Wakasa Kaido IV

Wakasa Kaido IV 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
Obama, Wakasa Kaido
Wakasa Kaido, Japan
Obama, Wakasa Kaido

The problem with walking westward in the early morning is that your calves tend to get sunburned. It had happened yesterday, and I could feel it again now, and from behind, it must have looked like my legs had brake lights.

But I was all go, having woken just after the sun. There was little life here due to the early hour, but for a couple of dog walkers, and an old woman or two pottering in the garden. The feudal period barrier gate was gone but my passage was still watched over by cats. The flow of water escorted me down a broad street flanked by low two story houses, all in keeping with that period look. The town wasn't as well kept as some of the others that I'd seen along the greater trafficked and better known Nakasendo or Tokaido, but it still beat the look of 90 percent of the towns in Japan.

At the far end of Kumagawa a sign pointed to an Inari shrine out of sight up the hill. The path extending in that direction was overgrown and straddled by some small torii that looked on the verge of collapse. I usually enjoy exploring these kinds of things, but some inner voice told me to hold back. So my steps continued as they had, on up the road.

It was an enjoyable morning, my route thankfully keeping me off the busier highway, and through a valley along which a number of villages were strung. None of them were as well maintained as Kumagawa, but they weren't terribly built up either. There was the occasional shrine, or an old hold out structure from the Edo Period. There were also a few non-survivors, including an abandoned love hotel, victims of the burst of the 80's bubble years.

And there were things too of a far greater age. The Wakasa Kaido here passed a series of Kofun burial mounds, one of which was said to have been constructed with technology from the Asian mainland. It was interesting to think of the town of Obama as being an international port, especially one dating back in the mid-6th century. That of course marked the time when Buddhism first came in, being itself a form of Asian technology. We think of early mainland contact of having occurred in Kyushu, or around Izumo, but any parties landing here would simply have had to follow a single straight line due south through the latter day capitals of Kyoto and Nara, directly into the heart of the imperial court of Asuka. Their journey would have been far longer than my own. I'd reach my goal by lunch.

At the point where the trail intersected with the Saba Kaido, a road I'd walked over three days from Kyoto, through the mountains that time. The valley had been rich with spirituality, especially Jinguji, host to the Omizu-okuri festival every March 2nd. The temple's head priest pours purified water into the fast moving river, upon which an underground stream will carry the water to Nara's Nigatsu-do where a similar (and far more popular) ceremony takes place on March 13. The water will have moved along a ley line that takes it past Kurama, Kamigamo, Shimogamo, Jonangu, and beyond Nara to the sacred sites further on, Tenkawa, Kumano Hongu, marking the coming of spring, as it has for 1,300 years.

After Wakasahiko Jinja with its 1,000-year old cedar and wonderful Noh stage, the road forked and I became uncertain that I was still on the old road. The frequent jizo assured me that I was, but it eventually became highway. This eventually led me into Obama proper, and to the sea which gave the old road a reason to exist.

Obama, Wakasa Kaido, Japan
Obama, Wakasa Kaido

I found a hotel near the waterfront (Yamane Ryokan) and quickly dropped my bags before exploring, feet continuing to ache as I walked the town. Tourist sights were well kept and the signs pointing to them prevalent. This was obviously a town that had respect for its past, but it also had a disturbing interest in the recent past of my own nation. The face of the former president was simply everywhere, to the point that it became surreal. I really didn't know what to make of the President Obama vending machine. Prior to his taking office, this town was known for its temples. I strolled the outskirts, passing many temples and shrines. I saw an Atago Jinja, and another for Kumano, but my feet vetoed the idea of climbing those high steps. I walked over to Hosshinji, the famous zen dojo of the great teacher Harada Roshi. The valley around it was veiled in clouds. There were quite a few monks about and a few put their palms together and gassho'ed me, and it hit me that I was inadvertently dressed somewhat like them, a brother monk.

Moving on, I got a one handed gassho from a European monk on a bike, his meditation cushion being used as a bicycle seat. He wheeled around to chat awhile, then rushed off. I followed to his temple, Bukkokuji, another well-established training site. A different European foreigner was sweeping the tatami. I thought it must be tough to be a non-American foreigner in Obama these days. Every local person you'd meet would feel a little let down.

I walked the covered streets, nearly everything closed on the Sunday. Obsequious boy band music was piped in, making me ponder if it had been played at the White House too. A shower took such stupid thoughts from my brain, then it was dinner time. I found a small sushi shop that offered mackerel on the menu out front. I went in and ordered, but quickly got vibed out. The sushi chef seemed content to hide behind stereotypes, rather than understand my perfectly good Japanese, which his wife had to 'translate.' The woman next to me asked me if I could eat fish, seconds after she watched me shovel two pieces into my maw. This in a town which was basking in the association with an internationally famous name.

And why was this bothering me? The main reason I had eaten out tonight was in order to chat up the locals. And they would only have started that conversation due to my non Japanese status. After all, I had never seen two Japanese strangers strike up a conversation. Why did this not offend me? I, like every other foreigner in Japan, was happy to play the race card when it benefited them. Why did I think I could have it both ways?

After quickly chugging my beer, I was out the door. The grilled mackerel and draft beer I had been seeking was found up the street. Here, I wound up talking to no one since everyone's attention was riveted to the Japanese woman's volleyball team on the television. I eventually went back to my hotel and treated my knees to the bath they had been craving. Coming back to my room, I nearly fell over in laughter. When I'd checked in, I had requested a bed, so as to give my poor knees some soft respite, a point I had mentioned to the staff. All the western rooms had been full, so I took this one. And now, I found that the maid had set out on the tatami four futons, piled half a meter high. So it was that I passed a restful night in my cotton tower, dreaming of mackerel and peas.


Obama is 2 hours from JR Kyoto Station. Take a Limited Express (Thunderbird or Hashidate) to Tsuruga Station then change here to the JR Obama Line.


Hotels in and around Obama include the 3-star Hotel Sekumiya, the Ryokan Suigetsu, and Kojokan Pamco.

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