Saba Kaido – The Old Mackerel Highway

Ian Ropke writes:

Mackerel or saba comes into season this month. In the Heian period (794-1185), mackerel were delivered to Kyoto from the Japan Sea via the saba kaido—a 75-kilometer route connecting Kyoto with the port of Obama. To get the fish here, fifteen kilogram baskets packed with about twenty kilograms of salted mackerel were carried on horseback and on human backs overnight in a series of intense relays. The fish left Obama in the late evening and moved up the Kita River to Omi (on the west side of Lake Biwa in Shiga Prefecture). From there, carriers crossed over two passes to Kutsuki village, where another carrier waited for the final leg to Kyoto. Passing through Ohara and Yase, the fish finally reached the market at Demachiyanagi at dawn the next day.

If you want to try some mackerel, why not try a bit of saba zushi (a Kyoto September delicacy)? In making traditional saba zushi, one side of the salted and vinegared fish is placed on slab of rice and covered with a strip of kelp (konbu). After being cut into rectangular slices, the whole thing is wrapped in a wrapping made from the flexible soft skin that covers bamboo shoots. Available in full slabs at any traditional sushi shop.

(Ed: Check out the Kyoto Visitor’s Guide Dining in Kyoto page for two recommended sushi shops:Yanagiya Honten and Hisago Zushi. Kyoto Foodie’s Peko also has an excellent article on Kyoto sushi and the sushi shop Izuju here.

Ian Ropke is the author of the Historical Dictionary of Osaka and Kyoto, editor of Kyoto Visitors Guide, and director of Your Japan Private Tours. You can read his previous articles for Deep Kyoto here.)

6 responses to “Saba Kaido – The Old Mackerel Highway

  1. Nice article, nice detail! Where did you get the 15 kg basket number? I haven’t run across anything like that. (I guess I must not be doing my homework as well as you are.)

    One more thing that your readers might enjoy is how to properly put down Tokyo sushi (nigiri, Edo-mae). Chef Tanigawa tells it like he sees it here on this KF article (below the second photo).

    To Summarize:
    – Tokyo sushi has no sophistication, it is red-neck food.
    – It is the McDonald’s drive-up window food of the Edo era. Invented to be eaten while walking or standing.
    – Requires wasabi to cover up the rotten fish taste (no refrigerated cases back then).
    – It has no chie (widsom). It doesn’t taste better the next day, it is just rotten.

  2. Thanks for the link Michael. That’s pretty funny!

  3. You bet!

    So, where did you get the info on how heavy the baskets were? I can’t find much info on the subject.

  4. I’ll have to ask Ian…

  5. Oh yeah, I reorized that after I axed. How dumb of me. Sorry.

  6. The weight of the basket is key for the process of getting the fish from A to B as fresh as possible. The baskets were actually more like casks and held seawater, or more accurately, brine. Brine is much denser than water so they were probably lugging about 10 kilos of liquid filled with fish. The amount of sloshing was probably miniscule as the amount of fish filled much of the volume to make the walking as easy as possible . . .

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