Sunday, 19 October 2014

Day 5: Oyama - Utsunomiya

Distance covered: 29.8km
Weather: Fine

Aware that today was going to be my longest day, I set off early (7.30 am) and at a fast pace, determined to knock off as much distance as possible while it was still relatively cool. I covered 5km in each of the first two hours, slightly less in the third. The scenery was noticeably more rural than yesterday, but once again I spent most of the time on the familiar - and busy - Route 4.

At Koganei I came across a nice pair of ichiruzuka, or route markers, and stopped to take some photos. One of them even turned out alright!

I arrived in Ishibashi around lunch time and left the Nikko Kaido to check out the area around the station, thinking there would be a good place to have lunch. There wasn't. Noticing there was a local fair going on up the road, and wondered around for a bit before rejoining the Nikko Kaido. Not long afterwards I came to a McDonalds. Yes, I know. Inside, I wolfed down a shrimp burger and a Fillet-o-fish, then had a coffee (the food may be crap, but the coffee at McDonald's - at least in Japan, which is the only place I've been to McDonalds in recent years - is surprisingly good).

Soon after setting off again I passed the first of two huge Japan Self Defence Force bases. I was tempted to take some photos of the lines of military vehicles, but decided the risk of being mistaken for a foreign spy wasn't worth it.

I reached the outskirts of Utsunomiya, the capital and largest city of Tochigi prefecture, around 2.30 pm. Check-in at my hotel wasn't until four, so I killed time at a Saizeriya, where I indulged in more coffee and a dessert of ice cream, walnuts and chestnuts - yum!

After several days hiking through the countryside, it was a bit of a novelty to be in a relatively large city, and so once I'd checked in I went for a wee wander around the central city area. There had been a big international cycle race on earlier in the day, and there were lots of cyclists around. On my way back to my hotel I stopped at a Fujiya restaurant for dinner. The oyster and prawn spaghetti dish arrived with lots of little pieces of ham on top. Apart from that it was delicious.      

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Day 4: Koga - Oyama

Distance covered: 16.5km
Weather: Fine and warm

This morning I slept until 6am, a sure sign that my body clock had finally adjusted to Japanese time (until today I'd been waking at between 3 and 4am). I got down to the restaurant at 7am to find it already full. The food was OK, but the coffee was the worst I'd had for some time.

Today I was to have company! Mr Iwakawa, who stayed with us in Christchurch earlier in the year while traveling around New Zealand, was meeting me at Koga Station. I got there early and wandered around for a bit. In front of the station I spotted something unusual, even for Japan, where vending machines are ubiquitous: an umbrella vending machine.

Mr Iwakawa arrived on time at 8.34am. Since we only had 6.5km to walk, we decided to go and check out the cluster of kura I'd passed the day before. Some of them have been restored to their original condition, while others have been converted for other uses: a restaurant, a hall, and even a rest room! While we were looking around, an attendant invited us to have a look inside one of the restored kura, which was originally used to store rice for use at nearby Koga Castle. It was the first time I'd seen inside such an old kura.

We eventually rejoined the Nakasendo near Koga Station and wandered through the old post town of Koga. At the point where the Nakasendo joins busy Route 4, we came across this structure, modelled on an old lantern.

We followed Route 4 for most of the rest of the day. The scenery wasn't great, but there was the odd reminder of the days of old. Before lunch we passed Mamada-juku, which marks the halfway point on the Nikko Kaido. Cue for a commemorative photo!

We stopped for lunch (rice balls and other yummy Japanese food prepared by Mrs Iwakawa) outside a convenience store just before midday. Later, as we were approaching Oyama, we passed the Wakazakari sake brewery, which is a nationally registered tangible cultural property! This was a cultural experience we weren't going to miss. We went into the showroom and wandered around until one of the staff invited us to taste some of the sake. I thought they'd never ask! After four small cups, I was feeling a bit tipsy. I went off to use the restroom, which was out the back in the brewery complex proper, and on my way back I got a bit lost.

