a scary crossing!

#7 Echizen Washi Paper Village, Echizen 

You can also watch masters at work as they make papyrus paper and buy beautiful souvenirs made of washi (traditional Japanese paper). The thatched Okamoto Otaki shrine, one of Echizen’s gems, is a short walk away hidden on the outskirts of a forest and shouldn’t be missed.

Making a mini fan at Echizen Paper Village

A mini fan is one of the many things you can make at the Paper Village.

#6 Tojimbo Cliffs

Tojimbo cliffs are an undeniably strange tourist attraction. The fact that people have committed suicide here in the past, and there is still a nightly suicide watch, has only increased the popularity of these rectangular outcropping rocks. Japanese people don’t like to take photos here in case ghosts of the deceased appear. Despite that it is one of Fukui’s most popular tourist destinations, it’s even a popular place to take a date!

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Tanning at Tojimbo. No ghosts in sight.

#5 The mountains, rivers and lakes east of Ono 

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“The Watering Hole”, a favourite ALT camping and swimming spot near Ono.

Lake Kuzuryu is also a beautiful place to visit in autumn when the leaves are turning red.

#4 Yokokan Garden, Fukui City

A peaceful Edo Period garden in the centre of Fukui City. Come here to relax and remember you are in Japan.

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Take a book and read in the tatami-floored rooms overlooking the pond.

#3 Ski Jam, Katsuyama

Snowboarding, or skiing, are popular hobby for ALTs in Japan. It’s a great way to enjoy winter and meet up with friends on the weekend. Even if you haven’t done it before, after a couple of tries you’ll be standing! Even if you’re on your backside and can still enjoy the stunning views!

Ski Jam has great beginner and intermediate courses

Ski Jam has great beginner and intermediate courses for snowboarders and skiers.  

#2 Nishiyama Park, Sabae

Cherry blossoms in spring, sprinklers to jump through in summer, red leaves in autumn and snow-protected trees in winter. All year round this park has something to offer.

Swathes of azaleas in May

Swathes of azaleas in May.

#1  Eiheji Temple 

This is not your usual tourist destination. You have to change your shoes to enter, walk around quietly and the only souvenirs you can buy are meditation cushions and prayer beads! It lives up to its name, “The Temple of Eternal Peace”, even when there are tourists wandering around.

Founded by Zen Master Dogen Zenji in 1244, it is the largest training centre for Zen monks in Japan today. With grey-robbed monks going about their daily lives, you can witness the harsh mental and physical training regime these men go through to gain monkhood. It’s a privilege to be able to see monks continuing century-old traditions, and one you should definitely visit Fukui to see.

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Eiheiji Temple in the snow.

More resources 

More resources

Here is a beautiful video made by Fukui Shimbun about Fukui (only in Japanese). 福井県の魅力を高橋愛さんが紹介する観光プロモーションビデオの一場面

6915889_75x75Former JET Aaron Nathanson made some stunning videos while living in Fukui, check out Yukiguni: Snow Country , Sonotoki: At That Time, Sakura: Cherry Blossom in Fukui.

 

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For Fukui’s Sake is an entertaining read about Sam Baldwin’s time living as a JET in Ono.

 

Squeezing the sunshine out of summer

When I went home I asked my Grandad if he read my blog. He said, not really, “Isn’t it just you writing what you did each week?” I explained to him I put more about Japanese culture and things I find interesting here, than my daily life in it. But this post is unashamedly me-centered.

Basically, what Sophie did in the last two months whilst she hasn’t been blogging. This one’s for you Grandad. 

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Summer was not as sweltering as I remembered from last year, and the warm nights were perfect for late night BBQs, beach parties and midnight swims, and many laps of the local pool. Since the August humidity lifted, September and October were perfect weather for enjoying Japan.

Sado Island Earth Celebration Festival 

My best trip in Japan so far was to Sado Island, in Nigata Prefecture. With five girls in a car, camping by a beach and watching sweaty men play taiko drums, the trip was always going to be a winner. I recommend seeing the amazing Kodo to anyone and everyone, especially at the Earth Celebration Festival on the island they train at. 

