What: thru-hike of the Tōkai Shizen Hodō (TSH)
Where: Osaka to Tokyo, Honshu Island, Japan
When: April 7 – May 12, 2018 (36 days)
Distance: about 590 miles
Highlights: immersive Japanese experience, calm and peaceful trip, mostly easy walking
Why we went
We have both traveled in Japan on business: James many times and Amy twice. Once we managed to coordinate our visits and took a birding trip to Hokkaido, but otherwise our time was mostly spent in hotels, offices, and factories.
We were intrigued about doing a long-distance hike in Japan partly because the culture is so unique and different from our own. We have easy access to spectacular scenery and wilderness close to home so a trip on a wild or highly scenic trail was less important to us. We believed a walk in Japan could be fascinating, challenging as we do not speak the language, different from anything we had done before, and likely a lot of fun.
Intermittent research over the years yielded very little concrete information about routes or trail conditions. We learned that there are thousands of miles of mapped trails in Japan but had been unable to find detailed route information or clarity about whether any particular named trail was maintained and usable or, as is too often the case, concepts that have been abandoned and overgrown or never constructed at all. We learned about hiking in the Japanese Alps but were less interested in those areas. We were able to find some information about short hikes in famous places but prefer four to six week walks in locations not crowded with tourists.
In late 2017 we discovered Nomadic Tom’s blog about his 2015 thru-hike of the Tōkai Shizen Hodō. His site has much useful information and most importantly a GPX track of his walk which enabled us to plan our own trip.
To the best of our knowledge, our CalTopo map is now the best source of route and resupply information available in English.
In a shelter we found a very useful Aichi Prefecture paper map covering its 200 kilometer portion of the trail. Although written entirely in Japanese, it had excellent and easily understandable graphics mapping the trail at 1:150,000 and 1:60,000 scales. You can download the overview map plus the six detailed sections in pdf format.
Information from Other Hikers
Australian Nomadic Tom’s website documents his 2015 thru-hike. It contains a useful summary section, daily journal entries, and his GPX track. Tom’s data made it possible for us to plan our hike and we are extremely grateful for his publishing this information.
TokaiShizenOriginalGPX is a folder of GPX tracks for most of the TSH. We do not know anything about the author of these files. The track is roughly similar to Nomadic Tom’s although there are places where they do diverge significantly.
In comparing their tracks with information gathered before and during the trip, it became clear that in numerous places both sets of GPX data deviated from the “official” TSH route. Nomadic Tom acknowledges this in his blog and made no claims that his track was all on the “official” route.
Although we could not have planned our trip without the benefit of those two sources of GPX data, we believe future hikers should use the data in our CalTopo map instead, as we were able to correctly document the location of the TSH in the places where the other sources went off route.
Finally, a blog written in 2010 lists additional resources that are only useful if you can read Japanese.
I enjoyed this trip very much.
Prior to the trip, I anticipated that I would enjoy hiking in Japan, but I was apprehensive about the possibility that the TSH might be ill-maintained, difficult to follow, overgrown, or washed out. Other than Nomadic Tom’s account, we had not found any other description of the trail.
As it turns out, the TSH is actively maintained and that aspect of the trip was not problematic at all. It took a bit of vigilance to stay on the route as we had neither a detailed paper map nor a GPX file showing the actual location, so missing a single signpost could mean getting off-route. But when we were on the trail itself we had none of the difficulties I had been concerned about.
I liked very much the calm, civilized, polite, quiet nature of the place. No angry dogs, no aggressive drivers, no loud music, no graffiti or loutish behavior. In fact, I can’t think of a single moment in which I felt any stress. That’s a great feeling. I would rate the scenery a solid B; enjoyable but rarely stunning. The lack of five-star scenery was counterbalanced by thrill of spending weeks in a culture so different from home.
We picked the Tokai for our first hike in Japan because it was the first long-distance trail for which we were able to find any usable documentation. I hope to return for another long hike, perhaps on the Michinoku Coastal Trail, which is scheduled to be completed in the spring of 2019.
The TSH was a surprisingly satisfying walking trip. There was no fabulous scenery. There was a lot of walking on pavement. We could not communicate with people in a meaningful way. The food was not memorable. Most of the constructed infrastructure was not particularly interesting.
