KANAGAWA - AN EXERCISE IN FAILURE

 

My single biggest inspiration for starting this travel writing blog last year is the late Alan Booth, who wrote about his walk across the whole country in his book “The Roads To Sata.” It’s filled with his observations which are written in his very dry British wit, and even though it took place in the 80s, his experiences are still very relevant. I’d wager many of the towns and villages he passed through haven’t much changed in the years since.


While I would love to follow in his footsteps and walk the entire length of the country, there are several things that make this nigh on impossible; a lack of knowledge, time, money, intellect, general fitness, perseverance, common sense, stamina, will power, etc. Taking on this journey just isn’t on the cards. Doing one prefecture at a time, on the other hand, most certainly is. Let me take you back to the dreadfully hot summer of 2021, where I painfully overestimated my ability to complete such a task.


Kanagawa looked like a good place to take on this challenge, so I mapped out the journey using Google maps, calculating how far and for how long I’d be able to walk each day. I figured I could handle 6-7 hours a day, and that it would take me around three days to finish. I booked three hotels, the first in Yokohama where I would set off from in the morning on the train to Yugawara, the next in Odawara at the following day, then the last in Hiratsuka, from where I would walk to the border between Yokohama and Kawasaki.


It was early when I arrived at Yugawara on the western edge of Kanagawa. The station was surrounded by lush green mountains that looked over a sparkling blue ocean. The goal on this first day was twelve-or-so miles east. Unfortunately, I couldn’t take the coastal route that curved along the shore because there weren’t any footpaths, and I’d likely be found lying on the rocks. This meant I had to go inland. Google’s suggestion didn’t look like too much of a straying path. In fact, it was supposedly the quickest.


A cool ocean breeze made the warm weather very pleasant as I walked to the nearest 7-Eleven to stock up on supplies. I bought a bottle of water and Pocari Sweat, a couple of jelly energy drinks, and some gummies. I’d worn in my new long distance walking shoes and was feeling good.
The back roads took me further away from the coast, where it was more quiet and suburban. There wasn’t much traffic about and it became very peaceful as the forest grew closer. That being said, it hadn’t gone unnoticed that since leaving the station; the road was getting progressively steeper. And it would only get worse.


I crossed under the bridge where I came over on the train and soon found myself at the foot of a mountain. It didn’t seem that big from the bottom, and Google maps said it would only take around three hours to get over it, so why wouldn’t I put my faith in that? The first hour wasn’t too bad, though it had got pretty hot, but I was shielded by the trees, and had enough energy that the humidity hadn’t affected me yet. I was enjoying the escape from civilisation, only coming across houses periodically amongst the winding roads and dense bamboo-lined forest.


I passed a house that had a carved wooden dinosaur outside, and it was here, while I stopped to appreciate it, the wave of humidity smashed down on me like a lightning bolt from Zeus. I’d drank all of my drinks by this point, but even halfway up a mountain in Japan you’ll find vending machines, so dying of dehydration wasn’t something I was worried about. Spoiler: It was something else I needed to worry about killing me.


The houses were all behind me now, and each step became a literal uphill struggle. The sounds of the insects in the forest began to burrow into my head and I’d lost about a stone in sweat. Now and then, taxis passed by, and the temptation to flag one down increased as each passed. I was really starting to suffer and every time I looked at my phone, the blue snaking road seemed never ending.


I rested a few times, until deciding that I might, possibly, be succumbing to heatstroke, and flagging down a taxi was exactly what I planned to do. Unfortunately for me, the sporadic but reliable stream of them had all but stopped. I knew I was in trouble when I felt pins and needles in my head, which was a first for me. I was going to flag down the next car, no matter who it was. As I sat on a curb, feeling dizzy and sick, I thought I was genuinely on the verge of death on that mountain, but I did not fear its cold embrace. What I feared was how embarrassing it would look, this pasty white buffoon collapsing in the 35 degree summer heat with nought but half a bottle of a red isotonic vitamin drink, and a phone whose screen tracked but a pitiable fraction of a journey that would never be completed.


