An English Tour of Japan

Fukuoka to Tokyo by bicycle

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Stage 15 – Kobe to Osaka

After just three hours sleep I woke feeling absolutely shattered but was keen to not waste my day sleeping in a capsule! I took a bath in the in house onsen and checked out, planning to take a walk through Kobe. Fate had other ideas for me though as when I reached my bike I realised it had a front wheel puncture. I wheeled through compact Kobe past international cuisine restaurants and boutique shops into the hilly district above the port to find a relaxed place to fix the puncture.

I settled in a square surrounded by “classic” reproduction houses from European countries, including an English pub-cottage, a Swiss chalet, a German brick house complete with brass band statues, and a mini French chateaux. It was a peculiar setting, capitalising I presume on Kobe’s reputation for expats and foreign settlers, and it was a nice, if slightly kitche, change to a typical Japanese town style.

Whilst enjoying a chocolate milk and watching a young Japanese couple taking wedding pictures by all the houses, I managed to fix the puncture only for the inner tube to blow again when patched up. I cursed it and just replaced the inner tube – probably what I should’ve done in the first place instead of trying to be clever! I was starving by this time and had a morning omelette with tomato rice and a big coffee to fuel up.

Before moving on I took a look at the hillside temple which is famous as a destination for those making prayers seeking a successful education. I made a cheeky plea for my own upcoming next year of studies and also for my friends and sister who are finishing PhDs this year. I also admired the view over the port to the south and the seemingly endless city to the east.

The Kansai area of Japan covers many big cities in a small area, including Kobe, Osaka, Kyoto and Nara and typically the suburbs merge seamlessly into one another. My ride from Kobe to Osaka was typical of this environment – thirty kilometres of traffic lights and traffic jams, with nothing to see and too much stop starting to get any rhythm going.

I took a quick nap and headed out for dinner with a well-named Aussie called Chris where I had an octopus Okonomiyaki in a nice restaurant atop a fancy department store. There were people laden with shopping bags snoozing in the corridors – it seems they had taken the phrase shop till you drop quite literally! We took in a selection of beers at bars around the city centre, but it seemed to be a quiet night and so retired around midnight for some kip. I enjoyed the neon lights of the big city again though; it reminds me of a brighter, wackier version of London and I am keen to see more.


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Rest Day – Naoshima to Kobe

I woke at 5 in the morning to the sounds of the waves gently lapping at the beach and the birds chirping in the trees. The sun on the tent was already hot (!) but I was fortunately able to nap till 6.45.

I was in no hurry to pack up and get moving as I knew that the tourist information wasn’t open till 8.30, now the art galleries till 10.00, so I took a leisurely breakfast of cartoned coffee and cookies looking out over the brightly lit port, pumpkin and peninsula.

As I dismantled the tent I greeted with various dog walkers on the beach and an older gentleman approached me with a sketchbook of hand inked pictures he had drawn of old Naoshima – the houses, restaurants, port and shrines that made up normal life before (and now in the background to) the main hub of art museums and activity. They were very beautiful and had a timeless quality about them. The artist then, out of the blue, presented me with a separate small hand-inked card depicting the scene that had greeted me when I woke – the rocky outcrop next to the beach round to the port, with the open sea and boats in the centre. Typical kindness and hospitality that I have only experienced on such a regular basis in Japan.

My original plan was to take the ferry to nearby island Shodo-shima, ride 20 kilometres around the coast to another ferry port to connect to Himeji on the Honshu mainland, and cruise the final distance to Kobe, where I had booked a capsule at a capsule hotel for the night. It soon became apparent from the tourist information that this plan was too ambitious given the art I was keen to see and the unhelpful ferry timetables.

I settled for a relaxed day on Naoshima and then evening ferry rides back to Takamatsu and onwards to Kobe. The only problem with this was I would miss seeing Himeji castle, renowned as Japan’s finest, but as this is presently clad in scaffolding and swaddling due to reconstruction, so this didn’t hurt too much. It also meant a day without proper cycling (just 10km or so in total navigating around Naoshima) and arriving at Kobe for my capsule at the time of around 1am in the traditional way and fashionable manner!

