Visit Fukui: Farm-Stay in Rural Japan with Stay Japan

Visit Fukui: Farm-Stay in Rural Japan with Stay Japan
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I was given the chance to experience a farm-stay with a married couple in Echizen, Fukui, and sit in on a super secretive traditional Japanese ceremony. Although I’ve lived in Fukui for almost a full 3 years now, I still haven’t been able to explore what some would call “the real countryside.” So, of course, when the opportunity to see a rare ceremony open only to men came up, I pounced on it (through the power of email, of course.) That is to say that a perk of working in Japan as an English language teacher with the JET Program is all the opportunities you get to experience with the culture you live in. 

Farm-Stay in Rural Japan with Stay Japan

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Cut to a rather early and chilly morning in Fukui on a Saturday (about 3 hours earlier than my normal), I stood at Takefu Station with a small group that included the two Japanese event organizers, and five other ALTs. We boarded a small bus and drove bout 30 minutes to our first stop, a temple in the outskirts of Echizen City surrounded by a small village of houses. There, we learned some history about the Gobou-ko or Gobou-Eating Festival that we would be seeing on Sunday. The Gobou-ko is a annual festival that celebrates the connection of the families and with the gods. Each year, the eldest male of each household will take part in the eating while the wives do preparations. All the men put on traditional male kimonos with Hakama that includes their family crest. A shinto priest blesses the offering at the shrine and the food to be eaten before the festivities can start. 

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But, all of that information is for the next day—we’re still on Saturday! 

In the two days of the tour and farm-stay experience, we visited a few key places in Echizen: the paper temple, the paper-making village, Echizen’s own tea producing farm, a soba-noodle factory, and a community center where pounded mochi or rice cakes are made. Also, we saw the men prepare the gobou for the festival, got a first-hand look at the Gobou-ko itself and, of course, stayed one night with a farm-stay host family. 

Saturday, February 16

The Paper Shrine: Okamoto-Jinja  (岡太神社・大瀧神社)
The paper shrine in Echizen, Fukui is the only shrine in Japan that worships the paper goddess.  The shrine itself is also famous for it’s architecture, and it’s 4 sloped roofs in particular. Because 
of the sloped roofs, it was designated a National Important Cultural Heritage. The shrine is connected to a temple and was erected to honor not only the paper goddess, but two other gods as well, so it is called “Okamoto-jinja Shrine” and “Otaki-jinja Shrine” interchangeably. 

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Japanese paper or “washi” is one of Echizen’s many craft industries and it is a tradition that few prefectures are known for now. In Echizen, making paper is a year-round job, and many people in the area have paper-making jobs. In fact, a friend of mine works as a local paper making in the Washi Village. 

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Echizen Paper Village
The Echizen Washi (paper) Village is a small-industry village not only for tourists to try their hand at paper, but most of the traditional Japanese paper bought from Fukui is produced in this area. Actually, a friend of mine works as a paper-maker at this village, so it was interesting to see where he worked and how professional-made paper was produced by hand.

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In this village, not only can you watch paper being made, but you can also make your own paper and decorate it with gold, dried flowers, colored paper, and watercolor. It’s an experience that can be done in under and hour, you get your paper in the same day, and it costs under ¥2,000 yen ($20)!

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Our demonstrators paper.

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My paper!

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The building where you make paper is separate from the building where you watch paper being made, but it’s only a 2 minute walk from one building to the other.

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Farm-Stay at the Watanabe’s
Named “天女さんち” (tenjyo-sanchi) after the wife of the husband-wife duo, the farmhouse is a traditional Japanese house that is about 140 years old. The couple, Mr. and Mrs. Watanabe, welcomed myself and three other participants, into their large house. They separated the four of us into two groups, boys and girls. The girls stayed in tatami room that overlooked the vegetable garden and that was fitted with a shrine. It was a small but warm room made warmer by the characteristic kerosene heater in the corner that you can find in every traditional Japanese house in the winter.

