Why would anyone choose to walk 28 miles from Yokosuka to Tokyo when there was a world-class public transportation system, at a cost of ¥850 ($6.54)?
It is hardly an efficient way to travel.
In truth, the idea to walk 28 miles into Tokyo was inspired after talking with a group of 20-something year olds. Credit or blame should rest with them.
The idea occurred during a dinner with a few of my brother’s classmates who were studying abroad for a semester. I had asked about the most interesting thing they had done during their time in Japan. They had unanimously and very nonchalantly agreed: the thing that had been most memorable had been a 30+ mile walk to Tokyo.
The words, delivered so casually, caused me to choke and drop my utensils. After recovering my composure, I felt bad – there’s every chance their meals got cold as I asked question after question.
You walked from Yokosuka to Tokyo?
Who determined the route?
What type of surface, what type of lighting?
How long did it take?
How had they prepared? (They cheerfully reported they had not.)
What did they pack?
Where did they stay?
What did they wear?
Any injuries? How bad? (They admitted to feeling a little sore, and a little tired.)
Had they been stopped or challenged by anyone?
After we said goodbye I walked home marveling over that conversation. I felt galvanized in a way I had not in weeks. The following day I recounted the story to various friends and colleagues.
“You know, what do you think of-“
“I know what you are going to say, and NO. This is a hard pass for me. Hard.”
“But think of the memories we could make. The students said they loved it, and they made it there just fine. They could still walk the next day.”
“How old are they?”
“My point exactly.”
Planning For The Walk
I could not shake the idea. As expected, there were multiple rejections. Finally, I came across two friends who cheerfully agreed to the walk.
“But let’s modify it just a little. We don’t need to do the same route. The end goal is just to walk from Yokosuka to Tokyo, right?”
“Yep. What do you think about getting a place to stay near someplace like Tokyo Tower or Rainbow Bridge?”
“How many miles would that be?”
I did a Google search: Tokyo Tower was 52 kilometers; Rainbow Bridge 51 kilometers.
Rainbow Bridge it was.
We decided to do the walk in March. As it turned out, I had a conference back in the U.S. the following day. My companions considerately asked whether we should re-schedule, and I assured them that we should keep our walking plans, primarily because:
- I needed to get to Tokyo anyway, one might as well walk as take the local train to get there.
- The end of March weather was expected to be beautiful, and we’d catch the early cherry blossoms.
- Fatigue might be the best possible thing (in fact, I was certain I would sleep the entire 12 hour flight from Tokyo to Chicago).
We did not think it wise for my companions to attempt a return to Yokosuka after the walk. As such, we booked an AirBnB apartment with three beds that was reported to be close to Rainbow Bridge.
The scheduled day arrived, and I looked out my window to behold a radiantly blue sky. One could not have asked for a more beautiful spring day, or more perfect walking weather.
We had met the day before to discuss last-minute logistics and re-visit the feasibility of the walk. We coordinated what would happen if for any reason one or more of us needed to drop out. We verified we each had fully charged phones, a credit card, Yen, and a change of clothes. Although we brought a medical kit and bottles of aspirin, we decided against carrying food or water. Our logic for that was simple – in Japan, there are convenience stores everywhere. And where there is not a convenience store, there’s an outstanding chance there’s a vending machine.
One of the many things to admire about living in Japan is how safe it is. And even though we were headed to one of the biggest cities of the world, the sense of safety prevailed.
Looking back, I marvel at how optimistic we had been. There were many factors that perhaps should have given us more pause. These days, I wore inserts to prop my collapsing foot arches. Our particular trio had never walked more than a half mile together. Our personal bests came under 27 miles.
I had a known tendency to fade fast after about thirteen miles…speech, concentration, coherency all would drop quickly. Knowing that when tired, speech is one of the first things to go away, as a special precaution I had pre-written a few select phrases to explain to authorities what we were doing in the event we were stopped. I had rehearsed the phrases before a very patient and amused Japanese colleague, and as a back-up kept the post-it notes in my backpack.
Despite all this, I was 100 percent confident we would all make it to Tokyo.
My specific concern was that in the process of doing so, my companions would never talk to me again, and I would have to run the next time I saw their husbands, now watching the young children while we embarked on a wacky Ladies’ Day Out.
It was 11 a.m. when we set off.
The first few miles were easy. The March air was crisp, and yet the sun was warm enough that we had stripped down to t-shirts.
A few miles into the walk we passed a Shinto shrine and decided it was always a good idea to pray for safe passage. We climbed the stairs. To the left was a lovely blooming cherry tree, under which four ladies were gathered at a table, talking and enjoying the fine weather. A sign outside the shrine requested that visitors remove their shoes before climbing up the stairs and praying. Accordingly, we removed our shoes, tossed our coins, said our prayers, and continued on our journey.
To pass the time, we began counting landmarks. Three shrine visits. Eight tunnels. Five visits to the conbini(convenience stores).
The conbini were always wonderfully and magically positioned less than 20 meters from our route, and perfect places to use the restroom and replenish fluids and calories. We stopped for five minutes every hour or so freshen up.
