Wakasa Kaido II

Wakasa Kaido II 若狭街道

Edward J. Taylor

The Wakasa region was one of the primary sources of ocean fish for the old capitals of Kyoto and Nara. Fish, mackerel in particular, would be packed in salt (later in vinegared rice, the origins of modern sushi), and carried through the mountains toward the south. The 73-kilometer journey can be done in three days, but I broke it into four, so as to enjoy the old towns along the way. An alternative name 鯖街道 - Saba Kaido; "Mackerel Road" is also used to describe the route linking Obama on the Sea of Japan coast with Kyoto

Wakasa Kaido, Japan
Wakasa Kaido
Wakasa Kaido, Japan
Farm house in the snow, Wakasa Kaido

I awoke expecting a springtime walk but instead I faced a day heavily wrapped in a shroud of bitter cold. I moved back toward the Wakasa Kaido and turned north.

Maybe it was all the coffee I'd drunk to steel myself against the weather, but it wasn't long before I needed to pee. I knew of a small sports center just out of town whose owner had a few years ago been gracious enough to let my daughter use their toilets. I crossed their carpark toward the facilities. Midway across a woman called out "Moshi moshi," which also sounds much more aggressive than the usual "Sumimasen." I explained what I wanted, which she reluctantly allowed.

While inside, I heard a man join her, and upon my return I found the two of them standing there, waiting. The man was interested in what I was doing, and at least verified for me that I actually was on the Wakasa Kaido. Though sharing the name, the busy Route 367 above was the newer route. I thanked them again for the use of the facilities, to which he said that in future I should use the toilets at the bus station. I turned then and began to walk off, peeved at this sort of attitude, with which previous kindness is instantly revoked. Why offer it in the first place? For some reason he asked my receding figure its name, to which I gave my usual "code name: "Larry Rullelo.

A good thirty minutes on I met 367 again, which lifted me gradually toward the pass. Midway up, a trio of cops were tagging speeders with their radar gun. Passing by I asked one of them, "Catch anything?" which got a laugh. A small trail took me off the main road and over the pass. Just over the other side was the Yamazaki Geo Clean Park (Geo being the latest Japanese recent buzz word for nature). Its motto ought to be, "Cleaning up nature for its own good."

The hamlet over the pass was called Tochu, which can be literally translated as "In the middle of." It takes every strength of your being not to add, "Absolute f-ing nowhere." The Wakasa Kaido carries on out of this town and immediately over the next pass. Route 367 undergoes a series of S-curves in order to climb it, something I truly hoped to avoid. The old trail must still exist. Unfortunately the community center was closed, and a man out front had little idea, figuring the path would be hard to find anyway.

The road sign showed 2º C. The outermost of my many layers was a bright orange hardshell. This color is mainly used for winter gear and is completely psychological, as it symbolizes warmth. But I had chosen it for its practical purpose: to be completely visible to traffic as I moved through those dreaded S-curves with shoulders hardly wider than my own. I've probably researched this section more than any walk I've ever done, trying to find a way to avoid them. As I ascended, I scanned the roadsides looking for anything resembling trail, but aside from one track that appeared to lead into the wilderness, there was nothing. I did get a quick break in cutting across a forested section of one curve, and just beyond this I received a little help by a surprising source: The Ministry of Construction. One of their newest follies is to reinforce the hillside by cutting away all the trees and laying the bare ground with string netting. I got in touch with my inner Spiderman and began to climb, up a pitch that increased rapidly to beyond 45º, forcing me to crawl along on all fours like some bizarre humpbacked orange beast. This led me to believe that this was the actual Wakasa Kaido, as the climb was too steep for people to climb straight up, they would have naturally created switchbacks. Later on, the modern Route 367 had been laid atop it.

I took a long rest at the top, taking a thick stick and trying to unblock a drain of a winter's worth of debris. There was a certain satisfaction to watch it begin to break apart and rush down the hillside. Not far above this I came to the old road which avoided the long tunnel and wound up and over the pass. The road surprised in having been recently resurfaced, which made sense when I came to the cryptomeria plantation, the bellies of most trees wrapped in a veneer blue haramaki. I'd gambled in my choice of footwear, taking my chances in the risk of lingering snow in wearing my light trail runners rather than a sturdier winter boot. This proved to be the right choice as there were only a handful of patches here and there, including one surrounding the rusting hulk of a Suzuki Samurai, victim of a duel decades ago. Mostly I moved across carpets of fallen cedar branches, a welcome relief from 30 km over hardened tar.

