Sunday, October 17, 2010

Silver-Lined Week: Shikoku, roads and rafting

The second half of the silvery week was piggybacked onto the AJET white-water-rafting trip in the Oboke Canyon. This event was just Saturday and Sunday, but since Thursday was a holiday, some of us decided it would be excellent to take Friday off and create a four-day-weekend. Some of us managed to do this without using any actual nenkyuu (allotted vacation time) because they might have had to work on a day they were supposed to be off. Yes I was proud of that engineering of schedule.

We drove to Shikoku through Okayama, like this:

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I was the only driver, and the rainy trek to Takamatsu was not really a big deal. The tolls were lighter than our 30-year-old map book led us to expect (6450 to cross the bridge?!), and the udon was pretty delicious, yes. It was September 23rd, and the first official day of fall. Since we'd spent the previous weekend wearing shorts and sweating through our tank tops, we were surprised to find the air a bit chilly, and wished we'd brought jeans.

The rain dampened our ambitions to explore Takamatsu's offerings at first, but as it let up we did manage to get to Ritsurin Koen, one of the largest garden parks of its kind. We missed out on the Shikoku Mura museum, and only caught the sunset from the 84th of the 88 temple pilgrimage, Yashima-ji.

We made our way back to the city below, re-found our hotel (which was conveniently located just across from the station... except that we were driving), and sought out some awesome yakiniku dinner. We crashed fairly early and hoped the following day would be clear.

It was! Armed with my driving skillz and my expert navigator Lester, we headed south for the Iya valley, home of the vine bridges, our next target. The more touristed (and accessible by bus or train) west Iya valley had some vine bridges, yeah, but WE had a CAR and damned if we weren't going to see the less accessible but more-awesome sounding east side of the valley. We picked out the most direct-looking route on the map and headed east.

Do me a favor and look at how squiggly this line actually is (zoom a bit maybe):

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...Yeah. Turns out, this treacherous mountain pass road winds and switchbacks up and up a mountain (at the top of which we took lovely photos). It was unbelievable and took forever. Then when it was time to go back down, the road became a loosely assembled collection of potholes. When we finally, finally reached east Iya and picked up a tourist map, it labeled our path as "National route but treacherous; recommend prefectural route." We laughed at that, but it was seriously the worst road I have ever seen. My little kei-SUV held her own, though, and we didn't even need 4-wheel drive!

The vine bridges of east Iya were awesome and scary, and I encourage you to look at those photos (link forthcoming). We pulled on our warmer clothes as it had clouded up.. in my case, the only pair of sweatpants I brought, and the only light jacket I brought, both of which would see much more action than I had anticipated. Seriously, I thought Shikoku was to the south of my town.

On the drive back, while we made for the prefectural route, I was startled/creeped out by what I thought was a person, which turned out to be a mannequin. Suddenly, we were surrounded by them, and Lester cried, "Pull over!" We had pulled over many a time during the trip so far, to admire a waterfall, to examine an oddity, or to let another car use the road. In a surreal and otherwise deserted-looking area, we mingled with puppet-people. I bought a couple mugs from the table in the center of this strange artist's haven, and we went on our way.

Adina and I were signed up to stay at the guest house associated with the rafting company to which we would be patrons the following day. Our fellow JET group members were coming in that night in a couple of rental vans; it would be very late and they would be sleeping in those vans overnight. Adina and I agreed that this was a hideous idea and were glad not to be part of it.

The photos for this weekend from my own camera are here. We also got our hands on the waterproof camera photos, which can be found here. (Yeah, still too lazy to post them one by one.. treat yourself to a slideshow moment and enjoy them en masse?)

