Saturday, 25 April 2015

the food of life

We have arranged to stay with Kiyoka and her children in Matsuyama this evening, so after cooking tea in a little park, we find our way in the dark to her home.  Thanks to the wonders of Google Streetview we know that she lives in a 3-storey building with parking on the ground floor, opposite what looks like a funfair junkyard.  Sure enough, out of the blackness leer the faces of large plastic cartoon animals.  We find our way up the dark staircase to the appartment on the top floor.  Kiyoka is a smiling cheerful woman who makes her living from music.  She sings and plays keyboards and teaches piano too. A single mum, she lives in this relatively large flat with her three kids.  We stay three nights but rarely see them - are we scary? are they shy? Kome is the youngest, still at school.  Kiyoka's eldest, Liu, works nights, but we chat to him before we depart.  Her daughter we only see glimpses of, coming and going.
one of Matsuyama's toy cars
We realise that this is not a typical Japanese family.  But then, would we find a typical one hosting us through Couch Surfing? We doubt it.  Kiyoka has a busy schedule but is clearly keen to spend time with us - she wants to improve her English, despite the fact that it is already good and she often sings in English. When she plays it's jazz, soul, funk or bossa nova, so she also sings in Portuguese.  We go out shopping with her and she takes us to a sushi restaurant which is a real treat for us.  It's not a fancy one - a franchise where the sushi rolls around on a conveyor belt.  You sit in a booth and take what you fancy, or as Kiyoka shows us, order on the small touch screen, to get something freshly prepared.  You pay 100 yen per plate.  The plates are added up at the end of the meal.  Simple, even for novices like us.  That is if you can actually get the food off the conveyor belt before it's turned the corner....
how to catch that sushi
The city's hot tourist spot is the Dogo Onsen.  It's the oldest spa in the country, although even our house in Hebden Bridge is older.  The problem for Japan is that most of their old structures are built of wood and don't last.  Oh, and the fact that they started a war in 1940 with those noisy blokes across the water and got heavily bombed for the trouble.  Japan is now a country of concrete cities and roads and riverbanks.  It increasingly looks to us like the role model for China's construction/development/destruction.  The onsen building is very elegant, and has all the typically pleasing features of traditional architecture - dark wood, sweeping roofs and curving eaves.  We haven't been in an onsen yet so we go off to have a look.  It's kind of touristy around the building and we watch as couples arrive in matching traditional robes and slippers, seeming to have just walked down the street from their nearby hotels.  It all looks a bit twee so we give it a pass.

One morning Kiyoka sits down at her piano and starts playing.   She needs to practice a song for a lunchtime performance. She sings along with a light but firm voice.  Pop, jazz, soul - she comes alive at the keyboard.  She tells us that she only took up piano when she was eighteen, having already learnt to play saxophone.  She taught herself and then studied the electric organ.  She clearly has the musical ear.  To remember a tune she just needs a prompt of the lyrics and away she goes.  We sit and enjoy the privilege of this private performance.
with Kiyoka and Liu, the least shy of her children

Friday, 24 April 2015

to be a pilgrim

On the way to temple no. 45 we pause for a breather at a lay-by.  A farmer's truck pulls up and an old man gets out and says hello.  He reaches into his cab and passes us a couple of oranges before getting back in and driving off.  Fabulous - we can't afford to buy oranges all the time even though they're delicious.  It's only when we eat them that we realise he probably thought we were on the henro, the pilgrimage.  Down in the town below the temple it's a lively Sunday at the michi o neki.  This road station has a big shop selling local produce, a cafe, a tourist information and a man busking.  There are carpark guardians directing arrivals and departures.  No, don't put your bike here, put it over there.  Our bikes don't have stands and we can't hang them on the bike rack put out for the road cyclists out for a Sunday spin on their lightweight Italian bikes.  No, we'll just lean them up against the post, thanks mate.  The car park guardians are all quite old and might be volunteers.  Just before, we stopped at the public toilets which are spotless. Heated seats, endless bog roll, soap and fresh-cut flowers.  I feel like moving in.  In many villages we come across little old ladies with rubber gloves giving everything a clean.  We guess they are volunteers too.  

Teddy Bears At Work - this one is clearly a fan of The Smiths
There's a hill to climb after our break here, of indeterminate height.  The main road drills right through the mountain to reach Matsuyama.  But cylists are directed onto the old road over the top.  Happily the climb is not fierce nor too long.  We are stunned by the view from the top, looking out over a sprawling city to the Inland Sea - we feel so high up.  This sense of height is exaggerated by the steep descent.  The road is fairly quiet until we join the main road appearing out of the mountain's backside.  Hurtling down and around one of those loop-the loop roads that the Japanese road builders are fond of, buses and trucks and cars breathing down our necks, we suddenly break off down a single-track lane which swoops down the remainder of the mountainside.  We know it's a good route because we pass pilgrims in their white clothes and we're heading for Temple No. 47 too.  It's set on the edge of the urban sprawl in a peaceful neighbourhood, on the edge of a hill and where fields and small reservoirs are dotted between the houses.  

