Wakasa Kaido I 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
It wasn't how I'd pictured the morning going. I had envisioned scenes of walking through the dark predawn streets of eastern Kyoto, watching the world awake and scurry off to work and school.
Instead, I got rain, buckets of it. The weather forecast had shown a dry window from midnight to lunchtime, and I'd been a fool to believe it. In fact it was the rain that had woken me, not long before the five o'clock alarm. I debated going back to sleep, but trusting that the skies would clear, I hopped on my bicycle and headed south to Demachiyanagi. The steady drizzle that I rode through turned to downpour with my first few steps, but I thought I'd carry on anyway, weather be damned.
Until 15 minutes or so later when I remembered the words I use when I tell my walking clients that I was calling a day off: "If it isn't enjoyable, what's the point?" And it wasn't. The scenes of life I'd hoped to see were non-existent, my worldview shrunk to that which fit beneath my umbrella. I decided to go as far as Yase Station and if it were still raining, I'd head home.
I pushed on toward Kitaoji. A row of low-income housing formed a canyon on my right, while to my left were some newly built luxury flats. Typical Japanese incongruous zoning. I like the idea of these two economic classes coming together in the middle for a street party, but I knew that that was an illusion, one enhanced by the Billy Bragg songs I was listening to in order to help me forget the rain.
And before long, the weather lifted. While the skies didn't exactly clear to a brilliant blue, the rain did stop. And a certain beauty appeared, a beauty of imperfection. Clouds teased the hilltops, caressing their flanks. Shadows brought definition to every shape and form. Japan is best seen in lower light anyway.
I rounded Yase and followed along Route 367, ducking down the quieter parallel roads when I found them. I had very little to go on map-wise, just a single web link that claimed the Wakasa Kaido was the busier highway. I've driven this road at least 50 times, so opted to follow the side routes, partly as exploration, partly as reprieve. Mainly suburban commuter communities, but at least they had the mountains and rivers at their backs. Up on the main road much was in decay, abandoned and forlorn.
The valley was getting higher, or perhaps the clouds were lifting, but at any rate, the humidity was coming on strong, to the point that it fogged my glasses. The road lost its shoulder as I had feared, but I faced down the traffic racing toward me on the curves. My early start was meant to have gotten me through this bottleneck before rush hour started. I was afraid to take my eyes off the lane ahead, but I quickly glanced down at my watch. Seven-forty. Shit.
The shoulder returned in front of a tsukemono pickle factory. A worker came out clad head to toe in a white outfit like a Hazmat suit. Seemed appropriate, for when they put in the radioactive dye in order to get all those weird colors. I don't believe that shade of yellow even exists in the natural world.
The broad valley of Ohara spread out before me. Higanbana sprouted just about everywhere, beside the shorn stubble of harvested rice fields. I'd walked this stretch a number of times, so I turned my brain off and listened to some early ballads by Bob Dylan. Rain threatened, so I decided to pull up here, and in the words of the man himself, take "shelter from the storm."
Demachiyanagi Station in north central Kyoto is the Kyoto terminus of the Keihan Main Line for trains from Sanjo Keihan Station and Shijo Keihan Station in Kyoto or from Kyobashi and Yodoyabashi Stations in Osaka via Yodo and Hirakata.
Ohara is a 40 minute journey by Kyoto bus from Demachiyanagi Station at the end of the Keihan Line or can be reached in about an hour by the same bus from Kyoto Station.
Ohara is a short bus ride from Kyoto, for those who prefer to keep accommodation there. Otherwise the road up to Sanzen-in from the bus stop is lined with souvenir shops selling local produce, restaurants and there are a number of traditional Japanese inns or ryokan to stay in Ohara. Recommended ryokan in Ohara include Gyozanen Onsen Ryokan, Ohara no Sato and Ohara Sanso.