Sunday, 4 November 2007

Day 13: Narai - Shimo-suwa

Distance covered: 36.2km
Weather: Misty, then fine

We left Narai at around 7.45am on what was originally intended to be the longest day of our journey (before the stuff up on Day 9, that was). It was cold when we left and the hills were shrouded in mist, but it soon fined up and turned into a perfect day for walking.

After about an hour and a half we reached the next post-town of Niegawa, where we rested outside a museum built on the site of an old sekisho, or checkpoint established for the purposes of controling the passage of people along the Nakasendo during the Edo period.

We then pressed on to the next post-town of Motoyama. While resting there we met three female hikers walking in the opposite direction. They'd come from Shiojiri on a day hike. They offered us a couple of mandarin oranges, and in return we gave them some of the chocolate I'd bought the previous day. It was the first of several mostly pleasant encounters we were to have with other walkers that day.

We headed off again at around 10.45am, aiming to have lunch somewhere between Motoyama and Shiojiri, which was some 12km away. Instead, however, we decided to press on to Shiojiri itself, which our guide described as "a provincial city," and which we were sure would have lots of nice restaurants. We eventually left the Kiso Valley and entered a vast basin full of the apple orchards for which Nagano prefecture is famous as well as lots of vineyards.

By this time it was quite warm, and we were enjoying both the weather and the flat, open terrain. We reached Shiojiri just after midday, but despite our best efforts we couldn't find a single place to eat. Unfortunately I'd failed to read the bit in the guide explaining that the railway station, and the new city's center, were a little apart from the old post-town.

We were at a bit of a loss. We didn't want to stray too far off the Nakasendo because it was such a long day and time was of the essence. On the other hand, we were reluctant to continue along the Nakasendo any further because ahead of us was one of the highest passes of our journey: Shiojiri Toge. As luck would have it, about a kilometer out from Shiojiri, just as the road was starting to become steeper, we stumbled across a coffee shop that served big toasted sandwiches and baguettes. We ordered mixed sandwiches, and the man behind the counter kindly offered to make me a special non-meat version by substituting cheese (or maybe it was egg) for the normal bacon.

We felt a lot more confident about tackling the pass now that our stomachs were full. The ascent was gradual at first and along a narrow road. On the way up we passed a party of 24 hikers of all ages, members of a group that walk the old highways of Japan. Last year they'd done the Tokaido. We had a nice chat with them. Further up we came across an older guy walking in the same direction as us. He was one of the many people who walk the Nakasendo in "installments," and had originally set out from his home in Kyoto in 2001 (he'd been forced to take a break of a couple of years due to illness). He seemed a bit lost (he had a very rudimentary map), so we accompanied him for a while before pushing ahead near the top of the pass. (Coincidently, we met him again that evening at Shimo-suwa station just after we arrived. Sure enough, he'd gotten completely lost on the descent, and had to hitch a ride in someone's car!)

We made it to the top of the pass at around 3pm. There was an observation platform with great views of Lake Suwa on the other side. Suwa was a lot more built up than either of us had imagined. I had expected to see a hot-spring resort on the edge of the lake, but what confronted us was more like a city stretching around the entire circumference of Lake Suwa.

The descent was a lot steeper than the ascent, and before long we were on the outskirts of Kami-suwa. However, it took us a further hour and a half to reach Kami-suwa station, although it was slightly downhill all the way and so the going was easy. The accommodation I'd booked was further around the lake in Shimo-suwa. This meant leaving the Nakasendo, and we'd earlier debated whether we should walk or take a train (it was probably 3-4 kilometres away). In the end, it wasn't a difficult decision to make. We were both tired, and when we reached the station we found there was a train leaving in just a few minutes, so we hurriedly bought tickets and jumped on.

We arrived at our hotel at around 5.15pm. We checked in and then went out for dinner at a pizza restaurant by the lake. There was a lovely little communal hot-spring bath (including an open-air bath) in the hotel, but I was too tired to use it that evening. We did make use of it the following day (a rest day).

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