domenica 8 aprile 2018

Day 17: Closing the loop

The gentle scent of the tatami floor and the tweets of the birds in the garden are our alarm clock, while far in the distance the mountains are getting out of the misty blanket brought by the night.

When we reach the kitchen for our breakfast, usually based on toasted bread with jam, tea and some yogurt that we buy the day before, the lady offers us, as osettai, to try some onion soup she has been making. The idea might seem weird, at least for those like us more used to a sweet breakfast, but when we sip the first spoon we are surprised by a pleasantly sweet taste that has nothing to do with what we would associate to onion.
When we are done with breakfast and getting ready to set up our bikes, we give her our small osettai and express our gratitude for her caring hospitality and for the nice talk. We also inform her that we have decided to leave our two rain suits as osettai for any henro who might need them, and we place them in the rest hut built next to the house.

Those rain suits have been pretty useful during our last day of cycling under the rain, and we have also considered taking them back home. At the end we have decided that they will be better used here, as for sure there will be many henroes caught by the rain in the coming rain season.

Immediately after having placed the suits in the hut we are reached by a man, a lady's relative if I remember correctly, and he gives us two hakui. We are astonished by such present, and we gratefully accept them.
We didn't buy them when we started our trip as we were not sure they would be comfortable while riding, but we are so happy to have received them that we put apart any consideration about comfort and wear them.

We wave goodbye to our hosts and get on the road. Initially the landscape is pleasant, with sparse houses and the mountains on our right, but when we reach the coast and we venture into Shikoky-chuo city the landscape becomes really unattractive: loads of industries (paper making industries, according to the route guide) on our side, metal pipes and fenced areas for kilometers, trucks and traffic all around.

When we finally have the possibility to reach more secluded area we take is as a blessing.
During our first stop at a convenience store a young man greets us at the entrance, and few minutes later gets out and gives us two bottles of sport drink, osettai for us.
It's the first time we are given an osettai on the fly, and we are pretty sure the hakui we are wearing plays a big role in this. We thank the man giving him a osame-fuda, and start cycling among the houses heading to temple 67.

The steep climb we have to do before reaching it through a road winding among rice fields is really pleasant after the sad hours spent across the industrial area, and in the parking lot we are again approached by an old man who gives us some candies as osettai. The large camphor tree at the bottom of the stairs leading to the temple is impressive, and we spend some time on the temple ground enjoying the sun.
From there we move on to the next temples, and we reach temple 70 at about lunch time. We decide to stop at the Inari park just outside the temple, where a group of elderly people is playing croquet on the grass.

Watching them during the game is entertaining, and they also seem to really enjoy their time. When they stop to drink some tea while chatting and laughing, we enter the temple and find that its main building is wrapped into a frame for some restoration work.

We then set again on the road, heading to Zentsuji city for the last temples of our trip. A short climb to the Tossaka-toge pass takes us there, and we first reach temple 72. There, while my travel mate decides to wait at the temple, I continue to temple 73.
While I am locking my bike near the parking lot I am approached by a couple of Japanese henroes, who ask me where do I come from. They explain me that they are also cycling the Ohenro-san, but they are doing it counterclockwise and on folding bikes, with their luggage shipped daily from one lodge to the another.

After they leave I proceed to the temple, and on the stone stairway I buy some mikan from a honesty shop placed on the side. The statue of Kobo Daishi looking over the city  is probably the metaphor of the relationship between the holy man and the island of Shikoku.
Upon reaching back temple 72 I meet my wife talking with the cycling henroes I met earlier. To our surprise, they are spending the night at Kazeno kuguro, and we tell them they will surely enjoy the place.

We greet them and move forward across fields of ripe rice shining like gold under the sun of the late afternoon. We easily lose our way in the maze of small streets, but the farmers spread across the field don't even need to be asked and provide directions to us for reaching temple 74.
When we enter we are the only ones visiting it, and we can enjoy the warm atmosphere of a silent temple. Though we are in the very same city where we have started our trip, we still haven't found anything familiar along our way.

