A Difficult Day

31/5/16. With a ferry to catch from the other end of the island, we were up relatively early on Tuesday morning. A heavy dew meant that Stephen’s tent drying duties took longer than usual so Christine was ready to leave first.The route took us across the middle of the island rather than the much longer coastal road. It was agreed that Christine would set off and, if Stephen didn’t catch up on the road, we would meet where we joined the coastal road.

The inevitable happened! Christine reached the road and waited while when Stephen got to the junction there was no sign of her so he started tearing along roads backwards and forwards looking for her.

It transpired that the cycle route, which Christine followed, diverged from the road part way along while Stephen stuck to the road, not noticing the cycle route going off on its own track. Thus we joined the coastal route at diffferent points!

When we finally met some 20 minutes later it was almost time for the ferry to leave and we were nowhere near tthe dock.Marital equilibrium was temporarily disturbed!

However, as it took us 40 minutes to get to the ferry port it was clear we would have missed the boat even without the confusion and the planets resumed their steady path around the sun! We faced a 4 hour wait and settled down to read.

The lady running the ticket desk gave Stephen a severe ticking off for recharging various electronic devices in the waiting room when she returned from her lunch break. Oops!

Eventually the ferry arrived and we boarded with one other cyclist and two cars for the 25 minute trip. As the weather was again sunny and there was little wind, the journey was beautiful reminding us of island hopping in Finland 10 years ago.

The town at which arrived seemed to have little to offer. Certainly we could see no sign of a food shop to supplement our lunch of a packet of cappuccino biscuits so we headed off down the road.

We were now in Hiroshima prefecture on a chain of smaller islands that are connected by a series of bridges that do not have separate provision for bikes but the roads are really quiet so this is not an issue.

Riding along beside the blue sea we could see a largish town on the next island which had several sights according to a leaflet which Christine had seen in the waiting room. We reasoned that there had to be somewhere for people to stay but, three bridges later, we could find almost no sign of life in the town. The tourist information was closed and, when we bumped into a group of 4 of our fellow passengers, 3 of them walked off wanting nothing to do with us. The fourth showed us the lication of a hotel on a map but it was many miles away – fine if you’re in a car but useless to cyclists. He then spied someone emerging from one of the houses and asked her. She pointed at a place on his map of the town so we headed off for the place indicated.

Shut!

It was as though the whole town was on holiday. We jumped on the bikes again and enjoyed the views, all the time growing worried about where we were going to sleep. Entering the next town Stephen spotted somewhere that looked a possibility until Christine discerned that the first 2 characters of the name on the door were the Chinese symbols for hospital.

Nothing else looked even vaguely likely so we carried on as the road signs seemed to show that we were nearing another largish town, Toyohama.

Crossing onto the next island, we arrived in the town and passing the “city office” (place where the Japanese do all sorts of official business) we walked in hoping they might be able to help.

The office workers looked puzzled about why 2 foreigners would want to renew their car tax or register to vote or any of the other things they did there. However when we explained what we wanted using Christine’s very sparse Japanese, miming sleeping and saying hotel very loudly (Stephen’s contribution!) they understood and produced a print out of a hotel from the web with a picture and they pointed on the map. One of them phoned the hotel but returned indicating that we couldn’t stay there.

More consultations followed and the map was pointed to again, this time a place halfway round the island. Again a phone call was made and again a negative reply received.

We were starting to get concerned but at this point the boss man intervened and made a phone call. After about 5 minutes he waved to us to follow him and we walked about 200 yards up the road to find ourselves outside the first hotel they had phoned. A flustered lady appeared and we were shown inside and a room presented for our consideration. We nodded our heads vigorously, a (high) price was agreed and we were sorted. We were the only guests so it appeared that the hotel was closed but the boss man had persuaded her to open up just for us.

The lady flapped around producing futons and sheets from somewhere and then talked away for a long time with the only understandable word being “shower” and much pointing at the clock. Eventually we understood that we would have to wait until 6.30 for the water to be hot enough for a bath.

Refreshed from the Japanese style bath (similar to an onsen, you shower and wash yourself thoroughly before dunking you body in a deep bath of hot water. This water is then left for the next person.) we needed to find somewhere to eat as we had only had the packet of biscuits since lunchtime.

