I wrote this account of my travels in Japan after returning to the UK in October 2004 to start my final year at university. A rough un-edited version has been in my inbox since then and now I’ve finally found the time to make it presentable for sharing with my friends. The journey was made even more precious for me because a lot of the beautiful coastline around Sendai took the brunt of the 2011 tsunami and is only about 100km away from the nuclear reactors at Fukushima. I’ll always be grateful to my fellow travellers for their patience with me and to the Japanese people for the fantastic hospitality they showed us during our stay. I hope you enjoy reading this account as much as I enjoyed my adventure.
For me, it all started back on the 12th of July 2004, the day before my departure. It was about 3 on a hot summers afternoon and I was rushing round London with my Dad, trying to sort out the last bits for my trip. He was helping me collect money in different currencies, a little shaving foam and some train tickets. The usual last minute dash before leaving the country…
Then, after an itinerary which had included Dubai, Hong Kong and Taiwan (each of which has its own set of stories) we ended up on a flight to Tokyo. We being a somewhat unlikely bunch of adventurers, mostly ‘Bulldogs’ from a scout troop in Islington, myself from northwest London, Gavan from Ireland (somewhere) and the wonderful Mary from Cornwall. Way back in 2003, we had all decided to sign up for the Explorer Belt, the most adventerous expedition offered by the scout movement at the time. Our moment of truth was fast approaching.
It was a hellish transfer from Taiwan to Tokyo, and then a seemingly infinite distance from Chiba airport to our accomodation in Nihonbashi. Eventually we arrived at the Korean YMCA in downtown Tokyo and found our respective horizontal resting places (beds). Although it was a YMCA, a mini hotel would be a better description, since all bedroom space was planned with typical japanese efficiency. I ended up sharing my room with Gavan, who snored like a freight train crashing though a china shop in the middle of an earthquake. Yes, it was actually THAT bad. I would have traded places or just objected, but since Gavan was going to be in my group for the actual expedition, I thought it was best just to try and weather the storm. We were only in the YMCA for 3 days before setting off to our start point, once we had decided where our starting point was going to be.
We had a couple of days (and nights) out and about in Tokyo, climbing Tokyo Tower and the usual sort of tourist trail. We also used this time to prepare for the expedition, buying essentials like maps, food and fuel. Each of these activities was done in our expedition groups, with the occasional catch-up session over a beer to help out those unable to grasp buying Japanese maps for the first time. Our group had its first real challenge in the map shop. We’d split up in a search pattern to boost our chances of success, and eventually we were reunited by the ‘Maps of Japan’ section.
I was quite happy to buy maps in Japanese. Sure, I don’t speak a word of it, but when in Rome. Unfortunately, this position wasn’t shared by the rest of the group (Gavan and Mary), who were apparently quite disturbed that I didn’t think maps in English were absolutely necessary. Sure they’d be nice, but I figured it would be more fun with the squiggly writing and our guesswork. Probably for the best I was overruled, and we bought a selection of Japanese maps and an English language road atlas for about £30 total. Gavan pulled me up on this later, after I’d made some joke about us climbing up a mountain, apparently I hadn’t been listening to him or Mary in the map shop, at the same time he reminded me that we weren’t supposed to be climbing mountains. I did the whole mea-culpa thing, but I was still a little disapointed that we had to take English maps and didn’t get to climb any mountains, it was supposed to be an adventure after all.
The Tokyo Dome Park
My original idea of our expedition had been a little on the physical side of what the explorer belt should probably be. I was hoping to walk all the way around Hokkaido, however that idea soon got dropped because nobody (myself included) could figure out how to get there for less than £100 each way. My second choice was walking from one side of Japan to the other, somewhere on Honshu the main island. As you’ll soon find out, the distance we ended up covering fell some way short of this, but still had it’s fair share of excitement.
Mary, Gavan and Myself in the Tokyo Tower
All of a sudden our 3 days of living the high life in Tokyo were over and it was time to pack our gear. Note to self, don’t ever buy a 50 Litre rucksack for a 10 day expedition, if your as big as I am anyway. At 2am on the first day of our expedition, I decided that I’d crammed as much junk into my bag as was humanly possible and hit the hay. My bag weighed a tonne, especially given the fact that I was carrying an extra fuel bottle, my mini Trangia stove for emergency use and my enormous (and heavy) 3 man tent, as well as personal kit and a guide book to the whole of Japan. Not that I’m bragging, but my bag was certainly the heaviest. Mary weighed in second place, with Gavan placing third. At some points I’m sure Mary put rocks in her bag to make it heavier, as some days it seemed to be almost twice as heavy as mine. I’ve no idea how she carried it.
Despite my absolute love of lie-ins and hatred of all things morning, I persuaded the team that it was in their interests to get up at the early bird hour of 6 A.M. to get out of Tokyo as soon as possible. We’d inadvertently picked the peak time of year the mass exedous from major urban centers of Japan as everyone headed for vacation in the countryside. The magnitude of the exedous was later confirmed as we stood for 4 hours in sardine formation on the bullet train to Tendo, our chosen start point.
Tendo is located in Yamagata Prefecture, almost perfectly in the middle of Honshu, the largest island in the chain that makes up Japan. Tendo is a pretty and small place. It has a driving range, a baseball pitch and a whole load of hair salons which were all closed during our visit. That was all we saw during our 3 hour walk out of town, we also managed to scare the tourist information folks at the station. I’m not sure how or why, but at the time it was something of a bonus.
We had arrived in Tendo at 2 PM on the 14th of August 2004. Within minutes, 15 and a can of coke from the vending machine to be precise, we were headed for the hills. The town is located at the middle of a huge valley, about 25 kilometers wide with incredibly steep hills at either side. Our planned route was to head for the city of Sendai, in neighbouring Miyagi prefecture, by travelling roughly north, then east to go through passes in the massive mountain ranges which run down the middle of Japan like a spine. Initially, we had difficulties gauging the difference between ‘normal walking’ and the ‘expedition’ style required for the explorer belt. Eager for adventure we climbed up the first small hill just out of town to have a look at a shrine at the top. When it turned out to be just a couple of stones in some gravel, scratched our heads then climbed down again slightly tired. Having decided to go up the valley skirting the bottom of the eastern hills, we walked out of the town on the main road, carefull crossed one of the regional highways, and entered the real japanese countryside.
Yamagata is the largest fruit growing region in Japan, indeed it has a very pleasant climate which is perfect for agriculture. Being roughly the same latitude as Athens, with higher rainfall, Yamagata produces plums, pairs, apples, grapes and delicious water melon. The main indigenous species of tree is a Japanesetype of pine tree, which line the hillsides all the way across the prefecture.
Arrival at Tendo
The first real event of our explorer belt happened early in the afternoon of our first day, when we stopped at a ‘corner shop’ to attempt lunch. We dumped our rucksacs outside and proceeded inside with a due degree of caution and respect. The shop was run by a very old looking lady, who smiled politely and said a whole load of stuff in Japanese, unfortunately none of which we understood. We chose our lunch from the ample selection of noodles. Gavan had worked up a thirst, so he went to the back of the store to pick up some water. We were just about to pay for the goodies (which included some great chocolate flavoured kids sweets in the shape of koala bears. The lady pointed to the large bottle of water Gavan had bought, and kept saying something which sounded a lot like ‘no, don’t buy it’ to me. She stopped working on the register and went outside, where a young guy had just turned up on a motorbike. He came into the shop and pointed at the bottle of clear water like fluid, under instruction from the old lady, and said “Alcohol!”. We put it back and Gavan got some genuine water instead. Our first lunch was consumed on the steps outside the shop and whilst we were there, the kind old lady came out of the shop again and gave us a bottle of ice cold lemonade. It tasted great!
We carried on walking till about 3 in the afternoon, along the main highway north, towards Yamagata Airport. We were walking through an area called Tendo City, a mixed fruit growing and residential part of the region, when we decided that it was a good time to start looking for a place to stay that night. There are very few campsites in the area, as we are now aware, so the local people we met were rather surprised to see three scouts with huge rucksacks walking along the side of the road. We stopped at a few roadside fruit sellers, asking directions to the nearest camp site at each one until we got the “right answer”. Not that we had much idea what this answer would sound like in Japanese, beyond something affermative. On our third fruit stall, we met a delightful family who had stopped there to buy some fruit.
As it turned out, they spoke perfect English and were on holiday from Tokyo. They had a long chat in Japanese for us with the owner of the fruit stall, and eventually started giving us directions to a golf course nearby. As they started to describe how we should get there, they changed their minds and decided to escort us there! So we walked with them (the whole family, mum + dad and their 3 small kids) to the local golf course. They knocked on a door of a nearby house and a middle aged guy in a baseball cap came out, who must have been either the owner, the groundskeeper of the golf course or both. He nodded a few times and said some words in Japanese, before disappearing back inside his house. Our ragtag group of scouts, children and parents, which started spontaneously singing Beatles songs at one point, A hard days night, eventually arrived at the 6th Hole of the golf course, where we pitched our tents under the watchful eye of the family who had guided us there.
Camping by the 6th hole
A nearby shrine
A local house
After we’d built our camp for the evening, the happy family climbed back into their car and drove away, leaving us on the golf course for the evening. Or so we though, since they came back 20 minutes later with some more fruit and a pack of moomin character playing cards to give to us. We were extremely pleased with this generous package (of which the fruit constituted most of our dinner) although we never got round to using the moomin cards. Later on in the evening the owner/grounds keeper of the golf course came to see us and brought us one quarter of a giant watermelon (A delicious breakfast!). We spent some time washing and eating the fruits we had just been given by the family, and then sat down to write our diaries, before going to sleep with the setting of the sun at dusk.
The next day we woke up at about 5 and started to strike our tents, interspersed with eating delicious grapes we had left over from the night before. Just as we were finishing the rather protracted process of packing up, the groundskeeper returned with two cans of coke and a can of ice coffee, for our breakfast! We were slightly stunned by this wonderful and extreme level of generosity, although Mary sprinted to the rescue and gave the man one of her decorative Cornish tea-spoons she’d brought along specifically to give to friendly people we encountered as presents. After an intense caffeine hit and some bites out of the water melon, we set off on the second day.
We were still headed north towards Yamagata Airport, running more or less parallel to the Shinkansen bullet train tracks which ran down the middle of the valley. We followed the roads which lead up the valley and saw some impressive scenery near highway 48, which breaks out of the valley down a mountain pass to the east. The whole area was still mostly orchards, with the occasional house towards the edges, although there were a fair number of rice paddies towards the centre of the valley, where presumably there was also a river, although we didn’t see it until reaching Oishida the next day.
Before leaving Tendo City we took some photos of local houses, the local community centre/school and a nearby temple as part of our minor project looking at Architecture. I also did a very rough sketch:
On day 2 our progress was rather slow. Not to blame anyone for this (we were a team, forged in the heat of the japenese mid-day sun afterall), but Gavan was largely the slowest member. I’m not sure how he got SO many blisters within 24 hours of the start of our expedition. He’d already had a bad time from his blisters when we were in Taipei, and I’d advised him before the start of the expedition to soak his feet in white spirit to harden them up, but he ignored me at his peril. By early afternoon progress had slowed to a dead stop on the road from Tendo to Muruyama. The terrain wasn’t particularly demanding, mostly American style big box stores with huge parking lots. We had lunch at a family mart on the edge of town, delicious pot noodles once again, followed by an ice cream break about an hour later.
The first real challenge of the explorer belt, apart from the list of 10 silly and interesting things we’d been given to do by our fellow explorers from the Bulldogs as part of the challence, came just after our ice cream stop. Gavan decided, on account of his feet hurting, that he wasn’t going any further. Unfortunately, he only arrived at this conclusion 40 minutes after we’d passed a pharmacy, so it took us the best part of 2 hours to encourage him, remove a 2 inch long metal thing from one of his shoes (wondering how on earth it got there in the first place?) and march him back to buy some plasters and painkillers. Note to other travellers thinking of walking in Japan, local pharmacies don’t sell compeeds. Eventually I returned with a marginally improved and medicated Gavan, to the spot where Mary (plus our gear) had spent the best part of the last 2 hours, relaxing in the roadside shade.
