Shikoku Part II: Cold Snap -- 四国その二「厳しい冷え込み」
Morning of Day 3: Hiroshima Prefecture. The skyline of Onomichi on the Honshu side of the Shimanami Highway -- typical of a small Japanese city.
The bridge over the final, narrow strait to Honshu cannot be traversed by bicycle, so we took a short ride on a small ferry along with some local, more practical cyclists. Close up, Onomichi turns out to be a pleasant town: lively fish markets bustle with local people shopping for their day's sustenance. We find virtually authentic French patisserie where we can't but stuff ourselves with delicious croissant sandwiches that power our journey for the rest of the morning.
Seemingly endless stretches of trashy suburbs and industrial parks await us down the length of the Honshu coast as we leave Hiroshima Prefecture for Okayama. Cities with names such as Fukuyama and Kurashiki, though somewhat larger than Onomichi, seem drab and lifeless. We push on, straining to find some beauty somewhere. Perhaps in the starkness of the cold silvery light streaming down from the cold winter sky.
By mid afternoon, showers come down, and bad weather threatens; we take shelter in a large concrete gazebo on a roadside beach. As we pace about trying to stay warm and pass time, the radio weather forecast announces a cold snap due the next day. Now, at least in West Japan you have to take this with a grain of salt - by the way the locals react to the slightest chill, one might assume their ancestors come straight from Tahiti. Nevertheless, we are somewhat apprehensive. Indeed, the next day dawns with low, racing clouds and freezing temps.
A northwest gale blows most of the day and the next; thankfully it is at our backs as we make our way ever eastward. The breeze does its best to rough up the landlocked Inland Sea, affording us a chance to snap a couple interesting pictures from the ferry to Takamatsu City. Back to Shikoku again!
We are glad to be finally escaping the crowded, trashy cities and heading into the hills, but the landscape freezes as soon as we gain any altitude. Black ice completely coats the road at Obonji, the 88th and last along the famous temple pilgrimage trail around Shikoku. Coldest of all is the way back down; some sections are accomplished with one foot firmly braced against the ground, sliding down with the bike in a more or less stable triangular configuration.
We're not sure, but these figurines at Obonji perhaps commemorate those who successfully finished the full pilgrimage. Real pilgrims in more or less the same getup were a common sight where our tour happened to coincide with the o-henro or pilgrimage route. O'Henrys, we began to call them, telling something of our own mental state as well. Early-retirees, midlife crisis 'salarymen', young men at odds with the cog-in-the-machine arrangement that is Japan, on a wander in search of some meaning in the unfathomable emptiness that stretches just beyond the thin skin of tangible reality.
Where the mountain and sea meet they crowd out the cities. As one nears the Naruto at the east end of Shikoku, there is only enough space for a two lane road between the salt waters and the hills. Come to think of it, we could be equally (un)comfortable in our kayaks traveling on the other side of the coastline.
The Naruto Strait is one of the few places we specifically planned to see on this tour. A drastically narrow pass links the Inland Sea to the Pacific Ocean, leading to the most violent tidal currents in all of Japan. With anticipation we board a tour boat and minutes later come face-to-face with roaring rip currents the likes of which we'd never seen. In conjunction with the windy weather, the ship is so awash in spray it is hard to take any pictures! (Still, I think I could take these waves on in a kayak.) Anyway, we were lucky: as our ship comes back, the captain cancels the rest of the afternoon tours, citing rough weather.
Another view of the strait, with freighter for scale.
After Naruto, it is time for the Tsurugi Mountains, an extensive and remote area that fills much of the inland of eastern Shikoku. As soon as we leave the lowland cities behind, we are exposed to the poignant culture of the inaka (boondocks). Notable are lifesize figures recalling common sights of country life, such as this traffic officer. Thousands such volunteers help elementary school students get to school safely every day in Japan. Community service minded Leanne takes some pointers. If you like these dolls, check out Leanne`s blog for more.
Climbing toward 1060m Dosu Pass, we finally gain height in a serious way and enter the snowy, frozen scapes of the inner Tsurugi Mountains.
Although many are national highways, the twisty roads that barely manage to cut through this difficult topography present no shortcuts from anywhere to anywhere. Suddenly we are down to meeting only two or three cars per day, surrounded instead by a heavenly, natural quiet. It's a stark contrast to the unsightly, noisy cities on the plains. And still, equally desolate. So why do we feel so much more comfortable here? The cold and the snow are still much preferrable to diesel fumes and constant sight of run-down plastic siding.
Drifting south, we stay high and leave the snows behind. Clearly the northern ridges we left behind caught most of the storm's precipitation. Now approaching the Pacific Ocean with its warm currents, the vegetation too seems to change to include more evergreens like the ones we are used to in our home islands of Amakusa. But this is a more remote place, with only logging roads, the odd dam, and nary a vending machine or shop in sight.
Labels: shikoku bike tour 四国自転車ツアー