Wakasa Kaido III 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
I returned again to the bus stop, beneath high mountains looking majestic and boastful against the brilliant clear sky. A group rode their motorcycles up the nearby Route 367. They all had jackets proclaiming themselves as the "Yellow Corn Magnum Highway Pack." Closet Simpsons fans perhaps?
Near the bus stop were a row of old homes against the ubiquitous rice fields. In the middle stood a home that looked like a cross between a 1760's farm house and 1960's Brady architecture; a hybrid that somehow worked. A temple stood up on a hill above them. It was a quiet wooded space, upon which a Kannon statue sat in watch.
I moved out of town and into the hills. I'd been at it only an hour but it was already lunchtime! The Loft was a welcome sight at a bend in the river. The proprietress was very friendly, though I didn't get a laugh when I offered to give her a photo of my shoes to hang alongside the hundreds of pictures of customer's cars which covered the walls. The ample shelves were filled with knick-knacks and doo-dads, over which an '80's sound track allowed me to mine my college-age memories for annoyingly catchy tunes to hum for the rest of the day. I liked this place and my good hearty lunch, which satisfied far more than the rice balls in my pack.
I climbed into a lovely cedar forest, which was still pollen free and filled with bird song. There was something else that I couldn't figure out for awhile, then suddenly got it: There was no trash strewn down the hillsides here. I did come upon a ripped up valley, the trees looking as if massacred. Anger started to rise, until I saw a sign saying that this was where local school kids came to learn some of this region's forestry legacy. I came to one hill where the temperature read 22 degrees, then a 100 meters later it was somehow only 19. A long way from the 2 degrees of the previous day.
There was an 'environmental' center out here, which in Japan translates to "a place that comes up with creative ways to incinerate trash." Atop the highest pass I was surprised to see a small crab, ambling along so early in the season. I dropped down to a busier road, but decided to stay on the old highway that ran just above. Unused for decades, it was now strewn with moss, with trees and shrubs that overhung the trail lower and lowered to eventually become a mere deer trail. When it petered out, I made my way down an embankment and found the distinctive print of a bear's foot.
I soon came to a small village with a particular haunted look, of kayabuki and demon masks, decaying buildings and an unkept shrine with slippery steps. Above a clean, fast river was a kiln built of cinder blocks. Still off the busy new road, I rejoined the old highway, which became more and more post-apocalyptic. One section hung and crumbled into the river far below, swept clean by a recent landslide. I carefully picked my way across, near a car that had been pummeled by vandals. Another small row of buildings came up before long. Ahead of me, I saw the figure of an old bowlegged man moving along with his cane. We exchanged greetings. He was against a background of rock graves overgrown with weeds that literally exploded with white flowers. I was moved by the simultaneous literal and metaphoric beauty of it. As I walked away I could catch a quiet melody under his breath.
The name of the next village, Kumagawa, had already been given clarity by the bear print of an hour ago. This had to be one of the best preserved towns I'd ever seen. It truly belonged more to cinema than to reality, like a one lane film set. It is pure joy to walk through. The only accommodation to the calendar were the political posters that hung in front of the town hall. This being just outside Obama city limits, they showed a group of politicos shaking hands under the slogan, "Yes, We Are!" I allowed them to continue their search for the proper grammatical object as I moved toward my inn.
Approximately one hour from JR Kyoto Station to JR Omi-Imazu Station, then approximately 30 minutes by bus to Wakasa Kumagawa bus stop. Alternatively 10 minutes on a JR Wakae Line bus from Kaminaka Station on the JR Obama Line from Obama.