Salvation, it turned out, was just ten minutes away as I struggled to drag my dumb ass to the top of the mountain. The trees cleared and made way for neatly cut grass and a fancy set of buildings. There was only one car in the car park and no people around, so I wasn’t even sure if whatever this place was, was even open. I went in anyway and found a large, air-conditioned room with glass walls looking over the forest I just trudged through. I splashed water on my face at the sink and spent the next hour drinking five bottles of water from the vending machine. Outside, I saw a young priest wearing black walking around. We made eye contact and I could see the discomfort in his eyes. It appeared I was in some kind of space age religious centre.


I was feeling pretty good again and thought I could probably make it the rest of the way to Odawara. Then I stepped outside again. Any notion that I could walk that distance, downhill or otherwise, was dashed when the heat and humidity smashed against me. I stepped back inside and contemplated what to do, and finally decided that three hours into my three day challenge, I was going to call it. Instead, I walked around thirty minutes to the nearest station and hopped on the train. On the way down I didn’t feel disappointed, I felt relieved that it was over, and not at all upset that I’d failed in spectacular fashion the very reason I came here, that I’d actually be able to enjoy the next two days.


My hotel room in Odawara was small and smoky, with yellow stains on the wallpaper. One of my pet peeves, especially in dirtier hotels like this, is not being given disposable slippers. I’m sure the leather ones they provide have been cleaned, but I’ll never be on board with wearing slippers a thousand other pair of feet have been in. Anyway. I stuffed myself with sugar and water, and after getting showered, headed to the closest establishment I could get a pint of Guinness, another Irish bar that had next nothing Irish about it. The fish and chips were nice, though. The town was pretty small, but I didn’t spend too long exploring it, as I wanted to be well rested for exploring Hiratsuka.


The first place I went to when I got off the train the following morning was the beach. The town definitely had a surfing vibe to it as I approached, having to cross the bridge hanging over a motorway. There’s probably a better place they could’ve built that, but the trees lining the road did a good job of dulling the noise of traffic from the beach itself. As it was early, and a weekday, it was fairly quiet. I was only joined by a couple of dog walkers and some surfers. I relaxed here for a while before going to do more exploring.


HachimangÅ« was on the way to Hiratsuka General Park, a Shintō shrine brimming with trees and torii gates and shrines. Best of all, however, was a pond filled with ducks, and a pony. (The pony wasn’t in the pond.) There was a chilled seaside vibe that a lot of these towns and cities give off. The great weather certainly helped with that. Walking along the outside of the park, the lampposts were adorned with flags, each with a different Shonan Bellmare player in their lime green kit. Their stadium was located inside, but when I found somewhere to get a peak, there were just a few runners practising on the track around the pitch.


Also here was a baseball stadium, and this one had baseball players practising inside. It was fun to watch for about the same amount of time it’s fun to watch an actual baseball match. I left after two minutes. The park was shaded in some places and open in others. I stayed here until it was time to check in to my hotel, which was surprisingly nice and fancy, considering I didn’t pay much for it.


That night I went to the most metal sounding bar I could find, a place called Yggdrasil. It had its own brewery next door that made metal themed beer, and although Iron Maiden was on TV, inside the bar itself was modestly metal. It was bright, somewhat rustic, and very welcoming. I walked in and, not wanting to insert myself into the one free seat at the counter, I sat at the big empty table. I was there for perhaps five seconds before the friendly Frenchman pouring pints, David, told me to come and sit in the empty spot.


We talked about music and football, and he introduced me to the older gentleman who was sitting beside me, and who would become my new best friend for the night. The other group that was there occasionally chimed in before heading off. We were then joined by a young, university-going couple, then another who just finished his shift. The best thing about these types of bars in Japan is that gradually all the conversations become one and when it’s closing time, you feel you were out with a big group of friends.

My best friend and I worked our way through the healthy and delicious selection of beer David recommended to us, though I felt bad after he kept paying for the beer and snacks, then vehemently refusing when I tried to pay for the next, as older Japanese men are wont to do. I managed to get in a couple rounds before he noticed by the end of the night, where we then said our goodbyes, and I staggered back to my nice hotel feeling so upbeat that the pain and the suffering and the abject failure of the previous day had long since dissipated into the bottom of one of the many beers of that evening.

 

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