Shikoku （四国）(Week LXXX)
Wednesday, May 2
I met Mari at the station and we took a train to the airport. Destination: Shikoku (四国).
Shikoku is the smallest and least populated of Japan’s four main islands. It has long been occupied by the Japanese. However it was often skipped over by the shoguns. Today it is very underdeveloped. There you can find mountains, rivers and a slower life. It’s a place everyone knows, but few have actually visited.
I have an interest in nature. My girlfriend, Mari, is interested in purity. (I’m not sure what she sees in me.) Our combined interests motivated us to visit Shimanto River (四万十川). Shimanto is well known in Japan as the “cleanest” river in the country. It is also one of the last undammed rivers. So to review, Shikoku is wild, clean and depopulated. Perfect for a vacation.
Back in Tokyo (東京), we caught a plane and flew south for two hours. We arrived at Tokushima (徳島) airport just in time to catch the last bus. We made our way to our hotel and checked in. Lights out.
Thursday, May 3
We were up and out early on Thursday. We found our way to the station and caught a train. It was immediately apparent we weren’t in Tokyo. A single train car stood at the platform. We boarded and took a seat with 10 other people. The conductor fired up the diesel engines. The train lurched forward down the single track and we were off. I looked over at Mari.
“It feels like we’re big city kids in the country, yeah?”
“うん (un),” she replied in the affirmative.
We took a train and bus to arrive at the first item on our itinerary: the Naruto Whirlpools (鳴門の渦潮). The whirlpools are created by tremendously strong tidal currents moving through the bay. We ran down to the long bridge over the bay. We were close on time and I wanted to see everything. We were moving quickly through the line. And suddenly,
“Excuse me, where are you from?” An elderly staff member asked me.
“The United States,” I replied.
“Welcome to Japan. Please take this.”
He handed me a care package. I replied in Japanese, “ありがとうございます (thank you).” No time to explain my life story.
We walked down the long and enclosed bridge. Finally we found our way to the main room with glass floors. Below we could see the sea moving quickly into the ocean. All around me I heard the usual Japanese sounds of amazement.
“ えー！ わあ！ きれい！ すごい！ (Ehh! Wow! Beautiful! Amazing!)”
They were impressed. I was not. Disappointment hung over me. It looked just like a fast moving river. Yawn. Below me were a half dozen tourist boats fighting the current to get a good view. I enjoyed watching the other tourists more than the whirlpools themselves.
The water slowed down and we left the bridge. Mari felt a little disappointed too. We stopped long enough to take a funny “underwhelming” picture.
Back on the bus, back to the station. Back to our journey.
We wanted to move to the center of the island. This should have been a quick commute. Maybe 70 kilometers as the crow flies. However trains in Shikoku come less often than in Tokyo. We waited around the first station for a half hour before our train left. A short time later we transferred. Another half hour passed. Another train. Another transfer. An hour passed. Final train. We arrived at the our local station where we were greeted by… no one. We were the only people to leave the train. There were no station attendants. We were alone. Cool.
I made a call and we were picked up by a fast talking Kiwi, Steve san. Steve worked for an Australian owned rafting company, “Happy Raft.” Earlier I had made arrangements to join a bilingual rafting tour. The night before rafting we would stay at their guest house. Then the next morning we would join their rafting adventure.
The guest house was temporarily without bath water so we were first escorted to the local public bath. Next we were driven high up into the mountains for the night. We were the only guests and so had the whole house to ourselves. We enjoyed some barbecued vegetables and called it a night.
Just before laying down I stepped outside. I looked up and saw stars. I heard crickets chirping. It felt good to be back in nature. I returned inside and fast fell asleep in my futon.
