Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Day 1: Kyoto - Kusatsu (25.7km)

As was the case the day before, I found myself wide awake at the ridiculous hour of 2.30am, and as I couldn’t get back to sleep this time I decided to read for a bit. I finally managed to doze off again, and was woken by my watch alarm, which would remain set at 6am for the duration of my walk.

I got up, showered and packed. At 6.45am I went down to reception to see if they had a computer with Internet access. They did, so I checked my other blog and found that the emails I was sending from my mobile phone weren't being posted. I quickly realized what was wrong and fixed the problem by changing a setting.

By the time I'd finished on the computer, breakfast was being served. It was quite an impressive buffet for a cheap business hotel. There were several Japanese dishes, but my stomach has trouble coping with anything other than Western food first thing in the morning, so I sampled some of the several different varieties of bread on offer along with a plate of salad (with egg) and a bowl of yoghurt with a dollop of jam on top, which I washed down with coffee and orange juice.

I finished breakfast at 7.15 and went up to my room to get my stuff. I was checked out by 7.45, and I set off on foot to Sanjo-Ohashi to begin my walk.

It was already quite hot. A high of 30 degrees was forecast, which was much warmer than average for the time of year. But despite this and my injury worries I was in a very positive frame of mind. It felt good to be under way after the long journey from New Zealand and the day in Osaka and Kyoto.

The walk from Kyoto to Kusatsu was a repeat of the first day of the Nakasendo walk I did with Erik in 2007. I was tempted to put away my map and see if I could trace the route from memory. I think I would have been OK as far as Otsu, but after that it got a bit tricky, and even with the map I was occasionally unsure if I was on the right road.

The first few kilometers were uphill. Although it wasn't steep I found myself huffing and puffing, a reminder of how unprepared I was. I then dropped down into Yamashina before tackling the day's main obstacle: Osaka pass. On the way up a cycle tourist whizzed past going the other way. He was going downhill, so there was no way he was going to stop, but ours eyes met and he gave me a wave.

Near the top of the pass there was a small rest area with a toilet and a panel explaining the history of the pass. I didn't remember this from last time, so I stopped to read the panel. It explained how the pass had been used since the Heian period, when Kyoto was the nation's capital, to transport provisions that had been shipped across Lake Biwa to Otsu over the hill to Kyoto. Ox carts were used for this purpose, and to guide the oxen and prevent the carts slipping back down the hill if the oxen decided they'd had enough, a mechanism called kuruma-ishi (literally "wheel stones") was invented. These consisted of rocks with grooves cut in them set in the earth with gaps in between them. Some of these kuruma-ishi can still be found over the Osaka pass. In fact there were some in the rest area where the panel was.

Soon after leaving the rest area I noticed a Japanese man with a backpack walking in the opposite direction on the other side of the road. We waved to each other, and he gestured to indicate that he wanted to cross the road and talk to me. The road was very busy, and the only place he could cross was near the rest area I'd just left, so I turned around and went back to wait for him.

His name was Mr Koguchi, and his business card gave his occupation as "adventurer". He was walking the Tokaido as part of a longer journey that would take him the length of Japan. And he was doing it the hard way, camping out and cooking for himself. He was very friendly, and we talked enthusiastically for several minutes before taking photos of each other and heading our separate ways.

Mr Koguchi, Adventurer

After descending the pass, I continued on through Otsu and along the shores of Lake Biwa to Zeze where I stopped for lunch just before noon. I'd intended to have lunch at the same restaurant Erik and I ate at in 2007. I couldn't remember the restaurant's name (mars-mars), but I could remember roughly where it was, and I was happy to find it was still operating. None of the staff seemed to remember me (perhaps they were all new). However, they gave me the same friendly reception we got in 2007. (On that occassion we sat outside on a terrace, and one of the waiters brought us knee rugs.) Seeing my pack, one of the waitresses asked me if I was out for a "stroll" (using the Japanese word "sanpo"). She was shocked when I told her I was walking the Tokaido all the way to Tokyo. The food was as good as last time too. I had one of the lunch sets which consisted of seafood spaghetti, a salad, and as much bread as I could fit on my plate, followed by an iced coffee.

Salad (with meat!) at mars-mars

An hour or so after leaving Zeze I crossed the Seta river. Soon after that I left the main road and for several kilometres followed a smaller, twisting road that was quite hilly in parts. At one point I encountered a group of elementary school students, who reacted as many Japanese elementary school kids outside the big cities do by pointing and shouting "Amerikajin!" ("American!"). One even ran up to me, looked at my face, and then ran back to his friends and shouted, "Honto da!" ("It’s true!") We soon got talking, though, and I explained to them all about the Tokaido (which they didn’t seem to know anything about).

I reached the outskirts of Kusatsu at about 3.30pm. I was buggered, and the tops of my forearms, where I hadn't bothered to apply sunscreen, were sunburnt. As well, my groin was quite sore and my hips were bruised from the weight of my pack. I was tempted to go straight to my hotel next to Kusatsu station, but decided instead to stop at a small museum and take a look at the honjin (Edo-period inn for feudal lords) in the old post town of Kusatsu-juku. After all, one of the reasons I'd decided to walk less distance each day compared to 2007 was to give me more time to see these kinds of attractions. I was glad I did stop. Although the museum wasn't great, the honjin was fantastic. I was the only visitor at the time, so the custodian talked to me at length, explaining how this honjin was the best preserved out of the 30 or so left in the country. However, I embarrassed myself by almost forgetting to take my shoes off before entering the building. Mind you, it was only my third day back in Japan. Unfortunately I wasn't allowed to take photos inside the honjin, otherwise I would have taken one of the beautiful lacquered toilet reserved for feudal lords.

Kusatsu honjin

After leaving the honjin I pushed on into central Kusatsu and checked into the Boston Plaza Hotel. I think I must have been a bit dehydrated, because the first thing I did when I got to my room was gulp down about three big glasses of water. The second thing I did was take a close look at my feet. When I took my shoes off at the honjin I felt like I had blisters. On closer inspection, however, this appeared not to be the case. My burnt forearms were a worry, though, so I went out and bought some sunscreen to supplement the tube I'd brought from home, which was really just for my face and hands.

For dinner I went to a noodle place and had a nishin soba set (soba with grilled herring, a bowl of rice, and various side dishes). On the way back to my hotel I stopped at a convenience store and bought some yoghurt with fresh fruit in it which I ate in my room for dessert. I then had a long soak in a hot bath before going to bed at around 9pm.

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