4. Insurmountainable

3 Apr

Old meets new: vending machine “disguised” at one of the 88 temples

Yesterday had been incredibly balmy in comparison to the chilly Kansai winds that had frozen me to the bone just days before on the mainland.  It had threatened to rain on occasion, but thankfully never materialised whilst I was in the saddle.  It seemed the clouds had been saving themselves up for night-time, as I awoke to a “scenic parking lot view” of puddles.

I was on the road by 7:45am to backtrack the few miles northwards to Temple No. 10, which I had forfeited yesterday.  The wind had whipped up again and my comedy hat, which was slung around my neck, lifted like a kite, threatening to choke me in the process.

I was dismayed to find the temple located halfway up a hill, followed by a number of flights of steps the rest of the way.  The views at the top were misty and overcast.  With some concern I gazed at the huge crop of mountains on the far side of the valley, all too aware that my next temple lay nestled deep amongst them, some eight hundred metres up.


It was said to be the toughest climb of the whole trail, but it started out leisurely enough.  Slowly but surely I pedalled my way through a bamboo forest to a vantage point above the valley, working my way clean through my drink supply with the exertion.  Luckily, the good thing about Japan is that you’re never far away from a vending machine, even if you’re halfway up a mountain, and so at a lay-by I rested and devilishly broke my self-enforced caffeine ban by selecting a sugary full-fat coke from the nearby machine.  What fell out, however, was the sugar-free diet variety, Coke Zero, to my bitter disappointment.  Perhaps it was karma?  Either that or sneaky marketing.  They probably can’t shift that hideous diet stuff without employing deceptive methods anyway.

As I was finishing off my drink with a grimace, an old lady shuffled up to me with a smile.

“Samui, ne?” – cold, isn’t it? – she beamed, indicating to somewhere on the lower half of my body which I hoped was my bare legs.  She went on to ask me where I was from, and I dredged up stuccato Japanese to indicate I was an Englishman travelling as a henro on the 88 temples route.  Short of asking her for a draft beer, my Japanese well had run dry, and so she toddled off to her husband’s car and I saddled up to leave.

As I hit the road, I noticed her car reversing towards me at some speed.  Preparing myself for an evasive manoeuvre, it luckily jerked to a halt in front of me and the lady jumped out brandishing an orange.

“Osettai!” she grinned.

I thanked her profusely as I accepted her citrus-based offering.  It was my first such pilgrim gift I had received so far, and it lifted my spirits for the forthcoming climb.

The mountain soon reached its muscle-burning peak, and I started to descend, which I was in two minds about.  On the one hand it was easy miles behind me; on the other, I would rather have banked the altitude I had gained rather than having to climb it all again, for there was an even bigger ascent around the corner and I was already whacked.

I met up with my two new grinning pensioner friends at the next rest stop, a small village.  I brandished my orange theatrically, thanking them again and tucking into it on a bench under some cherry blossom trees, then set off for the hard part.

If I could grade the climb, I would give it an A/B, short for Absolute Bastard.  The steep, winding road, seemingly never ending, quickly defeated me and I was reduced to pushing the bike around hairpin turns and up crazy gradients.  The temperature had dropped markedly and I was shattered.  Cold, hungry, tired, and on a desolate forest road devoid of cars miles and miles from home, things were not looking up.

After what seemed an eternity I finally reached the nirvana of Shōsanji, barely managing a weak smile at the fresh and nimble car pilgrims emerging from their toasty warm vehicles.  I was a broken man who desperately needed food. Luckily the remote temple ran a small cafe serving up small bowls of udon noodles, one of the food specialities of Shikoku.  I wolfed down two of them in quick succession, huddled around a gas heater with three other equally exhausted Japanese walking pilgrims: two in the familiar white robes and a third in what appeared to be monk’s robes.  As I started to thaw and the food brought strength back to my hollow legs, suddenly my lot didn’t seem so bad.  These poor buggers had to trudge down the mountain again; at least I could freewheel down to the bottom.

I still had some way to go to return to Tokushima.  It was getting late and I only managed to squeeze in two of the five temples I had earmarked for the return leg; by the time I had reached the third, the monk who autographs the books had buggered off for the day to shave his head or something.  Fuelled by Oreo cookies, I pressed on for Tokushima through undulating scenery of small climbs and gentle descents, finally reaching the welcome sight of the Station Hotel over ten hours after I had left my previous accommodation.

I passed out on the bed for an hour, exhausted, then went through my 21st century pilgrim ritual.  Run hot bath.  Wash cycle kit.  Recharge GPS.  Eat food.  Drink celebratory beer.  Sleep.

Today had been a real challenge after the relative ease of yesterday – but then again, it was exactly the kind of day that this journey is about: experiencing hardship and then feeling the glow of accomplishment when you come through the other side.

Whilst I will not achieve the pilgrim’s goal of “enlightenment” on this journey – other than in the physical sense of shedding some weight – I have a feeling it will nonetheless affect me in other ways.  Already after today I feel I have gained a greater appreciation for things I otherwise take for granted.

60 miles

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