One of our goals for the trip was to see something of rural Japan, since the previous (and only) time my traveling companions came here, they sought picturesque villages and found cities of 400,000.
Well, we got rural.
We’re on the island of Shikoku, home of the 88 temples of pilgrimage (I’ve managed to check off four so far) with a rough inland where the losers in a war retreated, and were left alone there. After driving through it, I can see why no one came after them.
Most of the major roads in Japan are solid strip-malls to which the hinterland comes to engage in commerce. One shop, factory, restaurant, and used car lot after another, all with garish signs and flapping flags shouting for the attention of the passer-by.
It takes some time to shake it all loose. Sunday we drove from Takamatsu to Naruto along the upper coast, and were bitterly regretting the choice not to take the freeway toll road (bitterly cursing the intractable GPS as well, but that’s another story) when finally the buildup just dropped away, and: fishing village, hills, stunning view across a bay. The same thing happened Monday, when finally we left the east-west road that functions like a commercial spine for Shikoku, to turn towards the mountains.
And mountains we got. The road narrowed to one lane, with patches of cheerful two-lane that gave off a spurious sense of confidence: invariably in a few hundred meters the smooth paving and crisp white center lines would vanish, giving way to potholed tarmac far too narrow for two cars to squeak past each other. There must be 150 large convex mirrors mounted along that road to permit a glimpse around the corner ahead before committing oneself to the blind bend. Houses built up to the road on both sides, long stretches with no buildings at all, precipitous drops down to rocky river beds, scores of waterfalls.
All the while, climbing, climbing. After a while, those red-and-white striped guidance poles began to appear alongside. A while after that, patches of snow. (There are two ski centers up there, blessedly closed for the season–the thought of meeting busloads of skiers would give me nightmares.) But before I had to worry too much about tire chains and sliding down one of those cliffs into the river, we reached the summit and wound our way down.
Perhaps I should pause here to say that I was driving, and that I am the kind of driver who looks longingly at the “D” marked roads on British OS maps until my kids remind me of the car rental deposits.
Six hours spent hunched forward over the wheel, squinting at the cloudy mirrors, over river beds littered with car-sized rocks dropped from the cliffs above us. Only once did I have to reverse after meeting a truck, and although my companions might have been white-knuckled, I had a superb time.
We had two goals (other than seeing rural Japan, and getting safely across.) A rope bridge, stretched across a river, and the sobo dojo, a noodle-shop par excellence (dojo being school–hence an academy of buckwheat noodles.) The rope bridge, which was actually two rope bridges and a hand-pulled cable car, we met with triumph, but the sobo dojo proved to be closed–or so we were informed on our third pass through the place it should have been, by two ancient gap-toothed ladies who giggled at our question and gestured with a slicing motion of their crossed arms that it was definitively closed, either forever or at least forever on a Monday.
And with the dumb luck of the blithe traveller, we stumbled across a ryokan with an entire complex of hot springs, including a series of outdoor baths on the top of the hill that one reached by means of a cable car, that one might soak out the aches of the road in a steamy rock-lined pond under the stars..