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I Went To Shikoku (Shikoku Ni Ikimashita)

Sunday, May 14, 2006
Golden Week: The first week of May, a Japanese national holiday, prime vacationing time for a huge number of Japanese, and a smaller number of foreign English teachers in Japan. People across Japan go sightseeing, camping, road tripping, and travel to foreign countries. I decided not to take a huge trip, not feeling up to the phenomenal amount of planning and organizing required for another international sojourn. I had been to Shikoku with my parents and we had seen a bit of it, but I wanted to go back. At the last minute, Liz and I decided to take a road trip, staying in business hotels along the way, no real plan or route. We left Wednesday morning.

I literally drove to Shikoku, across the inland sea. Actually, this is right before backing onto the ferry.

Last time I went, I mentioned driving along a beautiful gorge, and I completely forgot to take pictures. I said you should imagine pine trees growing out from giant boulders, with clear turquoise water rushing down between giant mountains. I tried to get it this time.

Scale is really tough - the biggest of those boulders are probably twice as big as my car.

It's beautiful country, to be sure.

It's also treacherous country.

Along the gorge we kept passing small roads and I finally decided to turn off on one - they were so tempting. We went up through a little town and found a windy mountain road. After fifteen minutes we came to a waterfall and a little bridge.

And we kept going up.

After 20 minutes we started talking about what purpose this road could possibly serve. We were heading up into what appeared to be empty forested mountains, and a lot of asphalt had been laid for what seemed like no reason. Finally we reached one house, and we agreed that the 20 minutes of narrow switchbacks was pretty ridiculous as a road to a single house. The road kept going up, and so did we. After maybe 15 more minutes, we came around a bend and found an amazing and picturesque village. An old lady walked along the old stone wall on the side of the street with a basket full of vegetables, small houses were perched on the side of the mountain, and a dog stopped what it was doing to watch us drive by. The town went off above us to the right, and to the left was an immense view of the valley we had just been driving in. Once we passed the middle of the town, we pulled over and got out to look at the town we had just passed through.

This is the only way I could possibly try to show what it was like standing in this town. The road on the very bottom in the center is where we were driving along before we turned off. You can actually see the river I photographed earlier. The car is just poking in on the far far left. It's a bigger file than usual, so give it a second to load.

The road kept going after the town too, but we decided we had found the most wonderful thing on this road, and decided to head back down and go south.

When we got back to that waterfall though, we decided to get out and see if we could climb off the road and see the river a little closer up.

We could.

Up above the waterfall - a crystal clear pool, fed by a stream running down the mountain.

Something about the aesthetic of this rock, sitting in the middle of the river with a little tree growing out of it struck me as being particularly Japanese.

Places like this sort of make my mind reel. This was a nothing. A tiny stream running along a tiny road going to a nothing town on one of a million mountains in Japan's least populated major landmass. The number of people who have walked along this river in the last year is probably less than ten, and yet it is absolutely sublime. Does every tiny road in Japan pass through this kind of beauty without even stopping? Do even half of them? We probably passed almost two hundred little roads winding off into the mountains during the first few hours of driving, and when I think the amount of beauty and wonderful little moments on all those roads, I feel like I should make it my life's work to explore every little road in Japan. A life so full of beauty would be a rare thing.

Finally we reached Kochi city on the south coast. Here we planned to try and find a business hotel, grab some dinner, walk around, and then get an early start the next morning. Then things started to go south. We asked probably 20 or 30 hotels if they had room, and they did not. After canvassing the entire hotel district, we walked back to the car and decided to look in the next city over, Nankoku.

We did get a nice view of Kochi castle on the way out.

We got to Nankoku and asked five or six more hotels every single one was full up, and most had a line of people waiting to ask for rooms. This did not bode well. I figured this was spillover from Kochi, so we decided to head east and look in the smaller cities along the coast. You can imagine what happened. More hotels, and more cities later, a helpful hotel attendant told Liz that all the hotels from Kochi east were full. Lines were forming at no-reservation love hotels, it was getting close to 9:00. We finally grabbed dinner at a highway restaurant, got gas at one of the few gas stations still open, and realized that we were going to be sleeping in the (tiny) car. We decided to head east so we'd at least have a head start in the morning. We reached Muroto, a city on a long peninsula on the Pacific and found a public parking lot. As we pulled in, we noticed at least four other cars parked with families sleeping inside. Seems we weren't' the only people to drop the ball in terms of planning.

Right next door, we had a fully stocked vending machine corner. Drinks, cigarettes, and possibly a hot ramen machine. Yum.

From where the car was parked we could hear the ocean, and eventually we fell asleep. It was not a marvelous night of sleep and at 5 am an incredibly loud siren went off to let everyone know it was time to start the day. Being in the driver's seat, with the key still in the ignition, I just lifted up the seat back, turned on the car, and pulled out of the parking lot when Liz was ready. A fitting beginning to what would end up being a 15 hours of driving.

A rice field near our parking lot.

