11. Crash Course

10 Apr

Gathering storm: mist-shrouded mountains on the journey out of Kōchi

Inspired by my headway around Cape Muroto a few days ago, I decided to plan a mammoth trip today all the way down to a place called Sukumo in the south west of Kōchi province at which I had booked a hotel for a couple of nights.  It was a long way to go, but I was confident I could reach it if I left early.

Only the previous day I had been reflecting on how blessed I had been with the weather, and so it was a great shock to me to wake up to heavy rain.  I watched it hammer the courtyard of the hotel as I packed away another huge Best Western breakfast, hoping it would subside, but after my third plate of goodies it was still raining hard, so I set off in my cycling gear and waterproof jacket on my journey westwards.

Within a mere five minutes of leaving I was utterly soaked.  The rain was heavy, cold and unrelenting.  My canvas shoes were waterlogged, dripping like two cold taps on my feet, and my stiff legs refused to warm up, so the going was slow – much slower than I would’ve hoped for the distance I had to travel.

An hour or so into my trip I stopped at a McDonald’s to wring out my soaking rain cover of my backpack, warm up with a cheeky coffee and consider my options.  I had no choice but to press on.  My worry was not so much being soaked, which I had grown accustomed to, but was rather the possibility of heavy rain leaking through my backpack onto my precious laptop.  I had already all but destroyed my previous laptop in India when it got soaked with monsoon rain over a period of just a couple of hours, and so to repeat that feat would not be particularly clever.  Luckily, it was snug and dry inside a waterproof section of my clothing pack and protected by a buttress of socks, but I had doubts as it whether it would remain protected for the seven hours of cycling I had ahead of me.

Looking thoroughly miserable as I created my own personal puddle around me, a fellow McCustomer must’ve taken pity on me, as she approached me.  Introducing herself in Japanese, she asked if I was a Henro.  I said yes, and pointed to my bike outside on which was perched my conical sugegasa pilgrim hat.  She promptly dug into her handbag and presented me with osettai gift of a bank envelope.  Through the thin paper I could see a crisp 1000 Yen note.  I was thrilled, and could have hugged her for her kind gesture.  It cheered me up as I plodded on in a south-westerly direction towards my destination.

The road was an utter bitch as it climbed high into the mountains.  Soon the clouds were all around and visibility dropped rapidly.  Exhausted, and freezing with the much lower temperatures at this altitude, I finally reached the Nanako pass which meant I could freewheel down the other side; the descent was treacherous with poor brakes and rain in my eyes.  Approaching Kubokawa, my one and only temple stop of the day, I saw a covered petrol station overhead and decided to freewheel into it to dry off and take stock of the route.

Coming into the gas station at quite some speed, at the very last second I saw that it had a thin, deep rectanglar groove all around it which was flooded with water and hence had made it hard to spot, especially with the rain in my face causing me to squint.  I was coming in at just the right speed and angle for my front wheel to lodge in the groove, twisting my bike sideways and sending it to ground.  Meanwhile, the laws of physics ensured that I kept travelling through the air at the same rapid rate I had entered the station at, performing a somersault mid-air and landing heavily on my hip.

The gas station attendant came rushing out at my spectacular crash.

“Daijobu, daijobu,” I said – “It’s OK, it’s OK” – but I wasn’t.  My hip, leg and foot were all crying out in pain.

Fortunately, something had taken the brunt of the impact and my hip was only grazed.  Unfortunately, it was my trusty GPS.

Embarrassingly, I felt like crying.  I was wet, cold, tired and not even halfway to my destination.  The rain had been heavy and constant for the last four hours.  I spotted a service station opposite and retired there to take my time over a tonkatsu meal, to dry out and to recover from the shock of my accident.  I was halfway through my meal before I spotted my left ankle was pouring with blood.

Kōchi prefecture is known to henro as the “testing ground” of the pilgrimage, due to its harsh conditions, long stretches through remote areas and intolerable weather.  As I sat with a coffee hoping the teeming rain might stop for just one second, I realised it had claimed another victim.  Given my injuries and the weather, I had no chance of making my destination today by pedal power alone.

I was about 5 minutes from Kubokawa, the location of my one and only temple for today, but most importantly the tiny town was on the railway line which ran all the way through to Sukumo down in deepest, darkest Kōchi.  There and then I hatched a plan to limp to the station, pack my bike away into its bag and jump on the next train.

Acquiring a ticket was an ordeal (in terms of language difficulties) that I really didn’t need, but I managed to mime and pigeon-talk my way to a ticket, and within half an hour I was chugging slowly through the arse-end of Shikoku towards my evening destination.

Sukumo was the end of the line, and boy, it looked like it.  It was a Japanese wild west town, with plenty of empty land between buildings and a half-finished – or rather, half-abandoned – feel about the place.  I tracked down my hotel and had the best bath in the world ever, cleaning my oil-soaked wounds and feeling a million times better than I had felt a few hours before.

The restaurant opposite the hotel I had eyed-up on arrival now appeared to be closed – it was 9pm on a Friday night – and the streets were deserted.  It was still raining, and had been all day.  I trudged the eerie dark streets and finally chanced upon a restaurant run by two middle aged women.  I couldn’t understand the menu, but I figured they would have udon, and moments later I was served up with a steaming bowl of noodles and a bottle of Asahi beer, which I devoured in no time at all.  As I paid up and left, the kind proprietors stuffed a wodge of toffee sweets into my hand as osettai for my journey.

I’d been well and truly tested today, and although I had been temporarily beaten in terms of my goal for the day, I was more determined than ever to complete my unassisted loop of the island.  Come rain or come shine, first thing tomorrow I would be on a train straight back to Kubokawa to undertake the same journey I had taken by train today – but this time, by bike.

45 miles

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