Tokushima's not bad for a Japanese city, the central boulevard from the station to the museum is wide and dotted with palm trees; there were a few forlorn specimens in Awajishima as well, but Shikoku is starting to be hot and humid enough to fit such tropical flora. The temperature after the rain was refreshingly cool though, and nights are still downright chilly -- which suits me just fine!
Perhaps the nicest surprise in Tokushima, however, was the TOPIA International Exchange Plaza, hidden on the 6th floor of the JR Tokushima station-cum-shopping mall. It has a huge array of borrowable reference and even fiction books in English plus a number of freely usable Internet-connected computers, one equipped with a printer to boot -- I finally got to replicate the "I speak Japanese!" sign I'd lost back on the first day.
Tokushima's youth hostel turned out to be in a surprisingly nice place, right on the coast and separated from the city by some green hills. There's even a simple camping ground of sorts facing the hostel, I seriously considered joining the few tents and saving Y3000, but it was still raining and I'll have time enough for camping soon. Somewhat to my surprise, I wasn't even the only person at the hostel, I shared my room with two bikers -- one returning home on his motorbike, the other just starting the 88-temple circuit and on unmotorized wheels at that! Another room was filled with (very) quiet college kids, but not a being of the female persuasion in sight.
The next hop from Oboke into the Iya Valley itself was a short one, this time courtesy of an older couple who live in West Iya; the car was a swanky large new station wagon, they were both quite well dressed and the missus was holding a bouquet of roses to boot. They dropped me off at the kazurabashi, Iya's famed vine bridge... and let me find out on my own that the campground was a kilometer away, down, up, and down again the same steep riverside. (I later tried to find a shortcut by hopping from rock to rock on the river, but hit a dead -- or maybe just very wet -- end after a few hundred meters. Sigh.)
My first reaction to Iya Valley was a mild disappointment. I think I had subconsciously expected it to be Totally Different, a time warp to the days of samurai, geisha, and thatched-roof farmhouses, but no, West Iya is a little Japanese town like any other, a huddle of nasty concrete buildings and interconnecting wires, decorated with a blare of rusty advertisements. Alex Kerr's Moloch was at work again, opposite the vine bridge a large swathe had been cleared and construction involving evidently yet another huge hotel was fast proceeding. (A bit odd, this, given that like 95% of Japan's tourist attractions Iya was already looking distinctly below capacity today.)
But once you get past the sprawl, and the campsite's location succeeds admirably in this, the valley is truly beautiful: a steep gorge with a rushing river, untouched forests all along the hillsides, the valley winding its way towards the horizon in both directions... The campsite itself is tastefully built, without even a vending machine in sight(!), and quite affordable at Y500 a pop with your own tent -- the first time I've actually used the bloody thing, or my sleeping bag for that matter, on this entire trip.
The weather is looking great -- tomorrow Tsurugi-san! And the caretaker even promised to take me straight to the bus stop (read: hitching stop) tomorrow.
Driver-san happened to know a minshuku owner in my destination of Mi-no-Koshi, the trailhead to Mt. Tsurugi, so I was driven straight up to door, fed Iya-style soba (which I must confess tasted the same as it does everywhere else), asked to leave my luggage here for the day, allowed camp outside on the lawn at night, and packed a boxed lunch for free. Only in Japan!
All this had taken around 3 hours though, so it was too late to complete my original plan to loop through Tsurugi, Jirogyu and Maruishi to the Oku-Iya vine bridges; I had to content myself with going up and down Tsurugi alone. I cheated and let a chairlift do the hard work (Y1000 one way), the summit was then only a kilometer away and half an hour later I was there, munching on my rice balls and wondering what to do next. The weather was amazing to the point that I was seriously worried about sunburn, even up top (1955m) it was comfy in a T-shirt. I took the slow route down, stopping at O-Tsurugi Shrine to sip on holy sake. Having read the sign's archaic Japanese ("Honorable sacred sake at will please condescend to appreciate") I double-checked that I had understood with the priest; "But of course!", he said, so I poured some of the sake from the consacrated flask into a sipping saucer, raised it to my lips and, at the apex of the holy moment, the priest's cellphone rang.
I took the longer of the two routes back down, but by 2 PM I was back where I started. Still, by this time clouds were starting to gather about the summit and it looked like it might rain soon. Just the same, I decided to burn a bit more boot rubber and mosie the 2 kilometers of the gentle upward curves of Route 438 to Meoto-no-Ike (夫婦の池), the site of an official campground. The walk only takes about half an hour and there are some absolutely beautiful views of the Iya Valley along the way. The lake itself is nothing out of the ordinary, but the neighboring little La Fôret Tsurugi-san lodge turned out more interesting; it has a most acceptable little herb-scented bathtub that visitors can use for Y500 a pop, so I did, and even got a towel as a souvenir.
