On a steep, green hillside in the interior of the island of Shikoku I stopped my bicycle to listen to the quiet of the morning. It looked like a tranquil view from an old woodcut, but I heard rustling and snorteling. The great forested hills overlapped far into the distance. There was no traffic anywhere on the hairpin roads, even the mirrors positioned at corners to detect oncoming traffic just gleamed quietly in the sun. To the south, a morning's bike ride away, the sea sparkled silently.
Far down in a small clearing I finally distinguished a happy couple of wild pigs out on a rustling snorteling forage. It took a leap of faith to believe that this was really Japan. As that pair of pigs noisily looked for their lunch it occurred to me: "This ain't the Tokyo subway."
The island of Shikoku is not known for wild pigs, it's not known for much. Japan's fourth largest island is not even known as a particularly rural environment because its north shore (which forms the south side of the famous Inland Sea) has been sacrificed to the industrialization that afflicts much of Japan.
If Shikoku is known for anything it's for the circular pilgrimage of 88 temples following the travels of the 9th century disseminator of Buddhism, Kobo Daishi. Devout Japanese Buddhists have walked the route for centuries, revelling in the hardships and trials of the long trek, knowing that adversities of the body strengthen the spirit.
But these days most pilgrims have neither the time nor the inclination to suffer the hardships of walking the route. They make their rounds in tour busses, taxis, or small white cars which disgorge groups of the cheerful faithful at each temple. I too went to Shikoku with a group, and it was not my purpose to suffer.
My faith was less in Kobo Daishi than in the conviction that being on a bicycle in the countryside is the best way to get some feeling for a nation. Like all the other pilgrims who have gone to Shikoku in the last 1,100 years, I completed my trip with no great mysteries solved, but with my convictions strengthened.
For example, there was one memorable half hour when part of my bicycling group of Canadian tourists merged with a bussing group of Japanese pilgrims. The busload of white-jacketed henro (the correct name for Shikoku pilgrims) insisted that we stand among them as they chanted. A man from Kyoto tried to help me follow the devotions by pointing in his text to the Japanese character they were about to pronounce. My complete illiteracy in his language elicited a compassionate smile.
In the temple courtyard 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 it, if any, remains a mystery. While my imagination was working towards an explanation of the ringing rock, the pilgrims departed as suddenly as they had appeared.
The ring of silence returned to the air. That too was not the Tokyo subway.
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 an abundance of help and goodwill from any Japanese. The people of Japan have a great sympathy for anyone who is separated from his group. On one occasion of asking directions I was taken by the hand and accompanied to the appropriate cross-roads, given a send-off 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 a photo at their shine, rode up their hill, and through their woods with me. The younger boy gave a very animated speech the whole time we biked together. I understood not a single word. His friend smiled supportingly throughout, apparently agreeing with every word that was said. For 3/4 of an hour we were the world's smallest, most peculiar, and least intimidating bike gang.
In Japan, everybody is part of a group. Being illiterate in the Japanese language and unfamiliar with the customs of the country, the only way to get away from the cities of Japan is to be with a group. I don't group well, but in the evenings I was usually happy to be part of a group. Good food and warm sake brings out the social animal in all of us. And bike trip groups are a good compromise. I've been with Butterfield & Robinson in Europe where you can spend the whole day away from the group. If you follow the precise route instructions you will easily make the next rendezvous miles away in the dining room of the next great château.
In Japan, it was presumed that we'd want to spend the days following the leader. Most of my group donned their shiny white helmets and lined up behind "mother duck," our organizer and guide.
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-suited surfers, and always a cement seawall rising up to 10 metres from the beach to protect seaside villages from the 20 to 30 typhoons that the Pacific sends Shikoku every year.
Where ever there is a Shinto shrine the sea wall has a break - the tonnage of a heavy steel door stands aside, ready to slide shut for the next typhoon.
Even quiet inlets are lined by curving contours of cement walls. One day, after a spectacular morning of biking along the spine of a rugged peninsula, I left the group lunching in a parking lot and found the small, quiet Otonashi Shrine on a large, quiet inlet. The shrine had its own three metre opening in the sea wall and a little cement dock, perfect for a lunch spot for a single tourist.
At 11:57, by my watch, the inlet came alive with echoes of an electronic Big Ben. At 12:01 a distant siren screamed out and received back an echo from each little bay of the inlet.