The lady looked puzzled when we asked about a restaurant and didn’t seem to know anywhere. Finally she led us into the small shop which was the ground floor of the hotel and eventually we twigged that she was asking us what we wanted. She would then cook it for us! There wasn’t a huge choice (or at least that we recognised) but we understood “ramen” (thin noodles) and left her to choose what to add (hard boiled egg, radish, spring onions and some sort of “greens”). It was very welcome.

We crashed into bed exhausted by the nervous energy expended rather than the physical exertion. Tomorrow we should get close to or reach the city of Hiroshima where we are hoping things will be a bit more familiar and where the whole place won’t be on holiday!

Islands in the Sun (and Mist & Rain)

28-30/5/16. As you may have guessed from the title of this post, the weather over the last few days has been variable – Saturday was cloudy and misty, Sunday started out very misty and rain came in the afternoon, while today, Monday, was gloriously sunny and hot.

We have spent all three days at the same campsite on Omishima island taking the opportunity to go for day rides around the islands sans baggage.

On Saturday we headed back the way we had come over 2 bridges to the first island, Ohshima (not Omishima where we are camping or Oshima which is another island – confusing or what?), where we did a “lap”. The only real stop we made was at a rose garden where there were some beautiful blooms but the planting was a little unimaginative compared to some gardens (if you were being unkind you would say it looked as if it had been designed by 2 accountants!). While we were on an ice cream stop, four young cyclists pulled up, two of whom were wearing kit emblazoned with the name Pearson, which is a bike shop in Sutton – about 5 miles from home. They were impressed and fascinated when we had a chat with them but we were not able to understand why they were wearing this kit.

On Sunday, while Christine had her pill and then went for a walk, Stephen took off for a quick blast on his bike round the island on which we are camping. The mist restricted the views somewhat but what could be seen was rather lovely. Meeting up again, we headed off for a short ride but has barely started when so did the rain. We canned the ride and hid in a nearby cafe before making a dash for the onsen.

This has become a regular ritual each evening that we have been on Omishima, because the onsen is so close and reasonable (¥310 or £2 each). It really is a great way to end to a day’s cycling. The real highlight for Christine was having her back scrubbed by a 90 (yes, nine zero!) old lady who also gave her some origami figures and a hat (just wait for the photo to be uploaded!)

Today, we crossed the remaining bridges, except for the ninth and last which is cars only, bikes and pedestrians have to take the ferry to reach the city of Onimichi on Honshu, the main island of Japan. As we intend passing back this way when going from Hiroshima to Kyoto and Tokyo we turned back “home” without taking the ferry over to the city itself which reportedly has a pretty area of old houses and a castle that we could see on the hilltop.

Not surprisingly, Saturday and Sunday were far busier than Monday in terms of bike numbers on the route. The “Pearson Two” told us that cyclists from all over Japan are attracted to it – and we can see why. The interesting thing about the cyclists who we saw on Monday was that around 50% of them were Westerners, unlike over the weekend when, although there were some, they were vastly outnumbered by the locals. As everyone seemed fixed on enjoying the weather and the cycling, we didn’t catch anyone’s eye to have a chat so we can only suppose that the many foreigners to help out with English language in schools here have Mondays “off”.

The low point for Stephen was being told to put his cap on (helmets not mandatory in Japan) as his scalp was very red. The bald spot is increasing in size!

Not a Bridge Too Far

27/5/16.  We were now approaching the main thing that had attracted us to the island of Shikoku in the first place – before we knew about the other lovely sights such as the 88 temples and the Iya Valley.

We headed for the Tourist Information Office in Imabari to see if we could get more details of this attraction. We saw no signs for the office but kept consulting the iPad to make sure we were going the right way. Eventually we arrived at the indicated position to find a large shopping mall on the edge of the city. It really didn’t feel as though we were in the right place but Google Maps was adamant that it was here so we had a look round.

And it was! The helpful people found some information, which even included details of campsites, so we were delighted.

We had read that Imabari had a nice castle and that 2 of the 88 temples were close by so we decided to take a look at these on the way. The first temple (no. 56 on the list) was small and a coachload of pilgrims took up most of the available space so we were not particularly impressed.  We headed on to no. 55 which was much better – both larger and quieter. Pictures will soon be on the Temples photo page.

The castle was rather nice too with a seawater moat. We didn’t go in but enjoyed eating our lunch taking in the view.

