This is Part 3 in a series on long distance hiking in Japan on the Tokaido Trail. Part 1 focused on planning and logistics and Part 2 on the experience of hiking the trail.
The Tokaido Nature Trail winds to the top of peaks and hills, which can be great for views, but abysmal for water. This summer, as I hiked the Japanese long distance trail, I spent hours wondering how it can be so hard to find water in a country where it rains so often. I once went 30 miles over the course of a day without crossing a water source. Even the shelters (check the next post) were not placed near natural (or even well) water. Long distance hiking in Japan certainly had some familiar features of trails I had hiked in the US, yet it was clear Japanese trail designers have different goals than American trail designers.
Much like the Long Trail in Vermont, the Tokaido Nature Trail, travels high on ridges on rocky, rooty terrain. Instead of switchbacks and contour lines, the trail ventures forward by scrambling straight over each hill. In several places, the trail was so steep that previous hikers have tied ropes to trees and roots to make it possible to shimmy up the hillside.
The trail can be as rocky as the Appalachian Trail in Pennsylvania, but without the stability that keeps PA’s rock more-or-less glued in place. It seemed like water bars are non-existent. Instead, trail maintainers put their efforts to reinforcing steep, erosion prone hillsides with trail over steel-clad bridges and secured planks. On American trails, maintainers try to use natural materials such as rocks and logs to fortify routes. In Japan, there is not as much pressure to uphold a wild look.
When I reached one road crossing, it became clear that a landslide had taken out the pavement leading to the trailhead. I roadwalked on deserted asphalt, passing abandoned former tourist attractions. Some construction guys were stationed near the closed public bathrooms that I had been counting on, not so speedily trying to repair the damage. With the remote road out, however did I get there?
When I got to the trailhead, it was covered in hastily placed paper signs that I couldn’t read (except for the red exclamation points at the end). It was pretty clear that the trail was either closed or rerouted ahead. I was worried. My maps only covered the narrow area right around the trail. Even if I did find someone who could send me in the right direction, unlikely given the sheer remoteness, I didn’t even know the name of the next place I was trying to go. The only word I could read on my map was “mountain.”
Luckily, pink flagging marked a trail reroute around a landslide.
Many aspects of hiking a long distance footpath in Japan remind me of the Appalachian Trail in the mid-Atlantic. As I hiked on the 1,000 mile-long Tokaido Nature Trail, which stretches from Tokyo to Osaka, it didn’t take long for me to start sweating and swearing in the July heat and humidity, much as I did on the AT. The trail has me climb and descend numerous small summits, each signed and marked with a small shrine or Buddha. I climbed through bamboo forests and descended mercifully shady plantations of Japanese cedar. As the trail spit me out at my first road crossing, an old man called out: “Ice coffee! Cold drinks!” Right at the edge of the forest, hikers can get drinks and snacks at a trailside tea house.
Traditionally, small Japanese towns reserve land on the edge of the forest for cemeteries. It seemed like every time the Tokaido Trail came to a road crossing, I would reach it via cemetery. Japanese tombstones are stone towers that I find much creepier than Western cemeteries. I secretly hoped that I wouldn’t have to walk past one at night.
To my relief, the trail was surprisingly well-marked through towns with a large sign in Japanese and English at each road intersection. Like the AT through Damascus, VA, the trail travels through the heart of small towns, providing ample opportunities to resupply. Japan has an obsession with vending machines and I always carried coins in my backpack to get a different flavored sports drink whenever the trail hit a town.
The Tokaido Trail is an excellent way to see Japan off the beaten path. Japan appears to have many more small scale farmers than the U.S. and it seemed like every spare plot on the edge of town that wasn’t a cemetery plot was planted with onions or spinach. Coming into one town in the late afternoon, I startled a farmer as I popped up from behind a gravestone. He must have wondered what this large foreign woman was doing alone in a cemetery/farm in rural Japan. I enjoyed talking with several other farmers, who told me of the trail ahead and were surprised to see anyone hiking the nearby mountain—especially a foreign woman hiking alone.
