Thursday, August 14, 2008

Shikoku Trip Day 1: Kotohira

At the end of July, Joe and I took a six-day tour of Shikoku, the smallest of Japan's four main islands. We saw quite a bit, so I'm going to break up each day of the trip into separate entries.

No doubt the Japanese questioned our sanity visiting a place with streets lined with palm trees during the hottest time of year, but there were a couple factors influencing the timing of the trip. The first factor is that I wanted to see one specific beach that sea turtles visit in late July and early August to lay their eggs.

The other factor is that school let out for summer vacation July 25, so with no classes until school resumes in late August, it was easy to get approval for vacation. Yes, in Japan, unlike in America, teachers are expected to come to work during summer vacation and other school breaks. As JETs, our contract gives us three days of "special summer leave" that we can take in July, August or September. Regular Japanese teachers get five days of summer leave, though many take additional time off since they also get 40 days of paid vacation per year (Joe and I get 15). Few, if any, Japanese teachers use all this vacation, however, and many work at summer camps and lead other student activities during school breaks.

Anyway, Joe and I planned to tour Shikoku, a very mountainous area of Japan known for its natural beauty. We'd heard before that traveling in Shikoku is best done by car since many sites can be hard to reach by bus and train. Though we could have rented a car with our international driver's licenses (which now have expired), we were reluctant to go that route. Not only do the Japanese drive on the left side of the road, but the roads in Shikoku are often very narrow, hilly and winding — not a prospect that set our hearts at ease. So we decided to see what we could see using public transportation and set out by bus on Sunday, July 27.

It was a 3-hour-15 minute ride to our first stop, Takamatsu city in Kagawa-ken. We swung by the train station to pick up some maps and brochures from the tourist information desk and then stopped for lunch at a restaurant serving udon, thick Japanese noodles. Every town in Japan has some local specialty, and udon is the specialty in Takamatsu. The noodles there were a bit firmer, chewier. Good as far as noodles go, I suppose. But... they're still just noodles.

After lunch we hopped on the train for the hour ride to the small town of Kotohira, home of the Kompira-san shrine, one of Shikoku's major attractions. The shrine is located high up on the mountainside, despite being a shrine dedicated to the maritime. We knew visitors must climb around 800 stone steps to reach the top, so we were preparing for a brutal climb roasting in the sun. As it turns out, the climb wasn't so steep or strenuous, and most of the path was shaded by an an awning stretched between the souvenir shops that lined both sides of the walkway all the way up. Don't get me wrong, it was still a sweaty climb, but it didn't make me feel like dying. And, bonus, since we went on a Sunday afternoon in the middle of summer, there weren't many other tourists to contend with, which made the trek much more pleasant.

Along the way, I stopped to give this guy some change so I wouldn't feel guilty about taking his picture. I'm not sure if he's a monk or a pilgrim or just a bum in a traditional get-up.

This guy kinda fits the bill so I'm assuming he's a pilgrim, though I don't really know. Shikoku is famous for its 88-temple pilgrimage. Traditionally, pilgrims walk the 750 miles around the island to visit all the temples, though nowadays a lot of them cheat and take public transportation to reach various places. Often you'll see the pilgrims wearing straw hats and carrying a walking stick and a big backpack. This temple is not actually on the 88-temple circuit, though, as far as I know.

Continuing up the stairs, we passed through the Omon, an ancient looking stone torii that was erected in 1649.

The Omon was flanked on both sides by two samurais.

After more climbing we finally came to Asahino Yashiro, the Shrine of the Rising Sun. It was really an impressive sight set among some very large old trees.

I was particularly impressed by the intricate carving on some of the eaves.

Up yet another set of stairs and we came to Gohon Hall and Ema Pavillion, which were filled with all sorts of neat pictures of ships and other sea relics.

There also was this boat covered in solar panels. My Lonely Planet guide says this sailboat hull was donated to the shrine after its around-the-world navigation.

This stuff was cool, but nothing prepared me for the awesome sight that came next. The views from here took my breath away. You can see the entire green valley sweeping out before you, bordered by mountains. From here we were even able to see the Seto Ohashi, the really big bridge we crossed to get to Shikoku. The camera really could not do it justice since it could capture just a piece of the whole valley. The view made the climb well worth it.