We depart from Koyamaji and dive again in the small streets to reach Zentsuji. Also here we have to ask indications for the temple, but again it's easy to get them.
When we enter the temple the outside is calm as normal in the minutes before the closing hour, with some pilgrims hastily walking to reach the halls in time, but within our minds fireworks are popping in the sky: we have done it, we have completed the loop!

We just hug ourselves and take some breath while looking at the buildings, finding it a familiar place, where 17 days ago, in a early Sunday morning, we have moved our first clumsy steps. After taking some picture we get close to the Daishi hall, where a group of monks is praying.

We also offer our pray and thank for having had a safe trip, while half joking, half seriously, I ask "do we really have to stop, or can we take another round?".

The answer takes longer than some time to get out of my travel mate's mouth, and this surely means Shikoku byo has taken us.
We cycle until Kazeno kuguro, where the owner is glad to see us back. He is talking with the cycling henroes we have met at temple 72, and is surprised when we tell him we already met.

We take a celebration picture with him, too, and he again apologize for not having a room for us and ask if we have found an accommodation for the night. We tell him that no excuses are needed, and that we have managed to find a place to stay.

After taking our bags we bid him farewell and we get back on our bike to reach the hotel for the night.
17 days, 1249 km and 80 hours of cycling later we have closed the loop of our pilgrimage. When we look back at these days we quickly promise ourselves that we will be back again, and the next time without skipping any temples and taking more time to also better enjoy what comes together with the pilgrimage: meeting people and share experiences.

Where we slept: Marugame, business hotel Chisun inn, 0877 21 3711

giovedì 5 aprile 2018

Day 16: The house at the bottom of the mountain range

After a good night of rest we wake up together with the landlady, who is getting ready to get to work. The sky is clear and promises a sunny day, and while we get our breakfast we thank the woman for the hospitality, give her our most sincere appreciation for the nice house and a small osettai.
When we get on the bikes the roads are pretty much deserted: just some old man slowly reaching the coast to spend some hours fishing and some farmers reaching their orchards. For the rest the island looks pretty sleepy, and we have yet another way to enjoy it.

Being on a route we already know makes that the first part of the trip feel shorter, but looking at every spot from a different perspective and with a different light adds a pleasant variation to the landscape. In the sea among the islands a lot of boats paint waves on the surface of the water, and the sound of the motors propelling them gets easily lost in the wind.
When we reach the last bridge we meet the daily crowd of cyclists ready to travel the route. They probably got up early and are now starting their trip, the same way as us.

We stop at small shop, where the vending machine refills our bottles with sport drink. The place must be a recommended spot for cyclists, as we see a lot of them around it and also dedicated parking racks out on the road.

At a short distance from the shop the statue of Kobo Daishi seems to be patiently waiting for us before we cross the bridge.

Namu Daishi henjo kongo and we are on the ramps climbing to the bridge level. Once we reach the top, a fierce head wind makes us struggle to complete the crossing, but we manage to reach the other side in a short time.
The roads of Imabari are now busy with traffic, and the transition from the calm of the island to the noise of the city road is somehow traumatic. We take a first stop and change the reservation for the day, as we have noticed we are pretty ahead of schedule: we have already booked a henro house and we want to cancel that booking for another one, and the way to do it is by calling a number specified in the reservation mail.

The person on the other side of the telephone insists that we have to directly call the minshuku, but at the end we manage to convince him to cancel the reservation.

Few kilometers ahead we stop to visit temple 55, and there we enjoy the relaxing view of the colorful carps swimming in the koi pond.
From there we continue along the coast, trying whenever it is possible to get away from the busy main road and use secondary routes.
We stop for lunch in a park where several schools are gathering for sport activities. For all the students present there it is hard to hide the curiosity about two cycling gaijin, but they are politely not intruding into our break. We, on our side, sit at a distance looking at the various attitudes these young people exhibit during the exercises.

The heat of the afternoon catches us while we are cycling across Saijo city, and we stop for some time in the refreshing shadow of a convenience store, drinking some sport drink to recover.

