We’ve been on this trip for over a week now and I still haven’t said much about Shikoku. Shikoku is the smallest and least populated of Japan’s four major islands (Hokkaido, Honshu, and Kyushu are the other three). Shikoku’s primary claim to fame is the 88 Temple Pilgrimage, a 750-mile route that connects 88 temples. As the full pilgrimage takes anywhere from 30 to 60 days to complete most people these days do it mostly by bus or even bike, but some still do it on foot. You see them walking with conical hats, distinctive white over-shirts, and walking sticks. The one temple we passed on day 10 (#38) is over 60 miles from nearest temple, so the walkers have gone a great distance to get here.
And, while I’m filling in the blanks with things I will want to remember 20 years from now when I go back and read this again, I should say a bit about the 11 riders and four guides we’re traveling with. Who are these people?
• Rob & Allison, a Canberra couple who claim that while Canberra is obviously not a great tourist destination it is a wonderful place to live. We agree fully with their estimation of Canberra’s tourist appeal but we’ll have to take them at their word about the city as a place to live.
• Jackie & Peter, Auckland dentists and almost inhuman bikers. While the rest of us are struggling to get up these long hills Peter will ride to the top and then go back down just to do it again.
• Christine & Judith, a really cute German couple living in Switzerland.
• Ruth, a Sydney judge who asks a lot of questions.
• Ethyl, semi-retired Broadway conductor and all around interesting woman who has spent literally decades biking all over the world.
• Dean, a retired IBM employee and third-generation Japanese-American with long-lost roots in Shikoku.
• Natalia & Luba, childhood Russian friends. Luba is an investment banker in London while Natalia is still in Moscow.
• Alan, our lead guide, an Aussie living now in Cambodia. He’s filling in for an injured Grasshopper tour guide who’s supposed to be leading this tour and finding the long rides almost as challenging as us amateurs do.
• Issy, our Japanese driver and occasional biker. Limited English but always big with a smile, which is helpful when you’re dying going up a hill.
• Tatts, another Japanese guide, pretty much the nicest guy in the group.
• Tom, a young 20-something French bicycle racer – a serious racer – living in Japan with his Japanese girlfriend.
They’re all well traveled, adventurous, and strong bikers. Which is a good thing, because we’re doing some serious (and exhausting) rides.Day 9: We started by driving up to a tiny village and learning about and making Washi paper. Washi is the traditional Japanese paper that you’ve probably seen at some point, but the traditional ways are disappearing. There is a Dutch guy, though, married to a local Japanese woman, whose life’s mission is to maintain and restore those traditional methods of creating Washi paper. His process starts with the bark from a mulberry bush and involves lots of boiling and washing and separating of fibers and pounding and washing some more. We went through just a little of that process and then, well, made our own paper that included lots of little local flowers and petals and leaves. As I write this it is supposedly drying in his studio and will be mailed to our last stop on the trip. I’m not the artistic type, but lots of the small sheets seemed as though they’d be beautiful when finished. We’ll see.
Then we had a gorgeous ride on a warm sunny day along a beautiful river. The problem was that we started so late after the Washi paper experience; we’d have been much happier to ride in the morning and do the paper thing in the afternoon.
Day 10: This was a long ride, another 60 miles or so, but lots of it was gradually downhill to the coast. Then we went along the coast to the southern tip of Shikoku in more up-and-down terrain.
We’re finding two big drawbacks on this Grasshopper tour relative to other bike tours we’ve done. First, the rides are just too long. On the 10 days we’re riding after that first mini-ride in Kyoto, we’re averaging about 50 miles per day, with two days over 60 miles. That’s a lot of riding and a lot of time on the bike. With Zephyr (the company we’ve used in Europe) there are always three options, a short, medium, and long ride. And even then the long ride is rarely over 50 miles. These days are a lot longer and we’re getting tired.
The bigger frustration, is that there is a sense that we should all stay together for most of the ride, or at least regroup every five to 10 miles. That means we’re waiting around too much and riding in clumps instead of off by our blissful selves. Mark and I both love riding on our own with no one to watch and nothing to see except the scenery. Instead we’re nearly always clumped with other riders, trying desperately to stay out of each other’s way. And there is a safety issue: when we’re clumped up, with several of us just itching to pick up the pace a bit, if one goes down a bunch will go down. We have Garmin GPS devises on our bikes with the route marked, and someone goes ahead of us in the van marking turns in chalk on the street. We really don’t need to be altogether like this all the time; I’m inclined not to do another Grasshopper tour if they’re all like this.
Still, the ride again today was a pretty nice ride. The river was beautiful and the rest of the scenery great, too. The weather was mostly nice, though near the end it was seriously threatening to rain. One highlight was the onsen in the hotel at the end of our ride. It turns out you never know what you’re going to get at an onsen; it might be just a single indoor tub, sort of a shallow swimming pool filled with hot water, or it could be multiple pools with different temperatures including both indoor and outdoor spaces. This one had something particularly wonderful: an outdoor pool – with nice hot water, of course – overlooking the ocean. Just an incredible place to rest and soak after a long day’s ride.
And then another nine- or 10-course meal at the hotel with every imaginable preparation of fish and all sorts of other stuff. After the meal on day three at the Buddhist monastery when we just didn’t have enough food I was worried about the standard that was being set. I needn’t have worried: since then dinners at least (not always lunches) have been extraordinary.
Finally, Day 11. Another nearly 60-mile day, more riding along the coast this time to a really tiny little fishing village. The weather wasn’t quite so cooperative today. We delayed our hotel departure by maybe 45 minutes as it was raining pretty hard. Alan, the lead guide, was watching the radar and it seemed as though it would pass. It wouldn’t; apparently a big cloud was just sitting over the hotel. Finally he said OK, enough delay. If you want to ride in the van that’s fine. It looks as though we’ll ride out of the rain in maybe 10 minutes and after that it shouldn’t be too bad. Sure enough, that worked. For a while. After lunch we got caught in a huge downpour, getting off our bikes under awnings and eaves as quickly as we could. Even then, though, the rain eventually eased and we sort of dried out over the rest of the ride.
And rain or no rain, we’ve continued to eat really well. Our hotel was pretty modest – OK, distinctly modest – but you wouldn’t expect more than that in such a small village. There wasn’t room for all of us in the ryokan they’d intended, so five of us lucky duckies stayed at a separate place just up the hill a bit. They were both modest, both what would be two-star hotels in Europe, but ours had more than just a single bathroom for the whole group, so that was a step up. And we had a resident kitty, though the owners insist on putting her out when guests are staying. Still, she was around, and that was almost good enough.