Miyama’s natural environment and climate make it an ideal place to cultivate vegetable and fruit. Miyama’s dairy products and honey are recognized countrywide for their quality. In addition, with the mountain forest covering about 90% of the area, wild game cooking can also be enjoyed at the local inns and restaurants.
However, ask any Miyama resident and they will tell you that the most popular local food is mackerel!
How is it possible for seafood to be the local specialty of a mountain village?
The locals will enjoy watching your amazement for a while, and will begin telling you the story of the centuries-old “Mackerel Road” (“Saba kaido” in Japanese).
The Tales of the Mackerel Road
The historical road used by the fish dealers going from Obama (Fukui prefecture), a port city on the Sea of Japan, to Kyoto to sell their mackerel goes right through Miyama. This road has been used since the Edo Period (1603 – 1868) until around 1955 when the first paved roads were built in the area.
If you visit Miyama’s ryokan and farm-inn Kigusuriya, you can actually see the traces of this well-trodden path in the garden behind the house. The fish dealers from Obama used to stay overnight at this very inn. Especially after they had sold their mackerel in Kyoto and were returning with their earnings, it was dangerous to walk along the road after dusk, so they would stop at Kigusuriya seeking lodging.
The innkeeper, Mr. Kouda, is proud to show his guests old registers of the inn from the Taisho Era (1912 – 1926), in which one can see the names of fish dealers from Obama who used to stay overnight here at Kigusuriya.
Both Mr. Kouda and his spouse are extremely knowledgeable about the Mackerel Road and the wonderful sights along it, and have fascinating stories to share with their customers.
It wasn’t just mackerel that was transported via this road that connected Kyoto with the Sea of Japan, but also local customs, festivals and even dialects were transmitted along the same road! Some of the ritual dances performed at the local Suwa Shrine originate in the shrine culture of the northern area, and many of the legends that have inspired local customs are said to have been shared by the people going back and forth the Mackerel Road.
The ancient festival Omizutori performed in early spring at Nara’s Todaiji Temple has always attracted travelers from all the corners of the country. On their way from Nara, the travelers from the northern areas would pass through Tamba (the old name of the region where present day Miyama is located), bringing with them stories from the ancient capital city, as well as legends of heroes and sorcerers, which would have never reached this isolated mountain area if it weren’t for the Mackerel Road.
You can hear stories such as these and many others from at Kigusuriya. If you’re in town for just a few days in Miyama, enjoy the hospitality and the delicious kaiseki food offered by this well-established ryokan.
Mackerel Sushi – Enjoyed at Celebrations in Miyama
In order to keep the mackerel fresh for a longer time and enjoy its nutritional qualities even during the long winter months, the residents of Miyama have developed original preservation methods. After being salted and stored, the mackerel can be either cooked by frying or boiling, or made into sushi. In fact, saba-zushi (“mackerel sushi”) is the dish that is enjoyed on celebration days, at festivals, weddings and even at burials. Whenever one needs to treat one’s guests to a delicious, sophisticated dish, the Miyama locals would prepare mackerel sushi.
When visiting Miyama, ask your hosts about mackerel sushi and they will be happy to prepare it for you. If you’re lucky, you can even assist in making it!
After carefully removing the bones, he slightly marinated mackerel slices are inserted into a rectangular container used especially for this type of sushi.
The sushi rice (already boiled and mixed with sushi vinegar) is placed over the mackerel.
Mackerel sushi has a fresh taste and a rich, pleasant texture. It is a very filling dish with just the right consistency.
Upon visiting Miyama, there is no experience more rewarding than enjoying the local specialty, mackerel sushi, while listening to the amazing stories of the historical Mackerel Road.