Saturday, 13 May 2017

Day 4: Nasushiobara - Shirakawa

Distance covered: 28 km
Weather: Rain

Clad in my wet weather gear for the first time (though my Gore-Tex hat, identical to the one my walking partner wore during our Nakasendo walk ten years earlier, had already served me well as a sun hat), I got down to reception at 7.50 am and found the taxi I had ordered for 8 am already waiting. Minutes later I was on my way back to the intersection of Routes 72 and 34. The driver was super friendly and asked lots of questions about my walk. It was the first of several cheering encounters on this otherwise gloomy day.

Soon after rejoining the Oshu Kaido I crossed the Naka River, which looked so pretty I felt compelled to stop and take a photo of it. Like most of the photos I shot this day, it was taken with my iPhone aside a plastic ziplock bag, which explains the somewhat foggy appearance.

Half an hour later, I once again felt obliged to stop and take a photo, this time of the ichirizuka (Edo period route marker consisting of a mound topped with a tree) at the former post town of Terago. I later found out this one is actually a re-creation built in the 1990s, but it was impressive all the same and was surrounded by a pleasant little park with a shelter under which I took my first break of the day.

The terrain was becoming more undulating, and in addition to the ubiquitous rice fields I found myself passing cattle farms and forests. Early on I had taken care to avoid stepping in puddles, but after an hour or so I realised my feet couldn't get any wetter and I abandoned this tactic altogether.

I trudged on, enjoying the scenery but also looking forward to lunch, which I had decided to take at a restaurant in Ashino just past the 10 km mark. When I got there, however, I found it was closed! Disheartened, I wandered over to the building next door which appeared to be some kind of community meeting place. I opened the door rather tentatively to be warmly greeted by two women who invited me to come in and sit down. They poured tea for me and gave me a plate laden with food including sansai (foraged wild vegetables). It was delicious! My hosts were so friendly and it was so warm inside I was reluctant to leave, but I knew I had to press on. Before I set off, one of the women warned me that there was nowhere to buy food between Ashino and Shirakawa. I already knew this from looking on Google maps, and was resigned to the fact that I would have nothing but Scrummy Mix to sustain me for the rest of the afternoon.  

The rain was relentless, and knowing that if I stopped I would get cold, I walked the next 10 km without a break, stopping only briefly to take photos of the many interesting sights along the way, including some lovely old kura (storehouses) and other interesting buildings with kura-like features.

A house attached to a kura (?)
A house (?) with kura-like windows
There was a bit of a climb at the end of this segment as I approached the highest point on the Oshu Kaido (428 m), which also marks the boundary between Tochigi and Fukushima prefectures, but it was nothing compared to what I had faced on earlier walks. Still, it was time for a break, and noticing a set of steps leading up to a shrine on my left I climbed up and found shelter under a large wooden gate. The shrine (Sakai no Myojin) looked intriguing, and had the weather been better I would probably have spent some time exploring it and taking some photos, but it was getting cold and I was eager to press on and so after a bit of a rest and a snack I set off again. 

I soon regretted not taking the opportunity to put on an extra layer of clothing underneath my wet weather gear, but I couldn't be bothered finding somewhere sheltered to stop again and rummage around in my pack and so I continued on until I reached a convenience store on the outskirts of Shirakawa, by which time I was warm again anyway. There I took a much needed bathroom break. I had less than 5 km to go, but I desperately wanted to sit down and eat something hot and I needed coffee, and looking on Google Maps I saw there was a McDonalds just a few kilometres further on. Getting there became my next goal.

I struggled on in the rain, taking little notice of my surroundings. I barely paid attention when a car pulled up beside me. Then I heard a voice with an Australian accent say, "Do you speak English?"
I stopped, turned to look at the driver and sole occupant of the car, a young woman with auburn hair in a floral dress. My first thought was that she was lost and wanted to ask me directions. But it turned out she had seen me walking in the rain and was concerned that I was lost. I reassured her I was fine and that I was walking the Oshu Kaido (I'm not sure she knew what that meant!), and we both laughed before the little traffic jam she had caused by stopping obliged her to drive off.

It was warm inside the McDonalds. I found a table and took of my pack and my wet weather gear and ordered an EBI Filet-O (like a Filet-O-Fish but with a patty made from shrimp), fries and a coffee. It was yummy! Checking on Google Maps, I saw that I was less than 500 m from my hotel. But the thought of putting on my (soggy) wet weather gear and leaving the warmth of the restaurant was not a pleasant one. I didn't want to leave!

When I did eventually get to my hotel room, the first thing I did was hang up my wet clothes to dry. I also took the insoles out of my shoes and gave them a good wipe down. I hoped they would dry by the morning. I was thankful that the next day was my last, and that I only had about 4 km to walk.   

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