2. Chugoku/Shikoku

Mar 26 – to Shunan (120/970 km to date)

I had a nice breakfast in the hostel at Shimonoseki, The bright sun sparkled on the straight looking across to Kyushu.  It was cold as the wind was still coming straight out of the north but the sun lightened my heart after all the rainy days.  I was to ride close to highway 2 for the next few days as I touched on a few attractions, but there would be none today.  I started right on the coast, but soon drifted inland often on the commercial strip that seems to line all roads on the coast.  My only shelter from the cold wind was when the buildings were close or the road cut through a cliff.

Chugoku

I got some countryside riding when climbing inland.  The many hills sometimes had a rideable sidewalk and sometimes not.  The traffic seems a bit heavier here than on Kyushu, but it varies dramatically.  At times #2 is a quiet country road and at other times it is a 6 lane freeway. I began to take all sorts of deviations; side roads in towns and little country roads paralleling the highway.  This was great fun if not the most efficient way of getting down the road.  I followed the wrong freeway at one point but my intuition soon pulled me out.  I had to retrace myself for about 5 kms but these sorts of things bother me less when I have no set destination for the day.   Other than this one goof all of my little off road ventures seemed to pay off with some enjoyable exploration that also got me by a bad looking stretch of road.   Today I also got some real high end bike lanes but the one thing that you can count on is that the nature and quality of bike lanes will change within 2 or 3 kms and so I also had the worst possible lanes and of course often nothing at all.

At one point I did three closely connected tunnels, all with narrow sidewalks that I could ride.  The longest was about 3 km and it was spooky.  Even though I was on a sidewalk, the tunnel wall on one shoulder and the moving wall of trucks on the other kept my heart in my mouth.  Tunnels greatly exaggerate the road noise and that contributes to the anxiety.  They never end soon enough.  I guess one good thing is that they always cut through a ridge high up and so I get a good fast run down when I pop out.

Shunan is a relatively large town along the way and I stopped here basically because it was about 2:30 as I entered.  I had about a 10 km run off #2 into town. Anytime I can get away from the highway I do.  The first hotel I managed to pick out was a “love hotel”.  I was offered a room for the right price but I would only get a few hours. Once I figured it out I continued to try to negotiate with the young girl for the whole night.  Finally a young man stepped in and walked me out and showed me up the street to an “office hotel”.

I don’t mind office hotels; this is my third and while they have everything I want, single rooms and are not too expensive, they don’t have much character.  There wasn’t much in Shunan that appeals in the way of restaurants, so I went for Hotto Motto again, which is very good hot takeout.  I ate my take-out watching baseball and Sumo on TV.

Mar 27  To Miyajima (80/1050 km to date)

Still sunny and cold; in fact I see vestiges of frost on the grass in shady spots as I started out.  The riding was very similar to yesterday, but the hills may have been a bit more numerous and the tunnels I passed through did not have sidewalks.  The longest was only 1.3 kms but the roads seemed to be a bit less busy as I was in the tunnels which means the trucks could pull over into the on-coming lane as they passed.  I think 1.3 km is about the maximum distance I can ride while holding my breath.

It must be obvious that you can’t make really good headway on and off sidewalks often heading down little side roads or zig-zagging back and forth across the main road.  I make the best time when I am on the road riding along the white line but it is so hectic that when one of these alternatives occur I do take it most of the time.  I am still riding a bit slower on the sidewalks; I don’t want another pretzelled wheel.  In spite of this I do manage to get down the road, finishing up mid-afternoon, and I am enjoying the riding challenge.

I had two “attractions” today.  Kintai-kyo in Iwakuni is a five arched wooden bridge dating from 1673 that was built to allow the ruling class to cross the river.  I enjoy having a mid-day attraction that will get me off of the highway and this was an exceptional one.  I have never seen a bridge like this one.

I reached Miyajima early.  This is a Japanese “must see”.  I was committed to the ferry crossing and an expensive place to stay on this Saturday.  Miyajima is a holy Shinto Island where commoners once could not set foot.  The Miyajima Torii is in the sea.  The Miyajima Shrine called Itsukushima-jinja, is one of Japan’s most important shrines, and its floating Torii is one of the most photographed sights.  On this day there are thousands here to have a look.  It really is quite the sight particularly at high tide when the reflection in the sea adds to the impression.

