Miketsukuni and Saba-kaido Road: Cultural heritages linking the Japan Sea to Nara and Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan

The province of Wakasa was situated along the Sea of Japan’s coastline in what is now Fukui Prefecture. It was referred to as miketsukuni (a region that produced food offerings for the Imperial Court) and played an important role in providing foodstuffs such as sea salt,mackerel, and other marine products to the ancient, landlocked capital of Nara and Kyoto. Wakasa's role as a source of supplying the foodstuffs led to the development of a unique culinary culture. The coastal hub of Wakasa also connected the sea trade from China and Korea to the inland trade routes.
Local ports and castle towns sprang up and flourished along this route. Traveling tradesmen brought with them festival customs, entertainments, and Buddhist culture that soon spread far and wide into rural farming areas and fishing villages. This ultimately resulted in distinct cultures and customs evolving in the different villages and hamlets. The ancient thoroughfare is now called the saba-kaido (Mackerel Road) and here visitors can experience nature, eat delicious traditional foods, attend festivals, as well as view traditional houses and roads that hearken back to the earlier days of great prosperity.

Wakasa region used to be called Wakasa Province located along the coastline of the southern part of what is now called Fukui Prefecture. Blessed with rich nature, Wakasa Province provided abundant foodstuffs in ancient times such as marine products, salt, etc. to Nara and Kyoto, the ancient capitals of Japan, as one of “Miketsukuni” provinces, or the ancient provinces supplying food and marine products to the Imperial family and Imperial court in Nara and Kyoto, the ancient capitals of Japan. After the period serving as one of the provinces of Miketsukuni, Wakasa Province kept supporting the food culture of Kyoto by continuously supplying delicious food of Wakasa to the ancient capital of Japan.

Several highways which have been referred to as “Saba-kaido” in recent years connecting Wakasa Province and Kyoto played an important role not only in supplying foodstuffs but also in exchanging various goods, people, and culture. “Saba-kaido” refers to a highway supplying marine products and fish such as mackerel called “saba” in Japanese to the Imperial family and Imperial court in Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan. Cultural exchange initiated by the connection with the Imperial Court and the aristocracy in Nara and Kyoto permeated the entire civilian life both in rural farming areas and fishing villages in Wakasa Province through the interaction of people taking these Saba-kaido highways and developed into rich cultural heritages such as old temples and shrines, unique streetscapes, folk cultural assets along Saba-kadio highways of Wakasa region whose rich and diverse cultural aspects can hardly be found elsewhere in Japan.

Tracing along Saba-kaido highways provides us with an opportunity to actually see and learn not only 1,500 years of long history of these highways from the ancient times up to today but also how the people along these highways have preserved and passed down the cultural assets and tradition created by long years of interaction of people through these highways connecting Wakasa Province and Kyoto.

Starting point of Saba-kaido Road

-Obama, a bustling port town-

Obama City, a port town located at the starting point of Saba-kaido Road, used to be a big port city where various goods and different cultures brought by many people gathered as an important junction of “the sea route” across the Japan Sea and “the overland route” connecting Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan.

In the early Muromachi Period (1336-1573), early European ships carrying rare animals such as elephants and peacocks landed Obama port for the first time in Japan. It took one month for these rare animals to be delivered to Kyoto through Saba-kaido Road and this long journey to Kyoto is said to have greatly surprised people along the road.

Obama City, which prospered a great deal as an important trading port, became the Imperial estate in the Middle Ages and, therefore, had deep relationship with the Imperial court and Kyoto. Supported by successive domain lords of Obama Domain and wealthy merchants who prospered by shipping agent business, trade both within and outside Japan became active and cultural exchange also developed as in the case of trading with northern provinces of Japan such as Tsugaru Tosaminato, which is now known as Goshogawara City, Aomori Prefecture, ruled by the Abe clan.

In the early modern age, Obama Ichiba, or Obama market, was established by Takatsugu Kyogoku, the domain lord of Obama Domain, which developed into a major foothold of product distribution in later years. The name commonly known as “Saba-kaido Road” is said to have come from a document entitled “Ichiba nakagaibunsho”, the document of Obama Ichiba, which says, “Salted raw mackerel was carried to Kyoto.” Marine products of Wakasa Province preserved with salt were sent to Kyoto with such names as “Wakasa mono”, or “products of Wakasa Province”, and “Wakasa hitoshio”, or “salted fish from Wakasa Province” which have been highly valued in Kyoto to this day.

In Wakasa region precious cultural properties remain such as gorgeous residences and Japanese gardens constructed by wealthy merchants engaged in shipping agent business, old maps of the world and Japan painted on a eight-leaf screen drawn in the Momoyama Period (1573-1603) and so forth. Besides these, Wakasa nuri, or Wakasa lacquer ware, was developed in Obama by studying technical arts of European countries. In the castle town of Obama City whose main district is called Obama Nishigumi which developed in early modern times as the district of merchants, gorgeous floats parade the streets and various performing arts are demonstrated on the city streets in Obama Houze Festival which has its origin in Gion Festival held in Kyoto. These traditional buildings, precious cultural properties, and traditional crafts and events vividly tell us about the prosperity Obama enjoyed as an important port town through trades with Spain and Portugal and also though Japan Sea trade.

  • Wakasa-kaido Road
  • Starting point of Saba-kaido Road
  • Harihatagoe (Negori-zaka slope)
  • Saba-kaido Road leading to the ports in Wakasa region
Wakasa-kaido Road Starting point of Saba-kaido Road
Harihatagoe (Negori-zaka slope) Saba-kaido Road leading to the ports in Wakasa region

Japan Heritage Utilization Promotion Council of Obama City and Wakasa townFukui Prefecture, Obama City, Wakasa town

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