Monday, May 11, 2009

Kochi to Kyoto by bicycle: Day 3

Day 3
May 2, 2009
Start: Mount Tsurugi
Finish: Tokushima
Distance: 90 km
Departed: 7:45 a.m.
Arrived: 3:45 p.m.

I didn't want to get out of bed this morning. Not because I was sore or tired from two consecutive days of riding. But because I could see my breath in the cold, cold air of my unheated room at the base of Mount Tsurugi.

I was buried under five heavy blankets on top of a futon on the floor. It was a warm, cozy cocoon and I didn't want to leave it. Not when white clouds of frozen breath were swirling above my head. Forcing myself to get out of bed was like steeling myself to jump into an icy lake. It hurt but it woke me up.

Dressed in three layers of clothing, I headed downstairs for a delicious, yet somewhat confusing, traditional Japanese breakfast.

The meal came with an egg, which I assumed was hard-boiled until I smashed it against the side of the bowl and the whole thing cracked into pieces, covering my hand with runny, messy yolk. A raw egg? What was I supposed to do with a raw egg?

I thought maybe someone in the kitchen had accidentally switched my hard-boiled egg with a raw egg, and I was on the verge of pointing out their mistake, when I looked around and saw that everyone else had raw eggs, which they were eating with gusto.

They weren't chugging back the eggs Rocky-style. My breakfast companions would crack the egg in a small bowl, add some soy sauce, beat it with their chopsticks and then pour the raw egg/soy sauce mixture over a bowl of rice. Then they'd stir the raw egg/soy sauce mixture in with the rice and eat it just like that.

I didn't try it. I like raw fish but I have an aversion to raw eggs. (It's a long, boring story that involves cream-filled donuts and projectile vomiting.)

As I was getting ready to leave, the manager of the minshuku came running outside to say goodbye. He handed me some fruit, which I happily accepted.

I was looking forward to getting on the road. Day 3 was going to be a good day. There would be no complicated navigating or dangerous highways. Route 438 would take me all the way into Tokushima. I had gotten the serious climbing over with the day before and it would be, quite literally, all downhill from here. I would barely have to pedal or think. Just sit back and coast. Or so I thought.

The road descending Mt. Tsurugi turned out to be narrow and fairly technical, with lots of switchbacks and blind corners. I couldn't fly down the mountain too quickly. If I didn't watch my speed, I'd take the corners too wide and end up on the wrong side of the road, directly in the path of oncoming traffic. So I snaked my way down conservatively and carefully, keeping an eye on the mirrors that stand sentinel at every bend in the road.

Cruising down Route 438 was maybe my favourite part of the entire trip. The scenery was spectacular. The air was crisp and smelled like pine needles. There wasn't a single car on the road.

There's something magical about being on a bike that's difficult to put into words. A bike is this inanimate, mechanical thing. It won't go anywhere unless you make it move. Your arms steer the handlebars, your legs pump the pedals. And so, the bike becomes an extension of you. It sounds weird, but you start to develop a relationship with your bike. It's a not just an extension of you, it's a part of you. It's hard to know where you end and the bike begins. Together, you and this technologically marvelous thing can cover distances much further and faster than you could on your own. And, even better, you're not caged in and sealed off from the elements the way you are in a car. You get to really feel the road and the wind and the sun. Being on a bike is just . . . magical.

Like the previous two days, most of the towns I passed though on Day 3 were either completely abandoned or inhabited solely by people over the age of 70. I passed through another creepy doll town in the middle of nowhere. I found these doll towns deeply unsettling, and didn't linger for long.

After a few hours of riding, I was starting to get hungry. Having eaten all of my snacks several kilometres back, I kept hoping pass a convenience store but was SOL. (Interesting fact: Japan has more 7-Eleven stores than any other country in the world. There are almost twice as many 7-Elevens in Japan than in America. You can't buy Slurpees at a Japanese 7-Eleven, but you can buy sushi and sake.)

I finally found a small variety store, where I bought a UFO for lunch. I thought UFO was a clever acronym for something else (Unidentified Frying Object, perhaps?). But, no. It was literally an Unidentified Flying Object, as advertised on the packaging.

