A sign of spring

When I wake up to the sound of silence, I know it has snowed. The white shines through and around my curtains, until I throw them upon and see the landscape changed into a snowy paradise. Over a steaming cup of tea I contemplate how to spend the day. It’s only February but the season for Echizen daffodils is nearly over. The narcissus is a winter-flowering plant that somehow thrives on the windy western coast of Japan in January and February. Thinking that the coast couldn’t be as snowy as outside my window, I decide to head to the sea.

Narcissus in the snowSunshine and snow

With Zoya and Julia as passengers, I drive carefully down the winding roads to the coast. We get out of the car at Cape Echizen Daffodil Land and it is still snowing. Soft fluffy snowflakes settle for a mini-second, then shrivel on the salty surface they’ve landed on. We watch as snow drifts race towards us across the sea, whilst the sun pitifully tries to melt them away.

Wrapped upA scatter of narcissus and snow

There is a not ‘A host, of golden daffodils’ as Wordsworth described in the English Lakes, but instead a spotting of the rare yellow flower, the winter narcissus. We laugh at another overrated tourist attraction in Fukui! Yet ‘Daffodil Land’ has a strange charm to it, with its white lighthouse and lullaby music being played to the struggling daffodils.

As we drive further up the coast we see wild and cultivated daffodils blowing in the breeze, far more than at the designated spot for seeing them. Our destination is a much-anticipated cafe that is famous for clam chowder, authentic chocolate cake and ocean views. We weren’t disappointed.

Cafe Mare ''a place for interesting people to meet'' says their sloganThe clam chowder in bread bowl, with real crab legsJelly latteSweet smelling narcissus

After warming-up inside, we went for a walk on the beach. As well as beautiful rocks, pebbles and driftwood there were lines of colourful plastic containers, old rope and the odd shoe that had been washed up on the beach.Some say the rubbish makes the beach look untidy but I like wondering the story behind each sea stolen item.


It wasn’t a particularly spectacular sunset but we were all happy to be next to the ocean and reminisced about beach combing in our own countries.

SunsetPeace and crab sign at the same time!

For 100 yen we each bought a bunch of sweet-smelling daffodils which are a subtle reminder that spring is on its way, even if it is still snowing outside.

Being a tourist in my own town

After three days of sitting under my kotatsu (heated table), eating Christmas chocolate and watching films it was high time I got some exercise. I also wanted to explore Echizen on foot, something I hadn’t done since I arrived in August when the heat was unbearable. Now snow has fallen in abundance and has settled on rice paddies, parks and roofs. I put on my wellies and a coat, grabbed my camera and set off for an afternoon of exploration.

Twenty minutes later I was sat in a Kyudo dojo (Japanese archery training hall) watching a sixty-something year old man practise this ancient samurai tradition. I’d seen this man practising before but never dared to stop, in case my presence put him off. Yet this time I watched, trying to keep perfectly still, as the archer drew his bow high, held the position for an eternity and then let go. ”Thwack!” the arrow had hit the target. I was about to walk away when the man caught my eye and gestured me towards him. I diligently came, hoping he spoke some English. He didn’t.

Once seated and with my camera at the ready, I watched him commence the ritualised pattern of movement that involves absolute concentration of mind and body. It looked more like an art than a sport and it was obvious he was a master of it. Once he’d finished the routine that accompanies the shooting of the arrows, I tried to make conversation. Truly, it was embarrassing for me to ask him questions in my broken Japanese. However I did understand that he was indeed a sensei of the sport and he had twenty students from chu-gakko age (12-15) to adults. He let me hold the two metre long bamboo bows, with the beautiful leather handle and the maker’s seal at the bottom. I also admired the feathered arrows, two of which were wooden, one of which was aluminium. He told me much more about himself and the martial art but it was lost on my poor Japanese skills. I said domo arigatou gozaimashita (polite thank you) and slid the wooden door of the dojo shut. At that moment I vowed to take up Japanese study fervently so I can communicate more fluently with people like this.

I wandered through the back streets of Echizen and entered temple gates to nosy around. On New Year’s day, I had had the wonderful experience of going to a temple, clapping my hands twice, ringing the bell and praying for the new year. I had also bought three charms, without knowing what type of good luck they’d bring, and was given a paper bow and arrow from the generous temple priest. I later found that the bow and arrow should be hung up inside a house to keep away bad omens. The kindness of the temple priest made me think that they can’t mind too much having foreigners look around (not that Echizen has many foreigners), so I freely explored some more of the temples. In these weather conditions, they are slightly ominous places to be, not because of bad spirits but because large boulders of snow can easily slip off the sloping temple roofs. After I nearly got hit by an avalanche of snow and decided it was time to move on. Maybe I had angered the spirits!

My next stop was Godou Book Cafe, a hidden away establishment that I’d been recommended by a friend. I was greeted with Irashaimase” by the cool looking man behind the bar, then a male customer said, ”Meccha kawai” and then in English, ”So pretty”. With only men drinking beer and smoking in the ‘cafe’, I wondered what type of place I’d come to; it certainly wasn’t like the other cute, women-run cafes I’d been to before. ”Thank you” I replied to the English-speaker, ”Nice to meet you”. Waiting for my coffee to arrive I took in the leather seats, country music and old pictures on the wall and decided it felt more like an English pub than a book cafe! When the coffee finally arrived the barista/barman spoke to me in very quick Japanese and I had absolutely no clue what he was saying, but I did the easiest thing I could in that situation, nod my head and smile with agreement. The man who spoke English asked me if I understood and when I replied ”Wakanai” (I don’t understand) everyone laughed! This eased us in to conversation and I soon found out that the barman had once been a student at my school. We joked about his old soccer coach who, eleven years later, was still a science teacher. I never did find out what the barman had said to me, but I left knowing I’d found a place to feel at home in.

