We were parked in a rest stop somewhere in the mountain roads of Shikoku, which was to be our destination for the day. One of the four major islands that comprises Japan, Shikoku is often overlooked, I think, by a lot of foreigners. For example, I’d been here 6 years and this was the firs time for me to set foot in the place.
But had I known what I know now, I would have gone a lot sooner. Unlike many other places I’ve been in Japan, Shikoku is quite beautiful, and pretty sparsely populated. Lots of nature, lots of gorgeous scenery, and not too many people around to interrupt your enjoyment of it. In fact, Shikoku is the setting for a major portion of Alex Kerr’s Lost Japan, one of the books about Japan a lot of people seem to have read (for better or for worse). In the book, Kerr writes about his adventures in purchasing and restoring an old Japanese-style farmhouse in the Iya Valley region of the island.
I remember reading this book back when I was in university and being captivated by his description of the place, and seeing as how here I was, in the middle of Shikoku, it seemed like this was the perfect opportunity. So after washing our faces and enjoying a nice breakfast and cup of coffee in one of the cutest little convenience-store-slash-gas-stations I’ve seen around (open 24 hours with hot food, and they even had a free massage chair you could use, though my friend complained it “smelled like old men”) (me: “how do you know what old men smell like?” her: “….shut up.”) we threw our gear in the back of the car and headed south, up, up and into the mountains.
Japanese occasionally describe clean, fresh air by saying “空気が美味しい” (kuuki ga oishii) which literally means “the air is delicious.” I never understood that, because you know, you want to eat delicious things, and who wants to eat air? Well. After driving up into the mountains for about an hour, it suddenly began to make sense. Because my friends, the air up there? It was delicious…! It’s hard to explain, but it was so… fresh. so crisp, yet with a full body. It had earth undertones, and hints of dew and moss. It wasn’t thick, but it wasn’t sharp and thin either. It was… well, delicious..! (Hmm, I just sounded like I was writing a wine description). Simply put, I wanted to eat that air. Eat it up up up, and then have some for dessert. Okay. I may be getting carried away with the food metaphors here, but the point is, I have now smelled (tasted?) delicious air. And it was wonderful.
We drove around for a while in the mountains of the Iya valley, stopping to play around in rivers and walk around the seemingly endless greenery and nature. We were really struck by how few people there were around – we would walk around for hours and not see a single other person. It was really a great time – like being in another lush, natural planet and forgetting you were in Japan at all. It’s easy to understand why Kerr seemed so taken with the place – the Iya Valley really is a wonderful place to relax and – I imagine – live, if one is inclined towards taking a slower pace in life.
One of the more well-known tourist attractions in the Iya Valley are the famed Kazura-bashi – vine bridges that span the various rocky river gorges that characterise the valley. I’ve heard that back in the day they used to be more utilitarian and plentiful in nature, but these days, a great many seem to have either disappeared, or else retooled into semi-tourist attractions. This includes the one we visited, which charged 500 yen admission (just to cross a tiny bridge!), and which had been reinforced with steel cabling and bolts. However, it was no less terrifying for its modern upgrades, as the spaces between the gnarled logs were irregular and rather wide – easily large enough to slip your foot through, or swallow up a leg if you weren’t careful. Furthermore, the bridge shuddered and swayed with the wind and each movement across, always making you feel as if it were one step removed from flipping over and dashing you on the sharp unforgiving rocks below.
I eyed the bridge with some trepidation as I considered my choice in footwear very carefully – I had on at the moment a pair of black harness boots, which while rugged and fine for urban use, also had a chunky heel and a rather smooth sole with little traction. I debated going all the way back up to the car (which was parked atop a rather steep incline) to change into shoes with better grip when before us, a rather gyaru-like girl in utterly impractical high heels teetered by, with her bleached-mullet-sporting boyfriend in tow. (He was wearing neon-pink and black canvas hightops which I also felt a bit inappropriate for vine bridge crossing). I resolved myself to watching their progress, deciding that if they should make it across without dying, then I would just go for it without changing my shoes.
