Before I embarked on my trip down the coast to Hiroshima and back, Julie asked if I might be interested in joining her and Hiroki on a long weekend trip to Shikoku. I loved the idea of a weekend getaway and Josh and Judith deciding to join us only sweetened the deal.
We got up around 6am on Sunday morning to make it to the ferry terminal where we would board JAMBO FERRY (or what I thought for the entire time was Jumbo Ferry). Hiroki was a real gentleman, taking care of buying tickets and organizing everything. The Jambo Ferry was hilarious, with mirrors everywhere, gold lamps and, my favourite, a repeating pattern of bowls of udon and chopsticks streaming with noodles on the seats, the prefecture of Kagawa being famous for udon. There was an enormous area that took up half of the second floor that was just empty carpet and almost immediately people began taking off their shoes and clambering onto the carpet to lie down. It was a giant sleep zone! How many long trips have I yearned for such an area on BC Ferries?
The Jambo Ferry song drifted from the speakers, announcing our departure (listen to this amazing jam here) and as I was feeling pretty tired I grabbed my eye mask and earplugs and went to lie down in the carpet zone. I fell asleep almost instantly and slept soundly for two out of the four hours of the voyage. It wasn’t long before the soothing Jambo Ferry theme was announcing our arrival at Takamatsu.
Our first stop was an udon restaurant to have our first Kagawa noodles. I had delicious kitsune udon and marveled at how the udon places in Japan have all kinds of tempura to choose from. Julie made me try oden for the first time too. I wasn’t big on it, it just tasted like texture. The one she gave me is named after the purse women wear with kimonos and it looked like it too. I just can’t get over how the oden sits in these gross tepid looking pools of broth in the conbinis!
After a short train ride, we arrived at Kotohira, the town at the base of Konpira-san, a popular pilgrimage site, with temples at the top of a mountain that is reached via more than 1000 stone stairs. Kotohira was a strange town. It obviously saw a lot of tourism because of Konpira-san but seemed very run down and tired at the same time. There was a pretty canal going through it, with lots of quaint bridges, but lining the canals were brothels called soaplands.
Soapland is another funny Japanese name that I kind of love, like SNACK bars. Have I talked about Snacks? I can’t remember so I will explain: Snacks are tiny bars where men go to drink and sing karaoke. They are usually run by an older woman who is skilled at entertaining and conversation, perhaps a former hostess. I want to go to one but Julie said they are really expensive and one of those men only things. We originally saw them in this informercial we watched for Enka’s Greatest Hits (Enka is a kind of classic Japanese pop music). I see Snacks everywhere now and can’t help but laugh, SUNAKU.
We started seeing lots of tourists and people dressed in white outfits denoting they were pilgrims. There is a pilgrimage route called the 88 Temples Pilgrimage where one walks to—guess!—88 temples and Konpira-san is one of them. We headed for the busy route up to Konpira-san: the first part of the trip up was stone steps lined with shops, mostly selling pilgrim-related souvenirs, in addition to things like samurai swords and enormous wood sculptures of dragons. Some elderly people were being carried up and down the steps in small pagodas carried on the shoulders of men. The Japanese don’t get a lot of vacation time and as it was a long weekend, the path was busy. It’s also why the image of the classic Japanese tourist, pouring off of buses, snapping photos, and getting back on and leaving, exists. With such little vacation time, they like to see as much as they can in a short period.
Soon the shops faded away and the steps were lined with carved stone lanterns. We stopped before a large gate and tried a rice drink. I had mine cold, it was sweet and pleasant but I am not too big on very textured drinks and this had the consistency of rice pudding. Before us was a beautiful view of the valley and the steps leading back down into the town, and despite the stairs, it wasn’t long before we reached the temples.
The temples were very beautiful and there was even a Japanese wedding! The whole party was being painstakingly posed, the photographer fussing over ever detail– the tiny folds of the white wedding kimono being adjusted, pulling a pant leg down to match the other hem, etc. The bride was so beautiful and as they walked past us we said “Omedetou gozaimasu!” Hiroki got a fortune out of a cute Akita dog statue and it was really good. We walked under a wooden structure hung with hundreds of pictures, some small, some huge and all with no discernable theme, though ships seemed prevalent.
The coolest thing at Konpira-san was a small wooden building where tiny finches would land on and eat sunflower seeds from your hands. A monk walked around handing out the seeds, withdrawing them from a pocket concealed inside his draped sleeve. They were so cute! Sometimes more than one would land and they would squabble over the seeds. Hiroki held one seed tight so the bird really had to work to pull it out.
Another area of the temple grounds had an incredible view of the landscape surrounding the mountain. It was quite flat with conical green mountains springing up from the earth. The light was quite pretty, as it had been a mix of cloudy and sunny all day.
We decided to head back to Kotohira to catch our train back to Takamatsu. It was dusk when we reached the town and we stopped to take photos around the bridges (“Girls Facing Soaplands”). We discovered our train wasn’t coming for another hour so we decided to grab something to eat and ducked into an izakaya in an otherwise empty and closed up shopping arcade.
The izakaya turned out to be a homey little place. We ordered a round of beer and the woman whispered that she would give us some free edamame since we didn’t have time to order more food. There were only a few other patrons in the place, a couple of old men who kept sneaking glances at us and giving us wide grins when caught. On the wall were a pair of incredible Samurai movie posters from the 1960s, the owner telling us he had waited in line for hours to see the films for their original theatrical release.
