Tuesday, 16 June 2015

A Rough Guide to Walking the Tokai Nature Trail

Introduction
Walking the Tokai Nature Trail (Tokai Shizen Hodo) in Japan can be a great adventure. It is one of the world’s great long distance trails, taking people through some of the best nature Japan has to offer, and past many of its great cultural assets. This rough guide to the trail is intended to help those who plan a thru-hike of the Tokai, although I am sure those who plan to do day hikes, or hike the trail in sections, will find the information contained in this guide useful also. Please note that although the trail can be walked in either direction, this guide assumes the user is walking in the direction from Tokyo to Osaka.

UPDATE 30/04/16: I have uploaded the trail GPS coordinates to wikiloc.

What is the Tokai Shizen Hodo?
It is a long distance walking trail that connects two of Japan’s largest cities Tokyo and Osaka. Whilst Wikipedia claims that this trail is over 1600km long, this total includes all of the possible routes one could take to complete the course, thus in reality a thru-hike of the main trail is really more around 1050km.



Why do I call it a “rough” guide?
Because this guide is by no means intended to be a comprehensive guide in which, for example, the distance between every food and water resupply spot is marked out in fine detail (although as one will see, obtaining food and water is by no means difficult on the Tokai Shizen Hodo and requires minimal planning). It is based predominantly upon my first hand experience of walking the trail, rather than the product of years of research. Therefore, this guide is intended to address the broader concerns about the trail with more general information I obtained from walking it, rather than more specific information. It is worth mentioning I found highly specific information not really necessary for successfully walking the Tokai Shizen Hodo; the lack of large expanses of days on end wilderness on the crowded main island of Japan means that one generally only has to plan a day or two in advance rather than, say, a week at a time. Personally, when I walked the trail, I found much of the adventure was to be had by not knowing specifics, such as where I was going to sleep that night or where my next meal was coming from, and never once did I encounter major difficulties in getting by.

If you are looking for more specific information on certain sections of the trail, then what I suggest is looking at my blog, which has a day-to-day account of walking the trail. The information you are searching for may be contained in there already.

One other reason why this guide “rough” rather than comprehensive is because it does not encompass all the trail options available, but rather just the main one.

What do I mean by this? The Tokai Shizen Hodo has a main trail that runs roughly about 1050km by my record, and then two large deviation courses in the Shizuoka section (a bypass course) and the Kansai section. It also has smaller variations in some sections. This guide is written from my experience of doing the main trail, and any information contained pertains to such and not to the other courses. I have not walked them so I simply cannot comment on them. If you would like to see my exact trail I am talking about then please refer to the Google map above.

What is more is that my trail is not 100% accurate. I had to leave the trail in certain sections to resupply, meaning that I took various detours. And in one section, such as this day, I was off the trail for almost the whole day, due to a reroute my GPS map took me. All and all, I would estimate that I walked around 95% of the main trail of the Tokai Shizen Hodo, with the other 5% being detours off the trail.

Why Walk the Tokai Shizen Hodo?
The Tokai Shizen Hodo offers people a unique experience, allowing those who do it to see parts of the country that are rarely seen by foreigners, and also taking them past some of the best cultural heritage Japan has to offer. Here are my five top reasons why someone should walk it:

·      It’s stunning. Whilst walking the Tokai Shizen Hodo you will regularly encounter spectacular sights that can’t be experienced anywhere else. It takes you up and over mountains regularly providing breath taking views, into multi tiered rice and tea growing valleys, and around some of Japan’s most famous land marks. For three days the trail winds its way around the base of Mt Fuji, providing a full range of views of the mountain that few get to experience. It also allows hikers to experience some of Japan’s best cultural heritage, regularly moving past isolated mountain temples and shrines, historic landmarks and even through the ancient city of Kyoto. Everyday without fail I found myself being stunned by something beautiful that I got to see on the trail.



·      It’s a unique experience. Someone wanting a different, off the beaten path, experience in Japan that offers a distinct way of seeing the country will definitely appreciate the Tokai Shizen Hodo. The trail takes you over mountains, through valleys and into villages that the average person would rarely ever see. I was quite surprised that, as of June 2015 when I finished walking the trail, it was almost completely free of tourists. Actually, it was typically free of anyone at all in most sections. I would often walk a whole day without seeing anyone, and I did not meet one other person doing a thru-hike. I found it extremely surprising, that such a breathtaking and well-maintained trail was attracting such little interest.



