There are many reasons to visit Fukui, a small tadpole-shaped prefecture facing the Sea of Japan. It’s home to a bevy of traditional crafts, including washi papermaking and knife forging, a world-class dinosaur museum (complete with life-sized raptor animatronics), magnificent temples, rugged landscapes, and some of Japan’s best freshly caught winter crab and sweet shrimp. Situated between tourist favorites Kanazawa and Kyoto, it’s an obvious pitstop when visiting both cities.
All this begs the question: Why isn’t Fukui more well-known?
Call it a serious case of middle-child syndrome. Although Fukui has all the ingredients for a fun weekend getaway, it’s often overlooked in favor of its glamorous neighbors. But this makes it ideal if you’re looking for travel minus the crowds. When planned right, a visit to this ferociously underrated prefecture offers an eye-opening look into Japanese craft, cuisine, and culture.
Paper rarely merits a second glance in our daily lives. Money, flyers, utility bills—paper is just there in the background. But a sheet of washi is a different story. From uchiwa (summer fans) to wagashi wrapping, handmade paper has a warmth and elegance unmatched by most machine-made papers.
If Fukui has a signature craft, it’s Echizen washi paper. There are many varieties, all beautifully textured and supple, delicate yet durable. With its 1,500-year history of washi production, Echizen City is one of Japan’s top washi producers in terms of quality, quantity, and variety—more than earning its nickname ‘washi no sato,’ or the home of Japanese paper.
Faced with a decline in demand for washi—in large part due to fewer people using partitions and screen doors—papermakers have had to get creative with new paper products for contemporary consumers. These days, you can find washi earrings, bags, and even socks and jackets. The lampshades by Osada Washi, a family-run washi company in the Imadate district of Echizen City, are especially modern and striking. The intricate floral patterns are all drawn freehand with paper pulp and wrapped around acrylic stands as tall as totem poles.
But to appreciate washi, there’s no substitute for making a sheet of paper by yourself. I visited Ryozo Paper Mill, another family-run business in the Imadate district, to experience the production process.
It was early winter, and the snow was starting to pile up. Winter is the best season for papermaking, I was told, because the raw material in the pulp doesn’t spoil as quickly in the cold. I quickly realized two things: handling paper pulp feels like plunging your hands into a vat of ice-cold egg white; and papermaking is bloody hard work. Made the traditional way, tesuki washi (handmade paper) involves quickly dipping a large wooden frame fitted with a bamboo screen into a tub of paper pulp, then swishing liquid pulp back and forth until the screen is evenly coated. The frame is heavy enough that I almost dropped it the first time.
With no small amount of assistance from Kyoko Yanase, one of Ryozo Paper Mill’s main craftspeople, I finally managed to get even coverage on the screen. She set the frame on the ground and placed a large spiral-patterned metal mold on top—like a stencil, but in reverse. Following instructions, I flicked a showerhead up and down while moving it across and above, the spray of water droplets creating thousands of tiny holes in the paper. When she lifted the mold, before us lay a large sheet of perforated washi embossed with spirals. Dried, the paper resembled embroidered lace.
I had made a sheet of rakusui-shi, or “water-dropping paper,” an uncommon variety of washi made by very few craftspeople in Japan. It was gorgeous. I couldn’t believe how much fun I’d had making it. Suddenly, every sheet of washi I’d seen in Fukui made sense, each the result of skill and technique honed over a lifetime.
Sharp as a Knife
If paper is best made in the cold, the fiery process of knife-making feels like its thermal opposite. Working near the charcoal-powered forge, with its constant heat, can make your time in a knife workshop warm, toasty, and downright sweaty—from the physical labor involved in making knives, that is.
Once known as Takefu, Echizen’s history of knife-making stretches back 700 years, beginning with sickles and fighting swords to bonsai tools and chef’s knives. Today, Japanese chef’s knives are loved worldwide for their quality, sharpness, and durability. One small facility in particular attracts a steady stream of knife enthusiasts from all over the world looking to add to their collection and learn more about the traditions and techniques behind Echizen’s hand-forged knives.
Started as a cooperative between a dozen local independent knife manufacturers, Takefu Knife Village is something of a curiosity. The facility was built in 1993 but, looking at these incongruously sleek buildings in the middle of rural Fukui, you’d be forgiven for thinking it new and under-promoted. The 20-minute drive there from JR Takefu Station is poorly signposted for what’s meant to attract tourists. It’s the kind of place where “if you know, you know.”
At Takefu Knife Village, you can shop for knives, but also learn about local knife-making history, take a workshop, and watch the artisans at work from an observation deck. Because it’s a cooperative by name and in practice, the craftspeople from all the different knife companies share equipment and make their products in the same space. There’s no secretive squirrelling-away of technique and know-how; it’s an unusually democratic operation compared to many other industries.
Speaking of workshops: If you have six hours, you can learn the basics of making a knife from one of the craftspeople in the dedicated backyard building, experiencing almost every step of the process from hammering to forging to attaching the handle. If you don’t, an hour or two can give you the skills required to sharpen chef’s knives at home like a pro.
I didn’t have six hours, or even an hour, so I compromised by trying out a treadle hammer to flatten vaguely blade-shaped bits of steel. Most knifemakers work on a single blade at a time. Here, they stack two blades together and hammer them simultaneously, in what is a technique supposedly unique to the Echizen region. I appreciated the efficiency of getting to screw up two blades at the same time.
