Crab, Soba, Sake

Foodie hotspots: Echizen city, Sabae, Takefu, Echizen Kaigan Coast, especially Mikuni Minato; Fukui city, Mikata Five Lakes, Awara hot-springs, Eiheiji temple.

Foodies Look Out For: Echizengani crab; awabi abalone; uni sea urchin; saba mackerel; oroshi soba noodles; Buddhist cuisine at Eiheiji temple; local sake.

The Basics: Officially in the Chubu district, Fukui is one of the least visited, and least well-known prefectures, ranking 46th out of 47 on inbound tourist rankings. We suspect on some levels some locals quite like it that way. It's a ninety-minute trip on the Thunderbird express from Kyoto to Fukui city. Accessing the Echizen coast takes a while longer. From JR Takefu station the Fukutetsu bus will get you to the coast, with the Echizen tetsudo railway delivering you to the hot-spring and crab cuisine haven of Mikuni Minato in around 55 minutes (the tiny train makes 23 stops!).

Foodies Go Fukui: When the bitter winter winds lash Fukui’s Echizen coastline, and snow falls on the small town of Takefu, regularly closing it off from the rest of the (relatively) snow-free prefecture, the people of Fukui rejoice, for crab season is here. For most residents of Western Japan Fukui means crab. In particular, it means Echizen-gani, the snow crab. It goes by several names, in fact. In the Kansai district around Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe and Nara, it is called matsuba-gani; elsewhere, zuwai-gani.  

Whatever you call it, it’s excellent, either in a nabe hotpot known as kani-nabe, steamed in the shell, eaten as you would meat in a shabu-shabu style, raw as kanizashi, or with rice in kani-zosui. It’s available all down the coastline in season, which will run this year from November 6th 2017 to March 20th 2018.

The Echizen-cho guidebook lists 81 eateries, inns and hotels from which to choose. Our regular haunt is the splendid old ryokan inn Yamazaki right on the Echizen coastline - its hot-spring baths overlook the ocean. Its neighbor in Kuriya onsen, Kinryu, is no slouch either. You might like to drop into the Echizengani 'Museum', (plus gift shop and hot-springs) in the Michi-no-eki complex, also in Kuriya.

All along the coast you'll find seafood traders selling fresh fish, crab and other marine products. Kaisanbutsu Kamome 'the Seagull' is highly regarded. They sell zuwaigani from early November to mid-April, seikogani from the same date, and zubogani from February to mid-April. The Fukui Central Wholesale Market in Fukui city's Owada district is another great foodie destination.

During the summer, Fukui’s soba noodles are very much to the fore. Fukui’s oroshi-soba is generally served up with powerfully strong daikon radish, and equally characterful katsuobushi bonito flakes. For this reviewer it always seems to overwhelm the delicate aroma of the buckwheat itself, but the Fukuians (is that a word?) can't get enough of it. The fourth-generation Moriroku and Kameya, both in Echizen city are popular, whilst Sobagura Tanigawa in Takefu is a hidden gem.

Fukui is the spiritual, and once upon a time physical home of the great Zen patriarch Dogen Zenshi, who founded the Soto sect of Buddhism from his ascetic mountain temple at Eiheiji in Fukui.

For any foodie who seriously ponders the metaphysical meaning of ‘food’, or for anyone seriously interested in embarking on a Soto Zen retreat, a visit and/or short stay at Eiheiji is highly recommended. The casual tourist is welcome to visit, and you can marvel at the kitchen, and probably the world’s largest rice spatula. But be warned, a full Zen retreat at Eiheiji may only be arranged through Soto affiliated organizations, and is serious stuff, not for the faint of spirit. Think sweeping leaves barefoot at dawn in the snow, whilst facing the reality of your impermanence. An overnight stay, experiencing fabulous shojin ryori vegetarian cuisine and Zen meditation is, of course, fine. Highly recommended in fact. Reuters did it. The ryokan inn Inoue is a gentler introduction to the cuisine.

Back on the coastline, Fukui’s best-known marine product after the crab is the saba mackerel. Locals in Obama city beside Wakasa Bay traditionally salted mackerel, which were then hauled overland in tubs full of brine, to serve the tastes of the Emperor in his Imperial court in Kyoto. The route these hardy traders walked is still known as the Saba Kaido 'the Mackerel Road', and today along its route you can find saba specialists offering sabazushi and the eye-wateringly powerful saba no heshikozushi.

Away from the coast, the 25-room Kokajimasou inn at Kokajima onsen hot-spring beside the Mikata Goko Five Lakes is a great place to unwind over freshly sourced local dishes in retro 'Taisho Roman' style.  It's reasonably priced, but costs rise as you order fancier food! The local Wakasa-gyu beef and Echizen-gani, in season, feature large.


The Fukui Budget Gourmet: You might like to try Awara Onsen Grand Hotel's onsen pizza, the Sabae Doggu at Meat Shop Sasaki, and Volga rice, a dish meant to resemble a boat carrying packages along the Volga river in Europe. It is omuraisu cooked in curry, topped with a special sauce. It was reputedly invented by Fukui government worker, Hatano Tsubasa, and you'll find it at Yokogawa Bunten and other outlets in Echizen city and Takefu.


The Ramen Professor Recommends: This is a no brainer. We've been visiting Wakatake Shokudo in Takefu Fukakusa for years. We can't get enough. At first glance, it is just a humble canteen serving simple chuka soba noodles, but oh that wonderful golden dashi! Mrs. FGL Editor and I have long discussed how they can make it so deep, so flavorful, but light and not at all salty at the same time. We still haven't wholly worked it out, but we detect good konbu and.. onions. It is closed Monday btw.


FGL Favorite Tipple: If you are a fan of Yamahai Jikomi sake, and we very much are, check out Hayaseura Shuzo's Yamahai Junmai, Ichinotani Yamahai Tokubetsu Junmai and Maibijin Yamahai Junmai 1.8. Kokuryu Shuzo's Kokuryu and Kuzuryu are other good choices. Bon is very popular sake brewed in Sabae city by Katou Kichibei Shouten. For something a little different, try their Yume Wa Masayume aged sake. In Fukui city, Tajima Shouten has been brewing good sake since 1849. Try their Fukuchitose 'Sakura Rock' designed specifically to be drunk 'on the rocks'.


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