Sunday, 21 August 2016

The big push

Saturday 20th and Sunday 21st August 2016

Weather: Beautiful for both days … still too hot though

MP3 track of the day: Breathe - Monkey Majik


Number of days: 10
Total Kilometres driven: 3,466 (2,153 miles)
Total petrol cost: 22,942 Yen (£175)
Total Highway charges – 2 bridges and 2 tunnels: 7,920 Yen (£60.43)
Total spent on holiday: 118,000 Yen (£900)

Due to not a lot happening, I've decided to put both Saturday and Sunday together as one blog post. As a quick summary; on Saturday I travelled from Takamatsu over the bridge - just to the west of Takamatsu - to Okayama. From there I turned east and into Himeji. From then on I went north until I hit the northern coastline, when I turned and headed east again. I skipped under Fukui and took the same road I'd come in on – the 158 – all the way to Matsumoto. From there it was just a short trip across some mountains to my over-night stop of Ueda. On Sunday I went east and crossed even more mountains before taking the '17' all the way north to the '252', which took me over even more mountains and into Aizu-Wakamatsu. From there I crossed over my final mountain range before driving around Fukushima and ending up in Sendai – my home – at around 3pm Sunday afternoon. The below will add flavour to that journey.

Saturday 20th: I slept 'okay' last night. The bed was comfortable enough and I had exhausted myself with my days excursion to Nao-Shima. Therefore the only thing keeping me awake were my noisy neighbours. True the time was only 8pm however, I got out of bed and opened my door to see some of them chatting in, I think, Chinese. They said sorry. I could still hear them during the night until 1am – when they seemed to have gone to bed – however, it now wasn't loud enough to disturb my slumber.

I woke up at 1am and got ready as quietly as possible. Due to having packed the night before, I found myself in my car and ready for the off at 1:50am. I proceeded out of Takamatsu as fast as possible however, traffic lights still plagued my journey.

I made it to the bridge crossing around forty minutes later. It was a shame I couldn't see anything however, the bridge itself was all lit up and I did enjoy that. I also felt that it was worth it and now, having arrived on Honshu's southern coastline at 3am (though £20 less due to the bridge's charges), I felt that I could risk travelling along Japan's congested southern coastline until I hit Himeji. My previous plan had been to leave Takamatsu at a 'normal' time and, once across the bridge, head north to Tottori as fast as possible however, with very few roads heading east from Tottori, I felt that going along the bottom of Honshu to Himeji could save me as much as three hours!

I could tell that the '2', at any normal hour, would be jammed solid of traffic. This wasn't a normal hour. I flew along it, all the way to Himeji where I saw a dark silhouette of the castle as I drove past. I then headed north – stopping for a little bit of fuel – relieved that my gamble had paid off; I'd left the southern shores whilst it was still night.

After heading north for a while I then had to cut east. I choose the '412' as my 'eastern road', as it looked like a normal road which was used daily. Not long after I'd turned onto this road did I realised that this road hadn't been used for quite some time. It would appear that, to use this road, I had to help cut back the bushes and long grasses which were trying to smother it. What was worse was that the road wound it's way up a mountainside and had no protective barriers from the drops. I was so glad that it was now light as, if I'd driven along this road at night, things could have been a lot worse. I concentrated hard as I pleaded for the road to end … I hardly remember blinking.

Once off the '412' I met up with the '153' which I'd used just less than a week ago to get to Shikoku. This took me all the way to the coast where I then headed east along the '27'. Unbelievably I found myself sixty kilometres south of Fukui at 10am … only eight hours after I'd set off (going from Fukui to Shikoku took ten hours … and that was a shorter route). I stopped for lunch before getting on my way again.

Once again I fell foul of trying to get over / around Japan's central mountains in order to get onto the right road which would take me to Matsumoto (a city near my night-stop). It took an hour or two just to get myself aligned so that, at midday, I finally found myself joining the '158' which would take me all the way to Matsumoto. This is the road I'd used to get to Fukui and I remembered what I'd learnt from that previous journey. For example, I did not drive through the centre of Takayama – though I did get lost trying to find the by-pass (I hate cities!!!). By 2pm I'd past Takayama and things were going well; I was only eight kilometres from Matsumoto and my speed was looking good … that was until I hit Kamikochi. Kamikochi is a beautiful national park – high in the mountains - which I've visited before (check out my blog). Unfortunately, I'd managed to drive past the park at the same time as everyone else was trying to leave. Scores of coaches, buses, mini buses and cars were all trying to work their way along the '158' – a single lane mountainous road – towards Matsumoto. The views were extremely beautiful however, nothing could lighten my spirits … my speed had decreased to thirty kilometres an hour.

I finally arrived on the outskirts of Matsumoto at 4:00pm … the time I'd wanted to arrive at my hotel in Ueda. Sadly, the town of Ueda was still forty kilometres east of Matsumoto: i.e. on the opposite side of Matsumoto to where I was. This meant that I had to drive through the city itself, as there was no by-pass. Time ticket away.

By 5pm I'd left the city of Matsumoto and was trying to reach Ueda as quickly as possible. You see, my plan was to get to Ueda at 4pm having filled up my car and having eaten tea. I could then write this blog and, hopefully, go to sleep at 6pm. It was 6pm – after having travelled over ANOTHER mountain range – by the time I hit the outskirts of the city. Yes, city! When I looked at the map, I thought Ueda was a small town but no, looking at the city as I came down from the mountains showed it's true extent. I filled up my car and ate dinner quickly. I then discovered that Ueda's road system was stupid, and that the whole city is practically grid-locked each and every night. Finally, heroically I made it to my hotel … to discover that there car park was full. I then drove to their 'secondary car park' and walked back to the hotel. In my room, I only took out things I needed from my bags before cleaning my teeth and crashing on my bed at 8pm. I was going to get up at 1am again however, due to getting into bed two hours later than I'd planned, I decided to set my alarm for 2:30am. Anyway … tomorrow is a Sunday … should be dead on the roads.

