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23. Full Circle

22 Apr

PilgrimsJoining the Club: statues of pilgrims at the final port of call, Temple 88

Having dejunked the excess ear buds, combs, miniature shampoos, punctured innertubes and other paraphernalia I had collected on my journey I had lightened my load and was ready for the final push. I went all-in by booking my night’s accommodation at the Station Hotel in Tokushima to the delight of the squinty proprietor and set off extra early. By all accounts it was going to be a long day.

The first temple was up high on an island to the east of the city centre. My progress was thwarted as soon as I hit the road upwards, as a guard leapt out of his little roadside box to clearly intimate that bicycles were not allowed on the route (which was a toll road). Seriously miffed, I turned the bike back around and followed the little “henro” signs to the walkers’ route.

I had to ditch my bike and become a walking henro as soon as I spotted this ominous roadsign. The steep road upwards became a track up the side of the mountain, and I exchanged pleasantries and smiles with spritely elderly car pilgrims on my way up. I hit the temple not long after it had opened for (monk-y) business, and having a love of the surreal/bizarre, I headed straight for the Badger Shrine. Apparently Kōbō-Daishi, the original 88 Temples pilgrim, got lost in the fog in these parts and met an old chap wearing a straw raincoat who helped him up the mountain. Kōbō-Daishi later realised the old man was in fact not really an old man but actually the God of the “Yashima Tasaburō” Badgers. (Must’ve been really foggy). This badger shrine was built to thank the Badger God for his help all those years ago. Apparently the “Yashima Tasaburō” badger is monogamous, and so the God is known as the patron of peaceful families, marriages… and, er, the restaurant business..? The nearby English sign that I gleaned all this information from also solemnly pointed out that the shrine was popular for “those who wish to have babes”. This sounded rather appealing, so I said a silent prayer to Mr Badger and “set” off again on my journey.

The next temple, Yakuriji, was on a neighbouring mountain to the east; arriving there I discovered it had an embarrassingly short cable car ride to the top. Feeling guilty, but also not wanting another hill climb and being watchful of the time, I took the easy option and grabbed a round trip ticket for the visit. Further round the bay was Shidoji, from where I turned the bike southwards to call in at Nagaoji, Temple Number 87 out of 88 and a place where they definitely needed to water the grass more often.

One more temple to go: it lay deep within the mountains, of course. I took the least painful route but they were all upwards and I eventually had to climb to 600 metres to finally clap my eyes on the last temple of the 88, Ōkuboji, with a certain sense of relief. With the help of asphalt roads and the odd sneaky cable car I had successfully followed in the footsteps of the great monk Kōbō-Daishi. I paused to pat myself on the back and to take in the temple and the other pilgrims wandering around it. Did they feel a similar sense of achievement? Had any of them attained Nirvana along the way? The closest I’d come on my journey was listening to Nirvana.

My celebrations were somewhat premature, as in order to complete the pilgrimage I still needed to cycle back to Temple Number 1 to complete the loop, and the light was fading. Thankfully the journey onwards took a turn for the downward, and an hour later I was leaving the mountains for the final time and had popped out into the flat Awa Valley not far from Kamojima, the deadbeat town in which I had spent my first ever night of the pilgrimage. The familiarity of the territory spurred me on eastwards as I dodged the heavy traffic and willed the distances to Tokushima on the signposts to magically halve.

With the mileage and altitude I had covered today already I was struggling. Some of the Engrish on the passing shops raised a smile now and again, but I felt spent and pissed off as a result. As dusk approached I started to see signs pointing to the first few temples of the journey. I was close. Picking up my speed, I let out a yelp as my ankle gave way; I had strained something in my foot. Adrenaline forced me onwards and finally I pulled up at Temple 1, Ryōzenji.

I waited a while for posterity. There was no welcoming committee. No marching band. No divine revelation. No sudden moment of clarity when my purpose as a miniscule cog in the clockwork of life was abruptly unveiled to me. There was only a crap mannequin wearing ill-fitting temple robes and a slightly wonky conical hat, swaying slightly in the evening breeze. Worse still, I didn’t even feel any personal sense of achievement at completing my loop; I was simply too exhausted. And I still had nearly ten miles to go to get back to Tokushima.

I limped back over the river and into Tokushima’s city centre well after dark. The Station Hotel and its familiar squinty hotel manager were a welcome sight. It was with some satisfaction that I dismantled The Revenge and packed him away in his bag, and then soaked my exhausted limbs in the bath. Although tired, I forced myself out onto the streets to celebrate in the only way that seemed appropriate: a curry at CoCo Ichiban. Spice Level 9.

