Interview with Mary King, Author of Japan on Foot, a 7,500km Walking Tour of Japan
Before you set out for your 7,500 km walk, did you and your partner Estuko do any training?
The only real training that Etsuko and I did beforehand was go out to the Izu Peninsula, not far from Tokyo, and walk around the whole peninsula a couple of times over the period of quite a few weekends. On average, we walked 20 kilometres, some of it was uphill, but we always did it in good weather. This is an area where you are not far from shops, restaurants, drink machines. So it helped us build up some body strength and get an idea of what weight we thought we could carry and walk with for a day, but the reality of the actual walk was quite different, especially as we started in Hokkaido. Hokkaido was the toughest part of our walk in many ways because it is not densely populated and so we had to walk greater distances in order to reach a place to sleep at the end of the day. On average we walked 40 kilometres a day in Hokkaido, and this was often over high mountain roads or along largely deserted forested roads where the higuma roams. (A higuma is Hokkaido’s bear, which is a relation to the North American grizzly.) It was a much more physically, mentally, and emotionally demanding walk than Izu. Often there were no restaurants, cafes or drink machines en route so we had to carry our drink supplies and food. Also, there was no guarantee that we would hit a town or village, or find anywhere to sleep. Quite a few nights were spent sleeping in bus shelters or on benches or seats in train stations.
What was your longest walking day?
Our longest walking day was on the island of Hokkaido, from Mashu to Akanko, if I remember correctly. I believe we walked 42 kilometres that day. I remember it was largely over mountainous roads, which made for really tough walking, and that we walked through a lightening storm and got soaked to the skin in torrential rain. We walked more than 13 hours that day and near the end of the day, we were walking along a deserted, forested road. It was already dark, the rain had stopped, but now we risked being attacked by bears because we were walking through bear territory at a time when they would be out looking for food. I remember being absolutely exhausted, completely drained, and feeling that the walking was just never going to end that day. I can’t tell you how relieved I was when we finally made it into Akanko, found a guesthouse to stay at, and managed to have something to eat, a hot drink, and a good long bath. That day’s walk was a real test of spirit because there was nowhere we could even take a break during that stretch; we just ate the food we carried that day, sitting somewhere on the roadside and getting drenched in the rain eating soggy sandwiches.
In terms of walking gear, what were the most essential things in your pack?
Waterproof coverings were, along with our sleeping bags, the most essential items. We walked through so many storms, heavy snow, hail and we even had one or two occasions where we were caught walking when typhoons struck, so plastic bags were very useful. Everything was wrapped in plastic bags inside our backpacks and we used rubbish bin liners to cover our rucksacks. Also, waterproof clothing was essential. We pulled our backpacks on trolleys after three weeks out on the road because they were just way too heavy for us to walk with. We were carrying computers, camera equipment, stocks of film, etc., because we were reporting from the road during the walk.
You wrote that your 7,500 km walk was to be an unrushed, “work walk.” It can be hard to move without a schedule considering weather, city locations, and hiccups along the way. Did you ever have any major scheduling problems?
Our scheduling problems only arose when we had to deal with editors from the road before deadlines. The editors of the newspapers and magazines we wrote for wanted us to check the final proof before the pages were sent so they needed us to be somewhere at a certain time where we could receive a fax of the page. This walk was done in 2001/2002 so faxes were still popular then. I emailed my stories and photos to them and would also post off CDs with a variety of photos for the editors to choose from. Some of the editors accepted digital photos but the higher-quality magazines still wanted slide film. We also communicated with editors by mobile phone, but sometimes we were out in the mountains or in real off the beaten-track areas where there wasn’t any signal, so we couldn’t reach editors and they couldn’t get us. But we didn’t miss any of our deadlines. Other than that, we didn’t really have any other pressures on us to be anywhere at any particular time. Of course, it was our aim to get to a town, village, or place to sleep before it got too dark because the roads would be more dangerous to walk then. In rural areas of Hokkaido or northern Honshu we had to think about bears, but really our biggest danger was always traffic. A lot of these areas had no pavement to walk on, so we were walking in the road. We had some near misses with cars and trucks, and even had occasions where trucks were spilling their loads onto the road, some of which came falling our way.