The woman serving us was so sweet and kind, and we were digging the vibe of the place, so we decided to catch the next train. We got another round of beer and Hiroki ordered us some fried noodles and roast chicken and as it happened to be Canadian Thanksgiving, we all held hands and said what we were thankful for over our roast beast. The chicken, incidentally, was delicious. Although the woman indicated the bone was for the men to chew on, you best believe I was gnawing on that thing myself at the end.
Now that they could tell we were staying, the old men started chatting us up and we took photos with them. Julie mischievously had me approach one of them and tell him, “Jiman desu“, that the photo was my proudest moment. He said, “Oh, you are charming,” and took the opportunity to give my ass a brief squeeze. The other man started bringing over photos of a nearby Kabuki theatre, regaling us with vivid descriptions of the theatre’s history and how it had recently been restored and how he highly recommended we attend tomorrow’s show. We asked if he were going and he said, no, I am going to a violin concert. Ha!
Although there were five of us with Japanese abilities ranging from native speaker to beginner, we had a wonderful time drinking and chatting, always laughing. I felt pretty lucky to be there with such a great group of people and wished we could have stayed all night in that little place, but alas, we had a train to catch and Hiroki’s friend to meet.
However, as we were getting ready to leave, the woman who had been serving us suddenly indicated she had something she wanted to show us, and led us through the rear door and into the house that was in the back of the building. We slipped off our shoes, walked through a tatami room and she pointed outside, where a small, beautifully manicured garden lay in the shadows of the evening.
“It’s from the Meiji period.” She told us. “It has not been changed in 200 years.”
My heart beat fast and I peered into the darkness at the tiny pocket of history, a garden left unchanged, surrounded by concrete soaplands, hidden from the thousands of pilgrims and tourists that pass through Kotohira every year.
She pointed to a wood carving built into the wall and explained that it too was from the Meiji period and then, realizing we were going to miss our train if we lingered any longer, we were pulling our shoes back on and running, our laughter echoing throughout the empty shopping arcade.
We were almost at the station when we heard a shout behind us and we turned to see the woman from the izakaya cycling furiously after us, waving Julie’s sweater in the air.
“Arigatou gozaimasu!!” We cried again and again, and she waved goodbye and pedaled away.
We got off the train at a random stop and Hiroki’s friend Takamaru arrived shortly, with his quiet girlfriend Satomi in tow, and we piled into his Toyoto minivan and headed off for parts unknown. It was definitely surreal sitting in the back of a minivan, breathing in the smoke pouring from Takamaru’s cigarette, listening to Japanese techno and driving through small streets with nothing but darkness beyond. Shikoku definitely had a different vibe than Honshu.
Since it was late Sunday night, not too much was open so Takamaru took us to a slick little izakaya. Luckily there was a large table available for us and soon food was ordered and some Kagawa sake was poured. It was really delicious and so easy to drink that everyone warned me, “Be careful!”. Once again, the comprehension level around the table varied but we found plenty to talk about. Julie learned some new vocabulary about politics, Takamura told me a story about seeing a UFO (Him and his friends, 16 years old, were fishing at a rice paddy, when they saw a glowing craft floating then shoot away very quickly, making a terrible noise!), and Satomi sat silently with a shy smile. Hiroki and I got a bit drunk and laughed as we topped up each other’s cups.
Best of all, we were given complimentary bananas on the way out, with “Arigatou Gozaimasu” written on them.
Satomi had assumed driving duty and we were dropped off at our hotel. In front of it was a large golden Buddha statue, which Hiroki cited as his reason for choosing this particular place, in addition to the fact it was a capsule hotel and, as our wonderful tour guide, that he wanted us to have a funny Japanese experience.
It was quite late when we checked in. The hotel was enormous and almost felt like a rec centre but with more carpet and fancier staircases. There were men in the hotel pajamas hanging out on tatami platforms watching TV and weird posters of fancy looking actors everywhere. We got our capsule key and our onsen pajamas and went off to find our beds for the night.
The girls and the boys split up and we went to the left side of the building, thinking we would find the woman’s side. We slid a door open and inside was an enormous tatami room with women sleeping on the floor in rows. Surprised, we slid the door closed, hoping we weren’t mistaken about where we were sleeping that night. We went to the other side of the hotel, where an employee directed us to our room. To get there we had to walk through another enormous room filled with reclining arm chairs, in which both men and women were sleeping. A huge TV was playing at the front of the room. It was certainly different than anything you would find in Canada.
We crept through the armchair room and came to our capsules, basically a wall with capsules running down one side, stacked in twos. I had a bottom capsule and once I had climbed in and closed the curtain behind me, I was surprised at how roomy it was, just as big as a hostel bunk bed and more private too. There was a small television and a little shelf and mirror for my things and that was it.
(Left image from Judith’s Instagram)
Although it was after midnight, we were dying for a dip in the 24 hour onsen, so we went downstairs in our matching pajamas to check it out. It was a pretty large facility, with a small rotenburo (outdoor pool), the usual hot and cold pools and one pool that was brown and smelled exactly like instant noodles– it was disgusting. I went in for one second, took a sniff and leapt out.
The next day Josh asked if we had gone in that particular pool. Only for a second, we told him. He said that him and Hiroki had been sitting in it when Hiroki gestured towards his crotch and asked hesitatingly, “…itchy?”
Josh shook his head. “STINGY”.
Apparently sitting in the other pools after the instant ramen pool had been agony.
(For more Kagawa adventures, Judith just did her own post about our trip over on her blog, Like Some Cat From Japan.)