( or Noodle Spokes )
It rained. Endless, unceasing rain. It dripped from the rooftops, filling gutters and swelled rivers. The only sound was the soft patter of falling drops and the gurgling of drains, as it continued to flow through the streets. A hot, humid smell saturated the air as we looked out at the flood. The typhoon had arrived…
After having experienced sweltering temperatures and the cultural delights of the central region of Honshu, the switch had been flipped back again. As we started to ride back into the countryside the needle was firmly set and stuck on deluge. Thus it would stay for the next couple of weeks, with little respite. We first had warning as we cycled inland from Tokushima. A typhoon is a powerful cyclone that rolls in from the Pacific, sometimes with devastating force. They have both protected and laid waste to the Japanese people. It was such an event that struck the ships of the invading Mongol armies in 1274 and again in 1281, saving the Nippon nation from invasion and the fate of many other Asian countries. This gave the storms a new name: Divine winds, or Kamikaze. But typhoons have also wreaked havoc, causing destructive floods and damaging property. The south islands often bear the brunt of the attack and are the most affected, with flooding and landslides a common occurrence during the late summer months.
Never having experienced such a storm we decided to find a safe place to stay. Our tent, already broken, did not seem up to the task! Preferring to be cautious, we reserved some lodgings in advance and decided to arrive early, as the weather was set to change in the afternoon. We rode up the valley as the first drops started to fall. In the river beneath us, the flood gates had been opened to empty as much water as possible before the downpour. Upon arrival we were soon told that the building might be evacuated due to possible landslides. A few hours later it was confirmed and we were asked to leave. With the storm approaching fast we were loath to go, but were told we could descend back to the valley and find a safer place. This we did and soon found ourselves cycling back the way we had come. The drops had turned into a fine and steady drizzle and we were soon drenched. The main weather front was expected to arrive the next day, so all we had to do was hole up in our small hotel and wait it out. Having no choice, it was agreeable to rest without feeling too guilty. We could make the most of the indoors, reading and eating some excellent bento boxes. Dressed in yukatas we waited expectantly for the worst to come, looking out of the small window. But our apprehension was finally misplaced, as the mountains of Shikoku protected us from the worst of the wind. The rain came down for two days continuously, temperatures rose and we relaxed.
Once the storm had blown over, a small spell of good weather followed. This is a common occurrence for this type of perturbation. We wanted to make the most of it and set off, starting to cycle up what would perhaps be the best roads of our Japanese adventure. The asphalt rose gracefully, following the contours of the mountain and the Yodo river beneath, swollen and powerful. We advanced along the Ōboke Koboke gorge, where a cycling lane allowed us to pedal just above the crashing waters and the gradient was perfect for gaining height. The view was beautiful and we kept going surrounded by forests and high peaks. We left behind the small cities and plunged deeper into the countryside, into the ura nihon1. This is the perfect place for cycling, combining a moderate challenge with stunning landscapes and excellent food. If only all rides were so good!
After a long day we searched for a place to stay but every flat surface had been converted into rice paddies. We ended up in the grounds of an empty temple, surrounded by trees. Next morning after a brisk climb we changed watershed and started to descend the southern slopes towards the Pacific Ocean. But before that we would encounter the azure waters of the Niyo River, the liquid sapphire of Shikoku. This beautiful watercourse is reputed for its colour and transparency. As we followed it, we soon found ourselves giving in to the desire to stop and jump in. The weather was still holding and we enjoyed the dip in the cool water. It looks like the perfect river to paddle and I found myself eyeing up its rapids for a future packrafting trip.
From the inland rivers we reached the coast, still battered from the storm. The fortified beaches had been protected against the power of the ocean and the grey, concrete structures did not make for a pleasant view. Cemented walls stared bleakly at the waves as we passed. But it is impossible (thankfully) to build everywhere and late in the evening, as we followed the road beneath cliffs, a rockslide barred our path. We backtracked, and set up our camp in the dark. As we looked out over the ocean, a languid moon rose up from the horizon. First orange, then slowly growing paler as it lit up the sand, it hung in the sky above. During our months cycling through Japan we had not had much time to enjoy the night sky, for rain and mosquitoes are not pleasant companions for contemplation. Unfortunately light pollution also hides many of the stars and even though we camped consistently, we were rarely completely alone. This was a new experience for me, having been used to camping in the depths of nature, this semi-urban setting made me yearn sometimes for something wilder.
After a night under the stars we continued along the south coast, enjoying the small fishing villages and their sea-food markets.
We advanced on the city of Shimanto, where the river that lends its name arrives from the mountains. It is considered one of the last truly natural rivers of the country and has escaped the excessive heavy construction often seen elsewhere. After camping on a grassy bank we started to follow its meandering course inland. The weather had once again reverted to the standard pelting rain and we pulled on our jackets and made the most of it. Water dripped down through the trees and dense bamboo thickets, dark green and exotic. Rice paddies that had already been harvested reflected the ominous clouds and rolling landscape. Further on, a small shrine, covered in moss was hidden at the top of some slippery rock steps. It was the embodiment of tranquillity and calm.
The Shimanto river, unspoilt, is nevertheless endowed with an architectural curiosity. The sinking bridges or chinkabashi. These structures are designed to present the most simple profile to the rising waters, so when the Shimanto floods, as it often does, they will simply disappear beneath the surface. They can then re-emerge unscathed when the worst is passed. By using these structures we passed from one bank to the other, riding above the mysterious blue tinged water. On one small road, a troop of monkeys peered at us through the mist rising from the ground before retreating with screams into the dense undergrowth.