As the sun starts setting we manage to reach our lodging, where we discover that this morning the person we called made some confusion, and canceled the reservation we had made here. The moment of panic quickly vanishes as the woman tells us that she has no other guests for the night, so it is not really a problem. We then explain her the misunderstanding and ask her if she can call the other minshuku and explain the situation.
We then get our room and, after the shower, we can properly enjoy the house: it is wonderfully decorated with antique objects all related to the Ohenro-san, and even in our room we have, among others, an old looking scroll which looks pretty impressive.

When we look out from the window of our room, we enjoy view of the house small back garden with on the background the inland mountain range.
We get out for dinner for our third visit to Joyful in this trip. The dinner is as usual delicious, and when we get back to our lodging we take the chance of having some talk with the landlady. She shows us her photos from when she did the Camino, and goes with us along the memories she has about it.

We then share with her our experience about Japan and Japanese culture, and it is really nice for us to have this long conversation with her.

We go to our room feeling really recharged, and when we make the plan for the next day we realize that tomorrow we will close the loop and get back to Zentsuji, where we started 16 days ago.

Unfortunately when we contact Kaze no Kuguro we find it is fully booked, but we arrange the pickup of our bags for the end of the day, and then we also manage to find another accommodation for us.

We then go to sleep looking forward for our last day.

 Where we slept:

Nihama, henro house Yokoya,  via

lunedì 2 aprile 2018

Day 15: Night on the island.

The early Sunday morning in Matsuyama is as quite as we have experienced in Kochi, and this is good for our mood when we start riding. Few people on the road, mostly students on their bikes or motorcyclist on their motorbikes, getting ready to take full advantage of what seems to be a gloriously sunny day like it was one week ago.
Indeed once we reach the coast and we start following route 347 what we see in front of our eyes can hardly be described by words: the water of Itsuki-nada sea is calm and transparent as we have never seen, and through its clearness we can see the seaweeds growing till the surface and the fishes swimming in this underwater forest.

Also the pilgrims we pass along the way seem to be amused by the sunshine and the sea, and during our first stop to buy something to drink we meet an American henro, whose tanned face speaks more than anything else about his progress so far.
Leaving the coast to reach Imabari port is not something we are eager to do, but we accept crossing the relatively small industrial area as the necessary price we have to pay to reach our destination today: the Shimanami-Kaido.

Luckily the industrial buildings quickly turn into small houses which are pleasant to see flowing at the periphery of our view field, and even the harbor, once we reach it, has something nice in it.
We struggle a bit to find the right way in the maze of small streets, even though the first of the bridges is clearly floating above our heads.
When we finally get to the ramp taking the cyclists up on the bridge and we see from really close the real size of the structure, we understand why we have had so many problems: the bridge is so huge that it will always look close, no matter how far one is from it.

When we pass the artificial hills rising us from the sea level to somewhere midway of the final elevation, we start cycling in the narrow cycling ramp completing the climb to the bridge level. Our eyes struggle in deciding whether they want to look the narrow road the bike has to follow or past the barrier separating us from the void.

For me it feels like flying while pedaling, for my travel mate and her vertigo is somehow more fearful, but still she manages to continue.
The more we climb, the more our path becomes a slalom to avoid the cyclists who stop to take pictures.

I also cannot avoid the temptation of letting the pixels of my camera try the inane task of converting the scenery before my eyes: a gentle wind which becomes more fierce as we increase our elevation, the scent coming from both the sea, 70 meters below our wheels, and the aromatic bushes growing on the coast, the shimmering surface of the whirls created by the never-resting tidal flow and the warm feeling of the sun rays sinking into our skin.

These are sensations which no solid state technology can convert into memory signals.
When we reach the first island we see a statue of Kobo Daishi guarding the road, which we take as a good omen for the day, and then the cyclist version of the prefecture mascot, Mikan: a bear-bodied mandarin orange which, depicted on every signal board, gives instructions and directions to the cyclists while merrily riding its red bike.

With him there is also a green orange which, though I cannot read Japanese, I have the feeling represents the bad habits which should be avoided and probably is a sour orange. We find out later that Mikan is also the name of the fruit itself, which we have already tasted few days ago at temple 37.
The number of cyclists venturing on the path is impressive, but its length makes it also hard to find congested roads: everybody travels with his own pace, and it is easy to spread the crowd on the road. We meet lycra wrapped cyclists chasing the wind, old people slowly cycling to their fishing spot, sun burnt gaijin bumping on their mountain bikes and also a father going on the ramps with his young son still using training wheels.