It's incredibly peaceful.  Behind the temple is the biggest cemetery we've come across - a spread of marble graves over the hillside.  Most of the time we find small cemeteries dotted about the place here and there, but this one is on a city-scale.  After visiting the temple and doing a bit of laundry Gayle scouts out a camp spot on a tree-lined ledge above the cemetery.  There is a small and tidy hut for pilgrims to sleep in, and one of the temple guardians who is sweeping the grounds asks if we are sleeping there.  But it's a small room and we are happy in our tent, we explain.  He then motions to the vending machine and offers to buy us cold drinks.  We say thanks, but no thanks, really, but he's insistent despite our efforts and in the end gives us a 1000 yen note (about £5) to get something.  We are very embarrassed but feel obliged to accept.  Oh dear, does he think we are doing the pilgrimage by bicycle?  Do we look like down-andouts doing our laundry in the car park?  We push our bikes up the hill and eat our tea with a classy view over the land, sun setting over the sea in the distance.


Number 48
The morning brings forth yet another glorious sunny day - we feel we have finally escaped the clutches of the spring rains and are determined to make the most of the sunshine because we know Japan's rainy season is ahead of us.  We eat breakfast at a table set on a lawn by some graves.  One plinth has a stone dog sitting loyally by its owner.  One has a marble Hello Kitty.  We follow the way-marking signs for pilgrims along back roads and quiet lanes through fields and Japanese suburbia to reach Temple No. 48.  The temples all have names but I like the numbers.  It's mid-morning and there are some weary walkers already seeking water and shade inside the temple grounds, whilst the majority of visitors are getting in and out of their cars in the car park.  Each temple has a small collection of buildings.  We are not afficionados, but one is the main shrine, some look like they could be used to host ceremonies, and some look like residences for monks or visitors.  There's always toilets, a nice garden, a large bell, sometimes ornamental ponds.  Just as we are leaving a man hands us oranges from a large boxfull he is taking inside.

such good-looking pilgrims
We skirt the city and find our way to Temple 49 where we meet Gabriel and Jeff just moving on.  We spotted these two Aussies a couple of days ago, at the end of the day, with their rucksacks and rollmats, and we thought they were probably Spanish or Portuguese.  And then again the day before at a rest stop, we saw Jeff and thought, oh, he's a Japanese pilgrim with a tan.  But now we finally get to chat to them and get their story.  They are passed halfway on their pilgrimage - something Gabriel wanted to do after teaching here a few years ago.  He persuaded Jeff to join him and they've survived the rains and managed the route without having to pay for accommodation.  For like us, Japan is only affordable if you're not paying for transport and accomodation all the time.  I don't know if it's a testament to their strength and speed or our slothfulness, but they have managed to ovetake us on foot within a matter of a day and a half.  Happily, we learn they slept in the hut at Temple no. 47 last night, so our decision to camp meant they had the small space to themselves.

no, that's not our laundry
After visiting one more temple, one that is being used predominantly by locals, we ride into the city centre and have a look around.  It's the biggest city we've been in since reaching Japan and we're surprised at the big roads and spread of the city.  The good news is how most of the traffic seems to be bicycles.  Sitting outside a supermarket with the bikes while Gayle disappears for a long time to shop, I watch shoppers come and go.  Before we reached Japan, we expected to find lots of cool and trendy Japanese in whacky clothes.  The reality is that so far, we have seen a rather homogenous group of people who all seem to dress in the same muted colours, casual but very smart, kind of utilitarian.  Disappointingly dull, really.  Clearly we will have to get to Tokyo to see the really cool Japanese.  But as I watch I come to the conclusion that everyone here is cool.  They are nearly all riding bicycles, and the bicycle of choice is the mamachari - literally old lady's bike. Males and females of all ages, all stripes, are cycling.  We have seen the same in all the towns and cities.  Kochi felt like Stockholm.  A young guy with badly dyed hair and saggy jeans lights a cigarette, sticks his shopping in the basket of the crappiest bike in the lot, and pootles off looking like the hip-hop gangsta he surely is.  A young woman in high heels and tight skirt suit hops off her bicycle and steps into the store in one smooth action.  A middle-aged business man is mooching off in low-gear and has to stop suddenly as an octogenarian spinster in trademark apron and bonnet zips across his path. Kids in school uniforms pass by in droves, rattling along the pavement.  Every single person is sitting too low on their seat, Easy Rider style.  These Japanese folk are cool.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