·      It’s convenient. Please don’t mistake me here for meaning that the trail is easy, because it is not. It is a physically demanding track that has a hiker more often than not labouring up and down mountains rather than on flats. But, compared to other long-distance trails around the world that take hikers into the wilderness for days on end, the Tokai Shizen Hodo is rather tame. The high population density of the main island of Japan means that most days the trail runs through a town or village one can resupply at. Even in the mountains water is generally abundant and able to be taken directly from the higher streams without treatment, meaning there is little need to pack litres and litres in. Wild camping is easy too, with locals generally not minding the transitory presence of a tent in their local park for a night (at least I never had a problem). So in terms of do-ability, the Tokai Shizen Hodo is rather easy in many respects, allowing hikers to plan their everyday needs on a day-to-day basis rather than having to organise for several days or a week at a time.


·      It’s safe. Japan is generally considered to be a very safe country, and its nature areas are no exception. The probabilities of being attacked by a wild animal are minimal, and the chances of getting robbed are basically non-existent. Japan does have some large predatory mammals, such as black bears, but habitat destruction on the main island has rendered the chances of attack by one of these creatures as extremely low. Although signs indicate to be careful of such attacks, in my experience I never saw one the whole time I did the walk, and locals often told me that there were really none in the area, in spite of the local government putting up signs. As for the trail itself, the path was normally well maintained with the exception of a few sections, often providing stairs, railings, ropes and/or chains when necessary. Due to the crowdedness of the areas the trail passes through, the chances of getting completely lost are also minimal.


  • It's cheap. Walking the trail and camping means you cut down on two of the major costs of traveling in Japan, transport and accommodation. All you have to pay for is food! This means you can get by on less than 2000 yen per day, making it the cheapest way to travel.

All and all it is simply a great way to see and experience Japan.

Do I need to speak and read Japanese?
It helps, but no, it is not necessary, especially now there is a comprehensive GPS the main trail available (thus no need to ask for directions all the time). Although people in Japan do not normally speak English, the Japanese are generally very accommodating to foreigners and go to great efforts to help when required. By no means do they expect foreigners to speak Japanese, and are generally pleasantly surprised if you can speak even a little.

With all that said, being able to speak at least a bit will go a long way in making things easier if you do decide to walk the trail, from ordering in restaurants to obtaining specific information about the trail from locals.

I would also recommend learning the Kanji (Chinese characters) for “reroute”, “detour” and “impassable”. There were a few times I was walking the trail and found myself having to back track, or ending up in places I shouldn’t be (see this blog entry), due to me not understanding these Kanji.

What Should I Expect on the Trail?
The Tokai Shizen Hodo is by no means an easy trek, with the majority of the trail passing through mountainous terrain. Whilst the highest altitude reached is not particularly high at around 1450m, the trail does still regularly demand hikers complete accents of over 1000m over the course of a day, often for several days straight. By the time you finish the trail, you will have ascended over 38000m, more than four times the height of Mt Everest. Personally I underestimated the physical demands of the trail, and for the first two weeks I was in a world of pain. Each morning I would wake up barely being able to walk, my legs would ache and feel like jelly for the whole day, my toes and feet were riddled with blisters, and both my big toenails fell of by the end of the second week. So I highly suggest not underestimating the trail and doing some training if you want to avoid such discomfort.


The actual trail itself is mostly well maintained, and only on three occasions can I recall that it had fallen into disrepair, but never impassable. Much of the trail is routed along quiet mountain roads (and occasionally busy ones, see the section guide for more details), and often it takes you through many rice and tea growing valleys and the villages and towns contained within them. It also skirts around the outskirts of four major Japanese cities, Tokyo, Nagoya, Kyoto and Osaka, and thus large sections of the trail pass through semi to full suburban areas.


