I have a humble ambition when it comes to travelling in Japan; to see all of Japan’s major islands (a little more realistic than Kara’s ambition which is to visit every single prefecture, collect pokemon socks from the area as proof, on top of seeing any foreign countries in the vicinity. As you can see, I’m the voice of reason and sanity amongst my peers). I’ve seen quite a bit of honshu (for those of you unfamiliar with Japanese geography, that’s the big banana shaped one. There are no bananas there though), a lot of Hokkaido, Japan’s frosty hat (a lot meaning areas around Sapporo. Don’t judge me, it’s cold here) and the length of Okinawa’s main island along with a few other smaller rocks (an island nowhere near Japan in the middle of nowhere). Then there was Shikoku, the forgotten middle child of the family. Shikoku is the smallest of the four main islands, just under Hiroshima and home to some of the more beautiful landscapes in Japan.
Due to it’s lack of public transport, it’s sparse urban areas and the fact that it’s home to mukade (poisonous centipedes with a sting severe enough to send you to hospital, and when crushed underfoot will release an odour to attract others of its kind to your area. Fun for all the family), it doesn’t have quite as much popularity as other regions in Japan. However, as a foreigner in Japan with a sense of adventure and a longing to explore, trekking into the wilderness seemed like a very good idea. All the new things I might discover. A very good idea.
So I contacted a friend from Sheffield to travel together, and we agreed to split the planning. I would sort out transportation and he would organise hotels. The fateful night before, I knew I would need to leave as early as possible to get there in a day, a train at 7am. We were travelling by local train only in order to keep costs down but the trade off was time. It would take 12 hours to reach Okayama, the city that connected to Shikoku where we would meet (I was 22 years old and willing to accept such discomforts. Poverty is among the best motivators). But an early night was interrupted by my friend who decided to book hotels the night before our excursion, roughly around 1am at night. Calling me to discuss it, the planning continued until 4:30am by which point I only had an hours sleep before I would need to rise to get ready. I left for my 12 hour journey exhausted.
So after some gruelling 12 hours with a dozen train changes, I reached Okayama (nearing 48 hours without sleep. Can’t sleep on a train if you don’t know the journey hand have to keep switching lines). Now my friend who’s from Hiroshima, agreed to meet me that evening in Okayama as the journey from his city would be only an hour or so. He could have leisurely made his way over after dinner with plenty of time to spare. Except he wasn’t there. So I called him up, shivering in the wind (this is February weather), and hear that he’s changed his mind and has decided to spend the night in Hiroshima and meet me in Shikoku directly the next day. Fine, I say, give me the details of the hotel and I’ll head off. Silence. He said, I didn’t book hotels tonight because I decided not to come out until tomorrow…
Okayama is a city; if not hotels there are other places one could go to sleep. All-night karaoke for instance, or 24 hour manga cafes. So I wrapped myself up as best I could and wandered the frosty streets, looking for somewhere, anywhere to spend the night. I found nothing. No hotels, karaoke nor manga cafes. Perhaps they do exist there, hidden away in some underground black market for entertainment. My walk took me through the park, lit by one bare few lampposts, and I discovered one of Okayama’s more charming peculiarities. Along there edge of the park where a series of hut like shops, full of gruff looking men covered in full body tattoos. Yakuza doing Yakuza things I imagine. Aside from myself in the park, it was only them, skulking between the shadows in groups of two and three. More than one eyed me up and down as I passed through, and I considered how fast I could run or how well I could find lumbered down with luggage and sleep deprivation (for the gamblers and Yakuza out there, I’d give you a good deal. 5 to 1 odds!). At last, just as my fingers were ready to snap off from the cold, I found a place I could sit inside. I became what is commonly known as a McDonalds refugee; a person who buys the cheapest thing in order to earn the right to sit inside for the night. I was joined by other Japanese youths, who tried to fall asleep in vain as the staff threatened to throw them out if they treated the table like beds. So I kept awake, dribbling icy cola down my throat to keep me alive until morning. But the manager, whose task it was to evict these refugees, came up with the devious plan of switching off the heating and opening the front doors, so that the restaurant would be as icy as it was outside. The staff huddled with the food to keep warm, and I greeted my oncoming cold with some enthusiasm.