The effort the young boy puts in challenging the road leaves an admired smile on our face, and the scene is so perfect that seems taken from a staged set. Midway in Oshima island we take a detour and stop into the Rose park to have lunch: also there we meet a lot of people enjoying the sunny day, and cannot help but reflect on how much the building of the bridge must have impacted, both on the good and on the bad, the lives of these people.
After our lunch break we cross the second bridge and reach Hakata island, where we stop to visit a small dolphinarium built in the bay immediately after the bridge. From there the third bridge takes us on the island where we will spend the night.

A quick deviation from the main road leads us to the hotel where we have the appointment with the tenant of the guest house. The hotel looks superb, and the woman quickly appears at the reception and shows us the way to the place riding a small scooter.
Her house is located in the small village, separated from the touristic area, and faces the hills at the center of the island. She explains us the facilities of the house and gifts us two tickets for the local onsen, before leaving us to get back to work.

We take a shower and change our clothes before heading to the onsen, for our first experience in a Japanese public bath. The place is built in the countryside, on the top of a small hill, and it is not a place designated to lure foreigners into it. Therefore we are confident that it will be a more true experience. We separate from each other and head for the designated area according to our gender, where we begin the preparation for entering the bath.
Soaking into the hot water is really beneficial for my muscle, and not being forced into the cramped space of a bathtub is even more relaxing than using the ofuro we have already learnt to appreciate. The more the time passes the more I become confident on what I am doing and therefore less nervous about accidentally breaking some of the etiquette which applies to the onsen, hence I can more thoroughly enjoy the relaxing bath.

Fully restored we get back to our lodging, but first we stop by a convenience store to buy some food for the dinner. We then sit in the living room of the house, calmly consuming our soba, while outside the door a concert of crickets is the perfect soundtrack for this evening on the island.
Before going to bed we take a walk to the coast, under the light of a rising Moon. Only some dog barks at our passage, but more to save the appearances of guarding the house where they belong than for a real will of threatening us.

The calm of this night on the island sinks into our soul, and the gentle sound of the waves on the shore whisper us the most heart full "good night"we have ever heard.
Where we slept:
Omishima, guest house Fujimien-shimanami,  0897 87 2025

sabato 31 marzo 2018

Day 14: Obaasan from the mountains

Today the morning begins in a different way than we have been used so far. We are giving our bikes a rest day, and we will be reaching temple 44 and 45 by bus.

Therefore, after getting up early as usual, we take care that our bikes are properly stored and then walk until Teppocho, the nearest tram stop. From there a clattering tram takes us to the bus terminal at Matsuyama station, where we get information on the bus schedule. 
Since we have to wait for about one hour, we first take a stroll around the station, and then we sit in the waiting room. Standing still is a good way of observing the various samples of humanity crossing their trajectory with hours: students taking the train for some sport event, couple greeting before departure, old people walking slowly to their train or taking a nap on the benches before waking up and eating some food from their bento box.

Among this crowd we easily spot the henroes: apart from their attire when they wear it, they also move with a different pace, like somebody who knows what does it cost to move each step.

When we sit into the bus our guesses prove right, but from that moment on we simply enjoy the changing view from the bus windows while the bus climbs on the mountains toward Kuma-Kogen.
As soon as we get down from the bus we first check the time table for the next bus heading to temple 45, then search our way to temple 44. Of the other henroes who were on the bus with us, two take a taxi waiting for them, the other instead starts walking with us.

First we ask direction to a group of young students, then when we start walking we exchange some chat with the Australian henro named Ursula. Soon our different pace make us walk apart, and we start walking the short climb leading to the temple, where we also find a cyclist coming from our opposite direction. When we reach the parking place, we find a bus full with pilgrims of all ages: from elderly people to a boy who is maybe just 8.
Among them there is a man wearing the attire of a priest, and listening to him leading the choir of prayers chanting the Heart sutra is a touching experience.