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Mud Volleyball Tournament

I took part in a local mud volleyball tournament that has to go on near the top of my “Best Moments” list. We squelched, jumped and fell over in the paddy field filled with dirty, brown mud. The funniest match we played was against a team of “New Halves”, or transvestites, who were dressed in bikinis, had gorgeous long hair and were wearing plenty of makeup! They were also terrible at volleyball, and before the game had even started had fallen over and lost their fake eyelashes to the heavy mud! A crowd gathered around, mostly to watch as the floundering who did a little dance every time they won a point. We won the game easily, but the cheers went to the muddy New Halves who had entertained us all.

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Climbing Mount Haku

Another weekend my friends and I climbed one of the three sacred mountains in Japan, Mount Haku. The start of this 2000m high mountain is only an hour out of Fukui Prefecture, so it is really a must for anyone who likes hiking in Fukui. Unlike the torturous and monotonous climb up Mount Fuji, this mountain is covered in dense forest and has brilliant views from the start. We began in the morning, and with ample breaks and photo-snapping time, we were at the top by 4pm. We had booked a night at the Murata Lodge near the summit, so didn’t have to worry about the time, or bringing food. The dinner and breakfast at the lodge was great. I have never enjoyed miso soup and rice so much for breakfast! I suppose after getting up at 4am, climbing to the summit to watch a spectacular sunrise, then doing an hour’s walk before we made it down to the lodge, anything would’ve tasted good!

1374541_10201037935576188_182132618_nNaoshima and Takamatsu, Shikoku

Since September and October are lucky to have quite a few long weekends, I’ve tried to travel further afield. In early October, my friends and I drove to Takamatsu in Shikoku, a seven hour drive, but one which was worth it. We went specifically to see the island of Naoshima which is famous for its modern art museums and installations. We had great fun posing in the giant pumpkin that is on the island, and seeing fantastic architecture by Ando. The museums formed part of the Setouchi Triennial Art Festival, and due to that the island was busy with chic looking tourist, with their newest cameras at the ready. Modern art can be great, it is something to be part of, to experience, rather than just looking at a painting, it feels as if you become part of it. We enjoyed the chattering men in the Benesse Art Museum, and laying on huge pebble-shaped marble stones whilst looking at the open sky through a large skylight. The Chichu Art Museum was even more impressive in its architecture and installations.

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Our funniest moment was when we queued in line for thirty minutes to see Monet’s water lilies paintings, but then found out it was actually a queue to see another installation called “Open Sky”, and it was exactly that! The sky does look better when you have waited and paid to see it! After disturbing the peace of the museum with our laughter, we joined the right queue to see Monet’s work, and again had to take off our shoes to see it. Wearing white slippers and being guided by young women in white clothes, we entered a completely white room. The huge Monet painting made us all gasp, and as you walk further in the square room there are three more paintings surrounding you. Unlike other museums, these paintings are behind pieces of glass, but due to the natural light coming in from the roof, there wasn’t a reflection from it, so you could get as close as you liked to the paintings and look at the individual brush strokes of each painting. It was like stepping into Monet’s world. As clouds went across the sun, the light would become darker and the change in light brought out different colours in the paintings. Even after seeing Monet’s work in his Parisian museum, I was more inspired by his paintings in this museum than in Paris. Just for that moment, the trip was justified.

We were also lucky to stay with my JET friend Julia, from the UK, who let us sleep on her floor, and was able to show us the best places in her city. She recommended us to visit Ritsurin Garden, which is one of the best gardens in Japan and lived up to its reputation. We saw tea ceremonies performed there, newly-wed couples having their pictures taken dressed up in traditional costumes, and other people dressed as samurai! After that we tried the famous Kagawa Udon, thick white noodles in a thin broth, and they tasted good, but I was more impressed by the chopstick stand! 