It was now time for the main attractions! We headed north out of the city and soon caught sight of the first of these – a bridge  spanning the stretch of water between Shikoku and the first of a chain of islands leading to the main island of Honshu. You may be asking why we were so keen to see these bridges (there are nine in all across the straits). It is for two reasons. Firstly, although they were built primarily to carry the expressway, there is also separate provision for cyclists alongside the road! And secondly, the islands sounded very attractive.

The first bridge is spectacular! The Kurushina-Kaikyo Bridge  is over 4 km long and 70 m high, and was the world’s first bridge with three suspended sections. It is also high above the surrounding land so it was a long climb to join the expressway which was already up in the air, initially on switchbacks clinging to the side of the hill but then on a spiral concrete roadway exclusively for cyclists and pedestrians.

It is certainly popular with cyclists as we were passed by a constant stream of bikes going in both directions. They were a mixture of the “lycra brigade” and others in more everyday clothing out for a day’s ride. We only saw one other touring cyclist – a Western lady heading towards Shikoku. We didn’t get a chance to compare notes as she sped past downhill while we were climbing on the bridge itself.

We have seen 5 other tourers – a group of 4 when we were on the Bonnet Bus and another chap on the grim road out if Shikoku-Chuo who also showed no inclination to stop for a chat.

 

Descending from the bridge the cycle route left the expressway and joined the old road which, aside from two short sections, wound its way around the contours for 11 km to the next bridge. As we rode along beside the channel we could see the currents which are fearsome when the tides are at their peak. The water can flow at more than 10 knots and whirlpools can sometimes be seen. Not a place for small boats – much better on a bike.

After crossing two more bridges we reached our campsite on the island of Omishima. The booklet we had been given at the tourist information said this was a “paid for” site but when we arrived at 5.30 there was nobody around so we just pitched the tent. Feeling filthy after two longish days in the saddle and having missed out on a shower the previous night (there were none at the free site) we were grateful that there was a public onsen within spitting distance. We headed there forthwith and emerged feeling much better and cleaner.

Japanese baths induce strange feelings that are difficult to describe! You feel drained but alive, totally relaxed but invigorated – and certainly much cleaner!

What a Grey Day – But We Still Got Sunburned!

26/5/16. The forecast had been promising rain for a couple of days but so far we had been lucky in that it had only fallen overnight. However, as we set off on our bikes, after two days of using trains to get about, it looked as though our luck was about to run out. The clouds were covering the tops of the mountains and the mist was doing a good job of obscuring the chimneys of the power stations and paper factories. The positive side of the change in the weather was that it was cooler – a very tolerable low 20’s.

The greyness of the weather was a match for the drabness of the scenery as we cycled beside the middle one of the three major roads running parallel along the narrow strip of flat land between the mountains and the sea as we passed through an unappealing industrial/urban landscape.

Although there was a footpath that we could use most of the way it was not much fun with all the traffic noise as it whizzed past. We decided to try the road nearest the sea, the one further inland being the expressway which is forbidden to bikes. The new route was a little better as the road was less busy and there was generally a strip of greenery between the path and the road, although we didn’t get to see the sea much.

All of a sudden the houses and factories disappeared as the mountains decided to get their feet wet – which, of course, meant that we were climbing! It was a long, winding drag up but the saving grace was that the view turned green and was much more pleasant.

Thankfully there was only the one climb (so in reality it was only the one mountain dipping its toes in the sea!) and we were soon freewheeling down the other side into the town of Niihama. It was marginally more appealing than Shikoku-Chuo but it was at this point that the rain started to fall. It wasn’t at all heavy and it took the temperature, which had started to creep up, back down a degree or two – so not even Christine felt the need to don a raincoat.

The road we had been following now turned inland and joined up with the middle one so the noise and fumes increased. To make matters worse there were two largish rivers to be crossed and the footpath disappeared on the bridges forcing us to join the traffic which was no fun. After the second bridge we jumped onto a network of (very) minor roads and zigzagged our way through the paddy fields that surrounded us.

All this time we had been heading west but suddenly the coast turned north and so did we. We joined a road with an acceptable footpath and no bridges which led us to our campsite just two the south of Imabari. It was shown as a campsite on Google Maps and we found a blog that said it was OK to stay there but it was more like a park with no camp “infrastructure” other than some public toilets. We waited for dusk to fall and a coyple of dogwalkers to go home before pitching the tent and disappearing inside for a free night’s lodging.

