Thursday, 11 May 2017

Day 2: Utsunomiya - Kitsuregawa

Distance covered: 25 km
Weather: Mainly fine and warm

After a hearty breakfast at my hotel I was out the door exactly on time at 8am, still feeling somewhat nervous about the day ahead. Among the many things I was concerned about was my backpack. It was the first time I had used it since walking the Nikko Kaido some two and half years ago, and it felt heavy and awkward. In fact I had done very little preparation for this walk. Aside from my more-or-less daily strolls down to the local supermarket and back, a total distance of around 2 km, I had done only half a dozen or so training walks, the longest of these just 8 km, and none with my backpack on. On the positive side, I had been injury free since that Nikko Kaido walk, but this may have been because I had done little in the way of strenuous activity!

What wasn't worrying me was the weather. It was fine and pleasantly warm as I tramped past JR Utsunomiya station and rejoined the Oshu Kaido at the point where I had left it the previous afternoon. I pushed hard for the first 5 km, which was a straight run up Route 125, a four-lane highway that was busy with commuters heading into central Utsunomiya. I stopped just once to buy some water at a convenience store before taking a proper break at the 5 km mark to snack on my Scrummy Mix.

The scenery remained the same for the next 5 km, but when I eventually left Route 125 and entered the former post town of Shirasawa I was greeted by a most unusual sight: an Edo period public toilet! The cladding on the structure was obviously new and inside there was little but a hole in the ground, but I enjoyed the poster on the outside which showed a humorous sketch by the famous woodblock artist Hokusai of the toilet as it existed in the Edo period.

Shirasawa itself was a pleasant enough town with plenty of signage and a glossy brochure showing where the honjin and other buildings once stood. In the water channels that ran down both sides of the main street there were several small waterwheels.

Soon after leaving Shirasawa I came to the Kinu River, which I was familiar with from the final stages of my Nikko Kaido walk. For a couple of hundred metres or so the Oshu Kaido took me along a paved pedestrian pathway on its raised western bank. Away from the traffic, I could hear the sounds of insects and birds and I even saw what I thought was a pheasant. All too soon I rejoined Route 125 and crossed the river. I made another stop at the next convenience store, this time to use their bathroom, which as usual was spotlessly clean. It was shortly after getting underway again that I made my first mistake, missing a turnoff and having to retrace my steps for 50 m or so. Luckily I sensed fairly quickly that something was wrong and was able to confirm on my iPhone app that I had indeed overshot the turnoff, otherwise I might have gone on much further before realising my mistake.

Away from busy Route 125 again, I took the time to savour the increasingly rural scenery. It was rice-planting season, and there were freshly planted fields on both sides of the quiet, narrow lane I was now walking along. During my next break by the side of road, however, I was shocked to feel some rain drops. I hurriedly put my iPhone away lest it get wet, but thankfully it was just a passing rain shower and it remained dry for the rest of the day.

After skirting the built-up area around Sakura station I stopped for lunch at a soba restaurant at the 18 km mark. I was pleased with my progress and took my time eating lunch, taking off my shoes and massaging my aching calves. As I was about to leave I saw a man pull up in front of the restaurant in a tractor, a reminder that I was well and truly in the country!

I was now less than 8 km from my final destination for the day, Hotel New Sakura in Kitsuregawa. I was relieved that I had made it this far without injury, but still nervous because I knew there was a small climb up ahead. This didn't stop me enjoying the scenery, which seemed to be getting more picturesque the further I walked. Over the next few kilometres I stopped several times to watch farmers planting rice and to take photos and videos of the rice fields themselves. 

Near the beginning of the climb I came across some roadworks with workers directing traffic through a single lane section of road, and for a moment I thought I was going to be held up. But I was soon allowed to proceed and before I knew it I had reached the top of the climb. To my left I saw a golf course, and I recalled with a smile the moment on the Nakasendo walk when my walking partner was almost felled by a stray golf ball from a nearby course. There were no such dramas on this occasion, however, and not long after traversing the only off-road section of the walk through a forest I found myself crossing a bridge and entering the settlement of Kitsuregawa.

It was too early to check in to my hotel, so I stopped at the local tourist information centre, which is located in a Taisho period stone building that used to be a bank. The friendly staff showed me the old vault, whose combination lock had not numbers but hiragana symbols in the iroha sequence. Later, after I had rested, they offered to phone the hotel to get them to come and pick me up, but with time on my hands I decided to walk. I knew from checking on Google maps that the hotel was on a hill, but what I didn't realise was that the climb up to it would be the steepest of the entire walk. What made it worse was that the road was not even part of the Oshu Kaido! I was cursing to myself and breathing hard by the time I got to the top, and it was a relief when I finally got to the hotel and then to my newly renovated Japanese-style room. After a rest I had a well-earned soak in the hotel's hot spring bath (one of the best in the country for achieving beautiful skin, apparently!) before returning to my room to dine on cheese, bread, Scummy Mix and fruit cake.

I had made it through the first day proper, and apart from sore legs, bruised hips and shoulders from my pack, and a slightly inflamed right big toe, I was in perfect shape! Seriously though, I was relieved that I hadn't strained any muscles and confident that after a good night's sleep I would be ready to tackle whatever challenges the next day had in store for me.

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