Saturday, 5 May 2018

End of the road...for now

The road section out of Niihama is busy and not the most scenic and it is a relief to turn onto quieter suburban roads with beautifully manicured gardens.

A less scenic section...

This lovely resting place cheered us up
The weather forecast is for rain and the humid air feels clammy and a bit oppressive. We are heading towards Shikokuchuo where the route turns inland towards Temple 65, Sankakuji and then Temple 66, Unpenji, the highest temple on the pilgrimage. I am planning the logistics - there are few opportunities to buy food and we also need to decide where to camp.

And then suddenly it is all over.

We stop for a rest and a coffee and Mick pulls out his mobile phone to check for messages. There is a message from his brother back home in the UK. He has been diagnosed with a serious illness. 'I thought you should know but don't cut your trip short,' the message ends.

Mick shows me the message and I read it in silence. Mick says nothing at all, just looks down the road. I cannot read his expression. Of course his brother would like him to come home, despite his protestation. I thought about my sister who was diagnosed with breast cancer just before we left for Japan and who has a course of radiotherapy due to start in a couple of weeks time. She hasn't asked but I know that she too would be glad if I were around.
'Let's go home,' I say at last. 'We're not walking the full route. It doesn't matter.'
Mick looks at me with relief. 'You don't mind?'
'No. Let's just call it a day. We are not meant to be here. Not right now.'

Of course it isn't quite as simple as that. Our flights are booked for the beginning of June. We take a train to Takamatsu and book into a hotel from where we phone the airline, Cathay Pacific, and the travel agency back in England, Trailfinders. Both are extremely helpful and soon our flights are rescheduled for three days time.

We take the train to Osaka via Himeji. As we have a day or two in hand we stop for a night at Himeji and visit the castle. It is Golden Week and Himeji is thronging with tourists but the castle looks spectacular.

Himeji Castle

At Osaka we book into an expensive hotel for the last night as a consolation for ending our trip earlier than planned. The flight connections are not ideal, being booked at such short notice and will require a night at Hong Kong airport before a morning flight to London, so we want to make the most of the final night in Japan. The hotel is superb, we know we have booked the right place when we find they are dispensing free wine and desserts in the lobby. The staff, like everywhere else we have been in Japan, are impeccably dressed and are polite and helpful. I will miss this level of customer service when I get home.

Complimentary earplugs

Five years ago when we brought our bicycles with us, we had not known that the train from Osaka to the airport uncouples part way along the journey, with one half of the train going to Kansai Airport and the other half on down to Wakayama. When we discovered that we were on the wrong half of the train, we jumped off in a panic, dragging bicycles, pannier bags and various souvenirs with us. We had no time to get this lot down the platform and so we watched the train disappear on down to the airport without us while we waited for the next one.

We therefore have no excuse for making this mistake again and yet we do. We are fooled by the fact that most of the passengers are carrying suitcases.
'This must be the correct section', says Mick, plonking wearily into a seat.
After a few stops I am not so sure and express my concern. 'The message on the intercom said the front carriages go to the airport. We are in the last carriage.' Mick dismisses me, waving his hand peremptorily. 'All these people with suitcases are not wrong,' he said, 'or maybe they are all going to Wakayama for their holidays?'
In fact the number of people with suitcases is getting fewer with each stop the train makes. Eventually I march to the end of the carriage and ask the guard whether we are in the right carriage for the airport.
'No, front, front', he says, pointing his white gloved hand to the front of the train.
'I told you so,' I say smugly to Mick.
'Not again,' he mutters, as he grabs his rucksack and we leg it down the platform and leap into the correct carriage. At least we are not dragging bicycles this time. Here I discover that the other passengers with suitcases have not been leaving the train as I thought, but have gradually been moving down to the correct section of the train.

At the airport, to confirm going home is the correct decision, I learn that my nonagenarian aunt is very unwell and in hospital. A couple of hours later, we are on a crowded plane to Hong Kong, where we transfer for our flight to London.

The first time I flew out of Kansai airport at the end of that bicycle trip around Shikoku five years ago, it had been with a massive sense of relief that I was going home. Cycling the pilgrimage had been much harder than I thought and we had left the pilgrimage route at Kochi. At the time I was certain I would never return.

The second time, four years ago, I left with a huge feeling of achievement, having walked the entire route of the 88 Temple pilgrimage, every step, without using a bus or train once. I had loved the walk but it was done now and I could not imagine that I would ever return.

Now, leaving for the third time, I reflect on the difficulties we experienced this time. Problems with my leg and worries about our families have clouded the trip from the outset. Sometimes, things are just not meant to be, and I need to accept this with grace and be grateful for the experience. And one thing I know for certain is that this is not my last visit to Shikoku.

I am already planning when I can return.