As more and more countries jump on the high-speed rail wagon, zipping cross-country at 200 miles an hour has ceased to be a novelty. But Japan did it first — and Japan still does it best. That’s not up for discussion.
So, grab your beautifully prepared lunchbox, board to the chimes of a jaunty station jingle, crack open your can of sake, and marvel at the impeccable service as you whoosh across Japan to…
From 16 March 2024, the newest branch of the Shinkansen will extend the existing Hokuriku line into Fukui Prefecture. The line currently links Tokyo to Kanazawa (one of our favourite cities — we’ve written reams about it). Now, it’ll continue on to Fukui City and Tsuruga, taking three hours and eight minutes to complete the full journey.
Why is this exciting? While we’ve known about the charms of Fukui for a long time, it’s not exactly on the Golden Route, and it hasn’t always been practical to work it into a two-week itinerary. With this newly truncated journey time, it’s going to be much easier.
What’s so great about Fukui?
- Eihei-ji Temple
On a cedar-covered mountain just outside of Fukui City is Eihei-ji, one of our favourite temples in all of Japan. Founded in 1244, it’s one of the two head temples of the Soto sect of Zen Buddhism and is still home to about 200 monks today. The temple is massive, consisting of about 70 buildings linked together by covered walkways designed to cope with the heavy snow that blankets the region in winter. It’s a really special place to visit and immerse yourself into rural, Buddhist life.
- Arts & crafts in Takefu
Takefu is famous for its strong tradition of handmade crafts — in particular, paper. Legend has it that long ago, a beautiful deity appeared in Takefu and showed the residents how to make paper using water from the local streams. Papercraft has been a staple of Takefu’s economy ever since, and at the Echizen Paper Village you can have a go at it yourself. Don’t forget to visit the paper deity’s shrine, where paper festivals are held every spring and autumn.
Paper isn’t the only craft you can have a go at here. At Takefu Knife Village you can watch master craftsmen at work and sharpen your own knife to take home. We also love getting stuck into a soba noodle-making lesson, where you’ll learn to serve them Takefu-style: in a chilled broth with grated daikon radish on top.
- Kaga Onsen
A 1300-year old town built around four onsen (traditional hot spring) villages, if you stop at Kaga Onsen’s new station, you’ll be in for a treat. Overflowing with high-quality natural onsen water, it’s the perfect gateway to the onsen villages for some hot spring-hopping after a day’s sightseeing and exploring.
If you’re up for an adventure, try walking the leafy trails around Kakusenkei Gorge or scaling the region’s tallest mountain, Mt. Hakusan, which has been considered sacred for over a millennium. For a taste of traditional local crafts, Kutani-yaki Art Museum showcases hundreds of years of local porcelain art, while the dramatic cliffs and serene gardens of nearby Natadera Temple – which combines Buddhist, Shinto, and local nature worship – give you a flavour of the region’s history.
You might not have expected to visit a dinosaur museum on your trip to Japan, but the Fukui Dinosaur Museum is one of the best of its kind in the world and well worth a visit if you’re in the area. Fukui is the centre of dino research in Japan, and there’s even a Fukuiraptor and a Fukuisaurus. Many of the 40-plus skeletons on display at the museum came from a massive excavation site just a few miles from the city.
In addition to these impressive specimens, there are animatronic dinosaurs, hands-on exhibits about how life evolved on Earth, a research lab where you can watch technicians cleaning real fossils, and outdoor excavation activities in the spring and autumn. If you’re on a trip with kids, this place is bound to be a hit.
- Samurai heritage
In Japan’s feudal era, Fukui’s position between Kyoto and the Sea of Japan coast made it highly strategically important. Back then, this region comprised the old provinces of Wakasa and Echizen, and they were a hotbed of squabbling and intrigue between the country’s warring clans. There’s too much to get into here, but suffice to say it left Fukui with some outstanding historical sites.
Chief among these is Maruoka Castle: one of only twelve original feudal castles in the whole of Japan. Also known as “Mist Castle” for the legendary mists that would descend to conceal it from approaching enemies, it stands on the plains north of the city surrounded by 400 cherry trees. Inside, the castle has been preserved unfurnished, and you can climb the extremely steep stairs to the top for amazing views.
Another of Fukui’s historic sites is Ichiodani, where you’ll find the ruins of the Asakura clan castle town. The town saw its heyday during the Muromachi Period (1333-1573), but it was razed to the ground by Oda Nobunaga in 1573. The ruins were excavated in the 1960s, and today the valley is filled with remnants of that era — mostly the foundations of temples, shrines and samurai residences. A small part of the town has also been reconstructed, and a new museum opened just next to the station in 2022.
- Rugged coastline
Giant’s Causeway eat your heart out — this is Tojinbo, a kilometre-long stretch of very rare rock formations plunging into the sea. Tojinbo’s hexagonal and pentagonal shaped pillars were formed 12 to 13 million years ago by volcanic activity, and are named after a Buddhist monk who was allegedly thrown into the sea here (either for corruption, or for falling in love with the wrong girl — the legends disagree). In all versions of the story, his vengeful ghost is still said to haunt the area. Don’t get too close to the edge!
- Small-town coast-hopping
If you decide to follow the Shinkansen line all the way to its conclusion at Tsuruga, you’ll be in the perfect position for some coastal town-hopping. We love visiting small towns in Japan, where tourists rarely stray and the locals are always surprised and pleased to meet an outsider. You won’t find any big-ticket attractions, but in our experience, this is the very best kind of travel you can have in Japan.
Start in Tsuruga, where you can stop in at Kehi Shrine (its 11m torii gate is one of the official “three greatest in Japan”), stop for coffee in one of the early 20th century converted oil storage warehouses, and visit a seaweed processing factory (more interesting than you’d imagine — did you know that kombu seaweed can be aged for years, like wine?)
Next is Mihama, where you can watch sake being made at the Hayaseura brewery (depending on the season) and go for a boat ride at Mikata Five Lakes. From here, continue on to Wakasa, see the lovely waterfall in the local park, and then on to Kumakawa-shuku: an old post town on the old Saba Route between Obama City and Kyoto.
There’s no end to the historical details and surprising local attractions — and you can expect the very best, ocean-fresh seafood all the way.
Are you planning a trip to Japan in 2024? Make Fukui part of your route! We can design an independent trip to include any of the highlights on this list. Just get in touch with one of our Japan travel experts to find out more.