Thursday, October 8, 2009
Miyajima Day 1: Biking to Honshu
We woke up before the sun (5:30 to be exact) after a night of sleep on Courtney and Chris' kitchen floor in Saijo. With sleep in our eyes we took our showers, ate our bread and bananas and drank our coffee quietly, smiling at each other and shaking our heads at the insanity of this trip. Whatever happened, we'd have friends to share it with and a good story to tell in the end.
We (Courtney, Chris, Peter, Lacy, Hans and I) drove about an hour to the Imabari bicycle rental shop, where luckily Courtney had reserved six bikes the day before, because the line to rent was pretty long. The gift shop had every kind of towel imaginable - hand towels, face towels, body towels, towels to wear around your neck or under your hat . . . and after much deliberation and observation of soon-to-be fellow bikers, all of whom had towels hanging from their back pockets, Hans and I decided it might be a good idea to buy a couple towels. They ended up being the best purchase of the trip, for a whopping 150 yen each. I don't know how we missed the vast collection of ponchos on display . . .
We picked up our bikes and checked the air pressure on all the tires. Just about all of them needed air (thanks, Imabari bike shop), so after an hour of filling up and getting all of our gear situated (including a 40 lb backpack outfitted with tent, sleeping bags and pads Hans insisted on carrying . . . another lifesaver, however heavy), we were off. No helmets? No problem! This is Japan!
Our route: 6 islands, 6 bridges, and a puddle-jumping ferry. The guy at the bike shop said this 80-km trek should take us about 6 hours. Boy did he overestimate our stamina and the quality of his own bikes. Our pace was leisurely at first. We had a map with spots for special stamps you can only get at certain places on the bike route, and if we got all of them we'd get . . . wait for it . . . a commemorative TOWEL! So we made a lot of stops in the beginning, really wanting that towel as a keepsake (hello? Who wouldn't?). We found a lot of cool stuff along the way, including this restaurant where you could pick fish, clams, oysters and snails from a tank, then receive your own personal bucket of fire on which to grill them! Sadly we found this place at about 10:00 in the morning, so we weren't really interested in eating just yet. We thought we'd find another one like it on the way, but we never did. We dined on gift shop candy instead . . . no fire buckets in sight.
The view was spectacular. The trail skimmed the coast of each island, so we were always close to the water. I'm not much of a biker. Being a part of and witness to some serious biking accidents as a child, I've always felt safer on my feet. I don't really feel at home in the water, either. Give me firm, solid ground to walk on- maybe some ropes to climb and rocks to jump - and I'm happy. I prefer earthworms to eels. But I'd be lying if I said I didn't feel different on these fishy little islands. Fresh ocean air whipping my hair, Grizzly Bear playing on the iPod, not a cloud in the sky . . . it all kind of feels like a dream now. I had a lot of time to think on this trip. At times we each kept a different pace, so I had some alone time to reflect on the things I've dealt with lately, which was refreshing. Just the world and me . . . sighing. Moving. Changing.
I also had time to appreciate the ache of missing Hannah, who was staying with Megumi during our trip. She was probably having more fun eating gourmet treats and playing with Megumi's nieces and nephews than she would sitting in a baby seat for 10 hours, but I couldn't help but look behind me and wish she were there, enjoying the view and the wind in her face, too.
We biked long and hard, and by the end our butts were akin to a mushy plum-colored Christmas pudding. I don't remember what time it was when we realized we weren't going to make it to Miyajima-guchi in time for the last ferry across to our planned campgrounds, but it wasn't a happy hour. Once reaching the last island before Honshu, there would be a complex system of ferries and trains to get us to our final destination. Figuring we didn't really have a choice, we pedaled on anyway, and whatever was waiting for us on Honshu could be dealt with when we got there. This is the stuff what adventures are made of.
Up the on-ramp. Across the bridge. Down the off-ramp. Across the island. Up the on-ramp. As the sun began to set our survival mechanisms kicked in and we methodically tackled each leg of the trip with hypnotic precision. I hardly remember the last couple hours of biking - only that it was dark and I was so sore every bump felt like a jackhammer to my ass. The last ferry across to the mainland left at 9:00 pm, and we made it just in time.
In Onomichi we ditched our bikes and collapsed on the concrete in front of the train station, a hungry forlorn look of "what now?" written on our weary faces. This was Silver Week - a Japanese national holiday that only happens once every two years . . . and I guess the Hiroshima area is a happening place for said holiday, because we could not, for the life of us, find campgrounds, hostels or hotels with just a liiiiiiittle space for 6 wee Americans and their gear. While Hans and Chris called hotel after hotel (and think they were possibly rejected service because they were dirty foreigners), Courtney, Peter, Lacy and I went in search of a meal. The only thing open was Mister Donut, and the only food they had left at 9:30 at night was cold spaghetti that wasn't REALLY spaghetti but rather ramen noodles in a cold, red spaghetti-looking sauce with some ground mystery meat thrown on top. I lost my appetite and joined the guys outside. No luck. It looked like we were camping out homeless style tonight (though we prefer the term "Urban Outdoorsmen").
We got on the train to Hiroshima and then Miyajima-guchi because it was the last train out of Onomichi and there was nothing else for us to do. On the train Hans said "listen, you should be prepared for the worst when we get there, because I have no idea what's going to be there. Just be ready, because we might have to sleep on the streets tonight."
"Yeah. Ok. I'm gonna sleep now," and with a backpack as pillow and my trusty towel as a blanket, I did.
We arrived in Miyajima-guchi (which was even more of a ghost town than Onomichi) around midnight and began searching for a place to set up our tents. The underpass was tempting, and there was already a homeless man sleeping there so I figured it must be a good spot, but not everyone was ready to give up so easily (they didn't get the pep talk in the train). So we walked around town and asked at different hotels if they had any vacancy, and they said no and looked down their noses at our pitiful state of post-biking stinkiness. Then, just when the underpass was looking like our best bet . . . Courtney and Lacy heard a voice across the street . . . a happy, friendly, beloved ENGLISH SPEAKING voice. We followed this blessed voice to the Miyajima-guchi Backpacker's Hostel, which had no vacancy, but dude-with-the-beautiful-voice graciously led us to the docks and the most beautiful pad of concrete I've ever laid tent on.