“Know all about handling bears, do you?” (King, Japan on Foot). You must have been completely terrified walking through bear country. Did you have a plan in case you came across a bear? Was a bell really your only protection against them?
We were both completely naive about bears. Etsuko is from Okinawa (the other end of Japan) and the only dangerous creature there is the habu snake. I’ve only ever seen bears in zoos or film. We really didn’t fully appreciate what we were dealing with. Although right from the start people were mentioning bears to us, I think we both took it as a kind of joke. We thought we’d never get to see them and that we were kind of “untouchable,” like being attacked by a bear could not happen to us. Ridiculous, I know, but we had both spent most of our lives in cities or living in places where you did not have to think too much about dangerous animals, certainly not bears. So, yes, we had bear bells which are a deterrent as long as the bears hear them. But sometimes due to the wind or the sound of rivers and streams, or even traffic, the bears do not hear the bells. Beyond that, some areas of Hokkaido have bears that are drawn to the sound of bells. The bells have a Pavlovian effect because photographers have been ringing bells and then leaving fish for the bears so that they can grab closeup shots of the higuma. This is a problem in places like the Shiretoko Peninsula, which is the most densely populated area for bears in Japan. We were warned not to walk that mountain road, but we still did. I really did think our luck was up when a bear started walking parallel to us out on the road between Utoru and Rausu. This was the second time we would come face-to-face with Hokkaido’s big brown bear.
I think it is a miracle that we survived Hokkaido on foot. We spent four months walking this island, much of it off the beaten track, and we headed through a lot of bear country. We heard a lot of bear stories while out on the road. We heard everything: the “serial killer bear” that only attacked pregnant women after developing a taste for foetuses; a bear that entered a house near Sapporo while the owners were out, caused havoc in the kitchen while looking for food, and ended up drinking the contents of a huge keg of sake. The owners came back to find a two-metre-high bear sprawled out on their kitchen floor moaning from the after effects of the sake. The bear had to be killed and the house could not be lived in afterwards. There was one road in Hokkaido that we walked where, just the day before, a bear had turned over a car with the passengers inside. Apparently, the driver had tooted his horn at the bear when it was blocking the road and the bear attacked the car.
“It’s tough enough for men. I doubt any woman has the strength to do it” (King, Japan on Foot). What advantages and disadvantages did you have as a woman walking in Japan?
I think the advantages of being a woman is that people trust your more and are more likely to invite you into their homes or offer you help. You are perceived as less of a threat and people are more moved by the fact that you are taking on such a daunting task. I think the only disadvantage we faced was when we first arrived on the island of Shikoku. We experienced problems finding a guesthouse or hotel for the night because there is some idea that women travelers may decide to commit suicide. It is an idea that has often been used in TV dramas and there have been some cases of women committing suicide this way. However, Japanese men, like men elsewhere, are more likely to commit suicide than women. There was also an area of Hokkaido where we had trouble finding a hotel for the night but the problem here was not the fact that I was a woman, but that I was a foreigner. Sometimes non-Japanese do not understand the culture or cannot eat Japanese food or cannot speak Japanese, and Japanese hoteliers may not want to deal with this. There have also been reported problems with some non-Japanese staying at hotels in certain areas of Hokkaido.
You must have countless memories from your walk in Japan. What is the moment or day that stands out to you the most?