During this part our ride we started to suffer from a particular mechanical ailment: broken spokes. A small snapping sound would let us know we would be in for some roadside repairs. By going on a long tour your expect some failures and part of the fun is to learn how to repair them and how the parts work. Spokes are in fact an incredible feat of engineering. They are thin rods of metal that can support the weight of rider and gear (most of the time anyway!). But how do they do it? If we press down on a single spoke, it will immediately bend and deform. This is not surprising, as they only measure a few millimetres in diameter. The fact that there are many spokes on the wheel doesn’t explain it either: at any particular moment only one spoke will be vertical, beneath the axis, and taking most of the weight. The secret is how they are mounted into the wheel. When the spoke is screwed in, it is actually being pulled between rim and axle. It is being submitted to a tension force, which can be adjusted by turning the threads into the rim. The more it is screwed in, the more the spoke will be pulled in opposite directions. This will counteract the force produced by the weight of the rider. If the tension were to be less that the gravitational force, then the spokes would simply bend. If it is too strong, then they will fatigue prematurely and snap too. What is also incredible is how by turning a small wrench with our fingers we can create more force that our entire bodyweight, thanks to the screw threads2! As the wheel spins, the spokes will be subjected to an incessant variation in force, changing with every spin of the wheel. Like everything on a bicycle, there needs to be a perfect balance between forces.
Leaving the river behind we kept pedalling higher and after two more days we left the valley and continued north west. This led us past the small towns of Matsuno and Kihoku. At Matsuno we visited one of the eighty-eight temples that form a pilgrimage trail on the island, the forty-third or Meisekiji temple. Traditionally clad devotees make their way on foot from one site to another over the span of a month or two, on the sacred Henro pilgrimage. Other, less athletic visitors also don the gowns and paraphernalia to walk the short span from car to shrine. A few selfies are of course mandatory for these devotees. A short stop at the rice museum gave us some more insight into what had become our staple food for the last month.
Talking about food, by travelling through Japan and later other Asian countries we tasted and fed on many different types of noodles and their derivatives. Subtle differences in texture and flavour made me wonder about the types that can be encountered throughout the world, from pasta to udon. A noodle will of course be mostly defined by its ingredients and shape, as well as preparation method. Cooking and storage will also influence the final taste.
To keep things simple, most noodles can be divided into two groups based on their main ingredient: wheat or rice dough. There are some other types but they are less common. Additional ingredients can be added, such as lye or eggs, especially to wheat noodles. For example, udon are wheat noodles, characterised by their thick, round shape. Ramen are thinner and contain eggs, which explains their yellower colour. Pasta, which famously comes in all sorts of shapes, is also from made from wheat, but only from a specific species, the durum wheat.
The combination of noodle type, cooking method and additional flavouring such as broth, soup or sauce creates and almost infinite list of dishes. Some of these will be known generically by any one of the criteria above, meaning that for example both the dish and noodle type are called the same. So pick up your chop-sticks, choose a bowl and start trying to wrap your head around the never-ending list!
After some ramen, more climbing and an epic descent we arrived in the countryside around Seiyo, where the golden rice was still awaiting to be harvested and served as a beautiful backdrop for the traditional wooden houses. A couple of grey haired famers were using a tiny combine harvester to collect the precious cereal one line at a time. How many harvests had they seen and gathered over the years?
And then it was the sea once more, the breeze blowing the clouds back and letting us look out over the waves. The steep slopes dropping down to the beaches have been laboriously turned into terraced orchards, filled with citrus trees. Small rail tracks snake their way between them to carry the fruit down to the road on a tiny wagon. We had set our sights on the westernmost point of Shikoku, the tip of the Sadamisaki peninsula. We kept going all day and reached the thin arm of land, extending into the Pacific, in the early evening. The next part is a fun ride, up and down along the mountainous ridge, with a view either side. From the northern part we watched the sinking sun light up the horizon, turning the tankers and cargo ships into silhouettes. Reaching the end of the road, a steep and slippery path took us further, almost to the land’s end. Here we set up our tent after dark, almost surrounded by the ocean. Next morning we left bikes and gear to hike the last few steps of the path and behold the view from the end of Sadamisaki. The white lighthouse stood proud, ready to guide the shipping past the rocks. We also observed a curious phenomenon: a line of small waves marked the line where part of the ocean is being ripped away by the tides. The surface hid most of the turmoil beneath, where invisible currents churned and pulled, creating eddies and waves. From our vantage point we hiked and pedalled back to the small town of Misaki to catch the ferry. After boarding we went onto the deck, following a routine we now knew well. Enjoying the view we looked back as the port started to shrink on the horizon and we headed towards the last of the four large islands: Kyushu.
For previous Japan travels you can check out our thoughs on the North or our passage through the Centre including Osaka and the Awa Odori festival. Central. For some thoughts on Japanese idosyncrasies you can check out our top ten. And finally if you are looking for inspiration and practical tips you can take a peek at some Nihon pedal routes. Please suscribe and share if you find this interesting!
1 Means the back of Japan. See The back-country divide here for more information.
2 For the formulas and calculators behind a screw jack, check this page out