Discover the Ingredients of Wellness in Fukui

Publish-date: Feb 17 2022 Update-date: Feb 28 2022
Discover the Ingredients of Wellness in Fukui

In the mountains and along the coast of northern Fukui Prefecture, locals work in harmony with the rich environment to reward visitors with healthy cuisine, enriching cultural experiences, and a much-deserved sense of wellness. 

Central Japan’s Fukui Prefecture feels far removed from the frenzied pace of life in the nation’s cities. Life in the northern reaches of the prefecture, in particular, appears to move to the calmer rhythms set by a close proximity to both mountains and sea. 

Using the area’s rich natural resources local chefs create healthy, sustainable cuisine, serving dishes that include Japan’s finest and freshest crab to those showcasing the zero-mileage ingredients grown on the mountainsides.  

Away from the dining table, local people infuse their heritage with creative energy, offering cultural workshops to visitors to the region’s retro townscapes. Deep in the mountains, things get far more zen at the revered Eiheiji Temple.    

Add to this menu life-affirming views of the sun setting over the Sea of Japan and it’s easy to see why this corner of Fukui Prefecture is quietly becoming the destination of choice for people looking to press reset, mentally and physically, on their busy lives.   

Modern and convenient Fukui Station is the region’s transportation hub and the logical point of departure for a Fukui wellness experience. Nextdoor, delightfully retro Echizen Testudo trains depart from Echizen Tetsudo Fukui Station for Eiheijiguchi. From here buses connect to Daihonzan Eiheiji. 

Experience True Zen in the Mountains

Set deep in the mountains east of central Fukui is one of the most revered Soto Zen temples in Japan. Daihonzan Eiheiji emerges from under towering trees to reveal a beautiful collection of temple structures climbing up the mountainside. The temple is a remarkable and moving setting for a zazen meditation experience.
Discover the ingredients of wellness in Fukui

(Daihonzan Eiheiji Temple)

Eiheiji traces its origins back to the mid-13th century when it was founded by the now legendary Zen practitioner Dōgen Zenji, who passed down his teachings through the ages. Today, Eiheiji - Temple of Eternal Peace - is one of two head temples of Soto Zen in Japan. It’s a place where wellness is taken seriously and visitors here will soon come to realize that this is very much a working temple.   

After founding a monastery at Eiheiji, Dōgen is reported to have said that it was not important that he has many disciples, and that it would be sufficient if there was even just one practitioner who could truly carry on his teachings. 

Today, over 100 monks at Eiheiji, along with followers the world over, dedicate themselves to shikantaza, a word derived from a Chinese term for zazen - “just sitting.”

Even the casual visitor, though, will find much to feel well about at Eiheiji. Following the approach alongside the tumbling waters of the Eiheiji River, walks around the beautiful outer grounds of the temple, under towering trees and beside stone walls covered in ancient moss, lead to Jakkoen, a small park of sorts, home to the graves of each former head of Eiheiji.  Visitors can ring the large bell at the Shorodo (bell tower). Another Shorodo bell inside the temple precincts is rung by trainee monks to announce the day’s schedule from morning zazen to bedtime. 

A walking course takes visitors around 14 of Eiheiji’s temples and structures which climb up the mountainside. Gazing up at the ceiling of the Sanshokaku reception hall to take in the 230 paintings of birds and flowers is a particularly beautiful experience. Heading up a series of staircases and deeper into the temple precincts leads to the Hatto, or “Dharma Hall,” where one might have a quiet moment to sit and contemplate the altar which features an image of Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. 
Discover the ingredients of wellness in Fukui
Discover the ingredients of wellness in Fukui

(Sanshokaku reception hall and staircase, Daihonzan Eiheiji Temple.)

A corridor links the Hatto to Joyoden - “The Founders Hall” - a mausoleum containing the ashes of Dōgen Zenji, from which you might be able to hear echoing the haunting rhythms of monks in a ceremony.

As much as it leaves a lingering impression, it can be hard to put into words the Eiheiji experience, even when experienced at face value by the casual visitor. Perhaps a word or two from its founder then. 