Friday, May 4
Mari’s alarmclock pierced the silent room. I shot up out of bed and made a beeline for the restroom. The morning mountain was air cold but refreshing. We enjoyed a light breakfast and hopped in the car. Our host drove us to the company “office.” Actually an exposed barn next to the river. Paperwork. Waiver forms. Wetsuits. Helmets. On the bus. Down to the river. We sat down in our boat. Joining us was another interracial couple, a Japanese woman & an Australian man. Names were exchanged. We had friends.
The first few minutes were spent reviewing safety and practicing commands. Our guide, Teru (てるさん) was an English-speaking Japanese guide. He had a heavy Australian accident from working with Aussies. He was young enough to be cool and old enough to be well seasoned. Perfect. We set down the river and soon came on our first rapid.
“Right, this is a pretty easy rapid. If you want you can jump over and float down.” Teru said.
I’ve been rafting once before in Colorado. It was a very professional, albeit uptight, company. Safety was a major concern. So was avoiding lawsuits. Jumping overboard to float through a rapid was out of the question in Colorado. Here my guide was actually encouraging me to do it.
“Teru, are you serious?”
“Hell yeah, mate. Go for it!”
That was all the encouraging I needed. I jumped overboard and the other Aussie followed me. Our lifejackets easily kept our heads above the water. I leaned back and put my feet up just like I was instructed to. The water began to move faster. I was pulled into the stream. I had no choice. Faster. Faster. Faster. Suddenly I was weightless. I was in the air dropping straight down a meter. I splashed down and was submerged. Ice cold water enveloped me. My head poked above the surface and I sucked air. I lightly bounced off a huge rock to my right. It spun me around so I was going head first down the river. I righted myself and then slowly moved into a calm pool of water.
I lowered my feet and began to tread water. I looked behind. The raft crashed down the cliff I had just fallen from. It splashed down and they navigated past the boulder and right up to me. Teru looked down and smiled.
“How was it, mate?”
“Wicked! Let’s do it again.”
“We’ve got all day, mate. Hop in.”
He reached down to grab my vest. “せんーの (heave),” he shouted. I fell into the boat soaking wet but feeling alive. Mari rubbed my cheek and looked at me fondly.
“ばか (idiot),” she said fondly.
“I may grow older, but I’ll never stop being a boy.”
We spent the rest of the morning moving down the river tackling the rapids. Between the action our guide had us play games to pass the time. All of which ended up with someone getting wet. At one point a guide from a different raft ran across his boat to torpedo our own as hard as he could. We all ended up in the river with the raft upside. No one was hurt and we learned how to flip a raft over. Later I had the opportunity to knock our guide overboard when he wasn’t paying any attention. It was great to spend the day horsing around and having fun.
We took lunch in the early afternoon. All you can eat bagel sandwiches were provided. I got my full and enjoyed a glass of tea to wash it down. Back in the boat for some more rapids.
The day began to wind down and we were approaching the last rapid.
“Right. This is the last rapid. It’s a big one too. If you’re brave then jump out now and swim to it!”
As if I needed motivation. I fell over backwards and swam to the middle of the river. The current increased and I was pulled towards the rocks ahead. The water moved faster than before. I struggled to keep my head & feet up. I swallowed a lot of water. I was getting beat up, but was still having a great time. Then suddenly a side current hit me and I was thrown against a huge boulder. Water splashed off the rock and back into my face. Into my mouth. Panic began to creep into my mind.
“Keep your feet up. Use your arms to push off the rock. Swim to the center. Feet up. Breath. Breath. Breath.”
It took some work but I moved back to the center of the river. The current carried me out and into the calm pool. I lowered my feet and coughed up river water. I breathed deep and looked at the blue sky above. I survived. Behind me the raft came crashing down and caught up.
“Had some trouble there, ehh Alex?” Teru asked.
“Haha, yeah you saw that, huh?”
“No worries, mate. You handled it perfectly.”
I spread out and floated down the calm river. What a rush. Not long after we arrived at the quitting point. We hauled our heavy raft out of the water and up the slope. Back in the bus for the drive home. Sleep.