Gavan enjoys his lolly
As we recovered from our little breakdown, Gavan eat his “Emergency Lolly”, a pre-departure gift to each of us from Kirsty of the Bulldogs. We now approached the town of Muryama. The place was so deserted that not even a tumble weed was to be seen blowing itself down the high street. The local commerce consisted of about five dress making shops and nothing else. It was my turn to seek assistance from friendly locals, so I spent 20 minutes politely listening to incomprehensible Japanese directions in one of the dress shops, before we decided to head up towards the hills, in the vague direction I had been shown. Our final destation for the day was the beautiful Higashine Rose Garden, although we stopped about half way there to visit the local municipal cultural centre, principally because it looked like it was open and might have toilets. I think it was a council owned/operated enterprise, which had somebody on duty in the front office. Me and Gavan did our best to persuade the poor official behind the desk to let us camp on the grass surrounding the car park, whilst Mary stayed outside with our rucksacs. We were totally unsuccessful and gave up after about half an hour of fruitless pointing at maps and speaking slowly. When we got back outside, Mary was having a chat with one of the locals. I can’t remember how to pronounce the ladies name in Japanese, but the English translation means ‘Painting’. Fittingly she was an arts student, actually on vacation from Tokyo, currently staying at her grandmothers house, further up the hill. We had a nice long chat (since she spoke excellent English) with Painting, and asked her if she would like an ‘english lesson’ to help us complete one of our challenges. She agreed, and we taught her the basics of how to describe ones family tree (Uncle, Aunt, Grandmother, Cousin etc..) and in return she taught us some words in a local dialect called “Hogen”. After this, two official looking men emerged from the community hall and engaged her in Japanese conversation. When they had finished speaking, she said she was going to take us to Higashine Rose Garden, where we could stay overnight, which she very kindly did. Along the way, Mary had a very interesting conversation with Painting about a local festival which was scheduled for that evening, although we were reluctant to ask too many probing questions because it was centred around rememberance for the spirits of the dead.
A language lesson with Painting
After about 30 minutes of walking and chatting in English, we arrived at a children’s playground on the far side of a very beautiful rose garden. We also had a special mountain pointed out to us, which according to custom women are forbidden to climb in fear of angering the local God. We waited until most families in the garden had retired before pitching our tents for the evening. It had been a tough day and I resorted to taking photos of the sky, because I was too tired to do anything other than lie on my back and look up. It had also been a very beautiful day, if slightly hot for the average Englishman.
After a brief respite enjoing the blue sky and the warmth, I volunteered to go into town before it got too late on in the evening and buy something for dinner. I walked into town and found a street with a few shops on, took some pictures of the place in the glorious evening light, before eventually finding an open shop. I bought a few bits and pieces, including tomato curry, or so I though, and a bottle of coke for desert. When I got back to the nicely established camp, I handed over the goods to Gavan, who had been appointed Chef for the evening. Both Gavan and Mary soon realised that the tomato curry I’d bought was actually a rather interesting apple curry. I’d never tried apple curry before, but fortunately this was pretty good, especially with a little bit of ketchup and the pasta from the supermarket.
The sky at Higashine
A traditional street in Higashine
We finished dinner, washed up and then retired to our tents for torch-light diary writing. At about 9 in the evening, there was a noise outside the tent, which sounded like a large number of people milling around with fireworks. Not that I’m especially paranoid, or that our japanese hosts had been anything but fantastically welcoming, but I was struck by a strange fear of young people using fireworks as rockets to attack/set fire to our tents, whilst we were still in them! I started the process of climbing back into my outdoor clothes to go and investigate. However, before I’d got ready, Mary poked her head out of her tent and they all went away. She said it was mostly young-ish people, which would be consistent with the empty bottles of liquor, cans of coke and cigarette butts we found in the bench/pagoda/sunshade table the next morning when we had breakfast the next day.
We awoke to more blue skies and brilliant strong sunlight filling the rose garden. It was a great time to do clothes washing, so we all took maximum advantage of the public drinking fountain to wash our clothes, faces and in my case my hair too. It was so warm that we were able to dry most of our clothes in the gap between eating breakfast and setting of for the day.
When we finally set out, we headed back down into the valley. As part of our “meet a local official or dignitary” challenge on the list of 10 things we had been given to do by the Bulldogs, we decided to pay a visit (or at least try to find) the Muryama North municipal office, as it was signposted to the right as we walked down the hill, this was a gamble because it could have been 15km away, although it turned out to be only 1.5 k away, due to our collective mis-reading of the decimal point on the signpost. When we arrived, we actually thought the building was a hospital or clinic, it was Monday morning and there was a cleaning lady in the entrance with a floor polishing machine. We carried on inside the building and I went inside the first office cubicle that seemed vaguely open. I had a short chat with the woman behind the desk, who quickly called for a man from the other side of the office, as he spoke English. Mr Hisaio Endo (I still have his business card somewhere.) was a vice director of the Murayama Agricultural Program, although I’ve no clue what exactly this means in practice. He was very talkative and friendly, inviting all of us to come and sit down in his office for a good old fashioned chat. We took turns to explain where we were from, using a handy little world map in my diary, he told us of his travels in the UK, in particular a trip to Salisbury. Stonehenge seems a real hit with the Japanese, he wasn’t the first to say he’d been there or talk about it. We told him all about our travels, our time in Taiwan before arriving, and the 10 challenges we had for our expedition. He was very kind, sympathetic and helped us by planning the rest of our day in a series of very complicated japanese telephone calls.
Our meeting with Mr. Endo
Murayama was having a festival next Saturday, so it was disappointing that we weren’t able to stay and enjoy the fireworks. However, Hisaio-san told us about another festival taking place that evening in Oishida and instructed us exactly how we should get there. He even told us who we should talk to when we did get there, giving us the telephone number of his friend, who was in charge of tourism in Oishida, to call when we arrived. His directions were to take the train immediately to Oishida, so as not to miss too much of the exciting festival, then to book a taxi on our arrival, which would take us to a campsite about 7km outside of Oishida, up a rather large hill at a place called Sun Moon lake. This seemed like a most sensible proposition and we had high hopes of meeting a local official in Oishida who would be able to tell us bout tourism and the local economy. So we set off back towards the train station.
In the interim, we had all piled our rucksacs up in the corner of his office. Just as we were about to leave, Mary noticed a rather large puddle seeping out form beneath our rucksacks. As it happened, she’d placed hers down on the bite valve of her platypus drinking system, which had promptly started to release her 2 litres of drinking water over the floor of Mr Endo’s office. Hopefully we noticed before he did, so we quickly used my (just freshly dried!) towel to soak the worst of it up, I hope he didn’t notice.
We walked to the station and bought tickets from the machine to go into Oishida, which was only 2 stops up the line (10 mins by rail) and cost about 200 Yen each, so near enough one pound sterling at the exchange rates of the time. We only had to wait 20 minutes for the train, the times having been kindly provided by Endo-san. The train ride was a pleasant break from walking non-stop over the previous 2 days and gave us a chance to appreciate the countryside.
Upon arrival in Oishida, we faced some more challenges. These included the exit from the station, where I lead the group in totally the wrong direction, taking us on a 1km detour right around the station and over a level crossing back to the place we first started. When we got back to the place we first disembarked the train, we decided it would be a good idea to follow Mr Endo’s advice and book a taxi. Unfortunately after 45 minutes of negotiation, phrase book pointing, map waiving and speaking slowly, we gave up. We thought it would probably be easier (and quicker) to walk the full distance ourselves, even if we had to do it in the dead of night.
Having singularly failed to secure a taxi ride for later in the evening, we set off for the town proper. We walked and walked and walked, and we didn’t see a soul. The entire town of Oishida appeared to be deserted, locked up and shut down. There was only the slightest sign of life at a museum we passed, although for some reason the man at the entrance desk refused to let us in! He just folded his arms and shook his head in the expression which the Japanese seem to use to indicate a firm ‘no’. So we took him at his word and continued to explore the town.
The closed museum
James on the embankment
Lunch was purchased by Mary, who left myself and Gavan in a wooden pagoda next to the town hall, whilst she went to find a shop. In the meantime Gavan boiled up some water and I just sat and relaxed in the shade. Soon Mary returned with 3 assorted pot noodles and some chocolate and cheesy biscuits. The food was interesting, a ‘pizza’ shaped lump of flavouring turned up in one of the pot noodles, whilst the cheesy biscuits were very interesting- eating one was delicious, the second was nice and the third was actually pretty horrible.
Eventually we found the first signs of activity, in strings of paper lanterns which had been set up between the street lights. Following the trail of lanterns, we eventually arrived at the main street in town, which was quite evidently where everyone was hiding. A street market was in full swing, with stalls selling everything from local cuisine to full size replica AK-47 pellet guns. We walked up the main street until we saw all manner of strange stalls with live fish and adjacent BBQ’s, cork-gun shooting games, pop-corn stands and regional dishes being cooked right in front of your eyes. I think a lot of people thought that we were part of the show, walking round with our scout scarves on and large rucksacks. We noticed that some of the kids were pointing, staring and sometimes laughing at us. Funny! After walking down the main street we reached the river bank. Oishida has a large embankment, which runs at a slight angle to the main street. On top of the embankment, yet more local people were to be found sitting in deckchairs, enjoyin the sunshine and cold beer out of their cooler boxes. We also saw quite a few women and men wearing traditional Japanese kimonos, complete with wooden platform shoes. We had found the real Japan!
Headless James at the festival
Everyone had reserved their ‘pitch’ on the embankment with blankets and tarpaulins taped to the tarmac, so we had difficulty even finding a place to sit and put down our bags. Eventually we found a spot and set up for the afternoon. The first order of business was to try local food, which cost 500 Yen for a stuffed pancake. The contents included cabage, egg, beansprouts and some kind of sweet sauce, all fried and then wrapped in pancake. It was interesting, nice in parts, but unfortuantely not really to my tastes.
After sampling the local food, we thought it was time to try and make contact with the local council, as directed by Mr. Endo. Gavan and me returned to the town with some spare change to attempt the phone call. As I’d given my meishi (Japanese for Business Card) to Endo-san, the daunting task of making the call fell to me. I climbed into the phone box, which was a tight squeeze, and shut the door to keep out the noise of festival, with moderate success. However, the strong early afternoon sunshine soon turned the phone box into something of a sauna. I tried to record the conversation using the Dictaphone which Gavan had brought along, with limited success (i.e. only what I was saying was audible). The conversation was tough, indicating how much of the Japanese language I shamefully didn’t know, which was most of it. Eventually I ended up talking with a woman from the elections office who spoke excellent English.
When conversation proper started, I learned several things, the first of which was that the person I was looking for wasn’t there at all, by the sound of things. Secondly, the city office in Oishida was closing very soon and we would be most welcome to visit the lady to whom I was speaking, if we could get to the city office before it closed! She then gave me directions, before wishing me luck and hanging up.
Feeling the time pressure, me and Gavan hurried back to our makeshift camp by the riverside to collect Mary. Unfortunately I’m not the best at recalling directions people give me, so we tried to ask a local traffic policeman for some clarification. He wasn’t able to help us directly, although he asked a passing man, who asked another passing woman, who magically produced a highly detailed map from her handbag and gave it to us, pausing only to mark on the route in yellow highlighter. (Thank you!)
Following our new directions, we made reasonable time. We stopped only to collect some essential ice creams from a Lawsons convenience store, which we ate on the hoof to save time. Despite this, it was getting later in the afternoon, about 4:30, and our chance of making it 4km to the city office before closing time was slim to non-existent. We started to get a little depressed at this stage, having just a schematic idea of where to find the city office, and very little idea at all about where the camp site was. We’d also possibly alienated the entire population of local taxi drivers after our abortive 45 minute attempt to book a cab upon our arrival at the station, earlier in the day. Still we carried on, following the road signs for city office.
Eating local food at Oishida
Just as 5 o’clock approached a red 4×4 Subaru Forrester pulled off the road ahead of us and a youngish looking man got out. He looked at us quizzically as we approached him, before bowing and asking if we knew ‘James Devine-san’. For those unfamiliar with the Japanese way of speaking, it is traditional to attach the syllable ‘san’ to the end of a persons name as a mark of respect, in the same way that a westerner would use the prefix ‘Mister’, so the Japanese use the suffix ‘san’. He waved his council identification tag at us, which I guess explains how he knew who we were. After a split second of not having a clue what he was saying, we all figured out what he was saying at the same moment and started to nod profusely. He gestured to the car and within moments all our gear was stowed in the boot and we were happily sat on the passenger seats. Our new friend said something about a de-tour, and 5 minutes later I think we were at the council offices, although it may well have been anywhere in out-of-town Oishida. I was a little surprised that we didn’t have to get out at this point to go and bow at someone from the council to pay our respects which we were very willing to do, however our driver said he would only be two minutes, before he jumped out of the car and ran into the building.
We sat in the car for the 2 minutes, all slightly stunned at what had just happened, remarking on the fact that we would never have got into a car with a near total stranger back home. Just as our driver had said, he rushed back and 2 minutes later we were back on the road, apparently headed for “Kampu-Jo” (Japanese for a campsite). Our driver was in quite a rush, and seemed shocked that we had left it so late to check into our campsite. I’d guess from this that in Japan, where nobody seems to hike for more than a day at a time, not with full kit as we were, and checking into the campsite happens in the morning, when you’ve arrived there in your car! If it wasn’t for inumerable Duke of Edinburghs award hikes I’d probably think the same! It was very fortunate we had a lift to the campsite at Sun-Moon lake, as it was a good 30 minutes drive at about 50 miles an hour up and down little windy Japanese roads. We arrived at about 5:40, just in time to check in for the evening, which cost us the grand sum of 1000 Yen, for the tent and a little extra for the occupants. I’ve still got the receipt.
