April 2, 2020

Fukui Prefecture

Found on the Sea of Japan side of the country, Fukui Prefecture is a treasure trove of Buddhism, medieval castles and, of all things, dinosaurs.

Clouds envelop the steep cliffs and hills of Fukui Prefecture

Welcome back to yet another installment of my in-depth area guide series. In today’s article, we’ll be taking a look at Fukui Prefecture. Lovingly referred to as “Dinosaur country” by members of the expat community (more on that later), this rural region rarely pops up on the radars of overseas tourists. Seeing the prefecture is home to some of the most serene Japanese Zen Buddhism temples, I’m of the mindset that this really needs to change. While Fukui is definitely the type of destination that requires a major time commitment, the area more than delivers in many manners.

If this is the first you are hearing of Fukui, know that the prefecture resides along the Sea of Japan coast, just to the south of the ever-charming Kanazawa. A part of the historic Hokuriku region, Fukui is a prefecture that is equally rich in both history and nature. In the days of yore, Fukui used to be split into the domains of Wakasa and Echizen. Later, when Japan’s feudal era came to an end, the neighboring fragments were fused into Fukui. Today, this amalgamation is evidenced throughout the vast varieties of landscapes comprising the prefecture.

As alluded to above, Fukui is assuredly one of the more rural prefectures out there. In a stark contrast to the bustling megalopolises of Tokyo and Osaka, life in Fukui is more suited to a slower pace of travel. Trains and buses run infrequently and the attractions are quite dispersed. While the area may necessitate a few days to thoroughly explore, there are few prefectures claiming as many hidden gems as Fukui. What’s more, the sheer variety of allures guarantees you will never get bored having to spend a significant portion of your stay within the confines of a single locale.

By the way, this is going to be quite the lengthy exposé on all that Fukui has to offer. You’d do well to go grab a cup of joe or glass of your favorite wine now before continuing on. Don’t say I didn’t warn you…

Getting to Fukui Prefecture

Kehi Jingu’s massive torii gate in Fukui Prefecture

Fukui is indeed a wonderful location and one that is very deserving of your adventures in Japan, however access both to and within the prefecture leaves much to be desired. Assuming you are coming from Tokyo, you will need to take one of the Hikari bullet trains to Maibara Station. From there, you’ll want to hop one of the limited express departures bound for Kanazawa. As always, just let Hyperdia or a similar service do the heavy lifting when it comes to calculating the best connections for you. All in all, the trip to Fukui should clock in at around three hours or so from Tokyo.

Speaking of Fukui Station, know that this major hub is where you’ll want to book your accommodations. While there’s not much to note within the city confines, this central focal point is well suited to accessing the prefecture. During my three-day stint in Fukui, I stayed at the local Dormy Inn. Conveniently located near the station and equipped with it’s own hot-springs, this would be my recommendation for accommodations. Yet, don’t take my suggestion blindly as your’s truly didn’t do much digging here so do your own research.

By the way, given that Fukui happens to be located just to the south of Ishikawa Prefecture’s lovely Kanazawa, the two make for a great logistical combination. Honestly, the only downside is that doing so will require a commitment of approximately five to six days to roam about these destinations. While this pair in the Hokuriku region collectively feature a vast smorgasbord of attractions to choose from, the rather hefty time investment may be a deal breaker for some. If you want to wander away from the mainstream destinations though, this is definitely a course to consider.

Lastly, before diving into what’s on the table when it comes to the rest of Fukui, I have one final transportation tidbit for you. If you’re anything like me and have a penchant for being a completionist, know that you can easily cross Kehi Jingu (pictured above) off of the list en route to Fukui. This jewel has roots that pre-date written history and is considered the chief shrine of the whole Hokuriku region. If you’re interested in a quick visit, you’ll want to make a pit stop at Tsuruga Station. Be sure to pay special attention to the torii gate as it’s apparently one of the largest in Japan!

Fukui Prefecture’s Eihei-ji Temple

The Zen Buddhist complex of Ehei-ji in Fukui Prefecture

Let’s kick things off with what I consider to be Fukui’s premiere destination, the quaint temple of Eihei-ji. This Zen Buddhism complex remains a very active monastery and is considered to be one of the head temples of the Soto sect. Found on the outskirts of Fukui’s capital city, Eihei-ji was originally erected by the imminent Buddhist scholar, Dogen. If you’re not familiar with the figure, know that Dogen is basically one of a handful of monks who were responsible for Zen’s importation to China from Japan.

