On the second day of a five day tour through Shikoku, James and I wrapped up an excruciatingly long grind up a rainy mountain on a road that has more in common with the Oregon Trail than most roads or paths built in this, the 21st (and a half) century. We made the rare good decision to forego the last 30 km to our planned destination, and instead grabbed a room in a hotel that was to be closing its doors within the hour. Yes, hotels in Japan close early. For all of Japan’s conveniences, finding a place to stay at the last minute can be quite problematic. Our hotel, unappetizing, yet palatable, overlooked a damned lake (I know).
A brief history: Shikoku is the smallest of Japan’s four major islands and is also the least visited. Sometimes referred to as “the forgotten island,” Shikoku is nestled between tropical Kyushu to the southwest, Hiroshima to the north, and Osaka to the east, and though those three tout tons of tourist traps, Shikoku shouldn’t sit silently sinking into self-pity. No, no. Besides the mountains and rivers you are nearly ready to digest, Shikoku has to its name: a famous 88-temple pilgrimage that circumnavigates the island, the birthplace of Udon noodles, more varieties of orange colored/ flavored fruit than you knew existed, and of course the world renowned Imabari Towels. There are an impressive 1.2 towel factories for every 1,000 of Imabari’s nearly 0.2 million residents. If there is an easier way to explain that, I’d like to (not) know.
Although our journey was considerably under-toweled, we were rank with an abundance of mountain vistas, waterfalls bleeding from within the rocky cliff faces, roadside Japanese mountain goats, and mountain valley lined with Cherry trees bursting forth their pink and white blossoms like gum under a desk. Even with these beautiful distractions, the toll that these rough roads put on our bodies and bikes was worthy of a long soak in the geothermic waters of our hotel’s onsen.
The next day’s forecast called for rain all day long, so, naturally, we rolled out into the sunshine. It became immediately clear that our choice to cut the previous day short was brilliant. Not only had it been raining, but a ride through the night would have kept this gorgeous scenery in the dark and out of view. The lake, albeit damned, was gorgeous. Surrounded by mountains on all sides, the road spooned, bent, and humped around the long lake’s many bays and points. Connecting us along the way were a few red suspension bridges that helped keep things interesting.
Around the bend we came to a road-side shop that had a wood-burning oven, and they were tossing pizza dough. Ten minutes and 500¥ ($5) later we were sitting under a cherry tree eating fresh delicious pizza. We were ready for the road again after complimentary hot tea, a quick chat and a little mutual admiration of their delicious pizza and our bike ride.
Eventually the lake gave way to the big Yoshino river that feeds into the lake, and we climbed the accompanying road upstream. The rivers in Shikoku are famous for their beautiful turquoise water and for good reason. The shallow rocky beds are crystal clear, and the deeper pools are like a shot of wheat grass in color, but without the bitter aftertaste.
From time to time, staring into the river on the left gave way to glimpses of the scores of waterfalls on the valley walls to the right. Each one had its own personality; some were pouring great streams from high above, while others were content to leak slowly from the pores of the wet rock. Roads in Japan are built with these in mind and they are directed below the roads to their eventual integration with the river below.
This would be our last big climb on this trip and the mountains mark the border between Kochi Prefecture to the south and Ehime Prefecture to the north. Having ridden enough for a break, we did just that. We hopped off the bike for some stretching and fueling our legs with salts and sweets. Although we had the impression that we were alone on this un-trafficked mountain road, our presence was noticed quickly and before we knew it we were offered some freshly picked Dekopon (grapefruit size orange-like sweetness) with a woman named Misa.
Misa is a Lumberjack who lives with her husband in this mountain paradise, far away from her big-city upbringing in Osaka. Misa’s choice to leave the city in favor of the “Inaka” (countryside) is the opposite of most young people here in Japan who leave their quiet homes in favor of the excitement of the city. Thanks to her trend-bucking decisions, we found ourselves sharing our time and space with a gentle spirit. Misa, being so kind and inquisitive, stopped whatever she was doing when she looked out her window, and ran across the street with her Dekopon in hand as an offering. She shared her story, and we shared ours… and some chocolate.
Thats how it goes here on the road, and within this life. Sometimes our intersecting lines and lives run parallel briefly, join for miles, or sometimes pass over without much perceived effect. What Misa gave us was more than fruit. She gave us herself for five minutes. It’s these encounters that keep me going, riding, searching for adventure. And yea, the Dekopon was delicious!