The following morning I said my farewells to the hotel manager, who promptly presented me with a disposable poncho as it was hissing down outside – such a kind gesture. I checked out and cycled off into the rain to catch the ferry over to the mainland.

Yesterday I had been too tired to expound on the events of the past few weeks, but I had plenty of time on the chugging ferry to reflect on my journey. Whilst being sympathetic to Buddhism, the experience of the pilgrimage hadn’t converted me away from my own home-made “patchwork quilt” philosophy of life, and I hadn’t experienced enlightenment. But what I had experienced was nonetheless affecting. The random acts of kindness, the hardships that I’d faced that came good in the end with a little bit of patience and thought – all those experiences had confirmed and enriched both my faith in human nature and faith in myself.

But most rewarding of all, over the last three weeks I had built an intimate affinity with every corner of a nondescript little island off the coast of Japan – a fondness that will stay with me for the rest of my life.

78 miles

22. Monster Mash

21 Apr

Ushi-OniMutant Squirrel: Statue of the mythical ‘Ushi-Oni’ at Negoroji Temple

Last night I had explored the centre of Takamatsu, which was just a stone’s throw from my coffin-sized room. The place was big enough to have an entertainment district running off a north-south covered corridor which seemingly stretched for miles, and I walked past bars and clubs being advertised by enthusiastic people waving flyers at the passing business suits. The stamina of Japanese people never ceases to amaze me.

They will get up super early to commute to work in a sardine tin, and continue to work throughout – save for perhaps a quick powernap at their desks at lunch – but always showing the required deference and politeness to their superiors and customers all day and often right up until night has fallen, when they will hit the town, briefcases in hand, to smooze with their bosses/colleagues. Where their families fit into this kind of lifestyle – if they have any – is unclear. But my experiences in Japan have led me to the conclusion that they have their work dial set far, far too high. Japanese people are often incredulous when I tell them of my former seven-hour days and four weeks of holiday per year; amongst some Japanese, even taking a single day’s holiday is seen as being disloyal to your company. No wonder there are so many “accidents” on the railway lines running through urban Japan; with precious little opportunity to escape work and let off steam, some simply can’t take the pressure of what is expected of them by society.

Takamatsu’s sole tourist draw was a Japanese garden, which apparently was one of the most famous in Japan. I have to say I wasn’t beating down the gates to see it, so instead I set off mid-morning to call in at the temples I had bypassed on my journey home yesterday. The journey back as far as Zentsuji was uneventful, and I turned The Steed around and ticked off the colourful Dōryūji, Gōshōji, Tennōji and Kokubunji with its bridge/moat combo, bringing my tally of temples so far on this trip to 80.

I felt I needed to squeeze in a couple more temples for the day, so I pedalled slowly into the mountains to the west of Takamatsu to pop into Shiromineji and finally Negoroji, which was the most interesting of the clutch of temples today. Set up in the mountains in a dark forest, the temple had an imposing statue of a strange creature that reminded me somewhat of a mutant squirrel. A nearby sign in Japanese displayed another picture of this beast together with some text. I later learned that the monster was an ushi-oni part of Japanese folklore, and that one such beast was said to terrorise this mountain some four hundred years ago. At least, it used to, until a heroic archer came along and popped an arrow through it. Ever since then the beast had been little more than a wall ornament in Negoroji temple, where its horns are displayed. Not knowing of the story until after my visit, I never noticed the horns, but I am certain that David Attenborough would be very interested indeed in this entirely new species.

My efforts in climbing the mountain rewarded me with a pleasant view of Takamatsu from which I freewheeled down into the western suburbs to be absorbed by the anonymous city once more.

Back at the hotel I had a good sort through my bag, throwing away any unnecessary crap I had accumulated and compacting everything down. Feeling purified, I curtailed any knees-up action tonight, instead choosing an early night, for I had a big day tomorrow. If all went to plan, I’d visit the final six temples of the pilgrimage and my clockwise traversal of the little island of Shikoku would be complete.

44 miles

21. Guiding Hand

20 Apr

Bike Mechanic in ZentsujiCycle Saviour: the English-speaking bike mechanic in Zentsuji

I struck out today for Takamatsu, the prefectural capital of Kagawa and the largest city on Shikoku with nearly 700,000 residents. Takamatsu would be my last port of call before returning to Tokushima, and I was eager to reach it. Whilst I had enjoyed the journey so far, I must admit I was looking forward to it drawing to a close. Rain, exhaustion and soulless business hotels with 1970s soft furnishings had all taken their respective tolls on me, and I was glad the end was just around the corner.

For such a small prefecture Kagawa had more than its fair share of temples. In the morning I skipped briefly eastwards to Daikōji and then headed in a northerly direction to Jinnein, Kanonji (the central temple from which the town I had stayed in the last two days derived its name) and then over to Motoyamaji with its stunning five-level pagoda.