The baby starlings from the previous day were not in their tree, so I hope they learnt to fly overnight! I stopped quickly in a small James Bond museum which featured classic memorabilia and posters, but the main feature was a full storyboard of a James Bond novel entirely set in Japan, which hasn’t yet been made into a film, called The Man with the Red Tattoo. The film features several iconic locations in Japan and culminates in a fight scene on Naoshima where an assassin emerges from a giant heart art installation intending to kill G8 delegates in conference with infected super-mosquitos. I won’t spoil the ending for you all, but the museum and Benesse Corporation are clearly keen for the movie to be shot for the exposure it would give the small island!

I subsequently cycled across to the Chi Chu Art Museum, a James Bond villain style concrete complex dug into the coastal hills and contrasting starkly with the cloudless blue of the sky and the greenery of the land. Whilst the compound was underground it was a work of art in itself – with naturally lit whitewashed rooms and a cool quiet atmosphere.

The staff were dressed in white outfits similar to those that nurses wear and carried neutral expressions that made you feel a bit like you were trapped in a ward from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

The small collection comprised of five Monet water-lily daubings (unfortunately the room was more impressive than the paintings themselves), a light installation by James Turrell and a hall,sparsely adorned with gold leaf and wood shapes, designed by Walter de Maria.

The Turrell installation was very interesting, sitting to observe what appeared to be a purple neon rectangle above some white steps, but upon climbing the steps, realising it was an entire room of light. The museum aimed to consider the relationship between nature, light and space and probably succeeded, but was expensive for such a small collection.

Riding round into Honmura village, I passed a second pumpkin – yellow this time which sat out on a jetty and looked brilliant in the sunlight and with the sea and rocks in the background. I bought a ticket to the art house project – a collection of six restored traditional houses, some of which contained specific art installations and some of which exhibited traditional forms of living spaces. I won’t go into detail on them all – you should visit and see them! But safe to say that they’re all interesting adaptations on the use of space. One was another excellent Tyrrell piece, in a similar vein to, and possibly even better than, the first.

There were other museums I didn’t have time to visit and several other attractions which mean that Naoshima is a must for any lover of art or architecture. I was glad I finally went as I wasn’t sure whether the island would make the cut on my trip but thanks to Pascal and George to re-convincing me! Getting hungry, I stopped in to a local living room which was masquerading as a small restaurant and ordered a great big bowl of udon soup noodles with fried tofu.

I nipped into a nearby cafe for an icy caffeinated drink, which turned out to be a cat cafe. Cat cafés are extremely popular in Japan, and enable your average Japanese to experience the joys of being a cat owner without any of the trouble of clearing up after it and disposing of dead mice. The concept has expanded to include dog cafés, owl cafés and, err, penguin cafés. Fortunately for my allergies, the coffee is served in the main cafe, with a glass room housing the cats which customers play extra to enter, dangle fishing rods above the cats and coo and ahh in an extremely nauseating way. An unusual experience I suppose but I exited fairly quickly and moved on.

I rode casually for a couple of kilometres across the island to Miyanoura and boarded the ferry back to Takamatsu to meet the last evening ferry to Kobe. Once back in Takamatsu I rode to a separate port five kilometres down the coast only to find that the tourist information lady must’ve read the timetable wrong and that the next ferry to Kobe was at 1am!

I was annoyed for a fair amount of time before realising there was nothing I could do, and deciding to cycle back to Takamatsu town to get some food and kill six hours. I stopped in at a famous udon restaurant (the prefecture is known for its udon) and sampled the speciality surrounded by signed pictures of fierce looking sumo wrestlers.

Slowly rolling back to the ferry port in the dark I stopped to use Seven Eleven’s wifi before buying my ticket and finally boarding at 1am. I parked, nipped upstairs and collapsed into a chair where I dozed off nicely until I was woken at 4.30 by a ludicrously catchy song (which I can still sing now!) advertising the ferry company called “Jumbo Ferry”. Completely shattered, I rode for twenty minutes through Kobe, which was just waking up. I checked into my hotel, crawled into the capsule and fell asleep instantly.

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Stage 14 – Iya Valley to Naoshima

I woke to the rush of the fake waterfall and the heat of the sun and ate a pack of cookies whilst packing up. I left the campsite early and joined the old Route 32 which meandered north above the river and wrapped to the mountainside. It was a cracking ride, with gentle downhills in the cool morning air. There was a combination of fresh pine and a slight wetness in the air.

