Matthew Smith, a 2008 graduate of Trinity, had been in Japan for five years when he decided that he would walk the length of the country. The walk was an enlightening and educational experience, although if you were to ask Smith why he undertook the 1,600-mile trek, he would be hard pressed to tell you. It’s just something he felt compelled to do.
So on July 25, the South Windsor, CT resident put on his walking shoes and started out. He walked for 88 days, resting for six of them, and arriving at his final destination at the end of October.
Smith visited Trinity recently to talk about his trip, one that took him from Cape Soya in the north to Yonaguna Island’s Cape Irizaki in the west, though essentially he walked from Japan’s northernmost point to its southernmost point.
An international studies major who studied Japanese at Trinity, Smith originally went to Japan through the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program. JET was begun in 1987 to improve exposure to international culture and language in Japan. Thousands of college and university graduates from around the world have participated. The United States contributes more than half of all JET participants.
Smith served as an assistant language teacher, working in two junior high schools and four elementary schools during the five years he was in Japan. He lived in the northern part of the country in a city called Hachinohe, a mid-sized port in Aomori Prefecture. Its population is about 235,000.
“It really changed my perception of a city,” said Smith. Having grown up in Greater Hartford with its dense population, Smith said Hachinohe was a vast region, consisting of residential areas as well as farmland. “It was a wide area that they decided to call a city.”
Smith adapted to the Japanese way of life, its customs, traditions and even its recreational activities. The cuisine was more of a challenge. “A lot of the time you didn’t know quite what you were eating or how to eat it,” he told his Common Hour audience.
The 2011 earthquake and tsunami are among the more memorable events that Smith experienced. The magnitude 9.0 earthquake and the ensuing tsunami affected Hachinohe, which was not that far from the epicenter. The earthquake struck at 2:46 p.m. while Smith was at school.
“No one really knew what was going on,” he recalled.” “The teachers were in emergency mode. We got the students out of the building but it was freezing cold so we had to go back inside for hats and coats. The school was still shaking from the aftershocks.”
The tsunami, which covered 217 square miles and was 128 feet high, reached a height of between 26 and 29 feet in Hachinohe and traveled six miles inland. Although nearly 16,000 people died and 3,000 are still missing overall, “Hachinohe didn’t get hit so hard that it brought us to our knees,” he said.
The same can’t be said about the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant, where 300,000 people were evacuated from the area. A large number of residents will never be able to return to their homes because of the high levels of radioactivity, said Smith. What’s more, 300 tons of radioactive water continues to spill into the Pacific Ocean daily. The decommissioning of the plant is expected to take 30 to 40 years.
After his teaching stint had concluded, Smith decided to embark on his walk. It was not a spur-of-the-moment decision. He said he had been mulling over the walk for a couple of years. Having run a marathon, Smith knew what it was like to train and prepare, and he “got into long-distance walking.”
Once his journey began, he walked about 20 to 30 kilometers a day, although some days he managed more. Like most countries, each region of Japan has its own topography, weather, transportation difficulties and other challenges to contend with. In some rural areas, it was easy to walk because there were wide open spaces. In other areas, the roads were narrow and the bridges and tunnels made walking difficult. The weather also presented some hardships, particularly the heavy rain that led to landslides.
Although the people were friendly, by and large, Smith said, “Being a foreigner pervaded everything.” His walk elicited a range of reactions from local residents, and more than a few thought he was crazy.
Along the way, Smith stayed in a variety of places, among them, campgrounds, inexpensive business hotels, pricey inns and resorts, and the Japanese equivalent of a bed and breakfast.
By the end of October Smith had reached his destination and by early November he was back in Connecticut. His next project? One that will take less shoe leather but perhaps as much endurance: a book about his experience.