We stumbled on, arriving at Oyama Station at around 2.45pm. After seeing Mr Iwakawa off, I checked in to my hotel. For dinner I went to a nearby Coco's restaurant, where I gorged on a mozzarella and tomato salad, the seafood soup spaghetti (which I first tasted while walking the Nakasendo and which remains one of my favourite Japanese family restaurant dishes), a glass of white wine, and a hot apple pie, which was more like a crumble and came on a hot plate that sizzled when you poured the accompanying caramel sauce over the top (luckily the hot plate had a handy paper "skirt" around the outside that prevented the sauce splattering my clothes - the Japanese think of everything!).

Before going to bed, I turned on the TV and discovered there was a program about the Koshu Kaido, the fifth of the gokaido, or five highways, which I hope to walk in the not too distant future. The producers had roped in three "celebrities" to walk the route relay-fashion, each of them covering around 40km over two days - with varying success.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Day 3: Satte - Koga

Distance covered: 16.5km
Weather: Fine and cool then warm

Breakfast this morning was in the hotel lobby. It was Japanese style, but nothing like yesterday's feast. Instead, a simple buffet with rice, miso soup, salad and not much else. The attendant, perhaps seeing the look of disappointment on my face, approached me and asked if I wanted some toast. "Yes please!" I replied. Moments later he reappeared with two thick slices of white toast bread on a plate. I found some honey and managed to put together a decent breakfast after all, though I don't think I'll ever really get used to salad first thing in the morning.

Post marking the spot where the Nikko Kaido and Tsukuba-do converge

I left the hotel at 8.30am and rejoined the Nakasendo in the old post-town of Satte. Today I only had to walk 6.5km, so I took my time, stopping frequently to take photos with my new camera. The scenery was rather nice for most of the morning. There seemed to be lots of persimmon trees, and I must have spent about ten minutes photographing one little spot, trying to get the perfect persimmon photo. Whenever I see persimmons in Japan I think back to the time while walking the Nakasendo (mentioned here) when I near-toothless farmer presented us with a bunch of persimmons. I don't like them that much, so my walking partner ended up eating them all.

After walking for a couple of hours or so I stopped for a breather at Gongendo Park, which is beside the massive Gongendo levee. The levee was built during the Edo period to prevent flooding, and must have been quite a feat of engineering at the time. Today it's famous as a cherry blossom viewing site. More than a thousand cherry trees have been planted along the levee, stretching for more than a kilometre. Unfortunately they weren't in bloom, but it was still a pleasant place to rest.

Kewpie Mayonnaise factory

Soon after setting off again I spotted a big Kewpie Mayonnaise factory. The sites just kept on coming today! I left the road and scrambled round in the bush trying to get a decent photo of it. Not easy without a telephoto lens.

Further on, just before crossing the Tone River, I came across an archeological dig on the site of the Kurihara sekisho, or Kurihara checkpoint. Like the famous checkpoint at Hakone on the Tokaido and the one at Niegawa on the Nakasendo, this was established to prevent the unauthorised movement of people along the Nikko Kaido during the Edo period. Unlike those two, nothing of the original Kurihara sekisho remains.

Taguchi Shoe Shop

After a late lunch at a Coco's family restaurant (not to be confused with the CoCos Ichibanya curry restaurant chain), I arrived in Koga just after 2pm. It was too early to check in to my hotel, so I killed time by walking around some of the local sites, including the ruins of Koga castle and some nearby kura. I was pretty tired after this, so after checking in I bought some food (deep-fried octopus, sushi) and a large can of beer at a nearby supermarket and had them in my hotel room before going to bed.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Day 2: Minami-Koshigaya - Satte

Distance covered: 23.7km
Weather: Cloudy then fine then cloudy again

Breakfast at the otherwise unprepossessing Hotel Sun Oak was a delight: a beautifully presented tray of tasty Japanese fare (including a couple of meat dishes, which, being a pescatarian, I didn't touch), augmented in my case by a couple of slices of non-traditional toast and jam and a cup of coffee. Thankfully, there wasn't a raw egg in sight. The other guests were a mixed bunch, including a group of elderly travellers and a couple of Buddhist priests.

I set off at 7.45am. It was cloudy and cool outside, perfect weather for walking. Though later the cloud would disappear and it would get quite warm. For much of the day I was walking along Route 4. It's a busy road but there was a generous footpath and the traffic never really bothered me. The scenery was similar to the day before - lots of rundown, retro-style buildings like those in the photo above. Just before reaching Kasukabe I spotted a Saizeriya and stopped for lunch (if you hadn't realised it before, I'm a sucker for Japanese family restaurants). Kasukabe itself was quite pleasant, with photos in the windows of some of the older shops showing what they looked like in what I guess was the Meiji period.

From Kasukabe onwards the scenery became increasingly rural. There were vegetable plots (including cabbages) and rice fields. I was making good progress, and it looked like I'd arrive at my hotel in Satte before check-in time. Seeing a McDonalds up ahead, I decided to stop for a coffee. I hadn't checked my email or Facebook since leaving Tokyo, and for some reason I assumed they would have free Wi-Fi. Unfortunately they didn't, but I did have a nice chat with an old man sitting at the next table, who saw my backpack and asked me if I was heading into the mountains! He was born in Kagoshima but had moved around Japan throughout his working life. Now retired, he lived in the nearby Satte Danchi. I never got around to asking him how he ended up in Saitama.

Passing Sugito, I came across this monument marking the 36th parallel. The sign nearby informed me that this was the same latitude as Teheran, Nashville and Las Vegas. So there you go. You learn something new every day.

I arrived at my accommodation, the intriguingly named Hotel Green Core +1, just after 4pm. Though there was no Wi-Fi, the receptionist kindly lent me a personal LAN device, and soon after settling in to my room I had it up and running. For dinner I headed back down the road a few hundred metres to a Gusto I'd passed earlier. When I ordered my meal (deep-fried oysters with rice - yum! - and a glass of beer), the waitress asked if I would be alright driving home. I thought this was pretty funny in the circumstances, and an odd thing to ask, but it turns out servers at family restaurants in Japan now ask this of every customer who orders alcohol. 

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Day 1: Nihonbashi - Minami-Koshigaya

Distance covered: 25.5km
Weather: Cool and cloudy with long periods of drizzle

Two things weighed on my mind as I walked the short distance from my hotel next to Tokyo Station to the starting point of the Nikko Kaido in Nihonbashi: the weather, and my backpack. A few days ago the forecast for the start of my walk was ideal. Yesterday was meant to have been wet and blustery in the wake of Typhoon Vongfong, and the days following that fine. But in fact yesterday turned out to be beautifully fine and only slightly windy, and now it looked as if it was going to rain on this, the first day of my 146km walk from Tokyo to Nikko.

As for my backpack, I'd done absolutely no training with it on, and only minutes ago I'd shouldered it in earnest for the first time since walking the Koshu Kaido four years earlier. Already it was feeling uncomfortable, and I was beginning to worry about what shape I'd be in at the end of the day, let alone after a week of walking.

I arrived at the bridge that gives the Nihonbashi district its name a few minutes before 8am. A couple of friends were going to accompany me on this first leg to Minami-Koshigaya, and as I waited for them to arrive I looked for and found the monument marking Japan's Kilometer Zero. It felt strange beginning my walk from here. On all my previous walks along Japan's Edo-period highways, I'd traveled in the opposite direction (i.e. towards Tokyo), so I was used to ending my walks here.

