Wednesday, 8 April 2015

a cunning plan

"You know why there's always moss in a traditional Japanese Garden?" asks Gayle.
"No. Why?" She is the Expedition Horticulturalist.
"Because it's always bleeding raining."
We are sitting in a mock castle overlooking tennis courts and a baseball field.  Our tent is hanging on a washing line but it's not drying out.  A damp drizzle has replaced the heavy rain of the night that left us a little waterlogged on the golf course in Shikoku.  We've been wanting to camp on a golf course ever since we got to Japan but this is the first time.  However, it's not a normal course.  The holes are rather short and each pin has a string basket.  Before everyone went home to their nice dry houses we had watched some people play what can only be described as "Shuttlecock Golf".  Park games in Japan are Something Else.
this couple were having a picnic lunch at the same place and gave us some fabulous local oranges

The day we left Beppu we met a friendly Canadian teaching English in nearby Oita.  He comes up and chats to us for a while before warning us that it would rain at 3 o'clock.  It is sunnyish, we have to buy food, we have to photograph the gorgeous cherry blossom, we have to look in that bike shop, we have to stop for a choc ice.  And anyway, in the end he turns out be wrong about the rain.  It is 4 o'clock.  We are metres from a michi o neki (road station is easier to spell, but lacks the evokative something or other that these places hold), when the skies open, as they say, and deposit a huge amount of water on our heads.  We seek shelter under the eaves of the toilets.  The road station has failed us.  There's no arbor, no grassy lawn.  Just a shop, a toilet and a carpark.  And a smoking shelter.  But hang on, what's above the smoking zone and vending machines?  A deck, with a roof.  It'll have to do.  We rig up the tent and watch as the rain obliterates everything from view.  Somewhere out there is Shikoku, our next destination.  There are others who stay the night here.  Two couples in camper vans and an old couple in an ordinary van.  During the night a kissing couple climb up 'for the view' and then scurry away giggling when they discover our bikes and tent.

The ferry to Shikoku, the next of Japan's Big Four islands, takes just over an hour and deposits us at the end of a hilly peninsula.  Hilly, I said.  We climb up and down along a road that has been designated a cycling route for tourists.  A sky blue line has been painted down the side of the road.  Other than that, you're on your own to do battle with cars that pass too closely for comfort.  The Japanese cycle a lot in towns and cities, on the pavements.  We occasionally see road cyclists out for a day ride.  But it is obvious that drivers are not accustomed to slow cyclists lumbering about on the road in front of them.  We sometimes take to the footpath, but it is not in very good condition.  The Melody Road turns out to have a feature we really should have guessed but it comes as quite a surprise when the cars driving past us produce a tune.  The same tune.  There are horizontal grooves on the road spaced in such a way that driving over them produces a melodious vibration.  Groovy.  The tune appears to be Move Closer by Phyllis Nelson.  We are very happy to find the sports park where we can stop for the day and camp on the golf course.
tennis anyone?
But the rain.  A family joins us in our mock castle when the drizzle finally stops mid-morning.  We chat.  They leave us their chocolates.  Sorry kids, but the chocolates are great and give us a much needed lift.  We hurtle along all afternoon and the sun is now out and we head inland upstream of a river to the worst tunnel we've ever entered.  It's old and low and badly lit and very very long and the pavement is quite narrow.  And it's busy.  We aren't prepared to find an alternative route and can't see one on our road map in any case.  Out the other end we roll down to Ozu, a very pleasant little town at a junction of rivers with a pretty old castle hidden by a monstrous concrete town hall built right slam in front of it.  Sometimes the Japanese get it very right.  But sometimes they get it very wrong.  We camp by one of the multitude of water channels built to irrigate the surrounding fields and explore a bit more the next day, which is also sunny.  Perhaps we have shaken off the rain? 

Ozu castle from the back side
We decide to cross Shikoku to the south coast following some of the rivers that cut through the mountains.  We notice that for some rivers there are small roads running along the opposite riverbank to the main road.  The plan is a success and we enjoy several days of magical cycling through lovely valleys and tiny villages. 

"Gayle, what are them flowers up there?"
The heavy night rain has brought down much of the cherry blossom, but there are plenty of other flowers blooming now.
"Oooooh, look at those.  What are they?"
The riverside route allows us to climb steadily following the Hijikawa upstream.  We pass a reservoir where construction work is destroying the peace and serenity of the valley. But not for long. Our empty country road winds up a hill for a bit, giving a view back towards Ozu, before plunging back down to the river.

Gayle wobbles a bit and shouts out. She is enjoying the scenery so much she hasn't noticed the snake coiled up on the road and rides right over it.  The villages have a mixture of lovely old houses and new ones of varying architectural worth.  Most are bungalows in the traditional style.  The houses look cluttered and untidy with farming junk and household bits and bobs but there's often a small garden or pots and small trees or bushes with flowers.
"Gayle, I really like those.  Do you know the name for them?
"Azaleas".  Some horticulturalist.
It rains in the night.  We are camped in the playground of a school, in a very narrow side valley.  It's either here or in a small carpark by the river and we can't agree at first where to camp.  It doesn't make any difference.  There's no hiding from the rain.  The next morning we find somewhere to hang the tent out to dry and have breakfast before continuing what turns out to be a really wonderful ride through gorgeous scenery.

We have an easy pass that takes us to another river which will finally lead us out to the sea.  Each day there are one or two road stations where we can buy or cook our lunch.  No convenience stores, only small villages and lots of small-scale farming being done by septuagenarians.  It's unusual to see any young people farming, unless the farm is large.  We stop and camp in a small town for a couple of nights - rain on the first night lasting till about 9 in the morning and convincing us we deserved a rest.  When we finally get the tent dry we nosey over to the tourist information office at the train station to ask about wi-fi.  Without hesitation they give us their office wi-fi password.  And there's electricity and there's a free t-shirt each and a souvenir bag.  We must be looking really rough - I reckon it's the haircut Gayle gave me.  Our camp down by the river is a great spot with good drainage.  This seems important when it rains for the fifth night out of six.  Sod the view, how's the drainage?  At dusk some very large fish are leaping.  At nightfall the trains passing by on the other side of the river light up our tent.  
this house was empty - a rarity

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