The campsite was mostly geared up for motor camping and hiring cabins, although there was a small field adjacent for free camping which had cost us our 1000 Yen. There was also a camp shop, selling such delights as locally produced pumpkin, giant watermelons, fresh potatoes and carrots, as well as convenience store staples such as Ice Cream and Oreo Cookies. Having spent two thirds of our daily budget on camp fees, we decided to have a cheap dinner, buying some carrots and potatoes (which made Gavan’s day). As thanks for the driver of the car, we offered him some scout badges, which he gladly accepted.
Camping at Sun Moon Lake
The campsite also had (hot!) shower facilities for the low price of 100 Yen a go, so we all took advantage to cleanse ourselves of the somewhat fresh smell that had been building up over the last 3 days without a proper wash.
That night we slept well, knowing that we would have a rather long walk back up the trail we’d covered in the car that afternoon. The other campers seemed to keep themselves to themselves in a friendly way, apart from one incident where our stove and dinner was nearly demolished by a low flying frisbie, fired from a tent across the other side of the field. From the looks of things most people were out for a week or weekend of camping with their families. There was a fantastic smell of BBQ as we tucked into our potatoes and tomato ketchup.
A fantastic sunset over the Sun Moon Lake
Next morning, the sky was grey and overcast. A watery sun was barely visible behind the cloudy skies. We packed our tent and set off north, following the shores of the lake. The surrounding hillsides were covered in Japanese pine treas, which made for quite a ‘spooky’ misty feeling to the early morning. We followed the road round to the mouth of a valley, then down the valley until reaching a Family Mart store, where we stopped for a late breakfast of jellied fruit. Whilst eating our fruit and some delicious ‘choco pies’, kind of like wagon wheels, Japanese style, two local Japanese men, who looked like farmers stopped and asked us if we were lost or needed directions. We had a fair idea of where we were located, but decided to humour them, in the hope of gaining some insight into the local area. We didn’t manage to engage them on conversation about the detailed agricultural situation of the local area, but they looked like farmers, and that’s what we wrote down in our diaries.
We carried on walking north west, back towards the middle of the valley, trekking about 8 Km back into the northern part of Oishida. As we were walking through the outskirts of the town, we chanced upon Obanazawa High School. Somehow we decided that it was Mary’s turn to try talking to the locals, so we thought we’d go into the school and say hello!
As we walked towards the entrance of the school, we met the caretaker. Our Japanese greetings were improving a little by this stage, and Mary was able to ask the care taker politely to go and find the school English teacher. Within minutes we had been invited into the school by the friendly English teacher. Although term had finished, many of the staff were in the school working or giving extra lessons to a few selected pupils. We took off our hiking boots and put on the traditional Japanese style house slippers, before being lead up to the staff room for a cup of traditional tea.
The English teacher was in the middle of an extra lesson with a girl called Narumi (who made us a nice little note which I’ve got in my expedition diary). We suddenly became a chance for her to practice her spoken English, so she started asking us our names and how old we were, before telling us about her hobbies. I think she was about 14 and her English was very good, we were all impressed with how well she coped with 3 real live English speakers just turning up in the middle of her lesson. The school PE teacher was also in the staff room, and he seized upon the opportunity to practice his English as well. He was very proficient at speaking English and engaged us (over our tea) in conversation about sports in the UK, his career as a Judo wrestler, and asked us in detail about what we were doing in Japan. We asked the English teacher if there was a scout troop associated with the school, which unfortunately there wasn’t, although he made a call to the local council to ask them on our behalf. When he got off the phone, he asked us if we had friends at the council office, and we sheepishly said yes, it appeared we were getting a reputation in Obanazawa too! He told us that we could find some scouts in the town of Shinjo, further up the valley, where we were we would be arriving in a day or so, weather permitting.
When we explained the full details of our challenges (which amused all three of our listeners greatly), Narumi volunteered to show us a local dance involving ornamental hats, which she had been practicing for a school display. The English teacher started to laugh and ran into a corner of the staff room as if to look for something.
Moments later he returned with a rather large straw hat (about 2 foot in diameter), covered in bells and red ribbons. He gave the hat to Narumi, who had already started to show us the actions for the dance without the aid of a hat. As soon as she started to dance with the hat, the English teacher disappeared again only to return a moment later with three more hats, which he handed us!
After a brief demonstration in the staff room, we were ushered out into the corridor by the PE teacher, who had picked up a camcorder from his desk. Narumi treated us to another demonstration, this time to music provided on a tape player by yet another teacher. After this, we were expected to join in, which we did with various degrees ofsuccess. I think Mary was by far the most proficient within our group, closely followed by Gavan. I wasn’t so good at the hat dance, even going slowly and following the demonstration step by step. The video footage is testament to my total confusion and lack of dance skills, I still have a copy but (un)fortunately my blog doesn’t accept videos.
Our visit to a school
Hat Dancing, it’s a big thing in the local region
It started to rain…
After the dancing, we said our goodbyes and presented them with some more scout badges (our supplies of badges were starting to run a little low by this point, a growing list of generous people had helped us out in ways we couldn’t even have imagined before we set out). We headed north up the valley towards Shinjo, a good 25km away as the crow flies, with half the day already gone. Although we had bought a number of maps before leaving Tokyo, we were navigating mainly by a map which indicated only towns and highways, with little information about the physical geography of the region. Shinjo is at a much higher altitude than Oishida, right up in the mountains. This became increasingly apparent as we walked up, up and up the road. It being day four, we were supposed to call Dan on his mobile phone, just to confirm to the home contact that everything was running to plan. However, making an international call from deepest darkest Japan isn’t such an easy task.
Stopping for lunch at about 2pm, we decided to start enquiring about buying a phone card. A few hundred yen later and we had secured both an NTT telephone card and some potted noodles for lunch. We sat outside the shop and ate them, watching the sky as it became progressively darker. As three o’clock approached, we were still on the road to Shinjo as it began to rain. Only a light drizzle at first, it soon became so torrential that we elected to actually put on our waterproofs at the next available shelter. The first thing we found was a garage with the door open, facing onto the main highway, so we trotted inside and proceeded to suit up.
Here we hit another problem. Gavan, the wild child of our expedition, had neglected to pack a waterproof device of any description. Fortunately I had packed a cheap plastic poncho which I had been given at the Moot back in Taiwan as a spare waterproof. Gavan was most grateful for the coat, which just about fitted over him and his rucksack, conveniently if not stylishly, Gavan looked like he’d had an accident with a shrink wrap machine that at least solved our problem.
We pressed on towards Shinjo, in the naïve hope of finding somewhere to stay on the way. Up and up we walked, as the road we were following gained progressively more and wider lanes, we eventually came to a fork in the road, right up in the mountains (we couldn’t see any higher as we were literally in the rain clouds which were soaking us. As the road forked, there was a sign for a tunnel with a crossed out picture of a pedestrian and a restriction on the use of any vehicle other than a car within the tunnel we had been planning to use. So we took the other fork and carried on further up the mountain and on into the clouds.
Eventually we reached a small truck-stop and a bank of payphones. This seemed like an ideal opportunity to call Dan, so we each spent 5 minutes on the phone (whilst the others waited outside in the worsening rain), attempting to use our phone card. After each of us had tried (and failed), we tried our luck at the truck-stop café. We walked inside, somewhat the worse for wear after walking in the rain for the last 2+ hours, and did our best to ask for help in making a call. We presented the three ladies behind the counter with the number, written out in full on a post-it note and our phone card. I’m not sure what they were saying, but they brought out the kitchen telephone, looked at our number, then took the phone away again and started spouting full speed Japanese at us. Our lost and hopeless expressions bought us no quarter to the unrelenting stream of Japanese dialect. After a few minutes we realised that the prospects of making a call from here were slim to non-existent and we returned to the road and the rain.
Having diverted to avoid the first tunnel, from which pedestrians were banned, we came across a truckers café and another tunnel which was apparently suitable for pedestrians. We tried our best to make a phone call through to Dan at the truck stop, but we failed completely to operate the Japanese ‘domestic only’ telephones. Quite who decided the suitability of the tunnel for pedestrians is an open question, as we were pretty scared walking though it. There was a white line down either side of the tunnel, about 2 feet from the rock wall, which seemed like the ‘pedestrian’ zone. We had no option but to either go through the tunnel or to turn back and walk all the way to Oishida. As it was only a short tunnel (about 300 meters) and we could see a light at the end, we decided to walk single file down the narrow pedestrian zone, on the side facing traffic, as standard practice for walking on roads dictates.
The noise of cars driving past inside the tunnel was amazing, they each roared like jet planes doing a low pass right by us. One particularly large juggernaut came past on our side of the road, so we decided to stop and all leant into the side of tunnel, expecting to be blown away by the slip stream as the truck passed. Fortunately we were all still leaning on the side of the tunnel when the truck had passed, our ears ringing with the tremendous noise.
Emerging on the other side of the tunnel, we congratulated each other on our continued existence, before walking into the town of Fungata. Town is really a gross exaggeration, Fungata is more of a jolly little hamlet. As a summary (exhaustive) of the facilities and amenities to be found in the metropolis of Fungata, there were :
- 5 convenience stores, all independeltly owned
- 2 hair salons
- 1 electronics shop (everything from telephones to dishwashers)
- 2 gas stations
- 1 JR line Station
- 1 domestic calls only telephone box.
The first of these landmarks we encountered was a filling station, from which Gavan was able to secure directions, (followed by a lift in a minivan! Thanks again to the anonymous driver) to the nearest campsite, which was about 2km down the road.
It looked as if they’d taken us out of the town completely, to a fishing park by the river. There was a grassy landscaped area with some open sided wooden huts about the place. There was also a feeder style tent on the northern side of the grassy area. The weather was pretty lousy by this stage, with a kind of misty-drizzle all pervasive. Partly this was due to general bad weather, partly our very high altitude (having spent what seemed like the entire day walking up).
We pitched our tents adjacent to the wooden huts, which proved very useful in keeping the inner sections dry whilst we figured out exactly how an ‘inner-first’ tent could be pitched in the rain, without soaking the insides. Soon both tents were secure, although Mary chose to pitch hers about 20 meters away, due to the expected noise of Gavan’s snoring. After the exercise was completed, we were approached by a senior looking Japanese man, coming from the apparent direction of the large feeder tent.
He greeted Mary and me with a friendly smile, before exclaiming ‘Do you have any alcohol?’, clearly our Japanese friend had already been indulging in some such substance. Despite being cold and wet we tried to be nice, and won an invite over to his feeder tent for later that evening. As it was already day four, we first needed to send out a search party back into the village to attempt contact with Dan, as part of our safety and security arrangements, agreed before departure.
Gavan was still a little shaky on his feet, so he elected to stay behind and guard our tents from the friendly if slightly drunken Japanese man. Mary and I put on all the waterproofs we could find, before heading out into the rain in search of a telephone. It was about a mile and a half back to the town, although this seemed much shorter when covered without the benefit of a fully packed rucksack. Even this short journey turned out to be rather challenging, as we had elected not to go down the side of the main road, thinking it would be safer to stay by the river side. This plan hit a slight snag when we were forced to leap frog over some stepping stones in a very fast flowing river to get across to the town. Fortunately both me and Mary managed to land square on each of the stones, and weren’t carried away by the current!
I should add that the rain was pretty torrential at this stage. My waterproof coat was just about able to stand up to the onslaught, and I was thankful that I’d taken extra time to put on my water proof trousers and trusty gaiters for this little bit of the journey. On arriving in the town, we found empty streets, the sole telephone box and an ice cream vending machine. Despite visiting the many small convenience stores, all we managed to accumulate was a bag of meagre rations (including bananas and 2 tubes of Oreo cookies for ‘desert’) and two empty Japanese phone cards, in addition to a full one we’d purchased earlier in the day.
Downtown Fungata (in the rain)
We found the local doctors surgery and pharmacy, but they were unable to help us due to their not speaking English, to give them credit it was also closing time when we arrived, which is never the best time. I was personally surprised that we couldn’t find an international phone of any description, even at the JR station.
Eventually Mary and I reached the conclusion that a reverse charge call to the UK was going to be the only way for us to report in to Dan. We squeezed into the phone box, it was pretty small and the windows misted up instantly, but at least it was out of the rain. Once inside, we started the protracted process of going from operator to operator required for international reverse charge calling. Since I thought that Dan might not appreciate a reverse charge call to his mobile in Japan, I decided to call my Mum and get her to phone on our message to Dan. This slightly convoluted plan worked, and we went back to the camp site with our food.
On the way back to the campsite, we crossed back over the stepping stones and walked back out of town. We found Gavan sat under the feeder with the Japanese man and his teenage son, all had a glass in hand. Immediately we were invited to join in, ‘do you like sake?’ asked the senior. By this stage, the day was over and it was nice to have chance to relax in some new company.