sky riding

Gayle has noticed a row of red dots on our Japanese map.  This means a scenic route.  It seems to be following a mountain ridge in the north west of Shikoku, directly in our line from Kochi to Matsuyama.  Gayle is keen.  Its infectious, her enthusiasm.  The landscape here is either coastal plain or jungly mountain valleys, and so far we've been cycling along the rivers in those valleys.  When we find a photo of the 'Sky Ride' we decide it's the way for us.  So after our rest in Kochi we head out of the city and soon begin following yet another of those twisting rivers that lead us into the mountainous heart of the island.  The road is quiet and easy - we are climbing steadily as we head upstream, but the gradient is barely noticeable until midafternoon when the road takes a turn and leads us uphill to a pass that ends with a tunnel and spits us out at a cement quarry/factory.  It's the kind of thing you might find in China - the middle of nowhere, remote beauty and then a dusty ugly industrial plant smoking away.  The good news is that the road drops sharply downhill and we can race away quickly and back into the green forest of the central hills.  There's a sign to a community park (in English as well as Japanese) which we decide to follow, even though it takes us uphill steeply on a small country road.  A woman in a car meets us coming the other way and asks if we want to camp at the park.  Er, yes, we do.  It's about 5 o'clock and we're ready to stop.  That'll be 1,000 yen, she explains.  Ah, er, well, thank you but no thanks.  We turn around and roll back down to the main road again.  We don't want to pay for camping if we don't have to.  The trouble is the forest is descending down to the roadside and we've no idea what's around the corner.  We flash past a stream with a little clearing, brake sharply and quickly circle back to it.  A perfect spot - just enough space for the tent, unlikely to be seen by passing traffic and an ice-cold clear pool of water hidden behind trees up the stream.  We both have a delightful wash before dinner and bed.
"try and look like you're enjoying it"

I don't know if we are prepared for the climb the next day but the squiggles on the map give us a clue.  The main road disappears into a tunnel that re-emerges nearly at the north coast while our little country road leads up through pines and some nicely graded switchbacks to a point beyond the tree line. 

It's slow going but the road has only some light tourist traffic so we put our earphones in and enjoy some music-assisted ascent.  At a carpark with a toilet an elderly couple give us cans of vending machine coffee and sweets.  This random generorsity is very welcome, even if neither of us likes the gifts.  The act of charity always cheers us.  The switchbacks have ended and now the tough cycling begins.  The road begins a traverse which climbs at an angle that hurts.  We follow the folds of the mountain in and out, edging around bends, wary of daytrippers coming the other way.  It's a Friday and all the tourists seem to be over sixty.  Japan's ageing demographic is evident every day everywhere. 
honest, it's steep
After lunch we resort to pushing some short steep sections.  The road tunnels briefly through some tricky sections and rock debris is scattered on the shoulder of the road.  It's narrow now and pockets of snow remain despite the hot sunny days. We finally reach a section of road between two peaks, where the ridge between sags and meets the road.  This must be the high point and from here we can look over the ridge to the north and Japan's Inland Sea.  Southwards is a ripple of forested ridges.  After a quick descent to a corner we start climbing again.  Ahh, so this must be the high point.  At the next corner the road turns down to follow a descending ridge and at the turn is a toilet block and grassy spot that looks made to measure for our tent.  Cars have to park further along the road and a biker is pitching his tent there when we stop for the day.  This has been our hardest day in Japan, but the view and the camp spot is priceless. Just rewards.
Ishizuchi mountain

let's not hang around...
The following day we begin the descent along a ridge and down through a section of switchbacks, coast along another ridge that then leads to a pass on the shoulder of Ishizuchi San, the highest mountain in western Japan.  Here we find a temple, a tourist shop and a huge carpark.  It signals the end of our remote exciting ride along the skyline and the point when we begin a proper descent.  A long freewheel is kind to our sore leg muscles and we cruise quickly down into a tight valley where the peaks soon disappear out of sight and where the air feels fresh and cool in the shade.  On and on the road twists and turns until we pop out at the river and find the pedals again to help us along.  We cook lunch at an empty michi o neki and then continue along a pleasant road before turning northwards off the main route and up a valley to find a temple.  This is number 46 on the Shikoku pilgrimmage and it's stuck away inland in one of the island's typical wooded valleys.  
No. 46
We begin to follow the signs to number 45 when we find the sun setting before we have found a place to camp.  We scrabble around a village looking for dead land, a discreet place.  There's no park.  There's no sports centre. A lot of fields and a lot of steep slopes.  We pass the police station twice and I wonder if travelling around without my passport is such a smart idea after all.  What if a startled local phones the police when they see two torches flickering at the end of their garden.  Who's that messing about down by the shed on the riverbank?  That's us, pitching the tent on broken lumpy ground and kicking ourselves for not stopping sooner.  By the time the dinner is on, night has fallen.  It's about half seven but there's only one light visible in the village.  Has everyone gone to bed? Or is the village deserted? In the morning light we are overlooked by about twenty houses and we awake to the sound of a farmer pottering away in a field but he's the only villager we see before we ride away.
fancy a dip?

