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Prepping for a Big Tōkaidō Walk

Ridgeline Transmission 093


Oh, ye Walkers

I’m in Big Walk Prep Mode. Prepping for a walk that’s set to begin on November 3rd, taking me 500km along the old Tōkaidō highway, from a beach in Kamakura, to Sanjyō Ōhashi in Kyoto.

Within the pantheon of walks, there are several “types” to be had. Unplanned walks, where you just head off in a direction for an afternoon or for weeks or months or years, with a backpack and tent and some cooking gear, and improv jazz it along the way. Others are more intentional, mapped out, front loaded with prep because of necessity, like how Ben Saunders takes some long walks to the North Pole and, you better believe, knows almost every step in advance.

Prep and no-prep are both good tools to have in your walk kit. But for this upcoming Tōkaidō stroll, I’m very much in the prepper camp.

For the past week I’ve been consulting maps, GPS data, bizarre Japanese language blogs (which, despite looking like they’re from 2001 and with URLs that remind one of a proto-ARPANET, are actually recent) and guide books in an effort to best plan this walk. My walk buddy John McBride walked the Tōkaidō back in 1978, and has led a bunch of tours in recent years, and so we saddled up for a good five hours of Zooming. All told, I suspect I’ve spent twenty hours+ in walk-logistics planning, which feels about right. And I’ll clock another twenty more as I dial things in.

Last year, when I walked the Nakasendō (the Tōkaidō’s, northern, sister route) I did it a bit too quickly. I had a few too many long days (35km+). So this year, my goal is slowness. Not a lethargic pace, but one where I won’t rush to beat the sunset to the evening’s inn.

The walk starts on November 3, the first full day of my fourthfifth decade on the planet, and I arrive in Kyoto on November 29. I’ll average 22.41km on walking days (about half the Edo-era pace, which was 40km a day, or ten ri, the standard length marker of that time), with 5.5 days off (my day walking to Seki is a scant 6km, so I count that as a half-day).

I’ve pre-booked all lodging. I find this to be a weirdly arousing act — the seeing a trip come together, the electricity of thinking about connecting all these disparate towns by foot. The booking happens mostly, prosaically on Booking.com, because, honestly, it has a great interface, and makes moving things around relatively painless if the schedule changes. The rest on Rakuten Travel (a horrorshow of usability) or — for places that don’t abide by online shenanigans — by phone.

The lodging is a mix of old inns and business hotels, hostels, a fancy resort (where there are literally no other options), and some standard “nice” hotels. I have a stubborn rule of “nothing but walking.” That is: Once I leave my home, until I get to Kyoto, I am allowed no other modes of transportation except walking on walk days (on rest days I may take trains to visit slightly-distant, off-route temples). And because nobody walks the Tōkaidō anymore — certainly not like I’m doing — there are desolate spits of land, nary a lodge in sight, where you just make do with whatever odd inn might be present.

Most of the lodging comes with breakfast. About half serve dinner. The total cost is roughly $2,000, or about $70/day on average including food. I’m taking advantage of Japan’s GO TO campaign, so actual cost in a non-COVID year would be about 35% higher. That said: One could easily reduce this number by a further 50-75% by staying in more hostels / cheaper business hotels / camping, but I’m doing a ton of work as I walk; having a solid place to land after a long day of walking is critical.

I consider walks to be platforms for experiments, and so the notion of “work” flows naturally. But what is this so-called work of the big walk? A few things:

  • I’ll continue to produce SW945 episodes each day — my binaural audio record of these walks and routes.
  • I’m going to add a video component as well, using an X100V or Fuji XT4 with 16mm 2.8 lens (23mm equiv.) to record 4k video as a compliment to the binaural audio. (The Fuji (X100 / XT4) is handy because: Great video + weather sealing + can act as a backup stills camera if anything happens to the Leica M10.)
  • I’ll be photographing voraciously, as usual, interviewing folks, taking notes, hunting down pizza toast.
  • I’m launching a new daily newsletter soon, time-boxed, just for the walk, and will be writing that on top of weekly Ridgelines and an issue of Roden along the way.