However, the total experience was terrific and I would return to Japan to do another walk. For me, the country is so calm and quiet that just being there was a pleasure. People were polite and friendly and even if we could not have conversations, we always felt accepted with a smile and little bow. Once you learned how things worked, they always did. This predictability helped make for a very low stress trip. Life in Japan is different in so many small ways from home and it was quite interesting to see how it functioned.
While the mountains are not dramatic, they are steep and we had some strenuous walking on most days. This I like. Landscapes are tidy and the unprecedented lack of grazing animals created a very obvious positive difference in the plant life from trips to other places. The countryside is very green and watching a lovely spring unfold was a pleasure. We mostly had the trails to ourselves, which I prefer. Campsites were easy to find and usually required almost no prep work. Many of them were excellent places to spend a night.
Admittedly, some of what I like about this kind of trip is just the process of doing a long distance walk; it could be almost anywhere and there would be portions that I would enjoy. But even with the language barrier, this trip was for the most part logistically simple and I could focus on the walking and being out there.
I heartily recommend walking the TSH to those who accept its limitations and are open to the many fine things it has to offer.
The Tōkai Shizen Hodō is a waymarked long-distance route connecting the cities of Osaka and Tokyo.
In Kanji characters, the trail name is: 東海自然歩道.
東海 – Tōkai
自然 – Shizen (Nature)
歩道 – Hodō (Trail)
The trail was conceived in 1969 and completed in 1974. It is a project of the national Ministry of the Environment but was constructed and is maintained by the 11 prefectures through which it passes.
The TSH is actually a network of paths, with many short stubs and some quite long alternate loops. We chose to walk the option most directly connecting Osaka and Tokyo and have not researched or documented the other alternatives.
We do not speak Japanese and are relatively ignorant about Japanese culture and cultural norms. Because there is so little English-language information about long-distance trails in Japan, we are writing extensively about this trail and hope to provide the inspiration and information necessary for other non-Japanese speakers to thru-hike the TSH. We believe our information about the route and logistics is useful and quite reliable, but our comments about the culture and cultural norms are the observations of two older Americans who do not speak Japanese.
Timing and Getting Around
When to go
Spring and fall are the best times to walk the TSH. Day length is very short in the winter and the higher mountains will have snow. The rainy season starts in early June and runs to the end of July. It is too hot and humid for walking for most of the summer and typhoons are possible in August and early September.
The trail should be essentially snow free by mid-March although cold temperatures at night are still possible. Cherry blossom season starts in mid to late March at lower elevations and the bloom moves up the mountains over the next several weeks. In March and April, the deciduous trees are just starting to leaf out and the forests are beautiful. Daytime temperatures are generally comfortable and rainfall is less frequent than later in the year. Mid-March to mid or late May is the optimal time for a spring thru-hike. We started on April 7 and in retrospect, we think starting one or even two weeks earlier would have been ideal as we missed the peak of the low elevation cherry blossoms.
One slight disadvantage to a spring hike is that Golden Week, a Japanese national holiday, occurs in late April. We noticed no difference in trail usage and businesses were all open, but hikers looking for commercial lodging may find places booked up.
We are not familiar with the timing of autumn in the Japanese mountains, but the climate is favorable, and we have seen photos of quite colorful fall foliage, so this may be a good time to go. People who want to hike in the fall should research the timing of autumn foliage and snowfall patterns.
Direction of travel
We decided to walk from Osaka to Tokyo for several reasons. This direction put the highest elevation portions of the route toward the end of the trip, allowing us to better follow the spring leaf-out as it moved up the slopes. The highest quality forests and the most diverse scenery occur in the eastern sections and so it was nice to have the best walking at the end of the trip.
The bulk of the urban walking was early in our trip and it was good to get this out of the way. Starting in the more urban areas allowed us to learn what we might expect from various services before we walked through more remote areas with fewer resupply options.
Planes, Trains, Buses
Both Osaka and Tokyo have major international airports and intercity rail travel is fast and frequent. We flew into Osaka and flew home from Tokyo.