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We quickly sat down to a feast of traditional Fukui dishes with ingredients sourced right from the Watanabe’s garden. The wife, or “天女” made all the dishes on the table and kept offering more food throughout the night. We sat and talked for a few hours over dinner before the couple convinced all of us to try out the outdoor bath (ロタンブリ-rotanburi) that Mr. Watanabe built himself. The other girl staying at the house, Nicole, and I decided to experience the bath Japanese-onsen-style and went together.  It was a small bathtub completely open to the elements…and the neighbors. The couple assured us that no-one walked the road in front of the house at night, so their was no need to be worried about privacy. When we walked outside in the death-chill of night, we were worried. They gave us some towels and onsen bubble bath to complete our full experience…and surprisingly enough, it wasn’t that bad. Once we shivered our way from the shower area to the bath, we were completely warm in the bath. No, getting out was another subject, but it was a great and very “Japanese” experience.

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When everyone had a go at the bath, we all sat down for ice cream and kaki-mochi (dried rice cakes pounded flat and cut into slivers) roasted over a fire. Throughout the whole night, Mr. Watanabe was very open about his family, him and his wife’s various travels around Japan, and even his love for his wife! We talked all night about his travels and about his marriage until everyone finally went to bed.

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In the morning, we were treated to another feast, this time featuring homemade yogurt and bananas from their banana tree. He showed us around his garden before we all hopped into his van to start the day.

Mr. Watanabe was kind enough to give everyone about about 8 branches from the stock of タラの木(taranoki) or Angelica Tree branches he has been cultivating. As a matter of fact, they are currently sprouting on my windowsill as I type this! The sprouts are called “タラの芽” (taranome) and you can fry them in tempura, boil them or use them as a garnish!

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You can request to stay at the Watanabe’s farmhouse on the Stay Japan website, and you can read about them and his thoughts on welcoming us to his home on Mr. Watanabe’s website (in Japanese). 

Sunday, February 17

Soba Noodle Factory
When you think of Japan, you must think of ramen, udon, and…soba. Soba is one of Fukui’s most pride-filled dishes. If you’ve ever talked to someone in Fukui about what to do or eat, they will without a doubt tell you to eat “Echizen Oroshi Soba.” Echizen Oroshi Soba is a soba dish with a clear broth and topped with grated daikon, bonita flakes, and red paper flakes. It’s a clean and simple taste that is hard to get sick of. So, of course we had to take a trip to a Soba factory.

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The factory we went to produced over 400 servings of soba a day! That’s way more servings than I would ever eat in a year. The factory also had a souvenir shop where you could try all the delicacies in Fukui including Sauce Katsudon, Umeshu or Plum Wine, Heshiko (fermented fish), Habutae-mochi, and many others. Everyone really wanted to try Soba Ice-cream, so one of the girls was kind enough to buy a cone and share with everyone. The ice cream itself didn’t taste anything like soba, but the roasted soba on top definitely changed the flavor.

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Manjyo Chrysanthemum Gardens (万葉菊花園): Ajimano Tea
I’m no connoisseur of tea, but the quick stop at the Chrysanthemum Gardens was surprisingly interesting. We were all given two teas produced in Echizen, a flower tea, and a traditional black tea that had been cultivated to be a little weaker than its English counterpart. We were able to see an informal tea ceremony in which the tea pot was first cleansed with hot water from everyone’s cup, then the tea was brewed for about 5 minutes. We each had a small sip so that we could compare to the later full brew. The second round of tea was stronger than the first and linked the distinctive flowery flavor that the first cup had, but overall the tea was very mild. Afterwards, we were served black tea and a kinako or soybean powder roll cake (a rolled spongecake with cream in the center).

Before we departed, we were serenaded by the center’s tea expert. He sang a tea song that is sung every year at a national chorus contest.  

