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


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