Monday, 20 October 2014

Day 6: Utsunomiya - Imaichi

Distance covered: 27.2 km
Weather: Fine then cloudy then rain

Things got off to a bad start on day 6. As I queued for breakfast, the old man just ahead of me fumbled his tray and almost dropped it, spilling miso soup all over the floor. He was gutted, and I felt so sorry for him as he apologised to all and sundry. But worse was to come! There were no egg dishes, and I arrived at the toast station to find not normal bread, but slices of what looked like cake with swirls of pink through them. When I asked one of the dragons on duty if they had any normal toast bread, she replied curtly, "That is normal toast bread." As I feared, the pink swirls tasted of strawberry. Yuk! The coffee ("espresso" from a machine) wasn't much better.

By the time I left the hotel it was rush hour. Of course, rush hour in Utsunomiya is nothing like rush hour in Tokyo, and having spent most of the previous five days walking alongside a busy highway, I was used to the traffic. But leaving Utsunomiya, I found myself on a series of narrow streets with a steady stream of cars coming the other way and no footpath. At one point I was nearly hit by a car whose driver noticed me just as he was about to turn onto the road from a side street.

Once I was out of the central city, things got a lot better. It wasn't long before I encountered the first of several avenues of towering cryptomeria trees I would pass today. Like the avenues of pine trees on the Tokaido, these were planted in the Edo period to provide shelter for travellers. Where these avenues survive, the width of the road is limited to the space between the two rows of trees. The footpaths run along the outside of the rows, meaning walkers are well separated from the traffic. 

With a search on Google Maps earlier in the day indicating that there were likely to be few restaurants along today's route, I decided to buy lunch at a convenience store. I got a couple of rice balls, a corn roll, a slice of fruit loaf and some iced coffee and had lunch sitting by the side of the road. Nearby some farmers were harvesting their rice. I was enjoying my picnic, but by this time it was starting to cloud over, and not long after I got underway again it started to rain. It drizzled on and off for the rest of the day - not the most pleasant of walking conditions, but I was still able to take some photos.

Unfortunately, in some places, the exhaust fumes and vibrations from the constant flow of vehicles is having a detrimental effect on the cryptomerias, and to prevent further deterioration there are plans to reroute traffic away from the trees and restrict access to the space between them to cyclists and pedestrians. These plans have been implemented in two or three places, and it was a real joy to experience walking under the massive trees just like in the Edo period. And they did provide some welcome protection from the drizzle.

I was enjoying myself so much that I lost track of the time. I had booked a hotel in the nearby hot spring resort of Kinugawa Onsen. To get there I had to catch a train from Shimo-Imaichi, which was still a couple of kilometres up the road. The trains ran every hour or so, and when I checked the time and the schedule I realised there was one leaving in a few minutes at 2:45 pm. Could I make it? I set off at a brisk pace. I even thought about running, trying to remember how long it took me to run 5km when I was doing so regularly a few years ago and then dividing that time by two or three or... But I quickly realised I had no hope of making it to the station in time, and so I slowed down and tried to relax and enjoy the scenery again. I arrived at Shimo-Imaichi at 3.15, and had a long wait before catching the train to Kinugawa Onsen at 3.50.

It was just a few minutes walk from the station to my hotel. It was quite luxurious compared to the places I had stayed at so far. The only drawback was the lack of wi-fi in my room. I was booked to stay three nights. Tomorrow I would walk the remaining 8.5 km of the Nikko Kaido and then explore Nikko itself. The day after I planned to hike the Senjogahara marshlands, something I had long dreamed of doing. Unfortunately the weather forecast wasn't that great. Also, when I took of my shoes I discovered a sizeable blister on the side of my big toe. Would I be able to complete the walk? Or would disaster strike at the last minute?       

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