Far from the bright lights of Tokyo lies Shikoku Island, where lush mountains and hot springs make for a world class cycling trip, says Doug McKinlay
It was the lager’s fault. It couldn’t be the months of indolence glued to a computer screen, or the lifelong addiction to family-size Dairy Milk. And it sure wasn’t because I was packing more around the midriff than I’d care to mention. So I’ll blame the beer.
But with hot sweat pouring in my eyes and my quads about to pop, it didn’t really matter. I was into the last 4km of a long uphill bike ride on Japan’s Shikoku Island and, jaw-dropping vistas notwithstanding, I was ready for it to be over.
It wasn’t always like this. A mere 48 hours previously I was quietly cycling through the shrine-rich city of Kyoto, taking in the sights at a leisurely pace, unperturbed by roads heavy with traffic.
This was my first visit to Japan, and my head was full of clichés. My vision was of a mountainous chain of islands populated by a busy but well-behaved mass of humanity who knew a thing or two about business, and were handy with their samurai swords.
However, my goal was to see the other Japan; the one beyond the fast-paced, neon-lit cities. I headed for Shikoku, which lies in the southern shadow of Honshu, separated from that ‘big island’ by the narrow Seto Inland Sea. Although the division is geographically slim, the gulf between them is wide. Where Honshu is a place of ultra-modern cities linked by a web of hi-tech rail lines and motorways, Shikoku is a quiet, mountainous preserve of tradition.
My quest, faced from the saddle of a bicycle, was to cover five days and more than 400km of Shikoku’s mountainous roads, passing through tiny hamlets and climbing steep hills, all the while surrounded by some of Japan’s most stunning scenery.
Once out of the port city of Tokushima, it became abundantly clear how rural Shikoku is. In a country known for its concentrated population, I barely saw a soul in my first two hours of riding.
I climbed steadily, delving deeper into Shikoku’s backcountry. The sky was grey, like great dirty batons of cotton; the Akui River beside me glistened deep jade, the surrounding mountains were hues of green I didn’t know existed.
I passed empty-looking houses reflected in rice paddies, tea plantations terraced next to the river’s edge and irrigation works that created fantastic stepped waterfalls.
I was heading for the Kwai Pass, the first of the two most difficult sections of the ride. I pedalled through Sanagochi Village, Kamiyama Town and a dozen others with indecipherable names – some so barren I half expected tumbleweed. As the forest became thicker and the clouds got lower I felt a little like Sisyphus, only instead of pushing a rock uphill my burden was a slightly knackered bike. My mantra became ‘think snail, not tortoise’.
By now my lack of bike fitness was showing, so when I finally made it over the pass and arrived at the Tsurugi-no-yu – a traditional Japanese inn – I was all but spent.
It was my first real contact with the people of Shikoku, and although my Japanese language skills don’t go beyond ‘hello’, ‘thank you’ and ‘goodbye’, the hotel owner and I managed to communicate. I’m not sure why he kept drawing my attention to the pre-packaged Belgian waffles and women’s pants he was selling at the front desk, but he understood that I was tired and hungry. He directed me to the restaurant where I tucked into a refreshing kaiseki, a multi-course meal of simmered vegetables, rice, grilled fish, marinated quail eggs, pickles and miso soup. After that it didn’t take much for me to collapse on my very comfortable futon and fall into a deep sleep.
It’s a real pleasure to be woken by birdsong rather than the rumble of lorries along the A2. And instead of my usual hastily gulped bowl of cereal, I was treated to a breakfast more like an act from The Mikado, all colour and presentation. While on the road I discovered two great lifesavers: Circle K convenience stores and vending machines. Without either I don’t think I would have made it. The convenience store because they stock surprisingly fresh and tasty sushi, the perfect compact food for cycling.
And the vending machines because they are everywhere, ideal for topping up water bottles – although I admit I did get a little hooked on the sports drink Pocari Sweat.
After stocking up on rice balls stuffed with chicken and miso, and repairing a nagging brake problem, I checked my map and set off. The second pass was Minokoshi Summit, a gut-wrenching 23km ride straight up. I didn’t like the look of it. So when a passing farmer in his pick-up truck offered to take me and my bike to the top, I couldn’t refuse – all in the name of cultural exchange, of course.