After walking the trail myself, I came to the conclusion that it is not a “wilderness” trek by any means, and someone looking for such a trek in Japan should look elsewhere. Although the majority of the trail is in natural and forested areas, it passes through urban and/or agricultural areas on a daily basis. Whilst some may find this less than ideal, I personally enjoyed the experience as it allowed me to meet many wonderful people along the way, and also brought me into contact with unique aspects of Japanese culture that could not be experienced otherwise.


Weather
I began the trail in mid April and was finished by early June. This is spring in Japan and the weather was mostly perfect. In the beginning the weather was cool in the day and cold at night (although my gear sufficed and I was warm enough), and by the end it was warm to hot in the day and cool at night. It only rained considerably a few days, one of the days being a total wash out where I was absolutely drenched. But most of the time it was either sunny or cloudy, and the temperature ranged from ideal to bearable. I avoided doing the trail later as by mid June it is getting rather hot, and the middle of the typhoon season is looming. If you have the means possible it is best to keep an eye on the weather as typhoons can occur as early as May. I can’t speak for the trail in the autumn and winter months though, as I simply don’t have any experience with such.

Food
Food becomes an extremely important factor on any long distance hike. After a few days on the trail you find yourself able to eat huge amounts in order to replace the energy expelled whilst climbing up and down mountains all day long. Fortunately Japan provides very convenient access for obtaining it whilst on the trail. The high population density of Honshu ensures that the trail runs right by, or near to, a shop selling food most days. These shops range from convenience stores being the most common, to small mom and pop run stores that sell mostly local produce, to mega supermarkets that sell anything you can imagine. Please don’t misunderstand me though; you will need to pack in food everyday, as the trail does not run past a shop for every single meal. The trail also regularly passes small local restaurants you can get a meal at, providing a relief every now and then from food bought at stores.

The most common type of food resupply stores you will encounter are convenience stores. There are many different companies in Japan, Seven Eleven, Lawson, Family Mart etc, but all sell a similar range of products and are largely indistinct from each other. Japanese convenience stores happen to be a godsend to the hungry hiker. All of them sell a range of product perfect for packing in on the trail, such as noodles, chocolate, biscuits, energy bars, beef jerky, small bags of nuts, pre made sandwiches, rice balls, raw eggs and already boiled eggs, cured meats, assorted types of bread and pastries. I would often find myself wondering if such stores had been set up for hikers as the products in them really seemed aimed at the thru hiking market.

They also all contain a selection of pre made meals and snacks that are delivered to the store daily that can be bought and heated up in the store microwave. These range from Japanese bento boxes, spaghetti, meat on rice and various other creations, with most of them containing a calorie count on the label meaning you can do the opposite of most people and carefully pick out the most calorie filled meal. They actually taste surprisingly good (at least I thought so), and there is nothing better than coming down from a mountain, tired and hungry, to be greeted with a range of meals that can be heated and ready within minutes. What’s more is that convenience stores are reasonably priced in Japan, with these meals going for around only 500yen each ($5.25 AUD).

They also sell freshly ground coffee over the counter for 100 yen a cup, something that got me rather addicted to coffee by the end of my hike. And for the person who wants a beer, or bottle of whiskey for that matter, after a long day on the trail, all convenience stores sell alcohol too, although I would not recommend drinking to heavily if you have to climb a mountain the next day.

What is important on the trail is figuring out where the next store is likely to be so you can pack in just what you need, rather than taking way too much. If using a GPS (which I highly recommend) I suggest using the UUD Japan Map, which has to be bought online, but is definitely worth it in the end because it has a detailed list of basically every convenience store in Japan, and displays them directly on the map, making planning much easier. I would usually estimate how far I would go for the next two days, and then scan the route seeing where there were any stores, or large towns, along the route. Sometimes you will have to leave the track in order to resupply, but rarely, if ever, will you have to go really far out of your way in order to achieve this. I found with a little planning I could always incorporate the off the track resupply point into my route somehow so it was not too inconvenient.

Supermarkets are less frequent but better priced than convenience stores and offer a better range. And like these, they also have a range of pre-prepared meals you can buy and eat straight away. You will usually find them in the larger towns along the way.

Here are some Japanese trail food recommendations of mine

All You Can Eat Restaurants
If you decide to do like me and catch a train or bus into the major cities the trail skirts around each week in order to have a well-earned rest, then you will have access to cheap all you can eat restaurants. For me this was one of the best things to look forward to on my day off, and I would absolutely gorge myself on as much food as I could.