We then walk back to the bus stop just in time to see the crowd getting back on their bus. Our bus is instead way less crowded, and driving in the small road among the mountains let us enjoy the magnificent view.
The bus drops us next to a small shop, from where we start climbing to temple 45. The road is steep, and I can only imagine how though it has to be after having walked (or cycled) until there.
The first hundred meters of the path are packed with small shops selling souvenirs, sweets or pilgrim stuff, then it is only nature and statues. When we finally reach the temple, we first stop to the main hall, and from there we walk around.
We enter in the small cave carved just below the hall: the dark space, filled the smoke of the burning incense sticks and the feeble light of the few candles burning on the walls, where the sound of the pilgrims chanting the sutras few meters away gives a strange echo, looks really like the door to another realm. There is no need for signs asking for silence, it's the place itself to claim such respect.

When we get out again I decide to try the climb on the ladder bringing to the caves carved in the rocky wall above the temple. The ladder is sturdy but the feeling of being so high above ground gives shivers to my back.
The view from above is magnificent, and I wonder how could so many people manage to place small coins balanced on the rock too far from the wooden balcony to be easily accessed.

Since it's getting late for our bus, I have to climb down and then we have to rush our descent to the bus stop. Once we reach the small shop we decide to shorten the waiting, and ask the lady at the shop if she can call a taxi for us. She must be used to it, since she easily understand us and the taxi is quickly there to take us to Kuma-Kogen.

While we are waiting for the taxi we are reached by Ursula, to whom we offer to share the ride with us. Once at the other bus stop we also meet the couple of the morning, and we sit together in the small hut at the bus stop, waiting for the bus.
While we talk of our experience (we find out the couple is Canadian and is doing part of the pilgrimage as part of an organized trip), and old woman gets close to the bus stop and, after peeking in the hut, stops in the outside.

I walk out of the hut and invite her to get a seat in; initially she politely refuses, but then on a second invitation she accepts and join the company. Thanks to an app on our mobile, which takes care of translating from Japanese to English and vice versa, we are able to talk with her and answer some of her questions.

She is amazed by such a feature, and probably also glad to spend some time with so many henroes. She gets on the bus with us, and when she gets down few stops before us, she apologizes with us for not being able to speak English and have a better conversation.
While the bus moves away from the bus stop she keeps waving her hand at us until she is just a small spot near the horizon; we are touched by such kindness, and promise ourselves that next time we will come to Shikoku we will try our best to speak some Japanese, as being able to talk with the locals is really the most rewarding exchange for both parties.

With this thought in our mind we enter a small restaurant crowded with students, where we get our dinner. Then we get back to the lodging, where we seek help from the tenant with the reservation for the next day. The task proves challenging, as most of the accommodations are full. We then accept to search in slightly more expensive places, and the first we call is also full. But the lady on the other side of the phone tell us that she has a small guest house with two available beds, if we don't mind going there.

We accept the offer, and having completed our duties for the day we get to bed. In my mind it is starting to grow the question on how we will get back to Zentsuji in time, and if we might even need to take the train to not miss our flight back home.
 Where we slept:
Matsuyama, henro house Heiwadorii, via

mercoledì 28 marzo 2018

Day 13: The contagious smile of an old woman

The nice ending of yesterday evening has left a good sensation into our minds, and we have a positive feeling for today. We have booked our lodging for two days in Matsuyama, therefore we know we don't have to worry about the booking for at least one day.

When we leave the hotel we are surrounded by a light mist, and the visit to temple 43 gets a more mystical vibe. We then get back on the road and take the climb until the Tosaka tunnel, cycling between tall trees half hidden in the mist.
After the tunnel we'll descend to Ozu city , but first we have to cross it with its 1100 meters and no sidewalk from our side. While we are busy in it, we are involuntary witness of what an excessive politeness on the road can bring: a driver trying to overtake us goes completely into the opposite lane (good, as we won't have to worry about the wind caused by the fast car) but in making so forgets to check for any incoming traffic, which in this particular case is a truck loaded with logs.

