Early January 2017 I flew to Japan, landing with the cold of winter but without snow – to equal relief and disappointment. A week earlier I had finished walking around Tasmania, my very first long-distance hike, and I planned to walk the old Tōkaidō route, from Tokyo to Kyoto.
I know there is very little information on this hike for non-Japanese speakers, so I wanted to share my experience of planning and logistics (this blog) and my day to day account of the hike itself (the next blog). I hope it’ll help someone who is preparing to do the same thing!
In general I’d say it’s really not necessary to freak out about it or do masses of research before leaving – I mostly made it all up as I went along, and it’s really not the huge undertaking that it may seem in advance. Here’s my story:
Route & Navigation
The Tōkaidō road was the most important route linking Kyoto to Edo (modern-day Tokyo) during the Edo period, which ran between 1603 and 1868. While Tōkaidō runs along the coast, the lesser used inland route was known as Nakasendō. Today these routes exist as hikes, and I opted to do the Tōkaidō route because, quite frankly, I couldn’t make up my mind between the two, and I thought that Tōkaidō may be easier in terms of finding accommodation along the way. As I was hiking in winter, I planned to stay in hostels and budget hotels, despite still lugging around all my camping gear from Tasmania.
The first thing you need to know is: it’s not a wilderness trail! The Tōkaidō route proved a predominantly urban walk and very different from my hiking experience thus far. Tasmania was pretty rugged and wild despite passing towns here and there. While walking the Tōkaidō route I walked through nature only a couple of days. I also passed a few old towns with original Japanese architecture which was a very authentic, cultural experience, but I was mostly walking on the pavement, going from conbini to conbini (which are widespread Japanese convenience stores – and can I just add that I love being able to buy Muji beauty products at some of these?)
Route & Navigation
The Tōkaidō road measures 514 kilometres / 319 miles between Tokyo Nihonbashi to Kyoto Sanjo Ōhashi. It will take most people around 3 weeks to walk it in one go, although you will find more (Japanese) people hiking it in sections. I didn’t meet many others on the trail. I met one young guy who I think was going in the opposite direction (I was too tired at the end of the day to find out and properly chat to him) and two Japanese men hiking small parts over the weekends.
As the route covered such an urban expanse with ample stores to buy food and almost always enough accommodation options, my main concern regarding the trail was simply finding the correct route – all the information available was in Japanese, and I unfortunately don’t speak a word of it. After a long search I found a Japanese site that showed the GPX route, but I didn’t have an app to download this onto my phone. I ended up painstakingly adding pins to my Maps.me app, highlighting every road along the entire trail, so I knew where to go. You can probably imagine this taking hours, so I’d suggest you don’t do this: instead, try and find the GPX file of the route somewhere and import it.
Having this route was invaluable though – the signposting for the trail was highly infrequent. Some areas had signs, some had a few signs, and some none at all. And every area had their own graphics so there wasn’t a standard Tōkaidō sign to follow!
Hail the conbini! There were very little days where I didn’t pass any convenience stores along the way, and I always ended up in a place with stores at the end of the day. The trail runs through the most urbanised area in Japan, so there’s no need to worry about food or drinks. Apart from conbini, you will also find a lot of vending machines along the way selling drinks. You will spot them in the most random of places, and always in perfect working condition. A lot also dispense warm drinks. I didn’t realise this until I took a hot can of milk tea drink from a machine. It’s amazing!
At the beginning of the hike, I mostly just got my food from the conbini, but later I began to find bigger supermarkets and started to buy more fresh food. Most hotels have a microwave in a hallway somewhere and a kettle in the room, so you can heat up food and drinks. I once spent a disproportionate amount of time trying to ask reception if they had a microwave – they didn’t speak English and I didn’t know how to mimic a microwave with my hands. They kept grabbing another person to help me and they kept giving me warm blankets, until someone understood what I asked – the microwave, of course, was just on the other side of the lounge.
The kettles in the rooms are pretty useful. Some are typical kettles, but others are more like small metal pots on a hot plate. I realised they are perfect for cooking food! I started throwing rice and vegetables in them and having ‘lush’ meals. That is, until I tried to do this in a traditional white plastic kettle and the tomatoes instantly stained the insides yellow. I fruitlessly spent my evening scrubbing the darnit thing with some cleaning product I found, until much later when I realised I was trying to scrub it clean with the Japanese version of Febreze.
Unfortunately it was winter and very very cold, otherwise I would’ve tried to camp. I was carrying all my camping and hiking gear from Tasmania (a lot of dead weight, unfortunately) but I knew I couldn’t have dealt with sleeping outside in these temperatures.
Instead I stuck to hostels and budget hotels. Outside of the more populair destinations, hostels were difficult to find or very expensive, so I often stayed in cheap hotels with lots of Japanese business men. Ryokans would’ve been great because they are such a traditionally Japanese experience but they were just too pricey.
