Thursday, 14 August 2014

My most expensive day

Thursday 14th August 2014

Weather: Very, very cloudy with spots of rain. Around Kamikochi it was only 19 degrees.

MP3 track of the day: Friend like me – Aladdin, Walt Disney.

It's funny how it takes something terrible to happen to make you realise that something, or someone, actually meant quite a lot to you. I am sure that we are all aware that, Robin Williams – Hook, Good morning Vietnam – passed away earlier this week. I never thought that he would leave a lasting impression on me however, since the news broke, I have continually thought of his films. Though it didn't win any awards (that I know of), 'Hook' was always one of my favourites because of the interesting spin on a classic fairy tale. I hope that Robin has finally found peace and that, for once, someone is telling him the jokes.


I woke to be reminded that, once again, I was sleeping within a hostel. As I slowly opened my eyes I noticed that a pair of pants were lying on the floor adjacent to my bed. Even though it was 6:15am, I could identify that these were certainly male pants and, not mine. With a little more deduction, I worked out that they must have been from the guy in the bunk above me and, though I was delighted that personal hygiene seemed to be a priority of his, it wasn't really a dream start to the day. I got up and got ready around said pants.

Before leaving the hostel I checked the weather. All weather reports for today spoke of extreme cloud however, tomorrow's weather reports were a little more undecided; some mentioned sun in the morning and others said that it will rain all day. With so much cloud I felt that it wasn't worth paying almost £50.00 to be whisked 3,000 meters higher up into it and, instead, I opted to head to Kamikochi; a small village only 1,500 meters above sea level. To get to Kamikochi, I had to drive an hour south and then an hour west; which almost put me back in Takayama. On the way, I grabbed breakfast.

To avoid the Matsumoto's morning rush, I decided to by-pass the city, on it's western edge, by taking a 'minor road'. Though I could clearly see where this road started on my map, trying to find a sign for the '25' was an entirely different task. It soon became apparent that I had missed the turning however, luckily for me, every small turning to my left would meet up with the '25' … after going through a small village. Having decided that, getting lost within a village was better than getting stuck in city traffic, I used 'the force' and chose a road heading in a western direction. After making multiple left and right-hand turns (just to keep my compass pointing west) through this village, I somehow managed to get onto the '25' without incident. Not only had I found the '25' difficult to find, but I felt as though it was trying to get me to leave as soon as possible. I persevered though rice fields, across rail lines and through small villages to come out along the '158'; the main road to Kamikochi.

It was at this point that a few spots of rain were starting to fall. I, not being blessed with the luxury of time, pushed on to Kamikochi regardless of the weather and, so too did hundreds of other cars making my progress incredibly slow. Due to my slow pace, I managed to read my guidebook whilst driving; it stated that private cars were banned from Kamikochi and, instead, they had to be left within giant car parks close to the village. Car owners would then have to board a bus. Unfortunately my guidebook didn't state what the name of the 'car park village' would be (I presumed 'Kamikochi car park village', but apparently not) however, it didn't turn out to be that difficult to work out. One hour and twenty minutes after I had joined the '158', I slowed to a standstill as drivers looked for spaces and car park owners tried to fill their car parks up as fast as possible. I actually drove through the 'village part' of this giant car park before descending down hill towards another car park. Before parking I made sure that I was in the right place as it would cost about £3 for the day. What I didn't expect was that, a return bus ticket to Kamikochi would cost me around £15. As I was here (and kamikochi was one of my guidebooks '31 things not to miss in Japan') I decided to absorb the cost. I parked my car, took off my trainers and put on my 'walking socks' plus boots. My left foot was still hurting like hell however, I was currently wearing a 'foot sprain bandage', socks and walking socks (all designed to support your foot) which were wrapped up tightly within my boot. Still, walking to the bus was a real mission.