When undressing we both noticed that the tops of our arms had caught the sun. We had decided that suncream was unnecessary because of the greyness of the day and we saw blue sky and sun for what felt like no more than 2 minutes the whole day so this was a real surprise.

We Go on a Pilgrimage

25/5/16. We jumped on the train again today to visit the largest temple on the 88 Temple Pilgrimage at Zentsiju which the Lonely Planet Guide suggests as the temple to see if you only visit one. It is number 75 on the list (starting at Tokashima and going clockwise round the island) and, as number 76 was only about 3 km away at Konzōjii we went to that one as well. (The other temples which we have visited so far have not been among the 88.)

There were significant numbers of proper pilgrims (distinguishable by their white coats, conical hats and staffs) at both of them – including, amazingly, the Frenchman we had met on the road two days earlier! The hardcore do the route of 1,200 km on foot but others “cheat” – we saw a coachload disembark at Konzōji.

Photos posted on the Temples page.

Japanese Photo Pages

If you are a follower via Twitter or Facebook, apologies for the deluge of notifications you will have received today but Stephen has been reorganising the Japanese photo pages into “subjects” (such as Gardens, Food and Trees) rather than one page for all pictures of a country, in a vague chronological order, as we have done elsewhere. Hopefully you will find this a little easier to use.

Ritsurin Garden in Takamatsu

24/5/16. Wow! Just wow!!

We had read that this garden is world renowned and one of the best in Japan. Having seen it, we can only agree. It was absolutely stunning.

It is, of course, completely different to great British gardens. There are relatively few flowers – some irises and azaleas were the only ones in bloom, cherry blossom time having been and gone. Instead, the colour palette uses subtle variations of green.

But rather than having us try to describe what we saw and fail miserably, take a look at our photos here, or the more professional ones in a Google search.

If we come back to Japan another visit to this garden will be very high on the list of priorities and we would urge you to make the trip if you are into gardens. Takamatsu is very close to where the train line from Honshu (the largest island in Japan) crosses onto Shikoku so it is very accessible if you have one of the tourist rail passes.

By the way, the entrance fee is an absolute bargain at ¥410 (about £2.60) and we were extremely lucky as we even got a free, personal guided tour (lasting more than 2 hours) from a volunteer guide who was waiting just inside.

P.S. We took a day trip on the train to Takamatsu rather than cycle 70 km in the “wrong” direction.

Stephen has a Bath!

23/5/16. Or rather an “onsen”, which is a naturally heated mineral bath (as opposed to a “sento” which is tap water heated conventionally – these subtleties matter!). As you may well know already, bathing has been elevated to an art form in Japan and the unusual thing, to a Western way of thinking, is that it is done in public. The hotel where we are staying has its own onsen (many are public/commercial enterprises apparently) which is open to men and women at (different) specified times. The times are different because you get into your birthday suit and all get into the same large “tub”. Before you do so, however, it is most important that you wash yourself thoroughly using the showers (sitting on little stools). You then just wallow in the hot water before washing yourself again in the showers when you get out.

And, by crikey, the water is HOT! Stephen couldn’t last 10 minutes in it. There was a notice on the wall explaining the mineral composition of the water – the figures were understandable but the minerals to which they related were a mystery – and three temperatures – 31.8°, 32° and 42°. Is 42° really hot? It doesn’t sound it as it is only 5 degrees more than normal blood temperature but how hot is a bath “at home”?

Anyway, Stephen emerged feeling a new man! Cooked right through perhaps, but wonderfully relaxed. He is going back for more. And he lost ½ kg in the short time he was in the water (at least as per the scales in the drying area)!

Meanwhile, in other news today……. We cycled to the city of Shikoku-Chuo where the above hotel is located. To get here we had to leave the valley of the Yoshino River which naturally involved a climb but this was far less tough than we were expecting. It was very gradual (unlike the descent from the youth hostel which was less fun than you might imagine – hairpin bends and heavily laden bikes do not mix well, even for Stephen) and after the first km or so there was either a footpath or a section of old road that we could use.