Swinging round a corner I spotted a small group of people perched on the edge of the road taking selfies and pictures with snazzy equipment of a Mannequin Pis statue – a small boy urinating into the green gorge. I stopped to take my own picture and chatted to the camera crew who turned out to be from the Japan tourist board filming promotional material to advertise Shikoku and the Oboke valley.

The tourist board girl looked completely and utterly blank when I enquired why there was a replica of the famous Belgian statue in the middle of the Japanese countryside and informed me that it was a Buddhist boy legend whose urine had formed the rivers flowing between the valleys. I think they might be starting to believe their own fairy tales…

Given I had only had a pack of cookies for breakfast, I was starting to tire and flag. I pulled into a quiet truckers restaurant outside of Iya Ikeda town overlooking the sheeny green river and a big suspension bridge. I ordered a huge Japanese set breakfast of rice, salmon, egg, miso soup and pickles and washed it down with a well made coffee.

After another 20km I rolled into Kotahira, which is a lively compact town with light grey paved and mosaic-ed streets and is famous for a large hillside temple complex called Kompira-san dedicated to seafarers and travellers. I thought that, as a traveller, I would stop in and pay my respects, and climbed the million steps up the hillside alongside thousands of school kids. The temple was large and made from dark wood with lots of marine icons and references and would’ve been peaceful up in the trees were it not for the yelping kids.

Returning down to the town I watched a chef making udon noodles (thick white noodles made from a roll of dough and sliced up) and stopped in for a bowl accompanied by prawns tempura. The years of inward looking isolationism has in many ways contributed to the mono-culture of Japan. Food is a great example of this. Restaurants in Japan, more often than not, specialise in one particular dish until they become absolute experts at it. For example there are ramen, soba and udon restaurants (all separate types of noodle), donburi restaurants (rice with toppings), sushi restaurants and so on.

In addition, each region or prefecture has its own speciality dishes which it is known for throughout Japan – I have been trying to test as many as possible on my way through. In northern Shikoku (Kotahira and Takamatsu) udon noodles are king and very yummy, served in a simple broth with a choice of toppings.

I returned to the Route 32 for an gentle ride into Takamatsu where I headed to the Ritsurin-koen garden, an old and famous Japanese garden sprawling through the suburbs. It was beautiful, particularly the lily pads and white iris but not the same to appreciate on your own as with someone else. There were shady orchards and ponds full of carp and woodland sections full of obelisks and monuments. Feeling suitably relaxed I rode to the waterfront ferry and booked a ticket to Naoshima. I killed time admiring the modern art installations at the port and using Seven Eleven’s internet before boarding and enjoying a bento box dinner on the ferry’s top deck whilst the sun went down behind the mainland.

I was greeted at Naoshima with the sight of the red pumpkin, the large red and black spotted art installation which sits at the mouth of the small port. It is large enough to walk inside and even though it is simple enough, has a fun feel to it, particularly in the sunshine with kids crawling all over it. The sculpture is a symbol of Naoshima, a small island in the inland sea upon which the Benesse Corporation decided in the 90s to showcase their budding collection of modern art in a traditional setting. The island itself had always been a fishing community, and the sky, sea and undulating coastlines all give the sense of the Mediterranean. Nowadays, various modern art and architecture museums and galleries dot the island, and significant art installations look out to see from perches on the coastline.

I scoped out possible camping sites without much success, and decided to wait till after the sun had gone down. Weaving into the narrow streets of Miyanoura town I parked up outside the “I Love Yu” onsen which was decorated, inside and out in a funky hodge-podge modern style with (amongst other things!) surfboards, penguins, 60s Americana memorabilia and Japanese prints. It was a cool contrast to the more traditional onsen I had visited so far, and seemed to attract a younger crowd.

Feeling refreshed after my bathe I rode through the dark night around the coastline to a beachy spot by the headland with a picnic area, public toilets and a children’s play park. Drunken teenagers laughed their Saturday night away on the beach whilst I put up my tent and prepared for the night.

