To get over to Shikoku Island from Awaji Island I had to jump back onto the toll highway across another very impressive suspension bridge over the Naruto Strait. Here water rushes between the Pacific Ocean and the Seto Inland Sea between high to low tide at 11 knots (20 km/h), making it the 4th fastest tide in the world and creates impressive whirlpools.
Just south of the bridge on the east coast there were some great bridge views and good beaches. I kept riding south heading for the pronounced Muroto peninsula I’d heard was nice and sparsely populated. Most of Shikoku’s 4.5 million people live on the north coast, so that was something I was keen to avoid.
I couldn’t have really asked for much more – the sun was out and it was hot for the first time since I’d arrived in Japan. The bike was running like a dream and I was really enjoying cruising along the coastal road, stopping off at anything interesting I saw along the way. It felt great to be truly free; to be able to go anywhere and do anything. The only thing I had to worry about was what I was going to have for lunch. I just wasn’t sure!
After a couple of hours I reached the small coastal town of Hiwasa and dropped in to see the Yakuoji Temple to ward off all my evil spirits, especially as I’m 41. In Japan, Yakudoshi (Unlucky Years) are years of misfortune or calamity throughout a persons life, and it is generally agreed that for men the ages of 41, 42 & 61 are the most dangerous. Interestingly for women it is 32, 33 & 61. Every year hundreds of thousands of visitors from all over Japan (and me) visit this temple due to its reputation as a good place to pray for protection from these ‘unlucky years’. I’ll let you know if it works.
During my ride south I’d seen many people walking along the road wearing sedge hats (sugegasa), white jackets (hakui) and staffs (kongotsue). I later found out they were on the ‘Shikoku O-Henro’, or Shikoku Pilgrimage, a religious pilgrimage around the island visiting the 88 temples associated with 8th century Japanese Buddhist monk Kobo Daishi Kukai – ‘The Grand Master Who Propagated the Buddhist Teaching’.
The total distance of the pilgrimage is approximately 1,200 km and takes anything from 30 to 60 days to complete – no mean feat. As many as 500 thousand people from all over the world make this pilgrimage every year, and I saw some of them at Yakuoji Temple, which is temple number 23 on The List. I imagine after 88 temples one may have seen enough temples for one year.
From Hiwasa I followed the coastal road south again, hitting more beautiful, empty, clean, sandy beaches and scenic views along the way. The further south I rode, the less traffic there was, until there was hardly any at all. It was a good choice choosing the south coast I thought, and proved there were still some places in Japan you could ‘get away from it all’ quite quickly and easily.
The speed limit in Japan on almost all roads is a slow 50 km/h (70 to 100 km/h on toll expressways), but as no one was around, I was becoming more and more relaxed with the throttle, and really enjoying myself.
True to my usual ‘loose planning’ strategy, I hadn’t really figured out a route, or where I was actually going, so I thought I’d better sort out somewhere to head for and sleep for the night.
Inland Shikoku is basically covered in mountains, and I’d heard that road 193 cut through them from north to south and offered amazing views. A fancied a bit of mountain riding after my week in Osaka, and I’d found several campsites there online, so sleeping shouldn’t be a problem. So when I reached the 193 turn-off, I took it without thinking too much, leaving the gorgeous south coast beaches in my rear view mirror.
I targeted a campsite into GPS and started climbing a very steep, twisty mountain road. It was great! It was late afternoon, but the campsite didn’t look that far on the map, and the online photos looked awesome. I was surprised there was absolutely no traffic whatsoever – perhaps that should have told me something.
Flying up the mountain side, the road gradually became narrower and narrower until soon it was just one lane, and sometimes half a lane. The surface condition was still good, but it started to look like no-one had used it for a very long time. Leaves, pine needles, moss and broken branches lay strewn all over the road, making the surface very slippery and braking too hard dangerous. As the sides became steeper (with no barriers), I slowed down quite a bit, as I didn’t fancy skidding over the edge, for a change.
Eventually I broke over the summit and descended into a valley to the junction with the east-west 195 road. Somewhat relieved I’d made it over without incident, I stopped for a breather. After a few minutes a Japanese biker pulled up on a Yamaha R6, heading the way I’d just come from. He was about the only biker I’d seen that day, even though it was the weekend.
After a chat I set off again still on the 193, and began a second long climb over another mountain.
High in the mountains it gets dark before sunset, and the light & heat were fading fast. As I climbed still higher, I began to notice the occasional patch of snow by the side of the road, and slowed down further in case ice was on the road. Then I came across these cool icicles hanging over the north facing side of a mountain which looked like a stream had frozen on its way down.
The road twisted on and on, and the campsite edged closer at a very slow rate. I had realised earlier the OSM maps on my Garmin assumed I would be travelling everywhere at 100 km/h, and therefore the arrival times it gave were hugely inaccurate, particularly when crawling up a steep 2,000m (6,500ft) high mountain chain. At this rate I was going to arrive around sunset, which wasn’t the end of the world.
However, it was the end of the world when I reached the campsite turn-off to discover a barrier across the road, with a sign saying what I presumed was ‘Road Closed for the Winter’. This left me with two choices: carry on and hope to find another campsite, or go back. As I hate going back, I voted for number one, and continued climbing. I was hoping I’d reach the summit soon, and the road would drop into another valley, full of lush, green, flat camping ground.
Riding on higher still, soon there wasn’t just a bit of snow on the road, but lots of it, and ice had started to form as the temperature had dropped below freezing.
Eventually at the summit, I emerged from a very icy and slippery tunnel to find the road completely snowed in. Lush, green valley there may be down there somewhere, but there was no way I was going to risk riding my bike down a snowy slope (not even I’m that stupid!) That will teach me for not researching the weather properly at altitude and asking locals what the road conditions are like.
I had no choice but to turn back and find alternative sleeping arrangements. However, I had to be quick because sunset had passed and it was quickly getting dark, and I didn’t fancy riding back down the freezing, icy slope in the dark.
I made my way back to the first valley at the junction of the 195 and rode west. It was now dark and cold and camping was becoming less and less appealing the more time went on. I saw a sign for a country spar and rolled up to take a look. It looked posh and exclusive – very posh – but they had no rooms anyway, so I didn’t have to bother to ask how much. No idea who the guests were though – I had hardly seen anyone all day.
So it looked as though I was camping rough again, which I didn’t mind at all; I just had to find somewhere suitable to pitch the tent that wasn’t at a 70 degree (or more) angle.
I found it mildly amusing I was in this situation again for the second night in a row, particularly after promising myself I’d get to a campsite much earlier today. As I was searching for a pitch, I was trying to work out how I’d gone from sunbathing beach weather on a beautiful coast ideal for camping, to freezing my nuts off in the snow on near vertical slopes.
As with last night, the more time rolled on, the more I didn’t care where I pitched, and soon I pulled off the road and threw the tent up in a small pine forest clearing.
It was actually a good spot, and right next to a waterfall that I could wash in, although it was blooming cold! On the menu again was…. Spag Bol and chunky bread! However, this time I added a bag of spinach to add a green kick. It’s amazing how quickly my gas stove cooks when there’s no wind! It’s also amazing how quickly you eat something when you’re starving.
It was nice crawling into my lovely, warm sleeping bag with a full belly and the sound of the waterfall in the background.