I had decided to stay the night on Miyajima, as one of my indulgences on this trip.  I got here early checked into a hotel and then had my first look at the Torii.  I then hiked up Mt Misen, which took a couple of hours and was very reminiscent of my Sacred Mountain hikes in China with the stone steps and temples along the way.  In my hotel I learned a little more about how to use and enjoy a sento as there were a number of other men in the public bath by the time I got in.  While relaxing in the hot pool I could look out across the straight to the main island.  I think they have something here.  I again felt a lot more relaxed when I went back to my room to appreciate my second beer.  A few more yens than normal dribbled out of the pocket today but I have enjoyed the experience.

Mar 28 – Hiroshima (50/1100 km to date)

My 1000 yen breakfast was nicely presented when I arrived in the dining room.  I noticed that others were in their kimonos that the hotel had invited all to pick out.  I will have to try this next time.  I walked down to the Torii and then entered Itsukushima-jinja itself.  Like its Torii, it is not actually floating, but built on pilings.  It was of course much less busy than in the afternoon when I arrived, and so it was pleasant strolling around taking the odd picture.  I saw both male and female monks.  Most of the people here were buying things that would be used in their prayers.  So there is still a certain amount of religion involved in the Shinto customs but I still think that most are asking for a bit of luck and will do so at a Shinto Shrine, Buddhist Temple or Christian Church for that matter.

I was back on the main island a bit after 9:00, continuing my highway # 2 saga, but I only had about 25 km to get into Hiroshima.  I am sure I was on restricted freeways for part of this ride but Sunday morning is probably less congested than normal so no one objected violently, not that the Japanese would do that anyway..

In Hiroshima I found my way to the Peace Memorial Park to have another go at asking whoever you ask that no one ever drops another bomb.  It is my form of worship I guess.  Possibly there is a virtual turnstile and the more people that tick the gate the greater chance this prayer will be answered.  Particularly haunting is what is now called the A-bomb dome, the shell of a building that somehow was not flattened with everything else.  Through some controversy it was decided to leave this building untouched, providing a stark contrast to the pristine park and other memorial sculptures.

I checked into a hostel, the same chain as I used in Tokyo, and headed out to ride the town.  I ventured into a people park where I saw on this sunny Sunday quite a few Hanami parties, both family types and sake types.

Mar 29 – to Setoda (120/1220 km to date)

I managed to get out of Hiroshima without touching Hwy 2; still it was about 15 km before I cleared the city, much of it industrial dock yards.  I finally popped onto Hwy 31 as it began to follow the in-land sea coast.  This body of water, between Honshu and Shikoku has some 3000 islands, many of which are populated.  It is supposed to be a milder climate that the other coasts, but of course I have my cold wind that is always with me.  I missed the turnoff to a short-cut but didn’t mind as I stayed on the coast for the whole day.  I had a number of tunnels, including one that had a wide glassed in biking lane.  Talk about luxury, I was even able to relax and it was close to 2 km long.  After about 75 km I had lunch in an area of preserved historical houses in the town of Takehara.

While having lunch I read in my LP about a ferry across to Setoda and a very inexpensive Minshuku (guesthouse), with its own onsen.  The ferry is 10 km before the turn-off to the Shamani-kaido, the series of seven bridges that I planned to use to get to Shikoku, and it goes to the second island in the chain.  This would solve two problems, a lack accommodation options for the night and the desire to spend a night on the chain of islands.  At about 2:00 I got to the town where the ferry was supposed to leave from and was told to go back about 10 km. I had ridden past it and of course the signage wouldn’t help me much.  I decided to go back and gamble that I could find it as I still had time to get to my original stopping place if the ferry didn’t pan out

The ferry worked, I caught a 3:00 ferry, had about 5 km of riding and some more hunting to find the minshuku which was also not signed in our script.  My room was a tatami matted room but the big attraction was the hot tub which was to open at 5:30, an hour before our dinner.  I went for a walk along the beach and in need of fluids, had a beer in a little restaurant.  The cold wind was by now beginning to get through to my core.   I had to wait while three other old guys used the tub, it was not big but once in it was wonderful as always.  Another old guy joined me and I think he managed to stay in right until dinner.

