Biking in Shikoku

by Johnny Lucas

The scene: great green forested hills overlapping far into the distance, no traffic on the hairpin road, even the convex mirrors at every corner to detect oncoming traffic reflected only more stillness, a morning's bike ride to the south the sea sparkled, quietly. It took a leap of faith even to entertain the thought that this really was Japan.

I was the only human in sight, the autumn leaves were swaying a little on some trees, beginning to fall here and there, a few clouds cheerfully cruised overhead. It occurred to me: "This ain't the Tokyo subway."

If the island of Shikoku is famous for anything it's for the circular pilgrimage of 88 temples which follows the travels of the 9th century disseminator of Shingon Buddhist, Kobo Daishi. Devout Japanese Buddhists have walked this route for centuries, revelling in the hardships and trials of the long trek, knowing that all adversities of the body can strengthen the spirit.

But I wasn't there to suffer. I was on a week's bicycling trip, hoping to get a glimpse of non-subway Japan. The biggest hazard was the weather. Heavy rain was the most-anticipated, most threatening and most dreaded hardship of biking. After suffering through one day of relentless downpour my spirit was strengthened, and knowing that I could overcome it, I allowed myself a moment's solidarity with the centuries of pilgrims who took months to walk around the island.

There are still pilgrims travelling around Shikoku, but these days few have either the time or the inclination to walk. Tour busses, taxis and small white cars disgorge the sunny, sprightly faithful at each temple. One large group at Temple 24 insisted on including a few of my group in their group while they chanted. A man from Kyoto tried to help me follow the chant by pointing in his text to the Japanese character they were about to pronounce. My complete illiteracy in his language elicited only the most compassionate of smiles.

The progress of these pilgrims included a few more chants, some ritual washing of hands and mouths, and of course some photography. In the courtyard of Temple 24 is a large rock which, when struck with a smaller rock, rings like a bell. All the pilgrims, including me, struck the rock and marvelled at the sound. The religious significance of that, if any, is a mystery to me. While my imagination was working towards an explanation of this phenomenon, the group of pilgrims departed, as suddenly and as cheerfully as they had arrived, and the ring of silence returned to the air.

Have I yet confessed that I was part of a group? I don't usually group well, and I'm not naturally obedient. But this was Japan, I don't speak the language, and Japanese people like groups.

Getting lost in rural Japan is not a concern. Even an illiterate like me can point to a destination on a map and be assured of abundant goodwill and assistance from anyone in Japan. The Japanese seem to have a great sympathy for any individual who has lost his group. On one occasion of asking directions I was accompanied to the appropriate crossroads, pointed in the right direction, and presented with a piece of fruit as a parting gift.

Another time, a boy of about 6 and his friend of about 8 escorted me on their bikes through their town, posed for my photo at their shine, rode up their hill, and through their woods with me. The younger boy made a very animated speech the whole time we biked together, his friend smiling supportingly. I understood not one word, and it didn't matter. For three quarters of an hour we were the world's smallest, most unusual and least intimidating bike gang.Pink hats

Ever-present on Shikoku Island is the sea, and the sights and smells of fishing. I love fish. On my last morning in Japan I got up ridiculously early to see Skedji wholesale fish market at the Tokyo docks. I saw there bundled up for sale marine life forms I didn't know existed. By nightfall they would be well along someone's digestive track. No where in Japan are you ever far from the sea, but on Shikoku you actually see it and smell it most of the time.

For a few days the biking route went along the coast. Small harbours jammed with white and green fishing boats, rocky beaches, even a few wet-suitted surfers, and always the cement wall rising up to 10 metres from the beach to save seaside villages from the 20 to 30 typhoons that the open Pacific sends to Shikoku every year.

Shintoism shrines always rate an opening in the sea wall. A many-ton steel door opens a passageway from the sea to the village or hilltop where there is a shrine. Shinto evolved from the animist religion indigenous to Japan. Natural phenomenon, especially trees, rocks and bodies of water, are identified as residences of spirits which can affect human life. It therefore wouldn't do to separate the shrine from the sea.

Shintoism and Buddhism peacefully co-exist, much like two levels of government. Offerings to local Shinto spirits are made to affect daily life, good harvests, good weather, good fishing. Buddhism's appeal is its attention to individual spiritualism and re-incarnation. In Japan the norm is that weddings are Shinto and funerals are Buddhist.

Where ever there is a shrine the sea wall has an opening - the tonnage of a heavy steel door slides aside, ready to close for the next typhoon.

Even quiet inlets are lined with the curving contour of the cement wall. One day, after a spectacular morning of biking along the spine of a rugged peninsula, I left the group lunching in a parking lot in the shade of a statue to a hero of progress and found the quiet Otonashi Shrine on a large, quiet inlet. Naturally, the shrine had its own three metre opening in the sea wall and a little cement dock, perfect for the lunching tourist.

At 11:57, by my watch, the inlet boomed with echoes of an electronic Big Ben. At 12:01 a siren sounded, and seemed to set off a series of other sirens from each little bay of the inlet.

I am old enough to remember survivors of the London blitz wincing at hockey sirens. I have the impression that the reaction of a modern Japanese to the same sound would be to knock off for lunch.

Sitting on the dock of Otonashi Shrine, drinking a can of sweet Calpis Water from one of Japan's 5,410,000 vending machines, jelly fish blobbed by, cranes fished on a secluded beach opposite. In the distance, on the main road, some traffic and the world, including the rest of the biking group, rode by in close formation.

1135 words


Publication history

Page maintained by Johnny Lucas, © J.P.Lucas. Created: June 24, 1996 Updated: January 19, 1997