The result is a loud horn playing in tunnel right in front of us, which continues well after the two vehicles have crossed. Since we are the only with the head unprotected from a layer of metal and glass we are also those who suffer the most from the noise, and as soon as we exit the tunnel we have to stop and catch some breath.

We then descend to the city, and for a short moment we think we might have taken a wrong turn somewhere: a Gothic style building, looking a bit German-ish,  is right in front of us.
Reassured by the kanjii signs, we recover from the cultural shock and proceed into the town. After spotting some walking henro we take a deviation which will bring us first in a valley following a river and from that on the coast.

The valley is gorgeously green, cluttered with farms and cultivated fields, with a railway running next to the road. We greet the farmers busy working on their land, and from their greeting back we have the feeling that it doesn't happen often that two gaijin venture in this area.
When we stop for a moment to drink some water, an old woman gets close to us. We greet her, and she greets us back with a shiny smile on her face, carved by the signs of countless summers spent working on the farmland.

She asks us where do we come from, and when we tell her that we are two Italian henroes and that we are cycling, she shows a big surprise on her face. Then she starts looking at our bikes, and is really curious about the cleats. We explain her how they work, and she is a continuous source of wonder exclamations.

She then looks at us and, mimicking the effort of pedaling, incite us with a "Fighto fighto!" while displaying her most happy smile which looks like the one of a young girl. We thank her for the nice words, and, amazed by her vitality, bid her farewell, while she keeps waving with her hands at us as we get farther along the river.

In case you are wondering, yes, she spoke only Japanese and we only English, but we both managed to understand each other!
Shortly after we reach the sea, and there we cross a small village with its harbor packed with fishing boats. Out of the village we spot, on the road, the blue line indicating the designated cycle routes: we have found a panoramic route which will take us until Matsuyama!

The vivid color of the sea water is simply amazing, here and there we see seaweeds harvested and put to dry under the warm sun of today.

The sight is so stunning that I find myself literally flying on the bike, while my travel mate has to shout to make me slow down.
We stop for lunch in a beach whose white sand is almost blinding, where there is a fair amount of people enjoying the sunny day: mostly cyclists, but also students who fill the air with their laughter while taking silly photos next to sea, and families relaxing with this nice view.

The place has also a restaurant which can prepare fresh fish on demand, but we don't feel like sitting inside with such a glorious day, and we take our place on a bench next to the beach and have our lunch.
Leaving from such a beautiful place requires a strong exercise of will power, but we cannot camp on this beach. After a short climb to a pass separating the sea from the city, we reach the outskirts of Matsuyama.

Getting used again to the traffic of the rush our is not really pleasant, but we treasure the road we have done so far, and keep going on.
Once we reach our lodging we find out that we will have it entirely at our disposal for both days: it is really an unexpected fortune. Not that we dislike having other people around, but being able to live in a traditional Japanese house alone is a new experience for us.
After getting a shower we reach the castle, few minutes after the ropeway taking to it has closed. We have no choice but walking the stairway bringing on top of the hill, and there we sit enjoying the view on the city while the Sun slowly sets.

There are only few other people there, mostly busy taking pictures of the blood painted sky while our eyes wander around the horizon, hopping from fishing boats to landing airplanes and the first dim stars appearing in the sky.

After walking down we go searching for a place where we can have dinner: we pick a small and almost deserted place where we have some Hiroshima style yakisoba.

We then walk back to the lodging, longing for some rest on the futon. The busy city center is just some buzzing sound far away from our room, and our eyes quickly close.

Where we slept:
Matsuyama, henro house Heiwadorii, via

lunedì 26 marzo 2018

Day 12: Where we get motivation from a crow

 Waking up the morning after a relatively easy day gives a good feeling of having more energies, and when on top of this we see the bright light of the Sun peeking through the windows we get in the right spirit for the day.

When we leave the hotel it's too early for the staff to be there, so we leave the key of our room in a basket left for that purpose and get downstairs into the parking lot. We fold our rain suits hoping to not have to use them any more, then get into the city roads.

