In this mid-period of the 14-day ride we’re having fun: some good rides, getting to know and enjoy the other 11 riders and four guides, and a very welcome rest day in Kochi, Shikoku’s major city. Here are the highlights.
Day 6 was the longest day yet, over 65 miles this time, and that after a 60-mile ride the day before. By the end we were all – or at least nearly all – exhausted. And it wasn’t even a particularly great ride. It was mostly along the Pacific coast, on the southwestern part of the island, and I was expecting to be wowed by beautiful views of the ocean. Instead the day was a dull gray – overcast and cool the whole day – and so the ocean just wasn’t that pretty. And instead of riding in cute little Japanese villages, it was mostly just riding on a relatively major roadway with not much to look at.
One highlight was a fun lunch at some café sort of thing in a little town midway on our ride. I say “café sort of thing” because they didn’t actually make our food; the guides had picked up bento boxes full of Japanese goodies and that’s what we ate. But at the end they brought out this great home-made apple cake for dessert that was a delight and then it got even better. The middle-aged couple who ran the place than sat down at an electric guitar and the electric keyboards and entertained us with a few golden oldies. That’s the sort of unexpected treat you don’t get just bicycling on your own!
Finally, after a very long day of riding, we stopped in a parking lot, loaded the bikes onto the vans (to be clear, the guides loaded the bikes onto the vans) and were driven the last 30 minutes or so into Kochi. We had dinner as a group that night in a little place that specializes in bonito, a local fish related to mackerel and tuna. The strange thing is that nearly all of us ordered the house specialty, bonito made in various ways. So they brought the few plates for people who ordered the other stuff and then, after a long wait, one plate of the house specialty. Somehow they figured that the 14 of us expecting the regular plate had ordered one to share. Among 14 people! And it wasn’t a translation issue; two of the guides are native Japanese. Ultimately it took well over an hour – close to 90 minutes – to get the food out to us. You’d think that with a reservation for 17 people they would know we would want something approaching 17 servings.
Day 7: A rest day in Kochi, and we needed it. These are long rides for just about everyone – a number of people have never done a single 60-mile ride, much less two back-to-back – and we were all beat. So we had a day off to do what we wanted. For us it was laundry – yay! – a fun lunch, a long walk, and a really fun dinner. In other words, it was mostly about food.
Here’s the thing about Kochi: there were seemingly dozens of incredibly cute little bars and restaurants within two or three blocks of our hotel. We could have stayed here for a few days exploring all that Kochi has to offer, but had to make do with just the one night on our own.
First off was finding a place for a pre-dinner cocktail. The night before we’d had a drink at a little bar called Boston Café right behind our hotel, with a Red Sox logo and everything. Lonely Planet even described it as being run by an American ex-pat, but we found nothing remotely American, to say nothing of Bostonian about it, not so much as even an English menu. So we scratched that one off the list. After a fair amount of poking around and exploring options, our first stop for dinner was Francois, a little bar with a Japanese bartender who made great drinks. Given the French name I started with a pastis, and felt as though I were in Paris. Then we realized he had lots of various bitters and asked about a Manhattan. Sure enough in just a few minutes we had these perfect little cocktails in front of us. Boston Café was a bust, but Francois was the real deal.
Then it was off to find a place to eat. The first stop didn’t work so well. There was no English menu, but we’ve gotten used to that; we figure out a way to make it work. What it did have, though, was two slightly inebriated (or perhaps more than slightly) young women eating there who practically screeched with excitement about having two Americans in for dinner. One of them just came up and started pointing at the menu yelling “Fish!” or “Chicken!” or whatever in a super annoying, loud, unpleasant way. She meant well and the guy behind the counter was trying to rein her in, but I finally turned to Mark and just said “We need to get out of here.”
The next stop, though, was perfect. A little bar for eating, really really friendly locals helping us figure out the menu, great food, and to top it off learning that one of the older women serving us had been, in her youth, a beautiful geisha. Kind of a perfect night.
Day 8: After just one day off, I was expecting that the next morning I would still be sore and exhausted. To my surprise I woke up pretty fresh, ready to ride again. And it’s a good thing I was fresh. This was about 55 miles, long but not horrible. But there were three big hills packed into those 55 miles and they were tough. The ride itself, though, was one of the most beautiful I’ve ever done. Lots of it through forests, along rivers, through small villages, sometimes on tiny roads that seemed made more for bikes than cars. The weather was nice, we were rested, and it was pretty good. The only down side was at the end when, after a long downhill run into the town we were staying at, we discovered that we had to ride up maybe three kilometers to our hotel. After those three big hills even a small one at the end was not what you wanted to see.
Once we got to the hotel, though, it may have been worth it. It’s a remote, isolated inn, with great views of the hills and trees and all that. And it has a gorgeous onsen (the local hot springs all over Japan) for soaking after a long ride. This one had a big hot pool for soaking; some smaller, cooler pools for relaxing; a sulfuric pool for getting your mineral fix; a small, freezing dipping pool to cool off in; and – the best – a great little outdoor pool to sit in the 50-something temperatures and watch the wind in the trees. That was just about perfect.
And if that wasn’t perfect, dinner was. We were the only guests at the inn and had the place to ourselves for one of those seven- or eight-course kaisekai dinner with every kind of imaginable Japanese dish: an appetizer with several components, sashimi, grilled amego fish, simmered mackerel, seared bonito, blackfish tempura, sauté pork, rice, soup, pickles, fruit, and a small piece of cake.
So there you have it: a great ride, beautiful scenery, relaxing onsen, and a fabulous meal. It doesn’t get much better.