Friday, 22 May 2009

Day 3: Minakuchi - Seki (27.4km)

I woke ridiculously early, read, snoozed, and got up at six. Breakfast was a buffet again, and while more than adequate, it wasn't on the scale of the magnificent offering at the Boston Plaza Hotel. My groin and hips were still quite sore, so before leaving I swallowed a Nurofen tablet, which quickly took effect.

I left the hotel at 7.45am to give me time to look at Minakuchi castle before rejoining the Tokaido. It had started raining during breakfast and drizzled on and off as I looked around the castle grounds, but apart from some more light drizzle in the late afternoon it was dry for the rest of the day.

I rejoined the Tokaido and followed it through the centre of the old post town of Minakuchi-juku. Here the Tokaido actually branches into three separate streets that run parallel to each other for about a kilometre. I took the middle street. This part of town was practically deserted. There were quite a few old buildings. I noticed a swallows' nest with chicks in it under the eaves of a building. These nests would become a familiar sight as I continued my journey eastwards.

In Japan, swallows have a close relationship with humans, mostly nesting in built-up areas. They usually return to the same spot each year to build their nests, and people welcome them as to have a swallows' nest on your property is considered a good omen. People sometimes even build crude platforms to make the nests more secure. They also lay cloth or newspaper on the ground underneath to catch the droppings. I'd often stop to see how many chicks were in each nest, or to watch the adults dart back and forth as they brought food for their young.

The area beyond Minakuchi was very picturesque with lots of tea plantations and newly planted rice fields. There was a powerful aroma of green tea, and it took me a while to figure out that the aroma was coming from the tea plants. I could also hear frogs croaking in the rice fields on either side of the road, although as I got within a few metres of each one it would stop croaking. I thought that if I'd been traveling by car I would have missed out on the experience of both the aroma of the tea plants and the croaking of the frogs.

This occasionally idyllic scenery continued all the way to the next post town of Tsuchiyama, some 11km from Minakuchi. There, while walking through the middle of the town, a middle-aged woman, herself a visitor, came up to me and asked for directions to somebody's house. I would have thought it was obvious I wasn’t a local, but then strange things happen from time to time when you're walking through rural Japan.

At Tsuchiyama the old Tokaido crosses National Route 1, the modern highway that follows more or less the same route as the Tokaido between Kyoto and Tokyo. I'd planned on stopping for lunch at a michi-no-eki (literally a "road station") that was marked on my map. Unfortunately they only had noodles, something I wasn't in the mood for, so I headed for a restaurant on the other side of the highway called More where I tucked into some deep-fried fish with rice, salad, miso soup, and pickles. The restaurant was run by several very friendly middle-aged women, who were curious to know what I was up to and were suitably impressed when they learned I was walking to Tokyo.

I left Tsuchiyama at 12.45pm, and after passing through the picturesque wooded grounds of an old Shinto shrine I began the steady climb up Suzuka pass. For most of the climb I followed National Route 1, which was very busy with trucks at times filling all four lanes, but occasionally I left the highway and passed through small hamlets on either side of the main road. For the last several hundred metres of the climb I followed a track through a pleasant wooded area (with the odd tea plantation) above where the road goes through a tunnel. I then climbed down some very steep steps before rejoining the highway for the remainder of the descent into the post town of Sakashita. After passing through Sakashita (which is very small and seemed deserted) I met two women walking the Tokaido in the opposite direction. We stopped to chat and take photos of each other.

It was almost 4pm. At this rate I'd have very little time to look around the next post town of Seki, which was about 5km away. I picked up my pace and got to Seki at about 4.45pm. The town is built along a long, sloping main street and is reminiscent of the post town of Magome on the Nakasendo. Like Magome, the locals have put an effort into preserving the atmosphere of an Edo-period town by burying electricity and other cables and keeping the facades of old buildings along the main street. However, every so often there was a building with an ugly modern facade which spoiled the overall effect. Also, except for the very centre, the town was devoid of any activity (maybe it was the time of day), giving it the appearance of a ghost town. In the end I passed through without stopping other than to pick up a map and take the odd photograph, and headed straight for my hotel on the other side of town.

I checked in at 5pm. Although seemingly in the middle of nowhere, the Candeo Hotel Kameyama is very modern and chic. I was even more impressed when one of the receptionists told me she had studied in New Zealand. After settling into my room I did a load of washing in the coin laundry inside the hotel. Unfortunately there were no restaurants nearby, so for dinner I bought some things at a convenience store across the road and ate them in my room.

My groin seemed to have handled the day's climb OK (I'd taken another Nurofen at lunchtime). However, my left big toe hadn't fared as well. I definitely had an ingrown toenail. The area around the nail had been slightly red and inflamed since I started the walk, but when I got out of the bath that evening I noticed some puss. I cleaned the toe carefully, applied some antiseptic cream I had in my first aid kit, and bandaged it. But based on past experience, I was convinced things could only get worse. In a day or two I'd be limping, and before long the toe would be so painful I'd be unable to put shoes on, let alone walk 20km with a 10kg pack on my back.

I was practically resigned to the fact that I'd be unable to complete my walk. I started thinking about what I needed to do to end the trip and head home early. First I'd have to arrange an early flight home (was that even possible on the ticket I had?), then I'd have to cancel all my forward accommodation bookings, incurring cancellation fees in some cases. The next three days were comparatively short (around 15km each), so I decided I could probably make it to Nagoya, where I'd scheduled a rest day. I could see a doctor there and get some antibiotics to combat the infection. If I did have to quit the walk, I thought, Nagoya would be a convenient place to come back and resume it some time in the future. These were the thoughts that were swirling around in my head as I hit the sack at the end of day 3.

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