From Osaka’s Kansai airport, there are frequent trains to the central Umeda station. From Umeda, take the Hankyu-Takarazuka line to Ishibashi Station, transfer to the Hankyo-Mino line and go to the last stop at Mino-o Station. The trail starts just up the street from this station.
Near Tokyo, the trail ends a few hundred yards away from the Takao-sanguchi Station, the last stop on the Keio line. Use an on-line tool such as Google Maps to determine connections to the rest of Tokyo’s massive rail system.
The Japanese transportation network is very extensive, with train or bus service to even very small villages. Outside of the big cities, there is almost no transit information in English, but on-line tools can provide a lot of helpful information. Tickets are moderately expensive by US standards, but not unreasonably so.
It sometimes can be difficult to determine how much fare to pay at the ticket machine. However, when you get off and insert the ticket into the exit turnstile, if you have paid too little or too much, the machine will flag you and an attendant will either ask for more money or return the excess you paid. If necessary, just put some money in the machine and get a ticket knowing that it will be adjusted when you get off. Trust the system; it is scrupulously honest. We once had a twenty-cent overpayment returned to us.
About the Route
Mapping the Route
During trip planning we could not locate an “official” GPX track or a printed map for the TSH. Starting with Nomadic Tom’s and the TokaiShizenOriginalGPX tracks, James did extensive work using CalTopo, Google Earth, and Japan Map to document our best estimate of the route. We took copious notes while hiking, and James did additional work following the trip to document the actual TSH. We find it frustrating, ironic, and sad that the Ministry of the Environment has spent so much money and effort on signage and trail maintenance but has not published a map or GPX file that we know of for non-Japanese speakers. By using our CalTopo files, we believe that walkers should be able to easily follow the TSH.
One thing to keep in mind is that our mapped route is based on where the trail was when we were there. Trails do get realigned over time as the situation on the ground changes.
Our Map Files
Our CalTopo map shows the route as we walked it. As confirmed by signposts we found along the way, most of our trip was on the TSH. We clearly identify and describe the places where, for any reason, we know we were off route. In all of these cases, we have mapped where we know, or with reasonable confidence believe, the actual TSH is.
In addition to the route information, our CalTopo map includes other data we believe will be useful to future hikers:
- Convenience Stores. These locations were confirmed during our 2018 trip.
- Markets. These locations are included for reference but may not be reliable, as detailed in the Logistics section below.
- Our campsites.
- Refuges, shelters, and potential tent sites. For a place to be designated a tent site, there had to be room for a two-person free standing tent, be nearly flat and level, not require much gardening to prepare, and be in a place we would be willing to camp. These are by no means the only possible campsites. We made an effort to note sites as a favor to future hikers, especially ones that had shelters and in areas where there were limited options.
Our Route Versus the Actual TSH
We left the TSH many times, both deliberately and inadvertently. We had mapped potential food sources ahead of time and we made numerous short off-route trips to acquire food. In a few places we occasionally and deliberately left the designated route to follow a route with less traffic.
On a few occasions, we completely lost the TSH. This usually occurred when our planned route, based the downloaded GPX files we carried, did not actually follow the TSH. If we missed a sign and followed the GPX track instead, it could take some time before we realized we were no longer seeing the TSH signposts. We then had to try to figure out where we lost the route and where it might now be. Since we had no “official” map, this occasionally proved to be a complicated task. By using the crowd sourced track points in Japan Map sometimes we were able to determine where the TSH might be and get ourselves back on track. On other occasions, we could only follow our planned route until it eventually rejoined the TSH. We lost the trail more often early in the trip as we learned how the system worked and what the signs might mean; all of our significant errors occurred during the first half of the walk and three times we got seriously off route.
Following the trip, we used a variety of tools to identify and map the sections of the TSH we missed. The Japan Map was very helpful, and Google street view was indispensable as it enabled us to locate TSH signs at intersections where we suspected the TSH is routed.
Maps and Navigation Tools
We downloaded our planned route and alternates, our cleaned-up version of Nomadic Tom’s and the TokaiShizenOriginal GPX tracks into Gaia GPS. We also loaded our planned route into Japan Map. These two apps were our navigation tools and for the first time on an extended trip we did not carry detailed paper maps. We carried two phones and we kept backups of our data on both phones so that we could recover it if something crashed in the field.