I always booked a few days ahead so I knew where I was going, although that did mean that at times, my choice was limited or my options got a lot more expensive than they would’ve been had I booked well in advance. Nevertheless, I still preferred to stay flexible and have the option of walking shorter or longer days if I wanted to.
A few times I couldn’t find anything affordable at all. When I was in the Nagoya and Kyoto area I based myself at a hostel in town and would take the train back and forth for a few days in a row to walk the sections surrounding town. To put things in perspective, the cheapest hostel I stayed in was JP¥1,640 and the most expensive hotel cost me JP¥6,264.
Fancy the adventure and want to camp? Even though the route is mostly urban, it is possible to find spots to set up for the night. You can set up in public parks (just be discreet and wait until it gets dark and people have left), and it’s possible to set up in shrines, as they are open structures. If you pass a temple you can ask a monk if you can set up inside or on the grounds, as these building are closed at night. You probably wouldn’t dream of doing this in most countries, but Japan is very safe!
All hotels have WiFi, but it may be useful to get on the Internet during the day. You can find data-only SIM cards for foreigners, which you can get at some phone shops and tourist information.
The shop assistants don’t usually speak English, so when I bought my Softbank SIM card I showed them the relevant website with all the information on my phone and they got the the SIM card for me – although not before handing me a laminated sheet in English explaining I could not return it if it didn’t work.
Luckily I had no problems with mine and I found it quite useful to be able to do some last-minute research or hotel booking on the go, especially being in a country where I didn’t speak the language!
To be fair, the Tōkaidō route isn’t a big challenge compared to some other hikes: there are no mountain passes, no difficult trails or sections where you need to carry large amounts of food or water for multiple days.
For locals, the trail is a bit of a pilgrimage. Foreigners see it as more of a cultural experience. My own challenge however came in the shape of simply doing this during the cold Japanese winter, and after having already walked over 1,600 kilometres in Tasmania. My first hike had plagued me with intense foot and ankle pain, to the point where every single step, every single day was torture. Maybe I should’ve stopped, but I didn’t want to. I was probably too stubborn.
I had actually wanted to hike the 88 Temple Trail in Shikoku, but I changed plans and didn’t have the time anymore. Maybe it was for the best, because another long trail would’ve probably been too much. I dealt with the foot pain (and oncoming planar fasciitis) by buying a new pair of shoes (the Salomon Wings Pro 2 trail runners) and their thick soles and cushiony insides were a huge comfort. I was still in pain, though. Every day was a struggle to simply keep walking.
In my head I was trying to figure out if it was all physical or mental as I feared I was going to be walking with pain forever. I kind of stumbled through the trail but after Japan my feet got better and better. The pain I had in Tasmania and Japan has now gone, and with it my personal challenges have changed.
Day to Day
My next post will include my daily accounts of the entire hike, but to end with, I will list my daily begin/end points. The distances add up to about 585 km because I measured the daily distances from hotel to hotel, rather than the trail only.
Day 1 : Tokyo Nihonbashi – Kawasaki (21 km / 13 mi)
Day 2 : Kawasaki – Yokohama (17 km / 10.6 mi)
Day 3 : Yokohama – Fujisawa (23 km / 14.3 mi)
Day 4 : Fujisawa – Odawara (36.5 km / 22.7 mi)
Day 5 : Odawara – Hakone (13 km / 8.1 mi)
Day 6 : Hakone-Yumoto – Mishima (33.2 / 20.6 mi)
Day 7 : Mishima – Fuji (30.3 km / 18.8 mi)
Day 8 : Fuji – Shizuoka (41.8 km / 26 mi)
Day 9 : Shizuoka – Shimada (34.8 km / 21.6 mi)
Day 10 : Shimada – Kakegawa (20.7 km / 12.9 mi)
Day 11 : Kakegawa – Hamamatsu (32.1 km / 19.9 mi)
Day 12 : Hamamatsu – Kosai (16.8 km / 10.4 mi)
Day 13 : Kosai – Toyohashi (22.8 km / 14.2 mi)
Day 14 : Toyohashi – Okazaki (32.8 km / 20.4 mi)
Zero day : Nagoya
Day 15 : Okazaki – Nagoya (37 km / 23 mi)
Day 16 : Nagoya – Asahi (40.5 km / 25.2 mi)
Day 17 : Asahi – Kameyama (43.4 km / 27 mi)
Day 18 : Kameyama – Minakuchi (36.6 km / 22.7 mi)
Day 19 : Minakuchi – Kusatsu (28.6 km / 17.8 mi)
Day 20 : Kusatsu – Kyoto Sanjo Ōhashi (30.8 km / 19.1 mi)