I strongly believe that walking forces one to become much more observant, certainly more than any other form of transportation. Walking at just under 3.2 miles per hour, we were able to take in the fine details of daily life; of people walking their tiny dogs, of shop owners selling vegetables and flowers, of the incredibly neat way in which Japanese hung their laundry out to dry.
I am still mystified by the Japanese practice of hanging their freshly washed clothes out. The Japanese are in so many ways masters of machines. I am terrified by how smart my refrigerator and freezer are. My washing machine is a thing of beauty. The toilet and soaking tub have more buttons than I know what to do with. And yet, for some reason hanging laundry in Japan seems far more popular than using the dryer.
The other metric we made note of was our elevation. A terrible earthquake and tsunami wave had struck Japan in March 2011. The most powerful earthquake ever recorded in Japan had resulted in over 15,000 deaths, and in parts of Japan the tsunami waves that followed the earthquake had wreaked havoc several miles inland. The effects of the natural disaster were visible everywhere we walked: the Japanese had regularly posted signs in multiple locations depicting the elevation level. These signs both reminded us of the tragedy, and also of just how comparatively flat the route was.
As we approached the outskirts of Yokohama, we felt our energy pick up. It was late afternoon, and we had made it roughly to the half-way point of the trip. Yokohama was one of the first ports in Japan to open to foreign trade and retained its status as an important port. It also had the distinction of having the largest Chinatown outside of China and the Cup of Ramen Museum.
To our great delight, the route through Yokohama took us along a string of bridges, lined on either sides by hundreds of cherry trees just starting to bloom. We stopped to take photos and observed that certain sections of the bridge path had multiple food stalls. The aroma of grilling meats was tempting, and when we saw a sign promoting takoyaki (octopus balls), one of our trio’s favorite foods, we knew we would be stopping to rest and eat. Since I had been terribly alarmed the first time I had heard the words in Japan, I think it important to note that term “octopus balls” refers to the shape of the dough and octopus patty, and not part of the octopus’ anatomy.
The takoyaki was warm and delicious, and as the sun settled lower in the sky and the wind chill picked up, the popular street food made for a satisfying pick-me-up.
From Yokohama to Tokyo
Unfortunately, we quickly came to realize our mistake in choosing to rest. As we stood up to continue, it was with alarm to find out that our joints were stiffening. We grimly drank vitamin water to wash down the aspirin, and with the urgency that comes from realizing that no one much fancied walking once it got dark, increased our pace. Yokohama is a large and cosmopolitan city, and unlike the beginning stages of the walk, we had to be more mindful of our fellow pedestrians.
There are many famous architecturally interesting landmarks in Yokohama. But my reaction to seeing the giant Yokohama Ferris wheel known as Cosmo Clock 21 was not so much awe as a gnawing awareness that the next several miles would be painful. The time on the Ferris wheel clock, the largest clock in the world, displayed a time of 1707…we had been walking over six hours.
Finally, the sun disappeared entirely, and we donned our jackets to stay warm. It came as something of a shock to find just how drastic the change in energy was once we departed Yokohama. Our energy levels dipped.
Despite the growing discomfort, we still realized in many ways how lucky we had been. The sidewalks were generous, the walk well-lit. There were plenty of vending machines. Still, the process of walking grew more laborious. The aches started to build in various parts of the body; the neck, back, knees. We stopped to change socks after feeling the buildup of hot spots and blisters. We were surprised at how painful it was to get into a rhythm, and the agony of moving again after standing stationary at a crosswalk. We laughed over how ridiculous we must have looked trying to cross the timed intersections.
After a couple of hours, conversation ceased almost entirely as we searched for indications – signs, pothole markings, anything – that we were entering Tokyo. Miles 21-26 were agonizing, and I battled feelings ranging from remorse, to giddiness, to utter indifference, to despair. When we finally saw a Tokyo-inn.com sign, we cheered.
With every mile it became obvious that we were entering one of the world’s largest cities. The route on our phones cheekily took us through some popular streets full of clubs, where bouncers and promotors waited outside the doors. It may have been because we carried backpacks, wore casual clothes, were limping and disheveled, with vacant eyes above our masked faces. Whatever the reason, we had a laugh that no one made any attempt to invite us into the clubs. We would not have invited us in, either.
Finally, during one stop, we huddled together for a serious conversation. We had achieved our goal. After 28 miles of walking, despite any serious training, we had successfully walked from Yokosuka to Tokyo. Therefore, we had no qualms about taking a ride toward Rainbow Bridge to our AirBnB.
We searched unsuccessfully for a taxi.
“Guys, I’ve got bad news.”
A friend frowned as she studied her phone.
“No! What is it?”
“We can take a local train from here to a station near the apartment.”
“But because it’s a local train, it’s going to take us forty minutes to get there.”
The AirBnN apartment was located only three miles away. Depression hit again. We had been on our feet more or less continuously for almost eleven hours. Taking a slow train was not ideal. But no one felt like walking any further.