I popped into a bar to use the wifi and had a beer on the kind Granny with the sumo grandson from the day before and chatted to a guy who pointed out two baby starlings clinging tightly to the branches of a tree a couple of metres above ground. We didn’t want to move them for fear of causing them more trouble but they seemed in a precarious position – clearly too young to fly, and not safely tucked away in their nest. Hoping they would be ok, I wandered back to my nest and fell asleep to the sound of the waves unfurling softly on the beach.



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Stage 13 – Kochi to Iya Valley

My mum used to say that you can tell a happy cyclist by the flies on their teeth. Today I had flies on my teeth. After a spritely start, I took a while to get moving, eating lots of food in preparation and chatting with friends at home and with my little sister to wish her a happy birthday.

I meandered through the canal-lined streets of Kochi until the suburbs broke into open roads with plenty of greenery and mountains leering in from the left. The sun was absolutely roasting and felt really pure – like there was no protection from the rays. I was apprehensive about the days ride as I knew there would be some tough mountains and I could see them challenging me all the way out of town.

After 15km I reached Route 32 which I knew would take me all the way to the Iya Valley and up into the mountains. Refilling my water bottle in perpetration, I surged into the ride and pushed a long way before taking a break, cutting into the kilometres I knew were in my way. It was around this time that I started to feel much stronger on the bike and, to a certain extent, like merely a conduit for energy processing – food in, kilometres out. So long as I am taking on the necessary food, the length of ride doesn’t seem to matter anymore.

Stopping again for water by a farm shop, the proprietor came to chat, and, in surprisingly good English, told me that there was just a little uphill left, then it would be downhill all the way to the valleys. I was very sceptical of this, and went on my way, but half an hour later I burst over a 395m pass and followed the gently curving road down through farmland and pine forests. The gradient wasn’t particularly high and I pedalled all the way but it was a nice ride with the sun glinting through the trees in stripes across the road.

The scenery changed to verdant gorges and valleys; brilliant greens underneath the bright blue sky. The peaks were huge and covered in trees. I followed the plait of river, road and rail which snaked through the floor of the valleys, stopping on many occasions to take photos and marvel at the nature.

So far it had all felt a little to easy and so it wasn’t a huge surprise to me to see that my final turnoff for the last ten kilometres lurched uphill at an obscene gradient, switching back on itself as it rose up one of the mountains. It was super hot and unshaded,I was low on water, and I had just gulped down my emergency chocolate. It was a nasty climb with multiple periods of walking and bike-pushing and I was relieved to arrive at the final pass tunnel which offered shade, cool and a gentle downward slope for a change. After some steep technical descents which I couldn’t enjoy due to the heavy traffic, I arrived in Oboke town in the gorge of the same name.

The gorge was beautiful, even despite the best efforts of some corporation to build a gigantic multi-story concrete car park slap bang in the middle of it. The valley is famous for its hiking and it’s old vine bridges which date back hundreds of years and are made simply of twisted vines and wooden slats. I arrived at a campsite which I had earmarked only to be told that without a reservation I could not pitch up. I didn’t really see why not given that there appeared to be no one but staff there, but sometimes the Japanese can be sticklers for rules and won’t be argued with. In fact arguing gets you nowhere, so I didn’t even try and politely biked off.

I decided to see some sights before heading to the next campsite, and checked out a small but pretty waterfall and the main river before buying a ticket to cross the Kazurabashi vine bridge. The bridge was wobbly and looked its age with gaps in the ‘floor’ bigger than the slats themselves! It was There were lots of Japanese tourists shakily crossing the bridge and having their pictures taken with apprehensive smiles and awkward tense body language, which was funny. I suppose it’s easy to laugh when that sort of thing doesn’t scare you; I skipped over and enjoyed it, pretending I was a samurai on the way to battle.

Moving on to a second campsite I successfully booked myself into a camping bay by the river without a prior reservation, although I was shocked and surprised that I was charged to camp – remember I’ve been free camping so far! However the price included a discount to an onsen nearby which I planned on indulging in anyway so that was a blessing.

I pitched up in my second choice location after my first choice was spoiled by the presence of a metre long silver-grey snake which I had to chase off into the river with the aid of a big stick. There is a peculiar relationship with nature in Japan. The Japanese seem to love and appreciate the beauty in nature, but not necessarily the beauty of nature itself. Confused? Distinction without a difference? Let me try to explain my theory.