There is nothing like freewheeling down a hill with the morning sun at your back and some gobsmacking scenery in front – except maybe when it’s 40km of uninterrupted coasting down the Iya River Valley. Descending, I travelled along roads winding along tight gorges, with drops so steep I was afraid I’d get vertigo if I looked into them too long. I zipped through empty towns and villages with no names, many clinging precariously to riverside cliffs. And just when I thought that Shikoku was indeed a ghost island, I entered the Twilight Zone.
At first the village looked packed. There were farmers in the fields, people at the bus stop, even what looked like a town meeting going on. Finally, I thought, civilisation – someone to test my non-existent grasp of Japanese on, or at least attempt a little sign language. But no; it was actually a town of kakashi – life-sized stuffed scarecrow dolls. There were dozens of them; it was like a sewing circle run by Stephen King.
As the last of the afternoon sun coloured the mountaintops I arrived at the Kazura-Bashi Vine Bridge and the Biwa No-Taki Waterfall, and subsequently the Kazuraya Ryokan hotel, where an onsen, the Japanese equivalent of a hot tub, beckoned.The best thing about a long ride in this neck of the woods is the chance to soothe in a hot spring afterwards.
The Kazuraya’s onsen was outside in the lee of the Shikoku Mountains – a wonderful spot. After an hour trying to work the knots out of my legs I hobbled off to the hotel’s restaurant, eager to see what culinary magic the chef had conjured up.
Food in Japan is more art than gastronomy. This was my second kaiseki, and it surpassed even the first. The grilled salmon was done to perfection and the miso soup was sublime. It was a phenomenal combination of flavours and textures, and not a California roll in sight.
Calling them lush isn’t enough, but it’s all I can think of. The mountains of the Iya Valley were so green, so fertile, that I believe anything dropped there would grow. Sadly I was soon to be riding out of them and making my way to the coast – but not until experiencing the tail end of Highway 32, a wild ride along one of the island’s most fantastic, and most hair-raising, stretches of road.
S-turn after S-turn revealed new vistas. Mountains dived into the deep ravine where the Iya River twisted and turned. The air was so rich and saturated with the scent of orange blossom, it was more like drinking than breathing.
The second half of the day was a rollercoaster ride along Route 319 through the bamboo forests that line the reservoirs of the Sin-Miya and Yanagise dams. By now my legs were feeling the strain, but I’d broken the back of the ride and I was only two days and 158km from finishing. Riding through one last mountain tunnel I exited to a grand view of the setting sun reflecting off the sea, and a 10km downhill coast to Iyomishima town for my penultimate night on Shikoku.
After three days of fighting the empty heights of the Shikoku Mountains, the coast road between Iyomishima and Imabari came as something of a shock. I had to deal with real traffic again – dodging lorries, buses, cars and motorcycles. Still, it was nice to be back on the flat.
After a 70km ride along roads lined with shopping malls – the only break, the hazy Shikoku Mountains in the distance – I entered Imabari City, the staging area for the Shimanami Kaido, a purpose-built cycle route across the bridges and islands of the Seto Inland Sea. One final night, an early rise and I was off. Only 88km to Onomichi, back on Honshu: the finish. I could almost taste the Kirin lager.
The futuristic bridges that span the Inland Sea are an engineer’s dream, a stark contrast to the mountainous highlands of Shikoku. Each island had its own small fishing fleet; piers and walls were dotted with the odd angler wetting a line.
Even though my legs – and backside – would probably never be the same again, my final hours on the bike, riding among the steel superstructures and the quiet island lanes, were relaxing. I gulped lungfuls of briny air, watched seabirds dive for fish and was treated to titanic vistas over the Inland Sea.
So, after over 400km, I reached the end of my journey. A ten-minute ferry ride took me off Mukojima Island and back to the future. Modern Japan was still there, its fast pace still intact, its glittering neon cities still twinkling.
The author travelled with InsideJapan Tours
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