The path wound on and on for what felt like hours and I was certain now that I’d completely lost Route 18 altogether. My imagination began to wander. Perhaps I’d stumbled into a time vortex along an old and mysterious samurai trading route of the Edo Period. Would I lose my head to the blade of a rogue rōnin? I sincerely hoped not. Eventually, when the path did finally begin to descend, my imagination gave way to great relief. I still didn’t know exactly where it would lead me, and I had to get off my bike and walk down; as my brakes were now completely defunct.
Through a gap in the tree canopy, I just about made out some sort of village settlement in the valley below. And with that I upped the ante slightly. Sitting back on the saddle, I used the soles of my trainers to brake when necessary, more than once nearly flying off a cliff edge in the process. I could see civilisation though, and that psychologically brought with it an easing of mind; just like a McDonalds in a war zone. For now I was invincible.
As I ventured closer to the mountain village, I could hear a calamitous crashing of water. The river ran savagely through the village and from my vantage point, I could make out two bridges crossing the wild, wild river: one solid and stern, the other minuscule and feeble. I knew which one I would be crossing. The village itself was lifeless, its inhabitants either hiding in their homes or already evacuated to someplace safe; a common procedure come typhoon season in Japan. The road wound down to the daunting riverside where there were some public toilets and a small shelter. Lunchtime. Despite being drenched through; my hands shrivelled like walnuts – I wasn’t actually feeling that cold, the exorbitant humidity levels seeing to that, or perhaps it was just the adrenaline. Nonetheless, I still changed into some dry clothes and feasted on rice balls that I’d bought at the conbini back in Ochi. It was quite unsettling to be standing so close to the river’s unabashed ferocity, but all the same it was an absolute spectacle and the noise it produced was completely deafening. On the opposite side of the bank was a house; the rapids just feet from its front door. The owner must have been shitting himself. If the whole valley was to be suddenly swept away it would’ve come as no surprise. And upon picturing the news headlines, I made haste.
The large bridge across the river was part of Route 439 and it just so turned out that I wouldn’t even need to cross the bridge, but I would have to straddle through the valley, alongside the fearsome rapids. I knew at least though that I was headed in the right direction; that was some comfort.
Further ahead, I’d encounter another road closure sign with a picture of a uniformed man bowing in apology, and this was no comfort whatsoever. The road that was part of a descent towards the river, was more than likely flooded – yet to the side of the road was a notice board with a shoddy map indicating a diversion. Having no choice, I tried my best to follow it, as it led me down a narrow track way. Here I found myself steering around huge boulders and rubble that must have just recently tumbled down from the mountainside.
At the end of the track I came to the foot of a huge dam, and… a complete dead end. Shaking my head in disgust, I tracked back on myself. On my return, there was a man in a bright blue anorak taking photographs of the lairy rapids and we greeted each other. For a fleeting second I took my eye off the track; which cost me dearly. Running over a pile of landslide rubble, I heard a sudden pop and then a whoosh as all of the air from my front tyre was immediately expelled. This devastating blow was so very cruel. I looked back at the man in the bright blue anorak who had since returned to his water photography. In my devastation, I partially blamed him; my mood soured. Buckets of water now beat down upon me, as I began to feel a dull ache form at the base of my very soul.
Remembering a saw mill I’d passed along the track way, I wheeled my casualty there to carry out an operation under its limited shelter. The front tyre being buggered though was at least a marginal bonus, as opposed to the heavily laden rear. That would have just increased my time in the mountains, time I just didn’t have. Studying my tyre, I came to the conclusion that I must have either ran over a shard of obsidian rock or a sea of knives, as my tyre revealed a great gaping tear whilst my inner tube had a laceration utterly beyond redemption. I quickly chucked in a new inner tube and made a mental note to get a new tyre ASAP.
I was feeling quite low by this point, but considering my predicament it was for the best that I didn’t let any emotions get the better of me; they would have only worsened the situation and clouded my thoughts.
Heading back to the beginning of the track way, I assessed the discreditable Route 439 diversion map once again. Upon doing so some white smoke began to waft over my right shoulder towards the sign board; I was on fire! Oh no wait, no I wasn’t, it was just the condensation from a creepy old man’s warm breath – of whom stood directly over my shoulder.
‘Ahh!! Where did you come from??!?’ I blurted out in startled English.
He laughed, his accompanying umbrella also appearing to bob up and down in delight.
‘Daijoubu?’ He asked. Are you ok?
I confirmed that I was all right but just needed to find Route 33. He then pointed me in the direction of a bridge that crossed the river, telling me to go up a steep hill before turning left directly onto Route 33. I thanked the old man for his wisdom, before acting out his instructions. All of which went to plan as I branched left at an intersection and onto Route 33. There I’d find a signboard indicating 69 km to Matsuyama.