There is an enormous respect and appreciation for seasonal changes, produce and natural features in Japan which comes across in almost a childlike enthusiasm. For instance particular foods or views of natural phenomenon or seasonal beauty are so highly praised and cherished, but they are pigeon holed very tightly and, seemingly to the extent possible to preserve the spectacle of nature, controlled and directed to maintain one particular view or style.

You may have seen a Japanese garden which are beautifully arranged and well tended (admittedly not unlike many styles of garden worldwide), as one example of how nature is fine-tuned in Japan. Also, particular “views” or classic looks are prized and valued; waiting for the moment that the natural world falls into time with exactly what is sought in that particular view or look.

I compare this to the perhaps more western tendency towards leaving nature to itself and valuing the beauty in that. Almost all rivers in Japan are dammed up to the eyeballs. I understand that there maybe just one left that is free flowing. The result of the Japanese mindset that a view of natural beauty is desirable means that the wider context or view can get forgotten or bypassed or just plain ignored or downtrodden. For example the aforementioned eyesore car park in the middle of the gorge. Or the peculiar fake dammed waterfall which I camped next to, complete with plastic “wood look” fencing around it.

I’ve not yet quite come to terms with why this is the case or what the reasons behind this are but it feels to me slightly unnatural and uncomfortable and I haven’t quite figured it out yet. In any case I nipped over to the nearby onsen for a bathe and contemplate. The baths were great – warm and slick, with some neat gadgets (a chamber which sprays you from all angles with tiny buzzing jets of refreshing cold water) and a rotenburo (outside bath) where I enjoyed the last of the bird calls as the sun went down. The perfect relaxation after a lovely day’s riding.

The onsen was attached to a hotel with a restaurant which I dropped into for dinner. I bought a ticket from a vending machine, passed it to the chef as was soon delivered a set meal feast with grilled baby trout, asparagus and sesame salad, soba noodles with tofu, pickles, a bowl of rice and a squid and crispy fried lotus root salad. Just as I was tucking in, an young lad, perhaps 8, with the build of a sumo wrestler, came charging through the door shouting “SHIN-KAN-SEN!” (the name of the Japanese bullet train).
He came to a screeching halt in front of my table and his wide eyes met mine. He was extremely excited. His peepers were popping out so far that I was genuinely concerned for his well being but he was soon whisked off by his family, three generations of well fed Japanese.

I wrote, read and relaxed for a while after the meal with a beer, and the family came over to chat in broken English, take pictures of me, and the Grandma insisted I take the 1000 yen she passed to me to buy more beers with. The restaurant was closing up soon after so I banked the yen and strolled back to my tent in the dark for an early night.

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Stage 12 – Ochi to Kochi

Ochi to Kochi sounds like cartoon characters playing catch but i promise it isn’t! A novelty in a tent, I actually managed a little lie in. The birds sang and the river rushed over its rocks but I took an extra hour and got up at a leisurely 7.30. I was super hungry but had no food so was keen to get on the move.

Steve and Erin gave me a slice of apple pie pastry, and we tested the various sweets we had between us for flavours (pineapple and peach – both great!) before I hit the road alone, bathed in gentle sunshine.

The road followed the river further down to Sasawa town, where I stopped at a convenience store and stuffed myself with the contents of a big bento box, a coffee and a pack of cookies. I also had a pear pie which was the best thing I’d had from a convenience store but I have been able to find it since.

Convenience stores are (conveniently) dotted all over Japan, with universal coverage from the big four – Lawson Station, Seven Eleven, Family Mart, and K. They sell everything from food and booze to stimulants and sweets to clothes and pens to manga and pornography. The award for Chris’ favourite goes to Seven Eleven for its twin advantages of almost always a) having a bathroom where I can refill my water bottle for free, and b) having wifi I can use for free. They’re a dream for the touring cyclist.

The landscape changed somewhat to wider valleys filled with farmland. Reflections of mountains were clear in the still water of the rice fields. In one small village I passed a hairdressers named in roman letters as “Euriska” which didn’t seem to sell it too much!

I had reluctantly accepted that I wouldn’t be able to make up enough ground to tour the south coast of Shikoku in the way I had planned. I was keen to arrive at (cousin of cousin), Paul’s for a weekend, and didn’t feel like extending my time to see southern Shikoku would work with all the other places I wanted to see. I chose to therefore take a small loop south and along a coastal peninsula I had heard beautiful things about, before heading up to Kochi town.