I was making great progress until flying down a hill approaching the temple town of Zentsuji my front tyre blew out and my mood similarly deflated. Whatever I had hit had substantially damaged not only the tube but the tyre as well. Luckily, I travelled with a foldable spare tyre for such occasions. Unluckily, it was currently sitting on my back wheel as a result of hitting the pothole in the dark two days ago; that tyre had been damaged then, too.

Cursing my bad luck in going through two tyres in three days, I kept walking along the route, which I knew led to Zentsuji. There was bound to be a bicycle shop in town; otherwise I was scuppered.

I reached the small town centre and spotted a row of bikes with front-mounted shopping baskets outside a shop (such a bike is affectionately and humourously known as a mamachari, derived from the English words “mummy chariot”, since it’s a popular mode of transport for mums about town). I popped in and to my dismay it was just a retail shop which didn’t do repairs. The owner was a helpful chap, though, and simultaneously spoke and mimed simple directions (thank God I’d learned “left” and “right” in Japanese) to a nearby repair shop.

That exchange had been awkward enough in terms of comprehension, so I wasn’t looking forward to dealing with the bike mechanic as I approached his shop. He was an ever-steady old fellow, who ambled from the back of the shop to meet me.

“Hello! How can I help you?”

I was stunned. Here I was, in a backwater of Shikoku, and I’d only gone and stumbled upon an English-speaking bike mechanic! It was the kind of experience that Buddhist pilgrims might choose to ascribe to the guiding hand of Kōbō-Daishi, the original 88 Temple pilgrim who is said to always travel with you. Personally, I put it down to outrageously good fortune.

The bike mechanic was an interesting chap. He was in fact Chinese, but had come to Japan as a youth and become a naturalised citizen, and apparently had even served in Japan’s Self Defence Force. He had taken up English a few years ago, learning it at nightschool, and he was good at it. Every now and then he would throw a complicated word or construct dredged from his memory into our simple conversation that would make me smile. He insisted on changing the tyre for me, which in between our chats, him putting the tyre on wrong first time(!), people coming into the shop to see what was going on (including two small kids who stared at me constantly and a couple of other elderly residents who seemingly had nothing better to do) and finally the mechanic insisting he made me a massage implement out of a whisky bottle top!, the repair took somewhere in the region of an hour and a half. By this time I was getting a bit restless as I needed to press on with my journey to reach Takamatsu before nightfall. Finally he was all done and I was back on track, waving the kind chap, the kids, the old people, the bike shop owner and pretty much everyone else in the town goodbye as I set off. It was like Trumpton.

I decided to forfeit any more temples for the day and head directly to Takamatsu, which was the priority. I entered the city at about 5pm and by 6 I was lounging in my three-foot square Japanese bath and reflecting on the see-saw change in fortunes I’d experienced today.

45 miles

20. Backtrack

19 Apr

Spooky StatuesBearded Midget: Spooky statues up at Unpenji

I treated myself to a lie-in this morning, owing to my late arrival last night and also having woken up with a whole new array of pains from walking, which indicated that an entirely new set of muscles had been jarred into life. Once I was up and around I repaired my puncture in the stress-free comfort and abundant light of the morning; it was an easy job and I was on my way in no time. Once again I had to backtrack, as in my rush to reach Kanonji I had entirely bypassed a couple of temples to the south. I returned along the same route I had taken last night in the dark, this time at a slower pace, being more vigilant in watching for evil potholes, and eventually broke off the route to pedal up to Sankakuji, temple number 65 and some three hundred metres up in the mountains.

I traced the coastal Sanuki Highway back northwards – the third time I had cycled this stretch of road within twenty four hours – and made my way around to the second and final temple stop of the day, which at over nine hundred metres in altitude was the highest temple of the 88.

Thankfully there was a cable car to the top. On the map, the meandering route upwards looked like an absolute nightmare, and I doff my hat to any foot-powered pilgrim with the willpower to forego the easy option and take the road.

I had just missed a cable car and there was only one more journey to the top today, which meant I was limited to only fifteen minutes up at the temple before the car would come back down again. This would be more than enough for me to get my book stamped and to wander around to take some pictures, but the pilgrims with me would have to hurry their heart mantra.

The cable car took an age, as it carried on for nearly two miles. At the top the sprawling temple complex was packed with stone statues of monks, warriors and other strange creatures, giving it a maze-like quality not unlike Medusa’s labyrinth. I got my book signed, and ambled around – and felt mild panic rising in my chest when I realised I had gone and gotten myself lost; I didn’t know the way back to the cable car, my GPS was dead, and I hadn’t laid out a ball of twine. If I missed the last car I would be in the shit.