What follows is my writeup of the JET event for the Hyogo Times:

Kicking It in the Canyons

It was my first AJET Shikoku raft trip, and I had an absolute blast. My traveling companion and I decided to take Friday off and make an extra-long four-day weekend of it, so I can’t speak to the transportation experience of the other riverbound JETs. But the three of us north Hyogonians spent Friday night at the Happy Guest House, an affiliate of Happy Raft, where we cooked ourselves breakfast-for-dinner and enjoyed the company of some Germans (who assured us we were in for a real, albeit chilly, treat) and some adventure guides employed by Happy Raft.

Saturday morning, dressed in the only-pairs-of-long-pants-we-brought (we didn’t anticipate the immediacy of fall in such a southerly place as Shikoku), we met up with the rest of the Hyogo group (there were thirteen of us in total) who had apparently slept in the vans which had carried them to Shikoku. Saturday was our full day raft tour, so we sipped on the provided tea and then suited up in our provided wetsuits, helmets, and lifejackets. One raft seats six to eight people or so, and we were sharing the river with several other Happy Raft groups, as well as some boats from other companies. The rafting guides were from all over the world, but there was a predominance of Japanese, Australian, and New Zealander guides. It was a lot of fun to talk normal speed (and often curse-word-laden) English in the visible middle of nowhere Japan.

The bus trundled us downriver to the load-in point. The guides explained that this late in the season, the water level is far below what it is in July, and while this makes some of the rapids more technical and less “fun,” it also reveals some awesome rock formations usually covered by the water. In any season, though, the waters of the Yoshino river are an astonishing clear-green; I could have spent all afternoon just taking in the scenery.

But that would never do! The wind was strong and actually managed to push us upriver if we remained inactive, so there was paddling to be done. In calm areas, we went swimming, tried boat stunts under direction by our adventure guide, or attempted to pull other JETs out of their boats.

Lunch was an all-you-can-eat bagel buffet, after which the sky unfortunately clouded over and left us all shivering in our various soggy forms of footwear. Some more paddling warmed us up, though, and by the end we were climbing the cliff face to jump into the river. Some JETs may or may not have faceplanted off the highest possible jumping rock. My own jump was only like 12 meters or so, which I assure you was Scary As Shit.

That afternoon, we all bus-napped back to Happy Raft for some tea, snacks, and slideshow before setting out more or less en masse to find an onsen to clean and warm us up. From there, we drove to that night’s accommodations, which surprised me both by being on some ridiculous mountain roads barely accessible to even my kei-SUV, let alone the buses we later saw, and by being perhaps the most kick-ass place I have ever stayed.

Due to some misunderstandings, the owner of the beautiful log cabin had expected us the night before. We drove up the narrow, winding switchbacks and joked about how this place better be worth it, and on our arrival, we were presented with plates and plates of meat (from the meat cows) and vegetables for our grilling, and half a wheel of homemade gouda cheese. There was fresh milk in the fridge for the morning, too (from the milk cows). And a flatscreen TV, and a karoke machine; beer cost extra, but we were just glad she had some, because we were NOT going back down that mountain to get it. The lodge slept the 12 of us comfortably, and because of its layout, is better suited to groups of about that size.

Day two was the half-day canyoning excursion in the Musasabi canyon. I had never been canyoning and did not even know what “canyoning” was. Canyoning, it turns out, is awesomeness distilled to a crystal clear purity. We suited up in extra layers of wetsuits (against the chill) and scrambled down over the rocks to begin treating the waterfalls as waterslides. We jumped, slid, and ziplined our way through part of a gorge few people get to see. More rocks, and trees, and moss, and of course, ridiculously awesome waterfalls and crystal-tinted water.

Canyoning is sort of a one-person-at-a-time thing, so the groups for this are much smaller than for rafting. Our JETs had to split between the morning and the afternoon canyon trips to fit into the other bookings with Happy Raft.

I definitely want to go again, perhaps with more careful planning, and maybe in the higher summer when it’s warmer and the waters are high. Happy Raft gets a thumbs up from this happy camper.

After lunch with our canyon group, Adina and I hit the road home, thoroughly worn out and happy to have gone.

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