To my (and their, I’m assuming) relief, the ill-dressed couple made it across after about 10 agonising minutes – the girl perpetually clinging to the side vines, her shoes slipping and twisting into each and every gap between the planks , and the boy not much better. Upon seeing this, I decided that I ought to just man up (my traveling companion having reached the same conclusion some time ago) and cross. So off we went, paying our 500 yen a head and braving the windy twists and swaying vine ropes and shuddering planks to cross to the other side.
Now granted, a young girl had just crossed the bridge before me, only wearing heels, but still I felt pretty manly you know, like getting my Tarzan on, right? After all, I was carrying a lot of camera equipment, not to mention capybara-san, and if you’ve ever tried to photograph a tiny stuffed capybara on a swaying vine bridge using a 50mm prime lens (necessitating you to crouch back a ways and focus manually) without either a) you falling off the bridge or b) letting poor capybara-san get blown away by the gusting wind off the bridge, then you know that it’s not quite as easy as it looks.
“HA!” I silently thought to myself. “Now was I getting in touch with my primal man nature or what!? Mongolia, watch out, cuz’ here I come!”
Just then, my companion interrupts:
“Hey look at that!”
I turn my head and follow the direction she’s pointing across to the side from whence we just came to see…
…an entire busload of senior citizens, setting off across the vine bridge I had just been so proud of myself for crossing.
“huh” I muttered silently, lamenting the showing up of my masculinity by these slight old folks in their what? 70s? 80s? (That’s the thing about Japanese old folks – back home, someone is considered a “senior citizen” when they get up in their 60s. Here, man, you run into Japanese people who are 70, 80, even 90 (yes, ninety!) and they’re climbing mountains, practising yoga, hiking in the woods, etc. Not only do Japanese live longer than Americans, they also have a far superior quality of life – in my experience – in their later years.)
Anyway, my tender masculine ego unable to take getting bested by the flannel-wearing senior brigades racing across the bridge with alarming alacrity, we decide its time to hit the road, and we turn and walk back up to the car moments before the tidal wave of the aged crashes upon us.
After driving for a while, enjoying the delicious air and beautiful nature (in some places, the vast rolling green hills, beautiful blue skies and liquid white clouds reminded me so much of pictures I’ve seen of Switzerland… it was absolutely gorgeous. what I wouldn’t give to be back there right now…!), we come across another one of the Iya Valley’s better-known tourist attractions – 小便小僧(shoubenkozou) or the “Pissing Boy Statue” (that’s what it’s really called!). As one might gather from the name, it is, in fact, a statue of a boy peeing over a ravine. I have no idea why it’s so popular (especially since it’s located on rocky outcropping jutting out over the side of a cliff alongside a really remote mountain road).
We almost missed the statue, actually, as it was quite small and unadorned for such a “famous” landmark. As we sat around and tried to think of ways to photograph it interestingly (our solution: putting capybara-san in the frame and just shooting him instead ), a few other people showed up and marveled for a few seconds before leaving. I think most of them shared our feeling of “… that’s it?”, judging from their faces. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad attraction. It’s just… so…. well, random…!
Anyway, after taking the requisite photos of the peeing boy, we jumped back in the car and headed back up, north from Iya and onto the main highway that bisects Shikoku from East to West. Had we more time, we would have loved to have stayed overnight in the Iya Valley – neither of us imagined it was going to be that beautiful and spectacular. But alas, our schedule called for us to hit up more of Shikoku later on that day, so we bid a sad farewell to the lush mountains and the delicious air behind us, and turned our car westward, racing the sun across the sky towards the little town of Uchiko and the much larger town of Matsuya, where I would soon find myself floating helplessly amongst a bunch of naked men towards an uncertain fate in the middle of a salty pool of water. But that my friends, is part VI of this story. Stay tuned.
Now listening to: “Memphis Bleek – Infatuated (featuring Boxie)”