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

tales from the riverbanks

A sunny morning inspires us to continue our loop de loop route in Shikoku.  From Shimanto Town to Susaki is about 30 km along the main highway but we've developed a taste for river travel.  So we head out of town and continue heading upstream of the magnificent Shimanto River through tiny villages with small fields and little old people working to get the rice paddies planted and the fields ploughed and ready for planting.  We ride tall in the saddle taking it all in along the quiet country road, winding this way and that with the river through the hilly landscape.
"Gayle, did you see them lovely purple azaleas back there, next to the shrine?"
"That was wisteria."

Instead of riding through the usual tunnels cutting a short route through the landscape, we find ourselves on enormous circuitous bends, setting the pace and keeping us from getting anywhwere too soon.  It's a world away from the main highway.  The only problem with steep forrested valleys and paddy fields is that there's not much space left for camping.  But towards the end of the day we come to a turn-off that leads to a closed hotel.  We consider camping between two cabins down by the river, but choose to continue up the track beyond the hotel and find an abandoned clearing where a collapsing shed and overgrown field is all that remains of someone's hard work.  
There seems to be a plot of baby fern planted out in rows.  We've seen fern tips being sold with other wild greens in the michi-o-neki but it hadn't occurred to either of us that they were being cultivated. And what do they taste like?  Well, sorry, we don't pick any to try so I can't answer that.  Our camp is at a 270 degree bend in the river so we are surrounded by pine forest and looking up there's a starry sky and a new moon.  It's a cool night but very peaceful and we finally get up when a forest ranger's car goes past us up the track.
We continue riding up the Shimanto and the road steepens a little until eventually we meet a amin road cutting across our route.  We are at a junction of valleys and here we turn east, taking a tunnel rather than a steep climb, to appear at the head of a very high valley.  We can't see the bottom and we're looking forward to the big descent back down to the sea.  It begins in tea fields and small hamlets, winding down the hillside on the old road, before we finally emerge onto the main road where the valley begins to broaden and open out.   

It's an easy cruise down to the sea and we plot our way through the town of Susaki before finding the quiet road that will take us out to a scenic route along the coast.  We can see it will be scenic - in the distance a steep hilly peninsula covered in trees emerges from the urban sprawl.  Just after turning onto the peninsula we come to a sheltered bay with a sports centre and a canoe club.  After a hot shower at the centre we pitch our tent under cover at the canoe club with a view from the stands of four guys training in the still waters of the bay.  Later, in the dark, I think I can make a out a large mammal cruising the same black waters before disappearing under the surface.  There's whale watching off this coast but surely nothing that big would come into a small bay like this?  
the rewarding view

In the morning we begin the steep ups and downs of the 'scenic route'.  The views of the rocky precipitous coastline look wonderful through the sweat in our eyes.  We pass quite a few pilgrims along this stretch of road and at the other end of the peninsula we come to one of the 88 temples.  As they're marked on our map we decide to visit a couple more before finding a place to camp near Kochi city.  At the next temple we meet David and Alison from Canada, taking advantage of a comfy bench in the shade.  They are walking the first half of the henro or pilgrimage trail and have survived the horrible rain that we suffered a week earlier.  

pilgrims in civvies
We have a good ol' natter, exchanging experiences and impressions of Japan, before they set off in the opposite direction. They tip us off to the free camp in the park down by the beachfront in Kochi.  To get there we pass another temple and then, foolishly, take a hideous high narrow bridge over the river opening to get there.  Kochi is built on a large natural harbour and we are crossing to the eastern side at the narrow opening to the sea.  Down in the park, shaded by tall pines, we find Thibaud pitching his tent.  
Thibaud pretending he knows where he's going
Thibaud, a Belgian, has the white jacket and conical hat of the pilgrim.  It's his third consecutive holiday to Japan and he's on target to complete the whole pilgrimmage in just under two months.  He's full of enthusiasm about the experience and has enjoyed the offerings of food given to him by locals who get 'heavenly credits' for helping pilgrims.  Brownie Points for Buddhists.  There's another pilgrim camping in the park and we guess that two other tents are semi-permanent.  Another man on a bike comes and pitches his tent at sundown and has left by sunrise the next morning.  We don't see a great deal of poverty here but these guys all look like homeless men.  Still, the park is clean and there are toilets - and it's safe.  We decide to come back the next night after spending the day in the city.  

