One Man Walking

2008-07-31 Nikko

July 31st, 2008 · 1 Comment

Nikko has to be seen to be believed. Founded hundreds of years ago and kept active ever since, there are so many shrines and large temples that it kept fast walkers like us busy all day. We got there before the tour buses and appreciated the calm before the storm of school children that had descended by lunch time.

Sacred Bridge 
Temple Guardian 

The paint and metal work is kept in good condition so you really get a good feel of what these buildings looked like originally. Of particular interest was the Toshogu Shrine and its woodwork. Carved into the ‘Sacred Stable’ (which happens to be home to the only temple horse that has come from another country, and that country happens to be New Zealand) is the famous depiction of “see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil” as acted out by monkeys.
Taiyuin Temple 
Do no evil 

Facing that is a ‘Sacred Store House’ and the carvings of elephants that has clearly been done by someone who has never actually seen an elephant. They have the general idea right and are clearly talented artists, but the animals shown here are not quite right. I’ve seen the same phenomenon in Te Papa, New Zealand’s national museum. There a medal for some heroic or brave act shows african animals as they would have been described. Rhinos with riveted armour plating and giraffes with horse-like bodies.
Elephants 
The uncountable buddhas 

I’m a bit worried about my fitness now. I’m tired after a slow day with only a day pack. Hopefully it’s a mental thing. No drive to get anywhere and so much stuff to absorb. When we get to Fuji next week there will be a definite goal and no ancient temples to ponder. Just physical exhaustion to battle and I’m cool with that.

2008-07-29 Urubandai National Park

July 29th, 2008 · 2 Comments

The man running the youth hostel in Urubandai National Park was exceptionally nice to us. We’d been planning on staying in one of the cabins there but as it was raining and as no one had booked in advance they hadn’t been cleaned and the electricity was turned off. At least I think that’s what the story was. Either way it resulted in us being given a private room for ¥2000 less than two dormitory bunks.

Urubandai National Park 

Another major benefit of the YH was its location at the start of the five coloured lake walking path which Tania and I did today. When Bandai-san last erupted it blew about 600m off the top and into the valleys to the north. The rivers got blocked and a new plateau was created along with many lakes of different and interesting colours. I guess the dodgy looking weather kept the crowds away as we didn’t see many people. Tania did get her first sighting of a wild snake, but only the tail as it slithered away into the undergrowth. Dragonflies were everywhere on the second stretch of trail and some were tame enough (or lazy enough) for me to sneak up really close. It’s worth viewing this photo full-size to look at the eye things.
dragonfly Urabandai   dragonfly Urabandai 

So I’d definitely recommend the Bandai Plateau, and I wish the weather had been good enough to climb Bandai-san itself but alas the peak spent most of the day well above the clouds.

2008-07-28 Steam, samurai and shrines

July 28th, 2008 · 3 Comments

Sukayu onsen, in the hills north of Lake Towada, is sometimes referred to as ‘the 1000 person bath’. A slight exaggeration I think but the hotel it is part of could certainly hold that many. It’s an old building of long creaky hallways and winding staircases creating a confusing labyrinth that makes following the receptionist’s directions very hard. In the end I asked for the kanji characters for ofuro and remembered seeing them on a sign upstairs somewhere. That evening a middle-aged lady and her younger protege were leading other women around the carpark in a circle. They were waving and clapping their hands in traditional ways with the guests picking up the moves quite quickly. I didn’t want to get involved but we did at least venture down in our yakata (thin cotton kimonos) and watched for over an hour. That hour by the way featured only one song, repeated a dozen times from some tinny stereo in the corner.

Craig and Tania at Sukayu 
Sukayu Onsen buildings 
Dancers 
Sukayu Ofuro 



In Kakunodate the weather changed. Bright sunshine all day and I’m very grateful for the extra cherry flavoured ice-cream the vendor gave us. It’s all about the samurai district here. Big old wooden houses you can see right through when the walls/doors are pulled back. The district is very distinct, changing back to traffic lights and supermarkets by crossing one street.