What this means in practice is, at the end of each day I have a solid three hours or more of processing and production work to do. That is:

  • importing and editing / culling all photos
  • processing the binaural audio and packaging it for SW945
  • processing the video, adding the audio, publishing to YouTube
  • writing the new daily newsletter, picking a photo, packaging, sending
  • writing up / cleaning up any audio notes I make along the way

It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s a lot — small details galore to be checked and double checked. So a clean room, fast internet connection, solitude, and a good bed are key to being able to keep up the pace, day after day.

I’ll also run a SPECIAL PROJECTS members-only “Pop-Up Walk” at least once, and may even participate in the Tokyo Art Book Fair as a “walking lecturer” — literally giving a talk on Kissa by Kissa as I walk the Tōkaidō. We’ll see how well that works — HA HA!

My gear is mostly dialed in at this point, so that occupies little overhead. I’ll write more about what I’m packing, later.

Friends of mine seem to harbor a fantasy of my long walks as being ambulatory, hippy-like wanderings. They’re anything but: I am a strict preparationist. There’s a playful balking at this strictness. But what folks often fail to grasp is that from this strictness comes a tremendous freedom of creativity. By not thinking about where I have to go, or where I’ll stay, or if there’s even a place to stay; by not having to map out the next day’s plan the night before, I’m able to enter a kind of “bobbing consciousness” like hallucinatory state, a state of walk-flow (if you will), and fully focus on hyper-presence within the walk itself. That may seem contradictory — you’d expect the unfolding and opening up of the world to happen only without strict boundaries on your day. But having experienced this weirdly elevated state of being while amidst a well-planned long walk, I can say, for me, it exists here, within the confines of tight rules, too.

In the end: I’d much rather devote an extra hour each day to writing or editing or within the skeins of local gabbing at a kissa. The “downside” of pre-planning is that I have to “keep moving” forward since all the reservations are set up. But that brings with it its own exciting momentum. And from the implicit transience comes a kind of permission to reinvent the self. Each day: a new town, new village, a new mountain — the chance for a version of yourself “better” than the day before — a little kinder, more open smile, a sharper eye, a calmer mind. I feel that permission something strong on a long walk, and it’s a permission I find lost in the sedentary day to day of “normal” life.

I also don’t see this walk as a one-time affair. This is the first of many times to walk this route. Rewalking is as important as rereading. I expect to get a lot wrong on this first run. But I’ll learn along the way, take notes, and try my best to share those notes and the experience of the walk with you all.

It’s strange to say but, in the last two years, this has become my work-work. This is my “job.” This walk is 100% supported by SPECIAL PROJECTS members and by the sales of books like Kissa by Kissa. It’s tremendously exciting to be able to say that. So thank you to everyone who has joined. If you’d like access to past “Pop-up Walks” (Ise-ji and Kamakura) and access to the ones I’ll do on the Tōkaidō and beyond, consider joining.

Now I’m off to the printers to check on the second edition of Kissa by Kissa. It’s set to be bound soon. It goes on sale in a few days.

If you have any questions about prep for this upcoming long walk, please send them in. I’ll try and do a FAQ edition of Ridgeline before I head out.

More soon,

Fellow Walkers

From Xinjiang. Currently in Ohio, writing. I used to walk with my favorite person. He was a painter and a serious walker. He made me tiny chairs and pots for rocks. We watched sunsets in silence.
“We have legs that support our spin.” He said.
I like the speed of life with him: slow and expansive.
Walking connects me to him, through him, to something larger. Left, right, left, to know, to not know, I commit to this single-minded human effort.

Fortysomething now, raised in the foresty suburbs of New Jersey. City living these days in our nation’s capital, where I make pictures of people in power. In between, the Pacific Northwest whose rocky coastline still courses through me. Gardening, nighttime running and dreams of places afar. And perhaps, one day, a writer? Trying now to write the thing I want to read.

(“Fellow Walkers” are short bios of the other folks subscribed to this newsletter. In Ridgeline 001 I asked: “What shell were you torn from?” and got hundreds of responses. We’re working our way through them over the year. You’re an amazing, diverse crew. Grateful to be walking with you all. Feel free to send one in if you haven’t already.)


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