Sunday 21st: DO THE JAPANESE EVER SLEEP! I got up at 2:30am and left one hour later. Within twenty minutes I found myself stuck behind a lorry going up a mountain road. Thankfully, he let me by quickly. I didn't find another lorry going in the same direction as I however, hundreds – including a tractor – were going in the opposite direction.

I'm not sure how high Ueda is from sea level but, the road kept going down for mile after mile. I checked my map just to make sure that the next 'place of interest' wasn't the centre of the Earth. Finally, with dawn approaching, I made it into a valley where I picked up the '17'. I know that there are many wonderful sites in the world however, driving through Japan's mountainous heartland when dawn breaks has to be up there. I know I haven't mentioned it a lot but, I hope as you read this blog, your mental image is of me driving down some windy road with beautiful mountains all around me because … that is exactly how it was.

I took the '17' north and put my foot to the floor. The '17' was one of the main roads to – and from – Tokyo therefore, I wanted to get off it before 7am / 8am. By 8am I'd just made it to the '252'. This road would take me across yet another mountain range to Aizu-Wakamatsu. This is my favourite road in Japan because, unlike a lot of mountainous roads in Japan, it doesn't skip the top of the mountain by having a large tunnel half way up it. At 9am I found myself out of my car, on the top of this mountain, looking down at a valley of lakes with beautiful small wooded islands. The view was exceptional and, I wasn't the only one who thought so; a Japanese gentleman and I passed the time of day as we just looked at the valley below us.

I made it to Aizu-Wakamatsu at 10am. I was starving and ready for lunch however, none of the restaurants were open yet. I therefore had no choice; I opened my last packet of 'Animal shortbread biscuits' and drove out of Aizu. I drove up another beautiful mountain range before coming down onto the outskirts of the city of Fukushima. I skipped around it and, once on the '4' (the main road to home) I stopped for the final time for lunch.

The drive from Northern Fukushima to Sendai occurred without incident. Last time I drove down this road, I was going to Fukui and it was pitch black. It was nice to be able to see where I'd travelled.

I finally arrived home at 3pm. Once I'd parked my car, a flurry of activity occurred with me unpacking bags, doing laundry and repacking bags (I am off to a friends house tomorrow for two nights). So there it is; my trip to Shikoku. Yes, it was hot. Yes, there was a tone of driving and yes, the traffic and traffic lights were unbearable at points however, I would give anything to be back there right now. I did manage to see everything I wanted to however, it would have been nice to have a few more days just to enjoy it ... and to be able to slow down a little.

In December I have, what is possibly, my final holiday in Japan. I would like to see Western Honshu (around Hiroshima) but whether I will, I am not sure. The drive is a little bit less than to Shikoku – only by three or four hours – however, it will be during winter and so a lot of the mountainous roads will be closed (meaning that I … AND EVERYONE ELSE … will have to drive along the coast). I could put more night-stops in … I could use the highway … I drive through the night. At the moment I'm not sure; I need to relax from this trip, take a breathe, and then get my calculator out and work out which method of getting to Western-Honshu would be the best for me.

Toodle Pip!

Friday, 19 August 2016

Modern Art

Date: Friday 19th August 2016

Weather: Sunny and very, very hot.

MP3 track of the day: Hot in the city - Billy Idol

Due to wanting an early night tonight, I prised myself out of bed at 5:00am. Though this hotel is – and feels - very cheap, I actually slept really well. Once I'd got ready I finally left the hotel at around 6:45am.

The sun was still young, making a huge difference to the temperature. As I walked towards the centre of town, it was positively cold by Shikoku's standards. Not wanting to waste the cool weather, I put on hold breakfast in order to look around Takamatsu's old castle. Though there is very little left – due to destruction during the Meji era and World War 2 bombing raids – the outer walls did enclose a very nice garden which kept me entertained until the temperature rose. The garden was similar to the one I saw yesterday; beautifully pruned trees dotted around either a building of some sort, or a bit of water. As I roamed around I did see quite a few old men doing, what must be, their part-time job to top-up their pension. I could think of worse ways to earn a living and, maybe when I'm old, I might follow suit as it looked like a lot of fun.

With the sun now high in the sky I went to Mr Donuts for breakfast and my first two drinks of the day. I then bought two bottles of water before heading to the ferry terminal.

Today I wanted to visit Nao-shima – an island famous for it's 'modern art' – and Megi-jima – an island famous for a Japanese child's fairy story (Momotaro) which I know very well through my job. As I arrived at the ferry terminal I watched the ferry to Nao-shima depart. Once inside the ferry terminal, I discovered that the next ferry wasn't for another two hours however, there was a 'speed boat' option which left in forty-five minutes and took half the time to get to Nao-shima; this left from another pier. I also enquired about Megi-jima and was told that the other pier dealt with boats to that island too. I thanked the lady who'd been helping me and walked over to the other pier.

No matter how hard I studied the timetables, there just didn't seem to be a way I could see both Nao-shima and Megi-jima AND get back to my hotel at a reasonable time. The reason for this is because both islands only have between three and five boat journeys per day. What is also annoying is that, even though the islands are on the same route (you have to go around Megi-jima to get to Nao-jima), the same boat doesn't serve both islands. I therefore decided to buy a 'speed boat' ticket to Nao-shima. Out of the two, this was the more important island and, at least, I could see Megi-jima from the boat.