I am old enough to remember seeing survivors of the London blitz wince at sirens in hockey games. 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 canned drink from one of Japan's 5,410,000 vending machines, I watched the jelly fish as they blobbed by. Cranes fished on a secluded beach on the opposite side of the inlet. In the far distance, on the main road, a small flock of the very rare helmet-headed Canadian ducklings biked in formation across my view.
The furthest from the great Japanese conurbation that we got, both geographically and metaphorically, was Nakatosa. The coastal road to this fishing village cuts below, beside, and through headlands which tower over crashing surf. In 1991, after being struck by about 30 typhoons, this road was closed more days than it was open.
The usual Shinto shrines guarded the entrance to town, the icy natural harbour was crowded with light green and white fish boats. The market was in full swing.
Quiet, smiling people displayed fish, fruit, hot cakes and home baking along the narrow lane which is the market. Nobody was shouting prices here, the loudest noise was from a few happy children and a group of men laughing at each other's jokes.
After a long day's ride, the beer in the outdoor vending machines looked too good to resist, so I didn't. Hot cakes being cooked at the market turned out to be filled with sweet red bean paste.
A walk around town established the perimeters of the place, all huddled within a green collar of hills with an opening like a neck going out to sea.
A bevy of schoolgirls giggled me to a stop and ran through the "What is your name?" "What is your country?" questions. I would like to donate the cliché "as giggly as a Japanese schoolgirl" to the English language.
Back at our ryokan a banquet of 60 volunteer fireman was announced by 120 rubber boots congregating at the entrance. Their dinner ended early before ours began, they left a treasury of beer and sake for the enjoyment of our group. An after dinner walk showed how quiet a town can be on Saturday night. There was a glow of windows lit by television screens, a wash of neutral light came from the ubiquitous street-side vending machines, the shadows of the moon cut irregular slices on the crooked, narrow streets: once again, thinking of the Tokyo subway didn't make sense.
And speaking of making sense, I think I now understand Japan's agriculture policy. Japanese rice from tiny terraced rice paddies which are too small for mechanization is heavily subsidised and sells in a protected domestic market for five times the world price. Quaint little farms have made their owners well-to-do for a thousand years. A mere 60 years ago - a blink of the eye of Japanese memory - Japan was a poor country which earned more than half its foreign exchange from silk exports and had to send many citizens abroad because there wasn't enough to eat at home. Today the Japanese government has a program to encourage travel abroad as a means of spending the foreign exchange surplus. But just knowing those rice paddies are there and still productive is valuable asset to the Japanese consciousness.
The moment I appreciated Japanese agriculture most was on a crisp November day when I biked though a tunnel into a small valley. The air in the protected glen was fresh and cool and the green stalks growing in the fields had a hard-edged sparkle to them. As I came out of the tunnel into the light I had a sensual revelation - my nose picked up a familiar scent - ginger. It was a field of ginger. People were pulling up ginger roots and slashing off the greenery. The already fresh air came rushing into my sinuses loaded with the aromatic action of live ginger.
And there is the kaki. Botanically and linguistically, kaki is Japanese for persimmon. But kaki is to persimmon as fresh live ginger is to an old, wet ginger snap. Kaki ripen on their trees after the leaves have fallen. They swell with crisp orangeness and hang heavy in the cool air until someone twists them off their tough stems.
While I was stopping to photograph some kaki, two women took note of me. (How could they not, I was the only Westerner for miles, I was riding a bike loaded with panniers, I was wearing a shiny white helmet and holding a camera.) They seemed worried that I might stomp across their fence and come uninvited through their pasture. When they were sure that I was not going to cross their fenceline, they motioned to me, and invited me to come over. I bowed to them and tentatively worked my way closer, they bowed tentatively and worked their way closer to me. It was like the ritual courting dance of some rare Australian bird.
We talked and joked in hand gestures and stray syllables. I left with enough photos of the women, their old house, and kaki hanging on their trees. I also had more than enough bright orange kaki bulging from my saddlebags and pockets. My face hurt from returning so many smiles.
Part of the reason I wanted to go to Japan was to get rid of the images of the country I had got from 1950s war movies. I was afraid that those images would be replaced by memories of the Tokyo subway. But they weren't, the strongest image I have of Japan is of one of a Japanese farm woman standing beside me in her pink bonnet, shyly flashing a huge warm smile as she insists on stuffing my pocket with yet another brilliant and gleaming orange kaki.