“But do not calculate with your mind and do not speak with words. Just let go and forget about both your body and mind. Throw yourself into the house of the Buddha.”  (From Dogen Zenji’s Shoji - translated by Soto Zen Translation Project.)

And maybe keep quiet about the gâteau chocolat and sake you’re about to have with lunch!

Enjoy Flavors of the Satoyama

North of Eiheiji, across the Kuzuryu River, the village of Takeda spreads over the foothills of western Sakai.  Here, restaurant “la clarté” sits in a peaceful satoyama landscape - a border area between the city and the mountains where local people make their living from the fruits of the mountain slopes. 

A dining experience at la clarté might make for the perfect reward, or indulgence, after the zazen experience at Eiheiji.

“Including daikon radish, soba noodles, and rice, there are various products being grown around us.  The local farmers will often say, ‘Would you like to use this?’ or 'You can pick this.’” said la clarté owner and chef, Hikari Matsushita. “So, we want to try and make this a restaurant with zero food mileage.”

Chef Matsushita, who established la clarté after returning to her hometown of Takeda to raise a family, uses the fresh ingredients of the satoyama along with other fruits of Fukui’s mountains and sea.  The chef’s commitment to zero food mileage, along with a reduction of food waste and plastics saw Matsushita and the la clarté team awarded a Michelin Green Star (along with a Bib Gourmand award) in May 2021.

At the time of visiting, Matsushita served a lunch course at la clarté which started with the “Mikuni amaebi bagna càuda”- the Italian “hot bath” dipping sauce serving as the perfectly creamy complement to a lineup of local favorites and flavors providing a satisfying crunch, including Kamisho satoimo taro root, koushin daikon watermelon radish, and classics such as cucumber, carrot, and paprika. Even in the foothills of the satoyama though, Matsushita can easily make good use of ingredients from the Sea of Japan, as evidenced in this dish by servings of amaebi sweet shrimp.   
Discover the ingredients of wellness in Fukui
(Mikuni amaebi bagna càuda, la clarté restaurant.)

In recent years Matsushita’s homemade sausage and raw dry-cured nama ham have become favorites among diners at la clarté. 

“When we started our family I felt that the children liked sausages but I didn’t really want them eating those that are sold in the stores. I thought it would be better to make my own,” she explained.

Jikasei homemade sausage, made with Fukui Arashima pork, and a nama ham salad are key elements of la clarté’s “keyaki plate.” The plate also includes an indulgent slice of quiche flavored with konka saba pickled mackerel which Matsushita likened to the local favorite heshiko - mackerel fermented in bran and brine.

Discover the ingredients of wellness in Fukui
Discover the ingredients of wellness in Fukui
(Keyaki plate, la clarté restaurant.)

Named after the Japanese zelkova trees from which the wood “plate” is crafted, a potage soup made with freshly picked daikon radish and a light croissant fresh from one of la clarté’s maki wood-fire ovens bring a softer touch to complement the more robust elements of the keyaki plate.  

The feeling of wellness on la clarté’s menu is given a cheeky boost courtesy of a relaxed sake pairing which, at the time of visiting, saw the keyaki plate served with “sou,” a sake from Sakai-based brewers Kubota Shuzo. As a namachozo sake, sou is put through just one stage of pasteurization during the brewing process (where many types of sake are put through two), which has the effect of giving it a fresher flavor.

"It's a refreshing, light sake that I think has a similar feel to a white wine," Matsushita said. 

The la clarté lunch experience is made complete with soy milk and olive oil gâteau chocolat.

Matsushita’s restaurant takes its name from the French “clarté” - clarity, light, luminosity. With its wall-to-ceiling wood-framed windows looking out to the surrounding satoyama landscape, an open kitchen counter and light emanating from the wood-fire ovens, la clarté is certainly a place of light and space worthy of its name.

What might not be immediately clear to the untrained eye though are the origins of the restaurant building, although the atmosphere of warmth and care that pervades throughout might provide a clue. 

