I wake early with the grey light of dawn shining through my bedroom window. The rain looks like it has stopped and I can’t wait to hit the road. I pack my gear quickly, say goodbye to my host and set off on Wakayama’s quiet streets. My first stop is the local Family Mart where I stock up on some breakfast, lunch and snacks because I do not know what facilities I will find in the rural areas to which I am headed. I spend just over JPY700 so get to draw a card from a box and it results in me being handed some sort of drink in a small glass bottle that could be rocket fuel (the label sure makes it look like rocket fuel). I don’t have the courage to drink it so stick with the sandwiches and milk for breakfast and pack everything in my bag ready to go. I should mention that I love the experience of shopping for food in new countries – there are always plenty of mysterious items to taste (not always in a good way).
After about 5km I reach a stunning temple. The temple must be important because I am charged JPY200 ($2.20) to enter. But the price is reasonable and the place is beautiful. As I climb the many stairs to the top, two pilgrims pass me on their way down. They greet me “ohayo-gozaimasu” and I respond accordingly. I wonder whether they are heading to Shikoku because I believe you can catch a ferry there from Wakayama.
The temple is so peaceful at this time of morning before any large groups of tourists turn up (a group turns up as I leave and the tone of the temple certainly changes as their tour guide explains everything, the group chats and cameras are pointed everywhere). Up at the top of the stairs I can’t bring myself to take any photos of the main temple building. It just doesn’t feel right. I walk past a tree where a couple of birds are singing within my arm’s reach. They are so beautiful I make for my camera but they waggle their heads and chirp before flying off to another tree. “Sorry, I’ll put it away” I tell the birds and they waggle their heads some more before flying back near to where I am standing. It’s almost as though I’m meant to keep this moment in my memory just as it is without being spoiled by trying to get the right shot. It’s not the first time I’ve had birds behave this way; perhaps it’s my imagination or maybe they really are talking to us and hoping we will listen.
I continue riding, reaching Kainan more quickly than anticipated. I need some water and notice a park near a beach so I ride through narrow village streets to get there. The beach is eerie. Much of it is closed and there is sand in places where it shouldn’t be. I mean, how do big piles of sand make their way into the toilet block? Not just a little bit off peoples’ feet but while piles of it in every nook, cranny and corner. I wonder whether this area was hit by the tsunami and just hasn’t recovered (my knowledge of the tsunami is limited).
I leave Kainan, its sand and its large bridge behind, turning left onto route 370. The landscape becomes more rural and I am definitely leaving the sprawl of Osaka and its fringes behind. Before long I am turning right onto route 424, which I will follow most of the way across the Kii Peninsula. I am now firmly in rural Japan as terraced rice fields come into view. It’s early in the season so none have been planted yet. Some are filled with cover crop while others have been turned to mud, ready to be sown.
It doesn’t take long for the road to start climbing skywards. I knew from my research on Google Maps that this road climbed a bit. What I didn’t realise was that it would climb steeply for over 5km (3 miles). I had been feeling nervous about my lack of bike fitness and Japan’s mountainous terrain, particularly after yesterday’s struggle climbing that small pass. But I needn’t have been concerned. Yes, my bike fitness is not where I would like it to be and riding this road was by no means easy. But with the right attitude anything is possible. So I enjoyed the scenery as I rode the mountain 1km at a time. Every kilometre I would stop, get off my bike, take a photo and then keep riding. Sometimes I’d even pass the 1.2km mark before I’d realise it was time to stop. Sure, that sort of climbing technique and style is never going to win me any Tour de France victories but I’m a touring cyclist, not a racer.
As I neared the top of the pass the road narrowed and mossy trees started to hug the road. I was alone so I just exclaimed “wow!” out loud to no one in particular. As soon as I saw this clearing I just had to pull out my picnic blanket, some lunch and a book I am reading to take a half hour break in the forest of mossy trees. A stream trickled past my rest spot and birds sang.
Just near the top of the pass I had a chance to look back at the way I had come. The view made the climb worthwhile.
And then I was across the pass and riding down a long hill on the other side. Here the landscape opened up quite a bit as though the mountain was protecting a secret world. Whereas the view from the other side of the pass was of forested mountaintops, here the view was farmed valleys. It was so surreal to see this change occur just like that. I guess I really do understand why people say riding on flat land is boring because these changes occur more slowly.
This hidden valley had its own secrets too like waterfalls that tumbled down right beside the road. I’ve never ridden a road like this before where almost every bend in the road harbours a rush of falling water. And then there were the Shinto shrines. The Kii Peninsula is one of the most sacred places for the Shinto religion and is dotted with shrines. I don’t know anything else about the Shinto religion so am not sure what the shrines mark but they appear to my uneducated eye to mark burial places or memorials to the deceased. To top off the mystery of the valley I have entered, along the road there were many places where steps led up into the wooded mountains. This one with the white railing stood out to me as particularly interesting. I wanted to go explore what was there but also knew it was getting onto time for me to find camp. So I left the path as a mystery.
I haven’t planned my campsite for the night because I am not yet sure what I am looking for. But I noticed on a roadside information sign that there is a michi-no eki (roadside rest station) not far ahead. I don’t yet know what a michi-no eki is but the sign looks like it will be rest area. And that’s exactly what it is. Across the road there are some steps leading to a narrow grassy spot by the river that does not look like it is private property or being farmed. I ask the lady at the michi-no eki whether it is okay to camp by using sign language and saying “camping-ju”. She says hai and I take this as agreement that camping here is no problem (while I have heard that foreign travellers just camp anywhere in Japan, especially at shrines and temples, I am not comfortable with this approach to tourism so decide to ask and risk being given the international hands crossed symbol for ‘no’). The campsite is amazing and as an added bonus the toilets in the michi-no eki remain open all night and are the magical warm seat variety that I think I will definitely love about Japan.