All in all, Eihei-ji’s captivating grounds are home to over seventy structures. These are all interlinked to facilitate easy movement throughout the compound even when blanketed by the Hokuriku region’s copious snowfall. Visitors to Eihei-ji will first enter the temple via the main reception hall for lay people. Then, after listening to a short lecture about the temple in Japanese, you’ll be free to peruse the premises at your leisure. Note that you’ll want to be sure to snag one of the English pamphlet at the reception desk so that you can better comprehend the premises.

Of the many buildings that comprise Eihei-ji, the chief ones that you’ll want to keep an eye out for are the Butsuden (Buddha hall), the Hatto (the main lecture hall), the Jyoden (the founder’s hall where Dogen’s ashes are), and the massive Sanmon gate which dates from 1794. Note that since Eihei-ji is built onto the slope of a hill, you’re going to need to haul your behind up a significant number of steps. Should you be traveling with someone who has a mobility impairment, be sure to tell the monks as there are alternative options for barrier-free routes.

Lastly, know that the journey to Eihei-ji is surprisingly simple, provided that you can navigate finding the right bus. You see, from Fukui Station, there are hourly direct departures for Eihei-ji which will only cost you 720 yen. The total travel time should be no longer than around a half an hour. An additional option allows you to pick up a bus at Eiheiji-guchi Station which entails a ten minute ride.

Fukui Prefecture’s Tojinbo Cliffs

The hexagonal and pentagonal precipices of Fukui Prefecture’s Tojinbo

Located to the far north of Fukui, along the coast of the Sea of Japan, Tojinbo sits amongst a lengthy stretch of jagged cliffs. Forged from basalt rock formations, this coastline wonder has been carved out by eons of erosion. The resulting hexagonal and pentagonal precipices can be seen pictured above. Unique to Tojinbo and few other global locations, traversing this miracle of Mother Nature is well-worth the 50 minute train ride from Fukui.

If you do visit Tojinbo, please be extra careful not to end up in the ocean. Spectators are free to wander as far up the edge as their nerves will allow but keep in mind there are no guard railings or barriers to ensure your safety. The thirty meter drop down into the crashing waves below is sure to leave you impaired for life if it doesn’t outright kill you. In fact, Tojinbo gets its name from a monk who fell to his demise here long ago. Moreover, until it became a popular Pokemon Go spot in 2016, Tojinbo was frequented by those contemplating suicide.

The trip to Tojinbo from Fukui is a little under an hour. You’ll want to take the Echizen railway from Fukui Station to Mikuniminato Station. From there, you can either meander your way along the coast to Tojinbo on foot (about thirty minutes or so) or catch a bus. Either way, be sure to get the Echizen railway one-day pass as it’s cheaper than buying round trip tickets. Moreover, if you do Tojinbo and either of the following two locations in the same day, you can save even more money.

Note that there’s a pretty hopping hot spring near Tojinbo named Awara Onsen. I didn’t have the time to check it out but if you’d prefer to stay in a traditional Japanese ryokan, there will be more of that on offer here than around Fukui Station.

The Fukui Prefectural Dinosaur Museum

A T-Rex model at the Fukui Prefectural Dinosaur Museum in Katsuyama

And, at last we come to everyone’s favorite reptilian creatures, the dinosaurs. By now, I am sure you’re chomping at the bit to learn why the hell Fukui Prefecture is often referred to as “Dinosaur Country.” The long and the short of it is that an ample amount of ancient fossils were discovered in this part of Japan. Fukui is nothing short of heaven on earth for scholars looking to learn more about the dinosaurs and especially so in the vicinity of Katsuyama city. In homage to this large collection of serpentine eoliths, the prefecture erected the Fukui Prefectural Dinosaur Museum. Both in Japan and overseas, this facility is often hailed as one of the best in the whole world and is not to be missed.

Tragically, during my visit to Fukui Prefecture, the Fukui Prefectural Dinosaur Museum was closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. As such, I can only refer to what is written elsewhere online. From what I can gather, the institution spans four floors highlighting over forty distinct dinosaur skeletons including several examples of locally excavated Fukui-raptors and Fukui-sauruses. Of course, perhaps the most iconic exhibit is the life-sized Tyrannosaurus Rex that menacingly welcomes visitors as they enter the Fukui Prefectural Dinosaur Museum.

