7. Tunnel Vision

6 Apr

Remote viewing: Tairyūji, perched on a remote mountain

I rose from my cosy futon at 6:30am to be up and out for the very first cable car of the day heading up Mount Tairyūji.  The guy on the turnstile very kindly explained via the mystical art of mime that being a cyclist I could just buy a one-way ticket, take my bike up with me and then freewheel back down the far side of the mountain, so I boarded along with three other early-riser pilgrims and the guide and we lurched up the forested mountainside some 800 metres in altitude to the remote temple.

I parked up The Revenge, locking him up out of habit even though there were only a handful of people up on the peak, none of whom would’ve walked off with my bicycle in a million years, and took my time to explore the temple complex, appreciating the peaceful, fresh morning and the dearth of ambling pilgrim crowds.

The path back downwards was less than peaceful, being a juddering gravel mountain road not particularly suited to a suspensionless road bike, though seeing the winding route with its ferocious gradients made me feel a lot less guilty about “cheating” by taking the cable car.  It would’ve taken me a full day to get up there by leg power alone.

I breakfasted in a self-service udon noodles restaurant in the next town along, which nevertheless still involved a lot of pointing and smiling as I’d forgotten the words for “small”, “medium” and “large”.  You can’t go any distance in Shikoku without chancing upon an udon restaurant; the place is famous for its varieties of the thick noodle.  It’s perfect cycling food, especially with an egg cracked on top.

I breezed through a few little nondescript towns, including one with a superbly misspelled wedding chapel, and finally hit the national Route 55 highway which would take me all the way to my evening stopover.  I quickly discovered highways were a mixed blessing.  On the one hand they were well-maintained, direct, mainly flat and though fairly busy with traffic, the cars were slow moving and generally respectful to me as a cyclist, giving me plenty of room.  On the other hand, the flatness through the mountainous Shikoku mountainside meant one thing: tunnels.

Passing through tunnels was nothing short of pants-filling.  Frequently there was either a hopelessly narrow (or even complete lack of) pavement to pull onto, leaving you to dice with death tucked into the kerb in the poorly-lit tunnel, hoping that the cars and trucks bearing down on you – their engines horrifically amplified to screams in the confined space – would pick you out from the gloom and not pile into the back of you.  Although before every tunnel there were prominent warnings to take care as both henro walkers and cyclists would be using the tunnels, as well as instructions that every vehicle should switch on their headlights, very few vehicles actually stuck to the latter advice.  My whole body would tense up as I braced myself for a possible collision every time I heard a truck bear down on me, and I wouldn’t relax until I passed into the daylight again.

I took a mid-morning stop at a Lawson’s to fill up with convenience store sushi, and took a pew outside on the tables and chairs next to an old Japanese chap who was finishing off some ramen noodles accompanied with a plastic beaker of sake.  At 10:30am in the morning, no less.

He was a friendly chap who seemed eager to chat even though I immediately admitted no Japanese ability at all.  He patiently explained in pigeon Japanese with the odd mime that he came from Hokkaido originally, and was a farmer, but had moved down to Kochi prefecture.  Presumably to do more than drink sake outside convenience stores, but I never found out exactly what.

He wished me good luck – “ganbatte!” – as I took off on Route 55 once again, and soon I finally popped out at Shikoku’s south eastern coast, famed as one of the best places in Japan to surf.  I passed deserted beaches as I wound my way around the coast towards my destination of the tiny Japanese seaside town of Shishikui.

I had picked Shishikui purely because it was the only place on the coast I could find offering accommodation on an English language website.  I knew precious little else about the place, so was pleasantly surprised when I finally pulled into town.  Shishikui had a large beach, a few beachfront places including a surf cafe, and a pleasant knot of shops and houses set back from the beach.  It had an appealing charm quite unlike anywhere else I’d passed through in the previous few days, and it was most welcome.

My accommodation turned out to be an absolute gem, too.  Advertised as a “pension”, I had seemingly booked a huge, wood-lined apartment not unlike a Swiss chalet, big enough for a family of four, and extending out onto a public balcony overlooking the pension’s very own private beach.  It far exceeded my expectations, and there was no way I would make the most of it in the few hours I would be staying overnight.

That evening I popped back into town to check out the surf cafe, and enjoyed a tonkatsu with a beer before wandering back home under the stars to my cosy little pension tucked away in its private cove.

45 miles

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