The ride was very, very beautiful. The water between Shikoku and Japan's main island is littered with small islands. Going through these was an absolute pleasure. I paid particular attention to Megi-jima and, before I knew it, I'd arrived in Nao-shima.

Getting the 'speed boat' actually had it's benefits over the ferry. The speed boat dropped me off on the opposite side of the island to the ferry terminal. This side had the biggest village – Homura - and the most 'modern art'. I could look around here for an hour, before getting the shuttle bus to the village – Miyanoura - where the ferry terminal is located. I would then have forty minutes to look around Miyanoura before getting the 11:30am ferry back to Takamatsu. In any other temperature I wouldn't have bothered with the shuttle bus; the island is so small you can walk across it in twenty minutes.

Homura is home to the 'Art House Project'; a large collection of houses with modern art in them. To see them individually cost £3 each or, a full pass could be bought for £12. Not being a huge 'modern art fan', - and lacking in time - I decided to just have a look at one piece. This piece consisted of a temple at the top – which was free to see – and a cave below (which you had to paid to enter). Once in the cave all I saw was the same line of steps I'd seen coming from the temple above. These steps were made of glass letting in some light into the cave. Through this piece I could instantly see what the artist was trying to achieve. He was trying to con innocent people out of £3! I mean … it was just a set of steps! Sure they were in glass however, as human beings, we've had glass for a pretty long time. What really annoys me about this 'modern art' stuff is that, if I made an exact replica of these 'glass steps', it wouldn't be called 'art'. This piece put me off seeing any others.

Once I'd finished photographing Homura, I took the shuttle bus to Miyanoura. I bought a ferry ticket back to Takamatsu and looked around the small village. I saw a giant red pumpkin with holes it (no idea what that is suppose to 'express') before heading back to the air-conditioned ferry terminal. Once back inside the terminal I had a very difficult choice to make. There were two ice creams for sale; both were vanilla however, one was £1.50 more than the other. What made this ice cream special was that the ice cream was suppose to be smoother and the cone was suppose to be nicer. I'd seen it advertised around Japan before however, I'd never bought it due to the price. This time I went for it and the ice cream was really really good however, the cone was just a little too sweet for me. By the time I'd polished off my ice cream - whilst watching a bit of the Olympics – my ferry arrived.

I sat next to a window. My t-shirt was soaked through with sweat and so, it was nice to sit within an air-conditioned area whilst looking out at the beautiful islands which lay before me and, occasionally, watching the Olympics on the TV.

It took an hour for the ferry to dock in Takamatsu. My t-shirt had thoroughly dried out by then however, it didn't take it long to be all wet again. The time was 12:45pm and I was a little at a loss for what to do. I wanted to eat dinner around 3pm therefore, I had two hours and fifteen minutes to kill. I decided to look around the city of Takamatsu via it's massive covered shopping arcade. I stood, peering into the shops which had the best air-conditioning.

At 2pm I'd gotten board of walking around. I wanted to dry my t-shirt before heading to a restaurant for dinner. I therefore went into a small shopping centre where I found a few chairs and tables. I was soon joined by an old couple however, I didn't talk to them much as I was reading my guidebook to make sure that I hadn't missed anything important – I hadn't. Finally at 3pm I said goodbye to the old couple and went to Ootoya for a lovely large meal. Once eaten I picked up tomorrow's breakfast, and supplies, from a convenience store. I made it back to my hotel where I had a lovely cold shower, relaxed, and went to sleep around 6pm.

Tomorrow I will get up at 1am and hopefully leave Shikoku by 3am. I have thoroughly enjoyed my time on this small island and I wished that I'd had a couple more days (One more here, one in Tokushima and another in Kochi). Would I recommend people to come to Shikoku? Definitely however, if you are not bothered about seeing Tokushima's summer festival – it was good – then I would certainly recommend waiting for cooler climates (November time). I would also recommend crossing the road bridges to Shikoku during daylight hours as the view is beautiful. Sadly I won't see much on my return journey – I saw a lot of my journey coming here - but the quieter roads are just too much to give up for a good view.

Toodle Pip!

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Highlight found

Date: Thursday 18th August 2016

Weather: Sunny and very, very hot though, towards the mountains at least, there was a lot of cloud cover.

MP3 track of the day: Fly  - Monkey Majic

It was around 2am when I gave up with the pillow that my bed came with. It was as flat, and as hard, as a piece of cardboard. I got up and discovered that there was a nice plumply one in one of my room's wardrobes. That was better.

I got out of bed at 6am and proceeded to get ready. Due to having no hotel breakfast, I had bought a selection of pastries from the local convenience store the night before. True, they were a little hard however … they did the trick. My car was parked a little way from my hotel therefore, I drove it back to the hotel to pick up my luggage. I finally set off at around 8am however, my first sight for the day was only fifteen minutes away.

Dogo Onsen is the oldest onsen in Japan. It was a beautiful old wooden building and, a lot smaller than I thought it was going to be. Early bathers were going in and out however, I was just content on taking photos of it. I then proceeded around the area of Dogo in a clockwise direction, taking in the local shopping arcade. Luckily for me, a souvenir stall had opened early and yes, they sold postcards. I bought a pack before moving on to check out a couple of other, much newer Onsen and a pretty little shrine. The whole area was completed in around forty minutes.

I was thirty minutes out of Matsuyama when I turned off the main road heading to Takamatsu. I stopped suddenly and opened my guidebook. Yes, I had forgotten a site very close to Dogo. You see, Dogo had a shrine and the site that I missed was a temple (shrine, temple … what's the real difference?) therefore, I thought that I'd seen it. I debated on whether to turn around and go back … this mistake would cost me an hour … I decided to turn around as my guidebook had given the temple a good write up.