Getting to the Fukui Prefectural Dinosaur Museum is a bit of a logistical nightmare. In addition to taking a local line out to Katsuyama city from Fukui Station, you’ll also thereafter need to take a bus or hail a cab. While this might seem like a bit much, I’ve read that this attraction ranks among the prefecture’s best. As such, it would greatly behoove you to make the lengthy trek. As mentioned above, be sure to get the one-day pass for Echizen railway. Note that entry to the Fukui Prefectural Dinosaur Museum will run you 720 yen.

Fukui Prefecture’s Heisen-ji Hakusan Shrine

Fukui Prefecture’s moss-covered Heisen-ji Hakusan Shrine in Katsuyama

As if the Fukui Prefectural Dinosaur Museum wasn’t already enough of a reason to venture out to Katsuyama, also know that a splattering of other fairytale-esque allures await. Of these, the most picturesque is the moss covered Heisen-ji Hakusan Shrine. Formally considered a temple, this syncretic site is a great example of the former intermingling of Buddhism and Shinto. Originally established over 1,300 years ago, Heisen-ji Hakusan Shrine holds a long history as being the starting point of a pilgrimage to the sacred Mt. Haku. Tragically, many of the location’s original buildings were burned during an uprising during the late 16th century.

In addition to Heisen-ji Hakusan Shrine, there are two other notable hidden gems in Katsuyama. The first of these is none other than the mammoth-sized Echizen Daibutsu. This colossal effigy is actually many meters taller than the statue at Nara’s Todai-ji. Honestly, the only reason that it isn’t more well known is because it was recently commissioned by a uber successful businessman who grew up in the area. Note that this same individual also funded a reconstruction of Katsuyama Castle Museum too. This gargantuan facility was made to resemble the region’s former stronghold and houses an impressive array of artifacts.

The only downside to the above recommendations is that getting around Katsuyama is a bit tricky. Similar to reaching the Fukui Prefectural Dinosaur Museum, you’ll need to either taxi or navigate the van-sized buses. Alternatively, if you’re up for a good walk, you can actually opt to trudge Katsuyama the old fashioned way as I did. Just note that it will take a good minute to make it from attraction to attraction.

Fukui Prefecture’s “Castle in the Sky”

Fukui Prefecture’s Echizen-Ono Castle, a stronghold that seems to float in the sky

Not too far from the south of Katsuyama, you’ll find the magical medieval stronghold pictured here. Known as Echizen-Ono Castle, this citadel sits atop of a small but easily defendable bluff. This hill resides in the middle of a valley basin that is surrounded by towering peaks. The result of this peculiar geography can be seen in the image of Echizen-Ono Castle embedded above. Explained succinctly, the cooler mist coagulates in the lowlands below and thereby allows the fortress the facade of floating in the sky. Trust me when I say that this spectacle will have you picking your jaw up from the floor.

Regrettably, there’s no such thing as a free lunch and this is especially true when it comes to dreamy vistas like this. To reach Echizen-Ono Castle, you’ll need to take the extremely infrequent JR Kuzuryu Line to Echizen-Ono Station. From there, the site is about a twenty minute walk. Note that to snag a vantage point like the one pictured above, you’ll need to actually view the fortification from elsewhere. If you go to Echizen-Ono Castle itself, you’ll only be able to see the magnificent mountains surrounding the basin. As a side note, the current building is actually a re-creation and houses a small museum.

Fukui Prefecture’s Asakura Ruins

A gate at the Asakura clan’s historic ruins in Ichijodani, Fukui Prefecture

One other attraction on the rural JR Kuzuryu Line is the Asakura clan’s historic ruins in Ichijodani. Formerly a bustling commercial center, this former castle town was completely razed by the fiery wrath of the infamous warlord, Oda Nobunaga. As a result of his attack in the year 1575, today little remains of the late Asakura clan’s seat of power. As tragic as their tale is though, the leftover ruble from Oda Nobunaga’s raid has perked the interest of scholars. Almost 400 years after his initial invasion, archeologists began excavating the site in search of lost history.

After painstakingly surveying what wasn’t consumed by Oda Nobunaga’s rage, historians have been able to deduce what the Asakura clan’s 10,000 person town would have looked like. With this knowledge in hand, the government has transformed a small section of the valley into an outdoor museum. Inside this facility, all of the buildings lining a 200 meter-long stretch appear as if they originated during the Warring States period (1457–1615). What’s more, many of the buildings are open for visitors to peruse and are fully decked out with mannequins. If not for the fact that they don’t move, these figures do a great job of depicting everyday peasant life at the time.