I regained composure and finally rediscovered my brain, which told me the cable car would be on the lower side of the mountain, and that I should look for two gurt big wheels and sticking up which would be a dead giveaway. Through a gap in the trees I saw the cable car terminal, and I made a break for it via a lawn and a couple of flowerbeds.

Although I’d left this morning from Kagawa prefecture, and cycled back into Ehime and boarded the cable car, the mountain itself was in Tokushima, the area in which I had started my trip. Being back in Tokushima, albeit fleetingly, underscored how close I was to the end of my journey. The hard work was behind me. I was going to make it.

If I didn’t get lost on the way.

36 miles

19. Chasing the Dark

18 Apr

TempleUntouched beauty: a view of the range of mountains containing Mt Ishizuchi, the tallest mountain in Shikoku

What a beautiful day! It was great news that the weather was on my side, as I had a lot of ground to cover today. Last night I had mused on how to handle the missing page in my nokyocho from turning up at the last temple when it had already closed. On the one hand, it would be nice to have a full set of temple stamps as a reminder of my journey; on the other hand, the journey was what mattered, not the stamps themselves. I had visited the temple and I would complete the loop of Shikoku, and that was the most important thing. Collecting the stamp would mean a thirty mile roundtrip, and at the end of the day, I felt it was simply not worth backtracking for it. I justified this by arguing that I would certainly go back to Shikoku one day, and when I did I would travel to the elusive temple and finally complete my nokyocho.

This morning’s clutch of temples lay to the south west of Saijo. The first was tucked away inside a looming mountain range; the ascent was slow yet manageable and followed a winding path past a huge dam. Almost all of Japan’s rivers are dammed, which is why when you see a river in a town it’s usually a pitiful trickle in a massive stony riverbed. The dam had created a stunning artificial reservoir which I admired as I chugged slowly up towards my goal.

The path veered away from the reservoir and entered the woods, and pretty soon I was up against gradients greater than 10%, which had me out of the saddle and laboriously puffing onwards on foot. Luckily, I had plenty of encouragement from car henros, who slowed to take a look at the foreign madman and offered a cheery “ganbatte!” (good luck/go for it!), or similar salutations of encouragement.

Seven hundred and fifty vertical metres and a few hours later, I arrived at the temple. Amongst the pilgrims was a Canadian chap and his Japanese wife who had just walked up and were now heading back. After some pleasantries, I asked them how long they had been walking for.

“Oh, about three years. We do a bit of the pilgrimage when we can.”

The couple had recommended that after seeing the temple I should walk on past to a viewpoint of the tallest mountain in Shikoku, Mount Ishizuchi. It was another half-kilometre uphill, but it turned out to be worth every step.

A break had been made in the trees offering a window on the jaw-droppingly beautiful Mount Ishizuchi. A Shinto torii gate indicated the place was a shrine. Shinto, the Japanese native religion, and Buddhism, the foreign import, have pretty much melded into one over the years; there’s no contradiction in being followers of both. Shinto teaches that the spiritual essence, or god if you prefer, is in everything: rocks, water, trees – and mountains. Ishizuchi-san was a sacred place, and as I stood there gazing at the beautiful vista, I realised I had, through a chance encounter, stumbled upon a rare taste of what this pilgrimage must’ve been like for the very first pilgrims; away from the roads, convenience stores, bus tours and bicycles, I felt a momentary sense of peace and a one-ness with nature.

Sadly I was jerked back into the 21st century when a chap I had passed on the way up started his JCB and proceeded to haul logs noisily into a truck.

The descent was not as enjoyable as it should’ve been, as I took a wrong turn and ended up backtracking up the mountain for the proper turnoff. I laboured past the lake again, meeting a fellow foreigner on a motorbike called Goran who was out with his girlfriend on a weekend trip up to the lake, and wheeled back into town for a late and slightly snide sushi Japanese bento lunchbox outside a Family Mart store. Whilst I was tucking into my rice a middle-aged bloke approached me and asked me in Japanese where I was from. He asked me if I was a henro; and I said yes, smiling and gesturing towards my bike with the hat hanging over the handlebars.

“Jitensha? Taihen, ne?” Bike? Tough, eh?
“Hai”, I winced, and left him to head into the store.

On the way out, he approached me and handed me a crisp 1000 Yen note as osettai. I was bowled over by his kindness, thanked him profusely and stood to simultaneously wave off and bow to him as he drove off beeping his horn. The people of Shikoku people are a truly wonderful sort.