Back at camp we stripped down, dried off and watched a slide show. We gave our thanks to everyone and made the short walk back to the station. We hopped a train bound south. To Kochi (高知).
We arrived in Kochi early Friday evening. It was the biggest city we had seen in two days. And it wasn’t big. Sushi for dinner. Hotel. Sleep. A successful day.
Saturday, May 5
Early to bed, early to rise. We arrived early at a car rental shop. We rented a super compact Japanese car and left town. We drove a short time and arrived at the beach. We stopped the car and got out. It was the first time I had ever seen the Pacific Ocean, except from an airplane. It was huge, like an ocean should be.
We drove along the coast for a short time until we arrived in the next city. We had a delicious sushi lunch.
We then parked the car and hopped onto a boat. Time to go whale watching. We spent five hours on the ocean chasing after whales that never appeared. I don’t know, maybe the whales were afraid to show themselves since the Japanese hunt them. Either way we didn’t see any whales but we did enjoy the salt water in our face and some great views of the Shikoku coastline. And in the end we got “free” consolatory t-shirts. Actually considering how much the tour cost, it was the most expensive shirt I’ve even bought. And it didn’t even fit!
Back in the car we followed the GPS (ナビ) away from civilization and towards our ultimate destination: Shimanto River. We found the river and found our guesthouse (民宿) with no problem. We visited a local hot spring (温泉) and enjoyed a hot bath. Back at the guesthouse we were again the only guests. The owner left us to ourselves and we were asleep before 10.
Sunday, May 6
Early to bed, early to rise. We were up and out by 7 AM. With Mari behind the wheel I took over navigation duties. I alternated between the GPS and a guide book. I gave directions in Japanese. My banishment to the passenger seat was not one of choice. I had failed to secure a Japanese driver’s license before our trip. So I was confined to the side seat. Mari has long had a license. But by and large she is a new driver. In Japan, certification always trumps real world experience. So my nine years of driving experience was placed second to Mari’s nationality.
Thankfully traffic was light and Mari had been practicing driving before our trip. She drove like a pro. So the morning was very enjoyable. We drove along the river. We stopped every so often at particularly scenic points. We would wade into the water and hang out on a bridge. Then back in the car and on the road.
I read the map and led Mari through a series of turns and curves. I quickly learned our map didn’t tell us terrain. I looked up from the paper to find us driving up a mountain. The road narrowed to one lane. One very narrow lane. Mari persevered up the incline at a very slow & cautious pace. More than once we came across another car driving down the mountain. They saw Mari’s “new driver” magnet on the hood. They reversed and let us pass. Thirty minutes passed and I could see Mari feeling very stressed out.
“Please pull over. We need to switch.” I told her.
She began to resist and highlighted the possible consequences. Fender benders. Insurance complications. Police questioning.
I countered with the other possibility. We fall down the mountain and die. My argument won. We traded seats. I adjusted the seat, steering wheel and mirrors. I lowered the windows and slipped the transmission into first gear. It didn’t take long for me to regain my senses. In no time we were cruising through the mountain. Up, up and up. Down, down and down. It felt great to be driving again.
I led us through the whole mountain until we reach a long plateau. Confident the worst was behind we changed seats again. Mari adjusted the seat, steering wheel, mirrors and windows. We were off. Lunch at a local restaurant. Back in the car.
We found another bridge over the river and stopped for some time. A young family near us enjoyed skipping rocks along the calm river. Otherwise we were all alone. It was fantastic. Cool. Quiet. Clean. I looked up at the bridge and saw a car driving over. The passenger took a final puff of his cigarette and threw it out the window. Into the cleanest river in the country.
“What a jackass,” I said aloud.
Mari had also seen it. She let out an aggressive sigh and stomped through the river to the bridge. Luckily for that guy he was driving away. Otherwise I’m sure he would have been in the river looking for his cigarette butt after Mari finished with him.
