Located along the coast of the Sea of Japan, bordering the country’s western edge, Fukui Prefecture is an area rich in history and artisanal craftsmanship. As you drive along the rocky coastline, through quaint towns dotted with large swaths of rice fields. Life here is reminiscent of Japan of a bygone era without the frenetic pace and tight quarters of Japan’s bigger and better-known cities.
It is perhaps best known as the home of one of the world’s best dinosaur museums; chosen as the site because of the high number of dinosaur bones found in the area. However, the prefecture also boasts another, albeit less widely-known claim to fame. Since 2003, over 90% of the eyeglasses produced inJapan are manufactured in Fukui’s Sabae city alone.
History of Glasses Making in Sabae
Sabae’s seat as the glasses capital of Japan was founded over 100 years ago and was the brainchild of a local resident named Masunaga Goemon. Seeking a way to stimulate the city’s then struggling agriculture-based economy, Masunaga identified a growing demand for glasses throughout the country. Taking the initiative upon himself, Masunaga traveled to bigger cities such as Tokyo and Osaka and invited established glasses craftsmen back to Sabae in order to teach the local residents the production process.
Each shop in the city specialized in a different aspect of the eyeglasses making process, from creating the pieces for the frames, to assembly, to polishing and beyond. In effect, this turned the entire city into one massive glasses factory. By doing so, the city was able to create many more jobs for its residents and produce a greater amount of eyeglasses than it would have been able to under one roof.
As times changed, so too did Sabae’s construction methods. After World War II, when certain resources were scarce, production shifted from primarily metal frames to celluloid; the plastic-like material still seen in many glasses today. In the early 1980’s, Sabae made history by being the first place in the world to produce titanium glasses frames. Its lightweight and durable construction quickly caught on worldwide and cemented Sabae’s reputation as an industry leading center for eyeglasses.
Eyeglasses Production in Sabae Today
Sabae’s eyeglasses production process is a peak example of manufacturing efficiency. Just as each factory in the city specializes in a different aspect of the production process, so too does each of their employees. Like a single cog in a much bigger machine, each employee performs one highly specialized task day in and day out. While this may seem repetitive and boring to outside observers, to Sabae craftsmen known for their patience and attention to detail, it results in highly precise, consistent work.
Visit the Megane Museum
For fans of fashion and history alike, no trip to Fukui would be complete without a visit to Sabae’s Megane Museum (Megane being the Japanese word for eyeglasses). This free museum gives visitors the chance to learn about the history of eyeglasses not only in Sabae, but around the world as well. Throughout the exhibit are display cases featuring glasses dating back hundreds of years, as well as replicas of early glasses making tools. It’s a fascinating look at the advent of a technology many of us take for granted today.
Take Part in an Interactive Experience
For a more hands-on experience, visitors to the Megane Museum can book a guided activity to create a one of a kind souvenir. For just 800 yen, one of the Megane Museum’s skilled craftsmen will guide you through the creation of your own uniquely designed eyeglasses keychain. Or if you’d prefer, for an additional 200 yen, it can be made into a necklace instead.
The roughly one hour experience starts by choosing a frame shape and material that best suits your style.
After carefully tracing the frame, your guide will cut the rough shape out of the material. From here, the finishing touches are all in your hands, as you use a file to smooth away rough edges and a large polishing machine to seal it all with a glossy coat. There is something so satisfying about watching this block of resin transform step by step into its final, polished form. In an era where everything is manufactured in a faraway land, ordered online, and delivered to your doorstep in two days, we hardly ever give a second thought to the things we buy.
Watching something tangible take shape before you and knowing that you created it is a highly rewarding experience and harkens back to a bygone era. Even though you’re only working with a mini replica of actual glasses frames, the highly tactile experience is similar to the real glasses making process and will give you a much deeper understanding and appreciation of the artistry that goes into creating these products.
While the experience isn’t offered in English, your guide will carefully demonstrate every step of the process, so even those with no Japanese language abilities can easily take part. Those wishing for an even more in-depth experience can also take part in the Megane Museum’s other hands-on activity in which you design and build your own wearable frames for 20,000 yen. As this is a much more in-depth workshop however, it can take anywhere from five to seven hours to complete.
