Friday, 20 October 2017

It was ten years ago today...

Nihonbashi, 13 November 2007
Ten years ago today, on 20 October 2007, I flew out of Christchurch bound for Osaka to begin my first epic walk - the Nakasendo. Two days later I met up with my friend Erik in Kyoto and on 23 October the two of us set off on the first leg of our 22-day, 534-km hike to Tokyo.

We arrived in Nihonbashi in fading light on the evening of 13 November. I remember feeling a mixture of exhaustion, relief, fulfilment and joy. But I also felt sad. Sad that the walk, which I had been planning, writing about and thinking about for more than eight months, was over. There was only one thing to do. Plan the next one.

I have since completed four more epic walks in Japan, the latest back in May this year. Soon after returning to New Zealand I began thinking about my next adventure. And today I can announce I am in the middle of planning not one, but two more treks in Japan.

In May next year I intend to hike Route 16, the 241-km national highway that all but encircles Tokyo, from Yokosuka on the Miura Peninsula to Kisarazu on the opposite side of Tokyo Bay on the Boso Peninsula. Along the way I will pass through such scenic spots as Hachioji, Kawagoe, Saitama, Kashiwa and Chiba. I have set aside ten days for this journey.

Then, in October 2019, I will be teaming up with Erik again to do the Shikoku pilgrimage. At 1150 km, this will be by far the longest walk I have ever attempted. It will take us around a month and half to complete. I can hardly wait!



Sunday, 14 May 2017

Day 5: Shirakawa

Distance covered: 4 km
Weather: Cloudy

Day 5 dawned cloudy but minus rain. Thankfully, my shoes and most of my clothes had dried overnight. Those items that were still damp I put in a laundry bag and attacked with a hairdryer. After breakfast, I packed and checked out of my hotel, leaving my backpack at reception to pick up before returning to Tokyo by train later in the afternoon.


With just the clothes I was wearing and my bumbag, I set off just before 9 am to rejoin the Oshu Kaido. Being a Sunday morning, apart from a few people out walking their dogs, the streets were practically deserted. It felt strange not having the weight of my pack on my shoulders. I even felt slightly guilty, as if I was somehow cheating. As I neared Komine castle, the streets became narrower and I noticed the odd ancient-looking kura. There was also the occasional dogleg, a feature still common in former castle towns and originally designed to slow and confuse attacking armies.


With less than a hundred meters to go and the castle in sight, the reality of what I was about to achieve, not just in completing this walk but in completing the task I had set myself nearly ten years earlier of walking all the go-kaido (the five Edo period highways) hit home. A feeling of pride and  contentment washed over me, but I also felt a pang of sadness, as if without that goal my life had lost some meaning. These mixed feelings stuck wth me as I passed through the gate and into the park that now surrounds the castle.


Like the majority of castles in Japan, Komine castle is a modern reconstruction. The original castle was built in the mid 14th century. It was reconstructed and expanded in the mid 17th century, only to be destroyed some two centuries later in the civil war between the forces that supported the Tokugawa shogunate and those that favoured the return of political power to the Imperial court. The three-story keep was reconstructed in 1991, and three years later one of the gates was restored. However, these structures and some of the surrounding stonework were damaged in the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, and while I was able to look around inside the keep, some areas of the grounds were still being repaired and were fenced off.  


After a leisurely lunch, I walked to the nearby Shirakawa station and took a train one stop to Shin-Shirakawa station. I walked to my hotel, picked up my pack, and returned to the station to catch the 1.56 pm bullet train back to Tokyo. The journey back to Tokyo took just under an hour and a half. Along the way we made a brief stop at Utsunomiya, where four days earlier I began this walk. The bullet train covered the 90 km in 25 minutes!

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Day 4: Nasushiobara - Shirakawa

Distance covered: 28 km
Weather: Rain

Clad in my wet weather gear for the first time (though my Gore-Tex hat, identical to the one my walking partner wore during our Nakasendo walk ten years earlier, had already served me well as a sun hat), I got down to reception at 7.50 am and found the taxi I had ordered for 8 am already waiting. Minutes later I was on my way back to the intersection of Routes 72 and 34. The driver was super friendly and asked lots of questions about my walk. It was the first of several cheering encounters on this otherwise gloomy day.


Soon after rejoining the Oshu Kaido I crossed the Naka River, which looked so pretty I felt compelled to stop and take a photo of it. Like most of the photos I shot this day, it was taken with my iPhone aside a plastic ziplock bag, which explains the somewhat foggy appearance.


Half an hour later, I once again felt obliged to stop and take a photo, this time of the ichirizuka (Edo period route marker consisting of a mound topped with a tree) at the former post town of Terago. I later found out this one is actually a re-creation built in the 1990s, but it was impressive all the same and was surrounded by a pleasant little park with a shelter under which I took my first break of the day.