Hare are some all you can eat restaurant recommendations the trail runs near of mine

Another word of warning, please do not assume small towns and villages will definitely have somewhere to buy food. A few times I found myself disappointed when I assumed that a village would have a small food store, only to find it desolate when I got there. Check your map and only be sure it will have a store when it actually says there will be one.

Water
Water is not too much of a worry on the Tokai Shizen Hodo. Water from the tap in Japan does not need to be treated unless it specifically says it cannot be drunk (I suggest learning how to read, “cannot be drunk” because a few times on the trail I encountered taps where this was written). The trail regularly passes through small villages, almost all of which are guaranteed to have a tap you can refill your water at, although that tap may be connected to the front of a house. I would generally knock and ask, and if no one was home assume it was okay and just refill.

You can also refill from mountain streams, which are common in the mountains although I would not suggest counting on there always being one. In the majority of sections I didn’t need to carry more than two litres at any given time (unless I wanted to cook later), but sometimes I did need more than this so consult your map before heading up and pack accordingly. If you’re in doubt, just take extra; the additional weight could save you a lot of discomfort.


To treat or not to treat? I only treated my water when it specifically said not to drink it, and I would only refill in these places when I had no other options, and I didn’t get sick once. Mountain streams are generally considered okay by Japanese hikers to take water from directly and drink without treating, the rule being the higher up the better. With that said, I did once see the skeleton of a deer in a stream I had taken water from, reminding me that it was probably best to treat it if you wanted to be on the safe side.



Camping and Shelter
From the outset I am going to be clear that for the large majority of the Tokai Shizen Hodo has no official camping areas. The exception to this being one of the first sections, from Mt Sodehira to Lake Yamanaka, which contains several mountain huts you can use free of charge to sleep in (there are signboards up in this section which inform you of the specific locations of these huts). After this section I found no more such huts or official sleeping places.

With this said, I always found a place to set up my tent, and never once had any problems with local authorities, or anyone for that matter. So where exactly did I set up camp if there were no official camping spots? In a whole variety of places, sometimes getting rather creative in the process. I slept in rest areas the trail passed, in the courtyards of mountain temples, public sports fields, small local parks, under the driveway to a temple one time, and I set my tent up right inside a toilet block half way up a mountain one night due to the weather. One of my favourite things about the trail was not knowing where I was going to end up that night, and almost always I found a spot that I liked. There were only two days I can recall where I really did not like the place I set up. Specific details about each spot can be found in my blog.



At first wild camping was a bit stressful and nerve wracking for me as I was worrying that I was going to have someone come and tell me to clear off, or some psycho was going to bring an axe down upon my tent, because often I found myself sleeping in fairly inhabited areas. These fears soon abated though when I fully realized they were unfounded. I had no problems with people whatsoever the whole time throughout my trek. I always tried to set my tent up in a spot as inconspicuous as possible, but this was not always possible or even necessary, and the few times people did approach me and ask what I was doing, it was always in a curious rather than hostile way.


So how exactly do you find a spot to sleep on the Tokai Shizen Hodo? I never planned ahead, but rather, each day, about an hour and a half to an hour before it got dark I would start keeping an eye out for potential spots. I rated spots by several factors:

Level of comfort: do they have running water, a toilet, a bench and/or table, a raised floor, walls and/or a roof.

Level of seclusion: In any spot I picked I would always ask myself what are the chances of someone wanting to use the spot throughout the night or very early morning? And what are the chances of someone being upset by my presence if I am seen? I would never camp on private land if I could help it, unless I was in a real pinch, such as heavy rain, and would try to avoid camping near places people moved through, as I found it hard to sleep if people were walking around my tent.

The view: It’s always nice to wake up to a nice view

My gut feeling: If I didn’t get a good feeling from the place I just wouldn’t sleep there. I did not want to be feeling strange about the place I slept all night, so if I didn’t feel good I just kept moving on.

I highly suggest taking a freestanding tent, that is, a tent you don’t have to peg out. This will greatly increase your options of places you can set up on as often the best spots have a concrete or wooden floor.