Ishite temple was a complete let down. Sure it was unique for having a long tunnel drilled into the mountainside however, it was really, really dark. I couldn't see many of the jizo statues that were in there. Outside of the tunnels were a few statues that I hadn't seen in other temples before however, it was nothing major. I left the site fifteen minutes after entering feeling totally conned.

An hour and twenty minutes later I passed the point I had turned around at. The time was around 11am and I was heading to my first, and only, national park of the holiday. Ishizuchi Quasi National park houses Shikoku's largest mountain – Ishizuchi-san (1982m). There was a cable car, followed by a rope-way, which would take you close to the summit of Ishizuchi-san however, I didn't really have the time and, as I approached the mountains, the cloud density increased. I followed the signs to the car cable station, which took me on a road around a lovely lake and went through a beautiful gorge. From now on, every time I think of gorge's and steep valleys, I shall think of Shikoku as the inner part of the island is full of them.

I went along the winding path stopped every few miles to take another photo of the beautiful gorge which lay before me. It was a stunning drive and the dense clouds above me only added to the atmosphere.

It was 1pm by the time I hit the main road back to Takamatsu. The traffic was going at a snails pace – which was good at one point as there was a police speed check – and it soon dawned on me that, I might not have time to see my final attraction for today. Within Takamatsu is a lovely park called Ritsurin-koen. I wanted to go today as it was a fair walk out of Takamatsu's city centre. My guidebook said that 'opening times vary however, it should be open until 5pm'. I wanted at least an hour to look around the park therefore, I had over 140 kilometres to do in three hours. Where I could, I put my foot down.

In a moment of pure genius, I said goodbye to the '11' – which was the main road to Takamatsu however, it also went past every rabbit hutch (and they all had their own set of traffic lights) along the way – and turned onto the '372'. This led onto the '32' and I'd used this road before. I therefore knew that it was dual carriage way and that progress should be better. I drove along at full speed and suddenly the kilometres came tumbling down.

I made it to the park at around 4:15pm only to be greeted by a man who said that, today, the park was open until 7pm. I was slightly annoyed with the need to rush – I skipped lunch – however, I was ever so glad that I would have as much time as I wished to see the park. Another good thing was that, due to being late, a lot of people had gone and the sun was going down making it a lot cooler. I applied sun cream and ventured forth.

Ritsurin-koen is over 750,000 square meters and took over a hundred years to complete. At the entrance gate I was given a walking guide which split the garden into two circuits; the old part of the garden and the new part. The lady advised me to follow the 'red route' through the old garden first and, if time, do the blue route. I thanked her before walking to the start of the red route.

Now, I don't normally like following specific routes however, this route encompassed the whole garden really well. The old garden was cover with beautiful bonzai, maple and many other kinds of trees. It's main feature was a small lake with a tea house next to it. Using the Japanese technique of 'borrowing scenery', the whole garden backed onto a beautiful mountain range. From one of the purpose built viewing hills, the whole garden was just wonderful. The way the lake flowed around small wooded islands was a joy to behold. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that, once I'd completed the 'blue route', I went around the 'red route' for a second time however, this time, without using my camera.

I had spent two hours in the park and I was famished. I filled my car ready for the 'big push' home in two days time and went to a family restaurant where I ordered the 'onion tower'- two hamburgers with a tower of onion rings on top. I also ordered a side consisting of a soup and a salad plus unlimited soft drinks. Once I'd consumed that I waddled out of the restaurant and back into my car. It was only a short drive to my hotel – the same one I'd used after the festival four nights ago (only four nights ago!).

You know when you've got that feeling that you may have gone too cheap … well I was having it now. Still it was too late. I took everything to my tiny room and repacked my suitcase so that it carried all of my presents along with all of my clothes. I turned on the useless air-conditioner and tried to relax.

So tomorrow I am going to try and take a boat to one of the smaller islands near to Takamatsu – Nao shima; very famous. I want it to be a short day as I want to get to sleep at around 6pm so that I can get up early on Saturday and start the big trek home. You travel so much quicker at night in Japan!

Toodle Pip!

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

One set of post cards, two old men and finally, two-and-half t-shirts

Date: Wednesday 17th August 2016

Weather: Sunny and very, very hot though, a least there was a bit of cloud cover.

MP3 track of the day: Story - Monkey Majic

Though my breakfast did indeed look well presented, there didn't seem to be a lot there. Plus, I'd also received an omelet due to having no choice. I there and then decided that I preferred a buffet style breakfast set-up to a fixed menu. Once I'd finished everything I could eat, I departed the restaurant, grabbed my bags and handed in my room key. As I approached my car I noticed a rather brightly coloured caterpillar trying to climb up one of my tires with little success. As I left the car park I gingerly rolled out of my parking space as to not kill said caterpillar.

My first stop for the day was a little town called Ozu. In fact my guidebook had highly recommended two small towns – this one and Uchiko – and Ozu I came to. I arrived at almost 9am and yet, the sun was beating down. I parked close to the town's pretty little castle and photographed it to death before walking along the river bank to get to the western part of the town. Here I photographed two old buildings and went down a small street with 'white-washed' walls. With the flowers out it was very pretty indeed although, the street was a little small.

With Ozu done in forty minutes I pressed onto Uchiko. My guidebook told me that the 'sightseeing' part of town was close to the town hall however, what I didn't know at the time, was that there were two town halls as said town is spread along a large valley. I spent the first twenty minutes driving down streets which I thought were 'okay' however, the map in my guidebook did not correlate to what I was seeing and I couldn't understand why my guidebook had given it such a good write up. It wasn't until I stopped in the town hall that I discovered that I was in the wrong park of town. I drove twenty minutes or so to the other town hall and found a car park. Uchiko had become rich through the production of wax. Many of the grand buildings I was witnessing looked out of place in such a small town (reminded me of Omaru, New Zealand). I toured the streets ending up in a refurbished Kabuki theatre. It was very interesting indeed; made totally out of wood, I went under the stage to see how the revolving floor worked.

