Cutting soba

Fukui Prefecture often gets overshadowed when it comes to food culture despite having some of the best ingredients like Echizen crab and Echizen soba in the Hokuriku Region. Its location along the coast of the Sea of Japan and the wealth of delicious marine life that thrives in its waters, as well as its proximity to Kyoto, make Fukui a prime location for the confluence of ingredients.

The Old Mackerel Road (Saba Kaido) which leads to Kyoto overland originates in Fukui, and the prefecture also processes more seaweed than any other in the country. With a history of being located along an important food trade route, it should come as no surprise that the locals have developed their regional delicacies based on the bounty of the land and sea.

On this trip, I toured the prefecture from the north to the south, checking out the different traditional dishes and trying my hand at making all of them. They were certainly experiences worth going for as it was fun making and preparing the food. For those worried about communication issues, most of the facilities had an instructional DVD which explained the steps either with English subtitles or a voice-over that you would watch first. However, I did not find it too difficult to follow the instructions as it was usually copying whatever the instructor did.

Dressed in the local attire and following instructions
A basket full of bamboo grass (sasa) leaves that smelled so amazing

While most of the places I visited can be accessed by public transport, note that buses tend to be quite infrequent. A rental car is a much more convenient option to move around in Fukui and visit some of the hard to access places. I started my trip in Fukui City ready to get my hands dirty and make some delicious food in five different food-making experiences as well as visit some of the nearby shrines and attractions.

My first stop of the day was the mountainous region of Katsuyama, west of Fukui and past Eiheiji. I found myself in the tiny village of Ohara where only a handful of people reside. My destination was Fukuju-so. There, I made sasa-zushi, flat square pressed sushi with cured fish and wrapped in bamboo grass (sasa) leaves, and imobota in which mashed taro roots (satoimo) are mixed with rice and then covered in either kinako bean powder or red bean paste (anko).

I changed into the local attire that resembled a jinbei (informal Japanese summer clothes) and got to work. The process was extremely interesting, and it felt like the kind of dish I could replicate at home though perhaps without the sasa leaves.

Shaping the rice first
All wrapped up and placed in the wooden box to be pressed
Mashing and mixing satoimo and rice
Imobota with red bean paste on the left and bean powder on the right
The river in the village of Ohara
The house is an accommodation facility available for rent

From there, I headed to the nearby Hakusan Heisenji Shrine, one of the traditional approaches for practitioners of mountain worship (Shugendo) to scale the peak of Mount Hakusan. At its height during the late Heian Period, the shrine housed over 8000 monks and the grounds were expansive. However, everything was completely razed to the ground in the late 1500s, and the buildings that can be seen today are far fewer than before, with some dating to the 1700s.

There used to be 52 steps up to the shrine, but only 48 after the temple was rebuilt
The haiden at Hakusan Heisenji Shrine surrounded by a large moss garden
These stones here go way back to the 1300s
Stone lion dogs guarding the main shrine
Dragon wood carvings at the main shrine
Misty day at Hakusan Heisenji Shrine

Crossing to the east, I made my way to yet another cute village, the village of Denga. It was at the Kajika no Satoyama in Denga where I made hazushi and gojiru, two dishes I had never heard of until then. Hazushi is simply vinegared rice mixed with ingredients and wrapped in large tungoil tree leaves, while gojiru is a soup with a miso base and bean powder for added protein. The two dishes were completed in no time at all and ready for hungry stomachs.

I learnt that the leaves in the sushi dishes that I made today contain antibacterial properties and do not spoil as quickly when combined with vinegared rice and other cooked or cured ingredients. This meant that the sushi could be kept and carried at room temperature for a day or two and made for good travel food.

