Without challenging experiences our stories probably wouldn’t be worth telling. The last three months of walking the Nakasendo Way have been a time of fascination as I walked through the rural landscapes of mountainous central Japan, challenge as I completed the journey 6 times en route to covering almost 1,000 kilometers on foot, increased knowledge as I was forced to learn about the history, politics, random facts etc. of this place, personal growth as I learned to solve problems as they arose and manage a group of 12 people at a time with differing personalities, walking abilities, ages, and finally contemplation as I considered my place in this wide world, particularly in this country. Here are a few lessons I have learned along the way…
1. Bring Bug Spray
In the mountains between Karuizawa and Yokokawa lies a pleasant forest path that winds gently downwards for 7 or 8 kilometers through the woods. Last week, this saunter through the forest turned into a mad dash as our group discovered blood-sucking leaches that worked their way into shoes, through socks up legs and even into shirts. It was the stuff of nightmares. They would latch on from both ends, and when pulled off, the anti-coagulant they inject to thin your blood means you don’t stop bleeding. I now know that for some reason they congregate on that part of the trail, and that they come out in the summer when it’s been raining. I don’t know if bug spray would have helped, but next time I’m bringing it… and taking a different trail.
2. The Importance of the Cost-Benefit Analysis
Our trip along the Nakasendo Way involves several train rides. Most of these are commuter trains, but a couple involve bullet trains. One day, after walking 15 kilometers and arriving at the bullet train station, I purchased non-reserved seats for my group, thinking there would be seats open. I even added that I had never not gotten a seat before. Never say unnecessary things like that because the laws of the universe will suddenly intervene to conspire against you. As the bullet train pulled up to the station, I could see people standing in the isles… After pushing our way in, we had to stand for the entire journey amidst the crush of sweaty humanity. I reasoned that everyone was getting the “real Japanese experience” but for an additional $5.00, I have purchased reserved seats every time since.
3. Let People Get Lost, but Not Too Lost
Some people like getting lost. They don’t want to feel like they are on a group tour. My challenge as the leader is managing the tortoises and the hares so that everyone arrives around the same time while making things interesting for everyone. I instruct the sprinters to stop at road crossings, significant landmarks, or whenever they are not 100% sure of the way. Many of them still manage to get lost, but at that point it’s their choice. Somewhere between micromanaging and letting people lead their own tour, there is a perfect balance of letting people get just lost enough that they have fun, but it scares them just enough to make them wait at the crossing the next time.
People are interested in stories about other people. In Japan’s Edo Period (1600-1868), there was an Imperial Princess named Kazunomiya who was forced to marry the Shogun Tokugawa Iemochi in Edo (now Tokyo). Lamenting her loss of friends and family in Kyoto, she traveled the mountains and passes of the Nakasendo with an entourage of 25,000 servants, guards, peasants and porters, supposedly writing a haiku poem along the way about sad and lonely she was. She was carried in a palanquin the entire way and because our tour walks this same trail, people are fascinated by her story… and the poor porters who had to carry her!
5. Make Time for the Little Stuff and the Normal People
The best part of any holiday is finding the little places, and meeting the normal people who make those places special. Consistently the most popular places that I take people include a random French pastry/tea shop in the mountains called La Province, a community gathering of the elderly who serve us toast and bananas in the tiny little village of Hosokute, and the retired couple in the mountains who make miso pizza, perform local folk songs and have a full miniature train set.
That’s it for now. I’m on to my next adventure, Thailand, where I will be busily doing nothing for the next 10 days. Then it’s back to the States for the summer! Please stay tuned