I moved down the far side of Hanaori Pass, so named for the pilgrims who would pick flowers there in order to leave an offering at Myoo-in Temple a couple of hours further on. But to paraphrase the Japanese proverb, hana yori yuki, rather than flowers, snow. The old road paralleled the river, and here I found long interrupted stretches of white a meter deep. Still, it beat the busy road above and its tunnels. I tried to follow a single set of footsteps a week or so old, over crusty snow that gave under me. The footprints had packed the snow pretty well, but my shoe size was greater, and my weight certainly heavier, so again and again I post holed up to mid-thigh. Now and again the footprints ceased completely, my predecessor having chosen another route somewhere. I tried an old martial arts trick where I put all my mental attention on my belly and slid rather than stepped across. This worked surprisingly well as there was no dramatic weight shift, though the moment I thought about how well I was doing, I would crash through the surface. Weird ninja magic.

Wakasa Kaido, Japan
Cedars, Wakasa Kaido
Wakasa Kaido, Japan
Stone lantern, Wakasa Kaido

Luckily, and bizarrely, the snow patches were only in the sections of road that curved toward the south. All other sections were clear. My feet were thoroughly soaked as I moved along beneath the entrance to Ushi no Hana tunnel. (There are a number of passes throughout Japan with the same name, so called because they were so steep that they would have to coax the pack animals up by pulling the rope attached to the ring through their nose.) In the end I should have been a better Buddhist and chosen the middle way and worn light hikers. But before long I wound beyond the tunnels and came to the broad valley of Katsuragawa. I have fond memories of a summer day here, of a dozen bottles of Kirin beer cooling in a stream running fast before the Hirasanso ryokan. (hirasansou.com)

A fresher memory I suppose was upon reaching the place, the sun finally appeared. I sat on a log by the roadside and ate a rice ball, finding some feeling again in my feet. The sun was feeding an array of newly laid solar panels, which explained all the freshly cut timber I had passed a kilometer before. Here the powers that be had decimated a section of healthy forest so as not to interfere with the panels with their shade. It reminded me of the time I was caught in a sudden squall with a friend who is very active in the Japanese antinuclear movement.

Post Fukushima, Japan had become one of the greatest importers of fossil fuels in the world, and the offset of carbon emissions was creating the exact kind of weather patterns that had forced us to run for cover. More solar power was a preferred alternative, but at the expense of the forests? I began to think that there are no simple answers to anything.

I carried on. There was a new petrol station I'd never seen, called "Smile Oil." You'd smile too if you had a monopoly in being the only service station along most of Route 367. I received a true smile from a woman in a passing kei-truck, who asked if I was going to Miyata-san's B&B (suzumenooyad.web.fc2.com) a kilometer of so further on. I told her what I was up to, but that I'd drop by for a rest. Upon arriving, I found her and a friend having lunch in the sun out front of an old farmhouse. They were both artists, and mentioned that this entire area was like a big museum, due to all the creative people living there. The woman in the truck, Makiko, mentioned that she'd appeared in a Papersky article, photographed on one of her horses, which she rode along the Wakasa Kaido from time to time. Her friend Keiko and I found some common ground in our connection with Kodo, with whom she'd been closely affiliated until retiring out here. We could have easily spent the rest of the afternoon in conversation, but I had ground to cover. The B&B was only an hour or so from my home by car, and I promised to return.

My GPS showed a parallel path on the other side of the river. I wasn't sure whether it was the old path, but I had already traveled many times along Route 367 by car, and it looked a pleasant alternative. As I crossed the river, I somehow found myself in the middle of a large tribe of monkeys, who scattered in the three directions at my approach. There were bear warning signs on the far bank, and despite the winter feel of the day, I was reminded that mother nature was rousing herself. She was all I had to accompany me, as there weren't many houses or hamlets on this stretch. I was convinced that this couldn't have been the Wakasa, until I found the ruins of three teahouses, their wells obvious upon the forest floor. There was also a broad open spring which looked more at home in a high Alpen meadow. A sign told me that the spring had been here since the Kamakura Period. Perhaps I was on the road after all.

The sky spit at me a few times, but mercifully wasn't too serious about it. I crossed the river again and moved into my last hamlet, a mere cluster of log homes that were probably used by vacationers. Beside one was a long unused stand-up paddle board, and on the other, a handful of children's bicycles. How profound the death of hobbies when children appear. But even the kids had moved on, the rusty swings in the wind acting as quiet witnesses. I came to a cluster of small eateries, one advertising duck, another boar stew. I caught a whiff of hamburger for some reason, then saw some men having a barbecue beside the river. Beyond them across the water, I saw what might have been an old overgrown trail, which would link the section with the teahouses with the road on the same bank further up. As I crossed over yet again, from a closer vantage point atop the bridge I decided that it has been wishful thinking, and that my eyes had simply followed natural lines in the terrain.

Back on the west bank, I gradually entered the village of Kutsuki. High to the east was snowy Jyatani-dake, the fields below wide and open and bare. But the day had warmed to promise spring and new beginnings, though a long day's walk upon this old road came to a close.

Books on Japan Travel