Sunset over Lake Towada 

Since the major building material of ancient Japan was wood large sections of history have been lost to fire. The temple complex at Hiraizumi, once a rival to Kyoto, suffered such a fate during fighting between ambitious warlords. One building that survived intact was the truly amazing Golden Hall (no photos allowed :( ).
windows made for winter 

le statue  Cherry laquered dolls 
A samurai's garden 
Street fair in Morioka 

We wandered around the paths for most of the morning and admired some of the smaller temples and the sutra room. When we came to leave town we got instructions about changing trains at Ichinoseki and confidently boarded the right train. Now I rarely appreciate being shouted at, unless it’s along the lines of “hey you forgot your wallet” or “get your free ice-cream right here!”. So to be shouted at from within arms reach, in a foreign language by someone who isn’t even angry at you is really not a good way to lighten my mood. Like us this guy, 50 something with buzz cut hair, a ruffled suit and a random collection of teeth, had missed the announcement that we were supposed to change trains at Kogota (that big earthquake has destroyed Japan’s always-on-time train schedule) so he’d also suddenly found himself watching the scenery move back to where it had been. I had been asleep, Tania has only been here a week, what was his excuse? I suspect he didn’t have one but he tried to argue his point with the train driver and station attendant until they left him and he tried venting in our direction. I quickly got tired of telling him I didn’t understand but he persisted. Getting louder and louder while waving angrily at the tracks. He tried the same act while sitting right next to a sweet looking old lady, somehow she soothed him a bit but it was still painfully loud two seats away.
Samurai master Craig 
Another shrine near Hiraizumi   Sutra Room 
Shrine near Hiraizumi 

Sendai’s tourist info room is awesome. As in I was awestruck that the girl in there had to ask a colleague where the pay-phones in her own train station were. It was right there on the map on her desk so I pointed them out and walked about 10m around the corner to make a call.
waiting for the train 

Key:
movie  ·  onsen  ·  photo  ·  shrine

2008-07-23 Hakodate

July 23rd, 2008 · No Comments

Hakodate had the worst of the rain. Possibly the worst rain I’ve ever seen first hand. We lay on the futons expecting each lull to be the end of it only to have it pick up again with more force than before. If it wasn’t by the sea there would have been major flooding, but the city drains well and in the time it took us to explore the morning fish markets the streets had mostly dried and the sun poked through enough to make walking uphill an exhausting experience.

Choose your crab 

Around the lower slopes of Mt. Hakodate are churches of various denominations. The Russian Orthodox one was what caught my eye in the pamphlet but the Greek Orthodox was the strangest. The closest I can get to describing it is as an old-style windmill with the rotating blades now facing upwards and rooms built below them.
Steep cobbled streets 
Russian Orthodox Church 

The curious thing about Hakodate is that it has built its tourist industry on its non-Japanese side. As one of the first ports to be opened to foreign trade, it got a lot of outside influence. Add to this watching Indiana Jones in English and eating (spicy) Thai food in a modern version of China Town and you’d easily forget which country you’re in.
Old Public Hall of Hakodate Ward 
Restaurant Street, Hakodate 

You’re clearly not in Europe though when you get woken in the middle of the night by an earthquake measuring 6.8 on the Richter scale. It shook for quite a long time, enough for me to be sure it wasn’t actually a truck driving down the hallway, and a low rumbling sound I’d never heard before. Outside the window the power-lines were shaking but no sirens sounded and there were no signs of panic.

2008-07-22 I’m a legal alien

July 22nd, 2008 · 1 Comment

It’s been nearly a week since I reached the cape and in that time I’ve travelled south to Hakodate, a journey that took 22 days on foot.

It’s still the rainy season up here so while the rain alternates between light-drizzle and heavy-monsoon there are occasional breaks of scorching heat making dressing for the day a difficult choice. Our first stop on the way south was a brief stop at Bifuka Onsen road station where I found Sato-san still camped but Barabara had moved on. As we boarded the bus again the driver politely told us someone had complained about us talking too loudly. Since it was now 8:30am it was a bit late to expect to be sleeping, and anyway if you don’t like talkative foreigners I advise not sitting down right next to them. We’d been first on the bus back at Wakkanai.

Asahikawa is a pleasant enough city with wide pedestrian precincts and a park for napping in during the sunny spells. The real attraction of the area though is south of there in an area known as Furano, famous for skiing and its summer flowers. It was a holiday weekend and the crowds showed it. The traffic jams leading to Farm Tomita’s car park stretched for kilometers in every direction and approaching on foot was the wisest idea. It also meant we stumbled upon a small fair with some local foods and what we thought might be a cultural dance on the stage. It was actually a Power Ranger show with those ridiculous bad-guy costumes, sound effects and audience participation.

