Japan – At Journey’s End

Wednesday, 22 June 2016.

Three days into my hike along the Nakasendo Way, from Kyoto to Tokyo, by way of the Shiga, Gifu, Nagano, and Saitama prefectures, the journey ended. The reasons for this sudden ending of my trek was manifold, with various factors all aiding in the decision to change my course and travel in another direction, back to a place I had visited before, back to Beppu. But before that happened…

But before that happened, the time had finally come for me to start my much-anticipated 17-day hike through forests and ancient post-towns, over mountains and busy highways, along the road once known as the Nakasendo Way, used during the 17th and 18th century Edo period. On the day of my planned departure, my preparation for the hike was still not to my liking and so I decided to stay in Kyoto for a day, arriving there from Kobe, to finalise my hiking plans and settle a few last minute details. With the help of the friendly staff at my guesthouse in Kyoto, Gojo Guesthouse, I shipped my laptop to Tokyo, to lessen the heavy load I was carrying around on my back. My backpack, however, was still too heavy, for a hike of around 530 kilometers, even after I removed a few more items, but it would have to do because everything else in my bag I still needed after the hike was over. And so, the reasons for my change in plans were manifold…

Firstly, following the Nakasendo was not that easy. Finding a map of the entire route proved difficult, especially one in English, and I ended up not finding one. Even the ever-helpful Internet did not help much in my search for a map. One website that did help was nakasendoway.com. On the website, I could at least find a map showing the general route, with descriptions of each area and their historical significance. This website would have been more than adequate if I had a constant internet connection, but I did not and instead had to print out the overview map and the zoomed out maps of each of the seven sections covered on the website. Due to these factors, I would say I roughly followed the Nakasendo Way, not always knowing if I was actually still on the route.

Secondly, my bag was just too heavy. This was mainly due to the fact that I was carrying the same backpack that I had been using for my three-month stay in Japan, and there was just too much unnecessary clothing for a hike of this kind. My plan was to walk about 32 kilometers a day, and with a pack as heavy as mine, it would be near impossible to keep up such a high level of walking. During the hike, I was drained each night, my muscles stiff and tired, especially my right leg which had been broken and damaged in a motorcycle accident a few years earlier, and I barely made my needed quota of travelling per day.

This brings me to another point, which comes up in third place, accommodation was not easy to find. In case I needed to sleep outside, I purchased a waterproof sleeping bag in Kobe, because of June being the rainy season in Japan, and boy does it rain, but finding a decent place to pitch down for the night was not that forthcoming. This was a mistake on my side, for not doing adequate planning on the hike beforehand, not researching what the weather would be like. I thought it would be easy to wing it on the way, but not so, it would only be possible if I had more time and less of a daily distance to cover. I ended sleeping in Internet Clubs, once or twice, which was not that bad at all, although a little cramped, it was dry and had free drinks, ice cream, a charge point for my phone, and much-needed internet access, to orientate myself and plot the next day’s hike.

Lastly, doing the route by bicycle would have been a better idea for me, especially on the route that I followed, which was mostly along highways. At the end of day one, I tried buying a cheap “old women’s” bike but, for an unknown reason, I could not complete the deal, mostly due to the lack of me understanding any Japanese, apart from very basic words and phrases.

So with a decent map, or a constant internet connection, a lighter backpack, and/or a bicycle, this hike would, not only have been successful but also, have been much more enjoyable, although I still enjoyed the challenge of walking and seeing the every day, lesser-travelled, parts of Japan. Doing the hike in April or May would be a major plus point for anyone thinking of hiking along the Nakasendo because the weather would be better suited for such a trek.

Oh, I forgot to mention another, rather important, journey-defining reason for changing my plans mid-point and returning to Beppu instead. The reason is clear, it was a girl, Mai, the girl I met in Beppu a month earlier. I have spent the last nine days in Beppu, visiting my girl, and it has been the best decision I could have made. In the future I may, or may not, get another opportunity to hike the Nakasendo again, and if not then the short time I had doing the hike was good enough for me, and the rest of the time I spent in Japan by far makes up for it in many ways, but love and a deeper connection with another is what lasts, it is eternal, when you make the choice and choose to believe, in love, in life, in experiencing it together, with another, as one.

In a few days I will leave for Tokyo, where my journey started, and there I will spend my last four days in Japan. I cannot fully express in words what this trip has meant to me and how much I am changed and inspired by it, my future works will surely be marked and influenced by it, but what I can say is that I am blessed to be alive, and to have been alive in Japan and I thank God for this gift, with my utmost I give praise, and though this journey will come to an end, a new journey has already begun.

Starr