Browse the Local Sabae Brands
If hands-on activities aren’t your thing, don’t worry, you can still leave with a handcrafted, made in Japan souvenir. On the first floor of the Megane Museum, Glass Gallery 291, the museum’s in-house shop, features over 2,500 styles of eyewear from over 40 Fukui-based manufacturers. Here, their eyeglasses experts will help you find the perfect frames to fit your face and your own personal style. You can also see photos and autographs from Japanese celebrities who have visited the shop for their own glasses!
While you can leave with your new frames that day, those looking for a complete pair of glasses with lenses included will need to wait roughly one week for their completion. Though international shipping is not available, the frames can easily be fitted with lenses once you return home. For those fortunate enough to not need prescription glasses, don’t worry. Glass Gallery 291 offers a selection of stylish sunglasses as well.
Before You Go
Before leaving, be sure to stop by the gift shop for some other glasses-themed souvenirs. Located at the main entrance, you can find everything from eyeglasses bookmarks and magnets, to glasses-shaped shortbread cookies.
Near the entrance, you’ll also find a complimentary eyeglasses cleaning machine. Everyone who stops by the eyeglasses museum, regardless of if they buy anything or not, is welcome to a free cleaning and adjustment from their highly-trained staff. All the more reason to make the Megane Museum part of your Fukui itinerary.
Address: 2-3-4 Shinyokoe, Sabae City, Fukui Prefecture 916-0042
Access：Approximately 15 minutes walking from Sabae Station, or 5 minutes by taxi.
Experience: Reservations are required for both the keychain and frames making experience. Please reserve via their website: https://www.megane.gr.jp/museum/workshop
(The booking page is only offered in Japanese, so you may need to use a Google translated copy of the website, like this.)
What to do After the Museum
If a long day of learning about the tireless dedication and precision of Sabae craftsmen has left you feeling exhausted, what better way to refresh your mind and body then with a dip in a hot spring? Luckily, the nearby town of Awara is famed for its onsen. At just one hour away from Sabae by train, it’s easily accessible for either a day trip or an overnight stay at one of its many ryokan; a Japanese-style inn where you can enjoy traditional meals and the luxury of bathing in geothermal waters.
If you’re not completely sold on the idea of onsen but want to dip a toe into those waters (both literally and figuratively) be sure to visit Ashiyu. This beautiful building in the center of a small park houses a large public foot bath that is free of charge to all visitors. Anyone who has soaked their feet in a bath after walking many miles in a day knows how calming and therapeutic it can be. As the warm water relaxes your aching muscles, the soothing natural soundtrack of crickets and summer cicadas will put your mind at ease.
The interior of the open-concept building is adorned with wooden furnishings, creating a calming, natural ambiance. There are six different foot baths of varying temperatures available to try, all of which are clearly marked for visitors. Ashiyu also includes a cold water bath; an uncommon sight for public foot baths, but which is perfect when visiting during Japan’s hot summer months.
It’s recommended that visitors bring their own towel to dry their feet afterwards, but small towels featuring the town’s mascot are also available for purchase from a vending machine inside.
Come dinner time, there’s no need to travel far to find a variety of delicious options. Nearby Yukemuri Yoko-Cho is just across the road from Ashiyu and features restaurants specializing in many traditional Japanese dishes such as ramen, yakitori, oden and more. This tiny restaurant alley has the vibes of a close-knit neighborhood hangout spot, with each shop fitting only ten or so seats around a central bar and most preparing food in an open kitchen. It’s the perfect place to sample a selection of Japanese foods while getting to know some of the locals.
For something quick but incredibly satisfying, the ramen at Yokoyama is hard to beat. From 6 PM to midnight, they serve heaping bowls of salty, savory perfection; most for under 1,000 yen. In a town so singularly focused on relaxation, a bowl of shoyu ramen topped with garlic and green onions is the perfect comfort food with which to end your night in Awara.
Address: 3 Chome-413 Hot Spring, Awara, Fukui 910-4104
Access: From Sabae Station, take the Shirasagi Express train bound for Kanazawato Awara-Yunomachi Station. From here, Ashiyu is just 2 minutes away on foot.
Experience: Ashiyu is open to the public from 7:00 AM till 11:00 PM.
If your next visit to Japan includes a visit to Kyoto, be sure to add a stop in Sabae and Awara to your travel itinerary as well. At just two and a half hours away by train, it’s the perfect day trip or weekend getaway to experience authentic Japanese craftsmanship firsthand.