In retrospect, it was a bit of a waste to loop to Tsurugi-san through Ikeda and Nishi-Iya; at least on summer weekends like this one, there seems to be quite enough traffic along the direct route from Sadamitsu to hitch, and -- allow me to repeat once more -- the entrance to the valley through those last two kilometers is beautiful. There is also another route via Anabuki, which is in fact the straighest route to Tokushima if counting kilometers. However, based on the frequency of couples in swanky cars (as opposed to gruntled farmers in beat-up mini-pickups) traffic on both these routes is pretty touristy, so I probably wouldn't try my luck outside weekends.
So I duly set up camp opposite the friendly minshuku and ate a cheap,
filling and extremely boring meal of 3-minute spaghetti with tomato sauce.
Blargh -- I'm in Japan, from now I eat Japanese, dammit! Dessert
was sugary dough deep-fried in oil and encrusted with sugar, aka
karintou (花林糖), plus some rather tasty loquats (Jp. biwa).
After nightfall I headed to the minshuku to recharge
the laptop's batteries, already wearing a sweater because it was getting
cold. The owner asked me if I wanted an extra blanket and I declined,
but after mulling it over I elected warmth over pride and changed
my mind. Yes, the dictionary definition of "cold" has a picture of
waking up in a tent, but I prefer to err on the side of caution
when walking the fine line between bravery and stupidity...
although I still refused an offer of a room for the night (for free?).
And whoo, what a place -- far better than I expected! A trail of steps leads down from the entrance (Y500, but there was no caretaker there yet before 8!) and soon forks. On the right is the Husband's Bridge (夫の橋), the longer, higher up and manlier of the two; on the left the Wife's Bridge (婦の橋); and on the far left is an oversized suspended basket that can be used to propel your belongings, and/or yourself, across the river.
I took the Husband's Bridge, and yeah, I gotta admit crossing a ravine on what is essentially a horizontal rope ladder is a bit freaky, although it didn't sway nearby as much as I'd been led to expect, even when I crossed paths with a happy camper from the other side. And oh yes, on the other side is indeed a beautiful campground, which would be an excellent place to stay if only you have some form of transport between Minokoshi and the bridges. The trail down from Maruishi (and a few peaks further on Tsurugi) comes down here, right past an amazing waterfall that you can descend right down to -- some serious photo opportunities here!
In all, the Oku-Iya bridges get two thumbs up. Getting out with one of those thumbs, however, proved easier said than done. During the next hour, a total of three (3) cars headed in my direction, one of them already full. I was seriously contemplating hiking down to Nagoro with my gear, some 3 km down the road, to wait for the 12 o'clock bus (3 hours away!), when two boisterous young trout fishermen took mercy on me and ferried me to Ochiai. My third ride came after a bit of a wait, the combination of flashy car, sunglasses and dyed hair at first made me though the driver was another yakuza punk but no, he turned out to work at the Youth Travel Village not far from the bridges, and he ferried me over all the way through the rest of Iya to Oboke, my entrance point into the hidden valley.
Oboke, one of Japan's most famous gorges in itself, seemed like a wide open space after Iya. I kept waving that thumb, and was next picked up by an affable older fellow who'd covered the Helsinki Olympics (1952!) on site as a sports reporter, had done the poor student travel bit in his younger days and now had a son away in Holland probably doing much the same as I -- "and that's why I stopped! What goes around comes around..." Not being in a particular hurry, he stopped at one little sightseeing spot, the village of Oosugi ("Big Cedar"), which features the Oosugi ("Big Cedar") Shrine, which features -- surprise, surprise! -- Japan's biggest cedar. And it is, um, big; I'll let the pictures do the talking. Do note that the poor thing is living on life support right now, it was hit hard by a typhoon some time ago and was patched up with a series of braces and plates.
I was dropped off at an approach road to the major city of Kochi, and I cast my lot with the temple/youth hostel of Iwamotoji, another few hours down to the south. (Given the weather I would have been more than happy to camp, but I needed to get some laundry done.) Empty beds, yes; food available, no; looks like I'll be alone again? "Be here by 6!", the stern young lady at the phone commanded me. It was now high noon and, despite repeated applications of suntan lotion, my arms were starting to redden alarmingly (and my neck was already mildly burnt from yesterday). Kochi-ken, which covers the entire Pacific coast, is noticeably warmer than the rest of Shikoku and feels even more tropical than Tokushima especially in the summer, when surfers flock to its beach and convenience stores rent out snorkeling gear. Following the Law of Constant Hitchhiking Odds, the increased traffic meant that the odds of any one driver picking me up were correspondingly lower, but after a bit of wait I was commanded on board by a construction worker -- actually, he dubbed himself an architect, but his suntan, scarred hands and sacks of gravel in the back of the mini-pickup would seem to contraindicate this... A friendly but quiet type, he took me the last few kilometers to the endless downtown sprawl of Kochi and its surprisingly diminutive railway station.
