Our Trip: Observations and Experiences
One of the greatest frustrations of foreign travel is our inability to speak a local language. We cannot speak or read any Japanese. We learned a few key phrases before leaving home, so at least could appear to be somewhat polite. However, conversations were impossible. Outside of the cities, we met virtually no one who admitted speaking any English at all. With a lot of arm waving and pointing, we could roughly communicate that we were Americans walking from Osaka to Tokyo, but that was about it. We tried using various translation apps, but never really succeeded with those tools either. People were friendly and often curious about us and what we were doing, but we were unable to have any substantive conversations with them.
We were fortunate to have decent weather for most of the trip. Several nights early in the trip were chilly, but we had no frost and we slept comfortably in our 40˚F rated quilt. On most days we had fine daytime hiking temperatures with only a half dozen that were hotter than we prefer. We had some precipitation on about a third of our days, but generally it was very light and not long lasting. We had three, predominantly overnight, periods of 12 to 18 hours of continuous rain with about ten cm falling in each storm. Weather forecasts proved to be quite accurate and before each major rainstorm, we stopped walking earlier than usual at places with reasonable camping shelters. We had one thunderstorm that dropped a lot of hail and forced us to retreat off the top of a ridge for about 30 minutes.
We had a number of overcast days, which are fine for walking, but they did obscure our best opportunities to see Mt. Fuji.
We met one Canadian, one German, two Poles, and three Americans thru-hiking the TSH. We are aware of one other Canadian and two Brits who were on the trail while we were there. We believe that most or all of them completed the route. Logs in some of the shelters included entries made by a few other foreigner hikers between 2015 to 2017 .
We met no Japanese thru-hikers and only three Japanese section hikers. Near some trailheads in popular areas, we encountered Japanese day-hikers, occasionally in moderate but rarely in large numbers. Because of the language barrier, we learned very little about their plans, motivations, and experiences.
Notes about Hiking in Japan
Hiking in a foreign country is always interesting and we enjoy the unexpected surprises. What is normal behavior to residents is often delightful and sometimes confusing to us. Here are some of things we noticed on our trip. We may have misinterpreted what we were observing, so people more familiar with the country may correct us.
Japan is an extremely homogenous society. At least in public, people generally behave in a similar polite manner. It is a refreshingly quiet country: no car horns, no loud public music, and public conversations are in lowered voices. The only gratuitous noise came from political sound trucks advertising their candidates.
Other than the plethora of often beautiful shrines and temples, the human landscape is functional but not particularly attractive. Most buildings we saw were built since the war and are quite utilitarian in design. Outside of the tile roofs and occasional beautiful private gardens, most buildings are non-descript. There appears to be no zoning, so houses, farms, sheds, solar installations, factories, shrines, and heaps of junk are all intermingled. Streets run everywhere in a seemingly haphazard way. Outside of large cities, sidewalks are uncommon and start and stop randomly.
The shrines and temples are usually quite beautiful, fascinating, and many are old, often dating back hundreds and sometimes a thousand years. Most are constructed from wood using fabulous joinery techniques. They were usually well-maintained and in good condition. Temples have been built by an amazing number of different Buddhist sects and differ in subtle ways we did not understand. Most had no English signs. Nearby trees had often been preserved and the biggest and oldest trees we saw during our trip were always near temples. Always take your shoes off when entering any temple or shrine building. In hindsight, we wish we had used the iPhone Wikipedia app “near me” to read about temples we visited. The TSH passes numerous important temples and it may be worthwhile for a future hiker to learn about these in advance.
There are a significant number of interesting and important buildings and gardens to explore in Kyoto and we spent most of a day there. The TSH passes quite near Kyoto’s Arashiyama train station so the entire city is easily accessible.
The day after leaving the city of Otsu, we went slightly off route to visit the Miho Museum. The buildings were designed by I.M. Pei and are located on a beautiful site. The Miho houses a small collection of top quality Asian art. It was well worth spending a half day visiting this world-class museum.
There are an amazing number of high voltage power lines visible from the TSH.
We saw no billboards, but small signs blanket the route. We saw many signs warning about bears, bees, snakes, forest fires, littering, and digging up underground telephone lines. We saw signs warning about slope failure with great graphics showing houses being buried by collapsing earth. A lot of the signs were incomprehensible to us, but many had cute Hello Kitty style graphics showing happy people and animals romping in the countryside.
Grazing animals are refreshingly absent from the entire route. As a result, vegetation is lush and luxuriant.
Graffiti was relatively rare and public property was never vandalized or defaced.
Cars are mostly tiny, always washed and rarely old. People drive carefully and politely and do not appear to break the rules of the road. Everyone uses turn signals. Pedestrians do not jaywalk or cross against a red light.
There are benches at random places along footpaths, but often placed with nothing interesting to look at while seated. Finding a public place to sit in urban areas and small towns was difficult as benches there are extremely rare.
Public toilets are abundant, clean, have toilet paper, and often have a western-style toilet with heated seats and butt sprays. If the primary facilities have only squat toilets, there is usually a handicap stall with a western-style toilet. Few, if any, public bathrooms have hot water.
Public trash containers are extremely rare. When there are bins, the signs indicating which type of trash goes into which recycling slot are in Japanese and figuring out what to throw into which one was not always obvious. Since food is often over-packaged, you end up with a lot of waste with no place to put it. Fortunately, convenience stores always have publicly accessible trash containers. Restaurants and markets rarely had visible bins, but proprietors were always willing to take our small trash bags and dispose of them.
Vending machines that sell beverages are abundant. Many of these sell cans of hot coffee and tea; look for red and blue labels that distinguish between the hot and cold choices.
The Japanese have a custom with umbrellas that serves thru-hikers very well. A Japanese friend called it a “free rental” program. There are umbrella stands outside of train stations, bus stops, convenience stores, temples, and other semi-public places where used umbrellas accumulate. We believe it is not a social faux pas to simply take an umbrella from one of these stands. Our friend says it should be returned to the same location; we stretched the meaning of this and would borrow an umbrella at one convenience store and return it later at a different convenience store. We never borrowed an umbrella when it was actually raining, as that might be one belonging to a person who had just arrived.
It can be a challenge to cross streets in a country where people drive on the “wrong” side of the road. Pay attention when doing so.
We did not visit any onsens or sentōs, although there are some along the route. If someone creates a GPX file of their locations we would be happy to incorporate it into our map.
In most small town and villages we saw very few people walking around the streets; the places often felt deserted. On farms, the vast majority of the workers were in their 50’s or older. We saw far fewer children than we expected. Crossing guards and other adult supervisors meticulously tended young children going to and from schools. Young children wore helmets when walking to school.
Japanese manhole covers are beautiful, and each area had its own designs. We enjoyed these surprising works of art a lot.