After walking back through the dimly-lit and snowy streets, I ate my fill of hot noodles in my local Hachi-ban Ramen restaurant. Hachi-ban Ramen is the healthy Japanese equivalent of McDonald’s. I am not a huge ramen fan but I like to watch the chefs in the kitchen toss noodles in giant vats, fry oil so there is a metre high flame and generally work together as a ramen machine to get orders to customers in less than five minutes. There are also friendly women who greet you, show you to your seat and take your order. They too rush about serving customers but never look flustered. Each worker has their own job whether it’d be filling the water, frying the gyoza (dumplings) or taking the money and the whole system works efficiently. Having worked in food establishments before, I know that there stress-levels fly high behind the closed doors of kitchens. Here however, the men looked more uncomfortable when there was a lull in customers and had nothing to do!

I walked home with a tummy full of noodles and happy to have met some of Echizen’s townfolk. I know that I could never be classed as a ‘local’ here but I’ll will try my best to make friends with them. So, where’s my Japanese study book?

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The best way to soba up!

Ironically the night a friend threw a toga party, it snowed. My friends and I gleefully watched as it surreptitiously covered our cars in a foot of the white, fluffy stuff while we partied in our badly-tied bed sheets. At 1am I traipsed back to my apartment in my bed sheet and welly boots and had forgotten about the next morning’s event; soba making in Ikeda-cho. Soba is a popular type of Japanese noodles made from buckwheat flour and is famous in this area. Ikeda-cho is in the middle of nowhere. Snuggled in my bed I secretly hoped that the event would be postponed so I could sleep off the effects of the party. But, it wasn’t. So we drove into the snowy wilderness to make soba.


The small town of Ikeda is nestled in a low mountain range, east of Echizen and usually takes about an hour drive to get there from Fukui city, but on this day it took two. I’d been there before but it looked completely unrecognisable with a blanket of heavy snow. We drove past many elderly men and women who were shovelling buckets of snow from their driveways and gardens. Their wise, wrinkly faces looked liked they’d seen a lot worst weather than this. They seemed amused to see a convoy of wide-eyed foreigners driving through their little town.




Beautiful scenery but horrendous driving conditions.

This was an ALT event planned by someone whose JTE was also a Soba Master. This man was kind enough to show us the way to the soba-making centre, as the roads were indistinguishable from the rice fields! He had only been learning how to make soba for two years but he looked like he’d been doing it for much longer.

The ten of us who had signed up to the workshop were mostly first-years in Japan and hadn’t seen this amount of snow before nor had driven in it. Unlike in England where the snow settles for a few days and is thought of as a novelty, in Fukui the snow settles for two or three months! Here the novelty of the snow is lost on most people except for young children and ALTs who are still excited by the prospect of snowball fights, snowmen making and sledging!

When we finally arrived at the soba-making centre, we got to work straight away. The three Soba Masters who had part-time jobs or were volunteer staff at the centre, helped us all turn flour and water into tasty noodles. Here is the general process but not an exact recipe!

Step 1. Take a beautiful old bowl, a sieve and about a kilogram of buckwheat flour (3 parts buckwheat, 1 part plain flour),


Step 2. Pour in about 300ml of water and mix it in with your fingers. Add about 150ml more water and continue to mix until it has a breadcrumb-like texture. IMG_0313Step 3. Draw the mixture into a ball and knead it, like you would clay. (My partner Laura had expert skills in this part.) Once thoroughly kneaded turn the ends of the dough inwards so it looks something like a flower.

IMG_0316Step 4. Take a metre long rolling pin and start thinning your dough out. Place your hands in the middle of the rolling pin and gently push them outwards as you roll over the rough. Keep turning the dough until you get a circle shape.


Step 5. Then for the tricky bit, wrap the dough around the rolling pin and roll it in one direction three times. Unwrap and see your dough is turning square shaped! Repeat until your dough is as square shaped as it can be.

IMG_0323Step 6. Fold your dough in four and flour each side before you overlay it.


Step 7. Then rest a cutting board on top of the folded layers and find a big knife! Tilt the knife slightly to push the board away and make a sharp precision with the knife. Repeat until you’re left with a board full of noodles!


Eat and enjoy! This dish is called oroshi soba and very popular in Japan. The soba are boiled for two minutes and then blanched in cold water. It is served with a thin dashi-stock and toped with daikon (grated radish), fish flakes and spring onion.


So did I like it? The subtly sweet taste of the stock, the sharp taste of the daikon and the strange texture of the fish flakes is a strange concoction. Next time, I’d pass on the daikon but everything else was delicious. It’s not my favourite dish but is definitely the most fun to make!

Here a few photos from the back seat of Tom’s car on our journey home.

The view from our table, a frozen pond and a watermill.



Thanks to Tom and Crystal for organising this super event and for getting us there and back safely!