The train all the way to my destination cost Y1500, it would be a 2.5 hour ride and the next train left in 15 minutes. The next train after that wouldn't leave before 3, so I bought my ticket and hopped on board -- I wasn't up to dealing with escaping a city this size (300,000) by thumb when facing a sunburn and a deadline. I still haven't quite decided whether JR Shikoku's fares are reasonable or not; around Y500/hour wouldn't seem bad at all, but the local trains not only stop at every station, they insert random delays of 2-10 minutes at every other one to boot!
After a dip in the lodge's bath (big! hot! yes!) and finally getting my clothes washed, it was time for dinner, and having discovered that I was not entirely inept at Japanese, Kuniaki invited me to join him. Unlike most Japanese cities, Kubokawa was a total ghost town on this Sunday, all shops were shuttered and, not being able to find a single restaurant that was actually open (!!), we opted to try out a local izakaya (Japanese pub) and try out the famous local katsuo no tataki, a type of tuna carpaccio, grilled oh-so-lightly on the sides but still raw on the inside. It was good, and so was the rest of the food, not to mention the beer -- a few hours of international exchange resulted in a bill of Y7500, which Kuniaki insisted on having the honor of paying; in the end I succeeded in forcing him to accept a Y2000 contribution from me, but only if he would be permitted to buy me beer for the 2nd event back at the hostel.
Kuniaki turned out to be a pretty interesting guy; now thirty, he'd worked until now at a family-owned drugstore, but had now quit that gig and was doing the Japan loop before heading off to Beijing to study Mandarin and traditional Chinese medicine (漢方薬, kanpouyaku). A very un-Japanesely outgoing type, I was initially a bit suspicious of his motives especially as he kept repeating his absolute shock and horror at having heard that one particular hostel's owner was (gasp) homosexual. I toed the same line and that was that. We exchanged addresses, and Kuniaki is one of those rare people that I may meet again someday.
The next day I woke up bright and early around 5 (camping does horrible things to my internal clock), but dozed off until 6 and then starting raising myself from the dead. While shaving in the "face washing room" (洗面場), a fixture of all Japanese youth hostels, I was surprised to run into a 20-something pigtailed pilgrim girl, evidently the only other occupant in the place. As it turned out we both got up and going at the same time, so we chatted the few kilometers from the temple to the highway down south; turned out she was from snowy Fukui-ken, on the Japan Sea coast of Tohoku, and was now covering the 88 temples alone and on foot. Da-yamn.
Alas, we soon waved goodbye and I started the old thumb gig. Ride 1, two surfer dudes who drove me to Nakamura and engaged in studies of comparative physiognomy along the way ("your nose is up high, so that's why you look so cool! Damn, in this country you can get a girlfriend just by snapping your fingers!"). Ride 2 was an amazingly mellow young fellow -- I've never heard anyone speak Japanese so slowly, not because of me but because that's the way he liked it -- who shuttled me across town to the road to Cape Ashizuri. "I'm not from around here though", he drawled, "so I'm not sure about these roads..." "So where are you from?" I asked, assuming that with his taste in hip-hop music and trendy clothes the answer couldn't possibly be much closer than Osaka. "Kubokawa", he replied -- the town I'd left this morning, all of 50 kilometers away.
Ride 3 was a guy whose work involves purchasing the ingredients for the raw concrete that Japan uses in stupendous quantities. He initially promised to drive me only to Shimizu, but ended up dropping me off at the door of the Kongofukuji Temple, at the southernmost tip of Shikoku. I clambered up to the little observation point at Tengu-no-Hana ("Devil's Nose") and goggled at the vast expanse of the Pacific stretching in all directions, nothing but water for thousands and thousands of miles. The cape is crisscrossed with wonderful little paths under a wooden canopy, just the thing to escape the blazing sun on a hot day like today. The temple itself wasn't particularly remarkable, most of the buildings seemed quite new and one remains under reconstruction -- had there been some fire or other disaster recently?
After a quick and early lunch of cold noodles (it was still only 11 AM) I set off on the track back north, ever so slowly towards Tokyo. Traffic was quite sparse though, I trudged through more foresty paths back to the tiny little town of Ashizurimisaki itself and reposed in the shade, sticking my thumb out only when cars passed by once every few minutes. My unlikely angel was a 48-year-old woman who had just quit her job at a local hotel, and along in another car tagged a former co-worker and friend of hers, a cute girl aged just 23 -- she kept hinting that the girl and I should get to know each other better, but just how was I supposed to do that while in her car? Nonetheless, she ferried me all the way to Sukumo, several hours of twisty roads away and quite far from Nakamura, her actual destination and the town I'd passed through earlier, but she insisted... and I never got to speak more than about 3 words to the girl.
