By Killian Barry
I enjoy cycling. It’s not a passion, but I miss the daily commute back home. Dublin is a decent spot for a bit of a jaunt, located as it between a bay and the hills, and mostly flat to boot. What’s more, recent years have even seen the government sit up and take notice of the benefits cycling brings. Go there now and you’ll find some vastly improved bike infrastructure and an encouraging decrease in motorists who consider those on two wheels to be sworn enemies.
My first foray in to bike touring was during the summer of 2018. My buddy Simon and I cycled 1,200km from the north coast of France to the south. This was like peering behind the curtain of French life, exploring quiet backroads, taking pit-stops in quaint villages and feeling generally rustic. I’m pretty brutal for tearing through life without stopping to look around, and the simplicity of this adventure did wonders for me. The plan for any given day extended only to pedalling, eating guilt-free pains au chocolat, and continued pedalling before finding a donkey-free campsite to pitch the tent.
Fittingly, this same friend subsequently loaned me a book written by a restless soul in search of fulfilment and contentment through pilgrimage. Having not quite got the requisite kicks from the Camino, he turned to the Shikoku henro, presumably to maximise the masochism. Eighteen months later, as I watched pilgrims in full garb saunter/trudge past my apartment, my epiphany was “you know, you could probably cycle a chunk of that”, thus satisfying half-hearted attempts to ease my own restlessness, but primarily enabling me to get out on the bike during that sweet not-too-hot/not-too-cold spot that is Japan in the springtime.
I mapped a course to follow the pilgrimage route from temple 40 in Ainan to temple 51 in Matsuyama, a distance of 245km over four days. I set off gleefully complacent, neglecting to stretch and assuming I’d retained the same level of fitness since the last big cycle. A sunny but mostly temple-less first day meant I was treated to some glorious vistas of shimmering seas en route to my first visit to Uwajima (Day 1: 54km, 1 temple).
Of course, the weather took a turn on day two, as did the inclination of the roads, and the driving rain that defined those steep hills coming in to Seiyo rather made me question the wisdom of the whole endeavour. This was balanced out, though, by the general curiosity of those I encountered who recognised me as a “pilgrim” (very much in inverted commas) as I observed temple protocol. Only pilgrims persevere through frankly terrifying tunnels and particularly wet rain, right? Plus, there was the lure of sleeping in my own bed in Uchiko that night (Day 2: 72km, 3 temples).
I figured that incessant rain on Day 3 was a valid reason to delay my trip. A shrewd decision, too, because the following morning I needed all the good vibes I could muster to essentially cycle up a mountain. The issue with cycling along the river via Oda is that constant photo opportunities hamper one’s progress, while the main problem with going from there on to temples 44 and 45 is that they are two of the most inland and therefore elevated temples of the entire 88. I sweated my way up those single-lane switchbacks in to Kumakogen, at 700m above sea level, thankful for the rest huts that serendipitously appeared just as my lungs were about to explode. Besides, this time there was the lure of a sub-zero night in a tent on top of a mountain with two measly heat pads and a deflated mattress (Day 3: 71km, 2 temples).
The final day was all downhill in the best possible sense of the word, wearily freewheeling in to Matsuyama with stops at a series of temples located on the city’s outskirts, by which point I’d regained feeling in the majority of my toes. A brief detour to see the sakura at Matsuyama castle and then on to the JR station so I could contemplate my new-found state of inner peace on the express train home (Day 4: 48km, 6 temples).
At a time when friends and family are forbidden from being outside, this cycle was a privilege. Even the roads I already knew were different from the saddle. I could hear the frogs, smell the lumber and see a copious amount of cherry blossom. Most pilgrims I met were from various corners of Japan, though I encountered a handful of foreigners. Some were walking, but far more were making the journey by car, a 21st century pilgrimage. Throughout, I was motivated by the friendliness of those I met, awed by the deft calligraphy I now have in my pilgrimage book, and grateful for the snazzy osettai I occasionally received. I now regard vending machines as power-up stations and conbinis as Edenesque oases. I’m pleased to report that my legs are in better condition than my brake pads. I don’t particularly want to repeat the experience in a hurry, and I may not be the enlightened mortal I’d sought to become, but in terms of outdoor adventure, memorable experiences and cultural immersion, this spontaneous getaway will be hard to beat.
- I’m Killian Barry and I come from Dublin, Ireland. I took a career break from my teaching job at home first to travel and then to come to Japan. This is my first year on JET. Since being here, I’ve come to miss pub quizzes, but I’ve developed a penchant for collecting Kit Kat wrappers.