Our main objective is to repair Gayle's bike.  She has been complaining about the steering getting stiffer and stiffer and I think it's the headset.  Happily we find Mr. Yamane's bike shop on route 56 without getting lost along the way.  It's a small overcrowded shop and the workspace is a real mess.  But it's the right kind of bike shop.  Mr. Yamane speaks enough English for us to do business.  This business entails him dismantling Gayle's bike, smashing it with a hammer and telling us the headset is broken.  This is fairly obvious.  The good news is he has replacement headset bearings and all the right tools for the job and he gets right down to the task immediately.  I'm feeling a bit nervous now because we have not discussed the most important thing.  The tools all look rather complicated and I wonder if they're really necessary.  These are bog-standard mountain bikes.  Looking inside his shop I notice the Surly Long Haul Trucker frames hanging up.  Mmmm.  After cleaning up and tightening everything I get to talk to Mr. Yamane's wife, Givus, at the cash till.  She doesn't speak English but she does speak numbers.  I wince a little at the cost - £10 for the bearings and £25 for a 20 minute job.  I think it would be the same price in the UK, except I doubt anyone would drop everything to do it there and then.  On the bright side he has hub bearings and grease so I can also service our front wheels myself - the recent rain has left us both with clunking wheels.

clearly all Liverpool fans

We visit one of the nicest temples so far, up on a nobble of a hill just on the edge of the city.  It's a good training climb to the top, if you want any training.  If you don't want any training, then it's an unnecessarily steep and cruel climb to the top.  We have noticed now that most of the pilgrims are travelling by car.  They park up, put on their pilgrims clothes, pick up their walking stick with the trademark tingling bell, and walk into the temple.  Sometimes they don't even turn off the engine - a habit that is increasingly annoying us. Back in the park in the evening are four bikers pitched up and the two homeless guys and us.  And a family with a generator, bright lights, barbecue and clutch of excited small to medium children running around having fun.  I mean, where do they think they are, for goodness sake!

black and white at the Sunday market
Now we know it is going to rain on Monday, all day and all night.  So what to do? Grin and bear it? Or book into a hostel, get a nice hot shower, a rest day and sleep soundly?  The hostel is more of a guesthouse in feel - run by a nice couple in a lovely wooden building.  We are shown a lovely 'Japanese style' room with a tatami mat floor.  Neither of us are expecting to ever see a bed again, and anyway this is a room for four, judging by all the bedding.  We happily use it all and spend the rainy day using the internet and checking the map for the next stage. And sleeping.
enough room to swing a mat

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Shimanto this Shimanto that

at a shrine in the woods
Our river joins the Shimanto River winding its way out to the sea through yet another beautiful valley.  We turn and head downstream, again trying to avoid the main road by taking the little locals' road (I mean the road, not the locals, although come to think of it, the locals are little) which passes their houses and tiny farm plots.  We criss cross the river on bridges sometimes or find ourselves on a little-used lane littered with rockfall which leads to a shrine built in the woods.  The shrines are sometimes quite substantial buildings of wood in a clearing with a tori gate at the top of long flight of stone steps.  We're woolly on the Shinto religion but this indigenous religion seems to be animist in origin judging by the location of the shrines in the countryside.  I think there are a multitude of gods which are worshipped but that there's no formal rituals or membership - clearly I'm trying to bluff my way through this and it is not working, is it?  Anyway, if you like all the fun of the fair, then, judging by what we've seen at some of the temples, Buddhism is the way to go.  But if you only want to beseech some Higher Authority in help to pass your driving test, then Shinto is the way to go.

a "submersible" bridge - as useful as a chocolate fireguard?
We know the weather forecast is for rain all day tomorrow so we're keen to reach Shimanto City and suss out a good camp spot that will see us through the deluge.  It's Friday evening and there's some sort of rush hour as quarry workers and farmers start heading home.  A young Japanese guy shouts out "Bonjour!" to us as he overtakes us.  We call him back. 
 He is cycling all around Japan and on his way back to Kyoto.  Unfortunately his English is not so great (maybe we should have tried some French) and the conversation is brief.  It looks like rain will start before sundown so we're all in a bit of a hurry.  Happily we turn down a small side lane and roll up to a toilet block with a croquet field and a nice covered space with benches. Perfect.  This will do nicely.  And it does.  It rains all night and the next day - about 25 hours non-stop.  We tie up the tent to the benches and have a good read.  Now and again a local or a tourist pops by to use the facilities and in the morning rain there seems to be an inordinate number of visitors.  Just down the road is one of the submersible bridges which, for some reason, are a tourist attraction around here.  There's a wedding ceremony taking place on a boat by this one.  At this point I wonder if the Japanese are as stoical as the Norwegians about their weather and recall seeing a group having a picnic in pouring rain during the first week of our journey in 2012.