Gavan shares a drink with local Samurai
As part of the presents I’d brought along on the trip, I had three miniatures of scotch whiskey, one of which I retrieved from my rucksack and presented to our host. I was a little shocked at the manner in which he poured it all into his glass, threw in some ice and a little water, only to down the lot before saying “Thank you”. In return he offered us yet more sake, and some delightful Japanese whiskey, which I sampled. It was warming on a cold wet night, but I didn’t manage to bring any back to the UK with me. As the evening progressed, we chatted in a semi-coherent way with our two new Japanese friends. We discovered that the older man was a motorcycle engineer at Honda, a fact which seemed to delight Gavan, and that his son was a student at university in Tokyo. They were very kind to us, sharing their Japanese style camping food with us.
It wasn’t exactly traditional cuisine, everything we ate came in handy boil in the bag packets and tasted great. Partly I think this was because it actually tasted good, but also it was being generously cooked for us, which made a change. We tried all kinds of food, the rice was particularly tasty, as well as a pleasant Japanese take on Indian Curry. We shared our Oreo cookies and some crisps we’d purchased at the convenience store in the town.
Eventually tiredness got the better of us, and we left our Japanese friends to the remainder of their whiskey. We all slept well that night, partly due to our alcohol consumption and a hearty meal.
The next day we awoke to yet more rain. We had hoped the clouds would’ve blown over by the morning, however we were wrong. After carefully striking our tents to keep the inners dry, we had a quick strategy meeting whilst eating the bananas we’d bought yesterday. Given the weather we decided to head back into Fungata and catch the train to Shinjo, rather than walking.
Morning at the camp site in Fungata
We had an interesting and occasionally colourful discussion, sat under one of the wooden shelters as we packed our gear for the day. The only piece of waterproof clothing Gavan had was the yellow pack-a-mac I’d collected whilst at the moot, back in Taiwan. When I say waterproof, I use it in the loosest sense of the word. The point was made that as sensible people, we wouldn’t go walking in the UK without a decent waterproof jacket, so there was no excuse for such behaviour in Japan. In his defence, Gavan said he thought it would be warm in Japan, which I guess is fair enough if you haven’t ever travelled internationally before. So we set off for the train station, down town in Fungata.
Upon arrival, we shilly-shallied and I messed about for a good 60 seconds trying to find the correct type of bin to dispose of my banana peel. The Japanese take their waste disposal seriously, the station had at least 4 different types of bin, for plastic bottles, cans, cardboard and general rubbish, as well as various crates for other goods, all clearly labelled in Japanese. Whilst I was attempting to get my head round using the bin, Mary was interrogating the ticket saleswoman. She didn’t much verbal response, only a mildly hysterical reaction and urgent pointing out of the window towards a train at the opposite platform. The penny dropped and within a fraction of a second I was sprinting up the stairs, on my way to the other platform. Gavan and Mary were running noisily just behind me. By the time we got to the right platform, only about 40 yards away, we were all tired out and sweating like pigs. Fortunately the train was still there, it had very kindly waited for us, and departed rapidly once we had climbed aboard.
I found our rapid escape form Fungata astounding for two reasons in particular, firstly we had been allowed to board a train without purchasing a ticket of any description beforehand. From my time in Japan, this struck me as a very un-Japanese thing to do, and I was amazed we got away with simply paying the full fare at the other end. This isn’t allowed in the UK anymore. The other reason for my amazement was the fact that the train had actually, quite definitively, waited for us to clamber on board. In Japan it is considered to be a point of honour that the trains run on time, the driver is personally accountable for the time the train departs and arrives, most unlike the British system. Against this culture of being on time, I felt genuinely touched that the driver had accepted the possible consequences of dishonourable lateness just to avoid ruining our day. Once we were on board the train, everyone stared straight at us! It was scary really, but I guess we deserved it.
Twenty minutes of staring elapsed and we arrived in Shinjo. A veritable hive of activity by comparison to sleepy little Fungata, we paid our train fare to the uniformed man at the ticket gate and started to explore the town. Our first destination was the City Office, as we had been advised by our friends at Obanazawa High School, where we may possibly find Scouts. One of the benefits of the Japanese regional administration structure is that the City Office is always well signposted, in English. After progressing a couple of blocks into the town, we found the City Office. It looked just like any other civil administration building we had seen, large but unimposing, just like a post-war secondary school located in a town in Britain. We plucked up our courage and went inside to reception. This time Gavan took on the responsibility for communicating with the receptionist, and came out with a great result. We were asked to take a seat and within a matter of moments a fluent English speaker had emerged from one of the many corridors. He was followed by a grey haired man who was apparently a local scout leader. We made pleasant conversation, and attempted to interview the scout leader in the reception area, only to be told that a meeting room was being prepared for us upstairs.
Ushered into the meeting room, complete with our rather large rucksacks, I couldn’t help but feel out of place. Amongst other things, I was still wearing my less than comfortable waterproof trousers. Afraid of causing a diplomatic incident in attempting to remove my trousers during a meeting with city officials, I decided to sit it out. It wasn’t that uncomfortable, and besides, how long could they possibly be hospitable to three British scouts who had turned up almost completely at random?
The Japanese are a very hospitable people. Once we had stacked our baggage in the corner of the room, paying careful attention not to accidentally flood the nice meeting room with leaks from our platypus hydration systems, the meeting proper could begin. In addition to the grey haired scout leader and the translator, a short man with dark hair came in and sat down. Apparently he was a local congressman, and also the leader of the entire local scout administration. We must have spent the best part of an hour reclining in the wonderfully comfy leather chairs and drinking super strength iced coffee, whilst explaining everything about ourselves to the three interested Japanese civic employees.
Meeting a local Congressman (top left) and his translator (top right)
Once we started to discuss scouting, we asked about the scout leader about his scout troop. At this he got up and politely left the room, confusing us slightly although we were reassured by the interpreter that he would return in a moment. The congressman didn’t volunteer much information, but the translator took the opportunity to tell us about himself, and how he had come to be translating for us. Apparently he had done a high-school exchange with the USA, which was fairly common for Japanese people of his generation (he was substantially younger than his two colleagues), and had learned (absolutely perfect!) English whilst staying with his American host family.
Soon enough the scout leader (his full time job was with a civil engineering company, currently contracting for Shinjo council) returned with a whole pile of scout related presents for us! These included a local scarf (one each)! By this stage in the meeting I was shaking from drinking my iced coffee too quickly on a rather thin breakfast. The exchange of gifts continued as we presented them with a set of Cornish teaspoons provided by Mary.
Once the possible scout-tourist-total conversation had been exhausted, we started to make ‘leaving’ noises as discretely as we could. The three local officials remained sat at the table for some time being incredibly welcoming. We really didn’t want to be rude, but it was a long way to the coast. Eventually ushered us out of the room, and invited us to spend as much time as possible in Shinjo. One thing in particular which they said that we should visit was the local heritage museum. They were so strident about this fact that as we were waiting in the lobby of the building and thinking about our next move, they offered us a lift to the museum in the local congressman’s car! Talk about warm hospitality.
The weather had deteriorated from the mild rain we had experienced in Fukayama, to a full on lunchtime downpoor. We gladly accepted the lift, and were then faced with the challenge of packing ourselves, three rucksacks and a local congressman into a rather tiny VW Polo. Fortunately the Shinjo city office had a large car porch outside the entrance, so we were able to stay relatively dry during the 15 minute long packing exercise. It was indeed reminiscent of the joke about squeezing elephants into a mini. Having packed the car to capacity, we were driven to the local museum, accompanied by the translator, who drove behind in his car, which was totally empty apart from its occupier.
Arriving at the rather impressive local museum, shaped like a gigantic upturned boat, we ran up about 20 steps at the front and dashed inside to avoid getting soaked. The congressman and the translator did likewise, and we were re-united inside the office of the museums creator. He didn’t speak a word of English, and indeed the entire museum was in Japanese, but we had our friendly translator to help us out.
The first item on our complimentary tour was the slide show, which included a potted history of Shinjo, the local festivals, it’s Shogunate Heritage. The double-screen slide show was most impressive, especially the two enormous (each as big as a mid size lorry) floats, which had been preservedfrom last years annual festival. At the end of the slide show, the floats were illuminated by spot lights, before the internal float electronics were activated. The dragon on one of the floats was lit up in blazing red light, whilst samurai warriors on the other float became frighteningly realistic. The floats were a highly advanced integration of artwork, paper maché and electronic lighting wizardry, a very Japanese combination.
A rather impressive float
After the slide show, we were taken down into the basement, passing some huge (5 foot in diameter) bronze castings on the way. In the basement, a display had been set up to mimic the interior of an old style traditional Japanese residence.
There was a raised wooden floor covered in a Hessian type matting material. An imitation fireplace sat in the middle of the room, with a flickering red light bulb used to give the impression of real flames. The sides of the room were stacked high with old style shop merchandise, including jars of sweets, herbs and spices. Some of the shelves had Japanese books on them, and others functional looking objects.
The rest of the basement was like a giant warehouse, filled with antiquated agricultural equipment, such as ploughs, rakes, threshing machines, and other outdoors type equipment such as skis and snow boots. There were no labels on any of the equipment, which just sat neatly in racks from floor to ceiling. Our two guides were very keen to show us these things wonderful, so we did our best to look impressed.
Soon the time for our museum tour had run out, and we were hurried back into the congressman’s car. We drove about 2 minutes round the corner and he parked next to a very traditional looking Japanese building. As we got out, we were greeted by the translator who had somehow managed to arrive before us. He explained that this was a Soba restaurant and that we were being treated to lunch by the congressman!
I’d never tried soba noodles before, or so I thought. During our three days of orientation in Tokyo, I had sloped off to a local café for my lunch one day (whilst nameless others from our party went to McDonalds). I eventually managed to order what looked like noodles, with the help of the cook and a friendly vending machine. I gave my ticket to the chef and sat at one of the seats to twiddle my thumbs awkwardly until food arrived. Moments later, the chef returned with a bowl of noodles. They looked exactly like the picture on the vending machine, but failed to meet my expectations. This was because they were cold, stone cold. Soba, for the uninitiated, is the Japanese delicacy of cold noodles.
Back in the restaurant, we took our seats and did our best to be polite, in accordance with Japanese customs. The seats were rough, rustic style benches; we squeezed onto one side, whilst our hosts sat opposite. Before starting the meal remember to say ” itadakimasu” which is the japanese form of “bon apetit”. The first course was Meso soup, served in small cups. It tasted bitter and salty, but we all indulged to the best of our abilities. After starting on the soup, we moved on to delicious Tempura. Tempora is another Japanese delicacy, remarkably similar to the British staple of fish and chips. It consists of various objects (generally sea food and vegetables), which are lightly battered and fried to order, before being served directly to the customer on a plate before they get cold. Following the example set by our hosts, we attempted to dip the tempora in our remaining meso soup before eating it. This was a complicated operation, all using chopsticks, with maximum effort being made all the time to act in a dignified and respectful way.
Once the Tempura had been dealt with, we moved onto the main dish of Soba. It was served in the traditional style on a small flat wooden plate with sloping sides, apparently so you can pick it up and finish the lot. As with the tempura, it is customary to dip your noodles in meso soup, or another sauce, before eating them. Again without black-belt chopstick skills this proved very difficult to accomplish, and a fair proportion of my noodles ended up lost in the blackness of my meso soup. I think the others faired a little better with their dipping and slurping.
Once we had done our best to eat all the food, and some considerable time after our hosts had finished the meal, things were declared finished and a photo was taken with the chef, apparently a local noodle master. We thanked the congressman for paying for our meal, and before we had the chance to ask, he kindly offered us a lift back to the station. Our mission in Shinjo completed, we gladly accepted and piled into his little car for the last time.
Meeting the Soba Master
It was about one in the afternoon when we got to the station, with the next train to Akakura-Onsen leaving just after three. The rain continued to pour down, so we sat in the ample station and caught up on important things like writing our diaries and sleeping. The station turned out to be part of a local cultural complex, including a public auditorium and a two screen cinema. The auditorium was full of people sheltering from the rain. The station waiting room was also packed to capacity, as people crowded round a TV showing a live baseball game. As a reward for a successful days challenging activities, it was my turn to buy the ice creams, which we sat and ate whilst watching the rain and waiting for our train.
Diary writing in Shinjo station
Three o’clock rolled around and we made our way to the platform. We hadn’t been fully aware of the sizeable mountain range which lay between our start point and end point when setting out. Our hope was of finding a suitability wide pass to follow, however most roads running in the east- west direction were either tracks on the mountain top or multi-lane mega tunnels which cut straight through to the outskirts of Sendai. It seemed sensible to carry on our progress using the local rail network, having already spent 5 hair-raising minutes walking through a tunnel the previous day.
Instead of getting the train straight to the other side of the mountain range, we decided to break our journey at the half way stage, in an attempt to sample mountain hospitality. We were also hopeful of visiting an ‘Onsen’, the Japanese name for a traditional hot spring bath. One of the unexpected outcomes from this strategy was learning why it isn’t advisable to turn up in the middle of an isolated Japanese mountain town at 4 in the afternoon and expect for find somewhere to stay, unless you have a car.