From here we began our descent, reaching the bottom rather quickly. Then, to my surprise, Joe suggested we stop in the tent advertising "doctor fish." We'd recently read about this new alternative type of pedicure in the U.S. and thought it sounded Japanese, so we weren't entirely surprised to find it here. This lady had set up a kiddie-size pool between a couple of bench seats and the pool was full of a bunch of minnows and a thing making lots of tiny bubbles. You put your feet in the pool and the fish flock to your feet to eat off the dead skin. Weird... yet intriguing. We figured what the hell.

Joe's self-portrait of his feet. What's next?

It felt tingly, kind of like your feet are going to sleep. I didn't notice a real difference in the smoothness of my skin, but it was a bizarre new experience nonetheless, which made it worth it. I do think this lady must be laughing all the way to the bank,though, charging tourists $15 a pop to have her pet fish nibble on their feet.

After that little diversion we caught some dinner (more udon — it seemed every restaurant was an udon joint) and rode the train to Awa-Ikeda city in the Iya Valley, about an hour away. There we were picked up by a sweet old Japanese woman named Ueda-san who spoke no English whatsoever. She drove us in her minivan out into the pitch dark countryside to her little farm. Along the way, we cobbled together enough of a conversation in Japanese to learn that she'd once visited her sister living in Texas. Back at her house, she showed us our bedroom, a tatami room with futon mats. The bathroom had a shower and a large communal tub. The entire shower/tub room was made entirely out of stone. There were several windows open to the outside with no screens. Very rustic.

Then she motioned for us to come sit in the kitchen with her husband, who was sitting at the table and watching a TV. The kitchen, like the rest of the house, was old and a bit cluttered, definitely lived-in but cozy. She asked if we'd had dinner and I told her in Japanese that we'd already eaten udon. She started pulling huge jars of homemade jam out of the refrigerator and then presented us with a large loaf of bread baked in the shape of crab with little raisin eyes. Joe and I just looked at one another — neither one of us was hungry at all. But she insisted, so we dug in while she poured us glasses of goat milk from the goats in her barn out back. The milk had an unusual taste, but not bad. And my stomach, which usually punishes me for drinking milk anymore, didn't protest the goat's milk. I was filled with relief when the bread was finally gone. I was so full.

That's when the toaster dinged and the husband pulled out two very thick pieces of toast and plopped them before us and urged us to eat. Again, Joe and I exchanged looks. But what could we do? It seemed rude to turn the food away. I stuffed in half a piece and Joe, trooper that he is, polished off the rest.

After that we showered and got ready for bed. By the time we got out, a group of half a dozen young French girls had arrived at the house and were carrying on in the tatami room neighboring ours. When Ueda-san summoned us back to the kitchen, they were in their room doing vigorous calisthenics together. (Oo-lala! This is the part where Joe wishes he were still single. Haha!)

Back in the kitchen, Ueda-san told us she'd make us breakfast in the morning at 7:15 and shuttle us back to the train station. I was feeling pretty good about the very generous treatment we were getting considering a night here was only running us 5000 yen ($50). In between pointing out various things to see on a map, she stepped out for a minute and returned with homemade green-tea Popsicles. I still wasn't hungry, but took it anyway. It was delicious.

Ueda-san apparently decided she wanted to place us in a room away from the French girls. (Who knows why, but I can think of probably a dozen different reasons why that might have been, more than one of them involving the fact that there would be seven women and one gigantic, strong gaijin man.) Leading us to a large log cabin behind the house, she showed us up some stairs to a loft area. It was hotter upstairs — no air conditioning (though there hadn't been any in the original room, either) — but the futons looked more comfortable and it was quiet, far away from the giggling, stretching French girls.

It looked like Ueda-san and her husband were building the cabin themselves. It was mostly finished, but not quite. All the windows in the cabin were open, but none had screens. In a way it felt like we were camping, sort of half outside.

We bedded down for the night. I didn't know it, but while I was downstairs brushing my teeth, Joe was on a mission to destroy a two-inch long black beetle with a large set of pincers that he saw fly in the window. Knowing that if I saw the bug I'd never fall asleep, he smashed it and never mentioned it. We both laid there for a long time trying to sleep in this strange place. I'd finally drifted off when another ominous beetle invaded our sleeping area. Again, the valiant Joe dispatched it from this earth. But he got little sleep that night as his paranoid mind worried about the creepy crawlies that could be coming to visit us in the night.

So this ends Day 1. Tomorrow we continue on our journey to see Shikoku's most famous vine bridge on Day 2.