Our Lives | JAPAN LITE

Finding fishy enlightenment and sustenance on the Mackerel Trail

by Amy Chavez

Special To The Japan Times

The Wakasa Road is a historical trail that helped advance Japan’s culture and cuisine. The Wakasa region of Fukui Prefecture, on the nation’s west coast, was one of the strategic miketsukuni regions of Japan that produced food for the emperor in ancient times.

Wakasa-mono from the Japan Sea such as fugu, karei flatfish and oysters were transported via the Wakasa Road and its many arteries that flowed into the heart of Kyoto. One particular branch gained popularity for bringing mackerel direct from the port in Obama by porters who carried 40-kilogram baskets on their backs, walking all night over mountain passes to deliver the goods to Kyoto before they spoiled. This route was nicknamed the Mackerel Trail, or Sabakaido (saba being mackerel).

This 72-kilometer fish route had been nibbling at my conscience for a while, and the fact that it’s not just a historic walking trail but also a culinary one piqued my stomach’s interest. It’s surprisingly easy to find someone to accompany you when gourmet food is involved. My friend Chris Thyregod was more than happy to take on the task.

The city of Obama has made the Mackerel Trail a major tool for tourism. The journey starts in Izumi-cho, in what is now a covered shopping street. There, the fish Sherpas filled their baskets with their piscine wares, heavily salted to preserve them for the long hike. It is said that the flavors were just right by the time the fish went to market in Kyoto.

If porters in ancient times could walk the Sabakaido in two days — in rope sandals, with full loads of fish on their backs — then Chris and I, with our latest Montbell duds, featherweight backpacks, hiking boots and voracious appetites, would have few troubles. Or so we thought.

Mention walking the Mackerel Trail to anyone working at the sundry information centers in Obama and they will smile and tell you the proud history of the Sabakaido. Ask for details about hiking the route, however, and they’ll squint at you, cock their heads to one side and start sucking air through their teeth. This is the telltale Japanese sign of utter perplexity.

The kind woman at the Obama train station information desk, for example, who is deft at renting out bicycles and finding overnight lodging for the woefully unprepared, hedged in this manner when we told her we were looking for information on the Mackerel Trail. She shooed us in the direction of the Machi no Eki (information center) in town.

An inquiry there made the woman at the information desk do the same while looking askance and searching the room for someone more knowledgeable. She even made some phone calls, but to no avail. In a final desperate attempt to give us some kind of guidance, she called in a bus driver off the street to see if he knew anything. He smiled, waved us on and wished us luck.

But at this point we didn’t care, because we had already started our own culinary version of the Sabakaido at the accompanying restaurant, swilling down cold beers while watching live mackerel get scooped out of the huge aquarium with a net. Minutes later, the poor darlings appeared as sashimi on our plates, served with sides of grated ginger, daikon radish and wasabi. For good measure, we also tucked into saba-zushi. Without even stepping onto the trail, we’d already arrived in saba heaven.

Finally, the woman urged us on to the michi no eki (highway rest stop), where she assured us they had special knowledge of the Sabakaido.

They didn’t. Lastly, we were motioned in the direction of the local library.

Each of these information gurus told us something different. Most hadn’t done the trail themselves but knew someone who had. Others tossed out random concerns under their breaths like “There may be landslides” or “The road isn’t paved all the way.” (Why do we need a paved road?)

We heard the local junior high school students had done the course in two days, camping overnight. (So, if kids can do it we can! Right?) One person said we could hike it in a day if we moved quickly while another, when asked about buses, looked doubtful, saying, “Yes, but they only run about once an hour.” (Um, isn’t that enough?) But most just smiled politely, handed us erroneous maps and wished us luck.

At the end of the day, we had amassed 13 different — mostly unrelated — maps and had spoken to dozens of people, none of whom could answer even our most basic questions about walking the Mackerel Trail.

There seemed to be plenty of information on driving the Wakasa Road, a highway with rest areas and petrol stations. But walking the Mackerel Trail? Why would tourists want to do that?

Undaunted, we chased down more beers, sorted through the unrelated maps and ultimately decided to just go for it.

That evening we slaked our thirst for adventure by taking part in more saba degustation — among all the maps, three were Obama restaurant maps — including heshiko (mackerel fermented in rice bran), nare-zushi (mackerel sushi salted and pickled in rice) and grilled mackerel.

The next morning, we were already five kilometers into our hike from Izumi-cho when we met someone who would alter our plans completely.

Just before the road went up into the mountains to the trail head, we stopped for coffee in a quasi-cafe/souvenir shop and information center. Full of optimism, we asked the middle-aged woman behind the counter if she had any advice on hiking the Sabakaido. As it turned out, she had done the trail three times herself!

But once we started asking questions about walking times, buses and where the nearest overnight accommodation was, she squinted at us, cocked her head to the side and started sucking air through her teeth. The ultimate blow was when she expressed concern that if we continued, we would be putting ourselves in grave danger. She even offered to drive us to a rental car agency.

The man at the rental car agency was just as bemused as marveled by two foreigners entering his small prefab office. He confided that he had never rented a car to foreigners before and, in that uniquely Japanese way, made us feel all the more honored for it.

With our new wheels, we experienced an unexpected wave of delight — something that previously felt forced upon us was now something we embraced, because now we could explore the Mackerel Trail with no concern for time limits, walking at night, losing our way or finding accommodations.

The road itself was lovely and lonely. Oftentimes just a single track, sometimes paved, other times not, it bumbled through the forest, meandered past wild monkeys, chased long, clear streams and rolled past sacred water gods. We even chanced upon the grave of a legendary 800-year-old woman who had — get this — eaten a mermaid!

We observed how the Sabakaido hiking path, like an uncoddled child, sallied in and out of the forest, hugging the car road for a few kilometers before ducking into the forest and back, darting out again, farther away this time, before reappearing in a self-determined pattern. More than a trail, it was a goat path: narrow, unforgiving and knee-deep in leaves. More untrodden than abandoned, it would swallow you whole in a dark forest lit by the sliver of a crescent moon.

No, the Mackerel Trail isn’t ready for hikers yet. It’s not exactly wilderness, since you’ll pass through tiny settlements of houses, but there will be no corner store, petrol station or place to curl up for the night. There is no infrastructure for walking pilgrims and the campgrounds are decrepit relics of an ’80s version of “glamping.” And it’s frigid at night, even in October.

We met only two cars and two motorcycles on the trail. We stopped by the roadside often, reveled in the accidental quiescence and envisioned porters crossing the Harihatatoge pass, hunched under 40-kg packs and a full moon.

Eager to cultivate a culinary trail, we went off-course to seek out restaurants and indulge in more local specialties: kodai no sasazuke (pickled sea bream) and hamayaki-saba (whole grilled mackerel on a stick). In truth, it took us all day just to drive the Sabakaido!

But, most importantly, I can say with confidence that we achieved mackerel enlightenment on this ancient Wakasa Road.

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