Hygine
Keeping up hygiene standards is not difficult on the Tokai Shizen Hodo. The trail regularly runs past secluded sections of streams and rivers you can wash in if the weather is not too cold.


Japan also has an extensive network of public baths throughout the country available at a small fee, providing you don't mind getting naked with members of the same sex. These baths are a godsend after a long day on the trail, and one of the most rewarding parts about hiking in Japan.

Hotels, Hostels and Japanese Inns
I only used such establishments on my days off, as I found that organising them whilst on the trail, without an internet connection or phone, was all but impossible. What I would usually do is book them a day or two in advance on booking.com when I had an internet connection. Often I would book them in big cities, as they are generally cheaper, and I would find a point the trail intersected with public transport, and then catch a train or bus into the city and have a few days off.

Staying Connected
You have a few options for staying connected on the trail. I did not do it myself but I know you can rent a sim card with data at major Japanese airports, and if you have a dongle you can use it wherever there is phone reception, potentially meaning you could be skyping your grandma on top of a mountain. The other, less convenient option is waiting until you get to a location with wifi. I found that Japan had a lack of free wifi spots, but an abundance of cheap wifi spots (6 hours for 300yen). Most convenience stores had this service available, so I would sometime sit outside them for a few hours working away at my affairs. Many cheaper hotels don’t have free wireless either, so specifically check this when making a booking for them.

Permits and Regulations
No permits are needed to walk any parts of the track as far as I know. And as for regulations, just use your common sense and pack out your rubbish. There are also loads of signs warning against making wild fires, so take care on that front.

Trail Markings and Maps

UPDATE 30/04/16: I have uploaded the trail GPS coordinates to wikiloc.

The trail markings come in many different shapes and sizes on the Tokai Shizen Hodo.




There are also ribbons of various colours put up along the way.


Both these indicators are fairly consistent for the most part, but please do not rely solely upon them, as they will not suffice. Sometimes there are none to be seen at crucial turns leaving you guessing as to which way to go.

This is why you definitely need a map of the trail. Before walking I searched high and low for a comprehensive map of the trail, eventually finding the GPX track file (a file compatible with GPS units) of the trail made by a man who had done the trail before, which is what I used and followed finding it extremely accurate for the most part. The track I followed can be found here (it is broken into many parts)

I found myself relying on this map, displayed on my GPS, on a regular basis, and would go as far to say that for someone with as limited ability to read Japanese as myself, it would have been much harder to complete the trail without such a map.


There are minor differences in the routes taken in both the tracks, but for the most part they are the same. The biggest different is that my GPX files are broken up into daily tracks, whilst the track I followed is broken up into larger sections. I would suggest download all of them and using both. At the end of each of my tracks is usually the spot I slept for the night.

Please note that neither of these files are completely accurate and take several detours off the track. I would estimate them to be around 90% to 95% accurate of the main course of the Tokai Shizen Hodo.

A hard copy? As for a comprehensive paper map, I have not found one, either in Japanese or English. There are maps of sections of the trail in Japanese, but I found them fragmented and hard to follow not being able to read Japanese, and decided to rely completely on my GPS file.

Gear
Obviously it depends what time of year you are going, but, it is very important to take proper, and lightweight, equipment.

GPS: I used a handheld Garmin GPS unit and don’t know how I would have done the trail without it. I relied upon this every day whenever there was some ambiguity about the trail. I honestly don’t know how I would got have got the trail done in the time period I did otherwise.

Wet weather gear: In Japan, when it rains it is often for hours and hours on end so it is important to get good wet weather gear. What I found though was after a hours on end in a torrential downpour even good wet weather gear is not enough. The fabric gets saturated and then you find yourself wet regardless. So it is also important to have something that will keep you warm even if you get wet. I suggest merino wool for this.

It’s also important to keep everything as lightweight as possible. You will be going up and down mountains for the majority of the time you are on this walk, and every hundred grams is felt when moving over such terrain. I estimate my entire pack weighed in at around 15kg without water (I carried my laptop around with me), and I found this extremely heavy at first but got used to it a few weeks in. What helped was that over the course of the walk I eliminated absolutely anything I did not think I needed.