A few more gradual climbs and descents took me closer to Tokushima. As the roads started to flatten out, the surrounding area became more and more developed. I knew all of the best riding would be behind me as soon as Route 438 ended.

Arriving in Tokushima was anti-climatic. It was a sprawling city with lots of traffic. I had to navigate my way through crowded streets for six kilometers to get to the youth hostel where I was staying for the night.

Unfortunately, the hostel wasn't easy to find and I ended up horribly lost. I pulled into a convenience store to ask for directions. The girls working behind the counter told me they didn't know where the hostel was either.

(Stopping to ask for directions in Japan is a completely different experience than stopping to ask for directions in Canada. Back home, if you ask someone where something is and they don't know the answer, they will shrug and say, "Dunno. Sorry." And that's that. In Japan, if you ask someone where something is and they don't know the answer, they will shrug and say, "Dunno. Sorry." But they will then go the extra mile to doggedly figure out where it is and refuse to give up, no matter how long it takes. This is mildly annoying when you are in a rush, but incredibly helpful when you are truly lost.)

The girls behind the counter started pulling out maps and working the phones, trying to pinpoint the exact location of the hostel. An old man with a young boy by his side (his grandson, I presumed), walked up to the counter and asked where I was going. When I told him I was trying to find the Tokushima Youth Hostel, he told me he knew exactly where it was. Instead of showing me where it was on the map, however, he said he would take me there himself.

So the three of us -- me, the old man and the little kid -- hopped on our bikes and rode down the road together (with the kid excitedly ringing his bell the entire way). After about two kilometres, we hit the turn-off for the hostel. The old man told me to go left and follow the road for about three kilometres. The hostel was at the bottom of the hill in front of the beach. Couldn't miss it.

I thanked him profusely. To my surprise, the old man and the little kid turned their bikes around and headed back in the same direction we had come from. I suddenly realized they had gone completely out of their way to help me. Four kilometres out of their way. I wouldn't have let them do it if I had known. I had assumed they were heading in the same direction as me. I felt like shit. I had been on the receiving end of so much random kindness during the past three days and what I had I given back in return? Nothing.

I followed the old timer's directions and easily found the hostel. It was right where he said it would be: at the bottom of the hill, in front of the beach.

Most hostels in Japan serve dinner for an extra 900 yen. But you generally have to reserve a meal in advance and I had forgotten to call ahead. The closest grocery store was three kilometres uphill and I didn't want to get back on my bike.

I tried to squeeze my way into a last-minute dinner reservation. This request was met with strong hesitation from the woman running the hostel. She clearly wanted to say "no" but Japanese etiquette prevented her from giving me a direct answer.

"You don't want dinner, right?" she asked (after I had just told her I wanted dinner).

"Yes, I do," I replied.

"No?" she asked.






This went on for a good two minutes. I could tell she wasn't going to back down so I explained that I had ridden all the way from Mt. Tsurugi and couldn't bear the thought of getting back on my bike in search of food. She sighed and told me to wait while she conferred with the cook. After a few minutes, she came back and said she could give me a "simple" dinner for 800 yen. Sold.

This, by the way, was my "simple" dinner.

Another quirk peculiar to Japanese hostels is that almost all of them have a set "bath time," which is always in the evening and never earlier than 5:30. Because I usually arrived at the hostels around 3:30, I had to sit in my filthy bike clothes for two hours before I could have a shower.

I was always the first person in the shower, which was a good thing in Tokushima because I had forgotten my towel back at Mt. Tsurugi. I improvised by drying myself off with the bath mat (I was the first person in the shower room, so I figured it was clean. Or, at least, clean enough).

There were only two other foreigners staying at the hostel -- a girl from Switzerland and a guy from Chile, both in their late 20s. They had met the day before and were now planning on hitchhiking across Shikoku together. They were both ridiculously attractive, with glossy hair, shining eyes and perfect teeth, and I could tell by the way the girl from Switzerland kept sneaking looks at the guy from Chile that a fling was forthcoming.

I left the two of them alone in the common room and went to bed early. I was planning on getting up at the crack of dawn to catch the ferry to Wakayama. Tomorrow, I would leave the island of Shikoku behind and start the second leg of my journey on mainland Honshu.

I quickly fell into a deep sleep, blissfully unaware that tomorrow was the day everything would go horribly wrong . . .

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