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