On the map, the peninsula looked like a small jagged appendix running parallel to the coast. It was attached to the main island in the west and featured a bridge at the east end, so made a pleasing and convenient detour, with the Pacific Ocean to my right and a sheltered lagoon to my left.

At the tip of the lagoon was Shoryu-ji (temple 36) which was a quiet temple on the waterfront surrounded by amateur and professional fishermen. A closer inspection revealed colourful dragons and birds painted into the wooden beams protected from sunlight by the wide roof which were stunning.

I pushed on along the peninsula, up intense thigh crushing 10/11/12% inclines until I reached the spine of the landmass, but even that went regularly into convalescing ups and downs. The Pacific Ocean views were fantastic, with the forested rocky outcrops reaching out into the powerful sea.

I stopped at one viewpoint for a water and bar of chocolate (totally melted) and stood on a big rock in the bright sunlight to scour the waves for whales, which could apparently be sighted. Whales are big, but my view of the ocean was enormous so I called it a day pretty quickly and watched the sea eagles swooping and screeching at each other.

The road gradually turned into more downs than ups and bent round towards the mainland. I crossed the long bridge and found myself in a town called Usa (the second so-named town I have been through in Japan). The story goes that after the Second World War, when the world in general wasn’t too keen to buy Japanese goods, small towns were formed called Usa, where companies could be legitimately registered and produce goods that then bore the mark “MADE IN USA” – smart but cheeky, eh?!

I arrived in Kochi around 2pm, and went to the tourist office to ask them to book the youth hostel in town, and let me know where it was as the guidebook and internet weren’t enough help. They were able to book successfully but I was told I had to wait until 3pm to check in, so I took a little time to eat the local speciality and check out the castle.

Seared bonito was the dish, served with a squeeze of orange and thinly sliced spring onions. It was delicious. For the equivalent of eight pounds I got a ton of fresh meaty fish, and whilst I probably preferred the seared sides, the entire dish was stunning. The castle was nice as well, fairly large, and raised up on a mound which had been landscaped with pretty pink flowers and lawns to compliment the cedar and pine trees which looked significantly older. I wandered the gardens and then ride to the hostel.

I signed in and settled in, got showered and had a cup of tea. Annoyingly, the cable to my rechargable battery pack, which I had been using on days when camping to recharge my iPhone battery, broke irreparably. I will try to find a new cable, or failing that, crib free electricity from convenience stores as I go!

I met Steve and Erin who for an evening meal as they had also ended their day in Kochi, and (after some serious procrastinating on all our parts!) picked a restaurant. I had a nice set meal with sashimi, tempura, more seared bonito and udon noodles which tasted brilliant but was all cold (as is customary) when I might’ve like something warming. It was great to see Steve and Erin again and catch up, but I had to dash fairly sharpish back to the hostel as I had booked a sake tasting session with the owner.

Before owning a hostel, the owner had worked as a sake company rep, and the hostel was full of bottles and jars and glasses in homage to the drink. For my 500 yen, I got a full on lesson and six sake to try.

It was explained to me the difference between the brewing of wine, beer and sake – namely that whereas for beer, the saccharisaiton (creation of sugar) and fermentation processes are separate, and for wine the sugar is already present prior to fermentation, in the brewing of sake, both the saccharisation and fermentation processes are achieved simultaneously. So whilst sake is broadly called ‘rice wine’ in the west, it is a separate drink in its own right.

We finally got to the tasting, where I tried various types; a light summer sake, a new once-distilled sake, a cloudy never-distilled sake, an aged ten year old sake, a citrus sake (mixed with orange juice), and a sweet plum sake. The first and last were the best, the light one very refreshing and the plum sake fruity and sweet. I wasn’t a big fan of the ages sake, mostly because it smelt and tasted suspiciously like tequila… I relaxed for a while and then went up to bed and slept like a baby.


Stage 11 – Matsuyama to Ochi

For days I had been keen to visit Matsuyama castle, which is regarded as a fine well-proportioned structure with fantastic views over the city from its central mountaintop perch. I’m a bit of a castle nerd, but never really questioned why. I woke early, and took a short bike ride through the city to visit one of the 88 temples, the quiet surburban woodland Ishite-ji (Number 51) and the castle. It was refreshing to cycle without my weighty panniers, but I felt very light and strangely unbalanced – this may take some getting used to when I return to the UK.