More 'pop' than 'culture' 

We came for the lavender fields and they were very impressive, but there were many other flowers fields to see as well as melon fever that has some people forking out upwards of ¥3000 (about $37 NZD) per fruit! Tania settled for a lavender ice-cream while I held out and made her follow me 2km to the cafe with the “Santa Claus’ Beard” dessert I passed on the way north.
Farm Tomita 

Craig and Tania at Farm Tomita 

That evening Asahikawa threw a street fair just in time for our birthdays, so we spent a while wandering through it and admiring the kimonos some local ladies were wearing. It’s really cool that there is a distinctive cultural look and people still wear it in public.
Asahikawa Street Fair   Kimono at night 

Next stop Sapporo and another well-timed festival. For anyone needing a hostel in the area I’d recommend Ino’s Place. Very nice staff and clean facilities. A bit far from the center but an easy subway ride. Though I’m not a beer drinker I’d probably get lynched if I came home without sampling at least one glass of the local drink on the beer fest’s opening night. This year it runs for a month and must be killing the local bar scene. One major task I achieved was picking up my Alien Registration Card. By law all non-Japanese people must carry this card everywhere (passports are acceptable also, you must apply for a card with 90 days of arrival). At any moment the police can demand to see it and, as happened to me in Wakkanai a few hours before Tania arrived and just 30km from the cape. If you accidentally leave it in your bag at the youth hostel while walking to the bus station you’ll get hauled off to the police station and guarded by seven armed officers while you write an apology letter*. That’s for a first offense, if you’re really lucky. It could also lead to more serious trouble I expect.
Sapporo Beer Festival 

I should probably send out a big Thank You to the patient sales people at Bic Camera. I had practiced the words to ask for a phone charger and then substituted the word phone for GPS. This totally confused them and I had to explain, via hand signals, that the GPS part was not the important part. Eventually I had the idea of specifying the voltage and amperage and that worked. They could then tell me that I was looking for an a-she a-da-pa-ta not a judenki as I had been saying. So if all else fails try English words with a Japanese accent.

Hokkaido Shrine 

*This is not an exaggeration. The first officer had already taken me to the hostel to retrieve my passport. They were almost all polite, and the female officer was sporting a handbag with pink trim, but they all had guns and they were all in the tiny room watching me. Japan must be the safest place in the world if they all had no actual crime to investigate.

2008-07-18 The End

July 18th, 2008 · 16 Comments

More grey skies this morning, but the rain held off. With fresh supplies from the nearest Seicomart convenience store (of which Wakkanai probably has 200), Tania and I started the 30km walk north east along the coast to Cape Soya. The wind was against us the whole way, with shelter provided in the half-dozen small townlets hanging on to the shore. This is a tough place to live. Wakkanai’s average temperature is just 7 degrees. Today pushed the mercury up to 9 so it may have been considered warm by some. Not by me though. The wind kept howling, the noses kept running but, as I yelled into one particularly tough gust
“You can’t stop me!”

drowned sign   almost there 

And so it was that after 95 days and 6 hours I reached Japan’s most northerly point. The monument itself was nice, busy with windswept tourists, all Japanese. East of there, and out of sight from our long approach was a cluster of commercial buildings, gift shops, petrol stations, ramen shops and more. Tacky is the best word for it, but it was no different to anywhere else that people come to view something deemed important.
Summit Photo 

So now I’m done. Tomorrow I can dress in denim and cotton, buy heavy food, drink alcohol if I choose and generally return to modern life. It’s not going to be as dramatic as leaving the PCT that’s for sure. I’ve been near society here almost all the way. With Tania at my side we’re off for some sightseeing and birthday relaxing. The daily updates will stop but I’ll post when I can with new stories and photos. The difference being I am no longer just one man, and I am no longer walking.

Word of the day: WWWHHHHHOOOOOOHHHOOOOOOOO!

Distance today: 31.5 km

2008-07-17 Reunion

July 17th, 2008 · 2 Comments

There will now be a brief intermission.

intermission 

Word of the day: i-sho-ni = together

2008-07-16 Reaching Wakkanai

July 16th, 2008 · 3 Comments

Day 94 and I’m on the northern most coast of Japan. I have seen the peninsula that I’ll be walking along a couple of days from now but the cape is out of sight until the last few kilometres.

Giant humbugs! 