The next day, (third day without sleep), I got on the first train to Shikoku and into the first city. I had survived the trip. Hungry, sleep deprived, missing the feeling in my joints and coughing sickness with every breath, but alive I say! Under the influence of this triumph, I was energised enough to explore while I awaited my friend’s arrival, and many wondrous things did I see, just as I had predicted. I encountered a maze like series of gardens, a building that looked somewhat like a nail, and a music store selling various cd’s entitled “sex music: tunes to play while making love”. I eyed the wind and string instruments somewhat suspiciously before I left. My friend arrived later that evening, and after some steps were retraced for his benefit, we looked for the hotel, that glorious hotel, that I so desperately needed (approaching 72 hours without sleep). Soft mattresses, en suite shower and bathroom perhaps. Personal heater. Slippers to greet the next morning with a comfortable stride. No. We went to a capsule hotel (for those of you again who are unaware, capsule hotels are communal hotels. You sleep not in a private room, but in a capsule, tubes stacked atop each other in long rows. A bit like a morgue except with air holes so you can breathe). We shared the room with thirty other men, the heating was set to a blistering 35 degrees that we were unable to change, we had to share a single bathroom and shower with altho number of gentlemen, but, the grand but of the whole affair, I did get some slippers. I climbed into my coffin, and fell asleep before my head hit the pillow. 72 hours of travelling and cold can do wonders for insomniacs.
My friend asked me what I thought of capsules hotels, as it had been our first visit. New experiences and all that. He gave me a detailed analytical account of how well he slept and his level of comfort. I explained that if he’d left me on top of the garbage bins outside, I would have slept just the same. My body collapsed and therefore I cannot give adequate review of capsule lodgings. All I’ll say is at least they were roomier than the ones they give corpses. My only real regret was the heating, for when I woke the following day I was drenched in sweat and my mouth was bone dry (I crawled out of the capsule like the man with no name in the desert scenes from the good the bad and the ugly. Except no carriage of spirits to lift me away to salvation. Just more walking to do).
Our next destination was Iya valley, famed for its beauty, jungle like greenery and potentially being King Kong’s holiday home. The trains to reach it however were a little bit irregular. We hopped onto all manner of single carriages trudging along at a carts pace until we got of last the nearest station. Our destination would be a further hour or two away by foot we reckoned; all we had to do was scale a couple of mountains in between. Nothing to it. Up the first mountain we climbed were a series of houses seemingly carved into the slope (I really want to see this place after one great rainfall. Houses aren’t mountain goats. They can’t defy gravity). The Japanese people who lived here, who were fairly separated from the rest of society, were a little bit surprised to see two foreigners stroll by the house debating which mountain we were to climb. So surprised in fact, we might have caused a car crash. there’s no proof of course. A driver came past us at a snail’s speed, so that he could gawk at us and I awkwardly waved at him until he slowly went off the road into a ditch (we’re pretty sure he was ok). There’s more power in waves in Japan; tsunamis are just the tip of it.
We carried on up and found a Japanese sign which didn’t tell us the right direction; rather it informed us of the laws of poaching wild dangerous animal and how some of them were poisonous. It’s not something anyone wants to read up a mountain in the wilderness far from human contact. We climbed further up and found a shrine without a soul inside, but aside from that, human interaction seemed entirely absent (scary news for a southern urban dweller like me. Not so much for my friend who was already a country bumpkin from back home. Please be aware before you frown at my labelling, his local school offered lessons in sheep rearing).
By the time we reached the summit the sun was starting to set and we used the height to gain our bearings. There were other mountains to climb in our path but we gave up counting after three. Instead we did what anyone would have done standing atop a mountain in one of the most beautiful parts of Japan; got out a laptop and had a couple of games of chess (I won by the way, thanks for asking). We have no photographic evidence of this climb regrettably, mostly because I almost never take photos.
On the way down it had gotten a lot darker and there were no steps to stroll down casually. So I suppose it was inevitable and not my fault in the slightest, when I slipped, skidded and fell down the mountain. There was some rolling involved, and a very slight drop. Bashed my right knee in hard but we had a train to catch so i brushed myself off and skated down the rest of the way so we wouldn’t be late.
In the small town where we were staying was a famous shrine at the summit of another mountain. Now it was already midnight by then. There were no lights on up the stone steps, we were tired, hungry and my right knee was aching something fierce, in desperate need of rest rather than more steps to climb; so naturally we went up to take a look. The journey up was pitch black but fortunately there was an obvious path to follow, and at the shrine itself there was a single lamp that we huddled around so we could see.