My companions eventually arrived and after a few commemorative photos we set off. We walked north for a few hundred meters, past the two new Coredo buildings, before turning onto a side street that took us through Nihonbashi's apparel warehouse district. By this time it had already begun to drizzle. I delaying putting on my rain gear in the hope that it would stop, or at least not get any heavier, but after passing Asakusa I relented. It did ease off a couple of times, enabling me to take the odd photo with my new camera, but I ended up keeping my rain gear on for the rest of the day.


I usually only have two cups of coffee a day: one during breakfast and one after lunch. It's a routine I tend to stick to whether I'm at home or traveling. While passing through the flophouse district of Sanya, however, we came across Cafe Bach, which my companions informed me was something of a local institution, so in we went. The coffee took a while to arrive, but it tasted fantastic. The cakes and desserts looked great too, but we resisted the temptation to try them and set off again in the rain.

At around the 10km mark, shortly before crossing the Arakawa River, I noticed an incredible "conestellation" (a term I've coined to describe groups of cones with artistic merit) by the side of the road. Some of them were made by hand from bits of timber and tape! Luckily it was during one of the lulls in the rain, so I was able to take a few photos.

Conestellation near the Arakawa River

On the other side of the Arakawa River we passed a monument to the poet Matsuo Basho, whose route on his famous journey along the "narrow road to the deep north" followed the Nikko Kaido as far as Nikko. Moments later we left busy Route 4 and entered a narrow shopping street that led us past Kita-Senju Station. There were quite a few nice looking eateries along this street, so we decided to stop for lunch, choosing a restaurant specialising in fish. The main dish was great, and the pickles and miso soup some of the best I've tasted for a long time.

We continued north after lunch, stopping now and then to take the odd photo and admire some of the old buildings we passed along the way (one of my companions was an architect, and shared my interest in quirky architecture). There wasn't much else of interest, really. We were still very much in the greater Tokyo conurbation, which with a population of just under 38 million people is the world's most populous. Perhaps the most pleasant stretch was between Soka and Matsubara Danchi, where we passed through an avenue of pine trees that had been planted to recreate the atmosphere of the old Nikko Kaido. It was certainly nicer than walking on a normal footpath, but the persistent drizzle was beginning to dampen our enthusiasm. We were so eager to reach our final destination that we almost missed the only surviving original ichirizuka, or route marker, on the entire Nikko Kaido. The site was rather poorly maintained, I thought, and even with the benefit of a sign with a photo, it took us a while to work out which of the several sickly looking trees in the area marked the location of the ichirizuka.

We arrived in Minami-Koshigaya just after 5pm. After seeing off my two companions at the station I checked into my hotel. I rested for a bit and hung up my wet clothes to dry then walked to a nearby Saizeriya and had some seafood spaghetti, bread and salad, all washed down with a glass of beer (in honour of Alan Booth). Later, while soaking in the bath, I noticed my hips were a bit bruised from the strap of my pack. Apart from that I felt OK, surprisingly so considering my lack of preparation. And the weather forecast for the next day was good. 

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Hike around Halswell

I went for a serious 10km hike around Halswell this afternoon. I'm happy to report I suffered no blisters or other physical damage!

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Nikko Kaido schedule

So, here's the itinerary I've come up with for walking the Nikko Kaido next month, complete with distances. The two longish days at the start are not ideal, but on the positive side it will be pretty flat. After that I'm expecting a gradual ascent to Nikko, though the second to last day will probably be the steepest. The end of the trail is at an altitude of around 550 metres, and there are no passes along the way as far as I know. In comparison, the highest point on the Nakasendo, Wada Pass, is 1531 metres.

Day 1: Nihonbashi - Koshigaya (25.5km)
Day 2: Koshigaya - Satte (23.7km)
Day 3: Satte - Koga (16.5km)
Day 4: Koga - Oyama (16.5km)
Day 5: Oyama – Utsunomiya (29.8km)
Day 6: Utsunomiya - Imaichi (27.2km)
Day 7: Imaichi - Nikko (8.5km)