Tuesday, 17 April 2018

From Matsuyama to Imabari

Thursday 12 April. We walk out of Matsuyama heading northwest towards the coast. Soon the square concrete blocks of houses and neon lights give way to square rice fields and wooden houses with roofs of blue or silver-grey tile.

We are heading for Temple 52, Taisanji, around 10 kilometres away. Along the way we pass a reservoir where clusters of turtles are warming up on the concrete bank. As we walk past they all take to the water - plop, plop, plop  - dozens of little black heads bob up and down on the surface of the green water. After we have walked by I pause and look back. One by one the turtles are resuming their positions, scrambling back up onto the warm concrete.

Taisanji is set in woods a short climb from the road. As we make our way up to the temple a man in a car calls out to us. 'Osettai, osettai! Please wait!' He pulls into the carpark and jumps out of his car. Going round to the boot he opens it and fishes out two oranges for us. We thank him, and he then gives us two biscuits as well. Then he reaches into his boot again and brings out a large notebook. He opens it and shows us the contents. It is full of messages and photographs of foreign henro who he has met over the years. Arita San has been offering osettai to foreign henro for almost 20 years and has been keeping a record of their country of origin. He is also trying to get more signs in English to help foreign henro. We all visit the temple together.

After we wave Arita San goodbye we head off towards Temple 53 just a short distance away and then begin to consider our accommodation for the night. Small local parks are always a good bet - they almost always have toilets and a water fountain and nobody seems to mind. We find a park just off the main road and once it is dark we settle down for the night.

Stealth camping has its downsides - one of which is that in order not to be a nuisance we aim to be away not long after dawn. (I won't call it 'wild camping' - the only 'wild' thing about our camping last night was the colour of the children's play equipment).

So the next morning the alarm goes off at 05.30am and we are  up and gone by 06.30 am before too many people are around. Today's walk is mostly along the coast. The weather is superb, bright and sunny but with a cool breeze, perfect for hiking. We are heading towards the northern coast of Shikoku which is the islands more industrially developed and populous side, being closer to the larger island of Honshu.

We reach a small town called Kikuma and the road is lined with tile factories. The town is famed for its decorative roof tiles and at the back of the town, set into the hillside is the Kikuma Roof Tile Museum. We camp near here under wisteria trees for the night.

Tile Museum

We are heading towards Imabari, an industrial port on the north of the island. On the way into the city we reach Shikoku's answer to Milford Haven, a huge oil refinery which dominates the skyline. Right next to the site is a small temple, dwarfed by the huge metal towers, a stark reminder of the juxtaposition between ancient and modern which is a constant feature of this walk.

Imabari is also the starting point for the Shiminami Kaido, a magnificent cycle route which crosses six islands via seven fantastic bridges. You can read about my 2013 cycle trip on the Shiminami Kaido HERE. Bicycles are now easy to hire for those who want to cycle the route, which you can read more about HERE.

As we enter Imabari, Mick's watch bleeps a storm warning. I am dubious about Mick's watch. It tells us we are 6 metres under the sea when I know for a fact I am sitting on a hill, it cannot tell you which way is north without Mick performing an elaborate figure-of-eight movement with his arm for ten minutes and the walking distances it comes up with are barmy. So I take the warning with a pinch of salt.

But as we head into Imabari large drops of rain start to fall. By the time we reach the centre of the city it is tipping with rain. There is nothing much to do in Imabari at 5pm when its raining so we mooched about a while, hanging about under covered walkways and in the ferry terminal until it was getting dark. We set up the tent in a local park and went to sleep listening to the rain splattering on the tent.

In the morning it has stopped raining. We are up at 06.0am and Mick announces he is going to the local conbini (convenience store) for a coffee. (Convenience stores in Japan have good food and all the general necessities for daily life. They have coffee machines and kettles of hot water. They have toilets which are invariably spotless and many have seating areas and charging points. They are open 24 hours a day. As a traveller, convenience stores are a godsend.)

Giant propeller in the centre of Imabari

Cemetary Imabari

With no sense of timing I suggest to Mick that we could save some money by brewing our own coffee, here in the (very wet) park. 'No booze, no bed, no bath and now you want to deny me coffee?' he says incredulously. Hmm, perhaps he is right, I could be taking this ascetism too far. I follow him over the road to the convenience store.

It is Sunday 15 April and we are now heading out of Imabari. At the first temple of the day we are sitting watching people praying or lighting candles, and generally enjoying the peacefulness when a tall Westerner wearing a bandanna appears. He heads to the bell tower and rings the bell, as is the custom when arriving at a temple. The sound reverberates around the grounds but not satisfied, the guy grabs the rope attached to the large piece of wood which acts as a hammer and this time rams it even harder onto the bell. 'Oh my god!' I mutter, putting my hands on my ears.

Just then the head priest walks by. Noisy Guy strides over to him and grabs his purple robes. 'Hey man, nice colour!' he exclaims. To his credit, the priest is restrained and simply nods and walks on. A Japanese couple lean over and explain that the priest is very famous. 'He wrote a book which has been made into a film.'
I couldn't take any more. 'Come on,' I said to Mick. 'Let's go.'

The next temple, Senyuji, is 250 metres up a mountain road. Resting in a hut we meet Thomas, a softly spoken young man from Sydney, Australia who tells us he had been saving for this trip for a long time. At the top of the road just before the temple we meet a lovely young Japanese couple. Both encounters are a welcome antidote to Noisy Guy and help restore my equanimity.

After the final temple of the day. Kokubunji, Number 59, we decide to head out towards the coast at Sakurai to find a spot to camp for the night.

Shaking hands with Kobo Daishi
We find a great spot next to the beach. A local couple are walking their dog and we ask whether it is ok to camp here. They tell us it is no problem. For once we can set up before nightfall which gives us chance to dry the tent and  - luxury!  - we decide it will be fine NOT to get up at the crack of dawn and we turn off our alarms.

It is the evening of the 4th day since we left Matsuyama (Sunday 15 April) and we have walked around 70km. An average of 15-20km per day suits us both and my leg seems happy too.

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