I arrived late at Matsuya-Sensen ryokan in Awara Onsen, Fukui Prefecture. Despite how late I was arriving, the staff were ready and waiting with friendly smiles. Fukui Prefecture is said to be voted the number one happiest prefecture in Japan. A combination of wonderful scenery, relaxed commutes, tasty food and brilliant sake make it an extremely attractive prospect in comparison to Tokyo's cramped and hectic lifestyle.
So what was it like to take a holiday there?
The ryokan staff took my bags and I was free to wander around the large building and explore. The first thing that caught my eye was a large display of local sake on the wall... people from Fukui must like their sake, I thought to myself. The lobby was spacious and comfortable with plenty of chairs to sit and relax in, there was a gift shop near the front desk for stocking up on local souvenirs and presents. The hinamatsuri doll festival was coming soon, so as one would expect, the ryokan had some dolls out to liven up the atmosphere.
The staff invited me to take a look at the chashitsu in the building, and we went along together to have a cup of tea. The tearoom is open to guests who would like to try tea ceremony from 15:00-18:30.
As well as a chance to try tea ceremony, the ryokan also provides eggs that guests can make their own onsen tamago (hot spring egg), which is cooked by using the heat from the natural hot spring water. Each guest is allowed one egg free! Very tasty!
Dinner was served shortly, and what a delicious dinner it was! Fukui's proximity to the Japan Sea provides it with some of the finest, freshest seafood i n the country. Top of the list for most Japanese visitors to the area is the snow crab - zuwaigani in Japanese. I washed down the delicious food with generous lashings of beer and sake.
I was stuffed to bursting, but I'd heard about a new collection of small restaurants and drinking establishments that had been built near Awara Onsen Station recently. The area is known as Yukemuri Yokocho (Bath Steam Alley), and is packed with a variety of stalls serving everything from yakitori to ramen. There are about 10 stalls in total, I picked a kushiyaki place run by a friendly local who had spent a long time running a restaurant in Tokyo, but had returned to his hometown to relax and enjoy a more enjoyable lifestyle.
After a few drinks and snacks there, I went back to the hotel bar for a special nightcap of Valentine's Day chocolate cocktail, then it was bed for me.
After rising early and taking a quick soak in the onsen, I filled myself up with the delicious Japanese-style breakfast. I was really starting to put on weight with all this eating...
After breakfast, the staff took me on a quick tour of the facilities. With a total of 120 rooms, there are a lot of different styles and types, including Japanese-style and Japanese/Western-style rooms. Rooms are all comfortable, spacious, modern and stylish.
I'd already been in the baths twice, but the staff were kind enough to let me have another snoop around while they were closed for cleaning - the only time a man can wander into the ladies baths with a big DSLR camera!
I'm glad I did get to see the ladies' baths as well, because I discovered that the ladies had more bathtubs than the men (unfair). Male and female baths are separate, and there are indoor and open-air baths in both. There was also a neburo in the open-air section, which is a kind of shallow bath that you can lie down and go to sleep in!
While I thoroughly recommend the public baths for the proper onsen experience, for guests who wish to bathe with a bit more privacy, the ryokan also offers rooms with private baths. The size and shapes of these private baths vary from room to room, and offer families and couples more time together.
Dining Areas and Shared Spaces
The ryokan also has shared spaces where guests can relax, sip a coffee and read the paper. While the ryokan is able to comfortably cater to large groups with its large banquet halls and function rooms, there are also small private dining rooms to enjoy a meal in.
I was just leaving the ryokan to take a walk into town in the snow when one of the staff came running out after me, 'I'll give you a lift to the station, if you like!' he said nervously. 'Thank you very much!' I replied - I didn't fancy walking to the station in the cold of winter.
He dropped me off at Awara Onsen Station, which incidentally is less than a 10-minute walk away. In the station building there is a visitor centre from which visitors can purchase a token (pictured below), the token grants them access to a maximum of 3 onsen in the town. There is a board on the outside of the information centre saying which onsen the token can be used at. The staff at the information centre are on hand with maps and guidance. The token is a great way to sample some of the different hot springs in the town.
We took a short drive to Tojinbo - a set of basaltic rocks in Sakai, Fukui Prefecture that jut out into the Japan Sea. The weather was turning very cold, the winds were strong and it was snowing a lot, so after a brief look at the famous cliffs, we walked back to the car park and stopped in at this restaurant and gift shop for a cup of tea. The shop 's name is Shotaro and os famous for its kaisendon (seafood on rice), and was also selling a host of local delicacies and sweets.
Sachiya - Shojin Ryori
Finally, we drove to Eiheiji-cho to visit Sachiya, a restaurant famous for serving shojin-ryori, which is a kind of vegetarian food, historically eaten by Buddhist monks. The restaurant is a little out of the way, but extremely well-known and often frequented by Japanese celebrities. The food was prepared meticulously and tasted absolutely incredible - both delicious and healthy. The pudding was a chocolate made from soya milk. I didn't feel as guilty stuffing myself with this kind of food...
Click here for a map for Sachiya
With that, my short trip had come to an end, and just as I was starting to understand why people who live in Fukui are so happy...