The set meal, that 7 of us +65 ers and one 18 year old girl had was not the best but was still very good.  I had hot sake for the first time and that finished off the body warming, begun in the bath and loosened the tongues of us old people.

Mar 30 – To Matsuyama (110/1330 km to date)

Our set breakfast was similar to dinner with lots of Q&A .  While the depth of English is not generally great most have some and are not afraid to try.  For breakfast, like dinner, there are many little pieces of things I can’t identify.  I always enjoy the hot broth and the rice, the rest are cold tidbits, all to be enjoyed except for me the little fishes always served whole.  On a very clear and cold morning I headed for the big bridge that would be the start of my Shimanami-Kaido.

I buggered up right from the start.  I rode under the bridge, 2-300m abovet me, looking for something that could get me up there. About 5 km along there was a road entry to the expressway with clear signage suggesting no bikes or people.  I turned up a different  road with some Japanese signage and no real hope.  At the top of a long push, I was now above the expressway; I hauled my stuff over the fence onto the expressway and headed back down, hoping to see something like a bike trail.  At a toll-booth a deeply distraught attendant couldn’t understand how I had got onto the expressway. He gave me to understand that I had to head back around underneath the bridge.  A couple more people along the way confirmed that there was a bike trail.  And then I saw three old guys heading up a road.  Still no signage that I could pick out but the old guys confirmed that I was now on route.

Once underway, the biking was wonderful.  Each island has its own bike lanes, even though the traffic is non-existents, all traffic is on the expressway.  The entry to the cycle path up to the bridges is quite spectacular and each bridge is different.  I missed the entry to a bridge one more time but only overshot by a couple of kms, before back-tracking.  The entry is always within 3-500 metres of a point directly under the bridge.

Things were going too well; coming off of the second bridge a spoke broke.  I hadn’t hit anything, but I guess those thousands of kerbs that I have bounced over finally had their say.  I carry a little gizmo that acts as a temporary spoke that took half an hour to install.  The three old guys I had passed on the first bridge even caught up.  I had another 30 kms and three more bridges to get onto Shikoku and to Imabari which I was hoping would have a bike shop, given its status as one end of this wonderful bike route.  I had passed, going both ways, almost 100 other bikers.

By the time I entered Imabari I was getting some wheel wobble.  I found the main train station and the information office where a young girl helped me get started on finding help. Like my two previous bike mis-haps, it took three bike shops and an awful lot of luck to find a place with the right kind of spokes for my wheel. I was bailed out by an elderly bike guy, with a wonderful collection of old bikes, who knew what he was doing.  I bought two extra spokes from him; I knew this wheel had too few spokes for what I am doing.

My final 50 km into Matsuyama was wind assisted; its almost like the gods have tested me and decided that I deserved a little help.  Possibly its that I will try to visit more shrines and temples while on Shikoku but more of that later.  Matsuyama is the biggest city on Shikoku, and as I was coming in, too late to do any real visiting, I made the decision to spend an extra day touristing here.  That decision was vindicated when I got settled into my hostel which seems wonderful.  I am in a dorm with three beds, so only two chances of a snorer and the supper meal was the best I have had here in Japan.  A fill it yourself glass of wine is $1:00 and there are lots of people that are interested in visiting.  I am looking forward to my day’s holiday here.

Mar 31 Matsuyama (20/1350km to date)

Breakfast was just as good as dinner so I have a real winner here for my two night stay.  I rode to the castle. Mastsuyama-jo is another 1600s castle but this one has not had any significant reconstruction.  The castle is 132 m above the surroundings, which is gained by any of a number of winding walkways; the ones I was on through deep forest.  The ubiquitous rock walls along the way would make all but the most serious attacker turn back.  There are four gates, each more robust than the previous one.  The top layers are wood, and they have needed to be rebuilt over the centuries, at times due to lightning strike fires.  Much of the upper levers were last re-built in the mid 1800s.

I began to get a real easy feeling here, perhaps due to my increasing familiarity with things Japanese, perhaps due to the quiet attractiveness of Matsuyama, perhaps due to the profusion of Sakura that now seem to be at their peak.  These are throughout the castle grounds and I continued to experience them through the rest of my day here ending with some attractive hanami sessions in Dogo park.