We caused more shenanigans on the train ride, having piled our rucksacks up by our chosen seats, Gavan’s platypus had ended up face down on the train floor. By the time we were half way to Akakura-Onsen, there was a sizeable pool of water underneath our bags. Just then the train slowed down very rapidly, sending the pool of water racing down the entire length of the carriage floor in an inch wide stream. This man made river immediately drew the attention of the conductor, anxious to check that it was water, rather than petrol (or some other flammable liquid). Satisfied that we didn’t plan to blow up his train, the conductor produced some tissues and helped us to mop up the mess. I’m sure he was most relieved when we got off the train.
The scenery on our trip had been mostly pine covered hillsides, shrouded in mysterious low cloud and drizzling rain. As we entered the station at Akakura-Onsen, we found it to be little more than a small concrete hut, decorated with two benches and a map. Unusually for Japan it smelt faintly of urine, the universal odour of many a train station. We left as quickly as possible, following the arrows on the map pointing to the Onsen. Apparently it was only 20 minutes walk away, although 20 minutes soon turned into 40 and we eventually ended up completely lost by about 5 in the afternoon. The Onsen was far from obvious, the best we could find was a small corner shop. Unfortunately, it’s proprietor spoke no English and sold a rather eclectic range of products. Due to a lack of bottled water, I felt obliged to buy some grape flavoured Fanta, which wasn’t really the best thing for my building headache. We tried the next convenience store we found and got a similarly blank response. Eventually we reached the end of town and spotted a large hotel. The hotel was actually a ski resort, and therefore closed during off season. Fortunately, an attached off-licence was open and we trooped in.
A very wet Akakura-Onsen
The shop was extremely clean, quite large by the standards for British off-licences, and yet very sparsely populated with drinks. After a quick few minutes browsing only to realise they sold nothing BUT booze (strong stuff at that), we plucked up the courage to ask about finding accommodation in the local area. We were greeted with a wonderful smile from the old lady behind the till, who disappeared into the back of the shop, only to emerge with a tray of iced coffee and a younger man and woman, who spoke some English!
Mary and Gavan took the lead in explaining the situation to the man, who took them into the back office to look up camp sites using Google. I stayed out front with our luggage and attempted to make conversation in Japanese with the old lady. After I had remembered the Japanese word for student (Gakusei), our conversation sadly petered out. Some 15 minutes later, Mary and Gavan emerged to say that a man was coming in a car to collect us. But where were we going?
At first I wasn’t sure about the guy who turned up to get us in a Toyota 4×4. He told us to get in the car and said we would have to pay what sounded like a lot of money for our accommodation that night. He said we couldn’t camp because it was raining, and generally seemed very negative about everything. Fortunately, I couldn’t have been more wrong about him, and he turned out to be one of the nicest people we met on our whole adventure!
Our guide introduces us to the camping hut
He took us up the hill to a camp site, about 20 minutes from the off-licence where we had been waiting. Maemori Heights, is a large leisure complex, catering for all kinds of adventurous activities, including camping, horse riding and mountain walking. Originally it was a farm, but there proved to be more money in running an American style tourist ranch. Unfortunately, it had been raining in Maemori for the last 5 days, following the path of a tropical storm moving along the coast. This had reduced the camping field to a submerged mush of green leaves and mud. We could probably have stuck it out for a night, but the chance of getting our entire worldly belongings (not to mention ourselves!) totally covered in mud, wasn’t something which appealed to any of us. Sensing the opportunity, our guide took us to some huts across the road from the camping field. These were so called ‘camping huts’, basically wooden tent-replacements, handily built on short stilts above the sodden ground. We happily stumped up the 1000 Yen to hire a hut for the evening and enjoy an upgrade from our tents. The floorboards were still pretty rough with 1” gaps between each of them. In an effort to prevent creepy-crawly ingress, we elected to put up an inner tent inside the hut, simply to have the benefit of the all round mosquito net.
I think we decided not to bother cooking that evening, we had eaten well at lunch, and the outside conditions didn’t merit leaving the warmish, dry hut to go and cook in the wet. At about 7 in the evening, our guide came back in his car and knocked on the door. He had come to ask if we would like to go to Onsen with him later that evening. Having warmed to the charming and kindly young man we gladly accepted, and he promised to return for us later with his car. We had really struck it lucky in Maemori.
The Onsen was an interesting experience. Our guide insisted on paying for us, which was very generous and touching, as it showed how genuine he was about treating us as guests, and having a positive opportunity to practise his English, rather than as his next (small) pay check for the resort. Once inside the small two storey baths building, Mary was directed to the ladies bath, whilst I followed Gavan and our guide into the male bath.
Stripping totally naked in front of someone you’ve only just met must be one of the weirdest experiences I’ve had so far. The Japanese have a radically different attitude regarding nudity, at least in public baths, by comparison to the prudish English and the Irish as well. Fortunately our guide was there to explain the traditional significance of hot spring bathing in Japanese culture. Things were made slightly easier by the fact that the bathing room was empty, as surely being naked in front of even more random people would be worse.
I hope we managed to carry the whole thing off without offending Japanese culture. The bathing ritual is as follows; firstly one must strip naked. Then it is expected that bathers will wash themselves using the wall mounted showers in the bathing room, the strangest bit of this was sitting on 8” high foot stools for the “pre- wash” on the side of the bath. After you’re reasonably clean, you are allowed to enter the hot spring. The spring in this case consisted of a three meter square swimming pool, about a meter deep at the inside, getting a little shallower towards the opposite edge.
After an enjoyable dip, we returned to the changing room, donned our clothes and went into the lounge. The bath house was actually part public baths, part private house. We went and sat in the living room for a few minutes until Mary emerged from the Ladies bath. Mary had been the only female bather, I think she more or less figured out what she was supposed to do.
More Japanese hospitality
When she emerged, we sat cross-legged on the floor in the living room with our guide and discussed the striking differences between British and Japanese public bathing practices. Our guide had been most amused earlier by my question ‘Should I bring my swimming trunks?’ to the baths. We talked about our various geographic origins and answered the usual questions from most English speaking Japanese we got talked to- had we been to Salisbury?
Soon our legs had gone numb from sitting cross legged and our guide motioned towards the door. We put our shoes back on and ran to his car to avoid getting soaked in the rain which had worsened during the evening. He drove us back to our wooden hut at the camp site, and we thanked him profusely for our evenings treat. A thorough wash made all the difference to our physical and mental well-being, not to mention relieving the rather disgusting smell we had been building up since our shower on day three. Freshly bathed in life-giving spring waters, we all slept well as the rain lashed down outside.
The next morning arrived and day six began. A knock on the door at 8 am signalled the return of our guide for the day. He was anxious to show us the Maemori Heights park before we disappeared to Furukawa later in the day. He took us up to the ranch headquarters, where a young Japanese girl was having a riding lesson, watched by her parents and grand-parents. The ranch was quite strikingly American in its appearance. We had a quick tour of the stables, and an interesting chat with the Korean lady at the counter apparently her English was better than her Japanese, and she practised frequently with out guide. The stables had four or five fine looking horses, none of which would have been out of place in a John Wayne western. We also met an ancient looking man, who was seemingly the owner of the whole place and very interested in waking his horse round the paddock in ever decreasing circles.
Gavan admires the ranch
After posing for photos ‘down on the farm’, our guide pointed to his car and very obligingly gave us a lift to the next station along the line from Akakura-Onsen, where we’d departed the train the previous day. As we were leaving, we gave him one of the miniature whiskeys and some scout badges. A rather unorthodox combination of gifts, and in return we were given three small pots of ‘Maemori Heights Ice Cream’, which we duly ate for breakfast whilst waiting for our train to arrive. Even just sitting in the waiting room, we were of real interest to the local people, also waiting for the one train an our towards Sendai.
Eventually the train arrived and we piled on board, having paid about 700 Yen a piece for our tickets. The weather had improved dramatically since the previous day, and we had a very beautiful and sunny 1 hour journey into the city of Furukawa. A couple of stops before our destination, the train was filled with Japanese school girls, complete with authentic school uniforms. Quite why they were on the train in the middle of the day was a good question and we didn’t manage to find an answer, they just stared at us like the rest of the commuters on the train. Stepping off at Furukawa station, we had made our way onto the detailed street-level road map we purchased in Tokyo, covering the whole of Miyagi Prefecture (to the east of Yamagata Prefecture).
After a quick photo call outside the McDonald’s at the station entrance, we started to make our way out of town, in search of green looking areas to pitch a tent. The transition from urban jungle to rice fields was very rapid, with initially sporadic fields eventually expanding to fill the entire horizon. At first we headed east, then south towards a small village. As the afternoon approached, we started looking for places to stay overnight. Initially, the only civilisation we found was a never- ending succession of convenience stores, ranging from the ubiquitous Seven Eleven to the slightly more down-market Mini-Mart.
McDonalds in Furukawa
We came across a town with a Pachinko parlour (a highly popular pin-ball related Japanese form of gambling) and two hairdressers. Trying our luck at the hairdressers, we were fortunate to find an entire family sitting down inside enjoying some tea. It just so happened that they were being visited by their daughter, who was the proprietor of a Japanese restaurant in Los Angeles. She spoke perfect English, and was very excited to meet some scouts. Apparently her daughter was just about to start Rainbows over in the US.
The lady from Los Angeles and her father
She explained our journey to her family, before making a few calls to the local council. She managed to obtain us permission to camp by the local baseball field, then walked with us to the park, about twenty minutes further down the road. This was a most fortunate set of circumstances, as we would never have found the place by ourselves, or indeed been able to obtain permission to stay there. We arrived quite early in the afternoon, at about four o’clock and pitched our tents round the back of a small hill. There was a shrine on the top of the hill, so we decided it was best to keep a low profile, even though we had legitimate permission to be there. So, hiding round the back of the hill seemed like a good idea!
Our first attempt at camping
We pitched our tents as best we could, vague rumours of a tropical storm encouraged us to put up every guy line and dig all the pegs in as far as possible, whilst paying particular attention not to pitch in any depressions which might fill with water. Having completed the most thorough tent pitching exercise, we moved over to an adventure playground, conveniently located next to our chosen camp site. Whilst clowning around on the swinging steps and climbing the A-frame, we were approached by a group of three older Japanese ladies.
“Denki.. Denki!” they shouted, as they came up to us. This phrase was accompanied by numerous other rapid fire Japanese syllables, none of which were sadly intelligible to any of us. Eventually the ladies started to gesticulate wildly, pointing round the corner, back towards the baseball stadium. Taking the initiative, we followed their gestures, and discovered a small pavilion, which we had initially decided against camping near because it was rather conspicuous. The trio came with us and started pointing at a couple of plug points in the wall of the pavilion. They smiled pleasantly once we had seen the plug points, and then turned to depart. We bade them good evening and then sat round the stone table in the open sided pavilion, to try and interpret what they had been trying to say to us.
Our interpretations ranged from “Don’t camp here”, “Respect the Shrine” to the more practical and ultimately correct “Camp over here, there is an electrical plug point”. After some discussion, we decided it was sensible to strike our tents and move them closer to the pavilion. The operation was quite tight as it had started to get rapidly darker. After taking out the pegs, we just dragged the two tents round the side of the shrine and put the pegs back in (albiet slightly wonkily) by the pavilion. Gavan set up the stove on the stone table, and we sat round waiting for dinner to appear.
Lighting the stove didn’t quite go to plan. There was a leak somewhere in the fuel line, with white gas spitting out from the metal tube and pooling on the table. There was common agreement between all three of us that the pool of fuel was going to catch fire, which it promptly did, engulfing the entire table in foot high flames. Now we had a real impending disaster on our dinner table.
The stove, complete with a fully pressurised bottle of white gas, was totally ablaze. Gavan acted quickly, ripping a towel out of his rucksack and using it to beat the flames. This wasn’t immediately effective, and we all withdrew a couple of paces, shouting and trying to decide what to do. Not exactly something any of us had trained for, or ever experienced before. Our principal concern was that the fuel bottle would explode, ‘BANG’. This caused us to stay back, but if we could stop it getting too hot, we could probably prevent the explosion, which would have even have decimated a couple of nearby houses, especially if it went off like a rocket. The Japanese tend to use lots of light paper based materials in domestic house construction, not a good combination when set on fire by an exploding stove. Gavan heroically started to spread his towel over the flames. Mary reached into her rucksack and pulled out the platypus, using it as a fire-hose. I ran away.
Not completely motivated by cowardice I should add. I had grabbed a couple of ‘UK Taiwan Moot’ T- shirts, which I’d only just purchased at the end of our trip to Taiwan. I ran to the tap about 20 yards away and soaked them as quickly as possible, then back to the table and laid them out over the more or less extinguished stove. Gavan did a superb job of fighting the fire, although after testing the temperature of the fuel bottle, we decided to leave the wet t-shirt covering in place for a good 20 minutes before considering the blaze extinguished beyond doubt. This time was also useful for us to calm down and discuss our most recent exciting adventure.