Sukumo, however, turned out to be a bitch to get out of. I'd asked to be dropped off at the Michi-no-Eki ("Road Station") Sukumo, a few kilometers down south, but during the hour I hitched there of the 5 people who stopped -- five! -- all were going to Nakamura, Shimizu or Sukumo itself, none to my destination of Uwajima. One truck driver even called his friend, who was on his way there, but he'd been delayed: "I supposed you don't want to wait until tomorrow, eh?" Eventually one of the people working at the rest area took pity on me and drove me the few kilometers into town, dropping me off at the road to Uwajima. Alas, said road also had a serious shortage of even halfway decent places to hitch, I tried my luck at the corner of a gas station for a while but then moved on down the hill to a curve with a bit of a wider space.
I was starting to get ever-so-slightly frustrated, when suddenly my phone rang. "Moshi moshi?", I answered, and was met with confusion at the other end -- but not for long: the caller was a secretary at the Helsinki University of Technology, who had the pleasure of informing me that my master's thesis had just been accepted, and with the highest possible grade (5 out of 5) at that. Whee! My spirits were instantly lifted, and soon enough a moderately freaky-looking guy (armless shirt, full-back tattoo, huge ear piercings) in a funky black sports car took mercy on me. He was almost certainly a Yak, but he was a cool one and, me of course having carefully avoided the topic, just said that he was an "ordinary salarymen". Yessir. There had been quite a few black vans with darkened windows and the tiny kanji lettering of 島本組 "Shimamoto-gumi" driving around, but what on earth are they going in a countryside backwater like Sukumo?
Mr. Yak met his girlfriend and dropped me off at Misho's Michi-no-Eki. Before I could even start hitching I was accosted by another surfer type -- this time a rather cute girl, out for the weekend on the beaches with a friend and now heading home to Matsuyama. They'd seen me hitching in Sukumo (and I'd spotted them) and had even looped back to get me, but Yak-san beat them to it. They drove me the last stretch to Su-no-Kawa Park, my campground for the night, but -- alas! -- declined my gentle suggestion of mayhaps meeting up tomorrow once I arrive in Matsuyama. Ah well...
This campground is definitely on the simple side, there is a field of grass and a bunch of toilets but that's pretty much it. Behind the maintenance building is a shower shack, using which theoretically would cost you a bit of a hundred yen, but the campground guys didn't bother to charge for it; they seemed a bit surprised that I was even paying the fee of 300 yen to camp there. I was pestered by bugs and cats while cooking dinner (instant noodles! yay!), and while visiting the toilet I was physically assaulted by a frog. An additional unpleasant surprise: the kitchen area's sinks were emblazoned with prominent "節水" signs, which I didn't understand, but didn't worry too much about since tap water in Japan is always drinkable, and undrinkable water is usually clearly labeled as such. So I used a liter or two of the stuff for dinner, and thought it tasted a bit funny... and then went to the other bathroom, and boom, it was clearly labeled 「この水は飲めません」("This water is not drinkable"). Already feeling bubbles in my stomach and envisioning a night of hovering over a filthy squat toilet vomiting while frogs jumped up and down on me, I tremblingly checked the dictionary to figure out what the earlier mysterious sign meant... and then I remembered, yes, I had seen that before, and the meaning was... "Conserve Water"! (But I still decided to stick to vending machine tea, more specifically the Coca-Cola Company's new "Love Body" tea, until I get out of here.)
The weather is still looking fine -- too fine. My hands remain in a state of near-sunburn, and I'm starting to get mentally burned out on hitching as well: my total for the last 4 days has been no less than 16 rides, 6 of them today alone, and repeating the I've-studied-Japanese-for-6-years-and-Finland-is-very-cold bit is starting to get tiresome. Tomorrow I hitch one last stretch to Uwajima, and from there it's time to take the train to Matsuyama.
10 PM, nearly cool outside, still sweltering in the tent. This time morning may actually be bearable.
The prerequisite 1.5 hours of packing and preparation and I was on the road again. There's a nice big parking lot for those campers heading down south, but next to no places to hitch towards Uwajima; I tried my luck half-heartedly for 10 minutes at the bus stop and then boarded the bus, which I figured couldn't possibly be over 1000 yen for the 30-odd km to the city. And no, it wasn't, the bill for the hourlong trip (largely thanks to congestion) came to 990 yen.
The great majority of Uwajima is (excuse my French) butt-ugly, but the area around the station has been tarted up with the obligatory palm-tree-lined central boulevard and covered shopping galleries radiating from it. In Japan, Uwajima is perhaps best known for organizing sacred bull sumo tournaments (only a few times a year though), but us gaijin tend to have another objective in mind. Does the local tourist office even hint at it? But of course not, their pamphlet gushes over heart-stopping attractions like the Ehime Prefectural Science Museum and yet another concrete castle replica. But alas for them, I could find the kanji for 多賀神社 -- Taga Shrine -- on the map myself and that's where I headed off.
