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

Thursday, 6 April 2017

Kaz's epic adventure

As a New Zealander who's spent a lot of time thinking about walking the length of Japan, it was great late last year to follow the progress of Kazushi Noiri, a Japanese nursing student at Otago Polytechnic who walked the length of New Zealand, over 2000km in 66 days, to raise money for Arthritis New Zealand. As I've mentioned previously, I'm not a huge fan of the concept of walking for charity (I believe walking *for* something is tantamount to asserting that walking has no value in and of itself), but I was mightily impressed by this achievement. Well done, Kaz!


Tuesday, 4 April 2017

There's an app for that...

I get quite a few enquiries from readers of this blog about maps. Usually they're from people who want to walk the Nakasendo or Tokaido but can't find maps of the route in English. I read Japanese, so while I can sympathise, it's not a problem I've had do deal with personally. When I walked the Nakasendo, Tokaido and Koshu Kaido I used Japanese language maps produced by Gokaido Walk, and when I walked the Nikko Kaido I used a map I found on the internet and printed off. As for my upcoming Oshu Kaido walk, I've plotted the route on MapMyHike (as mentioned in my last post) and plan to access this on my iPhone while I'm waking. As well, I've printed the route out on paper for use if rain prevents me from using my phone (which wouldn't be a problem if I'd bought the new water-resistant iPhone 7).


The other day, while doing an internet search in response to yet another enquiry about walking maps, I came across a series of iPhone apps called "Go-Kaido wo Aruku" (Walk the Go-Kaido). There are five apps in the series covering the Tokaido, Nakasendo, Koshu Kaido, Nikko Kaido and Oshu Kaido. They're on sale at the App Store for $5.99 each. They're published by a company called Ground-Base Inc, whose main business appears to be music and video production. The "Go-Kaido wo Aruku" apps are the only apps they've produced.


Partly out of curiosity, I decided to download the Oshu Kaido app. The app uses Google maps, and on my iPhone and iPad most of the names of places and railways stations appear with English text as well as Japanese. The walkable route is marked in red, while those parts of the original route that are no longer walkable due to road realignments and so on are marked in green. The screen is very uncluttered, which I like. Basically it's just the map with three buttons at the bottom: one for turning GPS on and off (turning it off saves your phone battery); one for turning map markers on and off; and one for settings. The map markers are in four colours: red for posttowns; blue for famous sites; green for ichirizuka (distance markers); and orange for mitsuke (gates). In addition, the Tokaido and Nakasendo apps have markers for the locations of Hiroshige's prints. Clicking on these markers brings up a screen with more detailed information (in Japanese only).


The app works on iPhone and iPad. As a hiking app it's fairly basic. For example, it doesn't give elevations (none that I can find, anyway), which is not so important on the Niko Kaido or Oshu Kaido where there are no major passes, but very important on the Nakasendo and Tokaido. And there's no way of checking how far you've walked or how far to your destination (again, as far as I can find). Obviously, if you can't read Japanese, then all the information about the posttowns and so on is going to be wasted, but if all you're after is an app showing the route, then these apps could be of use.

You can find the apps at the App Store by searching for "Ground-Base Inc."