When we lifted up the covers, it appeared that the MSR stove was badly damaged, the bottle pressure-stopper had melted and turned a crispy shade of black, the fuel line was in tatters, but the burner looked in reasonable shape. Closer investigation revealed that the pump was indeed damaged beyond repair, and the MSR would be useless to us for the remainder of our journey. Fortunately I had insisted on bringing a spare stove, just in case something highly unexpected and stove-destroying occurred. I for one wasn’t going to eat cold super noodles for 10 days, even if it meant carrying another stove myself.
Cue James removing the spare stove from his rucksack, and letting Gavan to do the honours cooking dinner somewhat slower using a single meths burner and the pots salvaged from the MSR. Dinner took a good 30 minutes to cook, but the pasta and apple curry sauce tasted just as good as last time. We were all pretty relieved to get dinner, it having looked at one stage as if we were going to be either blown up or arrested as arsonists for destroying part of the local village in giant fireball. After dinner, I had some surplus energy and decided to win some credit with Gavan and Mary by going down to the town for a supplies run to the nearest 24 hour convenience store. By this stage it was almost pitch dark, the electric points near the stone table were also useless to us, having nothing to plug into them. Instead we made do with torchlight, the others wrote their diaries whilst I headed out into the darkness.
I don’t often query the things I do, or the choices I make in my life. However, when you’re heading down a deserted road, on a dark, wet and windy night, in a town you’ve never really seen in daylight, you do start to ask questions. It probably wasn’t the wisest thing to do, but after all the excitement, I felt the need for some physical activity to work the adrenaline out of my system. If I could find my way round a new town and pick up a few chocolate bars on the way, I thought everything would be fine!
In this case, everything did work out fine. I had a whistle stop tour of the town, eventually finding a ‘Sunkist’ 24 hour store for refuelling. Several chocolate purchases later and a few stumbles down blind alleys and I made my way back to the camp site, to find Gavan and Mary still writing up their diaries. They were very grateful for the supplies, and I think the exercise had worked out my adrenaline rush (only to be replaced with an equivalent chocolate-sugar rush).
We must have called it a day at about 9 o’clock in the evening, as the wind started to really pick up. I spent a few minutes finishing my diary for the day, before trying to get some rest. However, at about midnight, I was woken by the sound of an acoustic guitar being played (less than perfectly), quite close by. I tried to sleep through, but the combination of out of tune music and Gavan’s freight train snoring eventually persuaded me to put my clothes on and go to investigate.
Two young Japanese Beatles fans
Sheepishly I emerged from the tent and once my eyes had adjusted to the streetlight I saw two young Japanese guys sitting on the curb by the Baseball stadium car park. They were trying to sing the beatles, so I thought it would be safe enough to go up to them and introduce myself. An several Beatles songs, sips of shared Korean liquor later and an hour later, I had been well and truly introduced to my two latest Japanese friends.
One of them spoke good english and was able to translate for his friend. From what they told me, the english speaker was a design student at Chiba University, who was currently back home on holiday. His friend was a cleaner at a local old peoples home, who had apparently been out earlier that evening and spent all his money on alcohol. Only half a bottle of slightly nasty Korean liquor remained, which they gladly offered to share and I foolishly accepted. It tasted absolutely filthy, at about fifty percent proof, had we not just destroyed our stove we could probably have used it as fuel. It was easy to see the influence of alcohol on the two singers as they struggled to sit upright on the curb.
After a few Beatles numbers, and a touching song composed especially for me, “We love you James”, I thought it was time to leave. We exchanged business cards in the traditional Japanese way and I took a photo for my album. I bade them good night and they continued to sing for a good few hours, fortunately I soon drifted off to sleep.
We were woken by the wind next morning, which was chasing clouds at a frightening speed across the sky. The trees surrounding the shrine were swaying dramatically as we rapidly packed our tents away. After a quick wash and shave in the public drinking fountain, we set off in a south easterly direction, heading for the coastline. Breakfast was taken whilst sheltering behind a wall at the first convenience store we passed. The terrain was quite flat, with rice paddy fields as far as the eye could see in every direction. The action of the wind across the rice plants was like great invisible waves, rapidly rolling towards us. The roads were very exposed, having been constructed on raised dykes, separating the rice irrigation system. At one stage we crossed a bridge, having to lean over forward to prevent being swayed over the side and into the river below.
Directions to the Sake Museum
After a few hours of tracking along the dead flat rice growing areas, we reached the foot of some reasonably large hills. A large blue highway sign pointed due south to the ‘Sake Museum’ and we decided, after some discussion, to go in search of more cultural experience (and possibly some alcohol). At this stage we exploited a new navigation technique we had first used in Shinjo. We took a photo of the signpost at the entrance to the town , which detailed the Japanese script for the Sake Museum, and its relative location within the town. As we moved into the dense streets, we were able to look back at the map using the screen of the digital camera, to correctly identify which of the official looking buildings on the high street was the museum.
Relaxing outside the Sake Museum
A good two hours later, we emerged from the museum. Although named the Sake Museum, it actually gave a fairly broad insight into Japanese life in Miyagi prefecture. There was a display of local pottery ware, including both contemporary and historical artefacts. I personally thought the most interesting exhibit was a poster detailing how to make a samurai sword from a piece of steel, accompanied by two stunning examples in a glass display case. There was even a Disney style animated story (including dummies with moving heads and fire breathing dragons) covering the Sake production process. Unfortunately the whole show was in Japanese, but we made a few notes on our interpretation of the various stages of the process. After visiting the main building, we were directed to an annex building, where we watched a 40 minute long video on the local festivals and seasons. This too was in Japanese, but we were at least able to discern the spring festivals by the use of prolific images of cherry blossom, a symbol of spring in Japan so famous the annual progress of the blossom season is reported on the evening news.
Admitidly, we were slightly disappointed by the lack of sake tasting opportunities at the museum and couldn’t really afford to buy any (or indeed anything) from the museum gift shop, but it had been an interesting cultural insight. We reclaimed our packs from the reception desk and huddled round the digital camera to plan our escape from the town, using our handy digital map. The wind continued to be a worry, probably at the lower end of the gale force scale, with the clouds racing across the sky gradually darkening to look like rain. It was becoming obvious that there was a large storm out in the Pacific headed our way, the only questions being how large and when it would arrive in earnest.
Continuing round the side of the hills, we came across another Seven Eleven and decided to have another attempt at checking in with Dan, to confirm our safe progress to date. We were substantially more successful this time round, acquiring an international calling card for 500 Yen, which worked first time! Mary took charge of the conversation whilst I and Gavan stood on the windward side of the rather flimsy phone booth in an effort to make the call audible. All the other groups were doing well, Dan was slightly bemused to have received a message from my mother earlier in the week, but otherwise everything was OK for us to continue.
Anxious to get away from the increasingly powerful wind, we continued south-south-east, entering a narrow valley. There was no pavement, only a 1 foot indentation marked with a white line on either side of the road. The valley bottom was quite narrow and twisty, but we decided it was substantially safer to carry on down the road, rather than take our chances on the less twisty railway tracks! The advantage of heading down the valley was that it got us out of the wind, although we could still see the clouds flying over us.
We reached yet another plain on the other side of the valley, which fortunately wasn’t very steep. Closer analysis of the map made it look like we were going to have a very steep climb all the way to Sendai. However, as we began to cross the flat terrain leading up to another set of hills in the far distance, we realised the obvious fact that we would actually be going (mostly) downhill to the sea. This was a source of much jubilation, as we trudged through another strip of convenience stores, barbers and houses by the main road. Progress was swift as the wind had swung round and was now at our backs, although this didn’t put us completely at rest, realising that it probably meant we had entered a different sector of the outer reaches of the tropical storm.
Early afternoon and we passed up the chance to eat at a local fast food take away, instead stopping to buy mineral water and use the toilets at a couple of edge of town clothes shops. Gavan did his best to re-adjust his feet, before we set off yet again across another large expanse of paddy fields, bounded at the edge of the horizon by some very and imposing mountains. The weather was holding up reasonably well, but we decided to take a short cut, heading south, rather than south east, in the hope of reaching the mountain pass a bit quicker.
Then I got us lost. Whilst heading south, we had turned south west towards a village in the hope of finding somewhere for lunch. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a single commercial enterprise in the village, which looked to be composed o f a mixture of half abandoned and half redeveloped farm buildings. We totally failed to find food of any description, or even ascertain our location on the map. Whilst pondering this situation and sheltering in a large and impressive doorway, we met a kindly old man.
He was wearing black wellies and old looking clothes. After his wizened appearance, the second thing to strike us was the rather intense agricultural smell he was emitting. It was a very windy day, but the gentleman’s odour was almost overpowering. He said some words too us in Japanese, took hold of our map book, only to look at it bemusedly and return it. We were hoping he would point out our location, as you (surely) would, upon finding a group of lost travellers in your village? Unfortunately, he gave us no such insight, and waved goodbye as he walked of edge of the road and started to wade down a small river channel in his wellies. That certainly explained the smell.
One of the lowest points for our entire expedition approached, as we left the village at about three in the afternoon. The wind was still getting stronger, with threatening rain clouds now swirling above our heads and the sun beginning to illuminate the peaks of the distant mountains with a shining golden light. We managed to identify a sizeable embankment on the map, heading up into a small hollow to cook a belated dinner. We hadn’t managed to purchase specific provisions for lunch, so it was a question of ‘making do’ with whatever we had in our rucksacks and cooking with my rather tiny Trangia stove on a windy hillside.
It had fallen to me to do the ‘pre-expedition’ supermarket run. I had sourced the pasta and dried fruit, which had so far covered our breakfast and dinners reasonably well. Expecting food to be in short supply during the expedition proper, I had also purchased a small pack of noodles for my personal consumption. Food had actually been relatively easy to come by up to this stage, so the noodles had remained uneaten. They had also picked up the name ‘Lucky Noddles’, from somewhere.
Mary was also carrying some noodles which we had felt obliged to buy in order to get hot water from a convenience store a couple of days earlier. The time had arrived for the lucky noodles to be eaten. After building a windbreak from our rucksacks, waiting twenty minutes for the water (which was all the water we had left at this stage) to boil, we tucked in to our not so tasty lunch. The Lucky noodles may indeed have been a good luck charm, and they were certainly there when I most needed them, but they tasted totally foul. Mary and Gavan shared the other, slightly more edible instant noodles. I was stuck with my good luck.
Back on the right track, and having eaten to a limited degree, we soon found another convenience store which had been hiding just the other side of the embankment. We piled in an each of us spent an obscene (in terms of our daily 1000 Yen budget per person at least) amount on snack food and bottled water. Mary set a trend of buying ‘Pocari-Sweat’, a heavily advertised sports drink, full of revitalising minerals (to such an extent that it actually tasted salty!), both me and Gavan followed suit, putting the offending drink into our platypus hydration systems. This was a bad idea, the peculiar taste lingered in my hydration system for the remainder of the expedition. Apparently the others eventually managed to remove the after taste by rinsing their packs out with warm soapy water.
We were still a way short of finding anything that looked like a camp site. We knew there was some form of park just round the corner, taking us into another valley which cut through the mountains which had looked so far away earlier that day. The first part of the pass was up hill and the going was slow. Having taken on ridiculous quantities of salt and sugar (in the form of Pocari Sweat and a couple of packets of mini-cookies), I was on a chemically induced high. Unfortunately, Gavan in particular was feeling the worse for wear, another day of hard trekking having taken it’s toll. We stopped at the park and were slightly surprised by what we found there. The iconic image of three brick arches we had seen on the preceeding signposts was clearly visible, in the form of a small free standing structure about 3 meters by 10 meters, located squarely at the northern end of a car park which dwarfed the monument. There was a group of motor cyclists sitting inside the monument, who stared at us when we arrived on foot. They quickly saw an opportunity to impress us, roaring away with their shiny motor bikes. Sitting behind a wall to take advantage of the shade, we dumped our rucksacks. Gavan went off to some nearby public toilets, I headed for a roadside café to ask about finding accommodation.
The café was rather primitive by Japanese standards. More like something I would have expected in the middle of Thailand or Vietnam (not that I’ve ever been to either of those places, yet). Stooping to get in through the 5 foot high doorway, I found myself in a cramped and smoky little world of truck drivers. There were only about two drivers sitting at the bar style table, which looked directly into the kitchen, the place was obviously filled to capacity. I had to stoop even further to poke my head under a bamboo smoke barrier into the kitchen. Two women were preparing various pots and pans on a small domestic gas cooker. Not exactly the Ritz, but the younger of the two women was very helpful. At first she was highly amused by my height, as were the two customers in the café. Once the pointing and exclaiming had been concluded, we went outside and she pointed me up the pass, drawing a small picture of a tent on a scrap of paper, and writing some Japanese characters inside a box which looked like a sign post. She then pointed up the pass again, waiving the finished note. Taking the note, I thanked her as best I could and headed back to Mary and Gavan, mission accomplished.