To make a long story short, Taga Shrine is one of Japan's few remaining fertility shrines, akin to J2J's Kanamara Shrine. As in Kawasaki, the deity is represented by a phallus, but this time it's not a stubby half-meter iron statue, it's a veritable two-meter log bulging with veins. The shrine also features the amusingly named 凸凹神堂, which would literally mean something like Convex-Concave God Hall, but the shrine's mon (logo) makes things clearer by placing the convex bit 凸 underneath so that it sticks up into the concave bit 凹 (inverted). In essence, the hall is a sex museum no different from the ones in places like Amsterdam and Berlin, and given the Y800 entry fee I decided to skip it. All in all, I have to say that the place was a bit of a disappointment: while far better known than Kanamara, the grounds of the shrine itself are actually even smaller and, aside from the famed log and a few mushroomy-shaped rocks, there just isn't all that much to giggle at. (Then again, there is no entrance fee either, so I can't really complain.) I'll have to trek to Japan's best-known fertility shrine, Tagata Jinja in Inuyama, some day...
And oh, I couldn't resist trying my luck by buying a Y300 special Yin-Yang Harmony Fortune (陰陽和合おみくじ) for determining my sexual prowess. An ego less gargantuan than mine might be have been disappointed by the results:
前頭６The fortune was accompanied by a little clay figure graphically illustrating the union described above, a little toothpick buried in vast folds of flesh. Err... Having decided that the gods were clearly not on my side today, I returned to the station with a detour through nearby Warei Shrine -- big and perfectly standard-issue, except for one curious large box for depositing used and/or unwanted charms and amulets!
Maegashira (5th and lowest rank in sumo), number 6 (out of 16)
Male: "Small Penis"
Match Results: "When the breath comes out the nose, one can eat no more."
As usual with fortunes this is next to untranslatable. Hanaiki means both "nasal breath" and "a person's pleasure" (yes, Japanese euphemisms are weird), so the rest feebly puns on that; the implicit second reading would be "comes once and can't get it up again". Ouch.
It turned out that buses and trains to Matsuyama both cost exactly 1750 yen (what a remarkable coincidence!), but expresses add 1100 yen on top of that and do the trip in 75 minutes, while the futsuu clunker again manages to swallow up 3 hours. But I prefer being able to read and write while traveling, so I took the slow train anyway. In the end, sitting in a nice air-con carriage watching the countryside roll past is not a bad way of spending the hottest hours of the day.
裸で階段の昇降は固くて断ります。And where? Why, at Dogo Onsen (道後温泉), quite possibly Japan's oldest and certainly most famous hot spring, located only a few kilometers from Matsuyama's center -- and only a few hundred meters from Matsuyama's youth hostel. With a recorded history of over 3000 years (!), Dogo has admirably resisted the urges to modernize and hike its prices into the stratosphere; instead, it has a vast array of different prices and different services for different budgets.
Climbing the stairs while naked is strictly forbidden.
Simple no-frills entry into the Kami-no-Yu (神の湯, "Bath of the Gods") costs a mere Y300, but that's all you get, you even have to bring your own towel and soap. For another Y320 -- and the level I picked -- you're loaned a yukata and fed tea and a few sembei cookies after your bath. The entrance process for this second level is a little on the confusing side though: you have to ascend the stairs and disrobe right there in the relaxation room, in sight of all the attendants and anybody in the street below who's looking up. But only down to your underwear -- after putting on your yukata, you go downstairs, strip away the last vestiges of your dignity, and enter the bath. (Oh, there are coin lockers if you need to store your valuables, at Y100 a pop.) The bath isn't particularly spectacular, just two identical giant granite tubs in separate rooms, more often than not full of Japanese tourists. It was almost at capacity on an off-season Tuesday (albeit just before dinner), the place must be a sardine can on holiday weekends.
The process repeats in reverse on the way back, except that you can lounge about in your yukata for an hour, sip on the tea (free refills) and maybe sample a range of other, surprisingly affordable snacks and drinks, all in the Y100 range. The relaxation room is on a breezy 2nd-floor balcony, nice and cool even on a sweltering summer day and with nice views of the yukata-clad tourists clip-clopping about the streets. The entire place is surprisingly traditional with few concessions to modernity, eg. not a vending machine in sight.
Should you want to get away from the
you can fork out another ¥360 -- we're up to ¥980 now -- and
enter the Tama-no-Yu (玉の湯, "Bath of the Spirits"). Tea and cookies
are provided here as well, and you finally get to borrow a towel too.
And if you fork out yet another Y300, you can retire to a private room
on the 3rd floor for changing and sipping tea for all of one hour
and twenty minutes.