Takamatsu's famous udon

Takamatsu’s famous udon

 So there are a few of my escapades from the last couple of months and I’ve certainly built up a fair few memories to keep me going during the winter. I had different motives when I came here; I wanted to save money to pay off a fair chunk of my student debt, yet as the yen has dropped so low compared to the pound, that it’s really impossible. So my new motive is to see and do everything I want to in Japan. But like this tourist sign says, the possibilities are endless. 

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Here’s a video and some more photos to make up for my two-month blogging absence. 

 

Naked Men Festival, Mihama

A tip-off from another ALT about a little-known festival where half-naked men jump into the icy cold sea and have a tug of war was enough to persuade myself to check it out. It made for a more exciting than usual Sunday afternoon!

Mihama is a fishing town in the south of Fukui prefecture. It’s famous for the Rainbow Line, a scenic driving route where you can see the Five Lakes of Mikata and the local nuclear power station. Yet even in an out in the sticks place like this, there are some awesome festivals.

When my friend Teari and I turned up at the Lake Centre there was little activity going on apart from balloon-making and a tombola. Things started getting a bit more exciting when the mochi band started up, and we were of course called to the stage to hit the gooey rice dough with a metre-long hammer whilst everyone said “Yoshi” in time with our beat. I’m sure the film crew there also got shots of us foreigners getting in the spirit of the festival and we’ll probably be on local TV tomorrow!

After eating a local dish of kaki-age don (fried shrimp over rice), we’d noticed that most people had left the centre. An excited tourist officer must’ve seen us looking lost and came to help to us. She was so excited to have foreigners at this small family festival that she was literally jumping from foot-to-foot as she spoke to us! Yuko, her name was, told us that the part of the festival we’d been waiting for, the naked men of course, was five minutes down the road to an even smaller fishing village. So off we went.

Sure enough there was a bridge lined with wrapped-up onlookers and flags with colourful fish emblems on them. “Gaijin!”, said the man grilling ika squid and handed us a piece of the grilled white meat, no exceptions accepted. Seeing huge barrels of sake being sold in bamboo trunk mug, I decided that’d be the perfect tipple to wash down the salty taste of the squid. It seemed the locals had the same idea and were eagerly awaiting the bare-chested men with a bamboo mug in their gloved hands.

Yuko had told us that, the festival Hiruga Suichi Tsunahiki Matsuri (Underwater Tug-of-War) has been taking place for the last 360 years! According to legend, an evil sea serpent once entered Hiruga Lake from the Sea of Japan. The people drove the snake out by using a huge rope in the water. Now, the rope in the tug-of-war represents the snake and the aim is to rip the rope into two pieces. According to our new friend, the ritual also ensures that the Shinto gods give plentiful catches of fish in the coming year. This festival gives men the chance to act uber-macho and for women, the chance to eye the young men up, but that is just my theory.

The jolly locals started cheering as the men, old and young, appeared dressed only in white shorts and a coloured hachi machi head band. One even had a tattoo, which could’ve meant he had yakuza associations, but it didn’t cause a stir. Their torsos were red from pre-drinking and goose-pimpled from the just above zero temperature. Onlookers were urging them to jump into the water, some even offering to push them off! It seemed the bravest, or drunkest, men went first and everyone cheered as they jumped off the bridge. Profanities became universally understood in situations like these, and we easily got the gist of their “Itai Itai” as they swam downstream to the waiting rope.

For the next twenty minutes, the forty men pulled at the rope, tearing off straw that had been braiding around it. Their drunkenness must have been wavered by the cold as they did a good job at heaving at the rope, whilst a strong current pulled the rope downstream. Men on the banks also pulled at the rope and finally, the rope broke in two. The men who had pulled the longest part of the ‘snake’ had won and dragged the rope upstream in victorious spirits. The other team was still smiling as they clambered up the rocks and made their way back to a warm building, for presumably, more sake.

Within minutes everyone had dispersed to warmer places and all the excitement was over. We drove home happy to have seen such a bizarre event in a small town, where foreigners are such a novelty that they are still given free squid. Thanks Mihama town folk!