Shikoku is possibly most famous for its 88 temple pilgrimage.  There are seven of the 88 here in Matsuyama, and I went to one of the more significant.  Ishite-ji is #51 on the circuit and while there I saw a group, possibly travelling by bus, I talked with a man who was doing the circuit by bike, it would take him  16 days, but the most legitimate way is to walk it, the aruki henro.  All good pilgrims where a white tunic, have a straw conical hat to keep off the sun and rain, and carry a wooden stave, which is the embodiment of Kobo Daishi.  It takes a good henro about 6 weeks to do the 1400 kms, and you are following in the footsteps of other Buddhist pilgrims who have been at this for over 1000 years.  I have talked with three different Americans who have done or are doing the walk, one about to start his second go at it.  It is faintly attractive sounding to me, but I do think that those on some sort of spiritual quest are getting the most out of the adventure.  I will touch on a few more of the temples during my dash across the island.

My last activity, before my beer, computer work and supper was a visit to Dogo Onsen, one of the pressing reasons I had to venture off of the straight line on my random path through Japan.  This Onsen is contained in a three story wooden building built in 1894.  It sits surrounded by highrise concrete buildings.  You choose from a complicated range of offerings costing from $4 to heaven knows how much.  I chose the $8, which included a crisp cotton kimono to relax in after the bath while having tea and biscuits.  Being more of a beer and pretzel guy this may have been wasted on me but I am trying.  It was nice not jumping into my clothes while still sweating from the hot bath though.

In many ways I hope it is raining heavily in the morning and then I might choose to stay another day here.  This is by far the nicest place I have been yet but I am also looking forward to what is down the road as well.

Apr 1 – to Awa Ikeda (120/1470 km to date)

It was sputtering as I left the hostel in Matsuyama but not enough to keep me.  I was guessing as I left town;  the way did not become clear very soon.  In fact I began to leave my destination open to which road I ended up clearing the city on.  But I hit #11 the highway I had chosen to get me to the Iya valley supposedly an out of the way place.  #11 heads inland from Mastuyama and that meant I began to climb.  Once it began in earnest the climbing continued for 10 km with a couple of long tunnels that put me into a valley where rain was in process.  I had a wet run down a narrow gorge finally pulling into a roadside restaurant where I could wait out the heavy rain.

The woman running the place brought out newspapers and extra chairs for me to hang and dry my things.  I had staked out a spot under the heater.  In the hour and a half that I spent in the restaurant I had an excellent udon soup, a cup of coffee and a good discussion with the woman; she in Japanese, me in English.  She had only two other customers during this time in spite of the hundreds of trucks that went roaring by.  She brought out plastic bags for me to cover my bike, which I was unable to get out of the rain.

As soon as there was a slight break off I went.  I had a long fast run through some flat country, and then I left #11 but the minor road was only moderately less busy.  I had another 10 km climb, a long tunnel and then a short run down into Ikeda.  I stopped at a café that had an information indicator out front and asked for help.  The young girl connected me using her cell with her father who was the information guy and who could speak English.

I ended up in a minshuku hanging high on the bank above a river.  When I indicated that I wanted to head out and buy some beer the owner loaded me into his van and off we went to the big super market.  He pointed me to the spot where I could buy some pre-made food, which solved the question about whether or not I could have them make dinner for me.  I was quite comfortable in my place, and they micro-waved my food for me and so all was good.

Apr 2 – To Takamatsu(80/1550 to date)

I toyed with the thought that I would spend two nights at Ikeda and do an unloaded loop ride touching on some gorges in the high country.  When I stuck me head out it was still sputtering and very black. So plan B was to keep on trucking, and I loaded up and headed off to Takamatsu.  It would be a full day with some touristing along the way. But first I had a very steep 10 km up out of the valley.

Dropping down to Kotohira, my first visit was to the Shinto shrine Kompira-san, one of the most important Shinto shrines in Shikoku.   The 1368 steps you climb to get to all shrines along the way to the top are lined initially with shops and then with sakura in full blossom and then into a dark pine forest.  All along the way there are countless Japanese lanterns and kanji inscribed stones.  All very attractive and reminiscent again of the sacred mountains in China.

