So, one of the great perks of living in such a rural prefecture is that you get greater opportunities to be a part of the community. Fukui Prefecture, one of the happiest prefectures in Japan, started recruiting their small foreign population to promote Fukui to domestic and international tourism. To do this, the Fukui Prefectural government appoints a number of foreign residents every year as “Fukui Reporters.” Basically, you post about things in Fukui on your social media and spread the word about the prefecture. In December, I was appointed as a Fukui Reporter. For my first ‘official assignment,’ I went on a tour of Ikeda Town.
Ikeda is a small village community situated to the east of Sabae and Echizen City. It has a host of traditional experiences that only take a bus-ride or drive to discover. A bus-load of us went to Ikeda Town on a clear Sunday morning with the remnants of snow from the previous 137cm blizzard still lining the streets. As we drove out to Ikeda, the snow covered every surface of the valley and mountains. On our tour, we would visit the Ikeda Aventure Park, the Ikeda Farm House, the Ikeda Noh Museum and a little commune where the ropes commonly found hung over Japanese shrine gates are made.
The large group of us were split into two, one group opting to do winter zip-lining and the other group opting to do a winter picnic. Because I had already done zip-lining there last year, I chose the winter picnic.
After the group split, the winter picnic group and I followed the guides up a snow-filled path to a clearing with snow shoes nestled in the snow in front of benches. I had never put on snow shoes, let alone even seen them, so I struggled to put them on over my large snow shoes. Together we went a little up the mountain to see animal prints and learn about the nature that could be found in Ikeda.
When we finally walked back down, we were able to sit down and enjoy a traditional snack that is now only made in Ikeda. The snack is a mixture of Mugwort and other grasses packed usually into large circles and hung from ceiling beams or door frames. It had an interesting and overpowering flavor of spinach and grass, but it was definitely enough to restore some energy.
By the time we left Tree Picnic Adventure Ikeda, my early morning breakfast had already disappeared. When we got there, four long chair-less tables were already set with plates of food. We were able to eat the traditional teishoku or Japanese meal of Ikeda with ingredients sourced right from the prefecture. Called “Natural-Tasting Creative Cuisine” (風土を味わう創作料理), it consisted of seasonal vegetables, rice, miso soup, and chicken.
This Noh Museum is a small gem in Ikeda. I had been to Ikeda once before, and I had not even noticed the museum althouth I drove past it twice. It’s an easy-to-miss wooden building with a workshop area and small one-room museum. A group of old men still make Noh masks by hand there, and about once or twice a year, the museum and crafters hold a Noh performance.
Before heading back to Fukui City, we stopped at a small building where shimenawa are hand-made. A shimenawa is a rope hung across the entrance of a shrine to mark the shrine as sacred. It can be woven from hemp and rice or wheat straw and has shide or paper streamers decorating it. It’s commonly found during the celebration of the new year in Japan.
We were were able to learn from about old women who were making the ropes skillfully by hand when we first walked in. There was rice wheat in front of a circle of zabuton (seating cushions) with a larger pile in the center. After the lead teacher, an old man and head of the shimenawa operation, gave us some basic instructions in Japanese. We all set out to miserably fail at braiding the straw while the older women came around a unbraided our monstrosities one by one.
The old women, the grandmothers and great-grandmothers of Ikeda, braided the straw deftly by first splitting the bundle into three equal parts, passing their left hand over their right while twisting the straw in their palms, and braiding the two parts under each other. The twisted the left over portion of straw around the braid to finish it off. I failed miserably on my first try that one of the women came over, took mine apart, and re-braided the straw in under a minute. I wasn’t the only one though, as most of the other reporters in the room had their ropes dismantled and re-braided beautifully. The old women, though blunt, were extremely kind, so they encourage all of us to do another on our own. I was able to finally make my second rope correctly (though I don’t think it looks as nice as theirs).
After we finished attaching the shide, we were given a souvenir and candy before thanking them all and hopping back on the bus.
When you visit Fukui, I insist you visit Ikeda Town. Other than the activities I experienced, you can stay in log cabins or cottages in the spring and summer, eat stews filled with fresh wild boar’s meat, make soba and mochi, cross the Kazura Bridge, try wood crafts and check out Ikeda’s “beautiful nature” (I’m starting to sound like my students).