We let the water wash away our frustration with the individual and all of our stresses and worries from home. It would be nice to retire here. Away from the problems of the city. Clean and beautiful. Slow.
Back into the car. Back through another mountain. Change seats. Change again. More river. More bridges. More daydreaming.
Time started to pass faster and we remembered we had to return the car before 8. I programmed the rental company into the GPS and we set back towards civilization. Back in town we visited a full service gas station. We paid roughly 10 dollars a gallon to fill up. Ouch.
Return the car. Dinner. Hotel. Sleep. A day in nature and a night in the city. Not too bad.
Monday, May 7
Monday we had to move 162 km (100 mi) from Kochi to Tokushima. We had all day to do it. We moved at a leisurely pace. We spent the morning in Kochi visiting Kochi Castle. In my opinion, if you’ve been to one Japan castle, you’ve been to them all. Still the castle was nice. We had a coffee at a trendy joint and returned to the station.
A two hour ride took us through some very scenic areas. Through mountains and forest, along rivers and next to plateaus. Mari took a nap and I balanced the finances for our trip. Back in Tokushima we shopped for office souvenirs and enjoyed a river cruise. The sun began to set and moved back to the airport.
Airplane. Train. Home.
I arrived back to my squeaky clean apartment. I took a long, hot shower and crawled into bed. It had been another good holiday with great company.
Tuesday, May 8
I arrived back to work the next day like nothing had happened. Except I had a new mustache.
I refuse to shave when on holiday. It’s my little way of relaxing and letting the world know I’m not working. So nine days away from the razor and I had grown some nice fuzz. When standing in front of the mirror I thought it was a shame to throw it all away. But I wasn’t sure what to keep. Then I realized: I’ve never seriously had a mustache. Why not give it a go? Besides, mustaches are more summer friendly than beards. A few minutes later and I was the proud owner of blond mustache. I looked ridiculous. And I loved it.
-The Healthiest Diet-
Ask any Japanese person which country has the healthiest food in the word and you’re likely to get the same answer; Japan. Certainly Japanese food has some healthy options. But so does McDonalds. And so let’s talk about Japanese foods.
First, why do Japanese people think their food is healthy? It’s because of their body size. When Japanese people compare themselves to Americans, as they so often do, they see an immediate difference: size. They don’t see the difference in height or muscle mass. They see fat. They don’t see a little bit of “healthy fat” either. They see only obese Americans. They contrast themselves with obese people and they see food as the reason. “Their” food is unhealthy, so “our” food must be healthy, or so the line of thought goes.
See: evolutionary differences.
I admit, many Americans have a very poor diet.
Second, Japanese food. Many Japanese people believe their staple foods are healthy. When in fact many of these foods have no nutritional benefits. The food isn’t nutritional, it’s nothing. They’re too polished and processed. Stripped of their possible benefits. For example: white rice, tofu, noodles & soy sauce. These foods have very little proven benefit.
Actually a case could be made that Japanese food is unhealthy. The huge amount of sodium (salt) consumed on a daily basis is astonishing. Salt is the most popular flavor here. And the large rate of heart disease would verify the over consumption of sodium. Fried food is another problem in Japan. Tempura and gyoza are hugely popular, and they’re loaded with oils. Beef is consumed at an amazing level. And I must mention the king of dietary sins: alcohol abuse. Liver disease is a real problem here.
Of course there are many healthy and wonderful dietary options. Fish, particularly raw fish. Vegetables. And most importantly, portion control. Japanese people eat less than Americans. This final factor more than anything is why I considered the Japanese diet “healthy.”
All told the Japanese diet truly is healthy. I have personally seen my health change for the positive since my diet changed. I just find it offputting to hear the same dogmatic dribble repeated over and over. “Japan is best,” they proudly say.
Yes, you have many healthy foods. No, you’re not the healthiest culture in the world. Yes, please pass the sushi.