Using a treadle hammer, if you have never tried it, is an awesome and challenging feat of hand-foot-eye coordination plus some physical strength (neither of which I possess). You heat two steel molds in fire until they’re bright red, remove them with tongs, and set them under the hammer. With your right foot, you gently press a pedal to activate the murderous pulverizing hammer while simultaneously moving the blades counterclockwise, making sure the hammer pounds the surface evenly while the steel is still hot and malleable. Lose your grip and your blades will come out weird. Move too slowly and the cooled steel will simply break. The phrase “strike while the iron is hot” suddenly made complete sense.
It was one of the coolest things I’d ever done in my life. I would also never have visited this place without a car. As with most places in rural Japan, the lack of public transportation infrastructure is probably Fukui’s largest barrier to becoming a more tourist-friendly destination. Officially named “Geisha de GO,” the “one-coin taxi” service offered by Echizen City is an ingenious stopgap solution. Buy taxi tickets (each worth ¥500) at the tourist information center near JR Takefu Station, hop into a taxi (or ring one up), point at one place on a list of major tourist destinations in the area (including the paper mills and Takefu Knife Village), and they’ll drive you there.
Fortunately, not every place of interest requires a taxi ride, especially if you only have time for a quick wander around one stop in the prefecture. For example, Oyanagi Tansu, the fourth-generation maker of tansu (Japanese storage chests or cabinets), is a mere 15-minute walk from JR Takefu Station.
A workshop tour here offers incredible insight into the disappearing art of tansu-making, which requires a mastery of three separate crafts: sashimono (wood joinery), lacquering, and metalwork. A dwindling number of craftspeople specializing in each of these tasks means that Oyanagi now handles the entire process from start to finish. Completing a single tansu can take anywhere from six months to a year. I’ve never been so dazzled by cabinets, and have to hastily leave before I shell out several hundred thousand yen for a karakuri tansu full of hidden trick mechanisms and secret drawers—perfect for hiding my stack of diaries. If home ownership ever becomes a reality for me, this is where I’d order my storage chests.
Even nearer Takefu Station—seven minutes on foot—is Urushiya, a buckwheat noodle restaurant set in a traditional wooden house. Its claim to fame is having once served Echizen oroshi soba (soba with grated radish) to the Showa emperor. We ate our way through plates of pressed sushi, tempura, and an array of bite-sized appetizers. The noodles alone were worth the wait.
If you’re alighting at JR Fukui Station, you could take a 10-minute bus ride to Komego Miso for a fun afternoon diversion. Take a guided tour of the factory (they’ve been making miso for 190 years, which the staff mentioned almost as an afterthought), join a flavored miso ball-making workshop (which you then use to make instant miso soup in a mug), buy miso by weight, or have lunch at second-floor cafe misola, where everything from beer and ice cream to soup is spiked with miso.
Maybe you’re only in Fukui for a lunchtime train transfer. In that case, drop by Fukufuku Chaya in the Tourism Promotion Building next to Fukui Station for the Echizen Seikogani-zukushi, a winter-only snow crab-themed feast. A crab-stravaganza, if you will. Wedged between two souvenir shops, it’s hardly the most atmospheric restaurant, but who cares when lunch consists of four crab dishes, several sides, and soba to finish?
However, if I could only choose one experience worth the extra trek out of central Fukui, it would be joining the morning prayers at Eiheiji, whose name translates to “Temple of Eternal Peace.”
Ensconced on a cedar-covered mountain slope 15 kilometers east of Fukui City, this 13th-century Zen Buddhist temple complex is one of the largest, most-visited temples in Japan. (Fun fact: Steve Jobs almost took tonsure here.) It’s not far, but with more forest than buildings in its vicinity, this serene monastery is remote enough to feel a world away.
In 2019, Eiheiji and tourism corporation Fujita Kanko teamed up to open Hakujukan, an 18-room inn located in front of the monastery that embodies traditional Japanese aesthetics. The facility caters largely to foreign tourists interested in experiencing the world of Zen without forgoing material comforts like multi-course dinners, alcohol, and hot spring baths. This may induce mild cognitive dissonance, but Eiheiji has always been a temple and popular destination for tourists. It’s never pretended otherwise.
At 5:30 a.m., we gathered in the lobby and followed our guide up the slope to the temple, trudging through ankle-deep snow in the dark. It took us at least 40 minutes to get through the doors, remove our shoes, listen to an opening lecture by one of the senior monks, and climb a succession of staircases through winding corridors before we reached the main hall—and we’d still seen but a fraction of the 70-building complex.
At half past six, dozens of barefoot monks clad in black robes filed into the hall, sat in orderly rows, and began the morning prayers. I was raised in a culturally Buddhist environment, so listening to monks chant sutras wasn’t new, but listening to about 60 of them do it in perfect unison was. A monk at the front set the pace and rhythm with a drum. Another struck prayer bells at regular intervals, each bong echoing in the hall. I had no idea what any of the words meant. My pulse quickened, I felt compelled to sit straighter. Their voices seemed to coalesce into a single booming entity, expanding to fill the air. A tidal wave of sound enveloped us, and it felt like I was drifting on a vast, inky sea. It shifts your perspective, when you can see yourself taking part in a centuries-old practice of people coming together to pray. It felt good to feel so small.
Was this worth the trip to Fukui? I certainly thought so. Only time will tell if Fukui receives the attention it deserves. In the meantime, I’d pay it a visit before everyone else finds out.
Osada Washi: https://osada-washi.jp/en/
Ryozo: https://washi.website/ (Japanese only)
Takefu Knife Village: https://www.takefu-knifevillage.jp/ (Japanese only)
Oyanagi Tansu: https://oyanagi-tansu.jp/ (Japanese only)
Urushiya: https://urushi-ya.com/ (Japanese only)
Komego Miso: https://www.komego.com/en/
Fukufuku Chaya: https://www.fukubukukan.com/menu/ (Japanese only)
Article by Florentyna Leow