Sugar still pumping through my veins, and a slight fear of finishing the trip with an additional souvenir in the form of diabetes, I shared the developments with my fellow travellers. We made a first attempt at cleaning the Pocari Sweat out of our platypus’s, only to realise that it was futile and carried on up the hill. The sun was beginning to calm down as it entered it’s lazy afternoon stroll across the mountain skyline. We pressed on upwards, eventually finding a sign which vaguely matched the one on our note. It pointed to a road heading straight up the side of a particularly large hill, but we were pretty sure of our location and so turned off.
We got to the camp site at about 5 o’clock in the evening. There was no obvious main entrance, or even a visible camping area. We headed inside the biggest building we could find, to find that the security guard was the only person to be seen. After the usual umming and arring, we elected Gavan to go in an negotiate for the nights accommodation, but this proved a frightfully complicated process, which had within minutes sucked in all of our collective explaining skills. We were unable to understand anything the security guard said, he likewise seemed to be unable to understand anything we were saying either. Eventually, we concluded that camping on the site was not an option, drawing on the guards frequent references to weather, wind and his gesturing to the now rapidly waving tree tops. The camp site was really exposed, being stuck on one of the biggest hills which lined the pass. We were aware of the impending tropical storm, which lead us to plan staying the night in a full-on youth hostel. We dug out our ‘YHA Japan’ map, searching for the nearest and most suitable place to stay. We managed to get the security guard to call one of the more convenient places, to check the availability for the night.
First sign of Sendai
Space was available, caution dictated that we should book and make our way directly to the hostel before all hell broke loose in the sky. However, we stopped a little short of this, having baulked at the prospect of booking the rather expensive (5000 Yen per person per night) hostel on the phone, using a credit card and the security guard to speak for us. We decided to carry on across the pass, with the hope of finding an open camp site, or at least being closer to civilisation in the event of a major storm.
We trekked back down the hill, 45 minutes after we had made our initial turn-off. The evening was coming on, with the prospect for a fantastic sunset totally ignored by all of us, in our search for a safe place to sleep the night. As the road began to descend once more, we saw a gigantic electronic road sign, which displayed in English and Japanese “Road Closed, High Winds”, along with a useful graphic of a car being crushed under a tree. Inspired by this imagery, we quickened our pace and headed into Matsushima. Our first stop was the station, conveniently located on the western edge of town.
Station was something of an overstatement. The arrangement was more like a couple of platforms, built into the hillside on wooden splints. There was a highly complicated looking vending machine for the purchase of tickets and a most confusing timetable in a platform shelter. We were unable to make head nor tail of either, electing instead to stand on the platform and watch the first two trains go past. Boarding one would have sent us directly to Sendai and undoubtedly committed us to spending several thousand yen a piece. The weather was actually fine on the eastern side of the mountains, the promising evening was blossoming into a spectacular sunset. But we still needed a place to spend the night.
It soon started to get dark
Circling around the train station, we came across a garden centre, where we used the toilets. We also found a ‘Hot Spar’ convenience store, which yielded further supplies and a second visit to the toilet. We were hopeful of finding a space to pitch our tent on a nearby sports field. However, we felt obliged to try out every other available option first. Gavan and Mary were both getting a bit tired by this stage, having been exhausted during another hard day of walking. I was still high as a kite from my late afternoon sugar overdose, and I’ll confess to being slightly irritated with their slowing pace.
Things looked bad for accommodation. I volunteered to ditch my rucksack with the others at a nearby bench, and head off in the direction of the sports field, seeking permission to camp, or better still a camp site. I sprinted (a fast walk anyway) off up yet another hill, and spent a good 20 minutes exploring the rather suburban back streets of Matsushima. There wasn’t a soul to be found and I eventually ended up at the back of the sports ground, but on the wrong side of the fence. With nowhere left to go forwards, I had to head back to Mary and Gavan empty handed. As I was returning to the rendez-vu point the sun slipped below the horizon, rapidly plunging Matsushima into gloomy night.
Reunited, we scratched our heads searching for a plan. The others had been somewhat refreshed by their brief rest, so we decided to chance an approach to the sports ground security lodge. We turned off the main road and headed up the seemingly endless driveway to the centre. A good few minutes later, we found an expanse of football pitches and some floodlit tennis courts, still in use by a small group of fanatical Japanese tennis players. There was a smallish clubhouse building just next to the car park. We headed straight for it, and I opened negotiations with the little old man sat by a desk at the entrance. He was totally dumbstruck by our arrival, but eventually came through with a string of Japanese syllables we couldn’t understand.
Our first request was for a camp site, the second was for permission to camp on the edge of the football pitch. The old man seemed helpful, taking out a local paper to show us the weather forecast. Our worries about a typhoon had been somewhat overblown, apparently it was due to make landfall several hundred miles further south, having changed course only the day before. I was personally still sceptical that we weren’t going to be swept away in a tornado that very evening. Unfortunately the old man wasn’t able to give us space to camp on his sports ground, his explanation had something to do with the magical ‘Denki’, another translation of which means Light. Gavan and Mary soon pitched in the communication effort, despite their fatigue. Eventually Gavan struck it lucky, with the man’s responses switching from a definite negative to a resolute positive.
Gavan had persuaded him to kindly lead us to a nearby camp site. We waited till closing time, another ten or so minutes, when the man switched out all the lights and locked the hut. During our intense negotiation, time had progressed so much that even the fanatical tennis players had called it a day and disappeared. We then waited for him to collect his moped, start it and illuminate the road ahead with its rather dim headlight. He then lead us back down the centre driveway, pausing at the bottom to lower and lock the barrier (presumably to keep out unwanted campers!). We then set off up the hill, where I had been exploring earlier and found nothing of interest. He assured us that we would soon be at the camp site.
It was by now pitch black, about 8 o’clock in the evening, with Gavan on his last legs. Trekking up the hill didn’t much agree with him, on spotting a plot of flat ground, Gavan asked the moped man if we could camp there. Mr Moped scratched his head, said something about a camp site and pointed up hill, before nodding his head and leading us across the road to the empty patch of ground. Even in the dark, it was clearly a spare housing plot, covered in a thin meadow of wild grasses. The man with his moped said some more words in Japanese, before bidding us a good evening and disappearing over the brow of the hill on his rather noisy mechanical steed.
By this time the wind had completely abated, leaving a virtually cloudless sky. The dismal threat of rain from earlier in the day had literally evaporated in the afternoon sunshine. We dug out my tent and did our best to stick the pegs in to the thin top soil, reasoning that it was just about big enough to hold all three of us and would at least reduce the chances of us being separated in the event we were blown away. Once the tent had been pitched, I began to feel hungry again. Leaving Gavan and Mary to settle down into the tent, I headed back to the Hot Spar in search of dinner and the hope of cleaning my sugar caked teeth.
Matsushima at dusk
Sat on the steps of the spar, I ate my dinner of corn soup and a battered chicken breast. By this stage it was about 10 o’clock in the evening, a very late night by recent standards. The guys in the store had looked at me aghast as I bought my dinner. I can only imagine what they were saying to each other in Japanese as I sat outside to eat my food. The days high winds and threatening skies had cleared, leaving only a calm and crystal clear night sky. The sound of fireworks rumbled in the distance. I enjoyed my slightly meagre meal, but felt all the better for having something to keep my stomach at bay for another few hours. Returning to the hot spar to clean my teeth, I bade the staff good evening and headed back to the tent.
Our makeshift camp site
Nervous about being reported for our slightly unofficial camping activities, we struck the tent as fast as possible after first light. By half seven we were back on the step outside Hot Spar enjoying a relaxed breakfast. Although the previous day had been something of an ordeal, we had covered a fantastic distance, leaving us a relatively easy track into Sendai. We elected to take it easy for the day and gently meandered the few kilometres towards the coast. Most of the streets were deserted, it being relatively early in the morning during holiday season. The weather was already looking promising for a sunny day.
I caused something of a domestic on the way into town. Apparently I had failed to listen to the opinions expressed by Mary and Gavan, just blitzing off towards the centre of the main town. Mary had wanted to go via a shopping street, but since I was holding the map I ignored her. This didn’t go down too well, and despite a detour when I was made aware of the toes I’d just trampled in my size 13’s, I had to spend the next couple of hours in the dog house, until we arrived at the sea front in Matsushima.
Having carried (amongst many slightly obscure items) a rough guide to Japan in my rucksack since the start of our journey, it was quite rewarding to unpack it and discover that it actually had an entire page devoted to the seaside resort we had just arrived in. Matsushima is the Japanese equivalent of Blackpool, full of tacky souvenir shops and tourist traps. It is annually visited by a scarily large number of coach parties Japanese who prefer to take their holidays domestically, rather than going to Salisbury. I think the rough guide was actually a little harsh on Matsushima. From my experience, it was a quaint and friendly little place, with plenty of historical authenticity.
Mary sleeps under a tree
We abandoned Mary to sleep in the shade of a small tree by the shoreline. Gavan planted himself on a nearby bench, volunteering for guard duty over our kit and leaving me free to head into the centre of town to do some real exploring. There was quite a large quayside, with a big pontoon stretching out about 1/4 of a mile into the pacific. Several tourist ferries were tied up, unlike any boats I’ve ever seen before. One was shaped like a peacock, another was like a dragon. After looking at the boats, I carried on down the sea front, ending up at a Shogunate summer house. Paying a reduced 200 Yen to enter, I spent a pleasant half hour exploring the traditional zen garden, taking in the view from the front room. I declined the tea ceremony, as it cost another 500 Yen. There was also a small museum, with several artefacts such as samurai suits of armour and silk screens, there was even a little English description relating to some of the items.
A local tourist boat, decorated like a peacock
I had been given instructions by my team mates to search out possible cultural experiences for our enjoyment later that afternoon. Nothing presented itself immediately, or even on closer investigation of the local shrine complex, which was quite extensive. I then headed over to the tourist information office, hoping to find an English speaker to assist me. The guide book had mentioned something about English speakers being located at the office, and indeed there was a very obliging young Japanese lady behind the desk. I tried my best to explain our situation and uncover information which might be relevant to local culture. In the end I came away with a handful of pamphlets and directions back to the shrine. Apparently there was some kind of mystical necklace making activity offered by one of the temples, so I headed back to Mary and Gavan to present my discovery. They weren’t very impressed. We decided to go and have a look, before setting up in a park for another break. It was a hot day, and after the exertion of the previous day, none of us was particularly highly motivated to do anything other than stroll around the town searching for information. Gavan was still a little sleepy, so we abandoned our equipment with him in the park and set off in search of lunch.
Mary went over to the tourist information office to have a chat with the woman who spoke English. I tried to negotiate my lunch from a hot dog van, but only got a bag of very greasy chips for my trouble. I then set off in search of more substantial and cheaper food, the touristy centre of town had no convenience stores, so I had to walk all the way back to the outside of town to get a corn dog from a Circle K store.
Admission ticket for the nature reserve
Taking a circular tour of a large rocky outcropping to return to the centre of town, I bumped into Mary coming the opposite way round the rock. She had been investigating a small island, joined to the mainland by a fairy tale style bridge. The island was a natural reserve, with several rare species of plants and animals. There was a 200 Yen per person entrance charge, which had initially put Mary off crossing the bridge, but it looked like an inviting prospect on such a sunny day, so we both stumped up the cash and walked across.
The traditional Japanese design of the bridge was delightful, looking just like something out of a silk screen painting. The island definitely lived up to expectations, with several different paths set out for explorers. There were waterfront gulleys and a beach. Mary had initially stated her enthusiasm to go paddling, but it soon became clear that the beaches were deserted for a good reason. Closer investigation revealed a slimy green tinge to the sea water, together with a sizeable quantity of rubbish washing up and down the beach. The rest of the island was much cleaner and had the feel of a genuine ‘jungle island’.
After about an hours exploration and some slightly staged ‘middle of the jungle’ photos, we returned to the park where Gavan was sleeping. Mary went back to the tourist information office to chat with the woman who worked there. We had given her the aim of persuading the lady to invite us back to her house for dinner, in the hope that we would be able to help out in preparing a traditional Japanese meal. Mary seemed to have a developed a good relationship with her and our remaining time to accomplish the remaining challenges was rapidly diminishing. Mary returned at about 4 in the afternoon, having successfully garnered a dinner invitation.
We spent the rest of the afternoon avoiding the days heat under the shade of trees in the main park. Mary had agreed to meet up for dinner after the tourist information office closed at 5 in the evening. Whilst we were waiting for our meeting, a very strange man came up to us in the park. He had a strange manner, and a gigantic Nikon SLR camera swinging round his neck and I was slightly suspicious from the outset. Without any prompting, he started to ask us questions about our travels and even offered us accommodation in his parents house. He seemed very keen to bring us back to his house and meet his parents, even offering to collect us in his car. There was something a little strange about his insistence, and he wanted us to leave immediately for his house. We fortunately explained our rendez-vu for dinner, and that we were busy this evening with our cooking lesson, but he gave us his mobile phone number and asked us to call him.