The terrain was becoming more undulating, and in addition to the ubiquitous rice fields I found myself passing cattle farms and forests. Early on I had taken care to avoid stepping in puddles, but after an hour or so I realised my feet couldn't get any wetter and I abandoned this tactic altogether.

I trudged on, enjoying the scenery but also looking forward to lunch, which I had decided to take at a restaurant in Ashino just past the 10 km mark. When I got there, however, I found it was closed! Disheartened, I wandered over to the building next door which appeared to be some kind of community meeting place. I opened the door rather tentatively to be warmly greeted by two women who invited me to come in and sit down. They poured tea for me and gave me a plate laden with food including sansai (foraged wild vegetables). It was delicious! My hosts were so friendly and it was so warm inside I was reluctant to leave, but I knew I had to press on. Before I set off, one of the women warned me that there was nowhere to buy food between Ashino and Shirakawa. I already knew this from looking on Google maps, and was resigned to the fact that I would have nothing but Scrummy Mix to sustain me for the rest of the afternoon.  




The rain was relentless, and knowing that if I stopped I would get cold, I walked the next 10 km without a break, stopping only briefly to take photos of the many interesting sights along the way, including some lovely old kura (storehouses) and other interesting buildings with kura-like features.

A house attached to a kura (?)
A house (?) with kura-like windows
There was a bit of a climb at the end of this segment as I approached the highest point on the Oshu Kaido (428 m), which also marks the boundary between Tochigi and Fukushima prefectures, but it was nothing compared to what I had faced on earlier walks. Still, it was time for a break, and noticing a set of steps leading up to a shrine on my left I climbed up and found shelter under a large wooden gate. The shrine (Sakai no Myojin) looked intriguing, and had the weather been better I would probably have spent some time exploring it and taking some photos, but it was getting cold and I was eager to press on and so after a bit of a rest and a snack I set off again. 


I soon regretted not taking the opportunity to put on an extra layer of clothing underneath my wet weather gear, but I couldn't be bothered finding somewhere sheltered to stop again and rummage around in my pack and so I continued on until I reached a convenience store on the outskirts of Shirakawa, by which time I was warm again anyway. There I took a much needed bathroom break. I had less than 5 km to go, but I desperately wanted to sit down and eat something hot and I needed coffee, and looking on Google Maps I saw there was a McDonalds just a few kilometres further on. Getting there became my next goal.

I struggled on in the rain, taking little notice of my surroundings. I barely paid attention when a car pulled up beside me. Then I heard a voice with an Australian accent say, "Do you speak English?"
I stopped, turned to look at the driver and sole occupant of the car, a young woman with auburn hair in a floral dress. My first thought was that she was lost and wanted to ask me directions. But it turned out she had seen me walking in the rain and was concerned that I was lost. I reassured her I was fine and that I was walking the Oshu Kaido (I'm not sure she knew what that meant!), and we both laughed before the little traffic jam she had caused by stopping obliged her to drive off.


It was warm inside the McDonalds. I found a table and took of my pack and my wet weather gear and ordered an EBI Filet-O (like a Filet-O-Fish but with a patty made from shrimp), fries and a coffee. It was yummy! Checking on Google Maps, I saw that I was less than 500 m from my hotel. But the thought of putting on my (soggy) wet weather gear and leaving the warmth of the restaurant was not a pleasant one. I didn't want to leave!

When I did eventually get to my hotel room, the first thing I did was hang up my wet clothes to dry. I also took the insoles out of my shoes and gave them a good wipe down. I hoped they would dry by the morning. I was thankful that the next day was my last, and that I only had about 4 km to walk.   

Friday, 12 May 2017

Day 3: Kitsuregawa - Nasushiobara

Distance covered: 30 km
Weather: Fine then cloudy

I got up feeling none the worse for wear and after a Japanese-style buffet breakfast (minus the raw egg) at the hotel restaurant I packed and set off. It was just after 8 am. Minutes later I was at the bottom of the hill and back on the Oshu Kaido feeling confident about the day's 30 km hike.

The terrain was undulating for the first hour or so but mostly flat after that. If anything the scenery was more beautiful than the day before, with the constant verdant green of the rice fields and the woods in the distance forming the perfect backdrop to the splashes of colour provided by the blossoms and wild flowers and well-tended gardens. There were palatial farm houses, too, and while I appreciate the arduous nature of agricultural work (though most of the actual rice planting is mechanised these days) it was clear to me that the farmers in this part of the country make a good living.


The road varied from a broad, two-lane highway with footpaths on both sides to a narrow, unmarked lane barely wide enough for two vehicles to pass. Several times while walking along these narrow stretches I chose to step off the road to let vehicles coming from opposite directions get by, but this was more out of courtesy than a sense of danger, as the traffic was light and most drivers gave me a wide berth.


