After I picked up the van in the morning, we were going to have an afternoon departure. We were a little bit late getting underway, but while D. and I were sitting in front of the dorms playing with the stereo / navigation console, we figured out how to watch TV, and watched a Japanese newswoman touring the Isle of Lewis and the Callanish Stones. Bless those Japanese variety show correspondents; there’s no place on Earth (or beyond?) they won’t go, stand over and exclaim, “Sugoi!” =)
We finally got underway, and my passengers were very happy to know that it was my first day driving on the left. =) Actually, it sounds more difficult than it really is – I seldom had side-of-the-road-related driving problems, but I did have a problem with the control stalks being reversed (thankfully the pedals weren’t). Even on the third day I’d be going to make a turn and squig-squig-squeek would go the windshield wipers.
When I first got on the expressway, I found it kind of hard to relax because not only is it two lanes for most of its length (albeit separated by cones – when they get around to building the other carriageway, they then just remove the cones) but the lanes are also a little bit narrower than what we’re used to in North America. It took me a while before I got comfortable and really felt like I was on the open road.
The scenery on these routes is spectacular from what I’ve seen so far; the engineers seem to have a flair for the dramatic, and there are beautiful, expansive valley or sea vistas coming up all the time. There are frequent tunnels under mountains – many are more than two kilometres long, and many feature turns and slopes.
Also, the navigation system totally changed the instant we got on the expressway. It started listing distances to service areas, parking areas, and interchanges. The remaining meterage updated frequently; as we approached the Kochi junction, D. was counting down in 100m increments. And then we blew right by it, because we needed the next junction. Laughter galore; you had to be there.
Driving on the Tokushima Expressway was fun (even with the platooning), but the wide-open four-lane Matsuyama Expressway is where things really got interesting. We were running a bit behind, and the van just seemed willing to roar past everything in sight. Not that I was by any means the fastest on the highway; picture zooming through a downhill tunnel at 140 km/h so that you can pull back into the left lane and let the guy in the Mercedes tailgating you pass at 160 km/h.
Outside Saijo, we stopped at a “highway oasis” – something like a service area on steroids. There was a little shopping centre and a hot springs hotel. The area had local roads in and out of it too, but they were separate – a particular building might have two entrances, one on the local side and one on the expressway side. Short of driving your car through a restaurant, there’s no way to shunpike.
At length, we reached Matsuyama with an hour to spare – the temples close their stamp offices at 5pm. The expressway cost ¥4150 – split five ways, it’s kind of a bargain. We started off for Temples 46 and 47, just south of the city. I got thrown off by the signage when we got onto the neighbourhood arterial roads – to make a long story short, we ended up driving past a police checkpoint four times, and when we finally figured out where we were, we cut across a hill through a small zoo parkway to try and get to where we were supposed to be, and at the end I had to pay ¥300 just to have driven through it!
The thing is, the intersections in some Japanese cites are so tightly packed that when you see an overhead sign proclaiming the turn you want to take, you sometimes think that it’s the turn you’re right on top of. That’s how we ended up on the wrong side of the zoo hill. We even missed a turn after that, because I wasn’t keeping an eye out for the unilingual temple signs. Not all of the signs here are bilingual, although this isn’t that much of a problem except with privately-erected signs – the official government road signage is thoroughly bilingual.
For much of the trip, getting around wasn’t easy – I had a map of Ehime Prefecture, but I didn’t have a good large-scale map of the Matsuyama area. D.’s temple guidebook was dandy for people who were going directly from one temple to another (especially on foot), but it was tricky to use for people like us who were trying to get on / close to the route at a later point. The navigation system was in Japanese and therefore really only good for showing the lay of nearby streets and roads. And I still haven’t mentioned that the streets are not only tightly packed, but they are also mercurial and capricious. It sometimes took all I had to keep us even close to where we were supposed to be, and even then I made plenty of small mistakes. However, my passengers were understanding of this, and thought I did a good job that weekend under the circumstances.
Time was ticking away and frustration was mounting, but we finally found the neighbourhood we were looking for. With just eight minutes to spare, we leaped out of the van and raced towards the temple office. We asked the man there to stamp our books.
