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COVID-19 and Walking Japan

Ridgeline Transmission 098


Another week, another 150,000+ steps. Hello from Hamamatsu.

Pachinko Road continues to chug along. Thousands of responses, more and more readers each day. When you sign up, you get a free copy of John McBride’s excellent Tōkaidō guide book. Two weeks from now the list gets deleted and the emails are done!

We crossed the halfway point of the walk yesterday. Feels strange. Time dilates oddly on the road, my only indication of weekday or weekend is a kind of swell of ambient activity, otherwise it is a blur of small towns and villages and some days of extreme kindness and some days of extreme lonely chemical factory stretches.

I’ve been asked many times: What it’s like doing this walk during COVID-19? How stressful is it? How different is it?

If you went to sleep a year ago and woke up today, and set out on this walk, you’d only notice a few things:

  1. The cost of your hotels is about 50% of what it would normally be. Rooms are all discounted 35%, and then you get 15% back in coupons to use at restaurants. This is via GoTo Travel, a government-run initiative to jumpstart the domestic tourism economy. It’s working! (See below.)
  2. There’s a lot of hand sanitizer out in the open.
  3. Everyone’s masked.
  4. You get your temperature taken no fewer than five times a day.
  5. Essentially no “foreigners” / “tourists” anywhere. (No tourist visas have been issued since … March?)

That’s it. Some hotels have changed check-in protocols and have cut restaurant times or eliminated room service or in-room shiatsu massages, but on the whole, there’s almost no discernible “macro” experiential difference. No travel restrictions, no freedom impingements.

The discount effect is huge — 50% off the whole walk is fantastic. And the coupons, despite being a bit wonky, work well enough. The corollary is that, come the weekend, every hotel is full. Turns out people like a 50% discount and are sick of sitting at home.

I walked through Hakone a couple weeks ago and it was bonkers — just teeming. An hour+ line to take a photo in front of Hakone Shrine’s famous torii. And then I was in Shizuoka and Fujieda — relatively small towns — over the weekend and the hotels there, too, were overflowing. The goal of the GoTo campaign is simply to unlock cash flow within the economy, and it’s working really well with (what seems to be) minimal risk. (Of course, we’ll see how COVID numbers look in a month or two.)

The more peripheral effect of COVID-19 is that most towns feel somewhat abandoned, like movie sets left in a rush. Take Hamamatsu for example, I walked around this morning (a Tuesday) and it was crickets. I think this is because a lot of folks are working from home, and a lot of businesses have minimized or eliminated business travel. So while restaurants and cafes are open, customers are sparse. Of course, it’s my first time visiting most of these towns, so my baseline is theoretical, but given the scale of their public infrastructure, everything seems built with more humans in mind. I’ve been querying restaurant owners, and almost all have said customers numbers are severely down on a whole.

That said, I’m sitting in a beautiful, well-ventilated Starbucks right below Hamamatsu Castle and it’s been packed all day. 99% of folks are observing good mask etiquette but the general vibe is What COVID? The park outside is full of children and parents playing, uniformed high school sweethearts walk hand in hand, the maples are shifting to oranges and reds, the sun is warm and strong (it was 23C today!), and life is going on.

I suspect nightlife in a city like Hamamatsu is quite different than it was a year ago. But because I don’t drink and haven’t desired to spend time at bars for years, that entire scene is off my radar.

One odd dissonance is that I’ve noticed a few restaurants are taking names and phone numbers to help with contract tracing. (But why these few? And mandated by whom? And is this legal?) And yet, they pack the counter seats, no social distancing, plopping customers just inches apart from one another. I walked out of one because they insisted I sit at a packed counter because I was alone. No thanks.

Similarly dissonant: Bicyclists wear masks on totally empty streets, folks strolling deserted outdoor shopping malls are tightly nose-and-mouth masked. But then you’ll look inside of the one hopping izakaya in town and there’ll be 50 people squished into a 30-square-meter space, nary a mask in sight, the chef with a plastic chin guard on as if that would make all the difference.

Those idiosyncratic moments aside, the overall experience from the perspective of this walker is generally one of positivity: travel is heavily discounted, tourist spots are mostly empty, people speak more quietly in cafes, everyone wears masks (when not eating) and disinfects their hands with pathological regularity, folks don’t pack into elevators (and when we get in, at a max of four persons, we all stand facing the corners like scolded children).

I hope that doesn’t sound crass — voicing the positive aspects of the situation. Acknowledging the “benefits” feels odd, doubly so watching my friends in the US and Europe go back into lockdown as most Japanese go about their “normal” lives.

In a way, it feels like Japan has entered a sudden, modern instantiation of sakoku — the 214 year period of shutting itself off from the world. Presently: Nobody is flowing in, nobody is really flowing out. All travel, like during the Edo period, is domestic and government “sanctified” or supported via the GoTo Travel campaign.

Maybe I’m overly fixated on these things because the Tōkaidō — the very walk I’m presently doing — flowered during sakoku, and the historical documents I’m reading as I walk describe the elaborate government funded elements of the road (mile markers, shaded pines, stone paving on mountains).

Of course, one can only cast an “interesting” eye on the COVID situation by knowing that it’s temporary. Vaccines will arrive in the coming year, borders will reopen, discounts will disappear, nightlife will re-flourish, and Kyoto will once again be crushed by the selfie hoards of years past. But until then, if you’re here, it’s probably worth your time to do a little (safe, responsible) exploring.

The walk continues, the discounts are welcome, and the overall vibe I’m finding in cities and villages large and small is one of lives being lived with calmness and rationality. I’ll gladly take that for the time being.


Fellow Walkers

I grew up in a small Southern Maryland town named (by local original Native American inhabitants) Accokeek; rural, right along the Potomac River, but a short drive to Washington, D.C. For most of 12 years of local public schooling, the school bus dropped my brothers & me off one mile from the house, so we had the daily walk home, along a dusty dirt road, shaded mostly. It was a 20-minute walking meditation, a chance to unwind and process the day, before evening homework, chores, dinner. My family, partially of German descent, always enjoyed the ‘fresh air cure’ of a brisk walk—Spaziergang auf Deutsch—and walking, hiking, dériver (to drift, to wander)…all have been a vital part of my life.

Peter Matthiesen’s Snow Leopard tore me from my suburban California shell in 1982. With visions of snow-covered Himalayas and smoky tea houses, I quit my job and bought a ticket to Kathmandu to walk around the Annapurnas. Ended up staying two years in Nepal, leading treks and running rivers, which led to half a dozen years leading overland trips in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Amazing where a book and a long walk can lead.

(“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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