6. Naka’d

5 Apr

Shikoku’s Secret: the beautiful Naka Valley

It was time to leave the comforting base of Tokushima city and get some mileage south under my belt.  It was a gorgeous warm and sunny day and I made good headway on the main road out of Tokushima, powering my way down past the city of Komatsushima where I filled up with a bowl of udon noodles to keep me ticking over.

I stopped off at two temples south of Komatsushima, both of which were buzzing with day trippers with whom I exchanged a few smiles and niceties.  One middle-aged chap visiting with his doubled-over parents and more spritely daughter spoke some English, and I explained to him I was a “GPS Henro”, which seemed to tickle him and his daughter, although there were blank looks from his folks as he translated, so I showed them my phone with its map.  They made all the right noises, bless them, but I suspected they couldn’t make out the tiny screen.

Further south I hit the Naka River, which I had planned to follow on account of rivers generally being flat.  What a gem!  The river was a beautiful milky turquoise colour and was flanked by dense, luscious forests on either side.  Occasionally a few houses cropped up, next to rows of huge greenhouses packed with growing greenery.  This place wasn’t in the tourist brochures.

Temple 20, Kakurinji, was some five hundred metres uphill from the river.  I struggled with the climb but made it to the final turnoff with very little time out of the saddle.  From then on I was defeated by the ridiculous 10-15% hairpin gradients, having to trudge up on foot instead.

Freewheeling back down to the river, I followed its meandering course until I finally reached my destination, the tiny town of Naka.  I was an hour early for check-in, so I headed over the bridge into town to visit one of the unsung temples of this pilgrimage: the Lawson’s convenience store.

The convenience stores of Japan have been my lifeline on this trip so far.  Where there is civilisation, there will be a Lawson’s, Sunkus or Family Mart – or sometimes all three within a block of each other.  They sell everything a weary pilgrim needs, from isotonic drinks such as the unappetisingly-named Pocari Sweat to filling Bento lunchboxes, not to mention the slice of heaven that is the Banana-flavoured Kit Kat Chunky.  I cleared out many a convenience store shelf of the latter.

Next to the Lawson’s – which seemed to be the only hive of activity in what was otherwise a deadbeat town – there was a small cafe promising coffee, so I popped inside to kill the remaining time before check-in.  The proprietors were lovely and tried to chat to me constantly in Japanese, which led to a torrent of apologies from myself when I owned up that my Japanese was non-existent and I couldn’t understand them.  They were undeterred, and kept plugging away in Japanese, much to my embarrassment, but I managed to catch the odd word here and there.  They presented me with a banana to accompany my, er, coffee, and also a bookmark for my nokyocho with a picture of Buddha reaching nirvana on it (and I suspected by the Japanese characters and telephone number, an advert for their restaurant on the back).  They were very kind and patient people and I thanked them profusely for their gifts as I bowed my way out of the door to head back over the bridge to my accommodation.

I’d booked a simple Japanese-style room just next to the cable car which headed up to Temple 21.  A waxy, shifty looking chap greeted me at reception, who summoned a teenage boy to speak English to me.  There was no point though, as I rattled on in my pigeon Japanese hotel speak, and he seemingly couldn’t dredge up any English words from his memory – or perhaps he was too shy to do so.

I settled into my minimal room and looked out the window as dusk approached, fascinated by the sight of dozens of birds of prey wheeling around the car park outside, letting out piercing cries.  After dark I decided to venture for a little walk back into Naka.  The place was absolutely devoid of human life, but the wildlife was out in force.  As I crossed the bridge into town, the skies were filled with the high-pitched squeaks of dozens of bats flitting around and picking off the moths attracted by the streetlamps.

It was barely eight o’clock and everything except the Lawson appeared to be barricaded shut.  Luckily I spotted a ramen restaurant opposite emitting a dim glow, and I spent an hour in there fuelling up on noodles and beer – until I was kicked out at closing time.

Nine o’clock.

I had little choice but to return to my accommodation for an early night.  Heading back over the bridge, I noticed a group of fisherman carrying nets and wearing powerful headtorches were wading into the river to fish, and I stopped to watch them for a while.  Their audience was soon doubled as a huge heron swooped down to the riverbank and perched on a rock to watch with professional interest.

Naka was a great place to visit.  But I couldn’t wait to leave.

45 miles

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