Ingredients for making hazushi; check out the huge tungoil tree leaves
Mixing the rice
Folding the leaf to wrap the rice
Dinner is served, with gojiru soup in the foreground
Teacher showing me the nearby tungoil tree where they get their leaves from and the best kinds to use for hazushi
The place also doubles as a homestyle restaurant

On my second day, I spent the whole day in Echizen City. I started off at the Echizen Soba no Sato, a large soba manufacturer. Echizen soba is one of the prefecture's specialty dishes in which the soba tends to have more bite compared to the other types of soba in Japan. It is typically served cold with grated radish, bonito flakes and some dashi soup all in one plate. Here, I had a chance to make my own soba and later devour my handiwork for lunch.

Mixing soba flour and water
Rolling the dough out
Use the short edge of the soba knife to scoop the noodles up
Delicious Echizen Oroshi Soba; you can tell I made this because the noodles are so unevenly cut

Echizen City is known for a couple of traditional crafts: knife making and washi paper making. I first visited the Papyrus House and the Okamoto Otaki Shrine, the only shrine in Japan that enshrines the god of paper. The roof work at the Okamoto Otaki Shrine was very unique, sporting curves that are quite uncommon. From there, it was off to Takefu Knife Village to check out the latest in blacksmithing. The master blacksmiths and knife sharpeners hone their trade in the workshop, producing quality blades under the Echizen knife brand as well as their own brands.

Workshops are conducted at both the Papyrus House and Takefu Knife Village, but note that advance reservations are required especially for knife making. Regardless, it was still interesting to look without participating in an activity.

Four seasons in washi paper
Okamoto Otaki Shrine and her unique roof
Visiting the shrine
First you hammer red hot steel
Sanding the burrs away
All in a day's work at the Takefu Knife Village

My final stop for the second day was Marukawa Miso, one of the few organic miso producers in the country. One of the features of Marukawa Miso is that they let the miso age for 10 to 12 months naturally in massive wooden barrels without additional heat to speed up the process. This natural slow aging process results in a miso that has a rich and full-bodied flavor as well as a darker color compared to the typical white miso.

Massive vat of miso weighing over 3000 kilograms
Miso tasting before buying

In addition to learning more about miso, I had the opportunity to make tofu from scratch as well as to prepare miso balls for soup and to make brown rice balls (onigiri). This was definitely the healthiest food-making experience on the entire trip and recommended for the health-conscious. Making tofu was my favourite activity, and it wasn't as complex as I had expected it to be. In fact, I left thinking that I could attempt this at home as long as I could get my hands on nigari (bittern salts) for the soy milk to thicken and solidify to become tofu.

Blending soybeans and water, the start of making tofu
Handiwork after about 30 minutes
Miso balls - just add hot water to enjoy

For my last day in Fukui Prefecture, I headed south to Obama City along the Reinan Coast. There I visited the Miketsukuni Wakasa Obama Food Culture Museum which is a good place to learn more about washoku or Japanese food culture. The large hall has exhibitions showing the variations and similarities of food like sushi and ozoni (a dish eaten over New Year) across the country, as well as a large diagram of the Mackerel Route that leads from Fukui to Kyoto.

It was at the kitchen studio here where I took part in my final food-making class for the trip and prepared noppei and hamayaki sabajiru. The first is a simmered dish consisting of taro root (satoimo) and vegetables, and the second is a soup made with grilled mackerel. It was the latter which intrigued me as I was more accustomed to eating grilled mackerel instead of cooking it in a soup. But the final outcome wowed me so much, I ended up having seconds and perhaps thirds as well!

Inside the Obama Food Culture Museum with the kitchen studio on the right
Ingredients for noppei and sabajiru all laid out
Things were bubbling away happily at this point
Delicious black beans and pickled plum (umeboshi) rice by the rice cooker
Lunch on the last day with a Fukui Juratic mascot Raputo: noppei in the pale green plate and hamayaki sabajiru soup in the bowl

After three days of making local food, I left with my stomach full and content. If learning how to make local dishes is on your list of things to do while on holiday, look no further than Fukui and let your stomach leave satisfied. Not only would you get to make some traditional food, the journey to the locations are also an adventure in itself - going to places off the typical tourist path and sometimes where even locals hardly go. A two-for-one holiday for those looking for a different experience.

Countryside Fukui with her mountains and fields