The castle was great, with neat original walls and a well-reconstructed main building, nestled up on a hill surrounded by forest and root-covered steep paths. I tried on a multipart costume of samurai armour which proved heavier and more challenging than I had expected, but was helped by a kindly Japanese-American couple who were returning to Japan in their retirement to enjoy, amongst other things, “food that you actually know what’s in it”!

The views from the roof of the bright white main building were marvellous, with the shimmering buildings of Matsuyama city stretching out in all directions, to the sea in the west and the mountains in the north, east and south.

Pleased with my early morning sightseeing I returned to my guesthouse, checked out, and sat in the lounge devouring coffee, chocolate cookies and a whole pack of after eights that had been left in the “free food” box. Breakfast of champions. I finalised my next few days plans and hit the road in the hot midday sun. I intended to ride south into the mountains to visit one of the prettiest of the pilgrimage temples Iwaya-ji (Number 45) before (over the next few days) pushing west to the sea and follow the rugged coastline dipping south and then north to Kochi and continue north to the Iya valley and Honshu.

Having left the main Matsuyama city on a royal sugar high, I immediately hit a brutal ascent which sapped my energy. Butterflies fluttered through the mountain air and stopped with me when I took rests, perching weightlessly on my arms and hands. I reached the Misoko pass (720m) shaking and exhausted, disappointed with the view (I had expected to burst into scenic mountain vistas, but the roads were covered in trees on the descent) and feeling cheated at the simple sign announcing the pass (I had expected fireworks and a cold beer, after all the energy I had put in!) The bodies of my butterfly friends seemed now to be littering the road, which seemed to be an ominous sign from the draining ascent.

I free wheeled comfortably downhill for several kilometers, downing pints of water at a rest stop before turning off towards Temple 45, which lay another 15km down an undulating but pretty road running alongside and gleaming green river. I spotted many pilgrims along the road, and we always acknowledged each other in the way an unknown passing runner or cyclist will nod in appreciation at the efforts of another.

Upon arriving at the temple site, I parked up and embarked upon the kilometre long walk uphill along a thin path flanked by purple and red flags, lanterns and statues of the Buddha into the pine forest of the mountainside. The sunlight twinkled and wind gently breezed through the trees as birds called out in high pitches voices into the forest.

Arriving at the series of small but pleasing temples at the top just behind several pilgrims, I observed their ritual prayer, washing their hands, ringing the temple bell, bowing, clapping their hands twice and speaking short prayers. As the pilgrims returned to the path and on with their journey I sat down in the incense-filled forest facing the simple but delicate wooden temples and cried solidly for about ten minutes. I’m still not sure entirely why; Perhaps it was the physical and mental exhaustion or maybe there was something in the incense. I didn’t feel sad or religious or even particularly spiritual actually, but I felt a strong sense of peace and gratefulness for all the people and opportunities I have had in my life, and even writing this, my eyes well up with the same feeling.

Carefully treading the steep path back down I considered my options. Whilst it wasn’t too late yet, it seemed that I wouldn’t have time to push towards the western coast, and I was reluctant to take on more mountains to do so. I pressed on, curving along flat roads tracing a river between beautiful forested valleys which looked incredible in the late afternoon sunlight.

It was one of the most beautiful days I have had on the bike, with picturesque rivers, forests and valleys in all directions. I started to realise that I would not be able to make it to a town or road station by nightfall, and so started to look for spots to camp as I snaked round the road adjacent to a large river.

As it happened, I checked my map and spotted a campsite marked on which was just three kilometres away. As a further coincidence, just at that time I spotted two cyclists heavily laden with kit stopped at the side of the road. They explained they were also looking for the campsite and we parted, possibly to meet there later. A short while on, I arrived at the campsite – which comprised a block of toilets and section of grass on the bank of the river, and started to unpack and erect my tent.

The two cyclists arrived shortly afterwards; Steve and Erin, Aussies who had been touring through South Korea and Japan on holiday. We chatted as we put up the tents and started to eat. I got bitten to shreds by some sort of insect – it wasn’t a mosquito, and left hard red bites which itched for days – before I could cover up properly.