Once I'd looked around the theatre I proceeded back to my car. Before getting there I drank a whole bottle of juice and photographed a temple plus a reclining Buddha. The car was red hot and my t-shirt was soaked through. I therefore turned the engine on and put the air-conditioning onto maximum as I changed my t-shirt. I left Uchiko at around midday, heading for Matsuyama. On the way I had two old gentlemen flag me down to tell me about my rear-right tire. I hope this isn't going to happen as frequently for the rest of my trip.

One hour later I arrived within the city of Matsuyama. I was starting to get hungry which, on this holiday, was very unlike me. I wondered if it had to do with the amount of breakfast I consumed this morning … or the heat? I found my, very posh, hotel and put my bags inside before parking my car. On reception was a lovely lady who couldn't go enough to help me. With her pigeon English she helped me sort out a route to Matsuyama castle – the attraction for the day – and where to look for something to eat. She also made me a member of the 'APA' – the hotel chain I am staying with – which allows me to check-out one hour later for free amongst other things. Once I had finished talking to her, I read my guidebook and formed a plan of action for the day.

I cannot begin to describe just how hot it is. I had only walked a couple of paces from my hotel and I was sweating like a pig. The thought of climbing up the mountain to Matsuyama castle was a frightful one and I quickly decided that I would use the rope way no matter the cost. Firstly however, there was a garden at the base of the mountain opposite my hotel. It's name was Ninomaru Shiseki Teien and even though I only spent 20 or so minutes in it, I was delighted with my decision to pay the £1.50 entrance fee. It was a style of garden which I had never seen before. It was a square which had been carved up into gravel – or stone – rectangles. Some of these rectangles had been flooded and it was all rather bizarre and yet, at the same time, I loved it and it is certainly an idea I shall keep for my own garden. The best thing was that you could go up a small path and look down on the whole garden … It looked really cool.

Once I'd seen the garden, I walked all the way around the base of the mountain to the rope-way station. It cost £2.00 each way plus £4.00 to go into the castle. Being absolutely fed up with the ridiculous heat my patience was non-existent and so I opted for the full 'round-trip' ticket … forgetting that I was planning on walking down the mountain as the mountain path finished a lot closer to my hotel than the rope way does.

Once at the top I only had to climb ten or so steps before I made it into the castle. It's a lot similar to a lot of other castles spread all over Japan however, the view was spectacular. I was also glad to see that, just like Himeji castle, a lot of thought had done into it's defences with dead-ends, murder holes and optical illusions. The castle wasn't as big as Hemiji castle however, it was larger than Osaka castle. Due to the lack of exhibits inside, it took me around thirty minutes to see all of the castle, before I left and ate an ice cream.

With my second t-shirt of the day soaked through, I decided to head back to my hotel to freshen up. Before doing so I stopped at a tourist shop and was pleased as punch that I managed to get presents for everyone who needed a present. It wasn't until I had reached the base of the mountain that I remembered that I had forgotten to buying postcards. So what? I hear you cry. Finding postcards in Japan is very, very difficult … and they had some! I saw them and thought to myself, “I need to get some of those” however, I must have forgotten again before I went to the cashier. It was too late now; I was close to my hotel and I certainly wasn't going to walk back up.

After a shower and another change of clothes, I hit the town again with only two things on my mind. Postcards and somewhere for dinner. Matsuyama had been a very kind city to me so far – and I've enjoyed it a lot; the park around the base of the castle is quite lovely – however that kindness disappeared when I couldn't find a decent restaurant and both of the book stores I went to hadn't even heard of postcards … let alone have any. I went to McDonalds for tea and had their biggest burger (with pineapple … yum), a snazzy drink and an ice cream. Once again I felt that this lot probably wouldn't keep me full all night and so I went into a convenience store to pick up snacks for tonight and cakes for breakfast tomorrow as this hotel doesn't have a breakfast meal option.

Speaking of 'breakfasts at hotels'. You may have noticed that I have been having a lot of my breakfasts at my hotels. I haven't really done this before because I always felt that they were a little too expensive. Now that I have tried it I have to say that, I think, my mind has been changed. Sure, a hotel breakfast can cost around £7 here in Japan (I can buy a breakfast for £2.50 at a store) however, you usually get a buffet where you can eat as much as you want and the food is good. Fresh fruit, salad and fish has – I believe – kept me going and feeling much more energetic than my usual 'McDonald’s rubbish breakfast'. The only annoying thing is that, most hotel breakfasts start at 6:30am and, if you want to beat the traffic, 6:30am is when you ideally want to leave. I now have no more hotel breakfasts; my last hotel comes with breakfast however, I think that I'll be leaving before it is served.

Tomorrow I am back off to Takamatsu.

Toodle Pip!

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

cars, rivers and 'beach body ready'

Date: Tuesday 16th August 2016

Weather: Sunny and very, very hot. It was 36 degrees today … AGAIN!

MP3 track of the day: If - Monkey Majik

The breakfast buffet consisted of many different things, including a fruit salad. Not being able to remember the last time I ate fruit, I had two bowls of fruit plus a bit of meat, some vegetables and a couple of pancakes. Once I'd had my fill, I went back to my room and collected my bags. I left my hotel, and the city of Kochi, at 7:40am.

Today I would be taking the '56' all the way south Nakamura. In Nakamura I could continue along the '56' to Uwajima – my stop for the night; or I could switch onto the '321' which would take me in a loop around the most southern part of Shikoku. I decided there and then that I would drive as far south as possible, even if it would add a further ninety minutes onto my journey.