Japan Map has two features that make it an excellent complement to Gaia GPS. First, it has quality topographic maps for all of Japan that you can download and use offline. This map source has higher resolution and shows useful data not found in Gaia GPS OpenStreetMap. The app also has crowd-sourced tracks from other hikers displayed as a cloud of orange dots. If there are not any orange dots you can be almost certain that there is no useable trail on the ground, even if one is marked on Japan Map or OpenStreetMap. We used this feature frequently to help stay on route, for instance when we came to a junction with a missing sign.
You can import GPX files into Japan Map and display your track data; you cannot edit tracks in the app and re-export them. It is a little clumsy to use, and does not support importing waymarks or have the rich feature set that Gaia GPS offers. We found the two apps to be complimentary and we used both extensively.
Navigation while on the route was usually easy as the TSH is generally well marked with signposts. Relevant signposts always included these Kanji characters: 東海自然歩道 either vertically or horizontally, and we believe it is essential to learn to recognize them.
Other than the THS characters and arrows, the rest of the information on signs was usually incomprehensible to us. It was particularly confusing when a sign identified three different travel directions for the TSH. One was obviously the direction we just came from, but the other two were to where: staying on the trail, a point of interest just off of the trail or someplace else with nothing to do with the TSH? We eventually learned that sometimes the extra destination was a TSH stub trail to a nearby train or bus station. In one prefecture the sign’s background color for the primary TSH is black, while a side-trail has a grey background.
The quality and visibility of the signs varied. Most were in good condition and quite legible. Occasionally they were not, and we could only guess whether a particular sign was relevant to us. This was complicated as there are many trail signs along the route with the same format that are not for the TSH. The signs were occasionally placed favoring walking from Tokyo to Osaka, and those were only visible if you happened to look behind you. In places, the signs were completely obscured by vegetation or more recently installed human artifacts.
Besides signposts, we found many mapboards. Some of these were well drawn to scale, easy to interpret, and quite helpful; a few even had some English text. Others ranged from confusing to incomprehensible. North was randomly oriented. The maps had no scale and features were not drawn in a consistent scale, so relative distances were impossible to determine. Roads and trails might all be drawn in the same color and same line width, making it impossible to determine what was what. Some even lacked a basic “you are here” mark. However, many mapboards were quite colorful with butterflies and happy hikers decorating the panels.
The design of the signs varies as each prefecture is responsible for trail maintenance and signage and they do not follow uniform standards. In Shizuoka Prefecture the signs even had some English. Newer signs may also vary from old ones and have a different method for indicating directions. We were extremely grateful for the huge effort that has been made to signpost the TSH and for most of it, they gave us great confidence we were on the route.
The TSH is routed on a combination of footpaths, forestry roads, agricultural roads, rural roads, and urban streets. We estimate that roughly half the route is paved in some way. In Japan, the rule appears to be to pave any road, no matter how infrequently it is used. We walked on long paved stretches that in the US would be a dirt farm or Forest Service track. If you dislike walking on pavement, the TSH is not for you, because there is a lot of it and no practical option for avoiding it.
On most sections of paved road there was minimal to no traffic. Even on paved roads with cars, there were relatively few and most drivers passed us carefully and slowly. There are a few short stretches of road where vehicular traffic was frequent and fast enough to require caution. We had no close calls and the drivers were almost universally polite. We heard someone blow a horn exactly once during our six weeks in the country.
Footpaths were well maintained and usually well drained. We had almost no muddy segments, even after significant amounts of rain. There were very few downed trees blocking the trail and rarely any overgrown vegetation encroaching on the trail. There are some places where the trail crosses areas with lots of loose rocks that have slid down onto the tread. Keeping these trails clear must be a constant task as the mountain slopes are always shedding stones.
We had to contend with only a few very short sections of damaged trail. One was an unrepaired small landslide and two were washouts where the tread had been destroyed and buried in debris by a flood. None of these areas were difficult to deal with and staying on route was not a problem.