The three of us made a comical and pitiful sight as we descended stairs to the platform, clutching the handrails and wincing as an entirely new set of leg muscles rebelled. We counted ourselves lucky that at this hour there were so few people on the train cars that we were able to sit on the bench together. We fought to stay awake.
When we arrived at our destination and with considerable effort stood up from the bench, the leg muscles seized up again. The Japanese, known for being considerate, gave an especially wide space as we ambled up the station stairs.
“You’re going to have a rough time on the plane tomorrow,” a friend said sympathetically. “Keep taking the aspirin.”
“I’m sure I’ll sleep like a baby.”
The hopeful thought in Yokohama that maybe we should go out for a late night dinner in Tokyo to celebrate had long since disappeared. We decided to hit up a conbini on our way to the apartment and filled bags full of snacks. There were no more vitamin waters or mineral drinks – each of us grabbed a can of alcohol.
The obstacles were not over. We had located the correct building and had taken an elevator to the correct floor. But figuring out how to open the door – the locking mechanism involved a hand sensor and some sort of high-tech wizardry – was more complex than I had anticipated. On entering, we grunted at the effort of reaching down to remove our shoes.
We claimed our beds. We gorged on our conbini snacks and laughed over the absurdity of the day. We got ready for bed and wished each other a good night.
And then we began a hunt: we could not find the light switches. After a thorough search, we finally gave up and got in our beds. It was then that we discovered the light was driven by motion sensors. One of the last thoughts I had was what a high tech apartment this was.
Perhaps too high tech. The following morning I asked them how they had slept, and it turned out one friend had not gotten more than a few minutes of rest at a time. I had slept more or less throughout the night, and so I had been both perplexed and concerned.
It seems the reason she could not rest was because the motion sensors were super sensitive: anything more than a small rotation set the lights off.
We gathered together to assess the damage. My toenails felt loose, and in addition the swollen feet there were a few minor blisters on the toes and heels. Nothing too bad. Thankfully, none of us had anything that we didn’t think would quickly heal.
One friend’s family arrived to pick her up. Her husband had been a lifesaver and kindly dropped off my pre-packed bag for the trip back to the U.S.; there was no way I could have made it to Tokyo with a full pack. We hugged her and waved goodbye. With only two of us left, we decided that what we really craved at that moment was a fatty, unapologetically American breakfast.
We walked to a nearby train station in light rain, and took a train to Odaiba. As the rain came down harder we realized how lucky we had been with the weather the day before.
Although there are many times I like traveling alone, one of the things I love about traveling with a companion/companions is that they allow you to do things you might never have been able to do on your own. I was keenly aware that had I been on my own the day before, I probably would have quit sometime around Mile 22. That I had made it all the way was due to them.
And Odaiba was a place I very much doubt I would have taken the time to explore on my own. The sight of a miniature Statue of Liberty caught me by surprise. I would later learn that the original version of the Odaiba Statue of Liberty, 1/7 the size of the one in New York, had been been a temporary statue that had stood there from 1998-1999 to celebrate the relationship between Japan and France. Its popularity had been so great that the current statue assumed a permanent place in 2000.
We located Eggs n’ Things and I winced when I saw the length of the line. The shopping area was otherwise quiet at that hour, with many stores vacant or slowly opening up. This line was the exception – it was at least thirty people deep. By the time we were seated I was ravenous. We ordered a full breakfast: coffee, fruit, juice, toast, eggs, pancakes, sausages, potatoes. The eyes of our server had widened as we kept pointing and ordering. The amount of food on the table was enough for three or four people, and we did it justice.
It was a breakfast of champions. I felt myself happily sinking into a food stupor. At the same time, the meal felt incomplete. We toasted our missing walking buddy.
We would make sure she was present…next year.
Note / If You Go
It is widely agreed that time has a remarkable influence in shaping and re-shaping memory. Although agonizing at the time, as the feet healed and the swelling subsided, the only thing that remained was awe at the blessing to have shared such an experience with two remarkable women. The parts that had seemed tragic at the time were now hilarious, and I now recall the trip with the most tender fondness.
If looking to attempt such a walk yourself, please permit me to gently suggest a few pointers.
- Japan is a safe and beautiful country. But this is a physically and mentally grueling event.
- For addressing the kind of safety that comes from exhaustion, I strongly suggest traveling with one or more companions.
- Select your partners carefully. I am 100% sincere when I say I lucked out with my two walking buddies. Had it not been for them, there were multiple occasions where I might have given up in tears.
- Make sure you have a plan as if someone wants (or needs) to stop.
- Hydrate! Make frequent stops to push the fluid.
- Aspirin works wonders at keeping the swelling at bay.
- We ran through phone batteries quickly using map apps. It would be smart to carry multiple batteries, to allow for time to stop and re-charge your phone, or to pre-print maps.
- Going back to safety…if you drink BE RESPONSIBLE…I had half a can of Strong Zero before I fell asleep.
- Have a celebratory breakfast someplace decadent. It’s no easy thing to bounce into a 28 mile stroll. Your body needs food to recover…enjoy!