Once out of Kochi, the '56' became bearable. Traffic died down and the road hung so close to Shikoku's southern coastline that I had a sea view all the way along it. I did wonder that, if you drew a perpendicular line from Kochi south, what landmass would you hit first? … I couldn't think of a single thing until the south pole (I think Australia is too far west to come into contact).

All was well in my world; the sun was beating down and there had been a huge accident on a plateau of a large mountain range (the plateau was beautiful; rice fields walled in by forested mountain peaks) however, I had air-conditioning and the queue of traffic heading south was tiny (the queue of cars heading north past the accident was massive). Along the coast I made a few stops to take some photos of the coastline. One such stop saw me walk onto a beautiful sandy beach. It would have been lovely, if it wasn't for all of the half-naked 'surfer dudes' with their, well tanned bodies, muscular arms and long locks of hair. They were riding the waves without fear. I quickly looked into my t-shirt and what I found wasn't 'beach body ready'. I wanted to build a sandcastle however, I didn't feel very welcome. I therefore took a few photos before retiring to my car to enjoy a couple of pieces of 'animal shaped shortbread'.

I finally made it to Nakamura where, though the weather was hot, I was feeling good about life. Whilst waiting at a set of red traffic lights, an old man knocked on my window. I couldn't tell what he was saying so we both pulled over. Now, he was speaking pretty quickly and his accent was quite thick; the only words I caught were 'scary' and 'tire'. What he was trying to say to me I didn't know, but it sounded like the below...


This put me on edge somewhat. We did drive on – I was following him to a Nissan garage as my car is a Nissan – and as we did, I looked out of my right side-mirror and I could see my rear-right wheel wobbling a bit. Even with the air conditioning on I was sweating … I couldn't be further from home.

The local Nissan garage was shut. Once parked up I tried to move the wheel myself but it seemed sturdy enough. I told the guy that I had to drive another 70 kilometres to my overnight stop of Uwajima. He cringed and told me to drive very, very slowly. As there was little more that could be done here I thanked the old gentleman and gingerly went on my way. It was here that I decided to forgo my trip to the most southern point of the island and instead, try to get to my over-night stop as quickly as possible.

Over the course of the trip to Uwajima my confidence in the car started at rock bottom, but ended back at it's previous level. I spent as much time looking at my rear-right tire as I did looking out in front of me. I checked the total mileage on the car and it was very low. Finally I made another stop to take a photograph of the beautiful coastal line before me, and to get on my hands and knees to look at the rear of my car. Now 'Mat's rule of car logic' dictates that, if the underneath of the right-hand wheel looks the same as the underneath of the left-hand wheel, then all is good … and it did. On closer inspection, the rear-left hand tire's plastic hub cap wasn't properly fixed all the way around the tire. Part of it was slightly away from the tire and I wondered if this is what gave the illusion of the tire wobbling about.

I got to Uwajima without incident and found my hotel. I called my local branch office with what had happened. They in turn passed the query onto the head office which meant – being a head office – a reply wouldn't be coming soon. Feeling confident that the tire was fine, I dropped my bags off at my hotel and pressed on into the mountains. I wanted to see the Shimanto-gawa; the longest river in Shikoku.

The drive through the mountains was lovely and it wasn't long before I was following the Shimanto up stream. Once again stopping places were limited however, I managed to get a few photos here and there. Once I'd got enough photos I returned to Uwajima. I didn't go to my hotel; instead I headed north to a small town called Uwa-cho. There was the 'Museum of Ehime prefecture's History and Culture' there which, my guidebook had praised highly.

On the way – and two hours after I'd raised the incident – my company's head office called back. A lovely lady asked me to go to any petrol station and get them to check my car. I did as I was told to discover that all tires – not just the rear-right – were … completely fine. Even the air pressure hadn't gone down. Glad that I'd checked, I paid the main the £8 fee required however, I kept hold the receipt as, once home, I can claim the amount back off my insurance.

I drove to the museum at my usual speed and arrived at around 4pm. The museum closed at 5:30pm however, I still paid to go in. Having been in the car all day, I wanted to walk around somewhere which wasn't boiling hot. Besides, the displays – which went through the ages of Ehime's history – had no English translations therefore, it only took me forty minutes to wander around. I did enjoy it a lot; there were loads and loads of models plus life-size reconstructions of ancient housing to look around. My favourite model showed an ancient settlement with a huge wall protecting the entire village. It was a lovely way to spend the later part of the afternoon.

On the way back to my hotel I stopped for dinner at 5pm. Having had nothing to eat since breakfast, I was famished however, I was also worried that my tonkatsu meal (fried pork) wouldn't keep me full all evening. After eating I therefore went to 'Mr Donuts' (First time this trip) for an evening snack.

Once back at my hotel I checked in, chose the 'western style' breakfast for tomorrow (no buffet then) and went to my room to relax and to go to sleep. Tomorrow I want to have breakfast at 6:30am so that I can hit the road by 7:30am. I have two small towns to see - Uchiko and Ozu – before staying the night in one of Shikoku's largest cities; Matsuyama. Here I would like to see the castle and possibly do a bit of shopping. Again there is quite a lot to do however, I'm only a ninety minute drive from the city of Matsuyama so it's all quite possible.

Toodle Pip!

Monday, 15 August 2016

Many things to see

Date: Monday 15th August 2016

Weather: Sunny and very, very hot. It was 36 degrees today!

MP3 track of the day: Delicious - Monkey Majic

I was up at 6:30am and felt quite refreshed. There was no buffet breakfast with this hotel and so, once ready, I headed out into Takamatsu to the McDonalds I'd past last night. Once a pancake breakfast had been consumed, I got back into my car and proceeded to my first attraction for the day; Zentsu-ji … a temple which, though it didn't look that far on the map, seemed to take forever due to traffic lights.