Still not satisfied? Then you can book Botchan's Room, named after the protagonist of Natsume Soseki's famed novel of the same name, who used to lounge around the place when off duty (as Soseki did in real life). Prices are negotiable, but presumably not terribly cheap. And for even more luxury there's the Yushinden (又神殿?), reserved for the use of the Imperial Family and so hallowed that a mere glimpse inside will set you back Y210.
The town had been busy in the afternoon, but once the onsen's drum banged 6 PM it suddenly turned into a ghost town. Reason one, most people returned to their hotels to eat, and reason two, the Japan-Belgium match of the 2002 World Cup had just started. I spent quite some time looking for a non-noodle place to eat, gave up after finding the other options unreasonably priced, and sat alone in a forlorn former kaitenzushi place that had been converted to a super-cheap noodle joint, the conveyor belt now motionless and holding nothing more delicate than stacks of towels. The udon was excellent though, I've always been more of a soba fan but here in Shikoku the broth is light and delicate, which suits the mild taste of the wheat noodles much better. (And oh, the match ended in a 2-2 tie.)
Matsuyama's youth hostel is excellent, about the only negative thing I can say is that the trip from the Dogo Onsen tram station is all uphill. Run by a more than slightly eccentric couple into things like aura imaging and bath salts, who have declared their youth hostel an independent republic and even convinced a few other hostels to join in, the slightly above-average ¥3200 fee gets you all sorts of freebies like use of the Internet, newspapers, a massive library, etc. The twin rooms are equipped with a bathroom and TV, there were quite a few other people around but I happened to be the odd one out and got a room to myself. The amazingly huge breakfast buffet is a mere ¥500, and for the sum you can stuff yourself with both Japanese food (tea rice miso pickles fish...) and Western food (coffee bread cereal juice fruit...). Two thumbs up!
And now I'm on the train again, chugging my highly roundabout way towards the summit of Ishizushi-san (石鎚山), Shikoku's highest peak, with the appropriately scary name of Stone Hammer. Unlike trivial Mt. Tsurugi the final ascent evidently involves pulling yourself up iron chains with your teeth, but since the coastal heat wave continues I figured I'd better use my last chance to escape to the mountains. The weather remains, as ever, sunny with highs over 30°C and a 0% chance of rain tonight.
As the mountain officially only opens on July 1st, the tourist village around the ropeway to the trailhead was shuttered down and there were only a few other visitors about. A sightseeing busful of obatarian had been dumped at Joju, the location of the main buildings of the Ishizuchi Shrine, but the trail itself was quiet with only a few people along the entire way.
So. The cable car goes from 450 to 1300 meters (quite a jump!). Joju is a leisurely half-hour uphill stroll away, and the beginning of the actual trail slowly descends right back to the 1300 meters you started from. From the saddle point, Hatchozaka, starts an endless series of tiring wooden steps built into the mountainside to prevent erosion and landslides. After an hour of slogging through the forest, you'll reach reach the Yoake Pass (c. 1600m) and see the last bit of Ishizuchi-san in front of you. Remaining distance to the peak is one kilometer, and remaining elevation to climb is 300 meters.
This is where the fun starts. You can, and many do, take a circuitous (if still steep) ordinary path to the top, but the pilgrim thing to do is to climb up the kusari, giant iron chains, bolted onto the cliffs... so I did. The first set of chains is 33m, and compared to the others it's not too tough, many places to set your feet and rest. The second set is pretty mean and considerably longer at 65m, and you'll need to use those triangles set into the chains as footholds, at least if you're an idiot like me who is only wearing sneakers. And the third set looks absolutely suicidal from below, the first twenty-odd meters seem to be near-vertical and the rest of the 68 meters just keeps on going out of sight. I stood there and pondered for a while, but I figured I still had some reserves of strength and (once again) thought I'd regret it if I didn't, so I gritted my teeth and set on my way up. Grab chain, pull body up, set foot so it won't slip, hyperventilate, repeat... but after that first nasty bit the rest of the chain seemed positively mellow, and there I was, at the summit of all Shikoku!
And what did I find? A big and loud construction site, both shrine and lodge were being totally rebuilt and the summit was filled with helmeted guys jackhammering away. There wasn't even a resident priest in sight. This was at the Misen peak (1974 meters), mind you, the real summit of the mountain is neighboring Tengu-dake (1982m), usually 15 minutes away on foot but currently off-limits due to landslides caused by a recent earthquake. The weather had become distinctly cloudy and haze in all directions limited outward visibility -- a shame. On top of all this, the summit seemed to breed absolutely ridiculous amounts of big swarming bugs: take a close look at some of those pictures, the black blurs are insects! Mildly disappointed, we set off back down.