Of course the bus was packed; so much so that I was sat on one of those 'pull down isle seats', which are illegal in the UK but, slightly worryingly, are absolutely fine here and in other parts of Asia. At first, we travelled with the ordinary traffic however, at a set of traffic lights, we continued straight into a tunnel filled with other buses and taxis heading from, and towards, Kamikochi.

After a few stops we arrived at Kamikochi bus station. Once off the bus the rain was light, but warranted the erection of my umbrella. Once in Kamikochi's tourist information centre I soon discovered a slight misunderstanding on my part. Kamikochi was the name of the settlement I found myself in however, it was also the name of the park which surrounded said settlement. What's more, the settlement consisted of a few gift shops, a couple of hotels, this tourist information building and the bus terminal. 90% of Kamikochi was covered in forests and mountains with a central river running through Kamikochi at a steady rate. Normally I would have been overjoyed to find out that only six buildings were within 50 kilometres of me however, I was already hobbling and, currently, a hike seemed impossible.

Just before leaving the tourist office I bought a map and looked at the hiking routes available. Within the centre of Kamikochi park are three rope bridges crossing the central river. A walking loop, using the most northern and southern of these bridges should take – according to my map – about 3 hours. I was currently at the central bridge which, as it happened, is the most famous landmark in the park (it is used in all of the tourist photos). To walk a loop from the central bridge to the southern bridge and back should take around an hour; a loop to the northern bridge would take over two hours. Of course, being me, I headed north. I limped across the famous bridge and started my 'loop' from the west bank.

It was futile; I had only done 0.1 kilometre of a 6 kilometre loop and I was already in an extreme amount of pain. For the first time, in all of my travels, I turned around due to an injury.

I was absolutely gutted. It had stopped raining, I had paid a lot of money to get here and Kamikochi is 'the place' to hike in Japan. I returned to the central bridge and sat down on a wooden bench, close to a shop, deflated and glad that I was on my own so that no one else could see.

I spent a couple of minutes rotating my left ankle clockwise, then counter-clockwise and, as I did, I watched scores of Japanese tourists head off into the woods. How could I have come so far and not hike – at least a little – around this famous park. In the end I decided that no amount of pain was going to stop me from saying that I, at least, did the 1 hour southern loop. I tightened my left boot laces as much as I could and stood up. One foot at a time I gingerly walked south, with people over-taking me as if I was standing still.

The southern path ran along the riverside and, with the weather getting better and better, Kamikochi started to give hints as to why it is regarded so highly as a hiking location. In front of me was a crystal clear river (which, at one point, I put my hand into) which ran across rocks and boulders of many colours. After a small stony beach, a blanket of alpine trees ran level for a short while before climbing steeply up the mountainsides. Those mountainsides could be seen in every direction and, though Kamikochi is a valley, it was easy to believe that it could have been a bowl.

Unlike my Edo path trek yesterday, the southern walking path was extremely flat. After trying every angle I could think of, I soon realised that placing my left foot at 180 degrees (so the whole sole of my foot hit the ground at the same time) was the most comfortable. I'm not sure if it was this, or the way I had bound up my foot, or the fact that my foot was now warm but the pain, slowly but surely, started to die away. I could still feel a small jolt and, when I over-extended my foot … boy did it let me know however, I was able to pick up pace and over-take some of those who had over-taken me earlier. Even though the sky was still full of clouds, my day was full of sunshine as I was almost walking at 75% of my normal speed without much pain at all. I often stopped to take photos of the mountains, the river and the trees plus, when I eventually arrived at it, the southern wooden suspension bridge. I also took a photo of a plague dedicated to the British missionary who put this place on the map. Rev. Walter Weston – from Derbyshire no less – was the man who, in the later 1980's, hiked every inch of this area. It was he who wrote a hiking guide to this area and it was he, who highlighted Kamikochi's potential. As I said, I took a photo of the plaque – a little gutted that there was no mention of Derbyshire – and moved on quickly. I wanted to make the most of my foot whilst it was happy.

After stopping every-so-often to take photos of this stunning park, I found myself at the central bridge once again. My foot was still feeling okay and so I tried again with the longer trek however, this time, I started on the east bank.