The feeling of non-Japan, or maybe the lack of Japanese feeling continued today. For the 35km that I walked into Wakkanai there were just open fields and passing trucks. Nothing seemed to match the image of Japan I created on the other islands. The one stand-out feature was the parking shelter. Basically a short tunnel to provide an area to hide in during blizzards. There were parking bays, toilets, telephones and traffic cams so you can watch for when it’s safe to leave. Wakkanai has an average yearly temperature of just 7 degrees celsius. I’m certainly glad to be here during the ‘warm’ months.
Dang straight!   Entering Wakkanai City at last 

I spent the afternoon wandering the city. Checking where the bus depot is and briefly talking to a newspaper reporter. I wasn’t prepared for a photo shoot (the bathroom at the hostel hadn’t opened yet, I lost my razor 5 days ago and my bag was in my room) but he asked me to stride across the carpark and I tried not to laugh at myself (“I’m not an ambi-turner”).
the birds 

Word of the day: ashita

2008-07-15 Counting down

July 15th, 2008 · 3 Comments

The town of Nakagawa was still asleep when I passed through just before 5am. There were clouds still sitting on the low hills that create this valley but the sky was starting to clear. For 10 hours I walked without taking a break. There was nowhere but the roadside to sit and I had no food to enjoy while resting. The fields here are a rich green and dotted with round hay bales, some of which were being moved about on trailers, or sampled by cows.

Digger Art 

There were occasional signs for settlements I didn’t notice. Presumably they related to the next five farm buildings because everywhere has to be part of somewhere. The shiny red barns and silos seem so out of place in Japan but then Hokkaido is known for being un-Japanese. Perhaps it’s the wide open space and lack of Japanese-style plants.
town motifs 

The sky really did clear today, so much so I had to roll my sleeves back down to avoid sunburn. If you’ve grown tired of reading my rain reports, imagine how tired I am of dealing with it.
Lady Farm? 

10 hours without pause is a long time to do anything. I’ve been breaking up my day into two-hour segments and using those change-overs to start another track on my iPod. Be they podcasts, audio books or Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy radio shows, these audio delights take me to another time and place where the ever-present sound of footfall and traffic don’t bother me. And the reality of 50km on 1 litre of water and a packet of few peppermints can be forgotten, or at least put on hold.
Passing 45 degrees 

Tonight I’ve claimed a space on the edge of a field with a great view of Mount Rishiri (or is it Rishiri Island? Or both?). The sun has set and I may see stars for the first time in quite a while. My last night in a tent. Tomorrow is my last night alone, then it’s my last day without completing the walk, then it’s my last day of walking!
Mount Rishiri 

Word of the day: ni = two (also means other things, strangely including “to”)

Distance today: 59 km

2008-07-14 Pace

July 14th, 2008 · 4 Comments

The day started, that is the daylight part of today, hours before that I’d woken to see clouds rolling over the hills in darkness, with a hearty breakfast courtesy of Barabara’s campsite neighbour Sato-san (not to be confused with the Sato-san I met at Takochi-dake Onsen). A light salad, chunky vegetables in a thick sauce and slightly browned toast. All very different to the Snickers and SoyJoy bars I’ve been giving myself for a while.

Sato-san at breakfast 

Barabara and I set off along the riverside path that wasn’t on my map but he seemed to know it well. I appreciated the local knowledge until I realised I was being eaten by mosquitoes and we’d done 3km to miss 2km of road. Sometimes we walked together, trying to make conversation, but mostly it was single file a dozen or more metres apart. He stopped to get photos of every distance sign from Asahikawa, I settled for those counting down to Wakkanai and one pointing to ‘Seishonenshukuhakushisetsu’.

After one long gap I let him catch up and said I’d take a break at the town 2km away. Red-faced and sweating he said that was fine, that I was young and strong and he bravely battled on. But while I stuffed myself with cream-filled buns, pineapple juice and chocolate sandwiches he announced we’d have to part ways here. My pace was just too much he said. I offered to slow down but luckily he refused. Right now a railway sleeper in my bag wouldn’t slow me down. It’d hurt like crazy but I’m less than 100km from Wakkanai and the bus terminal where I’ll see Tania again.

Barabara and I 

So I took the road west into the gorge alone. Barabara had revealed himself to be a religious man. With beads on his wrist he said there was someone, and I must confess to not catching who, with him when he walked. I’m lucky enough to have Douglas Adams with me and thanks to Richard I’m also carrying Bill Bryson. Those of you also reading FourCornersOfJapan.net will know by now that Chris just lost his iPod. A terrible thing, and on his birthday too! For a while I was carried away to Iowa in the 1960s. And when I snapped out of it an hour later my jacket was stuffed behind me, my sleeves rolled up. I was wearing my hat and sunglasses. The gorge was starting to open up and for the first time in 8 days there was a good proportion of blue sky above. Also my internal monologue had taken on a subtle American accent and I wanted to talk about things in hugely exaggerated terms, like groups of 4,000 children or roller coasters 12,000ft high.

I reached the road station with minutes to spare before closing. Unfortunately I spent those minutes in the toilet and emerged to find it all closed down. The ice-creams depressingly out of reach for the night.

Word of the day: ha-yai = fast

Distance today: 54.5 km