A very 'happy chappy' greeted me at the car park to the temple. Armed with a sheet of six English sentences he managed to take £1.50 off me as a parking fee, told me that the temple was on my left and that I needed to park my car on the right. After doing as I was told, I applied sun cream before heading into the temple complex which, thankfully, wasn't that big and was free. Now you may be asking why I was so happy that it wasn't that big. The answer is, is that this was the first of four planned sites I wanted to see today. They were spread from the north of the island (which is where Zentsu-ji is) all the way to my over-night stop in the south of the island (the city of Kochi). I didn't have much time and so I was very happy when I managed to see all of the temples, the pagoda and the cool semi-circle bridge in around twenty minutes. What's more, this temple was all on a 'ground level' meaning that it was a delight to walk around on a day like today. I left the site twenty minutes after entering. The only thing worth noting was that this temple had rows of stone statue monks in very strange poses.

My next site for the day was only five kilometres south from Zentsu-ji. This was a temple site called Kompira-san, located in the village of Kotohira. 'San' means mountain and, you know what that means. This temple complex is spread up a mountain connected by over a 1,000 stone steps. I parked my car in front of some old woman's house – I fear illegally; however she asked for a £2 parking fee and seemed happy enough – and walked towards the start of the climb. I had brought only my camera and a Thermos filled with ice cold water. Given that it was 34 degrees, I was surprised at the sheer number of people willing to take on this beast. I decided that the best way to tackle this mountain was to not look up and to keep a steady pace. I first of all had to get past a quite substantial row of souvenir stalls and food stores which, it would appear, had grabbed a lot of the 'would-be climber's' attention.

A woman selling cold drinks was telling everyone within ear shot that they were halfway to the top of the temple and … well done. I collapsed and sat on a stone step gasping for breath. I was surprised that I was already half-way up however, the heat and humidity had really affected me; my shirt and cap were completely ruined. I drank some of the delicious, sweet iced water I'd carried up with me and continued on. Soon I found myself at the first temple; I can't tell you much about it as all I wanted – at that moment in time – was for the climb to end. I drank more water and took a few quick photos before heading on.

When I made it to the next level I took in even more water. It was as I was about to take my third cup when my 1.5 liter Thermos ran out. I couldn't believe it; 1.5 liters in twenty minutes … and it felt as though all I'd done is pour it onto my back. I asked a Japanese lady if this was the top. She said it was for the temple however, there was a shrine a little further on. With no intention of coming back here I went on-wards, towards the shrine.

The shrine was no different to any other I'd seen throughout Japan. There were yet even more steps (500!) to, I think, the summit of the mountain however, I had had enough. My shirt felt as if I'd just put it on after being washed - but before being tumble dried. I turned around and headed back the way I'd come. The view over the city of Kotohira was superb and so I took a few photos of that before descending.

On my way down I bought a bottle of pop (drank it all within a minute), an ice cream and my souvenir for this trip … another Kokeshi doll (quite expensive). I was absolutely shattered and this wasn't the first time that I reminisced grudgingly back to my backpacking days. I must have been so fit back then; carrying that huge bag for miles … where has it all gone wrong?

Finally, heroically, I made it back to the car. I bought ANOTHER bottle of pop, turned the air-conditioning up and rode off into the distance. The time was 12pm and I still hadn't made it to the main attraction of the day. That lay much further south towards Kochi. It's name … the Oboke Gorge.

It took an hour to get to the gorge by car and yet, my t-shirt still hadn't dried. I found a car park, which gave spectacular views of the gorge below, and once parked up, I showed the world my wonderful six-pack of muscles before changing into a new t-shirt and photographing the hell out of the gorge. The gorge was amazing; the side were so sharp. It was as if a huge knife had taken a wedge out of a block of cheese. Below was a fairly fast flowing river with hundreds of white water rafting groups having fun. The only problem – for me anyway – in regards to the gorge was, finding places to stop to take photos. You see, the gorge ran along a main road therefore, I couldn't just stop 'willy-nilly'. I struck gold with the my first two photograph spots however, a few other places did not give me much return for my investment. I would drive along and find a good view however, I then could not find a place where I could park safely. This meant that, though only doing twenty miles an hour, I made it through the gorge pretty quickly. Please note that, because I wanted to drive extremely slowly – to take in the view – I therefore pulled over countless times to allow traffic to pass. Not one car thanked me. It would also appear that no one else did the same. I think that I have found the region of Japan with the worst drivers.

Once out of the gorge it didn't take me long to enter the city of Kochi. Once there I found my hotel and went up to my room. The time was just after 4pm and so I took a much needed shower and freshened up. At six I went into town to have a quick look around and to have something to eat. Kochi was 'stop number four' today and it isn't bad at all. The city is pretty small however, it's streets are lined with palm trees (this is what I love about Japan; the country is just so different – and at the same time, so alike - depending on where you go) and it seems to be quite laid back. I went to a ramen restaurant called 'Tokushima Ramen' for dinner and had their specialty (ramen is a bowl of noodles in a broth). Once done I finished my look around Kochi before buying even more liquid and returning to my hotel.

So there you have it! Another day down, only six more left. Due to 'life' getting in the way, I have seriously had to shorten my holidays to save money (I want to save for a deposit for a house, a car, household furniture etc … you know, life things) therefore, this is a blitz of a trip and I'm sure you can see it already by reading this post. What I have done today, I would have normally taken three days to do it. If I am honest, I much prefer my longer holidays. I maybe seeing the same amount of stuff, but I don't feel as though I am enjoying them as much. I am always thinking about the next thing and if I have time. Anyway, tomorrow I'll get up early before driving around Shikoku's southern coastline. I shall them make it to my over-night stop town of Uwajima before heading off to look at the Shimanto-gawa … Shikoku's longest river. Until then...