On my entire trip, I only saw four other hikers on the Tokaido Trail. Near Lake Sagamihara, I passed two older day hikers, who appeared somewhat confused by a road walking section. On a Saturday, I was in popular nature area near a road where I saw several people day hiking. Besides these few instances (and of course, seeing people as the trail traveled through towns or when I left trail to resupply), I was shocked by how lonely and wild a country known for being densely populated and urban can be.
In the U.S., the term “nature trail” denotes the one-mile long interpretative boardwalk next to a parking lot. It’s the place for toddlers in strollers, not a place for hardcore backpacking. So, as I scoured the internet for wild long distance hiking trails in Japan, I was skeptical to find the Tokaido Nature Trail. While the Shikoku Pilgrimage (aka Temple Trail) remains Japan’s most famous long distance trail, I wanted to walk a less publicized, more primitive path. Yet the Tokaido Nature Trail does just that—travels 1,000 miles from Tokyo to Osaka along mountains and forest reserves. I was a little surprised to find such a trail exists in Japan, especially one whose termini are so easily accessible to a car-less foreigner, yet this summer, I set off to hike on one of Japan’s longest and least publicized footpaths.
Almost all the information on the Tokaido Nature Trail is in Japanese, including the maps. Although I am ashamed to say I can’t read much Japanese, I became quite proficient at comparing Japanese characters on signposts to characters on my map. In addition, I am thankful to my mom, a native Japanese speaker, who painstakingly helped me translate maps and internet-based material. My goal in writing a series of blogposts about the Tokaido Trail is to provide a bit more information on the trail in English to would-be long distance hikers.
My mom joined me for the trip out to the northern termini of the Tokaido, Mt. Takao, easily accessible by train from Shinjuku, the financial district of Tokyo. Somewhat like Mt. Katahdin, Mt. Takao is a termini that is a destination in itself. Even for hikers who have no interest in doing the Tokaido trail, Mt. Takao is still worth visiting. I shared the first part of the popular trail with school children in matching bright caps on a field trip.
There are several routes up Mt. Takao, including taking a tram halfway up. My mom says that the temples, shrines, and old growth cedars along the trail are not particularly interesting to native Japanese people, but as a foreigner, it was fun to see them along the trail. Perhaps for a break from the climbing, my mom stopped to make a wish to the Buddhist angels for my safe journey.
In standard Japanese fashion, we found several restaurants complete with celebrity-signed photos at the summit. Yet, Takao-san is also home to several rare plants and animals (including a Japanese monkey preserve). On a good day, the climber is rewarded with views of Mt. Fuji and Tokyo. Unfortunately, summer smog and mountain fog made all but SkyTree Tower visible to us. Mt. Takao is easily visited by tourists and brochures and maps exist in many languages.
Now safely at one termini of the Tokaido, I departed on my own down Takao and onto Shiroyama mountain. To my frustration, maps in Japan rarely express distance between two points, instead opting to show the approximate time to hike between two areas. As an ultralight hiker, I imagine my pace is somewhat faster than the suggested times listed on maps. Eventually, I found myself solidly on the well-marked Tokaido Trail—complete with signs at each intersection in English! I was ready to set off on my journey alone.
Twenty eight isn’t a particularly old age, but as a pre-teen, it was an age I never thought I would reach. I wasn’t an adventurous or fit child—a topic I stress during my hiking presentations in an effort to inspire the inactive—yet, I was sure that I would die at 27—or younger. I had no real justification for this premonition. I was plagued by no major health problems. Perhaps it was because Kurt Cobain and Janis Joplin snuffed it at 27, or because I’d be that age at the Mayan’s predicted apocalypse. My rapidly approaching demise continued to be a belief I accepted as fact for the next 15 years, and as my hobbies became more and more dangerous, it seemed like my premonition had become merely a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Despite rock climbing falls, vehicle collisions, numerous strolls above treeline during lightning storms, and biking a LA highway at night without a headlight, somehow, I survived. One year ago today, as I celebrated my 27th birthday in Denver over vegan Chinese food, I knew my days were numbered. The idea that I would live another year, or another 70, was inconceivable.
