On Hiking and Not Hiking in Japan

My first vacation (of more than 3 days) in a couple of years and Japan was calling. I thought about a few other places like Cambodia or Malaysia but Japan a) had cheaper flights and b) featured a rad hike that I couldn’t get out of my head. (The Nakasendo.) So I prepped a folder with hiking information and japanese phrases for explaining veganism and I hopped on a plane. The first stop was Kyoto, a legendary city of marvels and wonders.

Not Japan’s fault, but we didn’t get off on the right foot this trip. (Not to mention last time when they mistakenly wouldn’t let me board a flight to New Zealand.) Both in Korea and in Japan I was subjected to “random” pat-downs and bag-checks. I was even wearing my nice clothes and had my tattoos covered up. Anyway, no big deal but kind of a bummer to go through all that yet again.

I wander the stinking hot streets of Kyoto for 3 days. With humidity, it’s 45 degrees (113 F) and I get the worst case of chub rub I’ve ever had. Like, I’m waddling like a penguin but because my time is short I’m still walking 20+ km a day. Halfway through the second day I realize that I don’t much like Kyoto. It’s a surprising revelation, to me as well as to you, and I spend some time pondering why it might be. I mean, it’s a city that gets 50 million tourists a year so clearly it isn’t a bad place.

Contrary to my hopes, there aren’t really many bookstores and the two I visit don’t have much in the way of hiking books. Likewise, the much vaunted vegan restaurants disappoint-many are closed for the day or afternoon. Thus several long, sweaty walks ended up as fruitless endeavors. Luckily the convenience stores have inari and edamame and other good stuff so it wasn’t a major bummer. Also, the one place I did go to (twice), was the grubbing Cafe Matsuontoko.

So as to Kyoto. Most of it is boring city. The temples are nice, absolutely, but they are places you have to make an effort to get to. They’re not places you can stumble upon, which isn’t really my jam. Still, I’m glad I saw the city, and maybe I’d go back in spring or fall, but probably not.

I leave Kyoto and catch a train to the castle city of Hikone, which is were I was thinking I could hop on the Nakasendo. But between the lack of map, the heat, and my sore thighs, it just seems like a bad idea to hike. I make the call to just go to the Kiso valley (the best part) and before that to travel around and see some cool cities. Hikone is a very cool city, not swollen with tourists and has one of the best castles in Japan. Plus it has a samurai cat as a mascot. But it’s really hot here, so much so that most of the shops are closed even in the early afternoon.

The guesthouse I stay at is nearly tropical, and brand new. Apart from two other Japanese backpackers, the dorm is empty. It’s too hot to sleep though (32 degrees at 7:30 am) and I get up early and catch the train to Gifu, which is where the castle of a notorious warlord once stood. The rebuilt castle isn’t special, but the view from the hill is nice and there are cool weapons and artifacts in the small museum. It’s kinda special to stand in a place where once ninjas and samurai fought.

I actually have no idea of where I’m going next, but on a whim I head to a place I hadn’t heard of called Takayama.

This is probably the best decision I make on the trip.The ride itself is brilliant, ambling up into misty mountains, past rice fields and granite rivers, distant bridges and villages cut into the jungle.

Takayama is a wonderful, walkable city that is much cooler by virtue of being up in the mountains. There are temples and parks and villages and bridges galore. It’s much smaller than Kyoto, but it has the vibe I was hoping for. It also has half of Europe seemingly striding its narrow streets.There’s a festival with live music the night I arrive the closest I can come to describing the vibe is Pai meets Malakka.

I spend the next two days with my Swiss roomate Alex. Just 24, he saved up for a year on archaeological digs and had 7 weeks to travel Japan. We went to an outdoor museum/craft village and learn about things like silk worms and tofu pressing. We take off and put on our shoes, a lot.

The next morning we wake with the sun and bus further up into the mountains. A group of Spanish tourists become enamored with Alex’s boots and their tour guide actually starts presenting the boots (no lace, zip up) features to them.The hiking is perfect, pretty and cool and not too crowded. After 35 km of hiking in the Japanese Alps, we get back on the last bus and get back to Takayama. I have to change hostels and then Alex and I meet a couple we had met hiking for drinks.

This ends up a bad move. I come back before midnight to see that my hostel has a door code. I should have asked before leaving but they didn’t say anything and I didn’t ask. I come to rue this decision. It’s summer, so I think of sleeping in a park. But I make my way back to my friends and learn that the couple have an extra bed, so I crash with them for a few hours.

Phew. My hostel is very apologetic and end up giving me a cake and then, on my way out, refunding that night. They just opened this month so are working out all the kinks, so it’s a nice gesture on their part.

It’s time to make future plans again. But there’s a bit of a bummer. The post towns of  Tsumago and Magome are booked out, as are the towns on either side of them. There are places I can stay, but none for less than 100 dollars a night. So my raison d’être for coming to Japan is now discarded entirely.

 

I head north to a town called Toyoma. It seems to be more of a gateway to other places than a destination in its own right, but it has plenty of gardens and canals and even a reconstructed castle. I read a few books and wander the streets in my 2 days there. It’s a great little town, and it’s nice to say goodbye to the tourists again.

My flight back to Korea is on Sunday at 2 pm and I check out of my hotel Saturday at 11 am. My first thought is to spend the day in Toyoma, read in a park, and then catch a night bus. The night bus is all sold out though. The train ride is supposed to be beautiful and it’s less than four hours but it cost 120 dollars. So I catch a bus for 77 dollars and hope it’s not much longer. It is.

The bus leaves at 1:30 pm and I get into Tokyo at 1o pm. After that long (but comfy) bus ride, I think “Hey, it’s my first time in Tokyo. Maybe I’ll find a cheapish hotel, wander around a bit tonight, and then get up early tomorrow, explore some more, and then head to the airport.” The two hotels I check are booked and/or too expensive. So I catch one of the last trains to the airport and prepare to spend the night there, which was my very original plan.

It’s a good airport, but I feel sweaty from a long day and the few comfy places for sleeping have long since been claimed. No worries; I buy some edamame and start a new book.

Around 1 am I hear them announce “The Peach flight to Seoul will now begin boarding.” I actually text Nahid and say something like “I wish that was my flight.”

I read for 15 minutes or so before the daunting realization (that you no doubt already suspect) hits me.

What if that is my flight? After all, my ticket said leaving at 2:00, not 14:00 and there’s no am or pm. I grab my bag and jump on an escalator. As luck would have it, Peach check-in is right there and it is indeed my flight. Had I succeeded in night bussing or getting a hotel, I would have entirely missed my flight! What a chump move, man.

The flight’s delayed, and the Seoul subway is slow, so I don’t get back to my house until 8 am, as sleepy as can be. The vacation now officially over, I fall in bed and sleep like the sleepiest sleeper that ever slept.

 

Even without the official hike, I walked 231 km in my 11 days, and despite sleeping in hostel dorm rooms, eating almost entirely at convenience stores, not drinking very much alcohol, and taking the cheapest transportation possible, I spend almost a month’s salary in my time there.

It was technically my 4th trip to Japan, but at 11 days this was longer than the other three put together. As I said at the beginning, I was jonesing for Japan but whether it was the heat, the high costs, or my unrealistic expectations, I left Japan thinking I might not ever go back. On previous visits, I felt like Japan was just a much better version of Korea, but this time I was actually kind of happy to come back.

On the other hand, I still wouldn’t mind actually trying the Nakasendo some day.

 

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