As I was passing through the former post town of Yagisawa after my second break of the day at around the 14 km mark I noticed an impressive-looking monument by the side of the road. Intriguingly, it marked the birthplace of Japan's first scholar of the French language, Hideyoshi Murakami (1811-1890), whose efforts in teaching himself French in the Edo period when Japan was largely cut off from the West and later teaching the language to others resulted in him being awarded the Legion of Honour in 1885.


No Walking Fool trek would be complete without a stop at a Japanese family restaurant, and so at around 12.45 pm I left the Oshu Kaido to have lunch at a branch of the Joyfull chain that I'd spotted on Google maps. I was pleased with my progress and had intended to spend a full hour relaxing in the restaurant with my shoes off, but on checking the weather forecast on my iPhone while enjoying an espresso at the end of the meal I saw to my horror there was a 60% chance of rain between 3 and 4 pm. I checked the time. It was 2 pm. I looked at my map. A further 13 km to walk. I quickly finished my coffee and headed out the door, eager to get as close to my goal for the day as possible before the heavens opened.


I completed the remaining 13 km without a break, arriving at the intersection of Routes 72 and 34 at around 4.30 pm. Of course, it didn't rain! My accommodation was some 3 km off the Oshu Kaido in the direction of Kuroiso station. Having already slogged 30 km, I wasn't keen to walk any further, so I went into the convenience store on the corner and asked them to order me a taxi. That night I dined in my room on sushi and a can of beer bought at a nearby supermarket. My legs felt weary after the day's marathon effort, but I was more concerned about the weather. The television news warned of the possibility of severe downpours in some parts of the country the following day. And the chance of rain along my intended route was 100%.


Thursday, 11 May 2017

Day 2: Utsunomiya - Kitsuregawa

Distance covered: 25 km
Weather: Mainly fine and warm

After a hearty breakfast at my hotel I was out the door exactly on time at 8am, still feeling somewhat nervous about the day ahead. Among the many things I was concerned about was my backpack. It was the first time I had used it since walking the Nikko Kaido some two and half years ago, and it felt heavy and awkward. In fact I had done very little preparation for this walk. Aside from my more-or-less daily strolls down to the local supermarket and back, a total distance of around 2 km, I had done only half a dozen or so training walks, the longest of these just 8 km, and none with my backpack on. On the positive side, I had been injury free since that Nikko Kaido walk, but this may have been because I had done little in the way of strenuous activity!

What wasn't worrying me was the weather. It was fine and pleasantly warm as I tramped past JR Utsunomiya station and rejoined the Oshu Kaido at the point where I had left it the previous afternoon. I pushed hard for the first 5 km, which was a straight run up Route 125, a four-lane highway that was busy with commuters heading into central Utsunomiya. I stopped just once to buy some water at a convenience store before taking a proper break at the 5 km mark to snack on my Scrummy Mix.


The scenery remained the same for the next 5 km, but when I eventually left Route 125 and entered the former post town of Shirasawa I was greeted by a most unusual sight: an Edo period public toilet! The cladding on the structure was obviously new and inside there was little but a hole in the ground, but I enjoyed the poster on the outside which showed a humorous sketch by the famous woodblock artist Hokusai of the toilet as it existed in the Edo period.



Shirasawa itself was a pleasant enough town with plenty of signage and a glossy brochure showing where the honjin and other buildings once stood. In the water channels that ran down both sides of the main street there were several small waterwheels.

Soon after leaving Shirasawa I came to the Kinu River, which I was familiar with from the final stages of my Nikko Kaido walk. For a couple of hundred metres or so the Oshu Kaido took me along a paved pedestrian pathway on its raised western bank. Away from the traffic, I could hear the sounds of insects and birds and I even saw what I thought was a pheasant. All too soon I rejoined Route 125 and crossed the river. I made another stop at the next convenience store, this time to use their bathroom, which as usual was spotlessly clean. It was shortly after getting underway again that I made my first mistake, missing a turnoff and having to retrace my steps for 50 m or so. Luckily I sensed fairly quickly that something was wrong and was able to confirm on my iPhone app that I had indeed overshot the turnoff, otherwise I might have gone on much further before realising my mistake.

Away from busy Route 125 again, I took the time to savour the increasingly rural scenery. It was rice-planting season, and there were freshly planted fields on both sides of the quiet, narrow lane I was now walking along. During my next break by the side of road, however, I was shocked to feel some rain drops. I hurriedly put my iPhone away lest it get wet, but thankfully it was just a passing rain shower and it remained dry for the rest of the day.


After skirting the built-up area around Sakura station I stopped for lunch at a soba restaurant at the 18 km mark. I was pleased with my progress and took my time eating lunch, taking off my shoes and massaging my aching calves. As I was about to leave I saw a man pull up in front of the restaurant in a tractor, a reminder that I was well and truly in the country!