With the correct amount of light even the city that yesterday looked so dull has a different aspect, and when we spot a couple of walking henroes getting on the road we catch in their eyes and in their smiles our same feeling. We quickly get on road 56 and follow it while it goes along the Sasagawa river.
Then a short climb takes us to the Ipponmatsu tunnel: we have reached Ehime prefecture! We quickly find that its fame as cycle friendly prefecture is well deserved: at our firs stop we find a rest hut well equipped for assisting cyclists, with pumps and all the necessary for small mechanical repairs made available. Continuing on the road we complete the first inland part of our day and finally reach temple 40.
After it we get to cycle next to the sea: the sun shining on the pearl farming grounds scattered in the countless bays is really a gorgeous sight, and the small villages developing next to them give a calm feeling. We could be in Mishima's The sound of waves, if we were on small island!

Continuing on the road we have also feel privileged to have a tunnel built just for cyclists and walkers next to the main road. The air inside feels rather chilly when entering it directly from the sunny road, but it's not so long that we really get cold.
Further on the road, when it moves back inland, we find a really nice rest hut, where we stop for lunch. It is not too close to the road so it is not noisy, and it is pretty large and comfy. We take some pictures and send them to the camping henroes we have met along the way, as it might be a good place to spend the night.

We stay on the 56, which becomes less used as soon as we meet the beginning of Expressway 56: we find way less cars using it, and what it remains are mainly trucks carrying woods or fruits.
After a while the road starts to rise, and it becomes a never ending series of steep tunnels, where the noise of the trucks passing by becomes loud and scary.

Adding the effort for the climb on a 12% slope to the claustrophobic feeling of the tunnels and to the strong noise of the truck we get a perfect mix of stressing factor, and we have to stop often to recover. Before the last but three tunnel my travel mate is about to break down in panic, and though we stop in a now closed service station with a magnificent view on the sea, surrounded by orchards growing on the steep sides of the mountains, we seem unable to proceed further.
When I am trying to find a way to get out of this situation, our attention is captured by a peculiar show: few tenths of meter ahead of us a crow is lifting a dropping a red thing (we will later see it is a dead weasel). We quickly realize it is trying to carry it across the road, being too heavy to simply transport it by flying.

The risk the crow is taking is pretty high: cars and trucks are not going to slow down for it, and at any moment can simply drive over its dinner and mash it. Nevertheless the crow keeps trying and trying, and when it finally reaches the other side of the road, dropping its load onto the side of the mountain, we cannot avoid celebrating for it.
I then say out loud: "if the crow was able to carry that load across the road, why shouldn't we be able to reach the pass on this road and get to our hotel?". My intention was initially to joke about it, but it quickly turn out to be a pretty effective motivation speech, and we get back on the bikes and get rid of the remaining tunnels.

The descent to the town is a pleasant reward, and when we reach our hotel we feel determined to have dinner outside. The man at the reception desk looks funny as Addam's family Lurch, but for the hotel room is nice and spacious, and we first get a shower. When we go downstairs we get in the streets looking for some place to eat.

We see a group of three women talking between them, and we get close asking if they can recommend any place to eat. Considering that our Japanese is still at zero we can only tell names of dishes, like ramen, soba and katsudon, so they are already to be appreciated for trying to pay attention to these two funny gaijin.

They start talking between them, and then one of the three just tells us "chotto matte kudasai" and disappears. We know it means something like "wait one moment, please", but we don't get what's going on. We then see a small car getting close, and in the driver seat we see the woman: she has gone to the parking lot to take her car, and is now bringing us to a restaurant. She apologizes for the small car (being 194 cm I fell a bit cramped in it, but I can only be grateful for what she is doing) and along the way we try to tell her something about us, while she tells us that she has already completed the Ohenro-san more than once.

She drops us at a restaurant, the same chain were we had dinner with Truss and Suzanne, and wishes us a good dinner and a nice stay, while explaining us how to get back to the hotel. We regret not having with us some osettai to give her, so we only bow and thank her for the exquisite gesture.

We then have our dinner, and then we enjoy the short walk back to the hotel. We start thinking that not knowing any Japanese is really a pity, as we miss the chances of a better interaction with the locals. But this doesn't stop them from lending an helping hand.

Where we slept:

Seiyo city, business hotel Matsu-ya, 0894 62 3232