The TSH never gets above tree line. Even on top of ridges or peaks, vistas were usually limited to places intentionally cleared of trees and bushes. At some vista points the vegetation had not been removed recently and new growth obscured the view. Most of the forest walking is similar to the Appalachian Trail: a long green tunnel. Forest quality varied. We walked through numerous dull and sterile monoculture coniferous tree farms of various ages, a landscape we find a bit boring. Some of these forests were old enough to have developed an understory. We saw no old growth conifers except near temples. The deciduous forests were much more diverse and interesting, often with well developed understories and a large variety of species. The highest quality habitat was in National Parks and other nature preserves. We saw a very few small clear-cuts and occasional small-scale active forestry operations. There were not many rocky areas, cliffs, or outcrops.
The mountains are extremely steep and frequently not geologically stable, so trail construction and maintenance is likely a monumental and continuous task. Trails tend to go straight up the fall line, frequently by way of constructed steps. Once on top of a ridge, the trail usually follows the crest over every bump. Contour paths are infrequent, as minor and major landslips would quickly obliterate any attempts to build a path along the side of a mountain. Switchbacks were infrequent.
On the TSH, literally hundreds of thousands of log, metal, stone, or concrete steps have been installed on the majority of steep sections. We walked up a set of stairs that someone had counted and labeled having 605 steps. One stairway to a temple we fortunately did not have to climb has over 1400 individual steps. Although it is tiring to climb and descend stairs, it is far easier than hiking on steep trails that are covered in loose rocks and tangled roots, such as the much of the northern half of Vermont’s Long Trail. On our walk, we gained something over 135,000 feet, which is roughly 230 feet per mile or about the same average gain per mile as the John Muir Trail.
Besides steps, we encountered ladders, bridges, tunnels, metal staircases, chains, ropes and other walking aids. The government has spent a lot of money building and maintaining the TSH. All of this infrastructure quickly rots and rusts in the humid and warm climate and we saw evidence of constant maintenance to replace and upgrade trail infrastructure.
There are numerous water crossings on the TSH. All significant ones have bridges. We were able to easily rock-hop the smaller ones and we never had to wade. Masonry check-dams have been installed on most lower elevation mountain streams.
There were very few fences across the trail and on approaching them, they would often appear to be impassible; however there were always gates. Frequently the fences and gates were poorly constructed and latches were often difficult to operate and sometimes just hard to find or access. Gates were hung badly and would drag on the ground, making them hard to open and close. We believe that the primary purpose of most fencing is to keep feral pigs out of the farm fields. There were few fences along the route blocking access to an area.
There is a regional trail around the west, north, and east sides of Kyoto, named the Kyoto Isshu Trail, the Kyoto Nature Trail (KNT), or just the Kyoto Trail. This trail is coincident with the TSH in many places. We found the KNT to be well marked with informative and consistent English language signs. Where the TSH and KNT diverged, we usually followed the KNT because we thought it had better routing and signage. In particular, the KNT avoids a dangerous piece of road-walking northwest of Kyoto. Our map highlights this section and the KNT option that by-passes it. Nomadic Tom warned about this road in his blog:
This is where things got interesting. From the map the road seemed just like many of the other mountain roads the trail has followed so far, so nothing alerted me to what I was going find. See, up until now the Tokai has often followed windy, narrow mountain roads, but never busy with huge trucks. I started walking down and it soon became apparent this was not going to be safe… It was not a situation that I enjoyed one bit and to be honest it scared the hell out of me. At one point I had just rounded a corner when a truck came flying past me no more than a foot away. Holy shit! I leant against the barrier for a few moments catching my breath and cursing whoever had designed this section of the track. It was a seriously dangerous situation and I wanted nothing more than to get off that cursed mountain road. So for the first time on the entire walk I started to run. It wasn’t an easy thing to do with 17+ kilos on my back, but my motivation to get off the road was strong and by the time I got to the safety of this car park the road ran directly through I think I had run at least two kilometers… Anyone else thinking of doing the track, then I highly recommend you avoid this part. It’s just not worth the risk.
Logistics for a Thru-Hiker
Resupply and Groceries
Prior to our trip we used Google Maps to identify the location of grocery stores. Other than for convenience stores, this information rarely proved useful. Problems included: no visible store at the mapped location; looks like a store, but not open; open, but with a very limited selection of goods. We do not cook on a hike like this, so a tiny shop that sells rice and raw eggs is not as useful as the cooked rice balls and hard-boiled eggs always available at the convenience stores. We left the waymarks for the markets, as identified by Google Maps, in our CalTopo map as this might be useful for other hikers, but be forewarned that they may not be a useful resource.