For nearly two decades, dying before 28 was a tenet of my existence. As a teenager, I was consumed with dreams of freedom from school and parents and of the epic adventures I wished to do in my remaining decade and a half. I had never heard of thru-hiking or even considered that long distance walking was a thing people did, but my teenage self was fixated with capturing a feeling which I could not describe in words, a feeling that many years later, I found by thru-hiking. Now, I would describe that emotion using words like: flow, freedom, self-sufficiency, mind-body-place connection, and elevated heart rate—but even those descriptions don’t seize the true meaning. We use words to communicate ideas to other people, yet, in the case of this emotion, although words fail me, I’ve still been able to communicate it with a few people. When I describe this feeling to other thru-hikers, they know what I mean, even if words fail them, too.
With the knowledge that my trips around the sun were limited, I spent my time in college seizing opportunities that maximized my immediate happiness while also providing financially for medium term goals. By this time, I had learned what thru-hiking was and walking the PCT was on my ever-increasing bucket-list. During my summers in college, instead of pursuing a job-ensuring networking internship at Goldman Sachs like my colleagues, I lived alone at a research station in the Sierra, sometimes going days without talking to another person. The job put me in a place I loved where I could hike and climb, but it also provided a moderate income that allowed me to squirrel away for my big hikes.
As a hiker, I’ve heard the whole round of criticism from friends and family wondering what I will do about retirement, how I will manage to get enough funds together to buy a house, and when I will have kids. They say I’ve been so busy hiking and living in the moment that I haven’t saved for the future. Sometimes I would respond, “What if I don’t make it that long?” Instead of worrying what will happen to me decades from now, I’ve lived for mid-term aspirations. Living in the day can lead to recklessness, but living in the decade—living as if the next decade is all I’ve got—has taught me to live a goal-oriented life. I’ve been more places and seen more things in my 28 years than I ever would have had I thought I’d live longer. An imminent death motivated me to do all that I could ever want to do such that, when I finished the Triple Crown weeks after my 25th birthday, I wondered what could occupy the rest of my existence.
To my failure, finishing off my bucket list—which included walking the Triple Crown—became such an obsession that I sometimes made poor decisions in its pursuit. I surrendered a social life in the now to save money for walking. I compromised the quality of my hikes so that I could hike this summer instead of waiting for more favorable hiking situations. I hiked with people who made life difficult because I didn’t think I could achieve my goals alone, and if I didn’t walk now, then when? I sacrificed the quality of my life—arguably, my reason for living—to knock a goal off my list, and am ashamed of it. This is the danger of rushing life’s goals.
As years pass and I continue to breathe, I have learned to add to my bucket list and revise and amend it as my interests change and as I meet my old goals. Even though I’ve made it to an age I never thought possible, I could still die at any moment. Yet, there is some security it knowing the old omen was wrong. I’ve spent my first 28 years learning about the value of living in the relative moment, but also the danger of focusing on narrow goals. Instead, perhaps, I will spend the next 28 aiming for a broader mission, this time, striving simply to live well.
I was lucky enough to test out Gossamer Gear’s not-yet-released Air Beam sleeping pad by taking it for a season of long distance hiking in the desert, Olympics, Rockies, and Sierra. Offering a significant price savings over its competitors, the AirBeam could become the most popular inflatable sleeping pad on the market. But how does it perform during an epic field test?
The Gossamer Gear AirBeam is a three-season ultralight inflatable sleeping pad based on last year’s the successful AirBeam Pack frame. Compared to other inflatable sleeping pads, the AirBeam is price competitive, offering hikers a savings equal to a couple pizzas. Integrating innovative weight savings and design features, the vertical tubed pad is worth checking out, even for hikers who might not otherwise go inflatable.
As a big time foam pad user, the switch over to the Gossamer Gear inflatable seemed nothing short of luxurious for me. With a height of 1.5”, the AirBeam gave me the freedom to make some pretty poor campsite selections without the penalty of feeling rocks in my back all night. Another contributor to my comfort was that unlike other inflatable pads, the AirBeam didn’t replicate the crinkling sound of a potato chip bag every time I turned in my sleep. I seem to remember it making a noise once in the night, but maybe that was a bear.