We had missed the 3 o'clock bus (a near impossibility to catch if arriving at 11, since our time from the cable car station to the summit and back was 4 hours, compared to the 5 estimated by the guide booklet), and the next one wouldn't come until 5 PM, so after purchasing the obligatory calligraphic charm (yes, I am collecting the whole set) I waved bye to Mark and Helen and set off down. And lucked out, as it happened: I'd barely got to the bus stop when a truck rolled past, I stuck out the thumb (from the wrong side of the road at that!), and, lo and behold, it stopped. The driver was a merry guy who spoke nearly incomprehensible dialect, but he took me over to his job -- a stone processing outfit just across the river -- and, after attempting to give me 10,000 yen (which I refused out of principle) ferried me over to another guy who took me to the campsite I'd been planning to stay at, some 10 kilometers down the road.
Camping out, though, turned out a little more difficult than expected. Fureai-no-Sato is geared for large groups and, group or not, reservations are obligatory. I hadn't made one (who on earth makes reservations for obscure campgrounds in the off-season on a weekday?), so they had a problem, since by the rules I wasn't allowed to stay without a reservation, never mind the fact that there were zero other guests. Eventually the maintainer hit on a solution: I could stay out by the river on the terrace, instead of the official campground (just a large dirt field), and then she'd pretend she didn't know a thing about me. Err, OK, suits me -- if I don't officially exist, I don't pay the camping fee either. A person wiser than I could probably draw some profound conclusions about Japanese logic here.
But I was still allowed to use the toilet, cooked up an excellent bowl of ramen noodles, and (although this took a bit of cajoling) allowed to take a much-needed post-ascent cold shower. Setting up camp on rock was a bit of problem (where I am supposed to put the pegs?), but my dome tent is the self-supporting type so I just jigged the rain flap with rocks. I hope there isn't too much dew tonight, in Iya my tent always got totally soaked.
The camping morning was about as perfect as they get: chilly enough for a sweater, not cold enough to annoy, and not a drop of dew on the tent. After another halfhearted stab at hitching I took the bus back to Saijo and boarded a train towards Kaiganji (海岸寺), an obscure little temple (not even part of the 88-temple circuit!) that happens to run a cheap youth hostel as well. Like almost half of Japan's hostels, it's omitted from the English guide map, and while I'd discovered its existence in Matsuyama I'd forgotten to copy down the phone number. Oops. But it was still morning when I got there and showing up at the door uninvited, usually a bad move in Japan, didn't cause too many problems -- and as before, the place wasn't (cough, cough) exactly overflowing with visitors.
So by noon I was clambering up the 1200-odd stone steps to the shrine of Konpira, written as 金刀比羅 in Japanese in complete defiance of any sensible kanji readings. (金比羅 could indeed be read "Konpira", but what on earth is that katana, 刀, doing in there!?) The first half of the staircase is shaded by souvenir shops, much of the rest by trees, but it's still a hot and sweaty slog on a summer afternoon -- fortunately, there are plenty of (minor) attractions scattered along the way, plus even a free shrine-provided resthouse that sells ice cream for ¥100 a pop.
Unfortunately, Konpira-san happens to be one of, if not the biggest of Shikoku's attractions, which meant that even on an off-season weekday there were crowds of tourists being marshaled into group photos in front of any monuments and shepherded about with megaphones. The shrine buildings are scattered about the staircase, and by far the most impressive of the bunch is the huge and ornate Asahi Shrine, one "floor" below the comparatively diminutive (and currently under reconstruction) shrine honden (main building). And the shrine management hasn't hesitated to make use of its popularity: plastered everywhere about the shrine, and the entire surrounding town of Kotohira, are blaring yellow posters advertising the magical powers of its protective amulets, stacks of which are sold at the temple for ¥800 a pop. I have a bit of a habit of collecting written strips of calligraphy from the temples and shrines, which are usually both beautiful and affordable, but no, at Konpira you can only buy one as part of a mountable large wooden amulet which will set you back ¥1000 to a whopping ¥20000 depending on how big you want it (the biggest is, as you can imagine, quite a log). I descended, somewhat disappointed, and ran into Mark and Helen again, who had indeed said that they'd be heading for Konpira today. They were still on their way up though, so I wished them luck and headed for the station.
While the shrine still seems to be prospering, the town itself is clearly feeling the pain of Japan's recession: the hawkers pitching their (identical) souvenirs and the ubiquitous Sanuki udon noodles that are a specialty of what is now known as Kagawa prefecture sounded almost desperate in their appeals and all hotels were advertising slashed rates. The covered shopping mall between station and shrine was so depressing that I couldn't even find a decent place to eat, in the end I slurped my obligatory noodles at the station's cheapo joint and headed for Utazu.
Utazu, on the other hand, turned out to be a real surprise. Japanese towns tend to be so identical -- chaotic, tightly packed labyrinths of concrete and steel wrapped in wires -- that any deviation from the norm really stands out, and by Japanese standards Utazu's harborfront area really was pretty out there: it looked just like a street in some mildly touristy Florida or California beachside town! Wide streets lined with palm trees, sidewalks tastefully tiled with brick, offbeat cafes and restaurants playing reggae and oldies... add in the perfectly sunny (and very hot) day and I felt like I was in an entirely different country.
