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Food and drink as Mother Nature intended
COMPARED with say, the ancient beauty of Kyoto, the stunning ski trails of Hokkaido or even the neon splendour of Tokyo's Ginza - Fukui comes across as a prefecture that got shortchanged in the looks department. A landscape of grey skies, generic grey houses and buildings hardly make for great Instagram moments - although if you're into dinosaurs, there's a really big museum just outside Fukui City. Otherwise, if you're taking the sluggish local train up to Mikuni in the north, the most you can expect view-wise would be intermittent rice fields and a very angry Sea of Japan constantly lashing the rocky coastline.
But life is fair, and what Fukui lacks in superficial beauty, it more than makes up for with the amazing bounty beneath it - namely its natural water sources, and seafood. This is where food and drink go hand in hand in the way Mother Nature intended. Some of the best sake in Japan comes from Fukui, and it's also home to the king of crustaceans - the Echizen crab.
For all the fuss we make over Alaskan king crabs or Hokkaido crabs - whether the former are swimming live in the tanks of luxe Chinese restaurants or the frozen legs of the latter drawing crowds at an Isetan Japanese food fair - they can't hold a candle to their Echizen relatives. Partly because of the way they taste, but mainly because of their rarity. There just aren't enough Echizen crabs to export out of Japan, much less Echizen itself (a coastal city within Fukui prefecture), and they are the only crabs that make it to the dinner table at the Imperial Palace. So the only way you can get to taste them is to make the trip, and even so, you need to know where to get the best of the best.
Enter Touru "Tone" Terumasa - the owner of Bouyourou, one of the rare luxury ryokans in Mikuni, a coastal town in the Sakai district. The local train from Fukui city deposits you at Mikuni-Minato station and once you get off the platform into the street, you'll see a giant crab attached to the roof of a small building, which turns out to be Mr Terumasa's Echizen crab shop-cum-restaurant.
This is where the best quality crabs caught from the deep sea - a one hour journey by boat from the shores of Mikuni and Echizen - are snapped up by Mr Terumasa and kept in giant tanks in the shop where monster-sized critters glare at you as they glide amongst their trapped kin. The day that we visit, Mr Terumasa proudly reveals that he had just got back from Tokyo where he made a special delivery of crabs - with their distinctive yellow plastic tags - to the palace.
The less royal, however, will have to pay through their noses to enjoy the crab at his family-owned ryokan Bouyourou, just a one-minute drive from the station. The 140-year-old ryokan started out as a restaurant before being converted into lodging 20 years ago with its own hot baths, filled with water piped in from a hotspring about two kilometres away. More classic than luxurious, the immaculately-maintained ryokan features small outdoor baths for men and women, but for the more conservative guests, there is the option of a private rotenburo, that is, an outdoor hot bath in your room. Even if you're an onsen junkie, it's an amazing experience to soak in hot spring water that's slightly salted from the proximity to the sea - with your own unfettered, almost scary, view of the Sea of Japan in all its raw, raging glory. At night, when the sky is pitch black and all you hear are the menacing waves, is when it's the most frightening.
But the real experience is yet to come in the form of the guest of honour who arrives on your dinner table - already beautifully laid out in your room with an array of colourful appetisers. Over two nights, you are served a surfeit of crab every which way. It's the equivalent of an entire crab per person - that's two a night - served as sashimi, grilled, boiled whole and in nabe or steamboat style. On the night we are served the whole boiled crab, our room attendant tells us that the one kilo prize is 15 years old - we hope we misheard her so as to soothe our conscience. It tastes like no other crab we've ever had. The flesh is clean yet curiously rich, and the shell - normally filled with roe - is also brimming with what tastes like steamed egg white but we're told it's actually crab fat. It's not found in every crab we eat over our two night visit, and it's supposed to be only available in the January-February period when the crabs are at their peak.
Crab season in Fukui runs from November to March, after which crab-fishing is banned until November, to give them time to spawn and grow. Which is just as well, because we'll need time to save up for the next crab bash - expect to pay an average of 60,000 yen (S$683) per person a night at Bouyourou which includes dinner and an elaborate breakfast. It's eye-watering for sure (and probably over-priced), and crab-overkill (we would have been happy with just one crab and a lower tab), but it's an experience far more special than any celebrity chef dinner costing the same money. After all, it's a meal not so much manipulated by man but dictated by nature - if you want purity at its best, you've come to the right place.
4-3-38 Mikunicho Komegawaki, Sakai 913-0057
Fukui Prefecture (Mikuni Onsen)