“The building was originally a pre-school but with the ongoing depopulation around here, and the number of both adults and children decreasing, the pre-school and elementary school were closed.  Now children are commuting longer distances to school by bus,” Matsushita said. 

Discussions between the town and local residents about how to make use of the vacant building led to Matsushita raising her hand with the proposal to turn it into a restaurant. 

“The happy sound of childrens’ voices has gone but we continue our work with the hope of bringing lots of people back to the area,” she said.
Discover the ingredients of wellness in Fukui
Discover the ingredients of wellness in Fukui
(Chef Hikari Matsushita, la clarté restaurant.)

Explore Retro Townscapes and Cherished Heritage

The mountains of western Sakai roll gently down to meet the waters of the Sea of Japan and the port town of Mikuni where life moves to maritime rhythms past and present.  

Mikuni rode a wave of growth and prosperity into the Meiji period driven by Kitamaebune shipping routes ferrying goods between Japan’s northernmost main island of Hokkaido and Osaka in western Japan. Much of this trade has since been hauled onto trains and now lorries leaving visitors with an unhurried, easy atmosphere in which to explore the retro streetscapes and appreciate the town’s treasured past.

A stroll along Mikuniminato Kitamae-dori is a fine way to walk off lunch or build up an appetite for dinner. There’s much to explore here, from historical properties to souvenir shops and colorful eateries.
Discover the ingredients of wellness in Fukui
(Former main office of the Morita Bank (up), Kishina family house interior (down), Mikuni.)
Discover the ingredients of wellness in Fukui
Perhaps the most prominent feature for its classical Western design is the former main office of the Morita Bank, which dates back to the 1920s. The bank is free to enter and heading up to the second floor will allow for closer inspection of the building’s impressive ornamental ceiling.

Nearby, the Kishina family house is typical of the merchant houses that were constructed during Mikuni’s maritime pomp which employed a style of architecture unique to the town called “kaguratate.” Don’t miss the quiet garden at the side of the building - put your ear to the pipe protruding from the ground and have someone pour water on the stones at its base for a cute and curious audio experience.     

Learn from Local Artisans

Individuals and organizations in Mikuni infuse the town with a quiet creative energy, opening their doors to visitors to showcase and share traditions rich in heritage yet plugged into the present and with an eye on the future. 

Bonsai master Yoshikatsu Shimomura conducts workshops from his store and gallery space Mikunien - a beautifully renovated townhouse on Kitamae-dori, believed to date back to the late Edo period. 

In 2013 Shimomura launched the brand Re:BON through which the bonsai master aims to change the perception of bonsai from being a culture and tradition that is hard to access, to one that can be enjoyed by all. 

With Re:BON Shimomura uses familiar plants such as cherry trees and hydrangea to create miniature bonsai that can easily be enjoyed in the home. Pots for the bonsai come from collaborations with Fukui’s Echizen-ware ceramic artisans, among others, who create pieces that complement home interiors. 
Discover the ingredients of wellness in Fukui
Discover the ingredients of wellness in Fukui
(Bonsai workshop, Mikunien, Mikuni.)

At the time of visiting Mikunien, Shimomura conducted a workshop using a flowering asebi tree to teach the basics of potting the bonsai plant, adding soil and applying the decorative moss, before setting the group free to prune and style - minds quiet and free of noise, focused and in the moment.   

See Source-to-table in Action

The easy pace of strolls around the retro streets of Mikuni gives little indication of the action that takes place during the evening auction at the Mikuni Fish Market where the port town’s maritime rhythms move to a far more frenzied beat.

November brings with it the beginning of crab season in Fukui where Japan’s celebrated Echizen-gani crabs are caught. Those crabs that are landed at Mikuni’s port are said to be among the finest and freshest in the country, in part due to the proximity of the port to the fishing grounds.  
Discover the ingredients of wellness in Fukui
(Crab up for auction, Mikuni Fish Market.)

