Friday, 24 September 2010

Day 7: Tsuruse - Otsuki

Distance covered: 27km
Weather: Cloudy

As I was checking out of my hotel in Kofu, the receptionist glanced at my pack and asked, "Are you going mountain climbing?"
"No, just walking," I said.
In fact I knew little about what lay in store for me on the road ahead, only that it was the most difficult stage of the Koshu Kaido and included a 1100m high pass.

From the hotel I walked to Kofu station and caught the 7.38am train back to Kai-Yamoto. By 8.30am I had rejoined the Koshu Kaido at the point where I'd left it the day before. Rain was forecast, but it was cloudy and mild as I started the climb up to Sasago Pass, ideal conditions for walking. The narrow road passed underneath the Chuo Expressway and wound its way up to the old post town of Komakai, now a sleepy little farming village. I caught my breath and had a few slugs of water before continuing on. After negotiating a series of hairpin turns I left the road and joined a walking track. At this point there was a basket containing a selection of walking poles fashioned from branches, indicating that the worst of the climb was still to come.

The track followed a stream, which I had to traverse several times, either by crossing narrow, rickety bridges or jumping across with the aid of stepping stones. As I continued to climb, the track became narrower and less defined. After one fording I was unable to work out where it started again on the other side. I eventually found it again twenty or so metres upstream.

I briefly rejoined the narrow road I'd been following earlier in the morning before leaving it again as it disappeared into a tunnel. According to my map, the top of the pass was less than a hundred metres ahead. I carried on, and although judging distance traveled is difficult when the route is steep, I was sure I'd gone further than 100 metres. I spotted a T-junction ahead with a sign. Surely that must be the top, I thought. But the sign made no mention of a pass, only indicating that the route to the right went to Sasago station while the route to the left went somewhere else (I couldn't read one of the characters). The route to the right was completely overgrown, so figuring that the more well-traveled route was the correct one, I went left.

The path followed a ridge and took me up, then down, then up again. Something didn't feel right (surely I should be descending by now, I thought), so I turned around and went back to the T-junction. I looked at the sign again (one part of which had been ripped off and lay on the ground). I took out my compass and studied my map in a vain effort to work out exactly where I was. Visibility was poor due to the cloud that was now swirling all around me, and the trees swayed menacingly in the chilly wind. I felt incredibly lonely. I hadn't seen another human since leaving Komakai. To lift my spirits and give me a much needed energy boost I ate a few handfuls of Scrummy Mix. I set off again on the path to the left, but it still didn't feel right, so I turned around again and went back to the sign. Only after unfolding my map did I realize the Koshu Kaido actually passed Sasago station. I laughed. Obviously I should have turned right at the T-junction. But why was the path so narrow and overgrown? I followed it for a few metres until it disappeared down a steep, almost vertical slope. There was a rope tied to a tree at the top with knots every metre or so. "You've got to be joking," I said out loud.

Reluctantly, I gripped the rope and slowly eased myself down. After reaching the bottom of the slope I followed the overgrown track until it reached a clearing. There I found a well-established path and a sign: Sasago Pass! I retraced my route in my head and soon figured out where I'd gone wrong. I remembered coming to a shrine just after crossing the road after it went into the tunnel. There was a fork in the path, and without much thought I'd taken the path that passed in front of the shrine instead of the path that went off to the right. I'd inadvertently added at least a kilometre of climbing and goodness knows how much time to the day's walk.

The good news was it was downhill the rest of the way, and although I took another wrong turn shortly afterward, I was soon out of the woods and back on Route 20. At 12.45pm I passed the Sasaichi sake brewery. According to a large digital display on the side of the road the temperature was 15 degrees. Quite a change from the 35 degrees of two days ago. Attached to the brewery was a small restaurant so I stopped and had lunch of kitsune soba noodles. I then rejoined Route 20 and followed it all the way to my goal for the day, Otsuki, arriving there at around 3.30pm. Shortly before reaching Otsuki station I spotted a Gusto family restaurant and went in for a second lunch of spaghetti with shrimps and crab meat. I downed a couple of delicious espressos from the machine at the drink bar before heading to the station to catch a train to Uenohara.

After arriving at Uenohara station I had to walk a couple of kilometres to get to my hotel. It was uphill (something I hadn't gathered from checking the route on the Internet) and for the third time since leaving Kofu that morning I got lost. I finally arrived at the hotel at around 5.15pm. To make what had been a terrible day worse, the trousers I'd washed the night before were now covered in mud from the rope descent to Sasago pass. Luckily the mud was mostly below the knees, so instead of washing the whole garment I cleverly unzipped the bottoms and just washed those.

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