I still had four temples ahead of me stretched on an east-west line along Route 11, and time was marching on. At one of them I met the first foreign bus-henro I had seen: an American who was living on the mainland and had decided to take a 3-day tour just amongst the temples in Ehime prefecture. He spoke about as much Japanese as I did and so on the bus amongst the Japanese pensioners he felt, as he put it, “like a square peg in a round hole”. Despite that, he was enjoying the whole experience immensely, and we took it in turns to enthuse about the beauty of Shikoku and its kind, gentle folk.

With 5pm approaching, I raced through the rest of the temples, and only just made the last in time to get my nokyocho stamped before the shutters came down. I was still west of where I had started out this morning, and yet had some forty miles to cycle eastwards to the hotel I had booked in the coastal town of Kanonji; things were not looking up. Pain went out the window as I stepped out the fairly level route in top gear, chasing the dark to my destination. On this occasion the dark beat me, closing in as I entered Kagawa prefecture, the fourth, last and smallest of the four areas that made up Shikoku.

I had planned never to cycle in the dark for safety reasons. My pitiful LED gave scant notice of the ever-present drain covers, grilles, bumps, potholes and general shit on the roads, and more importantly there was the worry of the reduced visibility of me as the juggernauts charged up behind me.

Not ten minutes after crafting those very words in my head for this travelogue, my former concerns were realised. I clattered an unseen deep pothole on the hard shoulder and The Revenge let out a sigh to indicate he’d had enough quite enough frankly. Within seconds my back tyre was flat.

I was still six miles from my goal, on a dark and lonely road. I had all the stuff to fix the tyre, but it would take time, and would be troublesome in the dark. I was cold, hungry and just wanted to get home. I walked to the next town, which had a train station, but I had just missed a train and the next wasn’t for another hour, so I consigned myself to stepping out the remaining miles to my hotel on foot.

I don’t know if the Buddhist mentality had rubbed off on me, or whether I was just too tired to care, but after a few initial obscenities into the dark I soon found I wasn’t at all concerned or upset about my situation. What had happened had happened, and I would get home soon as long as I kept on walking and following my GPS.

I finally reached Kanonji via an infinitely long row of vending machines in a layby outside the town, found my hotel and checked in, running a hot bath immediately and soaking my aching, cold limbs. It was now almost twelve hours since I had set off. Foruitously, opposite my hotel was an all-night chain restaurant called “Joyfull” which had an expansive picture menu, so I treated myself to a midnight snack of pizza and cheesy chips, Japanese-style. No matter what was thrown at me, things had a habit of working out in the end.

63 miles

18. Temple Down

17 Apr

Mini Garage, MatsuyamaSelf Preservation Society: Classic Mini Garage in Matsuyama

It was raining again, albeit only drizzle. What was more alarming was the sudden drop in temperature; it was absolutely baltic and more like a day in February than mid-April. Nevertheless, I pushed on northwards from JR Matsuyama station, passing a garage in Kinuyama selling old minis (they are incredibly popular cars here and I see them almost daily, far more frequently than back in Britain), calling in at two temples in the northern suburbs of Matsuyama, and then pointing my bike towards the coast to pass through grey seaside towns with rocky, volcanic sand beaches and the ever-present ugly concrete tetrapods.

I then cut inland on a flat route and reached Imabari after lunch, a town which had a clutch of temples spread throughout its limits. The signs were crap, which meant plenty of start-stop action and wasted time as I pulled out my broken GPS to constantly check the way. The rain grew heavier, making my cheapo calliper brakes increasingly ineffective.

The lady at one of the temples spoke English – not something I had encountered so far – and I had a good moan about the weather to her. She tried to soft-sell me accommodation at one of the temples, implying my destination for today of Saijo City was too far to reach, but whilst shukubo temple lodgings would certainly be a good experience, I had a reservation locked in – and I took her dismissal of reaching Saijo today as a challenge. I would get there.

The second-to-last temple on my list for today, Senyūji, was up in the mountains, and with sodden feet and freezing thighs that refused to power The Revenge I gave my frustrations an outlet by shouting obscenities at the top of my voice which echoed pleasingly around the deserted mountain turns. After such a great start, with the pitiful weather of late this pilgrimage was rapidly becoming more of a chore than a pleasure, but it certainly made it no less of a challenge.

When I finally reached the temple via a long flight of steps it was enveloped in cloud. The ethereal atmosphere calmed and focused me, and I enjoyed the descent, despite the driving rain blinding me and completely soaking the trousers I had changed into to protect my frozen legs.

