This is part 2 in a series on long distance backpacking Japan. Part 1 focused on Planning and Logistics.
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.