Though the 'northern loop' was the walk I really wanted to do (just because it was longer and I thought that it would show me parts of the park I hadn't seen yet) the north-eastern path became quite a disappointment. On the plus side it was as flat as a pancake however, it was located away from the riverbank and in the middle of Kamikochi's woodland, meaning that I couldn't see much apart from trees and branches. Once I had made it onto the northern bridge I broke free of the trees and took a few shots of the river before heading back into the trees on the western edge. This side however, was much more entertaining. Every twenty minutes or so something of interest – worthy of a photo or two – would come into view be it a tributary stream or an area of marsh with half-sunken trees creating almost unlimited focal points. This side of the park however, as a lot more 'up and down' and my foot really did not like the elevation changes. Once again my foot was starting to play up … but I didn't care. By this point I was only thirty minutes from the central bridge and, thankfully, I could say that I had completed a three hour hike within this amazing park.

Once back at the central bridge I dived into the nearest souvenir shop where, amongst the many souvenirs, was a toddle screaming his head off. It was of course one of those fake cries where the child was trying to get his own way and, though the father was doing the right thing by not giving in, I wish the toddlers 'stubborn level' was set a lot lower. Once here I spent almost £60; most of which was spent on souvenir biscuits for my work colleges and friends however, I did get some postcards and, finally, a photo book which had a few photos of here, the Edo period trail I hiked yesterday and the three UESCO World Heritage villages I saw five days ago.

Once I had handed over 9,000 Yen (and got a huge bag in return) I decided that it was time to leave this staggeringly beautiful park (with THOUSANDS of Japanese tourists in though, thankfully, most remained around the central bridge). I headed back to the bus station and joined a queue longer than Hadrian's Wall however, it did move extremely quickly.

I have to say that the organisation at the bus station was second-to-none. Not only did a bus arrive every couple of minutes but, the bus attendants chose to leave a few seats free within every bus. Why, you may ask. Well I was thinking the same thing, until I remembered that there were less popular stops further towards the car park. It would have been infuriating if bus, after bus, after bus passed you buy displaying a 'no vacancy' notice.

As my bus departed I was one of those luckily people with the seat next to me vacant however, I had a feeling that me being a foreigner had more to do with it than luck did. Indeed, when a family of six did board the bus at a later stop, they looked quite put out that one of them would have to sit next to me. The woman, who did eventually sit next to me, had a very happy baby girl and she had no trouble at all communicating with me through smiles and touch however, as soon as a seat next to a Japanese person came free, her mother bolted for it like her life depended on it … which made me kind of sad as I was quite enjoying making funny faces at her daughter.

It was 3:30pm when I arrived at the car park. As I was leaving Kamikochi at the same time as most other day trippers I knew that the drive back would be slow and painful. What's more; I also knew that I wouldn't arrive at Matsumoto castle before it closed and so, once again, I abandoned trying to see the castle at all today and decided to put it on my list for tomorrow.

Surprisingly the traffic moved reasonably quickly though, not enough to reach the castle before closing. After getting petrol I stopped at another 'Denny's' restaurant where I order the 'set meal' which included a salad, a hamburger with salad, a drink and a dessert for £10 (might go here tomorrow). Today I had skipped lunch; the time was 5pm and so this was a sort of lunch and tea combined which I didn't mind at all. In fact, I was starting to realise that I preferred having a cheap breakfast with an expensive, and healthy, tea instead of three cheap and unhealthy meals in my day. Once consumed I drove back to my hostel; I arrived at around 6:30pm and got on with my blog.

In reality tomorrow is my final day. Once again, what I will do will be weather dependant. If the skies are clear then I will spend £50 and travel 3,000 meters up a mountain, before heading to Matsumoto castle in the afternoon. If the skies are cloudy then I will just head to Matsumoto castle and have a look around the city. Fingers crossed for good weather.

Toodle Pip!

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