home for two nights

pilgrim or dental hygienist?
When Saturday comes the skies are clearing and the clouds are lifting.  We leave our shelter with a nice dry tent and head into Shimanto City, which used to be called Nakamura and still is by the locals and the railway company.  At the train station is free wi-fi and sockets in the little waiting room and we quickly check the weather forecast.  More rain after the weekend.  Bleah.  We head southwest towards a long beach just before the cape and along the way start to see pilgrims.  Shikoku has a renowned pilgrimage visiting 88 Buddhist temples around the island.  Spring is deemed the best season as it's neither too hot, too cold nor too rainy.  Ha. The pilgrims traditionally wear white clothes, a conical straw hat and carry a wooden staff with a bell on it, so they're easy to spot.   And as we have joined their route on the longest stretch between two temples, you can but admire their hardiness and commitment.  We see a few guys walking singly and then at a convenience store meet Gabriella, from Australia, who is walking a 10-day stretch.  It wasn't planned but an American running a hostel in the north encouraged her to do it and lent her a tent.  We meet up again at the beach and camp together on the edge of the sand.  Out in the water are bobbing bodies of surfers all waiting for the Big One. We cook and chat and go to sleep under clear skies and twinkling stars.

As the next day looks very grey we decide to return to Shimanto City.  We are expecting rain again in the night so we scout around for somewhere suitable to camp.  In the end we do a large circuit of the river and even pass by our shelter from Thursday and Friday night.  It would be perfect but......we're not sure if we can stay there again without irritating the locals.  Who knows in Japan? Everyone is so polite here but word is, they dont really mean it.  But how would we know and do we care? Instead we pitch on a dyke next to a large arbor that provides some shelter from the strong winds.  It starts raining at about 6 in the evening and carries on until the morning.  It's not carnage, but it's close.  Our tent does brilliantly to keep out the wind and the rain but the ground is sodden and the surface water builds up until it starts seeping through the floor of the tent.  We are quite amazed as we start to dry everything out how well we came off this night.  
twig insect on the drying line
The ground is one big soggy puddle.  But the goodness is that the next few days will be better.  So off we head up the coast, riding on the bikepath-cum-pavement which allows us to look around without worrying about any near-death experiences with zippy toy cars.  After a bit of coastline the road heads inland following a river.  This will only end in a climb, we know.  Happily there is the empty farmers road on the other riverbank we can take and as the sun is shining we are full of joy and love and compassion for the whole wide world.  Except the map publisher.  
the end of this particular road
At the head of the valley we come to a climb with just the main road and all the fast traffic.  Then we detect the tiny old road heading up and joining the main road near to the pass.  Off we head on a very poor road that gets gradually worse until it's nothing but a soggy wet track or path.  There are signs of tarmac but landslides and overgrowth block our way.  We have to retreat all the way to the bottom and then join the main road for the climb.  Relief comes after the pass when we find a real side road that leads down to Shimanto Town on the upper reaches of the Shimanto River.  It all sounds familiar but we haven't been here before.  The river winds around Shikoku so much that it seems inevitable to meet it again.  And the town is the real Shimanto, but has now been relegated to Shimanto Town now that there's a Shimanto City downstream.   So, that clears that up.
man does technical stuff while woman breaks her back
The sunlight is soft and warm as we reach the town.  After checking out Temple 37 (they do have names of course, but I can't read the characters) we head to the local sports park and camp in the adventure playground.  It rains momentarily in the night and we know the going has finally got good again. The account shows 8 nights of rain in our last 11.  We are due some starry starry nights, aren't we?

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

a cunning plan

"You know why there's always moss in a traditional Japanese Garden?" asks Gayle.
"No. Why?" She is the Expedition Horticulturalist.
"Because it's always bleeding raining."
We are sitting in a mock castle overlooking tennis courts and a baseball field.  Our tent is hanging on a washing line but it's not drying out.  A damp drizzle has replaced the heavy rain of the night that left us a little waterlogged on the golf course in Shikoku.  We've been wanting to camp on a golf course ever since we got to Japan but this is the first time.  However, it's not a normal course.  The holes are rather short and each pin has a string basket.  Before everyone went home to their nice dry houses we had watched some people play what can only be described as "Shuttlecock Golf".  Park games in Japan are Something Else.
this couple were having a picnic lunch at the same place and gave us some fabulous local oranges

The day we left Beppu we met a friendly Canadian teaching English in nearby Oita.  He comes up and chats to us for a while before warning us that it would rain at 3 o'clock.  It is sunnyish, we have to buy food, we have to photograph the gorgeous cherry blossom, we have to look in that bike shop, we have to stop for a choc ice.  And anyway, in the end he turns out be wrong about the rain.  It is 4 o'clock.  We are metres from a michi o neki (road station is easier to spell, but lacks the evokative something or other that these places hold), when the skies open, as they say, and deposit a huge amount of water on our heads.  We seek shelter under the eaves of the toilets.  The road station has failed us.  There's no arbor, no grassy lawn.  Just a shop, a toilet and a carpark.  And a smoking shelter.  But hang on, what's above the smoking zone and vending machines?  A deck, with a roof.  It'll have to do.  We rig up the tent and watch as the rain obliterates everything from view.  Somewhere out there is Shikoku, our next destination.  There are others who stay the night here.  Two couples in camper vans and an old couple in an ordinary van.  During the night a kissing couple climb up 'for the view' and then scurry away giggling when they discover our bikes and tent.