I had one more temple stop for the day, and thanks to the farting about in Imabari and the struggle of the ascent to the previous temple I reached it twenty minutes too late. The nokyocho office had shut up shop; it would be the first temple of the journey so far at which I wouldn’t be able to have my book signed. Whilst it was an annoyance, I didn’t have time to labour on the consequences for tomorrow, as it was now 5:30pm and I still had a long way to go around the bay to my destination of Saijo. I was possessed with a drive I can’t remember ever having before in the saddle, and I stepped out the remaining fifteen miles at top speed, racing the dark home with my mind swimming of thoughts of hot baths, cold beers and an air-conditioning unit on full blast heat to dry my sodden clothes. One of the core tenets of Buddhist is the acceptance of desires as being the cause of suffering; the Buddhist way is to eliminate desires through meditation, hence freeing yourself of suffering with the hope of achieving enlightenment. However, my desires for a hot bath and dry clothes were the very reason I was driving on and putting my suffering of the cold, heavy rain and aches to the back of my mind. I wouldn’t make a very good Buddhist.

I beat the dark and pulled into Saijo at dusk. The hotel – a Route Inn chain affair – was recently refurbished and a real treat. Although I didn’t feel particularly hungry, I chipped out onto the deadbeat streets to discover a Chinese restaurant in expectation of ordering the usual fare of noodles and dumplings, but instead was presented with a picture menu, the equivalent of gold dust to the hungry foreign traveller in Japan, so the most useful phrase of all taught to me by my Japanese friend from home before my first ever trip – “this, please!” – was rolled out and I ordered a massive set meal of sweet and sour chicken and seafood, rice, fried chicken and dumplings in soup. The oka-san looked at me cock-eyed when I ordered, as if to say “you’re going to eat all that?”, and I surprised even myself when I cleared the tray. That’s one of the beauties of cycle touring: you can eat as much food as you like and you still end up losing weight at the end of the trip.

Once again, things had worked out. I was further along the trail, I had a full stomach, was warm, dry and I was prepared for whatever the next day would throw at me.

54 miles

17. End in Sight

16 Apr

TempleGates of Wrath: Entrance to Jōdoji on the outskirts of Matsuyama

The previous day’s climb had exhausted me, so I decided to treat myself to what was essentially a rest day, heading out late morning to visit Jōruriji and Yasakaji, the two temples I had bypassed located at the foot of the mountain I had tackled yesterday.

I then looped back north to take in three more temples, and continued onwards to the more centrally-located Temple 51, Ishiteji, with its three-storey pagoda. Ishiteji was only half a mile away from the most famous (and oldest) natural hot spring bathhouse in Japan, Dogo Onsen, so I cycled over to take a look. The building is often claimed to be the inspiration for the bathhouse in the popular Japanese animated film Spirited Away, but then again I’ve also visited a building in Shima on the mainland that claims the very same, so I’m not sure what to believe. Regardless, it is a beautiful sight – although on this occasion I chose not to partake in a dip in the baths, preferring my own shoebox-sized bath in my hotel room over the stare-fest that usually occurs when a Westerner sets foot in an onsen.

From Dogo Onsen it was a short hop through the city centre back to my hotel near the train station. Matsuyama had more charm than the average Japanese city, in part thanks to the trams that rattled around the streets. Once or twice a day a silly little steam train ran on the tram tracks, tooting its way along and usually waking me up in the morning as a result, leading me to thoughts of sabotage to allow me to sleep past eight o’clock at least once.

Being back in an urban metropolis meant I could further my secondary mission – that of reaching Curry Nirvana – so in the evening I ambled along to the CoCo Ichiban chain restaurant for a Spice Level 7 curry, dispatched with ease (and a litre of water).

Until today I had never been able to visualise an end in sight to my journey, but planning tomorrow’s route in the curry restaurant I realised for the first time I was very close to finishing. Although I was only a little over halfway in terms of temples visited, if all went to plan within two days I would be in the fourth and final prefecture, Kagawa, and it was only a few days more cycling from there to retrace my steps back to Temple 1 where this pedal-powered journey of the Crazy 88 started a long two weeks ago.

18 miles

16. Into the Mountains

15 Apr

View of MatsuyamaWorth the effort: the sprawling city of Matsuyama viewed
from a mountain outside of the city

In my haste to reach civilisation in Matsuyama I had surreptitiously pedalled past a mountain range in which the next two temples on the route were nestled, which meant that today my job was to track back south eastwards to mop them up. It didn’t look all that far on the map, although the meandering route indicated that some uphill cycling was involved.

I navigated my way through Matsuyama’s suburbs which gradually rose upwards to become a humungous mountain climb, which went on, and on… and on. I hadn’t paid enough attention to the terrain on the map and was surprised to encounter such a challenge. I crawled upwards around the bends, stopping at regular intervals but never succumbing to getting off and pushing.