Strange Nikon Man
Eventually it was time for our meeting and we left the man with the camera to his own devices in the park. We met the woman from the tourist information office and walked back home with her, stopping off at a co-operative supermarket to collect raw ingredients for our meal. 1000 Yen covered all the ingredients, including a couple of silver coloured fish, an assortment of alien looking vegetables. We then went back to her beautiful house, which was a semi-detached place next to her parents house. Her parents were home and her mother helped out with making dinner. Before the cooking began, we were treated to cold tea and cakes in the living room, sitting on traditional style Japanese chairs (like a regular chair, but without the legs).
Mary and our friend from the tourist office, preparing dinner
Dinner would be a fish supper, with meso soup and various boiled vegetable components. Under the careful guidance of two generations of Japanese natives, we tried our best to prepare the meal. Taking turns, we performed tasks such as gutting the fish, preparing the water chest-nuts and pealing the carrots. About an hour after the process had started, we returned to the living room to enjoy the fruits of our labour. The kind lady from the tourist information office came and ate the meal with us, providing essential etiquette guidance over which order to eat the various components. She had an American boyfriend, which had prompted her to improve her English. She had only recently returned from a three month intensive language course in Bournemouth.
The meal took over an hour to consume, despite our rapidly improving chopstick dexterity. By the time we were finished, darkness had fallen and we were in need of a place to stay. Kindly our host offered to ring up a local camp site and book us accommodation. Even better, she offered us a lift to the site in her fathers car! We all piled in, filling the boot with our rucksacks.
Five minutes later we had arrived at the same camp site which had refused us the previous day. This time we were more successful and had soon paid the fees and found a space to pitch. We all slept well, secure in the knowledge that the typhoon was well and truly out of our way, having enjoyed a wonderful (if slightly harsh on the uneducated English palate). On the downside, we had actually covered a negative distance over the day, ending up about 5 kilometres further away from Sendai. This would give us about 35 kilometres to cover over the last two days, assuming we were able to find a convenient place to stay half way.
Striking camp at Matsushima
Having already explored Matsushima the previous day, we tried to pick up the pace a little and headed down the coast for Sendai. It was another blisteringly hot day, we hoped to cover a sizeable distance during the day, and made a special effort to take on a full compliment of water in the morning. On the way past the tourist information office we waved to our new friend at about 9 o’clock in the morning. We then followed the twisty and turny coast road south for the rest of the morning.
We stopped for a break at 11 o’clock by a beach front car park. It was very busy, but fortunately there was still toilet roll left in the toilet! We saw some huge spiders in the eves of the building, and as we were departing I realised a trail of ants had been helping themselves to some boiled sweets in my pack. Brushing them off, I tried my best to make sure there were none left ready to crawl down my back during the next part of our trip! The coastal scenery was very interesting, comprising isolated and undisturbed coves one moment, alternating with industrial paraphernalia in adjacent bays.
The fish market
Before finishing on the coastal track, we decided to pay a visit to the Fish Market. By this stage it was about 2 on the Sunday afternoon. I didn’t expect them to be open, but on the basis of our previous discussions the day before, I decided to go along with the other two to keep everyone happy. A photo by the closed market and half an hour later, we were back on the road south. Signs of civilisation were rapidly growing up by the roadside. We reached an area which was entirely saturated with Nissan dealerships on one side of the road, with Pachinko parlours on the other. This area took us nearly half an hour to walk through, after which emerged in a suburban sprawl which reached all the way to Sendai. We headed south through the sprawl for the rest of the afternoon, stopping at a Seven Eleven for a late lunch.
The map gave few clues for places to sleep that night, so we decided to start searching or a place to stay at 3 o’clock in the afternoon. A preliminary review yielded a children’s playground and a small park, which was at the time being enjoyed by a child their grandparent. We did our best to ask them if we could camp, but only received somewhat bemused looks in reply. We very nearly started knocking on random doors in search of accommodation, but eventually settled on visiting another Seven Eleven for guidance. Gavan went in armed with our roadmap. Half an hour later he emerged with the same map, featuring an additional black circle about 5 kilometres away which signified a camp site. Since it was quite a distance, we elected to remain at the store which had been so helpful and purchase some ice cream. This was a really good idea.
Another tasty instant noodle
As we tucked into our lollies, one of the employees emerged from the store (complete with his uniform apron) and started pointing to his watch, in broken English, we understood that the camp site would be closing at 5 o’clock, and it was now almost half four. There was no chance we would make the deadline, even running! Having already come up with a solution, our friend from the store waved his car keys at us and motioned for us to wait on the pavement. Moments later he returned in his mid-size Japanese car. We did the now somewhat familiar trick of squeezing into the vehicle, before he drove off at high speed towards the camp site. We just about made it, paying the check in fee at what looked like a swimming pool entrance hall, and indeed later turned out to be a swimming pool entrance hall. The camp site was a small section of a sporting facility built for the 2002 Korea-Japan world cup, to accompany one of the stadia at Sendai. We thanked our driver kindly for his high speed lift, and I offered him my remaining miniature whiskey, which unfortunately he vociferously refused. We weren’t quite sure why he had turned down our gift, especially knowing how much the Japanese like Scotch Whiskey. The best answer we could come up with was that, although he looked older, was probably still under 21, the legal drinking age in Japan. It is a cultural point of honour that rules such as the age for drinking, smoking and gambling, are upheld by all Japanese people, which explains why the beer and cigarette vending machines on seemingly every street corner in the whole of Tokyo don’t cause a nuisance with under-age consumption.
Celebrating our last night
By the time we had pitched our tents, darkness had fallen. Still feeling quite energetic, I decided to go in search of the nearest convenience store to purchase supplies to celebrate our final night under canvas. In the meantime, Gavan set up the stove and set about the fairly length process of boiling water for dinner. At the shop, I found some marshmallows and three cans of Asahi beer, which I thought would be a suitable and sufficiently modest celebration of our successful expedition. The Japanese beer wasn’t anything particularly special, however as a celebration of our journey it tasted very good indeed. The marshmallows were also a bit surprising, they came in two varieties, lemon and strawberry, each having a small ‘jam donut style’ liquid centre. They toasted perfectly over the Trangia stove, and then later we cut open our finished beer cans to make other marshmallow roasting devices. We lit several little fires and used up the rest of our fuel, to save carrying it the final leg into Sendai.
Wearing Scout uniform for the final day
As the previous day, we had taken something of a detour on the way to the camp site, backtracking 5 kilometres away from Sendai. Mary was keen to make this distance up by setting off extra early in the morning (5am no less!), also knowing that a 5am target would probably enable us to be actually under way by 6 o’clock. I fully accept a large proportion of the blame in respect to our late starts during the trip, I do enjoy a good lie-in. We followed Mary’s plan, departing the camp site promptly at 6. We made a small detour to include the small football stadium on the site, with Gavan and Mary walking on the ‘hallowed turf’, we’re not to sure exactly how hallowed it was, although it certainly looked to be in very good condition. Adding to the fun of our final day, Mary had suggested that we complete the final distance in full scout uniform, which helped to give a feeling of completion to our scouting enterprise.
We ate our last breakfast of the expedition whilst watching dawn come up at the Lawsons convenience store opposite the camp site. Hopefully it would be our last cold breakfast of jellied fruit and chocolate croissants. Not that breakfasts were particularly unpleasant, just very heavily loaded with sugar. Our collective fears about eating such an unbalanced diet were growing, and I think we were all looking forward to eating some western style food later that day. We had made a collective promise to eat no western food until after our arrival at Sendai Station. The planned arrival for dead on 12 noon also included an incentive for Gavan in the form of the last remaining miniature whiskey, which Mary and I had promised him as reward for making the last few kilometres in good time. We had also settled on buying a McDonald’s from the nearest one to the station, for a ‘real lunch’ after doing our best to try some sushi at some stage on our final days journey.
After returning to the main road into Sendai, following the trail we had blazed the previous day in the car, we eventually ended up back near the same Seven Eleven where we had enjoyed lunch the day before. We had about 20 kilometres to cover on our final day, so we kept the pace up all morning. Navigation became a lot harder as the density of the urban sprawl began to increase. We were also confused by bizarre changes in the scale and orientation of our maps from one page to the next. We mostly just followed the long and very straight road right into town. We made a couple of stops on the edge of the centre, one to take on more water at a Sunkist convenience store, and another just to catch our breath in a suburban rail station a couple of stops out from Sendai central.
The road to Sendai
All of a sudden we were practically sprinting to the station, we couldn’t see it through the urban jungle till we were more or less standing directly outside. Once it was visible, we stopped a passing business man, presumably on his lunch break, and asked him to take a picture of us with the station in the background. We then spent about half an hour attempting to find our way from the main entrance of the station to the ticket kiosks, so that Gavan and Mary could buy their tickets for the return journey. This was no mean feat, requiring several trips to nearby cash machines in order to secure enough Yen for the purchase. I was fortunate to already have passage in a (hopefully) unreserved seat through my JR railpass. Whilst Mary tried to find some Yen, Gavan watched our backpacks whilst I went in search of our final challenge, Sushi!
Asking for the nearest Sushi supplier at the information desk, I was soon directed towards the sushi area of the station food court. There I found three different sushi restaurants and stuck my head into each of them to have a look. They looked busy and very expensive, I tried my best to ask for a free sample, but all I got in response was bemused looks and comments about my height. Eventually, we settled for a photo outside one of the expensive restaurants before more or less giving up on the idea of eating there. Once the tickets for our return journey had been purchased, I left Gavan and Mary recovering from their intense negotiations with the ticketing staff and went in search of food.
Our arrival at Sendai Station
The weather on our final day had been a little damp, breaking into a full on downpour as I came out of the station looking for a McDonald’s. En route, I went into a family mart, having had the brainwave of buying some cut price sushi in a ‘Bento Box’, which most Japanese workers eat for lunch. Instead of shelling out 1000’s of Yen in one of the expensive station restaurants, I managed to get a 6 inch square box of sushi for a highly reasonable 200 Yen. Carrying on in search of fast food, I must have covered about four city blocks in the pouring rain, running party to stay dry and partly to ensure I would get back in time to make the train. Eventually I found a Kentucky Fried Chicken and a McDonald’s, and did my best to communicate the orders placed by Mary and Gavan. I didn’t get it right, or even get what I’d asked for, but it was familiar looking food. We were all looking forwards to devouring it.
It would be nice to say that we tried first to eat the Sushi, then moved on to the McDonald’s for a more filling lunch. This, however, would be a lie. We scoffed down the fast food without so much as a word. Once our stomachs were filled, we felt sufficiently reinforced to attempt the sushi. There are some great photos which tell the story of our brief sushi eating experience, sat on the floor of the station. I thought it tasted reasonable, but I would confess to having preferred the Big Mac I had eaten just beforehand. Mary didn’t seem to have any problems with the raw seafood, but Gavan seemed to have a real problem putting it in his mouth! Eventually we all managed to swallow our chosen pieces, just in time to ditch the remains of our multi-cultural lunch in a station bin and sprint to the platform.
Mary eating Sushi
The immaculate Shinkansen train back to Tokyo soon pulled up to the platform, all the doors opened simultaneously and people started to pour out. We waited our turn, before clambering on board and attempting to find space for all our luggage. Having achieved this, Gavan and Mary found their seats and we all sat together. The train pulled out of the station and we all fell asleep. About 10 minutes later, the ticket inspector came and asked me to move to a seat further back down the carriage, because my seat was reserved. Gavan was snoring again, so I gladly moved to a less noisy locale.
Four hours after boarding the train, we arrived at Tokyo Station. As it was still reasonably early afternoon, we decided to walk back from the station to our accommodation at the YMCA in Nihonbashi. We had made the same journey in reverse on our first day in Tokyo, so it felt good to be in marginally more familiar territory after 10 days of the complete unknown. We got to the hotel at about 5 o’clock in the afternoon, pausing only for a final photo and a quick chat with Dan of the Bulldogs, who had arrived at lunchtime. Once the check-in formalities had been completed, we went back to our rooms and all fell quickly into a deep sleep!
It was a great experience, despite some of the challenging physical and mental demands. The most striking part of the whole expedition was the lack of a distance limit, or target to be achieved. Covering more ground did not bring any benefits, unable to bring the finish any closer in time. It was only on the eighth day that we really began to figure out what the explorer belt was REALLY about. From day one to day seven we had spent the time slogging away, working as hard as possible to interact with the local people, learn about Japanese culture and cover the distance at the same time. On the eighth day we covered a negative distance in absolute terms, but it was probably the single most rewarding part of the whole cultural experience.
It just remains to thank my two fellow explorers Gavan and Mary for their support and patience with me during the 10 days we shared together. More importantly, I can’t thank enough all the welcoming and incredibly kind Japanese people we encountered on our journey and who helped us so much along the way. Japan is truly a beautiful and amazing land filled with some wonderful people and will always have a special place in my heart. Thank you!