In addition to the open museum area, you’ll also find a number of other draws strewn about the valley. For example, directly across from the aforementioned 200 meter-long strip, you’ll find the ruins of the former Asakura clan’s domain. While only the ornate entrance (pictured above) has been restored, visitors are welcome to explore the wreckage of this lordly domicile. Additionally, thanks to the exhaustive efforts of archaeologists, the remains of several gardens have also been unearthed. In recent years, these too have been refurbished and offer stunning views of the valley below.

The only real downside to the ruins of the Asakura clan’s bastion is that the trains are painfully infrequent. Though a visit combines quite well with Echizen-Ono Castle, one will need to be very vigilant of the train schedule. You’ll want to make a plan of attack on the prior day and get an early start. Be sure to make extensive use of the ever-helpful Hyperdia or a similar service so that you don’t get stuck for hours with nothing to do at either location. There are only a few departures per day and missing one means that you’re going to be waiting several hours for the next lift.

Fukui Prefecture’s Maruoka Castle

Fukui Prefecture’s Maruoka Castle, one of the few remaining historical strongholds

This medieval fortress is one of twelve original remaining castles. While only the small keep has survived the years, Maruoka Castle definitely beckons the history buffs out there. Of the dozen, Maruoka Castle is considered to be one of the oldest structures. The castle’s keep dates from the early 1600’s and sits atop a small elevated bluff. Typical of similar strongholds in Japan, Maruoka’s interior has been remodeled into a quasi-museum. If you manage to make the ascent up the steep stairs though, you’ll have a killer panoramic view of the surrounding plain.

Getting to the park where Maruoka Castle can be found is a bit of a challenge. You’ll need to catch a bus at Fukui Station bound for Honmaruoka. The trip should average around forty minutes or so. From the bus stop, you will need to hoof it a few minutes to where Maruoka Castle is located. Here’s a link to a Google Map just in case you need a reference. Note that the castle grounds are spectacular during mid-April when the hundreds of cherry trees on site reach full bloom.

By the way, there is a bus route that conveniently goes from Maruoka Castle to Eihei-ji. Though extremely infrequent, if you can nail the timing, it can be a godsend for improving the poor transit logistics of Fukui Prefecture. Tragically, the bus schedules change bi-annually so rather than risk giving grievously dated information, I’ll instead urge you to check with the staff handling ticketing at Maruoka Castle.

There’s Still More to Fukui Prefecture

The seaside fishing town of Obama in Fukui Prefecture

While what I’ve covered thus far is enough to keep you busy for a few days, I have one final recommendation to round this one out. You see, no feature on Fukui would be complete without mentioning the seaside fishing town of Obama. Not to be confused with the former president of the United States of America, this sleepy village is located far west of the attractions I’ve noted thus far. To get there, you’ll transfer at Tsuruga Station to the JR Obama line. As such, Obama actually doesn’t combine well with much else in Fukui Prefecture.

Now, truth be told, I actually haven’t had the time to explore Obama just yet (though it’s on the bucket list). That said, it does look like this little hamlet has a rich history to share. According to Wikipedia, Obama developed as a seaport that connected Japan with the rest of the Asian continent. This legacy dates way back to a time when written records were not chronicled within Japan. Due to the influx of traders, immigrants, and mainland wanderers, the area of Obama has been heavily influenced by Chinese culture.

Due to Obama’s prominent position as a bridge between Japan and the Asian continent, the town has garnered for itself the nickname of “Nara by the Sea.” Given the port sits as the closest natural harbor to the ancient capitals of Kyoto and Nara, Obama can actually be considered the eastern end of the Silk Road and the gateway to Japan. Over the centuries, more than 130 temples and other Buddhist monuments have been erected in the vicinity. Moreover, just as it has for over a millennium, the seaside town of Obama continues to provide Kyoto and the neighboring regions with the freshest seafood cuisine.

Though it certainly appears to require an additional time investment, Obama looks like it’s just the type of place to appeal to readers of this blog. If you aren’t in a hurry and want to mix it up, I don’t think I can more highly recommend making a trek out to this important port. While I haven’t been myself, and therefore can’t say for sure, my hunch is that Obama will provide the type of authentic experiences that we fans of off the beaten path travel truly crave.