There are countless memories and it is really difficult to pick out one day as being "The Day." Each day brought its own surprises, challenges, and adventures. I will never forget the first day of the walk. I won’t forget either of the days when we came face-to-face with bears, and there are days where we were almost killed in traffic accidents that I won’t forget. The longest walking day I cannot forget. And then there are the days when we walked through stunning countryside, up and over the most glorious mountain roads, or just received incredible hospitality or met people who had the most amazing stories to tell. Staying in a haunted house, visiting the so-called Tomb of Christ and the so-called Tomb of Moses were amazing days. Meeting the man who is aiming to resurrect the woolly mammoth was really inspiring. We also heard the theories of a marine geologist who maintains that an underwater structure lying off the shores of Okinawa is the remains of a lost civilisation predating Egypt. We met all sorts of incredible people, from the descendants of Japan’s Hidden Christians, Yakuza gangsters, the indigenous Ainu, as well as members of the buraku community who have lived on the fringes of Japanese society for centuries. There are many fascinating characters in the book who reveal different aspects of Japanese life, and often they are far from the stereotypes presented in the media.
Is there anything you’d rather forget about your walk?
I think the only thing I’d rather not remember about the walk is the cost of it. Actually, I’ve never attempted to total it up but it was hugely expensive. We spent 15 months on the road and even though we were walking, you still have to sleep somewhere, eat, buy shoes, go to the dentist, get your hair cut, and then there was the cost of film etc, etc. We both gave up our jobs to do the walk and only partially sub-letted our flat so we still had some rent to pay each month. It was incredibly expensive, but I’m glad we did it and I know Etsuko feels the same. It was an amazing adventure and I’d love to do it all over again.
What was the most physically challenging aspect or section of the walk?
Apart from the rigours of Hokkaido, Kyushu and Okinawa were challenging because we hit these southern islands in the summer when they were both scorching hot and the roads just glared with the light. They often threw up mirages as we walked along. We sweated like mad and were often delirious from the heat. Shikoku also presented challenges because when we were walking this island, I was suffering from shin splints and a doctor was actually advising me to stop the walk. So, we had to drop down a gear on Shikoku, reduce our daily distances and have a few more rest days for me as I was in a lot of pain.
7,500 kms is a daunting number. How did you break it down to a physically and mentally manageable distance? Was there ever a point when you couldn’t focus on anything but that huge, seven thousand?
Prior to setting off on the walk, we had no idea of how many kilometres we would walk; we had not set a figure. Each day we walked what we needed to walk to get to a place to sleep on Hokkaido. The distances were greater between places where there were no guesthouses, restaurants, etc., so we just had to cover the distance. We had to keep on walking until we reached a place to sleep. We weren’t carrying tents so we had no choice but to walk on. Tents would have been useful but we just couldn’t carry any more weight. We did not use buses or trains as transport during the walk. We used boats or ferries to cross water between islands when there was no bridge. On Honshu, Shikoku, Kyushu, and Okinawa we walked on average 25 - 30 kilometres per day as these areas were more densely populated. There are more villages, towns, and cities to stay in, but when out in the countryside we could still find ourselves stranded somewhere. We slept at a cemetery one night, after being offered a shelter there, and people sometimes let us sleep in their homes, or in their bars, and a few times we slept in temples, too.
How did you keep yourself fueled for such a long journey? What food was absolutely essential for you?
We learned quickly that it was essential to carry plenty of water. We also carried snacks like nuts and crisps, and we would have onigiri rice balls and bread, and tinned fish or meat. Often we had to sit by the roadside to eat, but in Hokkaido we had to take good care that we didn’t attract bears to us from the smell of the food. Once we were in the more populated areas of Honshu, we could take lunch in a cafe or restaurant. Japan is blessed with an abundance of convenience stores where you can pick up delicious bento boxes of food, everything from sushi to Italian pasta dishes. They can even heat it up for you.
In the very dark moments, what kept you going?
In the very dark moments we just kept on going. We had no choice. These were the times when we came face-to-face with bears, when we were walking dark roads with heavy traffic late into the night, when we were almost killed by cars on the road, when dogs were snarling at us, or whatever. We just kept on going.