I was now less than 8 km from my final destination for the day, Hotel New Sakura in Kitsuregawa. I was relieved that I had made it this far without injury, but still nervous because I knew there was a small climb up ahead. This didn't stop me enjoying the scenery, which seemed to be getting more picturesque the further I walked. Over the next few kilometres I stopped several times to watch farmers planting rice and to take photos and videos of the rice fields themselves. 



Near the beginning of the climb I came across some roadworks with workers directing traffic through a single lane section of road, and for a moment I thought I was going to be held up. But I was soon allowed to proceed and before I knew it I had reached the top of the climb. To my left I saw a golf course, and I recalled with a smile the moment on the Nakasendo walk when my walking partner was almost felled by a stray golf ball from a nearby course. There were no such dramas on this occasion, however, and not long after traversing the only off-road section of the walk through a forest I found myself crossing a bridge and entering the settlement of Kitsuregawa.


It was too early to check in to my hotel, so I stopped at the local tourist information centre, which is located in a Taisho period stone building that used to be a bank. The friendly staff showed me the old vault, whose combination lock had not numbers but hiragana symbols in the iroha sequence. Later, after I had rested, they offered to phone the hotel to get them to come and pick me up, but with time on my hands I decided to walk. I knew from checking on Google maps that the hotel was on a hill, but what I didn't realise was that the climb up to it would be the steepest of the entire walk. What made it worse was that the road was not even part of the Oshu Kaido! I was cursing to myself and breathing hard by the time I got to the top, and it was a relief when I finally got to the hotel and then to my newly renovated Japanese-style room. After a rest I had a well-earned soak in the hotel's hot spring bath (one of the best in the country for achieving beautiful skin, apparently!) before returning to my room to dine on cheese, bread, Scummy Mix and fruit cake.


I had made it through the first day proper, and apart from sore legs, bruised hips and shoulders from my pack, and a slightly inflamed right big toe, I was in perfect shape! Seriously though, I was relieved that I hadn't strained any muscles and confident that after a good night's sleep I would be ready to tackle whatever challenges the next day had in store for me.



Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Day 1: Utsunomiya

Distance covered: 2 km
Weather: Cloudy

I arrived in Utsunomiya on the bullet train from Tokyo just before 2pm. After wandering around the voluminous JR station building for a while (I had not ventured inside it during my only previous visit to the city, in 2014 when I walked the Nikko Kaido), I walked to my hotel and checked in. The weather forecast for the next day said it was going to rain, so with several hours of daylight left I decided to walk the first couple of kilometres of the Oshu Kaido that afternoon, thereby reducing slightly the distance I would have to cover the next day.


After borrowing an umbrella from reception (it was meant to drizzle later in the afternoon), I set off down the main road to the starting point of my walk, the point where the Nikko Kaido and Oshu Kaido deviate. I then ambled back towards my hotel via the Oshu Kaido, which took me off the main road and through a covered shopping arcade for part of the way. I used both my paper map and the Oshu Kaido app I'd bought for my iPhone to guide me, the latter proving useful for identifying my exact location and ensuring I didn't miss any turns.


The drizzle had held off, and so after reaching the intersection of Uekawahara-dori and Route 125 I left the Oshu Kaido and followed the Ta River as far as Ishu no Kura, an old stone storehouse that has been converted into a cafe and restaurant. I'd read about it on the internet just the day before and had considered having a coffee there, but in the end I just had a good look around (a friendly waitress even showed me some of the private rooms that had been set up for intimate dinners that evening) before retracing my steps back to my hotel. I had dinner at a soba restaurant inside the station building before hitting the sack at around 8.30pm, filled with nervous excitement about the following day when my walk was set to begin in earnest.

Ishi no Kura



Sunday, 16 April 2017

Ten years old today!

Dear blog

Happy birthday! I can't believe you're ten years old already. I know I've been neglecting you a bit of late. But let's be honest. You're a bit passé. A bit behind the times. A bit old-fogeyish. I've been hanging out with some new, hipper friends. Perhaps you've heard of them? Their names are Facebook and Twitter.

But don't worry. I promise I won't abandon you completely. After all, you're my firstborn, and as such you'll always have special place in my heart. You brought me out of my shell, gave me the confidence to share my views not only on walking, but on other topics such as music, art, books, cones, philosophy and munted body parts.

And through you I've gotten to meet lots of interesting people. Sure, some of them are a bit ill-mannered. They ask me for advice and when I give it to them they disappear and I never hear from them again. Not even a thank you. But most of them are good people. Some have even become friends. I like to think that walking brings out the best in us.

So once again, happy birthday, blog, and thanks for everything.

Walking Fool