It took what seemed like all morning to get up to the top; luckily my GPS was busy recording the effort and the elevation profile shows the intensity of the climb – I gained some 600 metres in altitude over seven miles or so. It was worth it; the top uncovered a beautiful remote valley of fields and mountains with a scattering of lovely houses like some kind of Lost World, the image of which was shattered somewhat when I cycled past a massive hybrid DIY/Supermarket store. Not to miss a trick, I popped inside and purchased a large tray of sushi and ate it on a bench outside.

Getting to the 44th temple – a landmark destination, as it meant I was halfway through the trip in temple terms – took an age as well, with the road being a quiet but undulating path through the mountains. I finally arrived and snapped a pic of Temple 44, getting straight back on the bike to the next destination.

Temple 45 – Iwayaji – was just as much of a bugger to reach; my legs were really struggling, and the clock was ticking, as it was already late afternoon. When I finally pulled up at the temple entrance, I was crestfallen to discover that it was located some two hundred metres up from the road up via an endless flight of stone steps reaching up the mountain. Cursing, I ran up the steps past elderly bus/car pilgrims who appeared to coo to each other about my enthusiasm/haste to reach the temple, which seemed to be carved in part into the rockface (the mountain is in fact just as spiritual as the temple itself). I got my nokyocho signed and hurtled back down the steps to start the long journey home.

The light was fading as I tore back through the Valley of the Lost World back towards Matsuyama, and my back was searing with pain. Finally I reached the Misaka Pass and started the descent back down into the city. For seven miles I freewheeled down the mountain without pedalling once; when I finally levelled out, I was freezing from the cold wind whistling and my hands were completely numb. I picked my way back through the suburbs as dusk enveloped the city, utterly bypassing the two temples I had planned to mop up on the way back, as I was too exhausted and they were long closed anyway, not wanting to do anything but return home for a hot bath, a meal and a long sleep.

53 miles

15. Raw Deal

14 Apr

Chicken SashimiPoultry selection: uncooked chicken bits on the menu

I’d caught the weather on the telly last night and saw that it was going to be dry – hooray! I set out early to dispatch Ryūkōji and Butsumokuji temples, due north of Uwajima, and then turned west to rally downhill to meet route 56 once again, pausing to catch a glimpse of the coast.

Five miles up the road was my final temple stop of the day, Meisekiji, some three hundred metres up from the valley. I puffed up the steps and found a kind-faced old chap peering at me with a sort of puzzled awe.

With my non-existent Japanese and his non-existent English, communication was a struggle, but it was clear he was pleased to meet me. I established that I was from England, and he said something in Japanese about “Ruski”. From that, I assumed he was either born in Russia, had spent some time in Russia or could speak Russian. I tried to dredge up some Russian from the depths of my travel memory but could only find “do you speak English?” – of no use, as it was evident he didn’t – and “thank you”, which I trotted out regardless. From his pottering around I got the impression he worked at the temple, although he didn’t look much like a monk. He was unquestionably of advancing years, demonstrated by his shuffling actions, and it crossed my mind that his experience in Russia might have something to do with the war, yet it that didn’t add up as he had such a bright and incredibly youthful appearance (a common trait with Japanese people, who frequently look 5-10 years younger than a Westerner of the same age).

Gesturing towards the water bottle I had been clutching, he beckoned me to follow him along the path. He lifted the cover off a nearby well and scooped up a ladle of icy cold mountain springwater intended for my bottle, encouraging me to fill it to the brim. I thanked him profusely, only being able to offer up a trite “oishii” (delicious) in appreciation on tasting the water, and shook his hand many times as I said my goodbyes and set on my way again, warmed by a meeting with such a friendly, welcoming person and yet frustrated by my lack of language skills that I could not converse with him more and learn more about him.

I had a long way to go to reach Matsuyama and it was hard going. The terrain was pretty hilly and the route had a number of half a mile to a mile-long tunnels that were utterly terrifying to traverse as a cyclist. With twenty miles to go my lower back was stabbing with pain as I continued my inexorably slow and steady climb upwards; I thought it would never end, until at last I reached the mountain pass and enjoyed a long freewheeling descent down into the valley in which the sprawling city of Matsuyama was nestled.

I’d been on a day trip to Matsuyama with some friends back in 2005, and as soon as I reached the train station area, at which I had booked a cheapo hotel, the place became familiar. What had struck me back then was the grid-like streets with countless traffic lights stretching into the distance, and Matsuyama still had them. However much I enjoy exploring new places, it was comforting to be based back somewhere familiar for a few days, especially in one that was firmly on the tourist map in terms of restaurant recommendations.