At the top, however, was a tunnel of almost a km (955 metres according to the sign) which was thankfully lit but only had a very narrow “footpath” which was just navigable by bike if pushing (á la Christine) but Stephen struggled riding along because the bags kept touching the wall. In the end he took to the road (which, in truth, was not very busy), pinned his ears back and rode as quickly as possible down the middle of the lane! He emerged into the light, after what seemed like an age but was probably only a couple of minutes, unscathed and having held up no traffic. After waiting what seemed like an eternity, he walked back into the tunnel (along the footpath) to find Christine. She had stopped to change her glasses – “sunnies” being somewhat of a hindrance in the low light!

For the first time (so far as we were aware, at least) we were on a pilgrims’ trail which is a “big thing” on Shikoku Island. For the hardcore, this involves visiting 88 temples around the island on foot – a journey of about 1,200 km. We had seen 2 before we reached the tunnel – one a Frenchman from Bordeaux who has lived in Cambodia for 7 years with whom we chatted – and 2 more on the other side.

The descent was much steeper than the climb had been (hurray!) and soon led us to Shikoku-Chuo, which is not the prettiest place in the world it has to be said(!) being a major producer of paper. The plan had been to stay at the youth hostel but Christine had seen that it was “up a hill” and, remembering the climb to the previous hostel, we were both eager to see if the first hotel we saw on the flat was a reasonable price. It was. And it had an onsen as described above.

Christine had lost her bike computer on the descent (it had been knocked out of its mount precisely at the time she was crossing a river – Sod’s Law strikes again) so Stephen proudly showed one of his laminated signs provided by Mickey and Hado (“Where is the nearest bike shop?”) to the lady on reception.

Well blow me down! She pointed to a building on the other side of the road and, when we made our way over there, we found a replacement. How lucky was that?

Later we set off walking to the station to get ourselves sorted for the next day’s expedition on the train (details to follow) using a “stylised” (= inaccurate!) map from the hotel. Half an hour later we were floundering around in the back streets of Shikoku-Chuo not really sure of where we were so we asked a couple of ladies picking up their children from a kindergarten. After a lengthy discussion and unsuccessful consulting of smartphones one of them offered (via sign language and the odd mutually understandable word) to drive us to the station. Another example of the wonderful kindness of the Japanese people.

Having ascertained the necessary train details we managed to find our way back to the hotel where we again dined on a selection of different goodies from the local supermarket. (We have set up a page of photos showing some of the more unusual foods we have seen and eaten – click here.)

The Bonnet Bus

22/5/16. We had read about the Iya Valley in several places and, when in town, had seen literature about a tourist bus trip that took in the sights of the valley and its neighbour. It would blow the budget at ¥7,500 (£50) each but did include lunch and a boat trip in the Oboke Gorge (another sight that was well publicised).

We decided to splash out and asked the lady in the hostel to book it for us over the phone (the literature made it clear that pre-reservation was essential).  We are mighty glad that we did go because we had a wonderful time and very much doubt that we could have cobbled together the same using public buses and trains for anywhere near the cost.

The Bonnet Bus (so called because the engine is in front of the driver) is an ancient jalopy which must require a good deal of strength to drive, with the amount of steering wheel twirling that went on (I’m sure it doesn’t have power steering) once we hit the very narrow, extremely bendy roads in the Valley and every gear change involved double de-clutching, for those old enough to remember what that is.

There were 9 passengers (6 Japanese, a young lady from Hong Kong, and us) and the bus seats about 25, but we reckon it must get very busy in the height of the season.

The trip was very much about the sights so it is probably best to look at the photos (separate page created here) but the main points were:-

  • The Iya Valley is spectacular with steep, high, wooded slopes towering above the road. It is on a par with Switzerland (and that is high praise indeed!)
  • As previously mentioned, the road was very narrow and bendy as well as steep (>10%) in places.
  • We stopped at the Japanese version of the Mannequin Pis. We could not understand why it was there and, although it is probably twice the size of the Brussels original, was rather underwhelming.
  • Lunch was superb! 9 different dishes including a local river fish on a skewer and the local “soba” noodles made from buckwheat. Yummy.
  • A trip across a vine bridge which required very careful foot placement. It looks hairy but wasn’t really very scary – even for Christine!
  • The boat trip was short (about 15 minutes) but the gorge was rather gorgeous!
  • The stops at the folklore museum and the geological exhibition (admission to the latter was not included in the price, but everything else was) were both rather “meh”.

All in all, it was well worth the money and we would heartily recommend it, if you are in the area.