“The Proud Traditional Food Culture of Japan’s “Best” Prefecture”

  • text : Kosuke Miyata
  • photo : Koki Nishimura
  • edit : Seiji Takeuchi (

chapter 5
New from the Old: Chub Mackerel Culture


LEFT)The Izumi-cho shopping mall in Obama City is the starting point of Saba-kaido Road, “Mackerel Street”. MIDDLE)Saba-kaido museum in the Izumi-cho shopping mall displays the history of commodity distribution. RIGHT)You will find streets filled with clouds of smoke from the cooking of hamayaki saba (beach-grilled chub mackerel).

“Sora-ben (sky-lunchbox)” is a term created to refer to box lunches sold at airports. Yaki-saba zushi (Grilled chub mackerel sushi) from this area triggered the sora-ben national craze. The revolutionary idea of using grilled chub mackerel to make oshizushi (pressed sushi) originated in Fukui.

Fukui is conventionally famous for echizen-gani (snow crab), oroshi-soba (soba with grated radish), sousu katsu-don (sauced pork cutlet on rice), but it’s also an area known for an extremely sophisticated food culture revolving around chub mackerel. The volume of Obama City chub mackerel is vast, with many fishing vessels in its ports once dedicated for fishing chub mackerel. The route used to transport those chub mackerel from Obama City to Kyoto was called “Saba-Kaido (Chub Mackerel Road)”. The famous kyoudo ryouri of this area, hamayaki-saba (beach-grilled chub mackerel) is a wildly char-grilled skewed chub mackerel. It’s still a well-practiced custom of the Obama area to prepare grilled chub mackerel along with sekihan (festive red rice) for special celebratory events.

It’s not just Obama City. The people of Oono City also routinely eat the whole chub mackerel grill. Back in the Edo era (1603-1867), the Lord of Oono domain, with its base located in the mountains, treated all the people of the castle town grilled chub mackerel, which was known to be good for preventing exhaustion from summer heat. With this history, people of the area fondly still eat grilled chub mackerel on the day of Hangesho (the eleventh day after the Summer solstice), calling it “Hangessho saba”.

Heshiko is another traditional kyoudo ryouri produced all along the coastline of Fukui. The vast amount of chub mackerels landed are pickled one by one in a bed of rice bran made by lactic acid fermentation, a process called “nukazuke”, and the produced heshiko is able to be stored for good length of time. Shime-saba, chub mackerel marinated in vinegar for being transported to Kyoto, is sold in the form of shime-saba sushi in cities and towns along the Saba-kaido (Chub Mackerel Road). In more recent years, you can find a vast variety of tinned chub mackerel across all of Fukui.


Heshiko, chub mackerel pickled in rice bran, can be eaten grilled, or raw after thinly sliced.

After pondering how to bring the local specialty to everyone’s attention…

A long time ago, in Nishi-Takahama-cho town of Obama City, there was a tradition of turning grilled mackerel into flakes to make chirashi-zushi (scattered sushi). Modern pressed sushi appeared only in recent years, and the newly invented traditional cuisine of yaki-saba zushi (grilled mackerel sushi) was down to Mr. Yasuo Yamanouchi, the CEO of Wakahiro, a sushi store based in Obama City. When he came up with the idea, he lived in Mikuni, another coastal town of Fukui, further up north. He wanted to come up with something he could sell at the local festival, something that would draw people’s attention. Then came up with the idea of the grilled chub mackerel pressed sushi. “Walking along the streets of Mikuni, you keep bumping into the scenery of chub mackerel being grilled along the street. If the local people are so used to having chub mackerel in their daily life, what about turning it into sushi? This was the inspiration I got one day.”


Their yaki-saba zushi is made by hand, one by one. Saba sushi using vinegar-marinated chub mackerel is another secretly popular item.

The reaction to this food, which people had never seen, was immediate, particularly from the local people. They intended to sell the product as a pilot test, but all prepared were sold out in an instant. The rest is history. It has become a very well-known successful commercial product. Because the center of the local chub mackerel culture is the Obama area, the company built its production center in Obama and started publicising yaki-saba zushi to the rest of the nation from there. It was sold at airports even before the sora-ben fad, but its sales sky-rocketed when the craze spread across Japan.

It’s new, but the taste calls memories of old times. The popularity of yaki-saba zushi among the people of Fukui is rooted in chub mackerel being a part of Fukui’s culture for a long time – and so it remains.


CEO Mr. Yamanouchi named the company “Wakahiro” with the ambition of “spreading the cultures of Wakasa region to which Obama belongs to the entire globe”. “Waka” is the first letter of the region’s name, and “hiro” the first syllable of the verb “spreading”.
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