An entry in my travel guide for Matsuyama had caught my eye. The Kushihide Tori-ryōri-honten – a (delicious) mouthful of a restaurant – specialised in chicken dishes, particularly tori sashimi (raw chicken). During my time in Japan I had eaten a lot of raw meat, but it was almost exclusively things that lived in the water, from salmon and tuna to the more exotic squid guts and sea cucumber. I’d seen raw horse meat on the menu, but never felt the urge to have a plate of Mr Ed yet. At this particular restaurant, the thing to have was a platter of raw chicken.

The staff were friendly chaps and seemed accustomed to foreigners; being listed in the Lonely Planet has that effect, as the great unwashed descend on your establishment. I ordered tori sashimi easy enough along with a beer, and sat back and wondered what I had let myself in for.

Ten minutes later, a platter of raw chicken was laid out in front of me, and the waiter kindly talked me through what was on the plate using simple English and gesturing to various parts of his body for reinforcement.

“This raw chicken breast. This… leg. This chicken liver. Here chicken skin and rib. This [indicating the orange splodge] … I don’t know what.”

I hoped he meant that he didn’t know the English word for the orange splodge, and not that he genuinely didn’t know what part of the chicken it was.

I thanked the chap and gingerly dabbed a big wodge of wasabi on the first piece of chicken breast to mask the fact I was about to eat it raw, something that was generally reviled in my culture purely because of the nasty diseases raw chicken can harbour, such as salmonella. I put my faith in the chef and tucked in. Delicious is not the word, but it was palatable, and certainly an experience! If you’re wondering what it tastes like, well… it tastes like you would expect raw chicken to taste like. Unlike fish, I definitely prefer my chicken cooked.

The platter was not particularly filling, and now I was in a situation whereby I had a Japanese menu and no way to know what to order. Since I was sat at the counter in front of the kitchen, I waited until the chap had just finished serving up a small plate of fried chicken and cunningly whipped out my Japanese for “one of those please”; he duly set to work serving up another plate for me, which was beautiful. I did the same with an incredibly unhealthy bacon salad too, and then satisfied for the evening, I paid up and waddled home, hoping I wouldn’t wake up suddenly in the night and run to the loo.

57 miles

14. Quirky Japan

13 Apr

Japanese CombOnly in Japan: a comb with job satisfaction

I awoke yet again to the dreaded pitter-patter of Sukumo rain, and my heart sank.  Still, on the bright side I was leaving this arsehole of a city today, never to return. I allowed myself a slow, late start, given that my goal today – northwards to the town of Uwajima – was a breeze compared to yesterday’s efforts, whilst also secretly hoping that the rain might subside.  No such luck.

I couldn’t escape quite yet, though, as I needed to travel eastwards a few miles to mop up temple number 39. On the way I passed the foreign henros again, although looking a little less cheery than yesterday, being as they were wrapped up in wet weather gear and brandishing umbrellas. Poor buggers.

Finally I was able to point the steed out of Sukumo once and for all and set off north-westwards. After not long at all I was greeted with a most welcome sign outside a tunnel that indicated I was entering the third of Shikoku’s four prefectures, Ehime. And no word of a lie: when I emerged out of the other side of the long tunnel, the persistent rain had dried up.

With rainy Kochi behind me, I pressed on along the Sukumo Highway. Twelve days in to my journey, I was pleased to discover that my legs were not the limiting factor any more when cycling; as long as I kept eating like a horse, they kept powering on.  The problem was more being saddlesore and suffering from lower back pain from the seven hours or so a day in the saddle.

I took in Temple 40, and then broke out onto the coastal road for some steady cycling northwards, stopping mid-afternoon at a rest stop especially for pilgrims. I took in water and some snacks and watched the elderly workers ambling about and tending to the gardens.

Turning inland for the final stint, I arrived at my destination of Uwajima at four o’clock. Uwajima would be just another nondescript Shikoku town if it were not for the Taga Shrine, an ancient Shinto fertility site that also houses a sex museum as well as its star exhibit, an ornate nine foot-long phallus that gets carted around the streets on special occasions and is a real draw for foreign and domestic tourists alike. I had neither the time or inclination to visit the Shrine, preferring to get my fix of Japan’s quirkiness in more everyday ways, such as checking in to my concrete business hotel to find a deferential comb in the bathroom emblazoned with the beautifully comical words: “Thank you for using me. It is my pleasure to serve you. I hope to be used by you again”. A disposable inanimate object with a personality? Only in Japan!

Later that evening I swung by the Lawson convenience store to stock up on supplies and popped into a ramen restaurant run by an inquisitive couple for a bowl of noodles and another trademark awkward-but-friendly exchange by way of single Japanese keywords and expansive mimes. Uwajima was dark, cold and deserted, and yet again I was craving a more populous city; luckily Matsuyama, the prefectural capital city of Ehime and a place familiar to me as I had visited it back in 2005, was within striking distance tomorrow.

38 miles