Toodle Pip!

A dancing fools festival

Date: Sunday 14th August 2016

Weather: Sunny and very, very hot.

MP3 track of the day: Headlight  - Monkey Majic

I was struggling to stay asleep for the last hour before my alarm was due to go off. Ten hours of sleep had proven a little too much. Still I felt good and so, at 5:30am when my alarm went off, I got up, got wash and dressed, packed and read my emails before hitting the free breakfast buffet once more. After filling my stomach, I picked up my bags from my room and vacated the hotel. The time was 7:10am.

Though I had to go south-west, I started by heading north. Fukui is famous for it's beautiful coastline and so I wanted to see as much of it as possible. One I hit the coast I then plummeted south along the coastal road. Once again I had planned well; it was a Sunday in the middle of a holiday where everyone should now be at home with their loved ones. This left this 'one lane traffic light free' road pretty much open and I was able to enjoy the view. I thought that it was a fantastic road however, on any normal day, all of these small fishing villages I found myself passing through would have poured slow moving traffic onto the road.

I breezed south down Fukui's coastline thinking that it looked just as pretty as anywhere else in Japan. I then went west, still hugging the coast. This took me across Kansai, missing all of the big cities. Again traffic wasn't too bad and so I kept a steady pace.

Once I'd gone west enough to be parallel with the bridge that would take me to Tokushima, I dived south along the '178'. I'd decided to keep north for as long as possible to avoid all the major cities and it seemed to have done me well. Now was the tricky part; the part of my trip which I'd been dreading. I had to join the motorway in order to get onto the bridge that would take me across to Shikoku. Not only that; before the bridge, three separate motorways came together in a jungle of concrete and junctions. One slip up and I would be going the wrong way. One slip up and it would cost me extra cash.

To avoid missing the correct junction, and therefore spending more money, I decided to change my 'plan of attack' for this bridge. Once close to it, I decided to meander my way through some local roads near to where the three motorways met. Sure it took longer however, it also meant that I joined the correct motorway and that I wouldn't have to look out for junction signs.

Everything went well and I found myself crossing the largest suspension bridge in the world. As I started to cross I looked down to my left to see where, eight months ago, I had gone to take photos of this bridge. I kept driving checking out the view and this amazing bridge. The sky was bright blue with a few white clouds. The water too was crystal blue with some serene islands dotted around. All was well in my world.

This is where I made the biggest mistake of my journey. This bridge took me to an island preceding Shikoku. Once here I had two choices; I could either stay on this highway all the way to Tokushima (costing more but being quicker), or I could take the free local road which went down the eastern coast of the island. This would take longer however, it would allow me to see the island and save me some cash. I therefore opted to take the local road.

Ninety minutes it took me! Ninety! Endless traffic lights and extremely slow drivers put all the nails in the coffin for any enjoyment I might have had looking around this island. I was utterly thankful when I made it to the southern point of the island. I then rejoined the highway to cross another bridge which got me onto Shikoku. The bridges had cost me £25 in tolls to cross … about the same as I'd spent in petrol getting from my home town to Fukui (800km) … Now can you see why I don't use toll roads in Japan.

As a present for persevering though the above island, I kept on the highway until I entered Tokushima. Festival traffic was already building. I decided not to head into the centre of town. Instead, I went to the western edge to look for parking. Sure it was a much further walk to the festival however, I needed to leave the city from the west to get to my hotel tonight. I found a '£4 all day' car park and the owner helped me buy a ticket. I was lucky to have found somewhere so cheap; as I walked towards the centre of town, prices climbed to £15.

After stopping for dinner I then went to the festival. I didn't need any directions … I just followed the constant drumming. This festival celebrates Obon; the celebration of the dead. Groups consisting of dancers and musicians formed up around the city. The musicians consisted of mainly drums keeping a beat for the dancers. The dancers consisted of men and women however, it was the women I'd come to see. Dressed in beautiful Yukata, they wore a half-moon hat upon their heads. All dancers sat in a circle chanting “The dancing fools and the watching fools are equally as foolish. So why not dance?”. It would appear that groups of dancers got up from this circle at random. They would dance until they got tired, where they would dance back to the circle, sit down, and other dancers would get up to take their place. The dance moves were interesting; it's difficult to describe but their arched arms represented foolishness and death in one go.

I really liked that the organisers had spread the festival all over the city. This meant that everyone could find a place to watch a group (and as all groups were doing the same dance, it didn't matter which group you watched). There were seats you could pay for and food stalls everywhere. I wondered around checking out the city of Tokushima as well as the festival. Once I felt that I'd seen all of the groups and a lot of the city, I looked at my watch; 8:00pm. I had been here for three hours and there was another two and a half to go. I hate leaving things before they are finished however, as the dances would just be repeated again and again for the next 150 minutes, I struggled to find a reason to stay. In the end it was my tiredness which made the decision for me. I watched one last group dance the night away before I retired to my car.

The drive to Takamatsu – where my hotel is – wasn't too bad. There was one car which went really slowly - when 'double yellow lines' were present - causing a huge line of cars. Once there were places to over-take, he started to speed up. I hate this type of driver; if you want to go slow … go slow. If you want to go fast … go fast. Don't annoy everyone (I also don't understand why someone would do this as surely, it's not much fun for them or the people behind). As I steamed past him I gave a few gestures to express my appreciation however, in the dark, I'm sure that they were wasted.

I got to my hotel and just went to my room. It looked okay however, I wasn't that interested. I put my bags down and collapsed on the bed.

Toodle Pip!