This area isn't too big though, just a few blocks, and it's dominated by the Golden Tower, which is a (very) touristy sightseeing tower wrapped up in greenish-goldish glass to make it look like a skyscraper. Business was slow though, the massive parking lots all but deserted, to the point that my actual destination, the World of Toilets Museum (amusingly translated as "Charm Station") was closed, evidently more or less permanently; all I could do is snap a picture of a fading poster featuring the world's only solid gold toilet. The tower itself would have cost Y800, so I decided to skip it.
Utazu is clearly suffering from cheapskates like me though, there's a large shopping mall fronting the beachside area but its hotel is -- again -- offline for time being. Instead, the center seems to be undergoing some radical Californication into a very American-style strip mall. The main roads from local capital Takamatsu are all lined with massive warehouse-style stores and accompanying parking lots, and these appeared to be at least comparatively busy.
I returned to Kaiganji and immediately ran into Ariel and Tomoko, respectively an all-American blonde girl from Virginia and her quite Americanized but still Japanese college buddy. Ariel was simultaneously a student of Japanese, a bluegrass musician, a major soccer fan and a college radio punk rock DJ, as revealed only by a rather impressive array of ear piercings. Tomoko was starting to get a bit tired of ferrying around Ariel -- not because Ariel particularly wanted such 24-hour service, mind you, but because that's the way the Japanese insist on treating their guests, itineraries planned to the minute beforehand -- so she stayed at the hostel while we headed out to hit the local sights and find some food.
Now make no mistake, Kaiganji is seriously out in the boonies, even the nearest convinience store was several kilometers down the road. The only local attraction is Kaiganji itself, which isn't all that much of a temple, but does have a surprisingly extensive "Mandala Garden" on the other side of the road, featuring miniature replicas of famous statues or deities from all 88 temples plus an extra 20 holy places (including, coincidentally enough, Kaiganji). There was not a tourist in sight and the pagodas and temple buildings scattered around the mandala were quietly pretty.
After the garden we headed off towards that convinience store with only a vague idea of where to find it, and stopped for dinner at a place called Oyajiya ("Uncle Shop"), featuring its specialty the Oyajidon ("Uncle Bowl"). And what, prithee, is an Uncle Bowl? It turned out to be cubes of ultra-lardy pork meat with some vegetables on top, but since we were evidently the first gaijin to ever venture into the place, we were treated to a vast array of delicacies ranging from deep-friend whole shrimp to biwa (loquats). Total bill for the two of us: 1100 yen. Damn.
The next morning I set off around 7 towards a carefully calculated route towards the Takase PA, in the vicinity of the station of the same name. Left at the exit, right at the second light, left at the 3rd light, slog slog slog... a seemingly short distance on the map turned out to mean 4-5 kilometers in practice and I was soaked in sweat by the time I arrived. An even more unpleasant surprise was that this parking area seriously sucked: facilities were limited to parking and toilets, not even a vending machine, and traffic was slooow. It took me almost an hour to catch the day's first ride, from a guy who ferried about iron plates somehow related to printing, who took me across the mind-bogglingly huge Seto O-Hashi Bridge from Shikoku to Honshu.
He dropped me off at the next parking area and I started waving that thumb. Kansai no hou ni ikitai n' desu ga... 1st car stops: sorry, he's heading for the north. (I later kicked myself for not realizing I could've taken the Chuo Expressway from up there just as well.) 2nd car: nope, Hiroshima, in the reverse direction. 3rd car: nope, Okayama city. 4th car: nope, out at the next intersection. By this time I'd been standing out there for 2.5 hours, a new record for an expressway, the clock was nearing 12 and I was still only a few dozen kilometers from where'd started. Panic! I was ready to accept any ride just to get out of there when, lo and behold, two vending machine refill guys took mercy on me and ferried me past Okayama to the Sanyo Expressway, the major artery connecting western Japan to the east.
After a well deserved meal of curry rice and another application of suntan lotion (my arms were again reddening alarmingly) I set out again, and was almost immediately picked up by a rich-looking couple on their way to Kobe to meet a Swedish friend of theirs. They invited me to stay the night, but no, I'd made other plans, so they dropped me off near Kobe and, again, within a few minutes I caught another ride. This time the driver was a movie cameraman, who specialized in TV ads and had traveled quite widely ("not Finland yet though!"); he'd just been visiting his mom in Yamaguchi prefecture, at the westernmost tip of Honshu, and was now driving some 10 hours non-stop to his home in Tokyo. After a bit of map consultation he dropped me off at the Ibuki PA in the hills of Gifu, and I set off on foot across the rice fields towards the little train station of Kashiwabara. 'Twas maybe 2 kilometers there, gently downhill, and soon enough I was in Sekigahara and Nori-chan was on her way to meet me.