We settled down for dinner – sushi for me and noodles and tofu for them, and we chatted about the pros and cons of touring, the essentials and non-essentials for such a trip and gadgets that would improve the experience. Steve’s engineering background meant he had lots of practical solutions to possible touring problems, and it was great to chat with others who were undertaking something similar. They were friendly, interesting and great company and after a bar of chocolate each and a short-lived fire, we retired to our tents to escape the insects.

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Stage 10 – Onomichi to Matsuyama

Up and out nice and early to gently overcast skies, I stocked up on a variety of rice triangles for my ride over the bridges of the Shimanami Kaido.

The cycle route is well marked in blue on the roads and several tourists had rented bikes to take on the 70km ride. There were also scores of Japanese hobby-cyclists out on slick road bikes.

The experience was great – launching up a steep curving ramp for a kilometre each time you needed to cross a bridge, and the views from the bridges were spectacular. There was still a haze and cloudiness but you could see all across the inland sea and the pretty coves and jetties of all the islands. The giant suspension bridges themselves are also very impressive, each being somewhere between 500m and 2km long! The final bridge was so long, and the weather so cloudy, that I couldn’t see the other side, but still had fantastic views of the turquoise inland sea and the various green and rocky islands within it stretching out to the horizon left and right.

The islands were fun to bike on too, meandering round the costal roads and fishing towns with minimal traffic, salty air and a cool breeze. There was definitely a change of pace – I imagine that the islands would be a great place to live (although difficult to commute anywhere from!)

I partially raced some of the Japanese cyclists in a Mariokart style. They were Toad, accelerating away from traffic lights and stoppages super fast and I was Donkey Kong, taking an age to get up to speed, but at top pace closing in quick before another stoppage or traffic light would bring us level again. After being used to straight roads and greenery for scenery the bridges and islands were a refreshing change and felt like a novelty, and I cruised relatively quickly through the 70km to Shikoku Island.

Shikoku is the smallest of the four main Japanese islands and famous for its rugged scenery and relative tranquility, with less people and cities than the other islands. Shikoku is also renowned for the 88 temple Pilgrimage, broadly a Buddhist equivalent of El Camino de Santiago in Spain.

Pilgrims circumnavigate Shikoku (by foot traditionally) to visit the 88 temples on the island associated with the renowned Japanese monk Kobo Daishi. They are known as Henro and walk in a white uniform with staff and triangular hat, and are imbued by the sport of Kobo Daishi to complete the journey. They are commonly seen on the roads and highly respected – the pilgrimage usually takes around 60 days by foot.

Cruising the final 40km to Matsuyama around the coastline, I arrived at a comfortable 4pm, pleased with my day’s ride but feeling fairly anxious to formulate a plan for the forthcoming week or so. I’m finding it helpful to have a five/six day plan in place to give myself targets and direction and also to book accommodation where necessary.

The owners of the guesthouse I stayed at were super helpful in discussing possible options in Shikoku, and were really enthusiastic, making me feel as if any route I could choose to take would be brilliant. I settled on a plan that would take me through the mountains to explore the south coast, then back up via the Iya valley to the inland sea again to visit Naoshima, the island of modern art I had been umming and ahhing over.

My knee did not seen to be improving too much and I had run out of ibuprofen so I headed quickly to the local pharmacy to restock (armed with a Japanese instruction note from the ever-helpful guesthouse owners) and promptly had my pants pulled down, paying approximately eight pounds for twelve tablets. Given that ibuprofen is available in supermarkets for around 40p I was totally shocked but didn’t have too much choice and paid up!

I then took a long soak in the Dogo onsen, one of the oldest onsen in Japan, and famed for the healing properties of its waters, which sounded like just the ticket after my long ride. I tried a savoury rice cracker as is the fashion, post onsen, which was really nice, but probably not something I would choose to eat in England.

Back at the hostel I chatted with other travellers, and a few westerners making the pilgrimage before watching the sunset from the roof and finalising my short term plans. I then trotted to the end of the street to a recommended restaurant where I suffered a severe rush of blood to the head and ordered three meals – sea bream and rice, udon soup noodles and tempura – and cleaned it all up. Lovely!