Mikuni’s evening fish market auction, something of a rarity in Japan, also plays its role. Fishing boats head out in the morning to return with their catch in the afternoon which is then made ready for the auction which starts at 6 pm. Crab purchased here could be served up to diners that same evening.   

The auction bidding is fast-paced and no-nonsense. Time is of the essence when it comes to keeping things fresh. Starting with the smaller female seiko-gani crabs, bidding for each crate takes no more than 30 seconds before the action moves onto special wooden stages for the auctioning of the larger male Echizen-gani

Market visitors can witness the auction from a special viewing room above the market floor. It’s a rare and perhaps important opportunity to gain some insight into the relationships that exist between the local people, the environment, and the traditions that help to bring our food from source to table. 

Dine out on a Spectacular Sunset

The sunsets are spectacular in Mikuni where dusk makes its entrance over the Sea of Japan to a backdrop of soft pink hues before the setting sun glows a fiery orange, painting the horizon with brilliant reds and pinks. There’s nothing to do, and perhaps nothing that should be done, but to stand back and take it in. 
Discover the ingredients of wellness in Fukui
(Sunset over the Sea of Japan, Mikuni.)

One of the best places in Mikuni to witness the sunset display is on the suburban hillsides that overlook the sea north of the port. It’s from this enviable spot that restaurant Salvatore has quietly been wowing diners for over two decades with Italian cuisine to rival the spectacular sunsets.     

In fact, the team at Salvatore seems happy to let their food, the location, and the diners do the talking.  And people do talk.  Ask anyone in town where to get a decent Italian, and they’ll likely be quick to recommend Salvatore, even if they might struggle to give directions. From the restaurant itself, there’s little in the way of social media marketing or easy-to-digest conceptual soundbites.  Even a menu is hard to come by. 

Perhaps part of achieving a state of wellness though, is to be comfortable in relinquishing control and to take things in one's stride. Take comfort in this case - whatever’s on the menu at Salvatore, it’s likely to delight. 

At the time of visiting, a two-plate dinner served at Salvatore featured a pasta main of seiko-gani crab in a rich marinara sauce sitting on a base of fettuccine pasta. According to staff, half of a single seiko crab goes into one generous serving of pasta. 
Discover the ingredients of wellness in Fukui
(Dinner plate, Salvatore restaurant, Mikuni.)

The pasta was accompanied by a side of amaebi shrimp and salted sea urchin. The amaebi was served in kobujime style - thin cuts of sashimi infused with the flavor of kombu kelp after having been briefly cured between sheets of the large seaweed. Kobujime has its roots in a traditional technique originally developed in western Japan (where the kelp is said to be particularly flavorsome) to preserve fresh fish. 

A further side included local Kamisho satoimo taro root topped with slices of gobou burdock and shiitake mushrooms marinated in garlic oil.

Dessert at Salvatore arrived in the form of a triple serving of wellness, the more indulgent kind -  a striking purple sweet potato pudding flanked on one side by a dollop of classic pudding made with eggs and milk from local farm Okera Bokujo, and on the other, a tangy persimmon sauce. 
Discover the ingredients of wellness in Fukui
(Dessert at Salvatore restaurant, Mikuni.)

In the evening Salvatore’s cozy white-walled interior, decorated with the occasional homage to Italy, glows with warmth. On one side of the intimate dining space clear glass doors open out onto the restaurant’s quiet terrace and, if the timing is right, that spectacular sunset. 
Discover the ingredients of wellness in Fukui
Discover the ingredients of wellness in Fukui
(A warm welcome at Salvatore restaurant, Mikuni.)

The Final Ingredient 

Local chefs who are passionate about serving healthy, sustainable cuisine. Artisans engaged in sharing and showcasing heritage. The vibrant energy of a fish market, and a landscape of mountains and satoyama to escape into. The experiences available in Fukui Prefecture are many and varied, and each is special in its own way. Put them together though, and these are the ingredients capable of making this region of Japan the perfect wellness destination. The only thing that’s missing is you.  

Disclaimer: All information is accurate at time of publication.
Publish-date: Feb 16 2022 Update-date: Feb 28 2022

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