A thousand years and a handful of centuries ago, a province called Echizen was created in northern Fukui from the scraps of other districts. The ancient province, also known as Esshu, was famous for paper—washi—and poets—Otomo no Yakamochi, among others—and pottery—its kilns turned out some of the finest ceramics in the land, and it helped link the country to the powerful kingdoms of China. The city of Echizen and its neighbor, Sabae, a few miles up the road, sit on the same territory as the former province, and have inherited its historical legacy, while also forging their own modern identity. On a visit to Echizen and Sabae, these are the spots to hit.
Gotanjoji, the Cat Temple
A Zen temple of the Soto school, Gotanjoji in the barren, hilly Shodencho district of Echizen has become famous for its cats. The temple’s history is lengthy, but it has occupied this piece of land for only about two decades; shortly after its construction, south of the Hachiman Shrine, stray cats that had stalked the nearby hills began showing up at the temple. The temple heads did their best to care for the cats, but eventually, the felines became something an attraction, and the tour buses that arrive in the temple’s parking lot these days are full of pilgrims coming specifically for the swarming clowder of cats that greet them.
Echizen Lacquerware Traditional Industry Hall
This expansive facility in Sabae, known also by the more poetic name Urushi no Sato Kaikan (literally, “Village of Urushi Hall,” named for the urushi tree, the sap of which is the source of the caustic chemicals necessary to make lacquer), houses the Echizen Lacquerware Cooperative's ateliers, a gallery showcasing the craft, and a space for lacquerware workshops. Lacquerware, essentially carved wood coated with a shiny, hard finish, is a famous local product, with a history stretching back a millennia. Before you pick up a lacquer bowl, take the local products for a test drive in the attached cafe, Wanwan, where everything is served in lacquerware made in-house.
The story of the Okamoto-Otaki Shrine begins like this: a heavenly princess appeared to villagers that lived on the shores of the Okamoto River; the princess, with a few waves of her hands, demonstrated the craft of making washi. The villagers followed her lead; they mashed the pulp of local shrubs, washed the pulp in the clear, cold water of the Okamoto, and spread it on screens to make delicate yet durable sheets of paper. The princess, Kawakami Gozen, is enshrined at this ancient Shinto tabernacle. It was washi that made the villages and towns of the region rich, in an age before plastic, when the paper was used to make everything from fans to food wrappers. Set in a thicket of trees, the ancient shrine has been visited by the town’s washi makers and dealers for centuries. The shrine complex sits in a beautiful corner of Washinosato Park, not far from the city’s Paper and Culture Museum.
Murasaki Shikibu Koen
Murasaki Shikibu, the author of the world's first novel, The Tale of Genji, was a homebody. She left her hometown only once, to accompany her father to Echizen. It was a poem, written to Emperor Ichijo, that earned her father his position as governor of the province, and a novel that earned his daughter eternal fame. The park, a neat rectangle of land, is a landscape of traditional gardens and architecture, honoring the work of the great novelist.