We did encounter a few large supermarkets that had everything we could possibly want; these did not open until 9 or 10 AM. Some had lunch counters serving hot food. They are labeled “large supermarket” in our CalTopo map.
There are many convenience stores along the route and these made our trip a lot easier. They are marked on the CalTopo map and it is safe to assume that these locations are reliable. There are many chains including 7-11, Family Mart, Lawson’s, Circle K, Mini Stop and Kamazaki. These stores are usually open 24 hours a day. They are spotlessly clean, well lit, have electrical outlets for recharging phones, ATM’s that take international cards, and nice bathrooms with heated toilet seats. The clerks were universally friendly and tolerant of a couple of grubby backpackers unwittingly breaking all the customary rules about how things should be done. The best are the Family Marts as they usually had a counter with chairs where we could sit and eat a meal.
The convenience stores are well stocked with food useful to our style of travel: crackers, crisps, chocolate, yogurt, juices, beer, ice cream, small servings of precooked and packaged meats, fish, baked or hard-boiled eggs, and most importantly, rice balls, all at very reasonable prices. Nuts were expensive and cheese was rare and very expensive. People who cook will find a variety of “just add hot water” meals.
Convenience stores also offered a wide selection of prepared main dishes they could heat in a microwave and we ate many meals this way. These meals were packaged so that you could easily determine what you were buying. Unlike American convenience stores where the microwavable food is almost inedible, these meals are delivered fresh to the store once or twice a day and are decent tasting, filling and quite inexpensive. The stores also had racks of hot chicken on a stick, pork buns, and other similar tasty finger foods.
We learned a few rules of behavior. Do not take unfolded umbrellas into the store. Shop using one of the provided plastic baskets. Do not take the baskets into the eating area or out of the store. When paying, place your coins in the small tray on the counter and hand any bills to the clerk unfolded face side up. We routinely accumulated a large bag full of coins; when presented with the pile, the clerks efficiently extracted the best combination. You will receive a receipt that you can then throw away in a small box near the register. They will never short-change you. Always smile and thank the clerk with an arigato gozaimasu. We usually explained, through gestures and a few words, that we were walking the TSH from Osaka to Tokyo, and most clerks understood and appeared to appreciate the explanation. As we were certainly unexpected and unusual visitors, we felt it polite to try to provide an explanation of who we were and what we were doing.
We always find it a bit perplexing buying meals in places where we do not speak the language. Doing this in a country where we cannot understand any characters on signs is even more of a challenge. We frequently found it impossible to determine from a sign whether a place served meals. Does that sign say café or shoe repair? Because many the shops and restaurants only turn on interior lights when they have a customer, small buildings appeared dark from the outside and we often could not even tell whether a place was open. We ate far fewer meals in restaurants and cafes than we expected, especially in the smaller towns.
Ordering a meal was also a bit complex. Although they went to great lengths to make us feel welcome, the staff rarely spoke any English. Few menus included any English or pictures of food. We tried using an on-line translation app but frequently would get back something like “pieces of fatty happiness”. So we resorted to arm waving and pointing and eventually food would arrive and it was almost always good. Meals at small, simple, family run restaurants usually cost between $8 and $15 US per person.
Finding water was never a problem and we rarely carried more than one liter each. Public water is clean and drinkable unless there is a warning sign on a faucet: you will not be able to read it, but the meaning will be clear. We took water from springs and upper mountain streams without treating it and never had any problems. Most rural houses have an outdoor spigot; we assume it was acceptable to use these and regularly did so.
We camped every night we were on the TSH. Finding a good site was rarely a problem. We do not know the formal rules or cultural acceptability of camping along the route, so can offer no advice about what behavior is considered appropriate. As far as we know, few people ever observed us while our tent was set up. When we were in areas away from buildings and roads we did nothing special to be discreet. When we were near a road or buildings, we usually practiced standard stealth camping techniques, in particular we waited until sunset to set up the tent and we departed at sunrise. When near a village, we generally tried to find a location that would reduce the chance we would be seen; when there were no isolated places we would set up in view and not worry about it. We never had any problems with these practices.