The ferry to Shikoku, the next of Japan's Big Four islands, takes just over an hour and deposits us at the end of a hilly peninsula.  Hilly, I said.  We climb up and down along a road that has been designated a cycling route for tourists.  A sky blue line has been painted down the side of the road.  Other than that, you're on your own to do battle with cars that pass too closely for comfort.  The Japanese cycle a lot in towns and cities, on the pavements.  We occasionally see road cyclists out for a day ride.  But it is obvious that drivers are not accustomed to slow cyclists lumbering about on the road in front of them.  We sometimes take to the footpath, but it is not in very good condition.  The Melody Road turns out to have a feature we really should have guessed but it comes as quite a surprise when the cars driving past us produce a tune.  The same tune.  There are horizontal grooves on the road spaced in such a way that driving over them produces a melodious vibration.  Groovy.  The tune appears to be Move Closer by Phyllis Nelson.  We are very happy to find the sports park where we can stop for the day and camp on the golf course.
tennis anyone?
But the rain.  A family joins us in our mock castle when the drizzle finally stops mid-morning.  We chat.  They leave us their chocolates.  Sorry kids, but the chocolates are great and give us a much needed lift.  We hurtle along all afternoon and the sun is now out and we head inland upstream of a river to the worst tunnel we've ever entered.  It's old and low and badly lit and very very long and the pavement is quite narrow.  And it's busy.  We aren't prepared to find an alternative route and can't see one on our road map in any case.  Out the other end we roll down to Ozu, a very pleasant little town at a junction of rivers with a pretty old castle hidden by a monstrous concrete town hall built right slam in front of it.  Sometimes the Japanese get it very right.  But sometimes they get it very wrong.  We camp by one of the multitude of water channels built to irrigate the surrounding fields and explore a bit more the next day, which is also sunny.  Perhaps we have shaken off the rain? 

Ozu castle from the back side
We decide to cross Shikoku to the south coast following some of the rivers that cut through the mountains.  We notice that for some rivers there are small roads running along the opposite riverbank to the main road.  The plan is a success and we enjoy several days of magical cycling through lovely valleys and tiny villages. 

"Gayle, what are them flowers up there?"
The heavy night rain has brought down much of the cherry blossom, but there are plenty of other flowers blooming now.
"Oooooh, look at those.  What are they?"
The riverside route allows us to climb steadily following the Hijikawa upstream.  We pass a reservoir where construction work is destroying the peace and serenity of the valley. But not for long. Our empty country road winds up a hill for a bit, giving a view back towards Ozu, before plunging back down to the river.

Gayle wobbles a bit and shouts out. She is enjoying the scenery so much she hasn't noticed the snake coiled up on the road and rides right over it.  The villages have a mixture of lovely old houses and new ones of varying architectural worth.  Most are bungalows in the traditional style.  The houses look cluttered and untidy with farming junk and household bits and bobs but there's often a small garden or pots and small trees or bushes with flowers.
"Gayle, I really like those.  Do you know the name for them?
"Azaleas".  Some horticulturalist.
It rains in the night.  We are camped in the playground of a school, in a very narrow side valley.  It's either here or in a small carpark by the river and we can't agree at first where to camp.  It doesn't make any difference.  There's no hiding from the rain.  The next morning we find somewhere to hang the tent out to dry and have breakfast before continuing what turns out to be a really wonderful ride through gorgeous scenery.

We have an easy pass that takes us to another river which will finally lead us out to the sea.  Each day there are one or two road stations where we can buy or cook our lunch.  No convenience stores, only small villages and lots of small-scale farming being done by septuagenarians.  It's unusual to see any young people farming, unless the farm is large.  We stop and camp in a small town for a couple of nights - rain on the first night lasting till about 9 in the morning and convincing us we deserved a rest.  When we finally get the tent dry we nosey over to the tourist information office at the train station to ask about wi-fi.  Without hesitation they give us their office wi-fi password.  And there's electricity and there's a free t-shirt each and a souvenir bag.  We must be looking really rough - I reckon it's the haircut Gayle gave me.  Our camp down by the river is a great spot with good drainage.  This seems important when it rains for the fifth night out of six.  Sod the view, how's the drainage?  At dusk some very large fish are leaping.  At nightfall the trains passing by on the other side of the river light up our tent.  
this house was empty - a rarity

Thursday, 2 April 2015

what's it all about?