In the morning, suddenly we could see what we had been driving along all this time. The Pacific stretched out towards the sunrise, giant waves crashing on even more giant boulders, the smell of salt spray mixing with the flowers that lined the road. In the words of Liz, it was a lot prettier when we could actually see the ocean. We stopped in a few places to take in the view and walk down to the water.

In this picture, it is really hard to see the giant scale of things, so I put Liz in the next picture.

It's as though Shikoku is the land of really giant scale nature. Nothing is small here except for the people visiting.

Off in the distance the shoreline faded into mist and sea spray, but as we drove along an impressive sight showed up.

I don't know what those giant spires are exactly - but they were grand and impressive. One thing I love about Japan is that natural beauty is revered over almost anything else, and so this beautiful meeting of stone and sea was decorated with a Shinto rope and given a name.

The rock that makes up these pillars is really strange looking - we saw it here and there along the coast - it looks like something from another planet. These guys didn't mind though, they had fish to catch.

We kept driving.

Soon, we came into a surfing town. At this point it was almost 6 in the morning, but surfers were out in force. Dozens of vans converted for sleeping filled a field next to the town's one convenience store. Bunches of young cool guys and girls waxed their boards and stretched before heading to the water. The sun started peeking through the haze and across a long beach we could see the waves. We grabbed some rice balls from the convenience store and headed down to the beach to sit and have breakfast.

The convenience store parking lot.

The surf hotel right on the beach.

Bear in mind that it is now six in the morning. At six am, there are already hundreds of surfers at the lineup.

...and lots more just getting in.

It was a beautiful morning for surfing, a light offshore wind, a good swell...

...and one of the most beautiful surf spots I've ever seen.

We ate our onigiri and watched some surfers, and then we headed back to the car. Soon after the surf town, we turned away from the ocean and headed to the Iya Valley - an area known for it's amazing scenery.

Not that you ever need to go anywhere special for amazing scenery around here.

There is a long and unpleasant story about how we drove along this road until it became a single crumbling lane, a narrow mountain pass, and then after an hour and a half of treacherous mountain driving, we came to a barricade that told us that the road had been closed due to falling rocks. Then there's the other story about how I melted and nearly set fire to the car's brakes on the way back down. Both of those stories are irrelevant. We came back along this road three hours later, in the other direction.

This was the view from the top, where the barricade was.

Being back on the ocean road put us back on the 88-temple pilgrimage route, so we stopped at a temple along the way.

It was number 23 of 88, I believe.

Some pilgrims getting ready to get back on the road.

Being back along the ocean had some benefits, namely a spectacular view. Mori saw this picture and told me that this town is famous because of that bridge. The bridge is new, but there has been a bridge there for a long time. It used to be an old wood bridge with "a lot of history - many stories."

Japan has a mystifying new campaign to stop smokers. I'm not exactly sure if it works in translation.

Oh, also the temple was not bad.

Hey! That's not a very nice thing to say, bench.

Each pilgrim coming through planted a stick of incense here.

After this town we had an excellent lunch of udon, and headed back inland towards the Iya Valley - we never actually reached the valley proper, but the landscape became quite impressive.

This looks fake, doesn't it? Like some amusement park idea of what a perfect waterfall should look like. It's not. It's just another thing we drove by. "Hey, look out the window - it's the most beautiful thing you've ever seen."

We came through a tunnel that was just a hole hacked into a mountain (you can actually see it - a dark hole in the mountain on the left in this picture) we came out into this immense gorge, whose scale and grandeur is entirely lost in photographs. I think the scale of Shikoku is one of the hardest things I've ever tried to photograph.

Nope - you still can't see how amazing it was.

We drove along this gorge for a while, a road so narrow than if a car came towards you, you had to back up and put your outside wheels right along the edge of the cliff (no guardrails, obviously) just to make room for another car to go by. Once, when we were doing this, we were backing up with another car and they had all but an inch of their left back tire hanging off the edge of the cliff. Liz screamed and I honked the horn and they stopped. It was a close one. The car coming in the other direction made it by. At one point we had a tight squeeze with my four-foot wide car going in one direction and a motorcycle going the other way.

Through another tunnel and we were out of the gorge and out to the biggest view yet (and probably one of the biggest I've ever seen. Again, completely impossible for me to photograph, and almost worthless for you to look at on your little computer monitor, but only almost worthless.

When I lean close to the computer and look at this picture, I can get just a faint whiff of the enormous distances and sizes I was looking at. No thanks to blogger who compress my pictures for me and cause the distance to become all blurry. Actually, you know what? Here's a bigger higher-quality one, in case you want to lean into your computer screen.

From there we headed back. We got on Shikoku's one highway, and found even than to be beautiful.

(Thanks to Liz for taking this picture for me.)

We missed the last ferry back, so we took the giant multi-bridge back to Honshu (the mainland).

From there, I dropped Liz in Mihara, drove back to Takehara, caught the last ferry home, got home at 10:30, and passed dead out.