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Before we departed, we were serenaded by the center’s tea expert. He sang a tea song that is sung every year at a national chorus contest.  

The Gobou-ko (ごぼう講)

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The day before, we visited these same men when they were preparing the gobou. The men all worked together to trip the hot burdock roots, pound them flat, and coat them in miso paste. When they finished, they had over two large bins filled arms-deep with gobou.

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The Gobou-ko or “Gobou-Eating Festival” is a ceremony held every year on a sunday (usually February 16th or 17th). The oldest men of each family in the community participate by donning the traditional hakama embroidered with their family seal, and eat small mountains of rice, gobou or burdock root, tofu, and pickled daikon. 

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Every year, a new family is chosen to open up their houses for their ceremony not only to the other families, but also to the gods. Although nowadays many people think that the ceremony should be held in a larger space, most families feel that it is an honor to be chosen to welcome the gods into their homes. While the men are praying to the gods, the women prepare each platter of food for the men in the kitchen.

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There were about 10 or 15 males who participated in the festival. Each male sat in seiza-style to be blessed by the Shinto priest before the leader chosen that year gave a speech. After the speeches were given, the men were all given a try of food and the sake began to pour. Before the men began eating, the youngest of the bunch went around to each of their elders and poured them a cup of sake. This is not unique to the ceremony, but Japanese drinking culture instead. At a family gather or even at a work party, it is tradition to pour a drink for your seniors and it is a good way to catch-up, talk freely, and even smooze up to the boss!

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Mochi Making
For the last stop on the tour, we experienced mochi making and ate our final Fukui lunch. Technically, we made mochi at a community center in Echizen, but the center itself has many cultural artifacts, and the people who handle the community center actually make mochi for special events every year. For some reason, I can’t find the center on the map, but you can find many other community centers in Echizen where you can experience mochi making.

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We all got to try our muscles at pounding the mochi-rice and it was hard work. They gave us the “lighter” hammer, and it still quite heavy. When I was hammering the mochi, I accidently hit the side of the barrel, so you can see some wood in the mochi. When I hit the side, one of the men said, “bakkin!” (penalty). Lucky I wasn’t the only one and someone hit the side shortly after me. With the mochi we helped pound, the women made oroshi mochi (grated daikon mochi) and kinako mochi (soy bean powder mochi).

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The community center had many old relics and vintage clothing, and the men at the community center were able to tell us a little history about the area, and about Japan.

They also talked about how Japanese traditions were dieing out becuase of the lack of young people in the countryside. Although there are many older generations in the countrysides of Japan that can teach those traditions, many of their children and grandchildren move to the city for work and are either not able to learn the traditions or are not interested.

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If you want to experience a farm-stay in Fukui or in rural Japan, or if you want to just find a cool place to stay on a visit to this lovely country, check out Stay Japan’s website. And, if you find yourself in Echizen, check out one of Fukui’s trendiest cafe’s, Oedo+, and Fukui’s Cat Temple.

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8 thoughts on “Visit Fukui: Farm-Stay in Rural Japan with Stay Japan”

  1. Wow, I loved reading about your time in Fukui.
    It must be such a nice experience to live in the country side and have organized tours and experiences like that.

    1. Lena, thank you for stopping by and reading about Fukui! It has a special place in my heart and I’ve had some great experiences here. If you’re ever in Fukui, you can also do the experiences and tours as well! If you need more information, send me an email. 😀

    1. Maria, I’d say keep a very close eye on Japan, especially this year 😉 While everyone is crowding the cities for the Olympics, take a trip out to the countryside and experience vacation a little slower.

  2. This looks and sounds like the most amazing experience! I would love to see the temples, make paper and try all those delicious looking foods! You have me wanting to book a trip to Japan! ?

  3. Wow this post was a joy to read, and your photos are so dreamy! Definitely pinning this one for later, hopefully I’ll get to visit Japan within a year 😀

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