One reason why I’ve been skeptical of inflatable pads is that as a side sleeper, I inevitably end up rolling off most inflatable pads, usually during the coldest part of the night. With its vertical tubes that support side sleeping, the AirBeam may be the most stable inflatable pad I’ve tried.
I’ve stayed away from beefy inflatable pads until now because the benefits never seemed worth carrying extra weight. Given how substantial the AirBeam is, I was shocked that the torsopad weighs in at 6.8 oz—only 0.7oz more than the Klymit Inertia X-lite, the lightest inflatable on the market. And unlike the X-lite, the AirBeam doesn’t have any holes or require that silly hand pump.
I’m always pretty paranoid about the durability of inflatable pads due to some repeatedly bad experiences with four Thermarests early in my hiking career. But, the AirBeam pad seems relatively durable for something that is essentially a big balloon. I found that even without giving it a lot of “babying,” my AirBeam held up like a trooper; in the desert and the rocky Olympics, it was protected from the cruel ground by only a polycro groundsheet. Not that I needed it, but I have been told that the pad will come with a substantial repair kit to prevent that moment where you try to repair a sleeping pad with duct tape and chewing gum.
Perhaps a better testament to the AirBeam’s durability is its power to hold up during my insane summer travel schedule. The poor pad has been on over 15 plane trips in the past seven months, crushed between my laptop, books, and tent stakes (not recommended!). Uninflated, the torsopad folds down to the size of a beer, which made it easy to fit in a carry-on as I traveled from hiking mecca to mecca.
I used the pad between April and September, sometimes with and without the additional insulation of the 1/16th” Thinlight pad under it. I’m an extremely cold sleeper and liked adding on the Thinlight in early and late season, but found it unnecessary during the summer, even on a few bad-weather overnighters at 12,000 feet.
The bottom line: Even if you’re skeptical of inflatable pads, the Gossamer Gear AirBeam is a good way to test one out without the three-digit monetary investment. A great gift for side sleepers, the AirBeam is a cool new innovation in the rapidly changing world of sleeping pads.
Disclaimer: I am a Gossamer Gear ambassador and Grant Sible was kind enough to let me try out a pre-release version of the pad to try out.
What’s the perfect trail food that no one carries on trail? Kale! This leafy green has as many nutrients as that multivitamin in your med kit that you keep forgetting to take. Kale is a natural detoxifier, which is a plus for hikers who spend the whole day eating (or making) trail dust. Dark, leafy vegetables also have anti-inflammatories, meaning less Vitamin Ibuprofen for those of us with lots of miles on our feet. Plus, any thru-hiker can appreciate how rehydrated kale can be incredibly filling for its weight. A pint sized ziplock equal to an entire bunch weighs in at less than an oz.
Unless you live in California, before your local farmer’s markets holds its last sale until the spring, be sure to stock up on kale to dehydrate. The dried stuff lasts more than a year and will be a great asset to your March trail food.
Snorkel’s Dehydrated Kale “Recipe”*
1) Be sure to thoroughly wash your kale before starting, especially if it isn’t organic. Who knows what could be trapped between those nice little leafy ridges?
2) Strip the leaves off the thick stems, which can be tough and unsavory. From here, you can cut the remaining leaves into 1” strips or (for people like me), tear the leaves into strips of similar sizes.
3) Go raw to retain your kale’s nutrients! Since raw kale can be a bit rough, I dip my strips in salty hot water to slightly soften it. The salt helps with flavor and preservation. Baking soda or baking powder also work to tenderize and preserve the somewhat tough vegetable.
4) Lie the kale strips on slats for your dehydrator, being sure not to overlap.
5) Put it in the dehydrator on the vegetable setting. In my circa 1970s dehydrator, it takes about 24 hours to get completely dry. Since I usually don’t use my kale for several months, it’s important that my kale is completely dry to prevent rotting in storage. If done correctly, dehydrated kale has lasted me a year.
*This recipe also works for Swiss chard and Collard Greens. I’ve also had luck with turnip and beet greens (although these guys are usually tougher and less tasty than kale).