The hotel my friend had chosen was a ryokan (because the capsule hotel experience wasn’t enough) mostly because it housed its own onsen and a famous one at that. He suggested we try it the following morning before we head out. Now, again I must stress, entirely not my fault. I was exhausted from climbing two mountains (two, I say!), I had an injured knee and I’d only recently suffered 72 hours sleep deprivation. So at 7am when my friend bounded out of bed and cried out to go try the baths, I was less than enthusiastic. Rather, I was more unconscious (and or medically speaking, deceased). Undeterred by my state, he shook me awake for a moment to get across his message. I have no memory of this, but according to him I said ‘yes, ok let’s go’ and then immediately fell back unconscious on the floor, narrowly missing my bed. The fool didn’t go without me; he was too busy choosing what pillow to slot under my head on the floor.
The last destination was to the far west of the island, which would take multiple hours by train to reach. The occupants we shared the carriages with were, to say the least, not the most subtle people I’ve met. We were out in the country, with limited foreigners around. We were a novelty, I get it. But we’re not aliens. Early on in the trip were a group of women, all young mothers with their babies strapped tight to their persons like parachutes, who decided to excitedly discuss us and what we looked like, without assuming for a single moment that we could understand everything they said. They hurriedly agreed that my friend was good looking; pointing out his blond hair, his blue eyes, his pale skin. They went on and on saying how cool he was. When they referenced me all they said was, hmm he has a beard. And left it at that. Why aren’t I cool, damn it!? I’m the one in the poncho! Ridiculous, as I’m sure you realise. My friend had enough time on the journey for his ego to deflate a little before the next encounter; two students who discussed how there were foreigners on the train and teased each other to be the first to flirt with us. The argument over which of them was better at English was the main issue apparently. At last one of them plucked up the courage just as we arrived at the station, approached us both smoothing her skirt down as she prepared. And then turned away from me to face my friend instead. “You’re so cool and handsome”. She then sprinted out of the train with her friend, with my friend beaming happily and me glowering. Finally, as we approached our destination I got up to cross the carriage to check the map, and once satisfied, returned to my seat to find my friend laughing. When I asked him why, he decided to show me. Copying my movements exactly, he stood up, crossed the carriage and stared up at the map printed inside the train. As he moved, all the heads of other passengers followed him, peering up over books and newspapers to get a good stare. he deliberately turned his head left and right, and as he did, all the those eyes averted before he could catch their glances. While he found it amusing, I found it very creepy.
The last place we visited was little exception. For dinner we entered a restaurant that had taken on a wild west saloon atmosphere; walk in through the doors and everyone falls silent and stares at the newcomer. All we were missing were the spurs on our heels to make that echoing chink in every step to break the quiet. A waitress rushed over to us and said in very loud and slowed down Japanese, if we could speak the language. When we said we could, she turned on the spot and gave the chefs behind the counter the thumbs up, who in turn made grand sighs of relief and got back to work. Our final tourist spot that day was the castle, which just happened to be up another mountain so I climbed it with an injured knee. Again.
The next day was my journey home and unlike my friend, I wasn’t sure if I’d make it home in time. Shikoku trains were so unbearably slow after all. So I said my goodbyes to him and hopped onto a 6am train (yeah, that’s right. The ‘only’ foreigner here now, commuters. I’m the cool one damn it. And not the least bit insecure about it). The hours dragged on, and my knee ached with it but no seats were ever available. Got to Kyoto in the late afternoon, and the sun set before I even got near to Fuji. I got as close as an hour’s train distance from Yokohama when midnight struck and I found myself stranded overnight in a tiny village of a town. So, rather than wander the streets once again in the cold, I decided to spend it in the station itself. Sure it was open to the elements, but at least there was a roof and bathrooms. At it got colder, I went into the public bathrooms and took out some of my laundry from the holiday, and wore as many layers as I could. However, I was not alone in this station. There was another, an older Japanese man with thick beard and dirty coat who paced the station platforms, dragging a dog collar across the floor with him. There was no dog on the collar, but that didn’t stop him from occasionally turning round to talk to his invisible dog who wasn’t keeping up. After a little scolding or encouragement he’d yank the lead and beckoned the dog (that wasn’t there!) to keep walking. I watched him walk past me more than twenty times in the night before the first train at 4am, and wondered if I should at all be worried. When I got onto my train I concluded I should probably not make a lifestyle of these kind of excursions.
It wasn’t until I reached Yokohama that I realised how much I was limping. My friends watched me come, perplexed as to the state I was in and demanded to know what had befallen me. What tragedies I might have faced on my travels. All I did was go to Shikoku.