Tuesday, 21 April 2015

tales from the riverbanks

A sunny morning inspires us to continue our loop de loop route in Shikoku.  From Shimanto Town to Susaki is about 30 km along the main highway but we've developed a taste for river travel.  So we head out of town and continue heading upstream of the magnificent Shimanto River through tiny villages with small fields and little old people working to get the rice paddies planted and the fields ploughed and ready for planting.  We ride tall in the saddle taking it all in along the quiet country road, winding this way and that with the river through the hilly landscape.
"Gayle, did you see them lovely purple azaleas back there, next to the shrine?"
"That was wisteria."

Instead of riding through the usual tunnels cutting a short route through the landscape, we find ourselves on enormous circuitous bends, setting the pace and keeping us from getting anywhwere too soon.  It's a world away from the main highway.  The only problem with steep forrested valleys and paddy fields is that there's not much space left for camping.  But towards the end of the day we come to a turn-off that leads to a closed hotel.  We consider camping between two cabins down by the river, but choose to continue up the track beyond the hotel and find an abandoned clearing where a collapsing shed and overgrown field is all that remains of someone's hard work.  
There seems to be a plot of baby fern planted out in rows.  We've seen fern tips being sold with other wild greens in the michi-o-neki but it hadn't occurred to either of us that they were being cultivated. And what do they taste like?  Well, sorry, we don't pick any to try so I can't answer that.  Our camp is at a 270 degree bend in the river so we are surrounded by pine forest and looking up there's a starry sky and a new moon.  It's a cool night but very peaceful and we finally get up when a forest ranger's car goes past us up the track.
We continue riding up the Shimanto and the road steepens a little until eventually we meet a amin road cutting across our route.  We are at a junction of valleys and here we turn east, taking a tunnel rather than a steep climb, to appear at the head of a very high valley.  We can't see the bottom and we're looking forward to the big descent back down to the sea.  It begins in tea fields and small hamlets, winding down the hillside on the old road, before we finally emerge onto the main road where the valley begins to broaden and open out.   

It's an easy cruise down to the sea and we plot our way through the town of Susaki before finding the quiet road that will take us out to a scenic route along the coast.  We can see it will be scenic - in the distance a steep hilly peninsula covered in trees emerges from the urban sprawl.  Just after turning onto the peninsula we come to a sheltered bay with a sports centre and a canoe club.  After a hot shower at the centre we pitch our tent under cover at the canoe club with a view from the stands of four guys training in the still waters of the bay.  Later, in the dark, I think I can make a out a large mammal cruising the same black waters before disappearing under the surface.  There's whale watching off this coast but surely nothing that big would come into a small bay like this?  
the rewarding view

In the morning we begin the steep ups and downs of the 'scenic route'.  The views of the rocky precipitous coastline look wonderful through the sweat in our eyes.  We pass quite a few pilgrims along this stretch of road and at the other end of the peninsula we come to one of the 88 temples.  As they're marked on our map we decide to visit a couple more before finding a place to camp near Kochi city.  At the next temple we meet David and Alison from Canada, taking advantage of a comfy bench in the shade.  They are walking the first half of the henro or pilgrimage trail and have survived the horrible rain that we suffered a week earlier.  

pilgrims in civvies
We have a good ol' natter, exchanging experiences and impressions of Japan, before they set off in the opposite direction. They tip us off to the free camp in the park down by the beachfront in Kochi.  To get there we pass another temple and then, foolishly, take a hideous high narrow bridge over the river opening to get there.  Kochi is built on a large natural harbour and we are crossing to the eastern side at the narrow opening to the sea.  Down in the park, shaded by tall pines, we find Thibaud pitching his tent.  
Thibaud pretending he knows where he's going
Thibaud, a Belgian, has the white jacket and conical hat of the pilgrim.  It's his third consecutive holiday to Japan and he's on target to complete the whole pilgrimmage in just under two months.  He's full of enthusiasm about the experience and has enjoyed the offerings of food given to him by locals who get 'heavenly credits' for helping pilgrims.  Brownie Points for Buddhists.  There's another pilgrim camping in the park and we guess that two other tents are semi-permanent.  Another man on a bike comes and pitches his tent at sundown and has left by sunrise the next morning.  We don't see a great deal of poverty here but these guys all look like homeless men.  Still, the park is clean and there are toilets - and it's safe.  We decide to come back the next night after spending the day in the city.  

Our main objective is to repair Gayle's bike.  She has been complaining about the steering getting stiffer and stiffer and I think it's the headset.  Happily we find Mr. Yamane's bike shop on route 56 without getting lost along the way.  It's a small overcrowded shop and the workspace is a real mess.  But it's the right kind of bike shop.  Mr. Yamane speaks enough English for us to do business.  This business entails him dismantling Gayle's bike, smashing it with a hammer and telling us the headset is broken.  This is fairly obvious.  The good news is he has replacement headset bearings and all the right tools for the job and he gets right down to the task immediately.  I'm feeling a bit nervous now because we have not discussed the most important thing.  The tools all look rather complicated and I wonder if they're really necessary.  These are bog-standard mountain bikes.  Looking inside his shop I notice the Surly Long Haul Trucker frames hanging up.  Mmmm.  After cleaning up and tightening everything I get to talk to Mr. Yamane's wife, Givus, at the cash till.  She doesn't speak English but she does speak numbers.  I wince a little at the cost - £10 for the bearings and £25 for a 20 minute job.  I think it would be the same price in the UK, except I doubt anyone would drop everything to do it there and then.  On the bright side he has hub bearings and grease so I can also service our front wheels myself - the recent rain has left us both with clunking wheels.

clearly all Liverpool fans

We visit one of the nicest temples so far, up on a nobble of a hill just on the edge of the city.  It's a good training climb to the top, if you want any training.  If you don't want any training, then it's an unnecessarily steep and cruel climb to the top.  We have noticed now that most of the pilgrims are travelling by car.  They park up, put on their pilgrims clothes, pick up their walking stick with the trademark tingling bell, and walk into the temple.  Sometimes they don't even turn off the engine - a habit that is increasingly annoying us. Back in the park in the evening are four bikers pitched up and the two homeless guys and us.  And a family with a generator, bright lights, barbecue and clutch of excited small to medium children running around having fun.  I mean, where do they think they are, for goodness sake!

black and white at the Sunday market
Now we know it is going to rain on Monday, all day and all night.  So what to do? Grin and bear it? Or book into a hostel, get a nice hot shower, a rest day and sleep soundly?  The hostel is more of a guesthouse in feel - run by a nice couple in a lovely wooden building.  We are shown a lovely 'Japanese style' room with a tatami mat floor.  Neither of us are expecting to ever see a bed again, and anyway this is a room for four, judging by all the bedding.  We happily use it all and spend the rainy day using the internet and checking the map for the next stage. And sleeping.
enough room to swing a mat

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