A sigh of relief was then duly in order as I trailed the Niyodo River toward the border of Ehime Prefecture. I still had a long way to go, but I’d been mucking around in the mountains for some 10 hours and sorely needed to find Matsuyama. Things were looking up. The rain even momentarily petered out, and then decided against that idea and started back up again.
A blast of thunder decisively put me in my place, or was that a mass landslide? Shut up Daniel, just keep peddling!
A feeling of déjà vu came over me as I approached another manned road block. I was now so deep in the mountains that I wouldn’t have anywhere to turn, should they not let me pass. Through the heavy streams of rain I could barely see the traffic controller, but the orange baton he was waving around was depressingly obvious. Upon stopping in front of him, he showed me his dreaded forearms and a formidable shaking of the head. I decided that I couldn’t speak basic Japanese anymore; it was just easier to appear as a tourist. So I started to chunter away in English, telling him how I needed to get to Matsuyama as I had nowhere else to stay and it would be unhealthy for me to have to go back. The traffic controller soon took a step back, he didn’t have the foggiest as to what I was banging on about. Turning, he called over to a superior and explained that I was obviously a moron. The superior looked me up and down, his eyes a little wild. He wasn’t happy. He asked me in Japanese if I spoke Japanese, I stupidly said no… in Japanese, quickly diverting away from this minute faux pas by pointing to the road ahead… and much like a cave man blurting out ‘Me, go Matsuyama!’ Before quickly pulling my best puppy dog face expression. The temptation to also throw in a quivering lip also present, but feared that that might well have been regarded as slightly over doing it somewhat.
The superior rubbed some water off of his forehead. ‘Chotto matte,’ and returned to the hut by the side of the road to pick up a phone. His colleague then smiled at me enthusiastically. I repaid him with the exact same gesture before looking away awkwardly.
The sound of rain thrumming upon a close by building’s corrugated roof top, intensified, as a sinisterly cold droplet of water ran the course of my spine, causing me to shudder, I would soon be completely soaked through again.
I looked back at the superior of whom was yapping away on the blower before turning a look back towards his colleague again. He was still smiling directly at me, looking like he could quite possibly explode at any second, it was odd. Again, I quickly diverted my eyes away.
Hurry the fuck up, I thought as I closed my eyes and began to shiver some more.
The next time I looked up, the superior was stood gravely before me.
‘Ok,’ he said as he moved a barrier to one side ushering me forward. ‘Abunai yo!’ It’s dangerous!
I nodded in agreement, it was.
As I proceeded further along Route 33, I encountered various farmsteads and settlements. The potential for a life changing natural disaster was merely a heartbeat away, yet for the inhabitants it was a way of life – they were truly living on the edge. Yet, despite the dangers on offer, having the road to myself would also gift a certain mystical charm to my surrounds – the area being a constant marvel to the eye, even more so in these Biblical conditions.
By the time I’d reached the town of Kumakogen – some 20 miles from Matsumoto – it was early evening and the rain was beginning to finally ease. Finding a conbini, I feasted like a gannet, safe in the knowledge that I should now make it to Matsuyama without the assistance of a body bag.
Whilst feasting, a mother and child combo walked past holding hands, the child looking at me in some sort of awe… or shock.
‘Don’t look at it!’ Said the child’s mother, probably.
I checked myself over, I looked like a drowned bear. The shivers were also now becoming quite unsettling. Jumping back on my bike I would participate in one last moderate ascent for the day and be rewarded with some captivating views across the city of Matsuyama.
Lights began to twinkle, like the turning on of some far distant galaxy. And with no vehicles to share the road with, the descent could be described as nothing more than sweet!
Just shortly before 10pm I found my guesthouse. I’d spent roughly 17 hours muddling through the rugged mountains of Shikoku – from one prefectural capital to another – and it would prove to be one of the most physically and mentally draining days of my journey thus far. I felt truly obliterated, but thankful all the same as things could well have been a lot worse… a lot worse.
I would later go on to learn that ‘Severe Tropical Storm Nakri’ brought with it record amounts of rainfall to Shikoku – 1,000 millimetres of the wet stuff being measured in Kochi Prefecture alone. That in one day equated to three times as much rainfall on average to what the prefecture would normally see in an entire month. Other news I would also learn – before going to bed – was that a Category 5 Super Typhoon was now in the process of barrelling its way towards the south-west of Japan with winds of up to 150mph. Yay!!
Dates: 31/07/2014 – 2/08/2014
Total miles traversed: 4,330 miles
Total time in the saddle: 441 hours and 27 minutes
For a more gratuitous insight into my journey please take a visit to your respective Amazon store or contact me directly for a signed copy and colour map: