Thursday, 23 April 2015

sky riding

Gayle has noticed a row of red dots on our Japanese map.  This means a scenic route.  It seems to be following a mountain ridge in the north west of Shikoku, directly in our line from Kochi to Matsuyama.  Gayle is keen.  Its infectious, her enthusiasm.  The landscape here is either coastal plain or jungly mountain valleys, and so far we've been cycling along the rivers in those valleys.  When we find a photo of the 'Sky Ride' we decide it's the way for us.  So after our rest in Kochi we head out of the city and soon begin following yet another of those twisting rivers that lead us into the mountainous heart of the island.  The road is quiet and easy - we are climbing steadily as we head upstream, but the gradient is barely noticeable until midafternoon when the road takes a turn and leads us uphill to a pass that ends with a tunnel and spits us out at a cement quarry/factory.  It's the kind of thing you might find in China - the middle of nowhere, remote beauty and then a dusty ugly industrial plant smoking away.  The good news is that the road drops sharply downhill and we can race away quickly and back into the green forest of the central hills.  There's a sign to a community park (in English as well as Japanese) which we decide to follow, even though it takes us uphill steeply on a small country road.  A woman in a car meets us coming the other way and asks if we want to camp at the park.  Er, yes, we do.  It's about 5 o'clock and we're ready to stop.  That'll be 1,000 yen, she explains.  Ah, er, well, thank you but no thanks.  We turn around and roll back down to the main road again.  We don't want to pay for camping if we don't have to.  The trouble is the forest is descending down to the roadside and we've no idea what's around the corner.  We flash past a stream with a little clearing, brake sharply and quickly circle back to it.  A perfect spot - just enough space for the tent, unlikely to be seen by passing traffic and an ice-cold clear pool of water hidden behind trees up the stream.  We both have a delightful wash before dinner and bed.
"try and look like you're enjoying it"

I don't know if we are prepared for the climb the next day but the squiggles on the map give us a clue.  The main road disappears into a tunnel that re-emerges nearly at the north coast while our little country road leads up through pines and some nicely graded switchbacks to a point beyond the tree line. 

It's slow going but the road has only some light tourist traffic so we put our earphones in and enjoy some music-assisted ascent.  At a carpark with a toilet an elderly couple give us cans of vending machine coffee and sweets.  This random generorsity is very welcome, even if neither of us likes the gifts.  The act of charity always cheers us.  The switchbacks have ended and now the tough cycling begins.  The road begins a traverse which climbs at an angle that hurts.  We follow the folds of the mountain in and out, edging around bends, wary of daytrippers coming the other way.  It's a Friday and all the tourists seem to be over sixty.  Japan's ageing demographic is evident every day everywhere. 
honest, it's steep
After lunch we resort to pushing some short steep sections.  The road tunnels briefly through some tricky sections and rock debris is scattered on the shoulder of the road.  It's narrow now and pockets of snow remain despite the hot sunny days. We finally reach a section of road between two peaks, where the ridge between sags and meets the road.  This must be the high point and from here we can look over the ridge to the north and Japan's Inland Sea.  Southwards is a ripple of forested ridges.  After a quick descent to a corner we start climbing again.  Ahh, so this must be the high point.  At the next corner the road turns down to follow a descending ridge and at the turn is a toilet block and grassy spot that looks made to measure for our tent.  Cars have to park further along the road and a biker is pitching his tent there when we stop for the day.  This has been our hardest day in Japan, but the view and the camp spot is priceless. Just rewards.
Ishizuchi mountain

let's not hang around...
The following day we begin the descent along a ridge and down through a section of switchbacks, coast along another ridge that then leads to a pass on the shoulder of Ishizuchi San, the highest mountain in western Japan.  Here we find a temple, a tourist shop and a huge carpark.  It signals the end of our remote exciting ride along the skyline and the point when we begin a proper descent.  A long freewheel is kind to our sore leg muscles and we cruise quickly down into a tight valley where the peaks soon disappear out of sight and where the air feels fresh and cool in the shade.  On and on the road twists and turns until we pop out at the river and find the pedals again to help us along.  We cook lunch at an empty michi o neki and then continue along a pleasant road before turning northwards off the main route and up a valley to find a temple.  This is number 46 on the Shikoku pilgrimmage and it's stuck away inland in one of the island's typical wooded valleys.  
No. 46
We begin to follow the signs to number 45 when we find the sun setting before we have found a place to camp.  We scrabble around a village looking for dead land, a discreet place.  There's no park.  There's no sports centre. A lot of fields and a lot of steep slopes.  We pass the police station twice and I wonder if travelling around without my passport is such a smart idea after all.  What if a startled local phones the police when they see two torches flickering at the end of their garden.  Who's that messing about down by the shed on the riverbank?  That's us, pitching the tent on broken lumpy ground and kicking ourselves for not stopping sooner.  By the time the dinner is on, night has fallen.  It's about half seven but there's only one light visible in the village.  Has everyone gone to bed? Or is the village deserted? In the morning light we are overlooked by about twenty houses and we awake to the sound of a farmer pottering away in a field but he's the only villager we see before we ride away.
fancy a dip?

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