He looked stunned.
This wasn’t one of the Eighty-Eight.
We piled back in the van, now with two minutes to spare. We pulled into Temple 47 and reached its office by 5:03 – luckily, the attendant kindly stamped our books for us anyway. And then we explored. Usually you do this the other way around – you arrive, explore, worship / pray (if that’s your thing), and you get your book stamped when you are ready to leave. But in this case we didn’t really have that option.
Most of the temples we visited that weekend had a special attraction or some other thing to make it notable, and this one was next to a gigantic cemetery. It spanned a valley and an entire slope of a tall hill. We called the walk out to it the “death walk,” which might have been a private joke that perhaps even had something to do with the very loud cicadas. (They could wake the dead – fortunately the sound they make is not unpleasant.)
We relaxed for a while and planned our evening. F. and K. wanted to find a campground that a fellow they talked to had mentioned, so we decided to search for that first, then head for the Dogo Onsen.
“Stupid fake temple!” some facetiously shouted as we drove past our first temple again.
We went north, where we did some more driving in circles (and thanks go out to the Japanese driver who stopped a line of cars to let me make a right turn out of a Lawson parking lot) and at last found the “campsite.” It was a Water Spot – one of the top 100 Water Spots in Japan. We joked about following the 88 Temple Pilgrimage with the 100 Water Spot Pilgrimage. The water there was in demand; adults and teenagers could be seen plodding along lugging carts filled with plastic water jugs to the spigots and back again.
We drove towards the Dogo Onsen – to my dismay, it was pretty much downtown – I was hoping for a more suburban setting as I was driving (and, more to the point, parking). I’m pretty good at scrounging up free parking in Halifax, but in the heavily-touristed Matsuyama spa district, not so much. Many of the people were walking the streets in yukata, clothes traditionally worn after bathing – such traditional wear is seldom seen in Tokushima.
We found a parking area that wasn’t complete highway robbery – when we walked out onto the street we noticed that we were squarely in Matsuyama’s red-light district, underneath towers with flickering lights proclaiming establishments such as “Hole In One.”
We found the bath area – there was a huge shopping arcade, too. K. and D. checked out a Studio Ghibli merchandise shop (appropriately placed, as the main building in Spirited Away was modeled on the Dogo Onsen), and after that we found a good noodle house to eat in. After dinner, we boys figured we’d try “the” onsen – I had found a sign earlier pointing the way to “it,” and in we went.
It was nothing like the onsen we visited in Iya Valley. This was both good and bad; this place was, erm, rustic, but it had a feeling of authenticity. Plus it was really, really cheap. It didn’t turn out to be much more than a place to go and wash, but we definitely needed that just the same!
A. was quietly questioning, “Is this the nicest onsen in Japan?” “No, it’s the oldest,” we replied. It was only when we left that we figured it out: strictly speaking, the word onsen refers to the spring, not the bathhouses (although it’s often used to describe the latter simply by association). So while we were at the oldest onsen in Japan, we went to its “el cheapo” establishment. But we got what we paid for and more; the high heat of the onsen made the outside air seem cool by contrast. For once, walking outside didn’t feel like walking into a furnace, and I didn’t sweat much more the rest of that evening.
The parking turned out to be $14, which D. and I split. We started driving in search of a campground or cybercafé – I stopped at a convenience store for coffee and bearings and discovered that I was already driving northeast into the mountains towards Imabari. Whoops. We doubled back into the city, and before too long we found a cybercafé! Mecca! We also found “free” parking in the form of an empty lot at an adjacent building whose ground-level stores were closed for the night. The girls slept in the van; we boys took booths in the café at $17 each for the night (nominally it’s $15 for eight night hours, but there was a $3 membership charge, which was then mitigated with a bunch of $1-off coupons). The ice cream machine wasn’t working, but there were all the soft drinks and slushies you could imbibe!
And so I settled in and watched the Open, wrote this, and slept a little bit. Ahhh… why don’t they have something like this in Halifax? It’d make getting stranded downtown after the busses shut down (which happens to me a lot, sometimes deliberately and sometimes not) a lot easier to take. Well, time will tell!