We camped on unused agricultural fields, temple grounds, in roadside shelters, on viewing platforms, in the entrance to a football stadium, in town parks and playgrounds, on a tennis court, and once, during a rainstorm, under the shelter of a bridge.
We saw one person with a small tent car camping along a riverbank next to a road, and numerous people camping in formal campgrounds during Golden Week. Otherwise, we saw no other tents besides our own. Google Maps identified a number of private campgrounds that were either permanently or seasonally shut when we passed by.
We carried a lot of cash because very few restaurants and shops take credit cards. ATM’s at airports, Post Offices, and convenience stores accept international ATM cards; most ATM’s at other locations do not.
Currency is easy to understand. The exchange rate is roughly 100 yen to the US dollar, so a yen is worth about a penny. Knock two zeros off of a price and you have a rough dollar equivalent. Coins are 1, 5, 10, 50, 100, and 500 yen and are easy to tell apart. Bills are 1000, 5000, and 10,000 yen. We never had problems changing large bills. While hiking, we spent between $20 and $25 US per person per day, primarily on food.
Mobile Phone Plans
We understand that foreigners cannot legally buy a voice telephone SIM in Japan; however, they can buy data plan SIMs. The best source is at BIC Camera stores found in major cities. We purchased a 3-month 2GB SIM for about $35. The SIM cards sold at the airport were substantially more expensive. A store employee installed and activated our SIM; this was a great help as the multi-step process is on Japanese websites we could not possibly have understood. Data service was available for the vast majority of our hike.
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.
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.
Birding was reasonably good. Birds are not harassed in Japan, so most of them are not too difficult to see. During the entire trip, which included a post trip walk on the Izu Peninsula and birding in Tokyo, we saw or heard 37 new life birds and 13 new life subspecies. Raptors other than Black Kites were few. Most thrushes were seen earlier in the trip and likely migrated further north during the walk. Crows and small passerines were abundant.
Our favorite bird was the Japanese Bush-Warbler. This is a tiny, bland looking species that skulks in the bushes. However, he is a fabulous vocalist, with a very loud whistled song reminiscent of birds we heard in Australia. Whenever we got near one, he started an alternative alarm song that was long, loud, convoluted and vastly entertaining. He began with an organized series of rapid notes and as time went by, the song became slower and more and more disorganized, sort of like he was running out of gas. Sometimes went on for over a minute. We heard him everyday and never tired of his cheerful presence.
Sika deer were relatively common and gave unearthly shrieks at unexpected times, usually surprising both of us. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sika_deer
We saw Japanese Macaques, the snow monkey, on a few occasions. During one encounter, the animals were aggressive, and we had to yell and shake our hiking poles to get them to back away.
We had three encounters with a Japanese Serow, a kind of goat-antelope.
We saw two Japanese Raccoon Dogs. While staying in the empty campground in a Japanese National Park, one tore a hole in our tent netting in the middle of the night trying to get at our food. We should have hung our food, knowing that there might be animal problems at this very large and seasonally popular campground.
We saw many signs warning hikers to beware of Asiatic Black Bears. Almost every Japanese day hiker we saw wore tiny and mostly inaudible bear bells. We saw neither bears nor scat, claw marks nor footprints. However, bears are present and there have been a few bear attacks.
We saw five unidentified snakes and many interesting lizards. There are venomous snakes in Japan and a few fatal snakebites every year.
We had very few annoying insects. On a few evenings late in the trip, mosquitoes emerged at dusk and would have been problematic without a netted tent. We never had mosquitoes during the day. Flies were never a problem.
We had a couple of leeches on a few days, and a one-hour stretch of trail where we removed over 40 leeches from our shoes and socks. We do not know the normal pattern for leech occurrences, but if that intensity of leeches had happened more frequently it would have been very annoying.
We saw no loose dogs and we never saw piles of dog poop. Dogs were either tied up, on leashes or behind fences. Some dogs barked at us as we passed, but we never felt we were at risk of being attacked. For backpackers, the dog situation in Japan is fabulous. Cats, feral and otherwise, are widespread in Japan and we met a couple of cat ladies with large collections.