Gayle's looking through leaflets in the train station tourist information office. I'm in the concourse watching four businessmen who have just walked in.  Two are holding small suitcases while the other two are carrying small but elegant paper bags - the kind you would be given if you bought fancy perfume.  There then follows what could only be a sketch from Monty Python - the Kow-Tow Off: each pair taking it in turns to bow.  Some words of thanks and the gifts are presented. The receivers bow.  The givers bow.  The receivers bow back. Some words of thanks.  The listeners bow.  The speakers bow back. A slight pause and then words of farewell? The departing bow.  The staying bow back.  The departing bow lower.  The staying bow even lower.  Then one of them throws a dummy, feinting a bow but staying upright at the last moment and everyone is suddenly thrown off rhythmn and chaotic bowing in no particular order ensues, until finally the stayers manage to back away and out the door.  The two guys catching their train take out handkerchiefs and mop the sweat off their brows.  It was a close match but I guess they came out of it without losing any face.

Around the hostel are some small shopping arcades and streets with bars and small shops selling bric a brac, clothing, vinyl records.  The record shop has covers on display of Lee Morgan, Billy Bragg, Freddie Hubbard and The Jam.  It looks like my record collection. But what's missing? Mmmm.  Soul. We half wonder what the nightlife is like in the cities.  But we're not that interested and we don't have the cash anyway to find out.  I guess that's one downside of visiting a country as penny-pinching long-distance cyclists - there are some aspects of Japanese culture that will just pass us by.  The main one is the food - as it's cheaper for us to self-cater.  

At the hostel there's a mix of Japanese travellers of all ages, including a Japanese man so large he just has to be a sumo wrestler.  We chat to a young French couple, Xabi and Ivy, and Gayle asks them why they have come to Japan.   Xabi has been a big fan of manga and wanted to discover the country behind this art form.  Manga is art? Discuss. The hostel is full of books - comic books.  Each convenience store features a man of indeterminate age standing at the magazine counter reading a manga book.  The books are full of women with breasts like balloons and waists that disappear and make us wonder what it's like for young women to grow up in such a world.  The "girly" magazines that are prominently displayed in the convenience stores also seem to feature young girls showing their knickers - creepy. Xabi is thinking through a theory about how the Japanese are trying to perpetuate a state of infantilism. Picure fantasy books are part of this.  But why? What's it all about? (A fortnight after this conversation my sister wrote to us and mentioned going to see an anime from the Ghibli Studio with our nephew, the Tale of Princess Kaguya.  She commented on how their films nearly always feature a little girl as the main character.  I can only assume that she isn't always flashing her knickers. The princess I mean, not my sister.)

Another night we talk to Jorg and Viviana who are on a bigger trip visiting several countries in too short a time.  Jorg wants to know when we have been camping where do we put our rubbish.  I laugh.  This began in Taiwan and is probably a Japanese thing - there are no public litter bins anywhere.  But there is rarely any public litter either.  As we cannot take it home, we tend to use the recycling bins outside convenience stores or next to vending machines.  And what's with the face masks?  We've gotten used to seeing so many people wearing face masks but actually, when you think about it, it's really quite alarming.  I can think of nothing more alienating than not being able to look at someone in the face when I'm talking to them, even if I don't understand their language.  Or especially when I don't understand their language.  All we see are eyes.  Shop staff mainly, but we see people driving around wearing facemasks, postmen, little old ladies riding bikes, kids on their way to school.  I don't want to go all Jack Straw, but it really seems a disurbing aspect of Japanese society.  But for the Japanese it's probably thought of as highly practical and simply effective preventative measure in a crowded country.  If you have a cold and you don't want to infect others, or you don't have a cold and you don't want to catch one, then wear a face mask.  Someone has pointed out that in a country where sick leave from work is frowned upon, and at times when you cannot afford to lose your job, then wearing a facemask is a small price to pay for job security. Unionize!

On the way to the post office we walk past a hairdresser's.  There's one for every 50 people in Japan. In some villages we've seen two hairdresser's and no food shops.  This one is called "L'Oeuf".  It reflects another srtiking trend in Japan for all things French, regardless of what it actually means.  There is also a huge amount of signage in English - the American kind.  We are surprised - it feels slightly less disorientating when you can read shop names on the city streets.  Our favourite is the book chain "Book Off". Très drôle.

did I mention the cherry blossom?

I am posting my passport to the UK to get a new one - it's the quickest and easiest way to renew - because I have only two clean pages left.  I have kept a colour photocopy of my photo page and Japanese immigration stamps. The woman at the post office looks only briefly appalled that I want to post my passport to the UK and then promptly produces an EMS card envelope for me.  It costs £7 and will take four days to arrive.  When I walk out of the post office I feel rather appalled myself.  Am I doing the right thing?