Back on my bike, after another udon, this one curry based,  I went on down the road to Zentsu-ji, #75 on the circuit, important in part because it is the birthplace of Kobo Daishi.

My day finally got me to Takamatsu and the first order of business was a couple of hours wandering around Ritsurin-koen, one of Japan’s top gardens.  Much water, many bridges, interesting rock forms, and very nice looking tea garden which I did not pay the extra to appreciate and many gnarled pines, which seems to be one of this garden’s distinguishing features.  Very fine garden.

I am in Takamatsu to catch the ferry back to Honshu, and so I headed close to the ferry to find a hotel.  I rode my bike around and couldn’t actually identify any of the hotels recommended in LP, as often is the case they do not use western naming on the buildings.  I stopped at a place that I though might be a hotel, and the fellow asked if I was a hostel member.  LP does not identify a hostel here.  The hotel I was in runs a YH out of another building around the corner.  They took me into the nicest room I have had so far, and invited me back to the main hotel to enjoy the onsen, which I did. I lucked out again.

Apr 3 – Okayama (40/1510 km to date)

I caught an 8:20 ferry which deposited me back in Chugoku a little more than an hour later.  The rain of the last two days has been swept away by the cold west wind.  That and a couple of good climbs made my 25 km run into Okayama feel longer that it is, but I appreciate the sun as it warms me a bit.  There was no obvious hotel choice in my LP and so I headed towards the station area.  I tried the information kiosk in the station, and the cheapest hotel listed in LP, which isn’t so cheap anymore.  I am getting so that I can spot a minshuku and so I found one about $15 cheaper than the LP suggestion, and it is just fine.  I have a twin bedded room, and access to an onsen, which is now becoming a high priority for me.  Normally hotels don’t let you check in until 3 or 4, but when I asked to store my bags the lady let me into my room.

I was off across town to Koraku-en, rated one of the top three gardens in Japan.  It is Saturday and prime sakura time and so all of the parks are crowded, but not uncomfortably so.  Koraku-en is known for its large expanses of lawn, and on this sunny but cool day, people are on the lawn appreciating the sun.  The hanami is in full swing, with family gatherings and large drinking groups side by side.  The garden wraps around a number of lakes and has many fine rock and rock groupings in addition to the gnarled pines.   I walked a lot, it is another strolling garden, sat a bit in a sunny spot out of the wind and even dozed.  The garden was completed in 1700 for the private use of the local daimyo (lord), and opened to the public in 1884.  The amazing thing to me is that such a magnificent creation would be so restricted in its use and mostly amazingly that people would put up with that for almost 200 years, but that was the age, all of the world I guess.

But, the tourist’s job is never done.  It was then off to check out Okayama-jo, which is visible from the garden.  The original was another 400 year old, but WWII finished that off, but it has been rebuilt as so many are.  Without the prepossessing castle on the hill these cities just would not be the same, it is easy to see why the Japanese have gone to such an effort to restore them.  This one is quite black in appearance is is nicknamed “the crow”, and it would have been quite ominous to potential enemies.  Tomorrow I am heading off down the road towards Himeji.

Apr 4 – to Himeji (100/1610 km to date)

Another good day, cold but sunny and only a light head wind.  The day started out pretty flat and so I made good time.  In the middle what could have been a lot of up and down was rescued by 4 or 5 tunnels, and the traffic was relatively light, on this Sunday.  I approached Himeji a bit after noon and began to see the sakura and the hanami parties.

I approached Himeji-jo right away and was unable to get even close to entering the castle.  Apparently the lines were three hours long.  This is probably the busiest day of the year.  The sakura are at their prime and the day was lovely.  Himeji-jo is possibly the finest castle in Japan, and it is in as close to original condition as possible.  In Japanese castles, on top of the many layered rock ramparts the main castle keeps were originally wood.  That meant they would burn and be rebuilt periodically and as you wander the corridors and climb the stairs there is a very different feeling than in the concrete reconstructions.

I checked into a hotel and did get back to Himeji-jo, or the “white heron”.  I got into line close to the end of the day and walked slowly in my place in line through the castle.  It took an hour and a half, but I guess I have come this far and so the effort was worthwhile.  Still I guess that my major enjoyment is seeing them up on their perch and wandering the perimeter getting the odd look at them through the sakura.

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