I also highly recommend trekking poles. I had never used these before and for the first two weeks I laboured up and down mountains using nothing but my legs. At some point I decided to see what all the fuss was about and picked up two appropriate sized sticks off the ground and used them like trekking poles. After a few hundred metres going up a mountain I was convinced that I needed some real ones, and picked some up at a camping store the next city I went to. They made the whole trek much easier; suddenly it was as if I had two railings to use wherever I walked, and on descents the full weight of my body and pack was no longer just on my knees. I highly recommend using them.

I was happy with all my gear and used every single piece of equipment contained in my pack by the end. Here was my gear list by the end of the trip:

Camping Supplies

There are plenty of camping store brands in Japan, and in each of the major cities you will pass near you will find their stores. I used Mont-Bell mostly, finding they were usually in convenient locations and stocked cheap gas fuel that had a standard international fit. The Japanese megastore Don Quixote also sells camping gear and gas fuel, albeit generally at a higher price.

Very Rough Section Guide
If you would like a more detailed account of each section then visit my blog here. Please note that the way I have broken up the trail into these different sections has no official sanctioning, and I am doing it from memory therefore it is very rough.

Mt Takao (Tokyo) to Lake Yamanaka (near Mt Fuji)
I believe this first section of the trail is the overall hardest of the whole course. Most days are spent going up and down mountains, with the highest elevation reached in this section also I think. Great views though, just be physically prepared so you can enjoy them

Around Mt Fuji
The trail proceed to wind around the base of Mt Fuji for three or so days. This section is mostly flat, going through towns with plenty of resupply options from memory, and offers absoloutely stunning views of Mt Fuji.

Mt Chojagatake to the outskirts of Nagoya
This is the longest section of the trail and runs mostly through mountainous terrain, and past plenty of rice and tea fields. In my opinion the two hardest days of the whole trail are in here, from Mt Ure to Mt Kasa. Be prepared for some sore legs. There is a section I would avoid, for details see this blog post.

Outskirts of Nagoya
From memory this section eases off a bit and moves through more urban and agricultural areas. It also takes you through Sekigahara, the location of Japan's most historic medieval battle.

Outskirts of Kyoto
This section still has its fair share of mountains but they are not as rough as the ones closer to Tokyo. The trail takes you past plenty of cultural sights, past Japan's biggest Lake, Biwako, and even into Kyoto itself, right past several famous temples and landmarks.

Outskirts of Osaka
The mountain are not too bad here either in comparison to other sections. There is a dangerous section of the trail here though, see this blog entry for details.

My Personal Advice
My number one suggestion is not to take the trail too seriously. If you have something off the trail you want to see, then go see it, or if it is pouring down in rain and you are completely drench, cold and miserable, take a bus or hitchhike out of there, recoup and get back to it whenever and wherever you can. Or if you don't feel like going up a mountain for the forth day straight, then go around it and meet up with the track later. Don't be a slave to the trail, or rather, be your own boss, the journey will be much more fun that way.

Best of luck on the trail! And if you have any questions you can email me on tomread.edmonton@gmail.com


My name is Thomas Read and in early 2015 I completed walking the Tokai Shizen Hodo from Tokyo to Osaka over the course of two months. My day to day blog on walking the trail can be found at Nomadic Tom

6 comments:

  1. Good to read about your experiences. :)

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  2. Thank you! Its very hard to find information about hiking Tokai from start to finish

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  3. Thank you for such an informative blog, congratulations its inspirational

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  4. Thank you for such an informative blog, congratulations its inspirational

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  5. Thank you so much for your blog! After a 3-months-long bike trip across Japan I have always wanted to hike there - but with little to no information in English on the internet I have always delayed my plans. Your blog and this website is a fantastic planning ressource.
    But I have one question: What kind of maps did you use on your smartphone or GPS for navigation?
    Thank you again for all the time and effort you have put into your blog - I really appreciate it!

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  6. Thank you for this!
    I'm planning an adventure in 2020 that includes this trail. I want to fly into seoul, spend time with some friends there, ride the 4 Rivers bike path to Busan, ferry to Japan, Shinkansen to Osaka, then hike and bus to Tokyo and experience the city in the throes of Olympic madness before heading home.

    This is invaluable.
    Thank you again!

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