A great partner is irreplaceable, but in some moments, they can seem very replaceable . . . . How was it walking with Estuko? Do you feel that you both had equal strengths, or did one of you act as the “lead walker?”
It was fabulous walking with Etsuko. I couldn’t have done the walk or the book without her. She could have done the walk without me, though, I’m sure. She was physically and mentally stronger than me. She could read the Japanese maps and of course as a Japanese, she speaks and reads the language fluently and blends in as a native. She poses no threat. I would have faced a lot more difficulty on my own. I’m sure I would have completed the walk, but it would have been very different on my own and I would have struggled with the interviews and a lot of the communication. Etsuko is an amazing woman. She’s very level headed, optimistic, very strong emotionally and rises to all challenges. Since the walk she has done a marathon across part of the Sahara desert, and presently she is being considered for a 2024 mission to colonize Mars on the Mars One Project. So she’s quite something.
What was the first thought or emotion that came to mind after you finished the walk?
Actually, we were both quite sad to finish the walk. Once we reached Kyushu, the end of our walk was in sight, and we both felt saddened at the idea of finishing. I did mention to Etsuko that perhaps we should walk back to our home in Tokyo, all the way from Okinawa, but she said enough was enough, that Yonaguni Island had been our goal and that we had therefore reached our destination. But really both of us would have loved to have started all over again. It really is true that life, and therefore any adventure you have in life, is all about the journey and not the actual destination. It was wonderful to reach Yonaguni but sad that it marked the end of the road, the end of what had been a fantastic adventure. I’m only really sorry that the book could not include every adventure. The manuscript had to be slashed to about a quarter of what it was originally because the publisher said I had to have the story within a certain word count, so there are many untold stories from the road. Perhaps I’ll get to put some of the other stories in another book, Untold Stories of Japan on Foot, or up on another blog.
Do you have any advice for people taking on a similar feat?
Advice I would give is this: Know your terrain, know what weather conditions you may face, and know what risks you will face from traffic, animals, the terrain (for example, landslides. We had problems with this during our walk on a number of occasions and had to adjust our route.) Be prepared with plenty of food, water, and plastic bags to keep your belongings dry. A sleeping bag is a must in colder climates. Good walking shoes or boots. Know what weight you can carry for long distances and if the weight is too much, get a trolley. A mobile phone is handy. Today, it is much easier in so many ways because the Internet is much more advanced and there are lots of ways to connect with people through sites like Couch Surfing, Facebook groups, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. You will also need good maps, maybe a compass, and if you are doing a walk in a country where you are not fluent in the language, make sure you have some gadget that can help you speak to people and translate what they are saying. At least have a good language dictionary and phrasebook. We didn’t take out insurance for our walk, but of course some people might want to consider doing so. Certainly, make sure you are in reasonable shape before hitting the road. Happy Walking!
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Mary King hails from Britain. She has more than 30 years experience as a journalist, having worked as a reporter, photographer, editor and radio broadcaster in Britain, the Middle East, Japan and China. Mary specialized as a travel writer/photographer for many years, covering features and news stories in more than 60 countries, from Australia to Zimbabwe. Beyond journalism, she has worked as a volunteer on the Wad Sharife Refugee Camp in Sudan, as well as lived in a banana leaf hut with the pygmies of Beni, in Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo). Following the walk through Japan, Mary underwent Zen training for one year at a Rinzai Zen Buddhist monastery in Japan. She is presently training as a Buddhist nun in the Theravada Thai Forest tradition at Amaravati Buddhist Monastery in the U.K. For Mary, life is both an inner and outer journey -- a wonderful adventure and experiment.
Japan on Foot is available as an ebook at all worldwide Amazon outlets: [http://www.amazon.com/Japan-Foot-Mary-King-ebook]. The ebook is also available through meBooks, New Zealand at [meBooks]. The print version is available through Fine Line Press, New Zealand at: [http://www.finelinepress.co.nz/japan_on_foot.html].